The Secret Meaning of Loving Feelings
June 3, 2012 by Mark Brady
Decades ago the Righteous Brothers pined forlornly about the sorry state of affairs that come calling when you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling, especially after you’ve had a love, a love you don’t find every day. What the Righteous Brothers never really offered listeners though, is a hypothesis about where that lovin’ feeling actually went … and how we might investigate ways to bring it back. Me and my brain are here at this late date to offer one possible explanation … and a plan of action.
Essentially, every time I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling it became buried under one or more of the Dirty Dozen Defense Mechanisms. Those mechanisms invariably fired up limbic structures in my brain, structures like the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. Once triggered, the parts that make up the HPA axis (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis) began secreting stress hormones into my blood stream. Those hormones produce the exact opposite feelings that oxytocin and endorphins produce, leaving me sad and forlorn and singing along with Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers … Bye-Bye Love.
Feeling love means I’m running soft, safe, undefended, expansive energy, as opposed to loss or fear, which most often show up as hard, constrictive, defensive, protective energy attempting to safeguard my body and brain. One of the reasons I can so often unconditionally love babies and pets is that they rarely trigger defensive reactions in me. On the other hand, one big life challenge is to be able to continue running, soft, safe, undefended expansive energy in the face of someone I’ve become disenchanted with, or around someone who has become disenchanted with me. But I can tell you from personal experience, that while it’s not necessarily easy, it’s not impossible.
Given this state of affairs, it’s useful for me to think of emotional reactions as early warning signals surfacing from down below the neck and also from the depths of the right brain primarily (in actuality, thoughts and feelings are probably widely distributed across many neurophysiological nodal points). Emotions are early warning signals because almost all of the (only) 40 conscious pieces of the 11 million data bits we take in at any moment are often apprehended by the Bully Interpreter brain. And the Interpreter is constantly distorting things conservatively, i.e. negatively and apprehensively.
Why I Write Listening Books
David Augsburger, a professor of pastoral care at Fuller Theological Seminary and the author of Caring Enough to Confront, has noticed that “being listened to is so close to being loved, that most people don’t know the difference.” It’s also a great way to combat my Bully Interpreter’s distortions. Turns out I’ve never lost that loving feeling in response to someone earnestly and undistractedly attempting to hear and deeply understand me. So, I think David’s right. One partial reason is that being listened to helps us discharge the increased levels of neurotoxic glucocorticoids that Big Emotion often generates in the wake of a grand HPA axis activation. We begin to feel less fear. Which means we generate fewer stress response neurotoxins. Which means our brains are freed up to process more energy and information as a result of make increasing connections (even with our heart, perhaps).
But also, deep listening, much like love, is radically seditious. It goes toe to toe with our culture of distraction
. It promotes the cultivation of radicalness and rebellion, fearlessness and defenselessness. Both listening and love live to go beyond themselves. Not only does our safety lie in fearless defenselessness, but therein also lies a pathway back to Rumi’s field out beyond rightdoing and wrongdoing. It’s in that field that we can each begin to breathe out and tell tender truths that permit Defense Mechanisms to dissolve. When we are able to do this successfully, we come back face to face with Rumi’s other great awareness: love is the default condition, the primary, subtle, driving creative energy of the universe. It’s the energy that grows flowers and trees and baby’s brains and children’s hearts.
Learning to listen skillfully is however, a VERY difficult practice. There’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t find Bully Interpreter trying to convince me and others about the rightness and righteousness of what it believes. And not only is it adamant in its beliefs, it’s often inflexible in its ability to consider alternative possibilities. Not a great way to invoke and sustain loving feelings, unfortunately.
The Benefits of Reclaiming Love
Using listening skills as a contemplative spiritual practice invariably seems to work to soften mental and physical structures inside me. Tensions I’m holding in body, mind and brain begin to ease, allowing the Bully Interpreter to relax. With such release I often find myself opening to the possibility of increasingly creative responses. As Neil Gaiman offers in this inspiring commencement address given recently to the graduating class at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, listening practice begins to foment not only a deep desire to “make good art,” but a conviction that I really can. And in my experience much of the good art in the world springs from … love. People who love who they are and what they do rarely lose that lovin’ feeling.
Ron Huxley’s Rant: I came across this very comprehensive article on the moral life of babies. I didn’t repost the entire article here because, well, it’s quite long and could get a bit boring. If you like that sort of thing I would encourage you to click the nytimes.com link above. Here’s the basic premise: Babies do come into the world with a bit of a moral compass. It is our job as parents to give it some refinement. This premise moved me to consider how are parenting philosophy and techniques are based on how we think about babies.
The researchers conducted several experiments demonstrating that children experience empathy and have sense of right and wrong from the earliest moments of their lives. Their solutions to moral problems (how two children will share one toy that both believed they had their eye on first) may be limited due to their cognitive limitations and lack of social guidance but their innate understanding that some injustice has occurred is right on. Astute parents have witnessed their children getting their feelings hurt by the most innocent of situations. I once looked at a baby wrong and she tightened her face up into a silent scream and then exploded into tears. This reaction doesn’t come without some moral frame of reference, however limited.
I am not sure why we like to believe children are “perfect idiots” or full of “blooming, buzzing (moral) confusion” as a couple of leading thinkers in the field have described them. My fear is that when we hold the idea that children are narcissistic sociopaths, we will respond to them in very adverse, punitive ways. I think this has definitely been the case historically. The parenting idea of “spare the rod and spoil the child” has lead too many parents to the point of physical and emotional abuse. In my career many parents that had their children removed really that they were doing the right thing by their child. So much of our beliefs about parenting is governed by social constructs. How would parenting styles differ if we thought of babies as already equipped with a moral center, full of goodness and mercy? I know this sounds a bit preachy, but really, how would we parent differently? Would it change how we prioritize our schedules during the day? Alter educational standards? Give a new approach to discipline?
Let’s have a conversation, with other parents, about how parenting methods might change if our first thought is that babies are smart, nice and loving creatures and not budding sociopaths in need of parental toughness. Share your thoughts here or post on Facebook and Twitter.