EPISODE 3: THE SECRET TO SUCCESSFUL ADVENTURES IS LISTENING
Finished my first turn to the left (by car) … now about to turn left again (by bike).
I arrived in Bellevue, Washington a few days ago. Thus ending the first part of the adventure. According to Google, the trip from Portland Maine to here by car could have taken as little as two-and-a-half days. I planned 10. I spent 18. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re open to taking side roads and embellishing locations with spontaneous sojourns (while still needing to work).
Bellevue is where I was born (though half my life has been spent, not only away from here, but away from the US in general). Here, there were around 60,000 residents in 1968, which has trebled since the inclusion of Microsoft, Amazon and other large, influential companies. Back then it was only Boeing … and mountains and sea. Boeing had just laid off thousands of employees. The uncertainty was stark - much like now. My Padre told me that there was a sign at Seatac airport saying … “The last one to leave, please turn out the lights”. The lights dimmed. But now they’re bright.
I was born in a rush in a brightly lit hallway of a Seattle hospital en route to the birthing room. Sort of set the stage for the rest of my life. The first words my brain ‘heard’ when coming into the world were from my mum saying... “what’s wrong!”
You see, I was the fifth child. Four females had come before me. Back then you were pulled up by your feet and your bottom smacked to make you cry - thus initiating your first living breaths, stinging with the reality of what was to come … more living. When baby girls are born and held aloft upside down they have clean lines forming a ‘V’. At least that’s how my Mum describes the vision of her first four births. Boys are different. Their lines are not clean.
Remember, perception is grounded in our past experiences. And those experiences are engendered in our neural circuitry, which gives rise to our assumptions and biases. The assumptions encoded in my Mum’s brain at that moment in time was that I was her fifth girl … who was being held aloft and crying. Given this assumption, her poor little girl must be deformed. After all, my ‘lines’ were completely wrong … for a girl!
Because our perceptions and actions are a conscious manifestation of our brain’s deeply encoded assumptions that reflect our ‘lived history’ ...
… we all make sense to ourselves … just not to other people.
Everything you’re reading right now in this blog is literally meaningless - since language is not a law of physics that exists when we’re not here. You are creating the meaning of my words based on your history. And you are projecting that meaning onto me, whether or not your meaning was what was intended. In the same way, my mum’s meaning: ‘What’s wrong!’ made complete sense to her … until the nurse whispered … "There’s nothing wrong dear … it’s a boy” (the ‘wrong’ bit came later, and many times over!).
My three gorgeous gremlins (Zanna, Misha and Theo) love listening to this story. But much more so when their grandmother tells it. Which brings me to the point of this blog: How you listen and what you listen to is what will define your adventure. Not just now, but in life, in love and in yourself.
To truly listen, then, is not to listen without assumptions - that’s impossible. It’s to listen with ‘perceptual awareness’: The awareness that you have assumptions, and that they will shape what you hear (and see, feel and do) … at least initially. Hence why true listening i.e., the kind of listening that will expand you and deepen your relationship to the world, requires humility combined with the desire (if not need) to understand the world … whether 'that' world is the world of another person or the natural world itself from which we all extend.
My 18th day of this adventure began in Wilbur Washington. Yes … as in Wilbur the pig from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web! It’s a small, small town in Eastern Washington along Highway 2. Highway 2 was the smaller of the two roads that move you East - West through Washington state, which was recommended to me by a dear family friend named Kim with whom I grew up. The other of the two options was the larger and more typical highway I90. Wilbur prides itself on being “The Friendliest Little Town”. And it was. I stayed - as has been typical for this trip - at a small, single-rise motel just off the main road through. Such establishments have been the fabric of adventures across America for decades. Each one with its history and personality that reflects - like the brain itself - its history of passing nomads, vagabonds and those with a migratory ilk.
I dined at Doxies Diner, where I had a wonderful conversation about what it’s like to live here with the waitress who in a very real sense was the diner. She - like all of us - came here from somewhere else. She lives one town further along - but of a similar size, and loves it. She loves the freedom that the ‘safety’ that small affords. Specifically, that her children can ‘roam-free’ semi-wild without the concern of uncertainty. Small and remote becomes an antidote to not knowing. With that comes the possibility for young minds to explore nature and the nature of their friends … to play in the street, to freely move between houses whose doors remain unlocked if not wide open ... to adventure into hay fields. After my meal and conversation, I simply watched the sun set in the direction of tomorrow’s continued adventure into the Cascade mountains.
