Being Present Meditations

How present do you feel right now? Presence, as in “presence of mind,” is the most essential prerequisite for harnessing attention. “Being present” means, at the very least (and for some mystics, at the very most), being and here and now. Of these three, being is the foundation. Even here and now must be to be uttered.

There are seven stages in this meditation. Each stage consists of a short phrase (mantram), and a space for contemplation. The mantram can be spoken in the mind or aloud (it’s worth experimenting with both). For the contemplation I suggest, at the beginning, that you observe your experience on three specific levels, allowing ample time for each in its turn:

  • physical and kinesthetic sensations
  • feelings
  • meanings

Center. For this meditation it is best to be in a comfortable, upright (awake) position. Allow your body to settle. Imagine an immaterial thread coming down from the sky and up from the earth through the center of your body. Allow the sky and earth to draw the thread a tiny bit up and down, gently lifting the top of your crown and bringing more gravity to your sacrum. Clear a space in your mind. Ask your thoughts to step back for this moment. They need not vanish; only stand back to give you space to be. Invite your feelings to help you experience.


Now here I am.

[Two complete breaths]

Now here I am.

[Two complete breaths]

Now here I am.

Notice your experience. Sensations in your body. Feelings. Meanings.

[In-breath] Now, here,
[Out-breath] I am.

[Two complete breaths]

[In-breath] Now, here,
[Out-breath] I am.

[Two complete breaths]

[In-breath] Now, here,
[Out-breath] I am.

Notice your experience. Body sensations. Feelings. Meanings.

Here I am.

[Two complete breaths]

Here I am.

[Two complete breaths]

Here I am.

Notice your experience. Sensations. Feelings. Meanings.

I am.

[Two complete breaths]

I am.

[Two complete breaths]

I am.

Notice your experience. Sensations. Feelings. Meanings.

I am here.

[Two complete breaths]

I am here.

[Two complete breaths]

I am here.

Notice your experience. Sensations. Feelings. Meanings.

[In-breath] I am,
[Out-breath] here, now.

[Two complete breaths]

[In-breath] I am,
[Out-breath] here, now.

[Two complete breaths]

[In-breath] I am,
[Out-breath] here, now.

Notice your experience. Sensations. Feelings. Meanings.

I am here now.

[Two complete breaths]

I am here now.

[Two complete breaths]

I am here now.

Notice your experience. Sensations. Feelings. Meanings.

How are you experiencing your presence compared with when you started? How are you experiencing your being compared with when you started?


“I Am” Meditation

The “I am” mantram can be done on its own. Here are two variations:

Contemplate Being

Do this meditation for a preset amount of time. Start with 1–2 minutes.

I am.

Who am I?

I am.

I am not one and the same as my appearance. What am I?

I am.

Who is speaking?

I am.

Ask your own questions, make your own observations. Concentrate your thinking on the I am sounding within. Continue your contemplative meditation for the duration of your allotted time. Notice your experience. Sensations. Feelings. Meanings.

Just Be

[In-breath] I
[Out-breath] Am

[Repeat with each breath.]


Take the Test from the Inside (Part II)

Predict what will be on the exam

So, you’ve got good study notes with good questions and killer summaries, and the exam is looming. You’re good to go, right? One more thing. Predict what’s going to be on the test.

I mean, why gamble? Why let it be a surprise? Predicting the test questions is usually pretty easy to do. Look over the syllabus, which is the design of the course. Review what has been discussed in class. Ask yourself, “What has this professor been emphasizing?” Role-play, pretend you’re the professor: what questions would you put on the test? To make sure your predictions are sound, ask the professor outright: “Yo, Teach, what’s gonna be on the test?” (If you really say “Yo, Teach,” though, I won’t answer for what happens to you.) But before you ask, do make your own predictions. Then after you ask and the professor answers, see how accurate your predictions were. This is another study technique: predict and discover—it tunes your analytical skills. If you make the effort to think about and forecast what the professor is going to put on the test and only then ask, you’ll better understand the answers you get and the implications of what’s going to be on the exam because you’ll already have thought about it yourself. Even if the teacher contradicts one or more of your predictions, it still won’t be news to you; you will be intellectually comparing inaccurate conclusions with accurate information, which is an excellent way to learn. Want to do extremely well on tests? Get on the same page as the professor; develop the facility of being able to think like the professor when you need to, as well as the discipline of thinking for yourself all the time.

The actual studying for the test is now easy. Return to your notes (see Part I). Cover up the answers and summary, and quiz yourself by reading and thinking about the left-column questions you wrote. Next, write new summaries and compare them to the old ones. If you study with one or more friends, together try to come up with questions that draw forth the most complex, complete answers, and summaries that explain the most both briefly and elegantly.

When at last you sit down to take the exam, you will have already thoroughly explored every corner of it. You might feel nervous going in, but when you begin to see questions that are just differently worded versions of questions you yourself have asked and answered, questions that you accurately predicted would be here, the jitters will fly away and you will feel at home. Take the test from the inside. It’s easier.

Everything suggested here is just what any good cat burglar does all the time. You want the ginormous diamond in the laser-guarded museum? Tirelessly case the joint for months, leave no blueprint unexamined, gather exactly the right equipment, and practice doing the job. Is it hard work? What’s it worth to you?

