This post is about Mother Theresa, Saint of Light, Love and Darkness. But I will begin by talking about my mother. I have been missing my mother, Anuradha Ganguly. Her nick name was “Benu”. My mother was not a saint, but, real human being. She showed me love in a powerful way. So I use these lenses and experiences of being mothered by own mother to grasp a glimpse of what made Mother Theresa did for the world: The Saint Who Mothered the world.
Anuradha Ganguly, my mother, passed away 9 years ago. She celebrated with me in my victories and hugged me tenderly in my defeats. There was a deep bond of love between us, despite, the peaks and valleys in our relationship. In difficult times, I miss my mother’s encouraging words, delicious chutney, and conversations where I was understood and loved by her. Our conversations lasted hours over hot tea. Growing up in a Bengali home, we always had the kettle on with hot water for chai, Indian black tea and milk. Fights happened between my mother and me, with sharp words flung at each other. This followed mutual words of endearments as we became friends and allies. Her faith was strong. Her prayers were powerful especially for her children, me and my two brothers, as she targeted her prayers with strength, supplication, and ferocious vehemence to enter Heaven’s gates and propagate to God’s ears. I remember the smell of sandle-wood incense from her puja or prayers. She was from Bankura, a small town in West Bengal. She was very passionate about making sweets, like “rosogolas”, “sandesh”, and “chumchum”. West Bengal, by the way, is famous for its sweets or “misti”. I happen to have a sweet tooth and she saved the best sweets for me. Her mantra for me in my younger days was “Eat the sweets and worry about your weight later”. Interestingly, she was diabetic and I think one of the most powerful ways she showed her love was giving sweets to us. Giving to others what she was not allowed to eat. She showed much joy in people enjoying her sweets. Anuradha had her eccentricities and challenges, like other human beings. But, Anuradha was a loving, generous and forgiving woman. She made sacrifices for her family. I found this aspect of her as we both aged and matured. We grew from mother daughter dynamics into friends over the years. Friendship with my mother in adulthood gave me a compassionate and kind perspective about who she was as a human being. This is when I realized she is a human being, ordinary person who did extraordinary things. She stepped up to the deep calling of “mothering”. Mothering is beautiful, rewarding and yet can be super-hard. Mothering is a 24/7 job and once a mother, always a mother. I am nowhere near my mother in terms of loving and forgiving others.
As I was missing my mother, I thought of another mother from Calcutta, West Bengal, Mother Theresa. Saint of Light who dispensed God’s love to the most destitute, dying, sick, and forsaken by the world. She wrote that the greatest pain and suffering in humanity is feeling unwanted and unloved. I agree. As a psychotherapist, the most painful and gut wrenching stories I hear are people’s experiences of feeling unloved and unwanted. Having meaningful and loving connections with others is good for the mind, body and spirit.
Mother Theresa was deeply in love with Christ. She described hearing “call in a call” from Christ to serve the poorest of the poor. She served, loved and demonstrated God’s love to people, who were destitute, poor, dying, sick and forsaken by the world. Yet, she suffered greatly. She had feelings that God and Christ abandoned her. She felt darkness, loneliness and thirst for Christ which she did not feel Christ reciprocated for fifty years after Christ called her to serve the poorest of the poor.. Her struggles in her faith journey became public knowledge after she died and her spiritual mentors wrote about her personal pain. This post is a discussion of Mother Theresa, Saint of Light, Saint of Darkness. I also include thoughts on dark nights of the soul, associated with St. John of the Cross, a great Christian mystic and Mother Theresa. I wonder if many people have experienced dark night of the soul, especially in the pandemic. I have more questions than answers about dark night of the soul. Is dark night of the soul a part of the human condition? What is the difference between dark night of the soul and depression? No idea. So I went back to practical spirituality: reflections of a faith based person facing trouble. I have added the powerful words of faith warriors: Dr. Maya Angelou and Dr. Wayne Dyer.
Mother Theresa : Saint of Light and Darkness
I will begin with saying that I am great fan of Mother Theresa. My husband and I had the great Blessing of seeing Mother Theresa in person and getting her Blessings after our marriage in 1995. We are both from the Calcutta area, where Mother Theresa established her ministry. When I caught a glimpse of her, I saw lines of people from all over the world who traveled far and wide to visit her in Calcutta. I remember her frail figure in a white sari with blue borders. What struck me was Mother Theresa’s eyes : deep, piercing, unfathomable, kind and compassionate eyes . There was a power and depth in her gaze like she saw me completely. She blessed me and my husband and said something to the effect that “Family that prays together stays together”. I do not remember the exact words as I was overwhelmed by the experience of encountering Divine Grace and Love in human form. I will never forget meeting her. The encounter with Mother Theresa was brief with multitude of people clamoring for her. However, it is etched in my mind. Meeting Mother Theresa, even for a few minutes, was a powerful memory of God’s unconditional, fierce and fearless love for humanity.
Mother Theresa was born as Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910 in Skopje, Macadonia. Prior to starting her own ministry, she joined Sisters of Loretto in 1928 in Ireland. She traveled to India in 1929 and taught in Loretto Convent in Calcutta. Loretto convents are excellent catholic schools which educate women in many parts of India. Interestingly, I attended Loretto Convent in Asansol for four years. The nuns taught with rigor and compassion. I found that attending the only girls catholic Loretto Convent nurtured my curiosity for knowledge.
While traveling on a train to Darjeeling in 1946, Mother Theresa received her calling from Christ to serve the poorest of the poor. She left the academic world of Loretto Convent in Calcutta and established Missionaries of Charity to serve the poor in the slums of Calcutta. Her work spread in helping people who were destitute, dying on the streets, people with leprosy, AIDS and cancer. She served people who were abandoned at their most vulnerable points in their lives. She started her missionary work with the faith that God will provide for her. Indeed God did provide abundantly. Her organization grew around the world and she received the Noble Peace Prize. She was an acclaimed and international figure of faith who personified God’s Unconditional Love for all of humanity. She worked with people who were abandoned by the world: the forgotten, discarded, sick, homeless, and dying. But not forsaken by Mother Theresa and the God she represented. I see Mother Theresa as mother to people who were abandoned. She showed softness, compassion, grace and unconditional love to people who were at their weakest points. I think of Mother Theresa as a mother to people in their greatest hour of despair, like my own mother was to me. Words of comfort and encouragement in the middle of painful experiences are like healing ointments for the heart and soul. One never forgets such people or their words of comfort, kindness and grace. One of my colleagues called these people who show up in your hour of need as “God with Skin” people. They are earth angels.
Then I came across this article of Mother Theresa’s faith journey. The experience of reading about her faith journey after her death shocked the living daylights out of me. Her spiritual mentors released information from her letters after her death where she wrote about her experiences of darkness, deep abyss of loneliness, lack of faith, feeling unloved by God and Christ, for Whom she dedicated her life. It is noted that despite her yearning for Christ, she did not feel His Presence in her soul. She talks about the empty hole in her soul. It is stated that she felt forsaken by God for almost fifty years. She experienced feeling unloved and unwanted by the Love of her Life, Christ. There are articles written that Mother Theresa served the people who felt most unwanted and unloved because she was familiar with that experience. She stated that the greatest suffering in humanity is not poverty or disease but feelings of being unwanted and unloved. Her deepest pain seems to have played a major role in her ministry. This was shocking to me when I first discovered this information. Some theologians suggest that Mother Theresa’s love for Christ was so deep that Christ shared his deepest state of feeling unloved and unforsaken by His Father before the crucifixion. This showed the humanity of Christ. Christ was Divine, but he knew the deepest pain of feeling unloved before his greatest trial. Despite feeling forsaken, Christ surrendered to God’s Will. So did Mother Theresa. This is the Divine stuff I cannot understand with my mind. Yet, my heart is stunned and tearful about Mother Theresa and Christ’s love for God.
St. John of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul
Mirabai Starr (2002)discussed the concept of dark night of the soul in her book, “Dark Night of the Soul: St. John of the Cross”. Starr writes that St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila immediately connected because they both felt that the Catholic Church had lost its “holy inspiration” and they both wanted church reforms to go back to the simplicity of service and deep contemplation. St. Theresa of Avila started a movement known as Discalced Carmelite Order, also referred to as “Barefoot Carmelites”. This movement included monks and nuns taking off their shoes and wearing “rough sandals” to symbolize the call to return to simplicity of service. Starr writes that even though King Phillip of Spain approved of reforms, officials in Rome were not approving of reform. In 1577, St. John of the Cross was captured by friars due his involvement in reforming the church. Starr writes that St. John was tortured, flogged, interrogated. When St. John refused to deny the reforms, he was condemned to a tiny space, which was previously a toilet. He was described as starved and brought to the dinning commons to be flogged while other monks ate their meals. Starr states that St. John, starved, endured a brutal winter and then summer which led to his clothes to rot. During this period of intense suffering, St. John connected to his relationship with God to survive. Starr stated that as St. John’s suffering continued, he felt fading of Divine Presence. This led him to formulate passionate love poems to his Beloved, God in his poems. Eventually, a Carmelite brother provided pen and paper so that St. John wrote his poems expressing his pain of separation from God. After nine months, St. John escaped miraculously and found reunification with the living God in his heart. He fell into profound ecstasy that he came out of total darkness and found his Beloved, God. He wrote “Songs of the Soul: One Dark Night” describing the ecstatic reunion with his Beloved, God, an pouring of his heart for love of God after the excruciating pain of darkness.