Growing up in the Pacific NorthWest, the raison d’être of the Cascades is to frustrate the clouds from their Eastward path. For the clouds to continue their adventure, they must first lighten their load on the mountain range’s western slopes, which include Seattle, Bellevue and the rest of the towns inhabiting what is otherwise a temperate rainforest. This is why those who live here are a bit waterlogged. While Eastern Washington remains a near desert.
My car climbed these mountains in the opposite direction to the clouds: from East to West. My deviation took me skinny-dipping in a river just out of sight (I think) from Highway 2 in fresh snow-melt running down from the mountain peaks.
Post swimming, when I reached the top of the pass, I deviated again North towards the long, narrow Wenatchee Lake. At its Western point there’s a narrow road. I assumed (or rather hoped) that it would (eventually) return me to Highway 2. What I didn’t know, until I was on it, was that indeed it would. But only after becoming an old logging trail. Rather than turn around and retrace myself (not usually a preferred option for me in life), I was curious to see what would happen next.
What happened is that I heard the landscape of home.
When I got to the top of the logging road (an interesting challenge for a low suspension ragtop), there was a small widening of the path, which enabled me to pull off to its edge (just above a cliff). From there with no one around, I could see … just across the forested, green valley … the awe inspiring, unobstructed, rugged, still-covered-in-snow peaks. There would have also inevitably been bears and cougars and other deeply essential aspects of the wild around me. But rather than feel a sense of loneliness, isolation, trepidation or foreboding. I heard the familiar voice of the wind through Douglas-fir, red cedar, hemlock and spruce.
I heard home.
These were the mountains and the logging trails of my early adventures in the company (more accurately, the safety) of my four older (apparently non-deformed) sisters. This is where we hiked and camped. I’d not been here for years … decades even. But this is where I learned that home is not a place or a thing … it’s a landscape … an ecology (conceptual and/or physical).
To truly know an ecology … one needs to listen to it with awareness. Awareness that its geography, just like the physiology, thinking and feeling, movement and anatomy of another person, is a function of its history.
To understand another person is not simply to know what they do or what they perceive … or even what they write or say. It’s to know the assumptions and biases that give (or gave) rise to their normality that is described by their words, perceptions and actions. But we so rarely listen … though think we do.
When another’s landscape just doesn’t make sense, doesn’t feel familiar, isn’t your home, it’s usually easier to just assume irrationality, ignorance and/or arrogance. Much more dangerous is to live according to the truth that one is necessarily subjective. That one’s perceptions - and indeed one’s brain - is more a product than it is a producer.
To listen to another person … to truly see another person … is to touch them, which brings them into existence. Which is why all brains need touch. In this time of COVID, you now know how essential touch is. And whatever it is you think you know, touch is even more essential than that.
31 years ago (25th of December 1989) Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, was executed. Many horrors were revealed. One was the ‘child gulags’ in which an estimated 170,000 abandoned infants and children were being ‘raised’. These children were deprived of many things. One of the most essential, it turns out, was touch. Without regular caring touch our immune system decays. Our brain deteriorates.
A neuroscientific understanding of the power of touch was already known a few decades before from Harry Harlow’s lab. Prior to Harlow, it was assumed that the infant brain formed an attachment to its mother simply because the mother’s body provided food and nourishment. The assumption was purely utilitarian, born out of a ‘Behaviourists’ assumption of life (fathered by B. F. Skinner). Many ‘loving’ relationships are grounded on the utilitarian principle: ‘What you can do for me’. Harlow discovered something else.
Yes, attachment is indeed grounded in the need for nourishment. But the kind of nourishment needed was completely different: It was the nourishment of emotional acceptance, love, affection … all born out of touch.
In Harlow’s experiments, infant monkeys were removed from their mothers, who were replaced by one of two inanimate surrogates: One made from ‘wood-and-wire’, and the other from foam rubber and soft terry cloth. When the ‘wood-and-wire’ mother was the only one with the milk bottle, the infant monkey would spend most of its time with the ‘soft’ mother only coming to the ‘wood-and-wire’ one for food. After which it’d immediately return (and cling) to the soft mother.