The Pink Panther


Take the Test from the Inside, Part I

Powerful study techniques and the art of higher-order questioning.

Here’s an oldie-but-goodie note-taking system1 that works especially well for a course that has exams.

Draw a line vertically down the page so that one third of the page is on the left and two thirds are on the right. Also draw a horizontal line across the page about a quarter of the way up from the bottom. You can also buy notebooks that are configured this way.

Note-taking sections

In class, take notes on the right side, in the right column. After class it’s best to review and, more important, continue your notes the same day if possible, when they’re fresh. It’s the follow-up work on your notes that will make the difference when it comes time to study for exams.

The first follow-up step is to write in the left column a question to which the note on the right is the answer. For example, let’s say you took notes on Freud’s definitions of id, ego, and superego. Next to the definition of id (in the left column), you could write, “What is the id?” But there are other questions you could write that would help you more. You want to come up with questions that stimulate you to think about the concept rather than simply retrieve factual data like a computer. Questions that begin with “How” work well, because they ask you to think about process and coming-into-being and cause & effect. “Describe the relationship between…” is another good way to begin questions, as is “What does x have to do with y?”

But exams often ask for definitions, so why not write: “What is Freud’s definition of the id?” Well, you can, but then you’ll be relying on brute force memorization (and for memorizing, flash cards are probably more useful than discursive notes). By contrast, the question “What is the relationship between the id and the superego?” is asking you to think about more than one thing:

  • the definition of id
  • the definition of superego
  • the attitude of the superego in relation to the id, and vice versa
  • how the id and superego function
  • what each is like metaphorically (and here you can get creative: the id is like Cookie Monster or Caligula, while the superego is like the sanctimonious angel on my shoulder or my fourth grade teacher)

… And many more subtle things. Process and relationship questions are higher-order in the sense that they implicate multiple layers of meaning, not just one-to-one labels (e.g. “The id is the primitive part of the mind that seeks sensual pleasure and violence for their own sake” is a simplistic this-equals-that formulation). Higher-order questions develop complete pictures of concepts in interconnected webs. In short, coming up with good questions requires solid understanding of the concepts in the first place, and those same questions will promote solid understanding later on when you’re studying for exams.

After you’ve written questions in the left column for your notes that are in the right column, it’s time to summarize on the bottom of the page. Cover up your notes and questions and explain the main ideas with as much intellectual oomph in as few words as possible. This is one way to tell whether your left-column questions are really useful: when you understand the material well enough to ask good questions, you’ll be able to summarize the material confidently. These are your rules of thumb for studying: if you can’t think of higher-order questions and you have trouble writing a summary, you haven’t grasped the concepts sufficiently; when you can ask the questions and when you can give a summary lecture and teach the concepts, you’ve mastered the material.

Now you’re prepared for the exam! In fact, you’re prepared in more ways than you may be aware of. In Part II you will learn how to predict what’s going to be on the exam.

  1. Based on the “Cornell Notes” system, devised in the 1950s by Dr. Walter Pauk of Cornell University. 


Bored? Alienate the Worker

The Sisyphus Series, Part IV

Of the three Sisyphean principles, this is perhaps the most counterintuitive. You’re thinking, I have to roll a boulder up a hill every friggin’ day, I hate this already, and you want me to feel more alienated? I get it. You’re feeling disconnected enough from your boring task. All I’m saying is, if you feel alienated from a chore anyway, why not try going with it ? We’re talking about something you do not want to be in the act of doing, no matter how much you want to have it done. A Sisyphean task is precisely one in which you have absolutely no interest. What happens if you do it without any interest on purpose?

That Sisyphus must roll the boulder up the hill repeatedly, without any variation or nuance or artistry, implies robotism. Most of the time you want to feel your full humanity and passion for life. By all means, when you are doing things you’re interested in, invest yourself! When it’s boulder-pushing time, though, you might be happier if you choose temporarily to di vest your full-blooded selfhood and robotically go through the motions with zero personal stake in the labor.

For our first example we return to the continuing saga of me and the cat box. I do not nor do I have any desire to appreciate, savor, or devote any part of myself other than brute muscle to the activity of removing animal waste. I derive no felt sense of satisfaction or accomplishment from it, yet do it I must. In our last episode I discussed how I fit scooping the cat box into my day as innocuously as possible; I do it sometime after dinner, at the same time my wife feeds the cats. This timing also helps me alienate myself from the task. The monkey-see-monkey-do act of simply following her in tending to the cats relieves me of the need to self-start an act I possess not one ounce of initiative for. I reduce the starting of the chore to a stimulus-response: she gets up, I get up. I don’t have to plan nor spare a single thought about scooping the box. To be as efficient as possible I’ve developed a scooping routine: tear off new disposal bag, bang box with mallet, scoop into old bag that lines plastic container, pull old bag out of container, tie it and trash it, put new bag into container, done. I follow this routine zombie-like every single night. I embrace my alienation from the work. I want to feel myself in the act of performing this task as little as possible.

