What in the world are we doing? The United States prison population has more than quadrupled since 1975, approaching 2,000,000 Americans in jail. We are the world's leader in per capita prison population, and we are imprisoning more and more of our young people, declaring them able to be tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison as adults at younger and younger ages. Furthermore, an estimated 8,000,000 United States schoolchildren are on psychiatric drugs today, an increase of many hundred-fold in the 1990s alone. In 1996, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among college students, the third-leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 24 years, and the fourth- leading cause of death among those aged 10 to 14 years. We are a nation whose young people are in despair, and our adult response is to drug or incarcerate them.
How can this be? One deep answer, found in both the ancient perennial wisdom teachings and modern ego psychology, is that we see the world according to our understanding. Our cosmology, or worldview, largely determines our attitude and response to life.
The cosmology of our mental health system is that of biological psychiatry. Biopsychiatry assumes that failures in social adjustment are due to biologically or genetically based "mental illness." Drugs are the preferred treatment. By far the most common "mental illness" of young people in this country is so-called Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity-Disorder (ADHD), for which millions of children in the United States are taking stimulant drugs. This is in spite of the incontrovertible truth that ADHD has never been validated by science as a legitimate disease entity. The November 1998 National Institute of Health Consensus Conference acknowledged this fact in their final statement: "...we do not have an independent, valid test for ADHD, and there are no data to indicate that ADHD is due to a brain malfunction."
The rhetoric by which we absolve our collective conscience and justify the wholesale drugging of our children is that we have discovered a biologically based illness affecting millions of them; therefore, we must give them the "medicine" they need in order to cope with life. One of the most dramatic effects of this belief system and resultant action, of living and acting from behind this illusionary veil, is that its believers are magically absolved from every level of responsibility for their own actions and for their children's lives. A child has a problem in the schools. It is explained as a defect in the child, requiring medication. No more need to think about what is really going on, what our children really need. No need to take a close, hard look at our lives, our schools, our communities. Voila! Like magic, all these troubling concerns are washed away.
Removing the veil reveals the harsh reality of institutionalized child abuse. We are drugging millions of our precious, dependent, exceedingly vulnerable children at a time of vitally important growth and development in their lives. Removing the veil also reveals a complex web of thorny, profoundly difficult issues in our personal and community lives. Consider just a cursory look at what is really going on with children in our schools.
Taking A Real Look At Our School Children
The truth is that schools have deteriorated for many reasons; one very significant contributing factor has been the ever-increasing role of psychiatry in the schools. The number of children on psychiatric drugs has literally exploded. For example, in 1970 there were an estimated 150,000 children on Ritalin--enough for our leaders to call for a Congressional investigation. Now the number is closer to 5,000,000 on this one psychiatric drug alone, and it seems that most of our leaders take it for granted. The decision to drug so many of our precious children is alarming, shameful and abusive, reaping a harvest of damage on many levels, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
Another reason schools have deteriorated is because they must deal with damaged children. It is not that children are inherently defective as the biopsychiatric model (a model in the same tradition as that which guided Nazi eugenics) declares, but that by the time children enter school, many, perhaps a majority, are seriously hurt as a result of the way they are cared for as preschoolers. Physically, children are hurt by poor diet. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that about 20% of our young people live in poverty, second in the world only to Mexico. But even our relatively better off families tend not feed their children well. In 1996, only 24% of 2-5 year-olds, and 6% of teenagers had a healthy diet. What goes into our children's mouths is the most obvious place where we adults can have influence; it is disgraceful that we have abdicated responsibility and abandoned our children to the packaged, processed, chemicalized, sugarized food substitutes that make up such a great percentage of the American diet. In addition, a goodly number of our children are sleep-deprived, expected to adjust their lives to the demands of adult convenience, rarely allowed to sleep until they naturally wake up.
