Sarah Peyton: The Riddle of Self-Esteem: Why Self-Compassion Can Be Hard
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Jan 20, 2018
Preeta: This week's theme is really about of the riddle of self-esteem and why self compassion can be hard. Sarah is a remarkable individual to share her story with us in that regard, and we have the great pleasure of having Aryae as our moderator today.
For those of you don't know, Aryae has had a long career in human development and the human capital sector. He's been involved in guiding a number of corporations in their human development strategies. Aryae thank you so much for joining us today.
Aryae: Thank you Preeta. I'd like to introduce Sarah. Sarah Peyton is a certified trainer in The Center for Non-Violent Communication. She has a passion for weaving together neuroscience knowledge on the one hand with experiences that unify people, and their brains and their bodies. She aims to integrate the teachings from brain science with the use of resonant language to help heal trauma, based on her belief that language is a starting point for a movement towards self warmth. Sarah offers healing experiences using precision and resonant language that have come alive to her through her long-term study of non-violent communication, together with explorations of families over generations. "Once we start learning about neuroscience," Sarah says, "We find out how emotional trauma creates self-blame and isolation and gets in the way of gentleness with the self. We humans are uniquely vulnerable to emotional harm, but we're also uniquely available to hold each other and ourselves with warmth and resonance in ways that reestablish real relationship and engage our brain's capacity for healing." Sarah teaches and lectures internationally. A few years ago three friends came along and said,"Sarah. We want a book and we want you to write it, and we're going to support you to do that." Sarah felt that, quote "The thought of spending time alone with my brain in a writing process was a little scary."
Her friends told her they'd spend time on the phone with her in conversation about what she was teaching, and they would take notes and together they would turn them into chapters and into a book and the result was her book "Your Resonant Self: Guided Meditations and Exercises to Engage Your Brain's Capacity for Healing" which was published just four months ago by Norton publishing.
Sarah hopes that we can use warm language to support and accompany ourselves and that our brain can grow and heal at any age increasing our resilience and enjoyment of life. In her work Sarah draws from her own personal experiences. She says, "I used to struggle with brutal depression, deadening heavy sadness that made it hard to muster the energy to take a shower or even brush my teeth back, then I was in a constant battle with savagely self-critical inner voice that told me I was worthless stupid and unlovable. I didn't realize that my depression made much sense given my childhood experiences of family that didn't support warm nurturing relationships. I'm here today to share what I've learned since then about how to heal past pains and move into a joyful relationship with ourselves. Regardless of your age, genetic predisposition, or adverse childhood experiences your brain is capable of building new neural fibers to help self-regulate your emotions and awaken your body as a place of safety and security."
Wow! So Sarah Peyton thank you so much for joining us this morning or this evening depending on where in the world you are listening from. Thank you.
Sarah: Thank you so much for having me.
Aryae: It's great to have you here. Okay so here's the first thing I'd like to start with: Your work has really involved the creative marriage of two kinds of things -- of neuroscience knowledge on the one hand and guided meditation exercise and other exercises that offer people the chance to heal and rewire their brains. This is not exactly a standard major in universities, so could you share with us a little about your journey and what brought you to this particular work?
Sarah: Yes. Thank you so much. I had the experience as you mentioned in your beautiful introduction of me -- you mentioned that I came from a place of a real struggle and the inside of my own brain was not a friendly place. Trying to turn toward myself with warmth was a little bit like being Edward Scissorhands -- so that was my starting point -- a kind of self-lacerating, a capacity for criticism, and just a real longing for the invulnerability that I thought perfection would bring-- undoable though that request was, to myself.
So I stumbled across non-violent communication when Marshall Rosenberg was still alive and still traveling and teaching and I had the extraordinary experience of bringing something very difficult, very entrenched, we had adopted a son, and I was having a really hard time hugging him. And it just seemed like I was going to be doomed to living with the shame and horror of my own limitations for the rest of my life, and letting down this beautiful soul who'd come to live in our family.
And as I sat in a circle of people who were practicing non-violent communication with me, which is a modality of language use where we're not giving anybody advice -- which is quite extraordinary in North America. The tendency to tell other people how to live their lives when they are in some sort of emotional pain is really overwhelmingly tempting here.
You know so for the first time in my life I was being received by people who were genuinely wondering what was happening for me? How did this make sense? This is the beautiful question I think that nonviolent communication asks and answers: How do our un-understood behaviors and words makes sense? What are the deep messages? Yeah, so people were touching me in that way and I experienced a complete transformation. I had an actual kind of visceral and physical memory of reaching out towards my mother and feeling her body recoil and it was in that moment my inability to hug my beautiful child fell away from me, and I was able after that to hug him.