Using a trigger to make starting the task automatic and repeating the same routine are two good alienation techniques. Now, when the task itself is cyclical—like washing a dish, then another, then another, then another, and so on, until you’d rather bungie jump into a live volcano rather than wash another dish—what you need is deconstruction. Take the cycle apart and group like steps together. In a complete cycle each dish gets soaped, rinsed, dried, and put away. Believe it or not when we perform the full cycle for each dish in turn, every transition from one physical activity to the next (e.g. from soaping to rinsing) though seemingly benign, requires attentional effort. Multiply several transitions per dish times the number of dishes, and—well, some of us feel overwhelmed just looking at a full sink. With ADHD, and especially when we’re bored with an activity, attention is our most precious resource. So let’s conserve it. Instead of soaping and rinsing each dish in turn, try soaping all the dishes, then rinsing all the dishes, then drying all the dishes, then putting all plates away, then all bowls away, then all cups away, then all silverware away. Performing the same physical action repeatedly helps your body get into a groove and is more likely to numb your mind and leave your attention alone. Mindless repetition is more efficient and leads to good, old fashioned, assembly-line alienation.

For a good alienated worker, there are two quite different kinds of tasks: dumb and smart. Washing dishes and scooping cat litter are dumb tasks; they can be done with virtually no thought and with minimal concentration. During dumb work, like pushing boulders up hills, alienation is relatively simple. Once you give your mind permission to disengage from what your body is doing, your mind is free to do what it wants. Some people listen to podcasts while doing busy work, others sing. One client of mine folds laundry while watching TV. Another cleans his room while talking on the phone.

For a smart task, like reading a book, thought and concentration are needed, and the mind is not free to gambol and cavort as it prefers. Alienating from smart tasks calls for stronger methods, because you’re trying to free your mind from work that requires your mind’s presence. It sounds paradoxical, but it can be done with some simple sleight of hand. The alienation goal is the same: perform a job that you are disinterested in disinterestedly. With smart work, though, you have to purchase your disinterest in the process by being interested in something else. Don’t worry, it’s something you probably really are interested in: crossing the finish line. If you really don’t want to read the book, but you really want to have read the book, then get interested in the future in which you have read it. Become product-oriented. Make your mental activity as robotically productive as possible, and eschew personal investment in the process. In fact, despise the process, if that helps. It often does. Just like swearing when you stub your toe, dissing out loud work you hate (when it is safe to do so) can provide effective pain relief.

Back when I was teaching college courses on mythology, I had a student—I’ll refer to him by the name Prior—who absolutely hated what happened to be my favorite book in the course. To me, teaching this book year after year was a highlight, but to Prior every page was a Sisyphean boulder. He was earning an A so far, and didn’t want to jeopardize that, but he found reading this book intolerable. Finally he came to me and asked what he needed to be able to understand and talk about from the text in order to maintain his A.1 I supplied him with A-level study questions. He proceeded to plow through the book, holding his nose, and mechanically applied his comprehension in order to grasp the required concepts and demonstrate them to his teacher’s (my) satisfaction in a paper that barely restrained his disgust. He got an A.

Prior asked the magic question that helped him to get through his chore without one shred of his own interest: What do I need to end up with? His eyes found the finish line and kept it in sight throughout his reading. Even in a chore that requires your active intelligence, knowing what you have to end up with enables you to focus on the part of the task that actually does interest you, being done.

Caveat emptor: Focusing on product rather than process is the most essential technique in alienating workers from their work. It’s how craftsmen were turned into disaffected assembly line cogs in the industrial era. Similarly, focusing on product rather than process in education, notably through high-stakes testing policies, reduces learning to academic input-output processing. Over-applied, alienation is very, very BAD for us. When doing work we love and when learning with genuine interest, we don’t want to feel and naturally don’t feel alienated from the process; instead we’re wholeheartedly engaged, fully present, enjoying, growing, appreciating, living our experience.

I’m only proposing using alienation surgically, when necessary. When our interest in process = 0% (or very near) and interest in finished product = 100%, alienating ourselves from the work can be an act of self-mercy, even self-protection. It helps us endure negative experiences with less pain. In truth, assembly-line-type alienation is essentially a form of dissociation, which is how our nervous system protects us from suffering when fight and flight aren’t possible. For most activities I emphatically do not recommend dissociation! But on those occasions when we can neither fight off nor run away from a deadly boring task without betraying our best interests, just a spoonful of alienation helps the medicine go down.

The object in this series has been all along to cut Sisyphean boulders down to size, from daunting to doable. Tools reduce needed effort. Flow minimizes time commitment. Carefully applied, consciously chosen alienation rejects boredom without sacrificing productivity. You can get done what you have to do with less suffering and more ease, freeing yourself to savor the challenge of life activities that interest you.

  1. Students, take note! Don’t be afraid to confront your professors with this question. 


Minimize Boring Tasks with Flow

The Sisyphus Series, Part III

If you have to push a boulder up a hill, when do you want to do it?—And by “when” I mean right after doing what and right before doing what? The modern day Sisyphus might choose to do it after work, before arriving home, exactly when he’s not going to the gym he signed up to be a member of. Or he might want to do it first thing in the morning, to get it out of the way and wake himself up. The principle here is choosing the timing that’s easiest for you.

I choose not to scoop my cats’ litter box in the morning, because I want as little responsibility in the morning as possible; morning isn’t a good time for me. I scoop at night, but not last thing before coming to bed, because I’ve just concluded my ablutions, and ick, gross. I prefer to do it some time (an hour or more) before my pre-bedtime routine, because otherwise getting ready for bed feels tedious enough that I begin to avoid it and stay up too late. So I scoop shortly after dinner, at exactly the same time that my wife feeds the cats. The argument has been made that this is illogical timing, as soon after they eat they will effectively undo my work. But I don’t care. Having poop in the box overnight is tolerable, and doing the chore when I mind it least makes it substantially less avoidance-worthy.