It may be that the God man, Christ, in his humanity, immediately before the cruxifixtion, Mother Theresa and St. John of the Cross all perceived feeling abandoned by God, which lead to their experiences of darkness, loneliness and deep suffering, known as dark night of the soul. If Christ, the God man, and spiritual giants, Mother Theresa and St. John of the Cross reportedly experienced such feelings of being unloved and unwanted at certain points in their lives, I would argue that perhaps this is a more common experience in humanity than previously thought. These feelings of being unloved, unwanted, and existential aloneness may exist in some points in life, especially in times of vulnerability. Maybe more so in this pandemic.
Is dark night of the soul part of the human condition? What are differences between dark night of the soul and depression?
Are people’s perceptions of experiences of feeling unloved, unwanted and loneliness part of certain points in time in the human condition? Starr (2002) writes that St. John’s experiences are part of the human condition. She argues that events, such as, divorce, job loss, career change, trauma may lead to dark night of the soul experiences. What are differences between dark night of the soul and mental health issues, such as depression? Starr (2002) states that dark night of the soul is different from depression. She differentiates dark night of the soul as St. John experiencing painful emotions as he seeks union with the Divine and he is not concerned about health. According to Starr, St. John may not be seeking to eliminate painful emotions as he may see them as stages to develop into higher spiritual states. Bottom line, I have no answers about the demarcation of the psychological and spiritual arenas in the dark night of the soul experiences? I do not know the difference between dark night of the soul versus mental health struggles, like depression. This is an area that needs to be explored more in spirituality and psychology.
So I will go back to my practical side as a faith based person dealing with trouble? Practical spirituality include faith based and psychological strategies too. Loving God in dark times is super-hard, a Herculean task. I wonder if this dark night of the soul is a spiritual test of whether we love God for Who He is and not just for the wonderful Blessings He pours on us. Spiritual tests are the most rigorous. By the way, I have always hated academic tests in school.
Many people, including me, feel anger and frustration at God in tough times. Sticking with God through pain and suffering is probably the greatest spiritual challenge. I have no definitive answers. Just some preliminary thoughts. Again some strategies for dealing with painful situations are differentiating between what you can control versus what you have no control over. Focus on what you can control. Practice possible acceptance strategies on what you cannot control. As a faith based person, practice possible surrender of uncontrollable factors to the Divine Source even if you are questioning why certain things are happening. Surrendering to Divine Will is a tough task. Ask and receive help as needed from professional health care people or safe family or friends. Remember to notice the positive. One example is to remember how God got you through difficult times in the past and He Will again. I love Dr. Maya Angelou’s statement that if God got you through this far, He will get you through this too. Another positive strategy is counting Blessings or gratitude practice. Be kind, compassionate and nurturing to yourself. Develop healthy coping strategies for handling negative feelings.
Faith warriors: Dr. Maya Angelou and Dr. Wayne Dyer
In our times of suffering, God’s will seems incomprehensible. The only solace is that God walks with us in these dark times and good times. A wise person reminded me “God always Blesses” . A reminder that indeed, this difficult time too shall pass. Interestingly, Dr. Maya Angelou, a woman of strong faith encouraged herself and others to say “Thank You” to God for trouble because she said at the end of the storm comes the beautiful rainbow (Dr. Angelou’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, www.Oprah.com, July 13, 1993). Dr. Angelou’s faith was spectacular, majestic and breathtaking that she is able to say “Thank You” in the face of trouble. This was stunning to me when I first heard it. Dr. Angelou also described her belief that she can do anything set before her because she knows she is a “Child of God”. This suggests her strength and self-efficacy that comes from her relationship with God.
Dr. Angelou also talked about the most important virtue to cultivate is courage. She said that without courage one cannot practice other virtues. So right, Dr. Angelou is. The best definition of courage is to confront the challenge and move forward in the face of fear and adversity. Tough stuff.
I will end with a powerful quote of Dr. Wayne Dyer:
“If you knew who walked beside you at all times, on the path that you have chosen, you could never experience fear or doubt again.”
The challenge is to remember this when we are walking through darkness and experiencing feelings of unloved and loneliness. This is where faith comes in. In the Bible, Hebrew 11:1 defines “Faith … is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” . I am a big believer that God honors faith.
Hello Dear Readers:
I will begin with oodles of gratitude to readers. I am wonderfully surprised, and grateful for the overwhelming number of feedback comments from all of you reading the blog. It is awesome that some of the posts have resonated with readers. Dr. Wayne Dyer’s quote, “We are Divine enough to ask and we are important enough to receive” impacted me powerfully. My interpretation is that as human beings, we have the Divine Spark in us, that connects us to the Divine Source, God, Universe. Different people have different names for this Divine Source. I feel that much of what I write is based on questions I have asked as a person on my walk with God and the Divine Guidance I have received. I feel that Divine Guidance has come through so many different pathways: pastors, priests, family and friends, wise teachers, colleagues, students, people I have worked with, excellent books and research articles I have read on different topics in psychology and different spiritual and religious traditions, experiences of motherhood and being a wife. I believe that Divine Guidance and Grace has shaped my life and define who I am. For that I am immensely grateful, which words cannot fully capture.. I am a firm believer that God is infinite, vast, and majestic and beyond human comprehension. Therefore, my experiences and perspectives in my writings are limited by my human condition.
I believe that each person’s walk on this planet is personal and unique, which I respect and honor. I am super happy that readers have found some of the posts integrating spirituality, psychology and philosophy from the East and West helpful and informative. Please read what is helpful and discard what is not helpful.
BIG THANK YOU TO READERS. HAVE A WONDERFUL DAY. :))
Have you ever received money that you did not expect or got a call from a loved one that you were thinking about the day before?. Interestingly. Abraham Lincoln, one of my favorite historical figures, reportedly had precursory dreams of a funeral in the white house while he was president before his assassination. He also reportedly had a dream which involved imagery of him sailing swiftly in deep waters in a ship to unknown lands the day before his assassination. This is referred to as the ” Cabinet room dream” as Lincoln had apparently talked about the dream in the Cabinet meeting before his death. These types of events are called coincidences or serendipity.
Many people have written about coincidences. Dr. Carl Jung wrote about synchronicity or meaningful co-occurring events which appear as random events at first glance, but, actually may be very meaningful to the observer. Quantum theory also talks about this fascinating concept of entanglement, which suggests that isolated particles in different areas are connected so that if an event impacted one particle, the other related particle, even if in a distant location, will be impacted also. This is rather mind boggling stuff and has been presented as possible explanation of coincidences. Dr Bernard Beitman studies the science of coincidence and serendipity. Incidents of serendipity include “happy accidents”. There are also people who interpret coincidences or synchronicity as “Divine providence”, exemplified by the sentence, “Coincidences are God’s Ways of Being Anonymous”. Sometimes the differences between coincidences or serendipity can be confusing. Therefore, this post includes reflections on serendipity, or “happy accidents” in the pandemic. I am focusing on the “happy” versus the “unhappy” as we have seen so much pain and suffering in the pandemic. We have to work harder for a positivity bias as research suggests that the human brain is wired to pick up negativity material more readily in the world. Negativity bias makes total sense for survival. Remember that when our ancestors saw a rainbow and a tiger, the focus was on the tiger and how to survive. Otherwise there is no one to enjoy the rainbow.
Serendipity of co-regulation.
The idea of co-regulation originates from Dr. Porges polyvagal theory . This includes the experience of having a socially engaged interaction between two people, such as, a deep conversation, hug with a loved one where we are heard, known and seen for who we are, including the good, ” hero or she-roe” parts, and the shadow (qualities of ourselves we are not proud of). These conversations and connections are soothing for our nervous system because it makes us feel safe, loved, known, seen and understood. Sometimes serendipity of co-regulation may include hearing a song or sermon on the radio at the right time that captures our feelings and thoughts and gives us a sense of “everything will be ok”. It calms the nervous system. Sometimes, it involves coming across a verse in the scripture or book, sign on a billboard or back of a car that leaps into the mind, body and soul and it feels like the words apply to our situation and points us in a specific direction of change in perspective or action. These are like love bubbles hitting us when we least expect it. They give us hope to endure through difficult circumstances, such as the pandemic. They lift dark moods, ease the fearful mind. There is a sense that things will be Ok and everything will end well. They sooth us as we feel heard, seen and understood by the songwriter who wrote the song or pastor who gave the sermon. They make me feel that I am not the only person on the planet who had this experience. I am not alone. They may lift us into Ventral Vagal Complex states of safety, love and compassion in the dance of the vagus nerve.