The average American child spends literally hours in front of TV or video, and only massive denial can avoid the truth that this does grievous harm to children. Some, like Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in his book On Killing, call attention to the content of the media through which we continuously expose our children to violence. He persuasively argues that we are systematically conditioning our young people to be insensitive to violence, using the exact same technology that the military has learned to use in order to override men's natural aversion to killing. Other thoughtful, concerned writers (such as Joseph Chilton Pearce, Jane Healy, and Jerry Mander) decry the content of visual media, but share an even deeper concern with the effects of the technology itself on the developing central nervous system of our children, and on every level of their physical, emotional, mental and relational selves. Physical brain and central nervous system development are impaired by hours of passive TV and video viewing. Social and emotional development is impaired. The inability of children to handle the physical, emotional and cognitive demands of school--patience, stillness, concentration, cooperation, etc.-- is a direct effect of inadequate and deranging care. There is really no need to resort to made-up biopsychiatric diseases as an explanation. Giving children toxic psychiatric drugs only heaps enormously greater harm on children who are already damaged and in need of healing attention.
Acting According To Our Values
A child's pre-school years are crucially formative, and provide the experience of a child's initiation into the universe. By the time we are school age, we have already established a deeply formed view of life in this cosmos which informs every level of our experience as we go on with the next steps of our lives.
The great American cosmology is consumerism, the notion that humans are material beings who find meaning through what we buy and consume. Philosopher Brian Swimme asks us to imagine children in the past who gathered in caves and listened to the chant of elders, who lived outdoors and learned the natural rhythms of their bodies and the universe. Today, the cave has been replaced by the television and the chant with the advertisement as the way of a child's initiation into the universe.
By the time a child enters first grade, before significantly entering our religious ceremonies, that child will already have absorbed 30,0000 advertisements. Our teenagers spend more time absorbing television ads than their total stay in high school. Swimme assures us that we all inevitably get the message: "It's a simple cosmology, told with great effect and delivered a billion times each day not only to Americans but to nearly everyone in the planetary reach of the ad: humans exist to work at jobs, to earn money, to get stuff."
Advertisements are where our children receive their cosmology, their understanding of the meaning of life, in essence their religious faith. The ideal is not Jesus or Gandhi or Socrates or Confucius or Einstein or Rachel Carson or Mother Theresa or Eleanor Roosevelt or Emily Dickinson. It is simply to buy, to acquire, to possess stuff, the religion of consumerism.
Even the kids who really act out, those in the growing ranks of youth gangs in all classes of American life, however much we might like to treat them as an anomaly or as suffering from a genetic defect, are trying to succeed in whatever ways they perceive as open to them. As ex-gang member, poet, writer and leader of community efforts to save the lives of young gang members, Luis Rodriguez, emphasizes in his writings, these young people against whom we are waging war ultimately want what any child wants: respect, protection, belonging—just like children in the YMCA, Boy Scouts, or Little League. He states that: "These kids pick up and distort certain values of mainstream society: ‘survival of the fittest,' ‘kill or be killed.' Expressions like these are capitalism in a nutshell. Prisons are full of entrepreneurs who, in another environment, would have been thriving capitalists. They're the first ones to tell you, ‘I was just trying to make money.'"
The Profit Motive
Even soul-searching, like asking how in the world we can create, promote and allow our nation's young people to be in such a desperate condition, is suppressed by this cosmology. In the words of philosopher E.F. Schumacher: "Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be ‘uneconomic' you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow and prosper."
In the last three decades, the inflation-adjusted revenue of major pharmaceutical companies more than quadrupled to $81 billion. During the same time period, the federal anti-drug budget rose 3,700 percent, now exceeding $17 billion. In the words of drug policy writer, Joshua Wolf Shenk: "These numbers are just a window onto an obvious truth: We take more drugs and reward those who supply them. We punish more people for taking drugs and especially punish those who supply them."
The prison industry is an enormous private growth industry, and the primary growth involves imprisoning people for using the very same drugs our doctors recommend in another context, most definitely including the stimulant drugs we prescribe for our children.