Another example. I coached someone who decided to take a rigorous professional exam that requires months of study. We explored the question of how he wanted to do his studying in terms of when and where it would fit best into the flow of his day. He found that studying while he ate lunch at work gave him natural start and end times, and the study material became more interesting than he had expected because it was now sandwiched between and in comparison with his job duties, which were less than enthralling.

To choose the timing that works well for you, let’s again (as we did in Part II) call on your imagination. Picture yourself ending one activity—leaving the bar where you hang out with friends on Friday nights, for instance—and then picture what you will probably do next—sleep it off at home, for instance—and then try inserting your task in between them—practicing for your driving test, for instance—and see how it feels to imagine that flow of events. If it doesn’t feel good, try out a different opportunity in your day: getting out of class with your friend who has a car, for instance—insert practicing for driving test—going to your retail therapy appointment with Dr. T.J. Maxx. And now check to see how this new flow feels.

Look for flows that score high on both the Easy and Settled Stomach scales, and low on the Concerning and Agitating scales. To do the scoring, consult your gut, your heart, and your intellect. Look for consensus; i.e. if any one part of you—gut, heart, brain—objects, move on and imagine a new flow.

Sometimes an easy flow is all we need to be able to get something done. Grocery shopping is a typical example of this; most people I talk to don’t despise their local supermarket, they just find going there inconvenient much of the time. Well, when—in between what two activities—is food shopping more on your way? That’s what easy flow is about: slotting a dull chore where it is least in your way and getting it out of the way as effortlessly as possible.


Overpower Boring Tasks with Tools

The Sisyphus Series, Part II

OK, you’re Sisyphus. You’ve got this enormous rock to get up the hill. You can push it yourself, or you can drive it up in your Ford F350 truck. Like crows, humans can use tools! Don’t have a truck? Use a scaffold and a jackhammer. If you’re stuck with low-tech, do what English villagers did to break up ancient megaliths to get stones to build their houses: heat the boulder with fire, then throw cold water on it, causing it to shatter. This is what is now known as “chunking” a daunting task.

Sometimes people feel some resistance to employing tools, perhaps out of a sense that I can do it myself. Pride in ability and work is an admirable human quality. It is not mandatory, nor is it advisable in all situations. I want to take pride in abilities I value and in work I care about. A boring chore that I wish were finished before I even start it, though? Who cares?

I mentioned in Part I that scooping the cat box is one of my daily Sisyphean chores. We actually have a cat tub—higher walls, better containment. The litter I use has a nasty tendency to stick to the sides of the tub, and scraping it takes both persistence and strength. Not once after struggling with heavy, wet litter did I feel any impulse to spike the scooper and prance while flexing my muscles. I just wanted the ordeal to be easier. I bought a cheap mallet to knock the litter loose by banging the outer walls.

The effect of good tools is increased power, smart strength, a form of leverage. With the application of technology, even as simple as a rubber mallet, my power increases and my required effort therefore decreases. The job becomes easier. I grow in stature relative to the chore.

Try this. Pick one of your boring tasks. Now in your imagination picture yourself in the act of doing it. What would augment your powers in tackling this job? What would make it easier for you? If you find yourself thinking rationally about this and no ideas are coming, then close your eyes and return to your imaginative picturing.

Here’s an example of discovering tool power via imagination, from one of my clients. She dreaded having to clean snow off her car. She complained that snow removal paraphernalia for cars are pathetic, and invariably she ended up covered in snow, with some always falling into one or both of her shoes. I asked her to fantasize how she ideally would want to clear her car of snow. Her first image was a giant hair dryer. Her second was a leaf blower she had seen a neighbor using one day. She didn’t like the noise (or the price) of a leaf blower, but she loved the image of being able to blow the snow away from herself instead of sweeping it downward onto her clothes and shoes. This was a key stage in our exploration: noticing what she liked. We put two things together: the usual sweeping of snow off the car, plus moving the snow away from her. She wondered if a push-broom that she had would serve the purpose. After the next blizzard, she gleefully reported using her push-broom to shove two-foot columns of snow away from her and off her car, and being done faster than ever. Her dread of the chore vanished. She even enjoyed a feeling similar to mastery, like she was showing the snow who was boss.

If you allow yourself to imagine freely, and trust your gut feelings about what you like and dislike, you might be surprised at what you can envision. Dare to diminish drudgery!

The tool power principle extends beyond manual labor. If you have a paper to write, a thorny problem to solve, a political situation at work to navigate… think about what resources are available to you. Who can help or advise? What templates or techniques do others use? Expand your resources, expand your power.