I have always been grateful for these “love bubbles” or happy accidents, such as, a call from a dear friend, hearing a comforting sermon or song, or finding a book in an unexpected place when I have been looking for it for days. However, in the era of the pandemic where good news seems rare, I am especially grateful for these “happy accidents”. Incidents of serendipity help me keep the faith that the world will get through the pandemic with a better, perhaps, different future.
Serendipity and Stories of Extraordinarily Successful People
Dr. Beitman cites the famous example of serendipity where Alexander Fleming accidentally discovers the petri dish with the enzyme which led to the development of the antibiotic, penicillin which revolutionized the medical field. I cannot imagine a world without antibiotics. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers: Stories of Success”, Gladwell interviews Bill Gates as an example of a major unusual success story. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard University to pursue his interest in computer science. Gladwell argues that Bill Gates’ access to computers at the right time, his brilliance, genius and hard work led to Gates success. Very true. However, the idea that Gates mother had access to IBM Board of Directors is also intriguing and fascinating . It leans into the discussion of serendipity. Did his mother’s access to knowledge and resources also led to Gates’s success? Mary Maxwell Gates, Bill Gates’ mother, a very successful business woman also knew John Opel, then chairman of IBM through her involvement in nonprofit work. Collaboration of IBM and Microsoft played a huge role in Gates success. This connection that Gates’s mother had with the chairman of IBM demonstrates the interconnections between people’s lives which led to serendipity and success. It also beautifully demonstrates the concept of right place, right time and right person. This is so important in serendipity.
Serendipity and the Divine Source
I recognize there are many different explanations of serendipity, including quantum physics theory of entanglement. As a faith based person, I interpret them as what my student in my positive psychology class referred to it as “God shot”. Some people refer to it as “God send”. My understanding of the “God shots” or “God sent” are God’s Grace which pierces through the veil of our reality for assurance, confirmation, or signs of “peace” and Divine Love, in good times and especially in difficult situations (“when the shit is about to hit the fan”). They feel like the Universe’s hugs to keep calm and carry on. Anne Lamott, a brilliant and humorous writer on faith and life, talks about God’s Grace being the last, but, best batter in her TED Talk (12 truths I learned from life and writing). Anne Lamott also describes our prayers of help to God in desperate situations is what distinguishes God as the “Gift of Desperation”, because His help comes at times in life when we are most “teachable”.
.My experience is that “God shots” happen unexpectedly, but, at the right time, right place and for the right person. For me, it shows an orchestration of events by Divine Guidance. Serendipity can appear ordinary from the outside, such as, getting call from a dear friend. It can also be major incidents which change the trajectory of someone’s life. Whatever serendipity looks like on the outside, it means a lot to the person who derives meaning from the event.
As a faith based person, I believe that my relationship with the Divine Source is a key component of my faith. A dear friend noted that God calls us to be in relationship with Him and others. My friend came up with the coolest and most profound insight. He said that God is the Greatest Co-Regulator of people. Very true. Divine Intervention can bring a level of peace, understanding and discernment in the most turbulent storms of life.
A great example of serendipity is Divine Protection and Providence . In one of his brilliant sermons, Bishop T. D. Jakes discusses experiences of rejection can be signs of Divine Protection. Divine Protection may mean God has bigger plans for us than we dream of for ourselves. Oprah Winfrey, the mega successful entrepreneur, media personality, owner of popular magazines and television channel also discusses the idea that failure is Universe’s way of redirecting us to find our actual purpose and paths. In one of her powerful speeches, she discusses the abundance of Divine Grace and her faith that led her from her childhood in a small town in the south to her current position.
At the end of the day, each reader needs to decide what incidents of serendipity mean for himself or herself. Is serendipity a random event or blip in the cosmic radar? Is it explained by entanglement theory in quantum physics? Is it Divine Providence and Grace? As a faith based person, I believe that Divine Providence is very powerful, sometimes presents as serendipity and can be a game changer in life. Perhaps, the fascinating concept of entanglement in quantum physics is also part of Divine Design. Whatever your thoughts are about coincidences or serendipity, they certainly demonstrate interconnection between people or events that are incredibly powerful. They confirm that even in the isolation of the pandemic, we are seen, known, understood and loved by people, events, and the Divine Source. My prayer is that people continue to receive these “love bubbles” or “God shots of Divine Grace” for spiritual, and psychological strength in the pandemic. As for me, they renew my faith in the Divine Source as I view them as sacred experiences which light up my soul and make my heart sing. For that, I am deeply grateful.
Hoping to send positive vibes through the blog posts during the pandemic. Thank you for the awesome feedback. Please note I am not endorsing any products in the comments section. Thank you again. Take care and have a wonderful day.
Dr. Stephen Porges’s work in polyvagal theory led to a deeper understanding of the autonomic nervous system and particularly the vagus nerve. I refer to it as the “dance of the vagus nerve” with rhythms of feeling safe, love, compassion and fear, which I will discuss later in the post. Porges’s polyvagal theory is a game changer in the biology of autonomic nervous system. For those of you interested in a more detailed discussion of polyvagal theory, I added a link to Dana Lewis’s (2018) discussion. The traditional view of the autonomic nervous system included: sympathetic nervous system which generated body’s fight or flight responses when person faced danger versus the parasympathetic nervous system, which led to resting and calming of the nervous system.
Polyvagal theory suggests a more nuanced and complicated autonomic nervous system. Polyvagal theory suggests that the parasympathetic nervous system is enervated by the vagus nerve (also known as “wanderer”) as the nerve truly seems nomadic popping up in different part of the body). The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve which joins the brain, heart, lungs, digestive system and organs associated with digestive processes. The vagus nerve carries information back and forth between the brain and other body organs. So the vagal nerve is the connector between the brain and gut, a pathway of mind-body connection and integrative health. The vagus nerve is involved in mood states, immune responses, stress response, heart, lung and digestive systems (e.g. linking inflammation of the body systems to exposure to ongoing high stress levels). When I read about the rhythm of the vagus nerve in regulating the nervous system, the image of the “dancing vagus nerve” came to mind. Growing up in India in the first ten years of my life, I saw many ethereal and elegant dance forms. Some of the dance forms are considered temple dances or dances of worshiping the Divine. I have no formal training in any dance forms, but I have family members who are very talented dancers. As an audience member, watching some of these dances is mesmerizing as one observes the dancer’s complex hands, legs movements, facial gestures and body postures transform flawlessly in alignment with rhythm of the tabla (Indian drum) and melody of the songs. My image of the dancing vagus nerve reminded me of the Hindu statue, Nataraj (statue of Lord Shiva in a Dance Form, symbolic of the Divine Consciousness as a Cosmic Dancer dancing in Bliss). In Hinduism, the Blissful Dancing Lord Shiva creates the cosmic rhythm of creation, sustenance and destruction. Why blissful? Because Lord Shiva represents Divine Consciousness which is beyond the duality of human existence. Duality in the human realm represents happiness versus suffering, regulation versus dysregulation of the nervous system, passion versus dispassionate, birth versus death.
Unlike Divine Consciousness, most of us human beings dance with the vagus nerve and autonomic nervous system, with movement across states of regulation and dysregulation in the pandemic. Regulated states leans towards feeling peaceful, calm and content. Slightly dysregulated states may mean having a “bad day”. Highly distressful states of dysregulation are based on experiencing dangerous situations, as discussed below. This post reviews the basic autonomic nervous system, polyvagal theory and suggests healthy strategies of regulation of the nervous system . Each individual’s regulation and dysregulation patterns of the nervous system is very much mediated by his or her risk and resiliency or protective factors. Each person has triggers which led to states of vulnerability and protective factors which regulates the nervous system.
OVERVIEW OF AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
Autonomic Nervous System (adapted from Dr. Porges’ training at PESI).
Sympathetic Nervous System Parasympathetic Nervous System (VAGUS NERVE)
“Fight or Flight”” (Life threatening) Ventral Vagal Complex versus Dorsal Vagal Complex
Dorsal Ventral Complex
Before we dive into the world of the dancing vagus nerve and autonomic nervous system, I am going to introduce the concept of neuroception and basic parts of the autonomic nervous system. Neuroception is the subconscious process that neural circuits in the brain use to detect any possible danger. The brain circuits survey both internal body states (what we are experiencing inside our bodies) versus external states (events in the world around us) . Brain circuits monitor what is safe and unsafe. For the sake of survival, we move towards safety and stay away from unsafe situations. Feeling safe is a key ingredient for activities, such as learning in school, social interactions and basic sleep.