To see these facts as an apparent contradiction requires challenging the assumptions of biopsychiatry, and a willingness to call a drug a drug. It requires confrontation with the advertising cosmology to which we are systematically initiated. After all, from the point of view of corporate capitalism, there is one overarching primary value, and that is profit. There is absolutely no contradiction in the two data sets from the point of view of this cosmology. Pharmaceutical companies make vast amounts of money, and children are a prime growth market. They contribute large sums of money to the legislators, and the government enforces their monopoly on drug sales by imprisoning drug entrepreneurs and non-prescription users. The cosmology justifies it all.
Consider another related contrast. One of the arguments for punishing non-violent drug offenders is that there is an undercurrent of violence in the drug culture. At the same time, we know that one of the well-demonstrated effects of certain psychiatric drugs is agitation, aggression, and an increased likelihood of violence toward self or others. We now have evidence that there is a remarkably consistent link between use of these drugs and incidents of dramatic violence in the schools, such as with Kip Kinkel in Oregon and Eric Harris in Colorado last year. This is highly relevant to the well-being of our children, but the only relevance to Eli Lilly and other drug manufacturers is a potential lawsuit and bad publicity for their product. Meanwhile, young people's exposure to media violence, apparently very good for corporate profits via entertainment sales and advertising effectiveness, continues to increase. Drugs, prisons, violence: in the words of nineteenth century writer George Eliot, "To get an idea of our fellow countryman's miseries we have only to look at their pleasures."
Do we hear our current presidential candidates expressing any kind of deep understanding that our faulty values are leading us to forsake our children? There is one. His name is Ralph Nader, and here is what he has to say:
They are makng sure they grow up corporate. The kids are overmmedicated, militarized, cosmetized, corporatized. They are raised by Kinder Care, fed by McDonalds, educated by Channel One. They are given hand-held entertainment units such as Gameboys and seduced by Disney movies and toys. And their coaches and teachers all operate against a backdrop of corporate logos and sponsorship. The ancients have long warned about the danger of giving excess power to the "merchant mind." They'll put ads on our eyeballs, if they could develop the technology.
Mr. Nader powerfully expresses the truth that corporate America views humans primarily as objects of potential consumption. Our care for children is driven by the core value of economic profit, which inevitably makes all of us, including our children, first and foremost consumers. That we are also potential workers and producers is a related fact which largely determines the nature of our educational system.
The Essence of Human Nature
Our cosmology largely determines the way we perceive and act in the world. Perhaps the most important piece of such a cosmology is what we believe about our true nature as human beings. Our assumptions about human nature determine how we relate to every aspect of our lives, most especially how we care for our children. Last year, I was on a panel with a university professor who commented on the recent tragedy of multiple killings at Columbine High School in Colorado. This academician had just written a book arguing the case that many human traits and abilities are genetically determined, and that parents really need to recognize the limits of their influence on children, and to let go of unnecessary guilt and overresponsibility. He said that the "default point" for human beings was simian wildness as in William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, and that our job is basically to provide an influence to civilize our children. He strongly felt that violence was biologically determined, and that incidents such as the killings in Colorado, though unpredictable, were to be expected, and could largely be accounted for by genetics. This man accepts the model of biopsychiatry, and supports the use of psychiatric drugs with children. His view of human nature is consistent with people like Frederick Goodwin, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, supporter and defender of the so-called Federal Violence Initiative, a joint government and private plan to screen inner city children, mostly children of color, for genetic predisposition to violence.
Like this professor, I believe that human beings come into the world with unique genetic and biological makeup, and that as parents we tend to overestimate our ability to control the course of our children's lives. Many of us err in thinking that our job is to control our children. Mostly, we do this out of fear or shame-- fear that they'll turn out badly; shame that they will somehow reflect badly on us. I part however, with his conclusion that violence is biologically determined. I believe it negates or minimizes the role of conscience, morality and ethics, as well as compassion, caring, and a necessary responsibility for the well-being of us all-- in short, those qualities which make us essentially human.