Make Boring Tasks Easy

The Sisyphus Series, Part I

I have the shittiest job in the house. I scoop my cats’ litter box. A couple of years ago I successfully traded the after-dinner clean-up for scooping the cat box plus a second round draft pick. I scoop every day. I don’t like doing it; I find it tedious and uninteresting. This is a challenge for me, an ADDer. My brain’s “reward center”—you know, the part of my brain that hands me a pink dopamine-stuffed walrus every time I shoot water into a clown’s mouth and burst a balloon, providing me the motivation to pick up the water pistol and compete against seven-year-olds—functions less than optimally; which is to say (to follow the absurd metaphor) that my brain is understocked with pink dopamine-stuffed walruses. I therefore have trouble feeling rewarded, and my motivation is apt to drop, unless I experience genuine interest in the activity. Scooping poop does not float my boat. Quickly I felt no sense of the value to me of having gotten out of washing the dishes. My motivation drained, and the chore became Sisyphean. Sisyphus, you may recall, pushed the same boulder up the same hill every day, for at night while he slept the gods caused the boulder to roll back down to the hill’s foot. Perhaps more than most, ADDers recognize Sisyphus’ fate as a divine curse.

The problem with a Sisyphean task is that it feels goalless. What satisfaction is to be had by rolling the boulder up the hill? Is there ice cream at the top? No. Can I brag that I did it? OK, I’ll take that. But then I have to do it again, and again, and again…. It’s difficult to get myself to do a chore I don’t feel is rewarding, unless I force myself. I don’t know about you, but when I force myself to do something I don’t want to do, I, the laborer, end up resenting myself, the boss. I chronically come to my forced task late, making me want to take disciplinary action against myself. Occasionally I’ll go on strike, and hire imaginary thugs to break the strike…. It gets ugly fast, and I look like an immature moron.

Most of the time my solution to this problem is to circumnavigate it. To the extent I can, I steer my life so as to maximize opportunities to do things I want to do, while respectfully declining things I don’t enjoy. I realize, however, that many do not enjoy the privilege of dodging undesirable tasks, and I myself still have to do things I don’t like, like change the cat box every day.

What can help us accomplish tasks that do not reward our effort with any feeling of accomplishment? Consider this. If you had to pick one, which boring task would you choose to take on: (a) one that required significant effort, was out of your way, and demanded constant attention, or (b) one that required a bit of effort, was on your way, and demanded periodic attention? This series is about how to turn boring overwhelming task (a) into boring doable task (b). For litter-box-changers everywhere, I offer the following principles:

  • Tool Power
  • Flow
  • Alienation of the Worker

Tools increase your power, making tasks puny, thereby reducing required effort. Flow lets you dispose of chores when it is most convenient for you. Alienation of the worker (that is, yourself) enables you to get through painfully tedious jobs competently with the equivalent of attentional Novocain, so you experience much less pain and tedium.

Each of these principles will be explored in practical terms in the next three posts.


Home Base (continued)

The Form and Function of Home

In part one we saw that feelings associated with home base are not necessarily the same feelings we have while in our parents’ house(s)—maybe that home feels homey, maybe not. Here we have an incredibly useful tool: the distinction between the form of home and the function home base.

If I live in the Waltons’1 house and every member of my family lovingly bids me “Goodnight, Mark-Boy!” then the form of my home (the house and the family in it) and the function of home base (accepting, sheltering, embracing, and supporting me) are in perfect harmony, even through the leanest times of the Great Depression. If, on the other hand, I live in the workhouse and my request for a second helping of gruel is met with, “Whaaat? MORE?” and I am chased, caught, and caned,2 then the form of my home (the orphanage where I and the other Dickensian waifs live) and the function of home (welcoming, feeding, protecting, and comforting me) are rather different.

The extreme contrast between The Waltons and Oliver Twist is for the sake of clearly illustrating how the relation between form and function can vary widely, and therefore how important it is to distinguish them. However, detecting the distinction is often a far more subtle proposition. This next example is about the form and function of a parent, not home per se, but I hope it will be useful, as feelings concerning home and parents can be strongly correlated.3

I was talking with a young woman who still lived with her parents. She wanted to share difficult news with her mother, and was trying to decide whether it felt safe to do so. I asked the woman how she wished her mother would react to her news. Her first thoughts on this were (paraphrased):

    —I don’t want her to be judgmental, or to try to manage it or fix me.

After she reeled off a number of familiar, unwanted responses that she had gotten from her mother on past occasions, I prompted her to describe what she did want in this instance.

    —I want her to be accepting and supportive. I want her to be calm, because I’m not calm about this, and I need her to be there for me. I want her to be strong and comforting and helpful, and… and…
    “Motherly?” I asked.
    She stopped and looked up, then smiled ironically. “Yes, motherly.”

In that moment the woman realized the distinction between the person of her mother and the experience of being cared for in a motherly way. The form mother and the function mothering do not necessarily coincide, but they can, and in this woman’s case the mother was often quite motherly. (It is important to bear in mind that a distinction is not the same as a division.)

Extending the above example, with its flexible relation between form and function, to home, we can notice that though our physical home functions more or less in providing the feelings of home base such as security and support, it is nevertheless those feelings that we crave and that sustain us. We want the function more than the form. Who would choose to live with creepy Mrs. Danvers at Manderley, or with megalomaniacal Charles Foster Kane in Xanadu, when they could live instead with warm and attentive Mr. and Mrs. Beaver in a humble dam?4 And why do we desire these feelings? It isn’t merely because they are pleasant (though most often they are), any more than the young woman wanted her mother to be strong, comforting and helpful just to be able to brag about how awesome her mother was. She wanted to feel her mother’s stabilizing strength and comfort and assistance because in nature that is what “motherly” actually means. Just so, the feelings of home base inform us that we are indeed secure and supported. We want the feelings of home because we want what home functionally provides, and we know we have it when we feel it.