According to polyvagal theory, the three parts of the autonomic nervous system are: Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC), Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Dorsal Vagal Complex (DVC). The VVC is associated with feelings of calmness, peace, love and compassion when a person feels safe. VVC associated with our social engagement system where we connect with others through interpersonal relationships. The SNS is activated when the person experiences life threatening situations and the body gets ready for fight or flight responses (mobilization responses) for survival. The DVC state is triggered when the person senses danger and becomes immobilized ( freeze response). The three systems co-mingle, such as, activation of VVC and SNS leads to movement with feelings of safety (dancing, playing sports, writing) which can be very positive experiences.
HEALTHY PRACTICES TO FACILITATE VENTRAL VAGAL COMPLEX (FEELINGS OF SAFETY, CALMNESS, LOVE AND COMPASSION)
Given the stressful nature of the pandemic, many folks may be in other states, besides the VVC state. The central question is how do we develop and implement strategies to enter the VVC states. The field of mind body medicine provides some very helpful and fascinating strategies of how to facilitate VVC states:
1. Meditation and mindfulness practices with breathing techniques, focused attention on something Loving (secular or faith based) has a calming effect on the mind and body after stressful experiences. Calming effects most likely leads to feelings of safety. Please see Love on the Brain practices post Being a faith based person, I love this wonderful article, “5 Pictures of God’s Love to Encourage you this Valentine’s day”, by Lisa Samra. Samra writes that despite one’s relationship status in the realm of human beings, she experiences great joy, especially in Valentine’s Day, in her knowledge that she is deeply loved and known by God. She describes five images of God’s great, deep and fierce love for His Children (great VVC triggering images) in the Biblical scriptures. The images she writes about God’s love are very powerful : God as “Safe Shelter”, “Eternal Spring”, “Faithful Spouse”, “Caring Mother” and “Overwhelming Flood”. I love her description that unlike some people who are hesitant or reluctant in their love of us, God’s Love is “beyond dimensions”, “surpasses human understanding” and “floods the soul”. Unlike certain people ‘s restricted love, God’s Unconditional or Agape love is Boundless. I totally agree with Samra on this point.
2. The practice of yoga is powerful in facilitating VVC states. Marlysa B. Sullivan and her colleagues (2018) discussed that any body awareness practices with the mindfulness qualities of nonjudgment, loving-kind attention, and acceptance lead to a calming effect on mind and body. Sullivan and her colleagues discuss the similarities between polyvagal theory and ancient yoga practices. They discuss possible pathways as to why yoga is so effective in calming states of dysregulation or stress in the mind and body. They discuss the ancient wisdom regarding yoga practices. In ancient views of yoga, there is a distinction between “Purusha” which refers to spirit, “the indweller”, and observer of experiences and “Prakiti”, material world where experiences arises. Sullivan and her colleagues discuss that in the ancient text, The Bhagavad Gita, prakiti is composed of three qualities or “gunas”: 1. “sattva” (“lightness, clarity, harmony”, lucidity, joy, and necessary for cultivating wisdom and “clear seeing”), 2.”rajas” (capacity for mobilization, but predominance of rajas is associated with pain, anger, agitation and greed) and 3. “tamas” (capacity of restrain or limit, but, heavy tamas is linked with delusion, dullness, ignorance and negligence). Intermingling of different gunas led to different states in material world. Sullivan and her colleagues also draw possible parallel between polyvagal theory and the three gunas. They link Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC), associated with feelings of safety, calmness, love and compassion with sattva guna, activation of Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) states (fight or flight responses) with ragas guna and activation of Dorsal Ventral Complex (DVC) associated with freeze response, with tamas gunas. I find this view intriguing and fascinating. Sullivan and her colleagues (2018) suggest that the basic practice of yoga is to observe (through Purusha or spirit) the changing states of the gunas in the prakiti (material mind and body) without entanglement. This leads to the eventual realization that “I am not my thoughts, pain, anxiety, depression or whatever else that is happening in my mind and body”. There is a change in the relationship between the person and stressful experiences in mind and body. The researchers argue that yoga practices are associated with positive feeling states. According to the researchers, this grounding of self in spirit is basis of the yogic mind, which is not influenced by the changes in emotions, thoughts or body states. Yogic mind in some sense has transcended the duality of the human experience, unmoved by changes in the body, mind or world around. This is a difficult state to achieve. (By the way, I am nowhere near). However, yoga therapy has been linked with better treatment outcomes of mental and physical health issues.
2. Connecting with “ventral vagal superstars” (supportive people with whom you have peaceful, loving and warm interactions in your life) is a healing strategy. These are the relationships which ground us, where we feel listened to and loved. I also agree with Dr. Porges discussion that healthy relationships between two people can have ruptures and the capacity of repairing the ruptures leads to deeper connections. Healthy boundaries with ” anti-VVC people” (difficult people) may be something to think about. I love Eckhart Tolle’s statements about being present and not triggered into unconscious states when interacting with unconscious people. I interpreted Tolle’s unconscious people as people driven by SNS or DVC states where they are driven by raw emotion and reactive. Interacting with such people makes us also very reactive. I also recognize that during certain situations in my life, I am been a difficult person for others. My family will attest to this. Hence, my desire to learn more strategies to enter VVC states.
3. Movements which are soothing: dancing, writing, walking, swimming, chanting, prayer rituals (e.g. beads and rosary), mantras practice for the day, such as, (“Be Kind” or “”This too shall pass”,) for the day can be helpful. Engaging in experiences of “flow” can be very powerful experiences where people feel so immersed in the activity that they transcend a sense of time.
4. Activities which promote joy or positive emotion, as discussed in the positive psychology in the pandemic post, may be powerful in accessing VVC states. Gratitude practices, present focused activities, beautiful music, random acts of kindness towards self and others, use of humor, walks in nature, radical acceptance of reality and make the best of the situation mindsets can be powerful mood boosters.
5. Monitor your own states of vulnerability such as days of not enough sleep, or high stress at work. Those are the days to practice strategies for VVC activation. Awareness of red flags of your SNS and DVC states help us learn when to use more calming strategies. Awareness of loved ones in DVC or SNS states can help navigate our relationships.
6. Practicing radical acceptance strategies of nonjudgment that the nervous system may dance into states of dysregulation in a pandemic at times and we need to develop wise and healthy strategies to dance back into regulation states of feeling safe and calm.
7. Awareness of unhealthy regulation practices of nervous system (e.g. digital addiction, use of substances) that are hurtful to you and others and seek professional help.
The pandemic may mean many people having days where states of the nervous system are anything, but VVC based. Strategies for VVC activation are likely to lead to feelings of safety, love, compassion, kindness and peace for self and others. These are just some strategies for VVC activation in this blog. Please use the strategies for feelings of calmness and safety, discussed in the post, if they are helpful. If the strategies are not helpful, please do not use them. Readers might have other healthy strategies for VVC activation which work for them. I welcome readers to share their VVC activation strategies.
In our current world of the pandemic, are practices of pouring love on the brain good for us? What exactly is love? Very hard to define in a sentence as there are many kinds of love: love of family, animals, friendships, romantic partners, toxic love, crazy love, obsessive love, love for God, Universe. Many people have written books, poetry and songs on love. I am thinking of meditation and mindfulness as daily “practices of love on the brain” that regular folks, like me, can incorporate in their routines.. Not just the monks on remote mountains. I am referring to practices of love on the brain as described in the book, “How God Changes Your Brain” by Dr. Newberg and Mr. Waldemann (2009). They describe meditation practices of breathing techniques, relaxation and focused attention or contemplation on an object (characterized with love, compassion and peace). Dr. Newberg and his colleagues argue this type of practice lead to changes in the brain. The topic of meditation includes many different practices. Meditations can be faith based (focused attention on a loving and kind God). Mindfulness practices (a form of meditation) are secular (focused, nonjudgmental, loving and accepting attention) on the unfolding present moment . Present moments may focus on breath, walking, eating, nature, watching flickering light of a candle. I have come across many APPS in the digital world focusing on mindfulness exercises. Essentially, Dr. Newberg argues that faith based meditations and secular mindfulness practices are based on focusing on some sort of love, kindness, compassion or benevolent process: pouring love on the brain. These practices have been linked to changes in brain activity and report of positive emotions.
Are experiences of “love on the brain” related to only grand mystical experiences of holy saints? Can there be everyday mysticism? James Martin’s Everyday Mysticism eloquently describes that mysticism is experiencing God’s presence in the ordinary human existence which “lifts up” how we are in the world or thinking and perceiving the world. Mysticism can be a sense of feeling overwhelmed by God’s presence that transcends your understanding of God. Most people, who have described mystical experiences to me, describe feelings of great joy, peace or sense of getting profound understanding of something that was initially very puzzling. I hear the spark of profound joy when people describe mystical experiences to me. James Martin argues that mysticism is not just for the saints in the world, but, mystical experiences happen to regular folks. Everyday mystical experiences may be holding your newborn child or infant, falling in love for the first time, watching the unfolding colors of a beautiful sunset, or walking on a majestic landscape beside the ocean, or hearing the harmony of a rustle of plants in a field or watching the expansive night sky.