So this was extraordinary and so sweet to me, and I am a person who loves to know why things work, so I plunged into the new world of relational cognitive and social neuroscience that was coming out of all of the universities that had purchased fmri machines and started to figure out how to try to use them to see what the human brain does in relationship. So I got to start to dig into neuroscience. I'm not a neuroscience degree person, I've become a neuroscience educator and speaker and writer because your average neuroscientist is deeply immersed in their own field of inquiry and their own way of seeing the brain, and there are many different ways to see the brain, all of which are so helpful. So I have become a synthesizer and a communicator of sorts in a way between our brains which are hard to access from the outside unless we begin to take a take and integrate this knowledge, and our hearts. So here we are you know, we have these certain mammalian tendencies inside of these hard skulls of ours and we have our very delicious and loving hearts, and how do we create the connection between the two?
Aryae: How do we create the connection between the brains and heart? You know you said something Sarah that's kind of intrigued me -- that one of the early things you learned from The Center for Non-Violent Communication is that this makes sense. Can you explain more about that?
Sarah: The way that nonviolent communication looks at at people acting in the world is that everything we do is in service of very deep and universal needs, that we have longings for connection and we want the well-being of the people we love. So for example the women on my father's side of the family are round and the women on my mother's side of the family are elegant and slender. So my mother received me as a daughter, and I was round, and it was very hard and distressing for her, and she would she spent years saying, "Oh, you're fat. You're fat." And this was difficult to receive as you can imagine and and so I spent a number of years when I was first becoming involved with non-violent communication, working with the amount of distress I experienced when I was with my mom, and I got to a point where one day I had been held by many people who loved me and and said, "Yes your response of horror and shame makes sense." They said this so often that when my mother said to me., "You're fat," I turned to her and I said,"Mom. I wonder if when you see my body if you get so worried about my long-term well-being in my health,?" And she said, "Yes."
Aryae: Wow wow yeah, you turned that whole thing around.
Sarah: Yes. And this is kind of where we go with the language between people and then of course I became so interested in how do we speak to ourselves and how do we begin to hear ourselves in this very way? Like when we're beating ourselves up what happens if we say to that voice, the internal voice of Sarah, "Are you so worried about her well-being? Do you really want her success? Do you truly believe that Perfection is the only way to be safe?"
It creates a very different internal brain environment that becomes progressively more and more warm and welcoming for ourselves.
Aryae: I think Sara you've just asked another question that I've been wanting to ask you and that question is how does being warmer and kinder to ourselves reflect out in our ability to be kinder out in the world? I think you just gave me a beautiful example of that.
Sarah: Certainly it's a very interesting dilemma that we as North Americans and probably Western Europeans live in. I have traveled somewhat in the global South and in the East but I'm most familiar with our Western ways of thinking, and we tend to really emphasize with our little children from their very earliest days that they should turn their attention their warmth outward. That they should take care of other people, that they should share their toys, that they should be thoughtful, that they should apologize, that they should you know I mean, it's a constant stream of encouraging people to look outward rather than inward in this very interesting way, where we're asking people to kind of come in their warmth and compassion for others, to come from an un-rooted place, to come from an intentionality that is not so deeply rooted in the body. You know we don't teach our children how to root compassion deeply in the body. And so when the compassion is deeply rooted in connection for self, and in our own physical experience of warmth for others it brings an authenticity and humility you know, to the experience of having compassion for others. So it makes it even richer and deeper than it ever was before.
Aryae: That's very interesting. As I'm listening to you I'm thinking of memories both from my childhood and from my parenthood when my kids were younger, the type of message that happened between parent and child was something like, "Don't be so selfish-- share your toys." And from your perspective what would a healthier message be to the child?
Sarah: It's a very interesting and deep movement for parents with their children. There's a movement into an understanding of the child. It's quite difficult sometimes to put into words, but for example in the very simple act of sharing a toy there would be an entire conversation that would be appreciating the child and the child's heart. I had the experience once with a little guy who killed a spider and started to cry, and I was trying to guess what was happening for this little person. Were they sad that they had killed the spider? They were, but it didn't make them stop stop crying. Were they mad at themselves for killing the spider? A little bit, but it didn't bring them to a place of relief. And I wondered and wondered and finally I said to this little person who was about eight years old I said, " In the moment when you killed that spider, I wonder if you were devastated by a sudden sense of fragility about life itself?" And he said, "Yes," and he stopped crying.
These are the lives of children- the inner lives of children are so much bigger then we ever imagined because we had to turn away from our little ones, the little ones that we were and we have forgotten that enormous hearts that we came into this life with.
Aryae: Yeah. So I'm just imagining going back to my question about the the alternative approach to, "Don't be so selfish --share your toys." As a parent I might be saying to the child something about, "It must be scary to think about letting go of this toy, and maybe it might disappear." I might say something like that.
Sarah: You know very interesting. That's a wonderful guess. Yeah, yeah, another guess too can be about the enormous amount of love that the child has for their toy, sometimes that can be true too and sometimes there can be other things as well. Children's brains you know shift and move and change as they grow and there are different developmental stages that have to do with whether other people exist and whether the toy will exist when it's gone like you said, you know and all kinds of interesting things that have to do with brains and objects.
Aryae: Shifting environments -- my understanding is that one of the things you you've done at The Center for Non-Violent Communication is you taught your process with a colleague at a women's prison. Is that true?