In other words, the feelings of home are the indications of an experiential reality. In this very important sense, the feeling of home is more real—that is, more self-consistently the “real thing”—than any apartment or house, mansion or lean-to that we call home. Whereas our physical dwelling is variable in evoking the feelings of home to a greater or lesser degree, the feelings of home base themselves tend toward constancy; i.e. homey always feels homey. (When is the last time you felt at home by virtue of feeling unwelcome?) Mr & Mrs Beaver’s House We can rate a place, any place, according to how well it functions in helping us feel accepted, calm, comfortable, and welcome to enter and stay as long as we wish. Like a motherly mother.

In a forthcoming chapter we’ll delve into what these constituent feelings of home base are in more detail, so that we can better recognize them and distinguish them from home-in-name-only experiences. In doing so we will discover a deeper connection even than the above analogy suggests between the experience of home base and natural motherliness. Already we’ve noticed similarities: accepting, calming, comforting, there for me—these are what we want from our home. The reverse would be absurd. Imagine at the end of a busy day returning to a home that functioned to reject, irritate and agitate you, and then sometimes, without warning, relocated itself.5

What’s important is that we can now think in terms of the kinds of experiences we want from our home base as distinct from our given circumstances. In this differentiation lies freedom to choose and opportunity to create an environment that nurtures us.

  1. The Waltons (1971–1981), possibly the most heartwarming TV series ever. 

  2. This is the response, as I remember it, in the musical version, Oliver! (1968). In Dickens’ original Oliver Twist, Oliver is either threatened with a blow or actually struck (“The master aimed a blow at Oliver’s head with the ladle”), violently grabbed, perhaps overhears an adult prophesy that he will someday be hung by the neck, and is then locked in a dark room for a week, after which he is sold for three and a half pounds sterling. 


  4. Manderley: the mansion in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Xanadu: the palace of Charles Foster Kane in Orsen Welles’ Citizen Kane. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver’s dam-house: from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

  5. Alas, some unscrupulous landlords have been known to foster such conditions. 


Home Base

(Part One)

Way back in my childhood, when the world was still mostly photographed in black and white, I played tag with the other kids on Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights. The tree in front of my house was home base. There wasn’t much traffic in those days, and we ran in the gutter, on the sidewalk, and around the parked cars, chasing and being chased like yipping and nipping young wolves. If the one who was “it” was gaining on me, I tried to get to home base. After an exhilarating and sometimes narrow escape, I’d cling to the tree to rest. As long as I was touching home, I was safe.

Joralemon Street
Where I lived on Joralemon Street. “Home base” was the tree on the left.

Home base is a feeling. There was nothing that distinguished the tree physically, structurally, from the other home-base-eligible landmarks on Joralemon or any other street. If the game of tag started in front of someone else’s house, we used whatever tree or post was available there, and had the same pure experience of home base. In comparison, the physical shelter that we call home—in my case, then, a low-rent apartment (that now would sell for half a million dollars)—is an environment in which many complex feelings arise, not all of them necessarily comforting, ranging from assuredly nurturing to lonely, sometimes mixing both, and with an infinite palette of emotional colors both in between and more extreme. Often, too, the physical environment changes wholesale, as we move from one home to another. How much we associate our floor-and-ceiling home with the felt experience of home base varies. We can discern each physical home’s degree of homeyness precisely because the feeling of being home, that feeling of safe harbor, is recognizably the same (i.e. self-consistent) regardless of where we are. We know the feeling of home base; different places evoke more or less of that feeling.

Mythologically—that is, in the roots of our human experiencing—home was the Center of the World, the World Tree, around which all creation revolved.1 This is the essence of the home base experience. Home feels like life’s Foundation Stone, immovable, stabilizing, the most trusted, secure place we can be. At home we are removed and protected from the whirlwind, perilous, dog-chase-dog street life outside.

For some people their childhood home feels like a refuge from the cares and turbulence of their daily lives. Worldly time seems to slow and recede into the periphery with each sip of hot chocolate. The first silverware they ever used is back in their hands; each bite of an old recipe reminds their bodies that this experience is reassuringly the same as it ever was. Remembering becomes an act in and of itself.

When a parent or grandparent serves me my favorite food, the special part is usually not the food itself; after all, excepting the odd secret family recipe, I probably can and probably do manage to eat my favorite food on my own from time to time. The special part is that my favorite food is known, and made specially for me without having to be ordered or made by me; it is freely given to me. A loved one knows what I like, cares, and goes to the trouble to make me feel good. I feel important to them.

Would that visiting one’s home of origin always conjured pictures like these. Going “home for the holidays” is for some people like locking themselves in a fun-house with a hall of mirrors (Egad! A fright around every corner! Multiple distorted images of myself no matter where I turn! ) Let us take a moment here to acknowledge, quietly, compassionately, those among us (even if this includes ourselves) for whom the old homestead is less a place of refuge than it is reminiscent of a refugee camp, in which enemy memories must vigilantly be held at bay.