Can modern neuro-imaging techniques, such as brain scans, detect changes in the brain when people are in deep meditation or secular mindfulness practices? This post is a discussion of neurobiological changes and psychological feelings associated with God as love based meditation. Are these mystical experiences?. It also covers brain changes and feelings in secular mindfulness based experiences. Is “practicing pouring love on the brain” (faith based meditations or secular mindfulness practices) good for you in the pandemic where the outside world is in turmoil and chaos ? Research findings indicate that love based practices in meditation or mindfulness are related to changes in brain activity, correlated to positive feelings: loving kindness, compassion, peace, higher level of reasoning, connection to a Higher Power or Consciousness and less fear. These practices seem to facilitate love over fear. Less fear likely trickles down to body changes. Not activating the stress response system is a good thing for the body. I will discuss the research findings behind the meditation and mindfulness practices and brain changes, by reviewing work of Dr. Newberg and Dr. Jon-Kabbat Zinn, both pioneers in their work of integrating love and neuroscience.
Brain Scans of Meditation and Mysticism (Practices of Love on the Brain).
Please feel free to ignore picture brain neuroanatomy if this is not your cup of tea. The rest of the discussion is pretty cool. At least to me.
Dr. Newberg’s work has caught national attention. His work has been published not just in science journals but also in Newsweek and Los Angeles Times. What Dr. Newberg does is pretty phenomenal and cool? He conducted studies of brain scans of people, engaging in spiritual practices, from different religious and spiritual backgrounds. Dr. Newberg is a key figure in the emerging interdisciplinary field of neurotheology, which studies changes in brain function and structure when people are having spiritual experiences. Neuroimaging or brain scans of people in spiritual practices indicate changes in blood flow to different parts of the brain. Dr. Newsberg notes that God is too vast and immense for the human mind to grasp. I agree. However, research findings of Dr. Newberg and his colleagues are fascinating.
Brain Scans of Buddhist Monks and Catholic Nuns
Dr. Newberg and his colleagues (2001) conducted brain scans of 8 Buddhist Tibetan monks in their meditation practices, focused on pure consciousness or awareness, as Buddhism is described as a nontheistic tradition. Dr. Newberg and colleagues (2003) studied brain scans of three catholic nuns doing the meditative centering prayer. Centering prayer refers to verbally meditating and focusing on a phrase in the Bible or prayers that the nuns focused on verbally to open themselves for the experience of feeling God’s presence. Catholicism is primarily characterized as a theistic religion.
Dr. Newberg describe that the brain scans of the Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns demonstrate similar patterns of brain activation: activation of the frontal lobes (higher level of complex thinking and reasoning), anterior cingulate (linked with feelings of compassion, peace and kindness) and deactivation of the limbic system (amygdala) which scans for threats, generate feelings of fear and activate the stress response system. Earlier post on Endurance discussed that the ongoing stress of the pandemic may be activating the amygdala and stress response system (impacting brain and body) of many folks. Dr. Newberg and Mr. Waldeman (2009) discussed the research finding that brain scans of Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns, while in spiritual practices, demonstrated lower activity of parietal lobe. When parietal lobe activity decreases, person’s sense of separate individual selfhood dissolves and person is likely to feel more connected to the object of their contemplation. Dr. Newberg indicates that the Buddhist monks goal was to experience pure consciousness or awareness. The Catholic nuns expressed coming closer to God. Barbara Bradley Hagerty states that these are perhaps brain scans of mystical experiences.
Brain Scans of Pentecostal believers while “Speaking in Tongues”
Dr. Newberg conducted brain scans on five women who are Pentecostal believers, engaged in Glossolalia or speaking of tongues, a type of contemplative prayer. This type of prayer focuses on voluntary surrender of self to God. The brain scans of the Pentecostal people speaking in tongues, showed decreased activity of the frontal lobe and increased activity of the limbic system. This finding is the opposite to the patterns of the brain scans in Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns. These participants reported intense levels of emotional experiences and conscious states of peace and serenity.
Intensive Islamic prayer
Newberg and his colleagues (2015) conducted case studies on brain scans of three individuals doing intense Islamic prayer practices, focused on surrendering of self to Allah. The researchers compared brain scans of subjects in regular states versus in Islamic prayer states. Researchers found that when engaged in Islamic prayer of surrender to Allah, individuals showed decreased activity in frontal lobe and decreased activity of parietal lobe, which suggests loss of sense of separate self and merging with object of prayer.
Point of Caution
Again, there is criticism of Newberg’s work, especially changes in brain activity and feeling states are correlational and cannot be interpreted with anything causing anything. However, findings are intriguing. I am fascinated in the finding of similar patterns in brain scans when people from different spiritual and religious traditions are engaged in love based meditation, whether focused attention is on God or Pure Consciousness. The practice of love on the brain appears to be related to changes in feelings: more peace, kindness, compassion and connection to object of contemplation. The report of lowered activity of parietal lobe in brain scans of Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns, Muslims in prayers states linked with feeling greater connection to the Universe or God certainly sounds like a mystical experience. All great stuff, especially in the world of the pandemic we live in now. Perhaps there is something to the notion that “God is Bigger than One Religion”. I first saw this concept on a sticker boldly posted at the back of the car while stuck in long commutes on the traffic congested freeways of pre-COVID southern California. This concept always stuck with me.
Brain Scans of Secular Mindfulness and Everyday Mysticism (Practices of Love on the Brain)
Dr. Jon Kabbat-Zinnis is a revolutionary figure in the world of integrative medicine or mind-body medicine. He is one of the first western researchers, meditation teachers and scientists who integrated secular mindfulness practices, such as, Mind Based Stress Reduction, in treating different physical and mental health conditions. The research findings suggest a positive relationship of mindfulness based programs in the effective alleviation of symptoms of depression, anxiety, chronic pain, rumination, cardiovascular practices, eating disorders and addiction medicine etc. Dr. Kabbat-Zinn’s research findings led to the proliferation of mindfulness programs through out the country, especially in mind-body medicine, where psychological states are linked to physiological processes..
As discussed before, mindfulness practices include breathing techniques, relaxation and focused attention with nonjudgement, curiosity, loving kindness and acceptance on the present moment. Mindfulness practices teach us to sit with experiences that arise and not jump to labeling it as “good” “bad” or “ugly”. Students of mindfulness are taught to accept “it is what it is” and curiously investigate the experience with openness of mind. It includes a practice of pouring love on the brain and body. Alan Powell’s (2018) article, “When Science Meets Mindfulness” in the Harvard Gazette also discussed the effects of mindfulness practices on people. Research findings indicate practice of mindfulness techniques is associated with lowered activity of the amygdala (limbic system). This amygdala is the alert system in the brain which detects threat and generates the body’s stress response system to deal with threat.
Lowered activity in the amygdala and less fear based responses (less worry, and less worst case scenario pondering) are wonderful things in a world held hostage by a virus. Especially as many spiritual teachers teach the distinction between two paths: fear versus love. For me, fear is a heavy, constrictive feeling which limits psychological flexibility, creativity and compassion. Love is a more expansive feeling of wholesomeness which generates creativity, joy, compassion, kindness and connection to others and the Divine Source. Love moves me forward through this almost year long pandemic with hope in my heart for a safer world. That is pretty much close to everyday mysticism for me. Miraculous stuff. For that I am immensely grateful.
In summary, I will argue that practices of pouring love on the brain are good for us in the pandemic: Less Fear. (We have too much fear in the world and I am no stranger to fear). Love, Kindness, Compassion. Connection to Higher Power, Mysticism, Cosmic Awareness. These positive emotions likely impact our bodies with less stress. What is fascinating is that people perceive love and compassion in so many different things, ranging from the Vastness and Undecipherable Divine Consciousness, God, to the breath in the present moment. By the way, I am a big fan of God and my breath. Focused attention on love seems to change the brain radically. That is pretty magical and miraculous. Rumi, a Persian, Sufi thirteenth century mystic (one of my favorites)summarizes a fundamental truth that “Love is the bridge between you and everything”. Rumi is spot on.
As a psychotherapist, I have found that many people seem to have an easier time forgiving others or being compassionate to others rather than themselves. People can be their worst inner critics. In the pandemic, many people are facing suffering and setbacks. So the discussion of self-compassion in this pandemic is critical. The central question is how do we psychologically treat ourselves when faced with setbacks, suffering or failures? Do we mentally beat ourselves up? Does our inner critic shred the self into pieces? Or are we kind and compassionate and accepting of ourselves? This is a huge question as we spend the most time with ourselves. In this post, I will explore: 1. practice of self-compassion, and 2. differences between self-criticism versus self-compassion, possible biological and psychological underpinnings of both states and benefits of self-compassion. I also include a discussion of my favorite mindfulness exercise on breath for self-compassion. Please note that there are many different mindfulness exercises and you have to find what works for you. I hope this post encourages readers to start self-compassion campaigns in the pandemic.