Amazingly, the monkeys who were ‘raised’ by the soft mother were better able to cope with uncertainty. They would explore an unknown area and run back to the surrogate when startled. Whereas the others would be paralyzed by their fear and huddle in a ball on the floor sucking their thumbs (much as the children would do in Romanian gulags 30 years hence).
So touch is essential to live. It’s what gives our cells the ‘reason’ they need to survive, in addition to energy, oxygen and water.
To touch is to listen to the world around you. To help you see why and how this is true, I want you to take your right index finger and gently and slowly rub a surface next to you back-and-forth. Think to yourself ... “... Where do I feel the sensation …?” The probable answer: “At the end of my index finger”. Seems obvious … right? Now, using the same right index finger, I’d like you to stroke the back of your left hand with the same force and at the same frequency you did the surface next to you. Now where do you feel the touch? It’s no longer at the tip of your index finger. The location of the sensation has switched to the back of your hand! To the part of your body that is ‘being touched’ … even though it’s your body doing the touching!
What does this simple demonstration show? That to touch the world is to ‘receive’ the world.
When you reach out, the world touches you!
What is true for receiving the world through your skin is also true for receiving the world through your ears. You listen with your skin.
Indeed, most - if not all of you - will have had the experience of being touched without listening. The movements are ‘too fast’. The toucher is not feeling what lies underneath … and you feel the indifference. The pressure is too strong (or not strong enough). The location is wrong. There is no care. Indeed, in its extreme form, touching without listening is physical violence.
When you touch the body of your child, your friend, or the body of your lover with intention and care, your brain is listening to their form, to their curves, to their texture … to their desires and needs. And when you touch them with the awareness of your own biases and assumptions, with a desire to truly understand the landscape of their body and mind, they will feel heard. They will feel ‘held’. And with that their brain will change towards itself - and change towards you. Cortisol levels will reduce. Oxytocin will increase. Their immune system will improve. Their neural circuitry will complexify. But, so too will yours. For when you touch, you are touched through the action of reaching out, increasing your openness.
So in this time of COVID, if you have taken up our suggestion of defining its resulting uncertainty through adventure ... then don’t forget to listen. If you cannot listen with your hands, then touch with your ears. In exploring the landscape of normality of another person’s heart and mind, you will come to understand them and expand yourself.
Last night one of my sisters, my young niece and I also just listened.
We lay on the floor listening to the adventure stories of my mum (who is now 84) when she was a young girl in the 1930s and 1940s. In that moment I could feel my niece’s perception of what it means to be a girl … a strong woman … indeed a person of adventure … expand. Possibility was created. Wisdom suddenly inherited. In that moment my mum’s existence became independent of time itself, as her insights born from 84 years of adventure became literally encoded in the expanding brain of a newer woman-of-adventure … my gorgeous niece Ciena.
My aim and the aim of the Lab of Misfits is to create spaces that foster the existence of others. To this aim, we would like to seed a campaign. A campaign of listening. To aid you playfully in this, we have created a free digital tool called W_nder.
Use the W_nder app to record your adventure stories. But, maybe more powerfully, we encourage you to encourage your daughters, your friends and indeed yourself to record the adventure stories of your mothers and grandmothers, your aunts and your great aunts. And if you’re so blessed, of your great-grandmothers. Then post these stories on W_nder in the places in which the stories were born so that we can all listen. My niece Ciana will be posting 10 stories from my mum (Gail) over the next week or two.
I think you’ll enjoy them.
I - like my daughter Zanna and sons Theo and Misha - particularly love the story of when my Mum and my Aunt Nancy became connoisseurs of already-chewed gum stuck to the streets of Seattle. But more than hearing the gum story, it’s hearing my mum laugh … and laugh … in telling the story of the Spelling B that warms my heart and fills my soul … and activates the amygdala of my brain. In that laugh I not only hear her joy, I also hear my Grandma’s laughter in the long-term memories encoded in my cortex. I hear the two newer generations of women laughing next to me in the form of my sister and her daughter. I hear, not only four generations of laughter, but one continuous thread woven within four contiguous forms who came into existence - like all of us - naked, upside down and crying-in their first breaths of life.
An emergent moment of turning left that lived and will live on.
Written by: Beau Lotto.
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