Archive for October, 2008

White knuckles

October 29, 2008

I confess to not getting much done these days; I’m too involved in the election.

I just got back from a weekend in Denmark.  Sounds very jet-setty I suppose, but I assure you the travel is long and confining and devoid of champagne.  Although the work was fun enough, otherwise I hardly got outside for a walk in the rain and drizzle and dark that dominates October at 55 degrees N latitude east of the Gulf Stream.  Mostly I was stuck in the hotel, where CNN International or the BBC gave scant, terse, and cursory coverage to the contest between Obama and McCain.

My mother, if she were on this trip, would have had white knuckles on the armrests the whole way, as she feels she has to personally fly the plane to keep it from falling out of the sky. I feel very safe on a plane and am content to let the pilots fly, often falling asleep before take-off, and being surprised out of a book by the jolt of touchdown.

But I am white-knuckling this election, obsessively and personally responsible for shepherding the collective unconscious to the result by means of my daily attention.  I haunt the blogs, both right and left, searching out the fault lines that might take this thing off its course or make it fall out of the heady sky where it now soars.

There was a brief moment, several eons ago in early August, where I honestly did not care so much.  Obama was off his rhetoric and acting like a typical pol, and McCain’s reform agenda had some steam and passion behind it.  Though I still preferred Obama, they were more equal then.  But McCain’s puzzling embrace of the same gutter politics (hell, the same people) that he confined to a special place in hell when it was used so successfully against him in 2000 combine with his cynical choice of Palin and his utter failure to define what he would do that would distinguish himself from Bush and the Republican pack of neo-con wolves that have chased this republic so very far from its roots in the last eight years.

I don’t blame them much for the economic crisis.  This is a natural swing of the pendulum from the Great Depression of the 30’s, where regulations established kept us ‘safe’ but hamstrung the entrepreneurs until the Reagan revolution came along to start the process of deregulation of financial markets seconded by Gingrich and finished by Bush.  Though they hastened it with their general eye-off-the-ball laxity (helluva job, Alan) that allowed that essential of collapse, a highly leveraged market, it would have happened under anyone, as will the period of increased regulation to come.

But I blame Bush for our America becoming a land of torturers and extraordinary rendition, a land that uses depleted uranium in Afghanistan and shock and awe in poor benighted Iraq.  I blame Bush and Rush Limbaugh and Fox not for their views, a few of which I agree with, but for so lowering the level of civic discourse in this country that I am ashamed to live in it, embarrassed to go abroad as an American.

So, while convinced that we will be kvetching about President Obama in a couple of years, I find this election the really important one of my adult life – I was only 11 when Kennedy was elected – simply for the tone that will be set.  For no more and no less than the tone of voice that will be used, I crave Obama’s reasoned hopefulness.  Anyone realistic enough to strategize his way past Hillary’s juggernaut machine and its lock on the nomination and then successfully deflect the relentless drumbeat of the Republican attack machine (while declining to link McCain with the Keating 5 or other similar available tactics) – he has my vote of confidence in his judgment.  McCain wants a ‘firm hand on the tiller’ – an image I understand completely – and that hand has been shown to be Obama’s.

I pray the groundswell is strong enough to surmount any Republican attempts at voting fraud.  I am fervently praying that the Secret Service is doing its job, both against race-baiters in white top hats, and also looking behind for palace coups from within, for I fear deeply for our constitutional government should Obama fall between now and January 20th.

The next four to eight years are going to be dicey.  We have been driving this vehicle at breakneck speed for the entire coffee-fueled 90’s and naughties, all forced to look anxiously straight ahead to keep it on the road.  The economic slowdown will be a chance to turn to each other and say ‘hello’ again, share a moment and help each other out.  It won’t be easy, but it might restore a better quality of life to this fascinating experiment – hopefully only temporarily off its natural course – called the United States of America.

Unlearning

October 18, 2008

Oxytocin first entered my field of awareness as the internal hormone that stimulates the uterus to contract in childbirth.  A closely related chemical, relaxin, has the opposite effect on the connective tissues, softening up the ligaments to allow the pelvis to open as the baby comes out.  This relaxin makes the whole connective tissue net relent, in fact, such that some pregnant scoliotics can find that their curvature is getting worse during pregnancy, as the guy wires that have been holding the spine in place let go.  What few realize is that this is an opportunity to make things better, with the right exercise and manipulation, a woman with a scoliosis can make substantial improvements during and after pregnancy due to this lability, this plasticity created by oxytocin.

But to smooth muscle, like the uterus, oxytocin stimulates not relaxation but strong contraction, as we recently found out that it does in the myofibroblasts, the smooth-muscle-like fibroblasts that hook into the fascial sheets with their integrins and exert a pull to pre-tense the fabric.

Michel Odent, the French obstetrician, was among the first to identify oxytocin with bonding, and it has since been called the love drug (or more properly, the peptide of affiliation), for its powerful effect in bonding mother and child for life (The Scientification of Love, Michel Odent).

It has been known for some time that breastfeeding and the milk letdown reflex creates a short deluge of oxytocin, which has the happy double effect of bonding the mother to the baby, as well as contracting the uterus to expel the afterbirth and prevent hemorrhaging.  (See how well it works – the cord is always long enough to allow the baby to come to the nipple without cutting the cord.  Don’t get me started on the American way of birth – see The Business of Being Born, Rikki Lake).

But now comes the knockout punch:  Walter Freeman (neuroscience, Berkeley, gleaned from Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself) now argues the connection between love, oxytocin, and unlearning.  We have often thought of therapy as taking on a new learning, and therapists try to enhance the ability to change and learn.  For us body therapists, it is body learning – how do we take on new habits, replace old compensations with natural movement or more efficient posture, make different choices.  It was seen as novelty vs. survival, natural conservatism vs curiosity.