What is Self-Compassion?
Dr. Kristin Neff, an expert researcher in self-compassion, discusses three elements of self compassion and strategies to practice self-compassion. I will discuss Dr. Neff’s three strategies and add some of my own thoughts.
1.Practicing kind, gentle and loving attention towards self, especially, when experiencing any suffering, setback or misstep. Notice how you are thinking about the suffering. Recognize self-critical thoughts and avoid entanglement with them when in the midst of suffering. One strategy to address negative self-talk with compassion is discussed by Dr. Dennis Tirch. He suggests a self-compassionate strategy may be to accept, acknowledge and thank the self-critical part of the mind for coming up with ideas trying to help. This prevents further condemnation of self-critical part. It is more accepting and compassionate of the negative self-critical part. Then, remind yourself that I choose to try a more self-compassionate perspective. What are kind or loving actions we can do when in the midst of suffering? Call a friend. Take a walk. Sit with a pet. Listen to soothing music or sounds. Read encouraging scriptures.
2. Realization that the common human experience includes suffering and suffering binds us into the human community. I have yet to meet any person who has not suffered in some form. One might argue that as a psychotherapist, my chances of meeting people in suffering, are very high because people do not come to therapy when life is going great. However, in my life, outside of therapy room, I find that people suffer in different ways. I find in the general public, expression of suffering, is a taboo subject. People talk about their suffering to close friends and family, whom they trust. However, the pandemic has hit the world hard and we are all experiencing a collective trauma. People seem to be more open discussing their struggles with the pandemic.
3.Practice of mindfulness practices where one adopts a mindset of curious and nonjudgmental observation and awareness of thoughts and feelings connected with difficult experiences. It is important to remember that “thoughts are just thoughts” and not overidentify with thoughts.
Our minds produce thoughts constantly. Minds are thought factories. Dr. Susan Baili Hass (2019) wrote an article in Psychology Today website about the concept of “not believing every thought you think”. She describes negative thoughts can be endless loops and it is important to get out of loops of negative thoughts, overthinking and rumination. She described strategies to get out of rumination cycles where one is focused on negative events or feeling states.
Mindfulness Exercise: Breath of Self-Compassion
Although, there are many different types of mindfulness exercises, my favorite self-compassionate mindfulness exercise is focusing awareness on my breath with nonjudgment, curiosity, loving, gentle , warm and kind attention. I feel the gentle rising and falling of the belly. Also called belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. Essential basis of life. Part of mindfulness exercises is to accept that the mind wanders to observe thoughts and feelings as waves in the ocean peaking and dissipating. The goal is to observe the thoughts and feelings that arise and let them go. No entanglement with whatever arises in the mind.. Main thing is to gently guide my attention to the breath and rise and fall of the belly. The gentle guidance of attention and awareness back to the breath is the key. The awareness of breathing in and out with self-compassion is a radical act of self-care in the pandemic. I visualize a loving and kind energy from the Divine Source as I breath in and this healing energy spreads all over me, relaxing body and mind. The beautiful thing of self-compassion mindfulness practice for me is focusing fully on a sacred primal act: breathing. I forget how sacred breathing is in the whirlwind of my daily activities, where I am multi-tasking more often than not. Self-compassionate mindfulness practice is honoring the breath, body, mind, soul and the Divine Source which has sustained me thus far. Breathing is beautiful. It means I am on the planet today. It means the Divine Source has sustained me in ways that I cannot put into words. For this, I am supremely grateful.
Why Self-Compassion is a More Effective Strategy than Self-Criticism?
Dr. Emma Seppala writes about the difference between self-critical versus self-compassion and the scientific benefits of self-compassion in the Stanford Medicine (Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education) website .It turns out that practice of self-compassion in moments of suffering, setbacks and failures is better than self-criticism. Self-compassion is not weakness or laziness or fluff stuff. There are biological and psychological changes in our bodies and minds that are beneficial with self-compassion in moments of suffering and failure. It is more in alignment with growth mindset and resiliency.
Self- critical attitudes are likely to activate the stress response system, as we are making appraisals that we cannot handle what is is front of us. The stress response system is likely to be activated by self-criticism (e.g. self -condemnation by the inner critic) when the amygdala in the brain senses a threat and activates the sympathetic nervous system and endocrine nervous system, resulting in physiological changes (increased heart and breathing rate) and negative feeling states (e.g. fear, anger). The responses to threat include fight, flight and freeze responses. Cognitive capacity for flexible problem solving is less likely when our threat systems are activated.
According to Dr. Seppala, embracing a self -critical attitude when faced with setbacks or missteps is not the best response because it may more likely lead to self-defeating attitudes and generate feelings of distress and despair. Experiencing overwhelming feelings of despair may contribute to feeling stuck in difficult situations. It makes it harder to take steps to move forward. Self-condemnation by the inner critic may involve a level of anger at self, showing up in harsh punitive comments , “I cannot do anything right”, “I am going to mess up everything”. Sometimes, we learn self-critical attitudes from people around us who may be critical. Another question is whether people who were self-critical around us gave their critical views based on their “noble” intentions which were to help us become better? People may be critical to us with the intention to help us, but, they do not realize that this is not an effective method. Or did they mean to use criticism to tear us down? We need to recognize how did we learn self-critical attitudes, recognize this critical perspective and “practice the sacred practice of pausing” as Tara Brach discusses ( see previous post on Possible Pathways of healing emotional wounds)
Dr. Seppala describes that self- compassionate perspective may be more likely to facilitate a calm state of mind when facing stressful setbacks due to triggering the parasympathetic nervous system , which generates the restful and calmness response. Dr. Neff discusses that there are bodily changes when we practice self-compassion. When practicing self-compassion, we tap into our care-giving system directed towards self and it is linked with higher levels of oxytocin and lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol. This is associated with increased feelings of trust and safety and self-soothing of negative feelings. Self-compassion facilitates calmness of mind to endure, be tenacious and practice psychological flexibility in trying alternative strategies to solve problem areas.
Unlike a self critical attitude, Dr. Seppala writes that a self- compassionate perspective is likely to lead to greater resilience, strength and self-empowerment, because it normalizes failures and suffering as part of human experience, views failures and setbacks as opportunities in learning for growth.
Campaigns of Self-Compassion in the Pandemic.
May we be more compassionate with ourselves this year. Start compassion and loving-kindness campaigns for the self. We need to intentionally set up practices of self-compassion in life, especially in the pandemic. Celebrate strengths and be gentle with areas of improvement. Our inner critics may make it harder for self-compassionate practices. Self-compassionate practices are like exercise routines. More we exercise, the stronger the muscles are. More we practice self-compassion, easier it becomes. Most important is to remember we are imperfect human beings and all of us, regardless of religious, gender, cultural, political or ethnic backgrounds are in this pandemic together. We also have to get out of the pandemic together. This means that one community cannot truly get out of pandemic without other communities. This shows the interdependence of people, communities and countries in humanity. This includes practice of compassion to others and self.
During this pandemic, political turmoil, economic, and housing crises, beloved pets can be an oasis of comfort and joy. .The National Institute of Health (NIH)discusses the numerous mental and physical health benefits of having pets. Research suggests that having pets are linked with people having lower blood pressure, less stress (lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol), improved heart health, increased social and emotional health, less loneliness and feelings of support. Therapy dogs are used in hospitals, nursing homes and therapy contexts to support healing in children and adults. I recently read an article about courts using therapy dogs in court to help witnesses testify in court proceedings. Research findings suggest that teens with diabetes learn to manage their diabetes after learning to take care of their fish. The point in the National Institute Health (NIH) newsletters discussion of the power of pets bringing mindfulness experiences of loving nonjudgmental attention, awareness, and compassion to people in moments of suffering caught my attention. I often hear people talk about pets offering undivided, nonjudgmental, unconditional loving and accepting attention to them. This post is a discussion about “fur love” and research findings regarding “fur love”. I also invite readers to share about their “fur-loves”.
THOUGHTS ON LOVE BY C.S. LEWIS
C. S. Lewis in his famous book, Four Loves, talks about : 1. Agape Love (God’s Unconditional Love), 2. Eros (Romantic Love), 3. Friendships (Philia) 4. Affection (Storage). C.S. Lewis briefly mentions animals and family in affectionate love and describes this love as “humble”, “private”, and part of our everyday loves, even if we recognize it or not. He describes this affectionate love like “old clothes”, “old jokes”, “soft slippers” and “thump of a sleepy dog’s tail on the kitchen floor”. There seems as if with affectionate love from family or pets, we are taken care of .