Sarah: Yes I've spent 10 years going into a woman's prison and in the beginning I just brought in non-violent communication once a week as a volunteer with another beloved colleague named Epsilon?? And we had the incredible honor of being able to work with these women and to bring in the neuroscience, they were so interested in the neuroscience! My book is actually dedicated in part to these women who really with their interest and passion invited me to move ever more deeply into the integration of non-violent communication and relational neuroscience there. They loved it. I often have the interesting experience of people who are studying with me, or in lectures with me coming up to me and saying, "How do you talk about this when the people that you're talking to are not educated?" And I say, "Actually people who are not educated are remarkably forgiving of geeks." And I didn't change the way I was teaching at all really. I just stayed with what I was doing. I made explanations of the big brain words, and we just dove right in. They were so fascinated and interested. Passion and curiosity overcome everything.
Aryae: How did you get invited in there in the first place?
Sarah: I barged in. It really spoke to me, and I found a volunteer program that was going in and and rode in on their coattails. And continued to be with them. I've actually shifted what I do because I travel so much now. I can't do weekly classes with them. So now I go in once every quarter with a group of eight or so volunteers, and we do this other modality that you mentioned in passing kind of in your introduction, which is family constellation work.I take family constellation work into the into the prison.
Aryae: Could you give us an example or two of what happened with someone in the woman's prison after being introduced to your material and how that affected them?
Sarah: Yes, absolutely there have been very powerful experiences. The prison that I work in also has a number of very sweet spiritually based programs and the women often combine their their work in non-violent communication with their spiritual practices and growth and so I don't want to take full credit for anything because there are others who also come in and contribute so much to the women in prison. But in conjunction with other offerings some very remarkable things happened. For example there have been people who heard voices who were clinically diagnosed as schizophrenic who have had a great reduction in the kind and number of voices that they hear. One person had heard some very cruel voices and over the years that they have been in connection with this material they shifted to hearing just one neutral voice.
So I believe that there's such profound movement. Many women have gone from believing that they are stupid to beginning to understand the effects of childhood trauma on the brain and the way in which it impacts our ability to learn and to function inside of classrooms. So huge amounts of self forgiveness. There was also a woman who had the experience -- she came in and she said, " I was talking to this officer," I think it was a parole officer, probation officer or something, and she said, " I was talking to this officer, and I got so mad at them. I wanted to tell launch myself across the table and smash them with my fist."
And she said, "And then I remembered you Sarah, and I remembered your hand." And one of the things I do is to do Daniel Siegel's brain in the palm of the hand -- where you use the hand as a model for the brain, and you show a fist closed or gently around the thumb being the brain that's regulated. And then you open your hand and you show the thumb tucked into the palm, but the fingers are straight out, and this is not regulated. We have flipped our lid here, so in the experience of flipping the lid, then you don't have any control. So typically what this woman had done is she had launched herself physically against people she was angry at and she said, "I thought of you Sarah, and I thought of your hand going up and down, and I couldn't remember whether my fist was supposed to be closed or open, but it didn't matter because I didn't launch myself across the table and I was able for the first time in my life to have a choice about how I was responding."
Sarah: Yeah, and she said, " I have been through 10 anger management process, and this is the first time I've seen a result." So that was quite an extraordinary story.
Aryae: That's beautiful. Yeah. I'm curious -- you travel a lot, you speak, you do workshops. Is there another particular environment that was especially interesting to you that you'd like to share a little bit about with us about?
Sarah: One of the things I love the most is traveling and speaking in small or large auditoriums and having people come up to me at the end of the conversation and say, "Ahh I make sense I never thought that I made sense and I see that I make sense."
Yeah, all of the things we learn about the brain are so supportive of well-being. You know the understanding that when we are born we're actually hard wired for alarm to take over our bodies. We come out, all wired up for alarm to run us.
Aryae: Is that a survival kind of thing?
Sarah: Absolutely. And the early experiences we have of being met with warmth and resonance start to grow and sort of softwire our brains for self-understanding and self-compassion and self-esteem. It's like when we make sense we have easy access to self esteem. So for example this is from the research of Beatrice Beebe who is a New York City researcher who is extraordinary. She has done four decades of research where she's looking at the facial expressions between mothers and four-month-old babies and she takes a video tape high-definition video tape of these interactions from each angle, and then puts them side by side and looks at the micro moment by micro moment interplay of facial expressions between the mom and the baby, and it turns out that if the mom is able to reflect the babies facial expression so if the baby's mad for a micro moment, the mom does a mad face, and she's like, "of course you're mad," and then she goes to you know solving and caring for and fixing whatever the situation is, or if the baby is really sad, then the mom does a little sad face before she goes to fixing and taking care of and resolving whatever the problem is, so there are these moments of facial expression at a micro fourteenth of a second this happens, where the mom is acknowledging and validating the babies emotional experience before words ever enter the picture. So these little ones then who receive this kind of responsiveness actually end up with more resilient systems for living life. When they hit moderate stress bumps their system doesn't have to go into fight or flight to be able to survive instead they kind of outsource their stress into this field that the mother has created where the baby makes sense.