Our world's foremost spiritual leaders often have startlingly different views on human nature than that which justifies biopsychiatry and consumerism. I will use their teachings to further explore our understanding of human nature.
Biopsychiatry reduces human nature to biology and genetics, and assumes that violence is an inevitable result of our genetic nature. The Dalai Lama is the the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, a country which has been devastated by a cruelly repressive Chinese government. Contrast his conviction about our essential nature with that of biopsychiatry:
One of my fundamental beliefs is that all sentient beings have gentleness as their fundamental nature. If we look at the pattern of our existence from an early age until our death, we see the way in which we are so fundamentally nurtured by affection, each other's affection, and how we feel when we are exposed to each others' affection. In addition, when we ourselves have affectionate feelings we see how it naturally affects us from within. Not only that, but also being affectionate and being more wholesome in our behavior and thought seems to be much more suited to the physical structure of our body in terms of its effect on our health and physical well- being, and so on. It must also be noted that the contrary seems to be destructive to health.
His Holiness would not agree that our young people need drugs to contain a violent nature; as suggested by our government's initiative of the early 1990s to screen inner city children, mostly of color, for genetic predisposition to violence. The violence of our youth is not because of flawed genetics; it is because of our failure to meet their needs, including the need to be valued and honored for their true nature.
Another spiritual leader, Pope John Paul II, also knows firsthand of oppression. John Paul came of age during the Nazi occupation of Poland; he was active in the underground cultural resistance movement as an actor in the Rhapsodic Theater, and his seminary experience was also underground. His incredible world activity in support of human rights grew out of the terror and devastation of two totalitarian regimes, the fascist Nazis and the communist Red Army, in Poland. The Pope sees the worldwide human rights movement as compelling evidence for humanity's soul, an answer to the warped belief systems that made the twentieth century into a time of fear and slaughter. He holds that a primarily economic view of human nature leads to human oppression and cruelty, and that the answer to humans fear of humans lies in recovering the truth that human nature is not simply material, but primarily moral and spiritual. Whereas denial of our true nature inevitably leads to oppression, a conviction that we are inherently moral, spiritual beings leads to a free society which provides the necessary support to investigate and express the truths of our spiritual nature (the Pope calls it religious freedom).
John Paul argues that to avoid "using" others is the ethical basis of freedom because it allows for human interaction without reducing others to objects (e.g., producers or consumers, or sexual objects) that we can manipulate to meet our needs, desires or expectations. Evil is manifested in the exploitation of one human being by another. Corporations routinely put profit over people; that we continue to buy their products even when gross exploitation is revealed (e.g., Nike's use of third world sweatshops to create their products) clearly reveals the spiritually and morally bereft underpinnings of our materialistic cosmology. Our moral bankruptcy is also betrayed by our status as the country which puts the highest percentage of our fellow citizens in prison, and millions of our children on toxic psychiatric drugs which profit no one at a spiritual or moral level. The heart of Pope John Paul II's teaching is that loving is the opposite of using. Just as the Dalai Lama says that gentleness is our fundamental nature, so the Pope teaches that "man cannot live without love. He remains incomprehensible to himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it." We are not made or conditioned into moral beings; it is the suchness of our true nature.
Inherent Morality and the Human Drama of Good and Evil
In order not to dismiss such positive views of human nature as naive, we must account for the reality of evil and the many faces of human distress. Pope John Paul II teaches that we are moral actors, and sin is viewed as an integral part of the truth about man. While he well knows that social, cultural and psychological factors condition the freedom to make moral choices, he sees the essence of freedom in the ability to choose sin. This unavoidable moral agency is revealed not only in the teachings of Catholicism and other Christian religions; the Jewish tradition which birthed Christianity and forms its enduring foundation powerfully espouses the same idea, without reliance on Jesus Christ as savior. In the words of another great spiritual teacher from Poland, philosopher rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who escaped to America just prior to the Nazi holocaust:
Mankind does not have the choice of religion and neutrality. Irreligion is not opiate but poison. Our energies are too abundant for living indifferently. We are in need of an endless purpose to absorb our immense power, if our souls are not to run amok. We are either the ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil.