C.S. Lewis is brilliant in his observation that affection lies alongside the other kinds of loves. I love C.S. Lewis’s highlighting of I Corinthians 13verse in the Bible to describe the power of love. C.S. Lewis highlights this Bible verse as this verse points out that regardless of vast accomplishments, gifts and talents, a person has nothing if he or she has no love. This Bible verse describes beautifully and profoundly that love is “kind”, “patient”, “always protects”, “always hopes”, “always perseveres”, and “always trusts”.
One of the important steps that pets seem to teach people is to experience unconditional positive regard or unconditional love. I have members of my extended family who have pets. Many of my clients in psychotherapy have pets, cats, dogs, and lizards. Everyone with beloved pets, often talk about their pets beaming with happiness, unconditional love, and joy when they come home. Most people I know with pets tell me that they love their pets and their pets reciprocate that love in a multitude of different ways. Although I do not have pets, I know that “Fur love” is a real experience for people.
People talk about experiences of feeling safe and secure with their pets. People talk about the inherent trust in pets as they are described as more honest and transparent than some people in their lives. Many people talk about the experience of being “known” and “seen” by their pets, as though, pets see their authentic selves and love them deeply and unconditionally. I hear people crying, laughing, and dancing with their pets. Essentially people seem to share intimate emotional experiences with their pets without any fear of judgment from pets. Many people have shared with me that pets (e.g. dogs and cats) are very attuned to their feelings and if they are experiencing negative feelings, their pets will sit next to them, lick them, lie on their chests and laps. Pets are very generous with their loving and kind presence in people’s moments of suffering. The power of a pet’s powerful compassionate presence and witness to a person’s moments of suffering is so incredible in healing. Pets’ messages are profound: ” I am with you in the good and the bad”. Incredibly courageous pets. My guess is petting (source of comfort and touch) the beloved animals in moments of suffering may trigger the parasympathetic system, nervous system which promotes calmness and stress. The parasympathetic system opposes the sympathetic nervous system which triggers the stress response system (fight or flight response) in case of any perceived threat. Daily activities, like walking the dog, seem to be very healing for some people. I have heard so many times in therapy from clients that “I would not have made it during that dark part in my life without my dog”.
Pets are also described as sources of joy when people describe playing with their pets. When working with children and adolescents, I often hear about how their pets are the greatest things on the planet. People also seem to know their pets intimately: their personalities, quirkiness (“mustaches, hair on chin, freckles on their noses, and smiles), favorite toys and activities. I have heard comments about pets, like he is “mama’s boy” or “she is a princess” and ” even if he/she is little, he/she thinks he is a lion when protecting me”. Pets are creatures who seem to know the art of living in the moment. They also seem to let go of grudges with a certain ease. People seem to view beloved pets as part of the family. Grief and loss issues regarding death of pets is also very real and is like losing a family member. People’s experiences of grief and loss in case of pet’s death speaks to their great love of their pets.
WHAT DOES SCIENCE SAY ABOUT FUR-LOVE?
I was curious about what science says about “fur love”. Dr. Fugere (2020) on Psychology Today website discusses a research study by Berns, G. S., Brooks, A. M., & Spivak, M. (2015) where they utilize Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) (brain scan) on dogs. They found that brain areas (caudate nucleus) of dogs were activated when dogs smelled cotton swabs with scent of people they live. Their caudate nucleus did not become as activated when exposed to stranger’s scent. Caudate nucleus is a part of brain associated with positive experiences and rewards. Dr. Fugere’s (2020) article includes research conducted by Dr. Fugere (2020) also discussed research findings by Aron, A. and his colleagues (2005), who studied brain scans of people in love. Aron, A. and his colleagues (2005) found that people, who reported intense, romantic love for their partners, also demonstrate activation in these brain areas (caudate nucleus) when people are shown pictures of loved ones, but, not when exposed to pictures of strangers. Dr. Fugere (2020) and researchers express caution that we cannot interpret that dogs are “experiencing love” as people. However, it is fascinating that the same areas of the brain (caudate nucleus) are activated in brains of dogs and people, when they are exposed to people they love. Dogs and people have different brain structures. Despite caution in interpreting brain scans (which I get) , the research consistently supports that a healthy connection between pets and their owners leads to all kinds of good things, as discussed in the NIH article above.
The other question is whether brain scans can capture the true, vast and sacred essence of LOVE. I would argue definitely not. C.S. Lewis is spot on in his writings about love. Divine Love, “Fur Love” and Human Love: all sacred and holy ground. Peace Pilgrim, an American Saint, (please see earlier post) confirms the primacy of spiritual law of love and that anything done with love grows and prospers in this Universe. We definitely need more love in the world today.
Many people experience emotional wounds, pain and hurt by another person’s words or actions. I hope and pray 2021 is a year for people to explore pathways to heal emotional wounds. Research by Naomi Eisenberger from University of California, Los Angeles found that that social pain from social rejection is processed in the same brain circuits as physical pain. Another mindboggling research finding is that people taking Tylenol experienced less emotional pain as they would if they take Tylenol for physical pain. Eisenberger stated that taking Tylenol for emotional pain is not recommended as this is numbing the emotional pain without exploring root causes, and psychological healing of the wound.
There are emotional wounds which trigger many different types of maladaptive beliefs. This is a post on reflections investigating the nature of emotional wounds which trigger beliefs of self-inadequacy, and possible pathways of psychological and spiritual healing. Healing of deep emotional wounds need to be addressed in a therapeutic context with a licensed mental health professional .Emotional pain is harder because it may not have a visual cue like a bandage, caste on a leg or arm. It is real and yet we live in a world that is not always accepting of emotional pain and the messages are “Get over it” or “Emotional pain is a sign of weakness of character”. I have never heard of someone with a broken leg in a caste as receiving the message “he or she is weak in character”. I also want to add that I am writing healing of emotional wounds through cultivation of self-love post within the perspective of western psychotherapy models. This includes a more individualistic western definition of self. This piece may not be applicable to how self is defined in collectivistic cultures, where self is more relationally defined. Tara Brach reports a meeting where the Dalai Lama talked about his surprise that sense of unworthiness is so prevalent in his students in the west. I will also note note that in different cultures, people also express emotional pain in different ways, such as somatization of psychological pain (e.g. it may be more acceptable to express emotional pain through physical symptoms). I also invite readers to share their views on emotional healing and self- love in different cultures . Would love to hear from you.
The Emotional Wound
Why is it that when certain people say mean comments, we can shrug them off? Why is it that certain people get on your last nerve? Why is it hard to be in the same room with a certain person? There may be many reasons, such as, stressors we face, mental (e.g. depression, anxiety, emotional sensitivity) and physical health (e.g. chronic pain) states which influence how we respond to another person’s wounding words. There are also toxic behaviors of certain people, such as trying to control, manipulate, blame others, gaslighting, refuse to take any responsibility, which can wound us. One sign of toxicity is when you finish an interaction with the person and you leave depleted emotionally, your body’s stress response system is activated and you ask yourself, “What the hell just happened?”. Boundaries implemented to keep toxic people at a distance or out of your sphere of existence is key to protecting your mental health.
Wounds which Trigger Beliefs of Self-inadequacy
However, I wonder if the words of others, even toxic people, which wound us the most include words which reignite our old maladaptive beliefs. There are many types of maladaptive beliefs. I am going to focus on emotional wounds triggering beliefs about our inadequacies or unworthiness, which we never dealt with. Why would certain words of others sting if there was not a part of our psyche which had once had these old beliefs of inadequacy? After the implementation of boundaries with toxic people, we may need to work on internal old beliefs of unworthiness, which contribute to emotional pain. I am using cognitive-behavioral model assumption that beliefs of inadequacy contribute to painful feelings (e.g. sadness, depression) and behaviors (e.g. tears). Beliefs of inadequacy or unworthiness can be acquired from different sources, including childhood experiences in family of origin, being bullied in schools, or constantly being criticized or judged or compared to others by peers or colleagues, negative messages from socio-cultural factors .
Carl Roger’s theory: Conditions of Worth versus Unconditional Positive Regard
Carl Rogers, a famous humanistic psychologist, who developed client centered therapy, talked about some children growing up with conditions of worth. This means that the child experiences love or positive attention when he or she does something deemed “worthy” by family (e.g. great report card, excellent in athletics, won beauty contest.) So child learns that he or she will receive love based on achieving certain conditions. Carl Rogers defined this concept as conditional positive regard, where you are loved not for your personhood, but, because you accomplish something. The problem with equating self -love based on accomplishments is it conditions people to experience internal validation only by external accomplishments (e.g. I am of worth when I do…). This breeds feelings of inadequacy when one cannot accomplish the desired outcome.