Our original logistical home, therefore, can be a place of painful confusion. It is entirely possible to return to one’s childhood home and feel anything but welcome and safe. What makes this especially difficult is that the experience of home-as-safe-haven touches the child in us—whether we want it to or not. As the default location of shelter and nurture in our earliest development, we are conditioned to experience home as the most like a mother that any place can be. Our first home was the font of our existence, our umbilical origin point, primally innocent. Our mammalian instincts seek embrace and nourishment in the flesh of a warm, greater being (typically the mother): put a newborn on its mother’s belly, and, eyes still unopened, it will crawl toward her breast. That unconscious experience at the beginning of our life establishes the gestalt of home in our most primitive core. That gestalt is: the place where everything takes care of us; where we are sustained unconditionally and shielded in our barest vulnerability, even in deep sleep. This is our nervous system’s expectation. We desire an ideal home, where we can once again experience profound, rejuvenating rest, where there is nothing to guard against, nothing that doesn’t belong. Whether we think our desire or the possibility of fulfilling it is reasonable is entirely beside the point. Everything at home is supposed to be for us. The sense of home is thus a childlike feeling that doesn’t go away even when contradicted by hard experience in the cold light of day. When we’re children, we need everything to be for us. The great child philosopher Linus van Pelt had it right when he observed: “Every day is children’s day!”2 If our need is insufficiently met, it doesn’t wither. More likely it intensifies, even if it must retreat to our darkest recesses to do so.

As we approach a place or situation that our instincts respond to as home—that smells like home, if you will—we tend to become unguarded and ingenuous, often despite our better judgment. Even if we resolve to avoid certain subjects or behavior patterns, something in our inner being finds itself exposed. We are betrayed! This is supposed to feel like home, but it doesn’t. We set ourselves up to feel safe, but our security has been breached. Again.

And then we wonder: What’s wrong with me?

It’s not our fault; which is to say, finding ourselves emotionally prone regardless of careful self-fortification happens not because we do something wrong, but because it is inevitable. As we’ll see in a later chapter of this post, the home base aspect of home is most closely identified with the core self’s origins. Psychologically, the image of a house is most often associated with a person’s identity; it is also associated with the archetype of mother-as-container. When our youngest, most vulnerable inner being comes to the fore and reaches out for the feeling of home—like a child reaching for mother—it does so neither out of stubbornness nor weakness, but according to natural law.

For our own wellbeing it is crucial, then, to develop the faculty of distinguishing the inner experience of home base from any places or situations or persons that may proclaim themselves home but fail to inspire that inner experience. To do that we must draw the feeling of home up from its unconscious roots into conscious experiencing. The good news is that deep down we do know—can’t help knowing—what home feels like. And deep down we can’t be fooled; our very disappointments prove that. The feeling of home base is a truth that, once consciously apprehended, can ignite a warming hearth in the center of our being.

To be continued…

  1. Eliade, Mircea. Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harper Torchbooks (1959). 12–18, 76–77. 

  2. Charles M. Schulz: Peanuts


ADHD: Nurture Matters

A recent press release announced: “Children in Foster Care Three Times More Likely to Have ADHD Diagnosis.” A study found that 25% of children in foster care had been diagnosed with ADHD, more than triple the 7.14% of all children in Medicaid who were not in foster care.

The obvious question is why this occurs. Clearly, neglect, abuse, attachment disruptions and emotional upheavals correlate with ADHD symptoms in this population of children in foster homes. In other words, their environment contributed to their mental health condition; the etiology of their ADHD was not strictly biological. If the above mentioned statistics are not pure happenstance, the ways these children were (and were not) taken care of caused them to develop ADHD.

A follow-up question, then, is: Why is the first-line treatment in these and so many other children most often medication? Why are there not more and better-known and used psychologically-based treatments that focus on mitigating abuse and neglect, repairing attachment disruptions, and healing emotional wounds? The issue is not restricted to children diagnosed with ADHD. Recent research reveals that poor children on Medicaid are four times as likely to receive antipsychotic medication as are kids whose parents can afford private insurance:

Some experts say they are stunned by the disparity in prescribing patterns. But others say it reinforces previous indications, and their own experience, that children with diagnoses of mental or emotional problems in low-income families are more likely to be given drugs than receive family counseling or psychotherapy.1

This is not only a mental health issue; it’s a public health and a social justice issue as well.

In the context of neurochemistry, medicating ADHD makes perfect sense. Studies have shown that people with attention-deficit symptoms have, for example, low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. If you’re a psychiatrist, and you have a patient complaining that she can’t focus, and you can give her a pill (Ritalin or Adderall) that will increase her dopamine, which will stimulate the “reward center”2 in her brain and increase her motivation, wouldn’t you write the prescription? There are so many cases in which medication has reduced symptoms (only while the drug is active in the body) that it has become by far the most established treatment for ADHD.

One potential problem with the prescription of stimulant medication, in particular, is that a recent study suggests dopamine actually may not be the neuro-culprit.3 But the main problem with this medical approach is not in the neurochemical imbalances that the researchers and the prescribers are seeing plain as day in the data. The problem is that the data lacks environmental context, which turns out to be critically, and therefore clinically, relevant. A wealth of research over the past decade has been bringing into focus a much more complex and sensible picture: apparently—shockingly—what we do with our children permanently affects their mental health! In an editorial titled “‘It’s the environment stupid!’ On epigenetics, programming and plasticity in child mental health,” Edmund J.S. Sonuga-Barke writes:

we are seeing fascinating examples of the power of the environment to shape disorder expression and the neurobiological processes presumed to underpin it. Powerful new concepts are being applied to help explain the ways that environments influence gene expression4 (Mill & Petronis, 2008), program biological systems (Swanson & Wadhwa, 2008) and promote both functional and structural plasticity during brain development (Rapoport & Gogtay, 2008).5 [Emphases added.]