The teaching of Buddhism is that evil is the result of an unenlightened mind, lost in the impermanent pains and pleasures of worldly desire and attachment. The way out is to recover and rest in our deepest nature which, as the Dalai Lama describes above, is loving, gentle and compassionate. The Dalai Lama, Pope John Paul II, and Abraham Heschel are three inspiring, spirit-filled religious leaders who chose the sacred and manifested love, even in the face of horrendous, violent oppression and destruction of the culture and people in and with whom they lived and loved.
None of these three great men are in any way naive about the existence of evil, or the powerful seductions of our "lower" nature. Yet they are not even remotely close to embracing the teachings of the university professor who sees aggressive violence as the default option of human nature, or the psychiatric reductionism of human nature to biology and genetics, perverted into the Holocaust by the Nazis, and into the drugging of millions of our precious children by modern medicine. How could they possibly embrace the soulless materialism of corporate capitalism which holds profit for shareholders as its fundamental reason to exist, and which allows for the inundation of our children by a torrent of advertising to buy, buy, buy, and a deluge of violent images to desensitize their inherent gentleness, and a flood of stimulant drugs to enforce conformity and productivity as defined by representatives of this value system?
Our Dual Nature
We are born with a dual nature. Our essence is as the teachers and mystics of traditions including Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism, Mohammedism, Hinduism, mystical Christianity and Judaism and many others all describe: a place of divine love, unending flow and vitality, unlimited intelligence, and sheer radiant beingness. Many traditions include a practice called darshan, wherein a spiritual teacher graces people in his presence with a transmission of spiritual energy. All parents know the great gift of being in the presence of a contented baby, the beauty and power of what I call baby darshan. We are born connected to essence.
The other side of our duality is the instinctual nature, evolved to adapt and survive as animals in this physical world; the discontented baby hardly looks like a saint resting in radiant loving-- crying, screaming, face distorted, back arching, its well-being clearly dependent on the fulfillment of needs and desires. Living from spiritual essence with its attendant qualities of unlimited power, imagination and immediacy, the young child expects unlimited and immediate wish fulfillment and gratification. When this doesn't happen, the survival nature reacts in frustration (rage). The fall from grace is often not pleasant.
Our Tremendous Vulnerability To Conditioning
We are born, barring organic brain damage, as highly intelligent, zestful, curious, loving beings. We are also born, however, needing and expecting a tremendous amount of attention, care, nurturance and support by thoughtful, aware adults throughout our exceedingly long process of development. As children (and as adults carrying the unhealed hurts of childhood, and failing to achieve the mature development of spiritual heroes like Nelson Mandela or Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King), we are completely vulnerable to hurt and conditioning which can easily override our ability to act as moral agents in the manner that the Pope or Rabbi Heschel describe.
Violent events can be expected, not because of our inherently violent nature, but because of our failures to provide a healthy, nurturing community for our young people and for all of us. To reduce such actions to biological determinism has nothing to do with real science. It has everything to do with hopelessness and despair, feelings with which our young people suffer as they face the arduous task of coming of age in a distressed society. We have been given the profound task to nourish and guide the development of our children in a way that honors their true nature and allows the best possible opportunities for them to fully realize themselves.