So the baby gets mad, but they're like, "Oh, I make sense of course I make sense." And so they don't go into the stress system. It's very interesting about the human brain that what that what upsets the human brain more than anything else is is the worry that things don't make sense.
Aryae: The worry that things don't make sense. This is fascinating so what you're saying is our default mode is stress -- things don't make sense, and then sort of the mother and baby interaction can reprogram that.
Sarah: Yes, and the mother becomes a facilitator of the baby's emotional existence in this world.
Aryae: When we were talking earlier you said that the bulk of this kind of reprogramming happens in the first three or four months of the baby's life?
Sarah: Yes, yes it does. It happens entirely pre-verbally, but here's the cool thing so you know I mean then, it means that the first four months are hugely important of course and the capacity of the mom to be emotionally responsive is hugely important. These babies have very good health outcomes and a deep sense of meaning in life. I mean they are the little babies who got the frosting on their cupcake. For those whose moms were more compromised, more traumatized, coming out of childhood abuse, more dissociated, unable to respond as easily, we actually get to continue this process at whatever age we are. We remain forever neoplastic. We remain forever changeable, and healable by experiences of being understood.
Aryae: That is a very hopeful message.
Sarah: It's so fabulous.
Aryae: I'm wondering if there are any studies comparably rigorous about how a person's brain responses later in life can change as a result of these kinds of interactions.
Sarah: Yes, there's a gentleman who writes a lot about the neural plastic older brain. His name is Lou Cozzolino. He's part of the Norton series. He's been the main editor of the Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology and was actually the person who approved the publication of my book as well. And his books are very helpful for beginning to really get a sense of the way in which the older brain is a neuroplastic and responsive place.
Aryae: Well, this is getting us into some of the things you talk about in your book, and I just want to ask you about some of the concepts you discuss in your book. And very basic questions as being someone who's not too familiar with this neurobiology-- you speak a lot about emotional warmth and what exactly do you mean? What is emotional warmth?
Sarah: Yeah emotional warmth is when we get to experience a bodily sense of being held in a way, that's just right for us. Not necessarily physically held, but emotionally responded to or even sometimes there's a way that we can be intellectually responded to that gives us a sense of being appreciated and held with affection. The experience of emotional warmth sometimes it can be a little iffy if humans have been dangerous then our nervous systems will be on alarm around humans, and it might be difficult to have experiences where we really have a sense of being held with warmth. If that is so then one of the things we can do is to notice, first of all to notice how we might feel about like maybe a kitten or a puppy or the colt of a horse or a baby might be non-threatening enough that we would feel warmth for the baby. So the question the first question is, are there any entities human or non-human that we have a sense of affection for.
And then to notice what happens in our body when we're in the presence of the little one whatever the little one is, or even sometimes people become really connected to trees or to landscape or to plants in general or to birds, and so people will often find other ways to be in a love relationship with the world even if humans are not trustworthy.
And so we find if we think about what we love the most, do we love a landscape the most, a tree, do we love a baby do we love a kitten? Just to notice what happens in our body. You know often, it's a sense in the heart area of a softening of a kind of a glow. So that's that's one starting point for investigating emotional warmth because if we can feel it for others, then it's a matter of habit that we don't that we don't know how to turn it inwards. It's like we have to learn to turn that flashlight beam of whatever kind of love that we're experiencing. We kind of have to learn to turn it around and aim it at ourselves, and what's so interesting about that is that over and over again when I work with people they will say, " I can't love myself. I hate myself." And I'm like, "Oh, did you always hate yourself?" They go, "Yes," and I go, "Okay. Did you hate yourself when you were three?" And they go, "Yes." And I say," Okay. Did you hate yourself when you're a baby, when you were an infant?" They go, "No." And I say, "Okay. What happened between when you were a baby and when you were three years old?" And often there is something that happened, another sibling was born, or mother died, or a grandmother was in a terrible car accident. All kinds of things will happen that interrupt the flow of love. We'll have trauma. Trauma when it happens creates fault lines in the human brain that prevent the flow of love.
And so often times you know we'll get this answer. "Oh, you know a sibling was born," or, "Oh I went to school and had a scary teacher" or, "Oh my grandmother died." You know whatever it is. Then we bring warmth and precise understanding of the emotional experience that our little one had then the sense of not being able to like the self disappears. If we don't like ourselves it is the result of one of these fault lines of trauma that prevents the connection of the circuits of warmth with the self.
Aryae: So you're saying that the external relationship, then becomes internalized.
Sarah: Yes external relationship becomes internalized, or we are unbearable to ourselves. Our pain is too great. And we aren't able to hold it in so a fault line appears between self and self.
Aryae: Also, I noticed that the way you define this is that emotional warmth is when we're responded to in the way that's just right, so I would imagine that there could be instances where someone might think they're being very warm to someone else, but they're doing it in a way that isn't just right and and might have the wrong effect.