While the learning part of this has been much studied, the unlearning that is required to forge new neural pathways has been largely ignored.  Freeman argues that oxytocin is the principal neuromodulator of unlearning.  Neuromodulators are a family of peptides that are not neurotransmitters but instead modulate the tone of the whole neuro-transmitter / synaptic scene.

So, dearly beloved, when oxytocin is released (which happens in short surges, not sustained time-release) the brain undergoes a rapid transformation into a very plastic state, literally melting away the neuro-synaptic connections that held previous learning in place, opening up the nervous system for massive new learning.  When you think about it, that’s about what love is, or at least a very significant part of it: the willingness to reorder your priorities for the object of your love.  Such a massive reordering is certainly in order when 1) committed love strikes, and 2) when that first child comes along.  And again with the second child; and again with the third child. (Or third litter, if we were talking lower mammals – the ewe needs to let go of her attachment to last year’s lambs in favor of this year’s – oxytocin clears the brain for the reordering and predisposes her to the new and necessary bonding.)  It is unclear yet whether the oxytocin actually predisposes the parent to love or the lover to be kind, it may just predispose the recipient to learning new patterns – and the child / lover is there to learn new patterns with.  Oxytocin may not be the wonder love drug, but just so good at reducing our feelings of separation and distress that the pain we would normally feel at losing previous attachments and earlier lessons is much reduced.

Nevertheless, it seems that oxytocin (actually another chemical neighbor, vasopressin) helps the selfish young man in “Knocked Up” rise to the occasion of new fatherhood, putting away his old ways and taking on new responsibilities.  On the other side of the coin, oxytocin levels of adoptees are lower, and remain lower even for several years after being adopted into a loving family.  People get more trusting after even sniffing oxytocin – it’s the commitment drug.

So here’s what comes out of this for the therapist:  If you want your clients to change, change deeply, and change permanently, they will do so more easily with oxytocin released in their system.  So you need to create that Ecstasy-like feeling of bonding with your client, allow them to fall in love with you (if they aren’t falling for someone else, in which case the job is half done for you), and this ‘transference’ will help wipe the slate of their brain traces clean, so that they can learn a new way of being.  It is actually easier, I think, to create that feeling of bonding through touch than through talk.

Just don’t get carried away, and don’t forget to disenchant and let them go at the end, or when the time is right.

And since this is not an advisable or safe course of action, you’ll be happy to know that loving attention – such as that we should be able to show for each client, will do some of the same thing.  If oxytocin is the drug of forgetting – and making room for new learning at that level – then attention is the the ‘cure’ for making sure the new programming is laid down properly.

So try giving your clients a a minute’s shot of unconditional love at the beginning of the session, to raise their oxytocin levels, and then focus their attention closely and repeatedly, through movement or verbal cues, on the behavior you want to establish.

Same old Freudian stuff, but with an interesting chemical underlay.

I Am Not Forgotten

October 12, 2008

The other night the Watoto Children’s Choir (watoto.com) visited our rural town.  We went to the little library auditorium where it was standing room only for a group of a dozen scrubbed clean Ugandan 10-year olds in native dress.

I am not forgotten …

With a couple of African drums and a tika-tika music accompaniment, these kids sang and danced on the riser and in front of us, rolling their hips and weaving their arms, a bunch of Arethas and Stevie’s in the making, mixing African and gospel, as the two adults on each side laid on descants and bass harmonies to the kids’ enthusiastic but disciplined voices.

I am not forgotten …

Their Swahili intonations take me right back to East Africa, into the smell and dust of Nairobi of 1979, the cheery ‘Jambo’ and the wide smiles of the Kikuyu, the swatches of color in the kikois wrapped around everyone’s legs, the fruit on the head, a song on the lips.  I was a terribly ignorant American in those days, but something made it through besides the lions and elephants, the spiritual light that makes people’s smiles switch on, even in the midst of all that darkness and poverty.

Once, early on after my arrival in Nairobi, on a tip from a fellow traveler I went to a night spot – a hotel whose name I’ve forgotten – where girls were available on the dance floor.  I picked one out, probably not 20, heartbreakingly beautiful but for the obvious pain in her heart.  Unsure of my ground, I hurt her once by asking her availability and then her price – thus robbing her of any pretense that this was real dating – and then doubly dissing her by chickening out and disappearing from the place without her.  Thou shalt not commit pain – but we do anyway, despite our best intent.  I have never forgotten her face.

I am not forgotten …

Worldwide, more than 40,000 children are orphaned each day – in Uganda from AIDS, cholera, and civil war.  Child after child tells of going to live with their grandmother after their parents die, and things going from bad to worse until they are picked up by this Watoto community, where they are given three squares a day and an education: “I wand do be a school-tea’-cha.”  These children are very lucky by Ugandan standards, where more than 10% of the children are orphans, and many do not get past their 5th birthday.

Jesus knows my name.

OK, so it’s heavily Christian, something we didn’t know until partway into the concert, when the ‘Praise Jesus!’ became evident.  But so what?  These kids are the future leaders of Uganda, maybe, or at least informed citizens, and if they have to swallow a little Baptism with their rice and beans, it is better than the lawlessness of the civil war that turns children into murderous soldiers and cuts off the hands of the innocent.  These kids are lucky.

And so are we.  With all the hand-wringing and feeling sorry for ourselves going on this week as trillions of dollars are wiped off the imaginary value of financial markets across the world, we will all feel it in little ways, some in larger ways.  But the unfortunates of the world, these forgotten children, will feel it the most, as charities are the first places to be cut off from funds in the falling market.  We lose a little; those with no voice lose it all, what they never knew they could have.

So sing, little children, sing to Jesus in Swahili, whatever works to bring you up from the bottom, to help your benighted continent.