Ego and Essence
We care for our children according to our understanding. One astounding teaching of the great religious teachers around the world is that most aspirants require tremendous purification in order to perceive the true nature of reality. In the simple words of William Blake, "As a man is, so he sees." Ancient wisdom reveals that we see, experience, and respond to the world according to how we imagine the world to be. The discoveries of modern ego psychology reveal that we imagine the world to be the way it was when we grew up. Our ego consists of various images and self-representations which we unconsciously project onto the world around us, and through which we perceive and interpret our experiences. For those of us who are badly hurt, it is a tremendous task even to regain the ability to relate to the world at the level of consensus reality. Even for those of us who are more fortunate, however, both our spiritual and psychological teachers remind us that we remain deluded as to the true nature of reality. We look outside for every form of validation and satisfaction even though Jesus says, "Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment;" even though the Buddha reminds us that "It is the nature of all things to dissolve again;" even though the psychologists warn us that when we react emotionally to an experience, it generally says much more about us, about our own psychological condition, than it does about the person or event to whom we are reacting.
These teachings of the ancient perennial wisdom, and of modern ego psychology, both lead to the inevitable conclusion that anyone who imagines that our sensory perception-- what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch with our senses-- is the sum total of existence is profoundly mistaken. Anyone who is not able or willing to inquire into and take responsibility for their inner reality is not only missing out on the kingdom of God, according to Jesus, or the enlightened mind of the Eastern teachers, but is also a likely candidate to project their psychological distress on others, to act neglectfully or abusively of our children, and to justify their behavior by blaming it on the children. This is the well-known process of every level of child abuse and neglect. When we are in distress from the effects of having been hurt, our true nature is interrupted, and we act in a way that is hurtful to ourselves and others, patterned according to the internalized representations of how we have been hurt.
This complex baby human, connected to its true nature as radiant splendor, yet living in a body with persistent survival needs, and intense emotional qualities adapted to demand and insure fulfillment of these needs, is faced with an enormous task. Ego psychology refers to the early life of a newborn child as symbiotic, meaning that the child does not experience itself as a separate entity, but lives in an undifferentiated fusion with its environment, the most significant aspect of which is the mother. The child does not experience itself as a doer, certainly not as this Òmoral agentÓ which we have been discussing. Rather, certain needs demand to be met and certain drives require satisfaction. Experiences just happen; they are mostly felt and recorded in the body. When these needs are well met, tension is released, and the child resides in a state of mostly blissful union with its mother. When needs are unmet, however, tension mounts, and the child experiences an excruciatingly painful frustration that some teachers consider to be the core of human suffering. Infant vulnerability is enormous; so easily able to be hurt.
If that is not enough to wake one up to the awesome responsibility of parenting, then consider that idea that "The infant is the mother's heart." This teaching reminds us that it is not only our actions which affect a baby's well-being, but even the internal state of those around the baby is deeply felt and internalized. Parental sadness, fear, and anger are all deeply felt by the baby; there is no difference at this stage between mine and your experience. At this level, the baby needs total care, best provided by adults who are resting in a place of loving, relaxed confidence. In other words, in order to care for our babies in a good way, we must be in touch with our essence, acting as a real person, rather than unconsciously perpetrating the recorded patterns of our own history.
The baby is physically separated from mother at birth, but psychological separation is a developmental task achieved only by trial and ordeal and a lot of help. Developing a separate self-sense from a state of being merged with mother is an awesome challenge. To successfully achieve what the ego psychologists call rapprochment, an ability to be in relationship while at the same time maintaining this hard-won separate identity is even more challenging, and by the looks of it, a rare gem even for our adult population. Babies and young children need a lot of help. And so, therefore, we parents also face an enormous task. Besides the often grueling adult responsibility to provide physical needs such as food, warmth and shelter, parents especially need to provide mirroring and modeling for our children.
Mirroring and Modeling
Children need mirroring, adults who reflect the world and our own actions back to us. In order to mirror for our children in a truly effective way, in a way that supports these vulnerable beings in their awesome challenge to become individuals who powerfully manifest their uniqueness and their true nature, it is necessary that we adults who do the mirroring know something of our own essence. Lacking an awareness of our essential nature, and its awesome qualities, we see only instinct and adaptation. We are unable to empathize and support the incredible challenge of developing an individual self that not only manages the slings and arrows of outrageously frustrating limitations of our physical and social world, but also maintains conscious contact, appreciation and enjoyment of essence.