Sarah: That's why I always combine warmth and precision. People think that's a very strange combination.
Aryae: I had the experience one time I was walking with someone who had just been feeling very hurt and was crying, and there was someone in the street who looked at us and said, "Have a wonderful evening you two!" With a big smile. When the effect was just the opposite-- it made everything even worse.
Aryae: Yeah, okay, I want to I want to move on to another concept in your book. What is resonance, and what is resonance skill?
Sarah: So first of all let's start with the concept of attunement. Attunement is where we kind of let our own being focus on another person with warm curiosity, and a wondering about how it is for them to be themselves. And so in that experience it's like we can attune to anyone even if they're not attuning back to us, so we can wonder with warmth about anybody on the planet and it doesn't matter whether or not they have a sense that we understand them. It's the attitude and the intention of bringing ourselves into a wondering about another.
Then once we begin to enter a relational space we kind of can check that out, and the other person says, "Yes, that's that is how I feel that is how it is for me," then we start to enter the resonant space. So I often use the metaphor of cellos because I at the age of 50 started to play the cello, which had been a lifelong dream.
I am still not very good at it partly because I travel so much and you cannot travel with a cello unless you are Yo-Yo Ma. But I still love it -- so anyway if you have a cello that you are playing and you have a cello that's not being played right next to it. And you put your ear to the cello, that's not being played you will hear that it is vibrating and toning softly with the music that's being played on the cello. And so what we do as humans without even knowing it we are resonant beings. We do resonate with one another. And as we open that channel, "Is this what it's like for you?" And the other person says, "Yes" or,"No, that's not what it's like me, this is what it's like for me," and we go, "Oh, that's what it's like for you!" Then this interplay begins to happen where we're in a dyad that is resonant where someone is being understood. Of course the sweetest thing is when we get to kind of both be understood, but oftentimes as we're doing this healing work we need to have the focus be on us, so that we get into a place where we're with somebody who's understanding us, and we're just letting ourselves be resonated with. It's very powerful and supportive.
Aryae: And so emotional warmth is sort of like -- I can shine emotional warmth on anyone regardless of how they respond and then it progresses to resonance when there's some sort of response. Where we're going back and forth and relating to each other.
Sarah: Yeah, exactly.
Aryae: Another thing you talked about in your book is how important language is, and the role of language. Can you say a little bit about this why is language so important, and how is it important?
Sarah: I often think that we as humans have a lot in common with neurons inside of the brain. So for example when neurons are communicating they are not actually touching each other. They're sending packets of neurotransmitters and nerve chemicals and neuro hormones from one neuron to the other and the kind of information that is packaged in those little packets is very important for what happens next. So the neurons don't know each other. They have to receive communication from one another. It's also true for humans. You are encased in a particular body, and I'm encased in a particular body and what allows us especially now when we don't get to be person to person, but we're on the phone with each other, is that I'm sending packets from my being to your being so it's very important what's in the packet that I'm sending from my being to your being. And it's very important that I'm taking in what you're asking and responding in some way to what you're asking so that our communication is contingent. So that there's both acknowledgment of what you're asking or what you're saying, and then there's whatever I'm adding or bringing in response to your question. So it's sort of a beautiful question to ask when we're on the phone with these packets of connection and information flowing between us, what is the importance of words?
Aryae: So the role of language is from my understanding what you're saying is to sort of tune the back and forth of what's going on and how are we syncing up with each other.
Sarah: Yes, yes yes.
Aryae: One thing that occurred to me as I was thinking about this conversation Sarah that there are so many issues, big social issues today, and at this time we're living in. It seems like what you teach and what you do is relevant, and I just want to fill out one of them and hear any reflections you might have around the whole issue of the MeToo moment now in the sexual harassment and all the stories that are coming out about that. From your point of view and what you teach how do you see the role of what you've learned from neuroscience, playing out in this kind of issue?
Sarah: This is such a wonderful question for me because I've been thinking deeply about this since it began. I think what we're really in the presence of is a long habit of not seeing other people as existing. The left hemisphere of the brain left to its own devices, it has a different cortical structure than the right hemisphere of the brain much more much shorter neural connections, the neurons in the left hemisphere are much more arranged in rows and columns, the right hemisphere actually has more neural matter in it because it has longer longer arms that are able to encompass the big picture and to understand that other people are souls, that other people are infinite beings, to be able to begin to imagine that every person we meet has 86 billion neurons. I mean we're infinite for all intents and purposes. There are trillions of neural connections that our brains are making. We are not some easily categorizable and objectifiable function. We are people. And a part of what we've been living with in some way, is throughout really all over the globe in so many societies, is a long objectification of each gender by each other. But in particular because women have had less power the objectification of women by men has had very frightening consequences, life destroying consequences. And I often think about the men who have done this to the women. For those men those women are not human Souls. You know those women are some kind of function that fulfills their desire for sexual expression or something. There's not a sense of the other person really existing.