Kendra Cherry (2020)beautifully describes unconditional positive regard, concept developed by Carl Rogers, as a condition where people can share their goodness and worst feelings and experiences, messiness of being a human being, in close, safe relationships and find they are loved and accepted for their personhood, devoid of any achievements. Unconditional positive regard is something one may receive in healthy intimate relationships from others, but, also one needs to cultivate that unconditional love in one’s relationship with self. This is when you are your best friend, cheerleader and strongest advocate.
Tara Brach: Trance of Unworthiness
Tara Brach’s Article: Awakening from The Trance of Unworthiness is a powerful piece regarding the notion that many people struggle with a sense of unworthiness. The trance of unworthiness for some people, including me, may start with an internal or external trigger (someone saying hurtful words) which activates a thought, “I am not enough”, and a million pieces of reasons to justify unworthiness and inadequacy. Once this unworthiness belief is triggered, it flows like the unfiltered flow of a gushing river, contributing to different negative feelings (e.g. sadness, sorrow, anger) and less motivation to practice self-compassion. One of my “go to” mechanisms or autopilot strategies to deal with the unworthiness trance previously had been to please people to seek their approval or achieve more so that “inadequacy belief” is deactivated. As I have grown older and worked on myself in therapy and other practices of self -compassion, I have learned to not go on autopilot “pleasing mode”. I love Tara Brach’s recommendation that when you notice the trance of unworthiness, you engage in the “sacred behavior of pause” . I also think Tara Brach’s model of R.A.I.N , a model that outlines self care and breaking out of the trance of unworthiness, is powerful. Tara describes R.A.I.N. as:
“Recognize what is happening;
Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;
Investigate with interest and care;
Nurture with self-compassion.”. (www.Tarabrach.com)
The R.A.I.N model is wonderful and Tara Brach has developed meditations on this practice. One thing I would add is to recognize and experience feelings in a safe place and examine what core beliefs about unworthiness may be contributing to the feelings. It is also important to identify triggers: internal triggers (frustration about something) or external triggers (words of another person) which activate beliefs of unworthiness.
Sister BK Shivani : Self-Love
In her talk about Loving Yourself when Other people Disrespect you, Sister BK Shivani discusses the powerful act and development of self-love and knowing the self so that other’s opinions of us do not impact us. Her talk highlights the need to practice unconditional positive regard in one’s relationship to self. She discusses other people’s disrespectful views and comments as based on their experiences and little to do with us. She also discusses strategies of self compassionate thoughts to promote self- love. Sister Shivani reminds people they have a powerful soul with a will. She summarizes three strategies when you are faced with disrespectful behaviors from others:
1. Absorb the negative comments,
2.Reflect it back to the person which may create to more hostility
3.Transform the disrespectful behavior. Sister Shivani stated that when one has self-love, one realizes that other people’s comments are low energy vibrations coming these people’s experiences. Sister Shivani talks about not reacting to the disrespectful comments but choosing to respond intentionally with high vibration, positive response. This is consistent with Eleanor Roosevelt’s brilliant and insightful quote “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”. When we cultivate true unconditional positive regard for self, we are less likely to be reactive to other’s comments, but intentionally decide on a effective course of action.
Power of Self -worth and Self-love
In working with people in psychotherapy and observations of my own growth, I have noticed powerful changes in the psyche as self-worth and self- love crystallizes. There may be initial negative feelings, such as sadness, anger and frustration, regarding the suffering that one has experienced from the emotional wound. Working with a good therapist is important in creating a safe space to discuss feelings and learn to manage negative feelings. There may be frustration about adoption of old erroneous beliefs of “not enough” which led to suffering in the past and present. Often we adopt these old beliefs unconsciously. Part of healing is conscious identification of false beliefs which drove our behavior. We have to remind ourselves why these old beliefs developed? What purpose did they serve? Did the old beliefs protect you? What are the pros and cons of letting go of beliefs of self- inadequacy? Can we thank the old beliefs in how they helped us in the past and now let them go gently? No need to beat up old belief systems.
Letting go of beliefs of self- inadequacy can be frightening. Letting go is often a revolutionary and radical process of shedding the old to embrace the new. They shake up the person who is letting go of old beliefs and people in his or her life. While nurturing self-worthiness, new beliefs emerge (e.g. “I am enough”, “I honor myself with all of me, my strengths and weaknesses”, “I am worth it”, “I am a good person, even if I am currently struggling in certain circumstance”). As new beliefs or thoughts of worthiness emerge, a person is more likely to experience positive emotions and engage in positive behaviors. There may be struggle between old beliefs of self-inadequacy and new belief of self-worth. That is ok. Goal is to recognize and cultivate new beliefs while challenging old beliefs until old beliefs become old tapes you can easily discard. I advise clients in transformation, “Give yourself an OSCAR for new beliefs and how they manifest in your life”.
When people acquire a sense of self- worth, self- love and self -acceptance, there is tremendous shift in self- empowerment. What I mean by self-empowerment is sense of power, worth and agency over self and own life. There may be a lesser need to have power over others. People tend to live life more intentionally (active choice to say “Yes ” and “No” ). People may have a dawning sense of purpose. People focus and exert diligence and persistence in their purpose driven work. They are more likely to discern and selectively choose people they want in their immediate circle, release toxic relationships and refuse to take responsibility for other people’s behaviors. People, who recognize their own worth, are more likely to integrate people, who bring out the best in them. The Michael Angelo effect is a concept where partners or close friends see the wonder in each other and bring out the best in each other. Just like Michael Angelo “saw” the statute of “David” in the marble which led him to sculpt the magnificent statue, David.
People with growing self -worth realize that trying to fix other people is not necessary and stop rescuing others. People with dawning sense of worth often report in therapy that it is frightening. One woman said in therapy, “This self-love is wonderful but I am scared about where this is leading? Am I to cut off all my relationships?”. I reminded her that self worth means she is in control of how she mediates her relationships . We discussed that cultivation of self -love and self -worth can happen in quiet places. There is a need to be selective of choosing people who are worthy of knowing and supporting your growth. You get to choose situations where you want to share your voice (e.g. Pick your battles or challenging situations to address). The other aspect of self -worth is recognizing shifts in relationships with others, where people (pre-empowerment) may not like the gain of self- worth and acceptance in you, especially as you develop your voice, and express opinions and exit “pleasing mode”. People also with growing sense of worthiness start trusting their decisions and intuition. There is freedom from self-comparison to others. They are less likely to be pestered by relentless questions ( Am I good enough? Are there others in the room better or worse than me?). People with unconditional positive regard to themselves experience joy and peace without need to accomplish all the time. I find they learn how to rest and relax mentally and physically. One question to ask yourself is what are costs and pros of developing beliefs of self -worth and self -love?
True self- worthiness or self-love again involves the duality: unconditional love and acceptance that you have for yourself (personhood) versus compassionate examination of behaviors which need change. Self love is not being grandiose, seeking perfection and denial of things we need to work on. Self love is an act of courage, sitting with paradox of unconditional love for self versus open- minded, curious to start the adventure of what aspects or behaviors we need to work on. It is acknowledging our “shadow” side, working on healing shadow aspect without beating yourself up. Self-forgiveness is also important and remember that self-growth includes cultivation of growth mindset (realization that self- growth includes struggle, self compassion when mistakes are made and we can learn from mistakes with psychological flexibility to try different strategies). Adoption of growth mindset means we are works in progress. My observation is that people are harder with judgment on self than others. True self- love and self- compassion deems us worthy to receive love and give love to others. We are able to stand up for ourselves firmly and gently. No need to beat anyone else up.
Spiritual Aspects of Self-Love, Self-Worth and Self-Acceptance
For a faith based person, I wonder if self-worth, self- love and self -acceptance is a part of identifying as being “Child of God” (Highest of the High). I wonder about people exposed to the idea that they are “Children of God” , but do they really believe it? This belief that I am a child of God is something I remind myself often. I would like to share an example of mindfulness experiences in my twenties, when I was experiencing some difficult times. I remember asking the questions (Who am I?, Why am I going through this difficult time?) right before the mindfulness /meditation session. I was stunned by my inner voice or wise part of self stating “You are created in love”. This was a mind blowing experience . Perhaps, this journey in human form, including overcoming adversity, is to discover the love within, created by the Divine Source. This identification that I am a child of God as a fifty year old woman means, not arrogance, but spectacular humility and awe that I am a tiny speck created with love by God, Majestic King of the Universe, in His infinite grand design. It means I am not less or more than another human being. I am me. Not defined by educational or job achievements. Not defined by relationships. Not defined by my status in the world. I am a spiritual person in a human body (mind-body), loved by the Divine Source, originating from the Divine Source and one day will go back to the Divine Source. This is a stance I have to cultivate daily. This practice is good on some days and not so good in other days. However, I love the practice of self- affirmation as “Child of God”.