As a parent knowing essence, the task becomes one of drawing out or helping children to express essential qualities at different levels of development. The alternative task is to instill virtues which are seen as void and nonexistent in a child. The difference between somehow implanting a sense of responsibility into a child seen as inherently irresponsible, for example, and figuring out how to uncover a child's inborn need and desire to be responsible, is a radical one. Anyone who has either been around two-year-olds and their intense pleasure at helping out with responsibilities, or who has done inner work around experiences of their own abuse in childhood and felt the intense guilt and shame that comes from children's tendencies to feel responsible for everything that happens to them, should see these tendencies as evidence that responsibility is one face of our inborn essential nature.
Children also need models, idealized images they can internalize to provide inspiration and structure in their job of ego development. It is a magnificent, frightening, and at times overwhelming fact that who we are as adults unavoidably becomes a significant part of the structure of our child's psyche. Can't be helped. No way around it. Ideas, information, and techniques are helpful, but the biggest part by far is who we are as individuals, the level of our awareness, the quality of our attention and loving. The truth comes back to the fact that the best way to help our children is to help ourselves. This means doing whatever we can to get free of whatever gets in the way of or throws us out of our own inherent, loving nature, and the essential quality of spacious, free attention.
With such attention, children retain their intelligence and zest, and learn to share with others in a spirit of warmth, affection and cooperation. Without this support, they often succumb to the effects of neglect, insult and injury, and sometimes act very badly. This acting badly is not a default option; it is the effect of having been systematically hurt with no recourse to ways of healing. One piece of good news, however, is that our inherent nature includes one inborn mechanism for healing which is to emotionally express the effects of hurt. Crying is the release of hurt and loss; storming anger is the release of insult and frustration; shaking, sweating and trembling releases the effects of fright, laughing of embarrassment or humiliation, etc.
Allowing and supporting our children's emotional discharge is vital for helping them maintain their naturally vast intelligence and desire for loving intimacy. Yet all of us who care for children know full well that children's emotional expression is intense; this is the place we are most likely to fall out of our own loving or clear thinking. A wide array of children's behaviors can be excellent triggers of our own unresolved feelings of hurt, fear, shame or anger. Disrespect, disobedience, defiance, aggression, whining, crying, lying, almost anything that somehow touches a place where we were hurt as children can be such a trigger. This phenomenon has lead me to the conclusion that effective parenting requires emotional healing; we are faced again and again with either taking responsibility for our own state of mind, or suppressing our children so that we wonÕt have to feel our distress. We either do the inner work, or we hurt our children by our attempts to shut them down or withdraw from them when they most need our help.
The places where we get restimulated and reactive can become portals into the fires of personal transformation, and our children the catalysts who provide both the stimulus to feel the fire, and the motivation to stay with it and endure the ordeal of countless ego deaths. If we are fortunate, these are deaths of those negative memories, feelings and habits which keep us out of our loving, and awakenings into greater space for acceptance, tolerance, compassion and clear thinking about ourselves and our children.
Can We Really Change?
The answer is yes, and it is difficult. Superficial change is easy like a change of clothes or style or brand of product. Real change is not so easy. We can be confident because our true nature is good, reflected in gentleness, loving, truthfulness and intelligence. Our bodies and souls thrive on these qualities; when they are covered up with distress from the effects of having been hurt or unrecognized, we can be sure that the pressure to remember and reclaim our birthright will be relentless. Part of our inherent nature is an internal force which constantly urges us toward wholeness. We have every reason to be self-confident in our ability to change. We really can trust and allow our natural process to unfold.
