Loving Well is Living Well

Though love is lawful, it can't be taught through techniques. If it could, it would have died out a long time ago due to human folly. Love and our bodies seem to have their own language apart from our rational minds. Love doesn't accomplish anything. It doesn't do anything that needs getting done. It can't be taken. It can only be given. One of the greatest intellects of all time, Albert Einstein said, "We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead; it can only serve."

Living a Zen-inspired life of openness, empathy and clarity grounded in a strong mindfulness meditation practice can help us learn to trust the heart and the body in a way that enriches our interpersonal relationships. Mindfulness is a way of learning how to keep company with ourselves. This kind of self-attunement, is not a luxury, but a necessity for our well-being and our happiness.

In 1879, the French surgeon and neuroanatomist, Paul Broca published a paper proposing that the brains of all mammals held a structure in common called the "great limbic lobe." Today we understand much more about the nature of this limbic brain. Neuroscience refers to attunement with others as "limbic resonance". We could define this as "a symphony of mutual exchange and internal adaption whereby two mammals become attuned to each other's inner states."

Reptiles do not have a limbic area in their brain. So their attitude towards their off spring is characterized, not by warmth and affection, as among mammals, but by detachment and disinterest. Immature Komodo dragons keep a very low profile because adult Komodos are fond of eating them. Contrast this to mammals which commonly form close-knit, mutually nurturing social groups and often spend time touching and caring for each other.

This kind of attunement with others is at the heart of our well-being and health. When there is a secure attachment between child and parents or care givers, the child is learning how to regulate his or her energies and emotions in ways that promote a sense of safety, stability and clarity. Limbic resonance is the door to communal and social connection.

American society values individuality and freedom more than most other societies, yet we seem to have so little respect and understanding for the developmental process that is needed to actually produce people who are autonomous and free. Some of the roots for this may lie in western psychoanalytical theories that distrusted emotions and advocated child-rearing techniques that avoided handling babies for fear of spoiling them and creating further attachments. The rallying cry of Behaviorism was "never hug and kiss them." In the 1940's Rene Spitz wrote about orphaned children who had received this sort of treatment and found that they were withdrawn and sickly. Many had lost weight and some died.

And yet, the prevailing medical paradigm in the west seems to have no capacity for incorporating this concept that relationship is a physiological process as real as any pill or surgical procedure. The corporate takeover of the doctor-patient relationship has turned patients into customers. Our health system is dysfunctional because doctors don't have time to listen. In 1994, Lancet, Europe's most respected medical journal actually advocated teaching acting techniques to medical students.

A dying patient had the following to say about her doctor, "I wouldn't demand a lot of my doctor's time. I just wish he would brood on my situation for perhaps five minutes, that he would give me his whole mind just once, be bonded with me for a brief space, survey my soul as well as my flesh to get at my illness. . . I'd like my doctor to scan me, to grope for my spirit as well as my prostate. Without such recognition, I am nothing but my illness."

As a culture, we seem to choose ambition and success before empathic, loving relationships. When we discount the importance of love, we pay a high price. Anxiety and depression are the first consequences of limbic omissions and they each cost our society more than $50 billion each year. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among young people.

Independence emerges, not by discouraging dependence but by honoring and satisfying it. Stability is learned when we are young, and we learn it by being around adults who honor our needs and who help us regulate and stay present to our own emotional upsets. A parent who is a poor resonator, cannot impart clarity.

When you lack a stable center that comes from attunement with self and others, it's difficult to trust others or feel safe. Something is absent and drugs may seem like a way to replace what is missing. Studies have shown again and again, that when children have close family ties they are far less likely to become entangled in substance abuse.

So mindfulness is important, not only because it helps us attune to ourselves with more empathy and kindness, but because it also promotes an enriched emotional connection with others that is the source of much of our health and well-being. Loving is a verb, an ongoing process of unfolding and opening.  Loving well is living well. Living well is loving well.

by Robert Althouse