And it feels to me like what we're moving toward throughout all of these very important movements right now the whole LGBTQ movement the Me Too movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, there are so many different ways in which we're we're standing up and saying everybody is a human who deserves respect and care and warm curiosity.
Aryae: I'm wondering about say emotional warmth. If there's an incident of sexual harassment that maybe there might be some sort of trauma or some sort of lacking in emotional warmth that either the man or the woman or both may have experienced in their lives.
Sarah: Well I certainly think that that's a part of this because as soon as we move but not just into warmth and precision other people exist for us and without those things other people don't exist for us. If we think about you know the world movements of genocide. The genocide inflicters have dehumanized the people that they are killing. They have to dehumanize them in order to make it possible to move into these you know very dark places that humans are capable of. So it's an interesting thing because there's warmth and precision, but we also need to take into account the human proclivity to create in groups and out groups.
So humans have a reward-- there's a neuro-chemical reward for creating a group that we belong to and having other people be on the outside. We get rewarded by very powerful and feel-good brain chemicals when we do that. So one of the things that we need to wonder about when we're looking at the me-too movement is to what extent the people who are creating the sexual harassment, or sexual assault that happens, to what extent have they created an in-group out-group, where the other gender isn't even part of the in-group. So there are many questions here.
Aryae: Very interesting stuff, and I can see how your work could have relevance for you know for all of those issues that you've mentioned. I want to ask you another question - do you have a personal spiritual practice or personal self-awareness practice that you do today to keep yourself tuned and able to function with people in this way?
Sarah: I have this sense that non-violent communication is as Kit Miler the director of the Gandhi Institute says," non-violent communication is a spiritual practice masquerading as communication skills,"So there's a deep spiritual practice in being attentive to our language.
And the work with relational neuroscience and the integration of that with language has taken me deeper and deeper into a self-love practice that centers around mindfulness meditation.
Caller: Hi my name is Gayathri. I'm calling from India, and thank you this is just an amazing, amazing call. I have a bunch of questions. I should also say that I'm doing Thom Bond's Compassion Course for the first time, so this is so resonant in some ways because I'm trying to learn how to practice NVC. One question I have-- given that you say that we are compassionate beings, how does one really prevent being drawn into negative resonance when someone is angry or aggressive? And how do you not let that pain trigger your own pain or fear, and you remain centered, but you also don't close down? I struggle with this so much. I'd love to hear you have to say.
Sarah: Yeah, so there are a couple of things, one is the more that we are supported in the experience of being sucked into others, the more we begin to exist as our own being, as you'll remember from my story about my mother that that it took several years, I mean that was a big issue that took several years of support before spontaneously something very different came out of me in responding to her distress. I stopped resonating with her distress and began to sort of have a solidity within myself. So some of what happens is a long-term commitment to supporting and understanding ourselves when we are swept away by other people's experience. And over time we will find that we begin to exist more and more for ourselves. And are able to hold on to who we really are when other people are experiencing distress or anger overwhelming grief. We get to be with them. We get to resonate with them, but we do not lose ourselves So some of it happens over the long term. Some of it can happen very quickly if we discover the deep needs that we have to join others. This is a nervous system to nervous system unconscious agreement that happens. Where we have made this agreement usually with parents when we were very small often before there were words, where we agreed to accompany our mother, so that she would not be alone. So once we understand that we are meeting a deep need of accompaniment, then we begin to have more choice.
Caller: Yeah, yeah that is helpful. It's so funny for me because you know it's related to this conversation I was having with my mother. So when I joined the Compassion Course I also emailed my family and my mother also joined. But she kind of struggles sometimes with the words, and wondering whether it's viable. And we were having this conversation in the morning when she said, "You know you can't really love yourself can only receive it from someone else or give it to someone else." and you know I'm still trying but I just don't know how to respond to that really.
Sarah: I don't know if your mother would enjoy hearing about the brain, but you can tell her, "Mom, you are in every cell of my prefrontal cortex." This is a quote from my favorite epigeneticist in Canada named Moshe Szyf - he says, "Our mothers are in every cell of our prefrontal cortex, so we are carrying their love for us within us and and it teaches us to love ourselves." Yeah, and if our mama wasn't loved herself, you know sometimes we can be working with centuries of oppression where no one got to love themselves because everybody was you know just trying to survive in oppressive systems. But we can acknowledge that if no one was ever was able to love themselves, then they probably weren't able to give us that brain pattern. And mothers and daughters have the most replicated brain patterns of anyone. Mothers and sons don't have quite as replicated a brain pattern. Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, fathers and sons don't replicate the brain pattern as fully. But mothers and daughters we inherit our mothers brains, and we have to heal and change them in the movements that we make.
Preeta: Thank you so much. We have a question from Mish who wrote in she says fascinating and thank you so much, and I think it relates to a point you were making Sarah earlier on about the need to deeply root our compassion for others in the compassion we feel within our own bodies. She says, "I believe strongly in the power of kindness. Kindness given, kindness received, that enables self esteem, self compassion. What are your thoughts on this?" And it kind of goes to a broader question that we in the ServiceSpace community often cope with which is -- how do you both put energy out and how does that lead to your own self transformation, so you know it's this idea when you change yourself, you change the world and to what extent does your effort in the world also change yourself? A kind of Mobius strip of inner and outer actions.