The second key is awareness. As the Dalai Lama is fond of saying, we are sentient beings. Our nature is awareness. We must pay attention and bring this awareness to bear by inquiring deeply into our experience. Our challenge is to resist the pull to reject that which we fear, judge or consider shameful, and to act out the cultural value of attempting to forcefully control our process. If we take a chance on trusting our true nature, we can be aware without clinging or rejection; we can allow our process to unfold without having to control or suppress it. The first law of spirit is acceptance. The paradox of change is that we can truly change something only when we fully accept it. Since movement is a constant on every level of this created universe, It takes tremendous energy to resist change.
The third key is effort. Our survival nature is intense. And the nature of patterns, our conditioned habitual experience and acting out of distress recordings is that they tend to persist and to make us forget. All of us are, to varying degrees, disconnected from our deeper nature. The wisdom literatures of every spiritual tradition are filled with testimonies to the tenacity of the ego. Real change requires effort; we must find and develop the will required to establish self-discipline and do the work of personal transformation. It is not easy.
Finally, there is patience; change takes time. While ours is a culture of speed (America loves stimulants) and the lures of immediate gratification, real change is gradual. It is called kaizen, or micro change, baby steps. Patience and gradualness, however nonromantic or unattractive these qualities may seem, are the necessary virtues of successful change.
The Fire of Youth: Destruction or Renewal
Storyteller and writer, Michael Meade, says that young people carry a fire that can either burn destructively, or that can bring warmth and renewal to the community. It is the profound task of elders to engage, honor and listen to the youth, to ensure that their gifts are recognized, and that they are shown a way to be of service to the community. When this does not happen, the fire is guaranteed to burn destructively. We must find the courage to refuse the tragic pattern where adults live in fear of youth and cross the street to avoid contact, or put them in prison to feel safe, or drug them to diminish their intensity. We must reach for our angry young people, not only because they need us, but also because we desperately need what they can give us to revitalize, renew, and literally bring salvation to a world heading for destruction. However we might fortify the defenses of our society by more police, prisons, or expensive security systems for our gated communities, it is virtually impossible in today's world to be immune from demand or opportunity, whatever you wish to call it, for response to the felt threats of hurt, angry, uncared for young people. Each one of us is called to begin with the choices and the individuals in our life today. It can get better.
Healing our Ancestors
"The bigger the front, the bigger the back."
This is a key principle of macrobiotic philosophy. Applied to our discussion, the front is the tragic state of the well-being of our young people, and the shameful ways that we respond to them by prison and psychiatric drugs. This essay has been about the back. This back did not just appear out of nowhere, however much we might avoid or fail to understand the causes, or prefer to think that things just come "out of the blue." Malidoma Some, African shaman and American university professor, warns us Westerners that one of our biggest problems lies in disregard of our ancestors, and urges us to respond to the need to "heal our ancestors." I have meditated deeply on this; the teaching of parenting as emotional healing is, to my mind, a clear expression of the need to heal our ancestors. I end this essay by paraphrasing a tribute I heard made by anthropologist, Angeles Arrien, to our ancestors because they have brought us to this point in history. Indigenous peoples of the world believe that the male ancestors stand behind us on our right—the great-grandfather, the grandfather, the father, the son, the uncle, the teacher, the friend, the mate. And that our female ancestors stand behind us on our left—the great-grandmother, the grandmother, the mother, the friend, the sister, the aunt, the teacher, the lover, the mate. And they believe that the ancestors stand behind us saying, "Oh maybe this one will be the one to bring forward our fears, angers, disappointments and betrayals. Maybe this one will be the one who brings all of this into the light so that our family may finally heal. Maybe this one will be the one who remembers our noble intentions, expresses the truth, and fulfills the loving which resides in the depth of all our hearts." May each one of us be the one who wholeheartedly fulfills the sacred contract to love, cherish, nurture and protect our children. May we recognize, honor and support the unique purposes and gifts they bring to our community. May the fires of their passionate spirits excite, warm and renew us all.