Sarah: What I want to say here is that it's absolutely true. We carry any sweetness that has touched us. We carry it within us, and it informs us and helps these brain fibers grow. When we receive kindness then it's so organizing if we can let ourselves feel it. So one of the issues here is for people who have not had any trustworthy interactions with humans they may not be able to let themselves feel the kindness of others. So that's a nervous system contract within the self, which stops this connection. So it's really important to know that if we can't feel others kindness it doesn't mean that we don't make sense. We still make sense and we still get to find those deep needs and and hold them with care and gradually allow ourselves to have the intention of letting ourselves be loved by human. That we get to be loved you know that the people that love us get to be grouchy and unreasonable sometimes and that we can still feel the love from them. It's quite a quite an interesting intention and practice, and then the experience of kindness for others is so important. There's nothing that brings the world into a better place than the humility that comes from letting ourselves be a source for others, not from a place of elevation but from a place ally-ship and shoulder-to-shoulder, we are both humans. It creates inclusion and counteracts the natural tendency toward in group out group like nothing else. So it's such a beautiful combination that inward and outward kindness.
Caller: Thank you so much for this conversation, and it's quite interesting. And I can see as you're talking about how much our presence and kindness can be meaningful to someone else, and I also just want to say I completely relate to being a woman with a round body and a mother who has a very tall elegant body. It brought me back to my childhood when you were talking about that. But would you describe a little bit more about the precision in the warmth and precision continuum.
Sarah: Thank you for this question. The way that our brains and bodies are with emotion is that we have experiences with our torso in the world in ways that we don't even realize. The fibers that run between torso and brain -- eighty to ninety percent of them run from the torso up to the brain. So we are much more informed by our bodies in the world than we are informed by our brains deciding how we're going to be in the world. So part of what's happening that that makes the precision important is that we need to have an understanding of our own emotional experience, which is which is accurate, which is clear and correct enough that our bodies say yes. My message has been received/ And this is precisely what is happening in those four months that Beatrice Beebe looks at. Where the mother's facial expression catches both what kind of emotion is being expressed and the degree of emotion, the amount of intensity that is there for the little one. If the little one is a little bit angry and the mother makes a very angry face it's hugely dis-organizing for a baby. If the baby is very, very sad and the mother makes a tiny sad face that doesn't come close to the amount of intensity that the baby is experiencing, then the baby's nervous system has a shame response, an automatic shame response. There's a spike in cortisol. There's a decrease in endogenous opioids, there's a decrease in oxytocin so we are needing-- our bodies and brains, and beings -- are needing to be understood.
So for example if I'm sad and someone thinks I'm angry that's a misunderstanding. There may be just as much warmth for them in their offering of their understanding of me, but if they do not have a precise comprehension then I don't have a sense of being resonated with. Is this starting to make a little more sense?
Caller: Yes, I'm starting to get there where we really have to be precise in terms of our understanding and reflecting back to the other person their own experience. Am I correct?
Sarah: Yes exactly and we need to receive that ourselves.
Preeta: You know you talk so beautifully about how non-violent communication and your early experiences with that were really transformational for you and led to this long period of time where you were able to transform your relationship or the way in which your mother spoke with you, and I'm wondering where did your interest in neuroscience come from?
Sarah: I like to know why things work. I was like what happened? You know I had this transformation. I was able to connect with my son. It was a miracle and I'm not a person who goes, "Oh, it was a miracle!" And then you know goes off and has lunch. I'm a person who goes,"What the heck happened?" Just coincidentally at that moment in time Matthew Lieberman one of my favorite neuroscientists who works at UCLA had just published a piece of research that he and his team had done which was looking at the way in which the amygdala gets alarmed when it sees a facial expression and then once it names that facial expression it calms. So inside and outside when we are able to clearly and correctly name what we're seeing and there's a congruence for us between words and experience then there's a calming. And when I discovered that I became so excited. I thought oh there is a way to think about what that happened! There was something in this experience which allowed naming to be done, which had never happened before.
Preeta: I'm curious you mentioned that non-violent communication is a form of spiritual practice. I think you said it was masquerading as a communication practice. In your own practice you obviously bring this Neuroscience interest and knowledge and yet you are bridging the head with a heart. How do balance when you're actually in the middle of the practice or the middle of a situation how do you balance the cerebral understanding, kind of your head based understanding of what's happening from the actual heart based practice of non-violent communication.
Sarah: Well one of the questions that I always like to ask myself is whether or not I know what's going on in my body. Because if I am in my left hemisphere. I make a distinction between resonant language and instrumental language. So instrumental language is the language we use to get things done. What is our to-do list, who do we need to respond to, what's the timing of everything that we need to do, how do we triage, what's the prioritization? What do we want to tell people to do? What do we want to tell people not to do? How do we want to fix people? All this stuff is not is not body based. It doesn't have the contribution of the body. And when I'm in that instrumental kind of brain focus. There's no access to my body. So that's kind of the brain without the body. And for example when I get really scared or worried I lose a sense of my whole body existing.And and so if I say to myself, "Am I reading my body? Is my body online? Is it contributing in this moment? If I can get it back online.Then all of a sudden brain and heart are connected.
Preeta: Yeah, that's fabulous.
Aryae: Another question I had about your book Sarah -- it had kind of an intriguing title in there you talk about claiming anger's creative gifts. What are these creative gifts?
Sarah: Yeah anger is such a beautiful and maligned emotion mostly because we need to get the body involved in order to make it clean. By itself it can revert to blame. The left hemisphere by itself is not really very able to integrate new information. It integrates new information by figuring out who to blame, so there is a mourning component in every experience of anger. With anger there is some way that something has not happened that we wish had happened. Yeah, and if we sidestep the mourning which is a body based experience then we slip away from true relationality, but when we allow there to be mourning present you know I mean the difference is so startling. You know, "Why were you late? You don't care about me at all." You know there's anger blame. You know as opposed to, "I was so distressed and upset when you were late because I'm so scared that I don't matter to you." Is a very different communication. And I am mourning that in this moment somehow I was lost you know, you didn't let me know what was going on. I didn't exist for you, and I am mourning that.
Aryae: So the creative gift in that example is the self-awareness, is the opportunity to connect with the other?
Sarah: The opportunity to connect with the other yes, and also the gift here is so so interesting. Anger lets us know that we exist. And so many of us don't actually have a sense that we exist and we matter. So when we realize, "oh, I am angry because I had a sense that I didn't exist for my friend." Then it tells us,"I exist my needs matter."
Aryae: I notice just personally that I am angry a lot these days at the actions coming out of Washington. I feel angry so what do I do with that anger? I can you know I can get involved in a protest movement, or there's various things I can do -- what's the gift of that kind of anger?
Sarah: The gift is that the way that your values in the world matter. They are important. I mean there are so many things to choose from with this Administration. Your value on human lives no matter where they come from is key, is essential to you. That your care for the lands of North America is essential to you, your anger is telling you how important these things are.
Aryae: Got it. I have one more question-- I can imagine Sarah the power of teaching these practices that you're speaking to us about to young children in schools. I could imagine lots of kids might have doors open for them into different kinds of lives. Are you involved with anyone or aware of anyone who's interested in developing that?
Sarah: There are people who have developed curriculum about the brain for school children. Daniel Siegel's been very involved with the Blue School in New York City creating brain curriculum for children, and then there are people in the non-violent communication Community who do non-violent communication for educators Sura Hart is one of the people who's at the forefront of that effort. I haven't seen both of them come together yet, but I have great hopes
Preeta: Sarah I so resonated with what you were talking about with instrumental language versus resonance language. And I was reflecting to myself that sometimes when I get really caught up in so-called work and doing things that you know, I'll let exercise go that day, and other things and the quality of the output is different when I'm not grounded in my body. So I really appreciated that. So we often like to ask our guest one final question, which is how can we as the broader ServiceSpace community - we are an ecosystem of people in many continents around the globe -- how could we support your work and your beautiful concepts?
Sarah: Oh well for anyone who's interested in the work there are free downloads of all of the meditations from the book on the website. Your Resonant Self dot com. And so that's one way -- to begin to to do these practices of self warmth that are really radical in that they change everything. They change social systems, self warmth changes immune systems. Self warmth changes everything. And so to move to towards self warmth in any small way with meditation practices. There's a breath meditation that's the very first one and a good starting place for anyone who wants to become connected with this material.
Preeta: That's beautiful, and I hate to put you on the spot, but we normally closed with a moment of silence only ground ourselves, and I'm wondering if you might lead us in a short self warmth exercise.
Sarah: Oh, thank you so wonderful. Just notice first of all that you are breathing being. And notice that you can tell that you're a breathing being. You can notice your breath the way it feels. It might be in your upper sinuses, it might be in your chest, it might be the way your your tummy moves. Wherever you find this sensation of breath invite your attention to rest there. And if you are an experienced mindfulness meditator, then I invite you to bring a kind of glowing layer of warmth for yourself, to cover your whole body, and kind of hold that glowing layer of care for you around yourself, and as a part of your capacity to hold attention. And for those of you who do not do mindfulness meditation your attention may have wandered away from your breath. Acknowledge your attention for whatever it's trying to bring you to, because it might be bringing you to a place in the body that hurts. Say, "Thank you attention. I wonder if you would be willing for our long-term well-being to come back to the breath for just a moment."
Wherever your attention goes it's trying to take care of you. So thank it, and gently and with warmth see if it is willing to come back to your breath.
And now as we come to an ending we will just turn it back over to Preeta.
Preeta: Thank you for your incredible articulation and combination of the head with the heart. Your pursuit of that integration so critical for the healing of our world. Thank you for the work you do, and thank you for sharing your morning with us very much.
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