ADHD (and many other diagnoses not included in the scope of this post) is neuro-developmental. The brains—or, more accurately, the entire nervous systems—of children and adults with attentional symptoms have been shaped by their experiences, primarily in early childhood. In “A Developmental Investigation of Inattentiveness and Hyperactivity,” Carlson, Jacobvitz and Sroufe observe:

In early childhood, quality of caregiving more powerfully predicted distractibility, an early precursor of hyperactivity, than did early biological or temperament factors. Caregiving and contextual factors together with early distractibility significantly predicted hyperactivity in middle childhood.6

The mental health consequences of neglect and abuse—as well as parent-child misattunements in fundamentally loving families that simply have normal family problems—can turn out to be lifelong. (Just ask adult ADDers who are struggling to cope with midlife crises.) Can the damage be undone? The short answer is yes. Recent findings in the fields of neuroplasticity7 and somatic-based trauma treatment are demonstrating that permanent healing is possible for those with disrupted nervous systems. Some of us have taken this view all along. The “Nurtured Heart Approach,” developed by Howard Glasser, is a powerful, effective treatment for ADHD, which consists in, essentially, holding the child in “unconditional positive regard”:8 connecting with the child exclusively in love and admiration for who the child is, and disciplining in clear, short, non-punitive ways.

I, for my part, am overjoyed that scientific research is finally proving that we are not biological machines but rather that which we mean when we use the word human. Nevertheless, more research is needed in order to begin to shift the prevailing paradigm, a paradigm in which most people hearing of the Nurtured Heart Approach for the first time find the concept either impossible or ill advised or both.

I do not think prescribing medication for ADHD is bad. I do agree with many critics that medications for ADHD are grossly over-prescribed. If we are just patient and resilient enough ourselves to look more closely at the experiences of young ADDers who are jumping from desk to desk and twirling their hair while gazing at a flower in a jar, we will find that in most cases what they need in their lives is something other than a pill.

  1. “Poor Children Likelier to Get Antipsychotics”, New York Times, December 12, 2009, page A1 of the New York edition. 

  2. There is no “reward center” in the brain. This phrase is a metaphor. The brain is not a county fair; no kewpie dolls are handed out. The human brain is organic, and while we’re alive, it’s alive (and vice-versa). 

  3. “Imaging study shows dopamine dysfunction is not the main cause of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)” 

  4. It is still commonly thought among the college-educated that genes are to living organisms what programming code is to computer software. It is not so. There is an excellent discussion in Stephen Talbott’s Biology Worthy of Life. Here is an excerpt:

    Picture the situation concretely. Every bodily activity or condition presents its own requirements for gene expression. Whether you are running or sleeping, starving or feasting, getting aroused or calming down, suffering a flesh wound or recovering from pneumonia—in all cases the body and its different cells have specific, almost incomprehensibly complex and changing requirements for differential expression of thousands of genes. And one thing necessary for achieving this expression in all its fine detail is the properly choreographed performance of the chromosomes.

    This performance cannot be captured with an abstract code. Interacting with its surroundings, the chromosome belongs as much to a living activity as any other element in its cellular environment. [Emphasis added.]

  5. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 51:2 (2010), pp 113–115. 

  6. “A Developmental Investigation of Inattentiveness and Hyperactivity.” Child Development, 1995, 66, 37-54. 

  7. See, for example, Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity

  8. The phrase is not Glasser’s; it is from the writings of psychologist Carl Rogers. 


Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

absenceacceptanceaccomplishmentADHDaimsanalysisannotationanxietyAPAappearanceappleappreciationargumentartistaskingattachmentattentionawarenessBatmanbeingblank mindblissboatboring!brainstormingbraverycandlescenter of gravitychoicechoosing collegecognitioncommunicationcompassionconclusionconfidenceconsciousnessconversationcreative writingcreativitydawdlingdiagnosisdoorsdramadreamdrinkingecologyemotionenergyessaysessentialevidenceexamexcitementexecutive functionexerciseexperienceexpositionfailurefearfeelingfightfigurationflowfootballfrederick douglassfreewritinggamegedankenexperimentgesturegetting startedgoalgrammarhappinesshealinghearthonorhopehumanideasimaginationimagination_exerciseimplexinnovationinspirationinstinctinterestjubileekinestheticknifeknowledgelogicloudlovemagicmanagemasterymeaningmechanicsmedicationmeditationmetacognitionmilitarymindmistakesMLAmothermotivationmountainnontraditional collegenote-takingnotesorganizeout-of-the-boxparticipationpartspassionpatiencepeak-experiencepedagogyperseverancepersistencephysicalizeplanplayingplaywrightingplotpoetrypositive pointingpre-writingpreferenceprepositionpresenceprioritiesprocessprocrastinationprofessorsproofreadingputteringquestionsreadingrealityreflectionrelationshiprelaxationrepresentationreservesresourcesresponseresponsibilityrevisingsanctuaryself-actualizationself-assessmentself-relianceseptembershort storysocratic methodsoulspacestorystrengthsstressstudyingsuccesssummariessynthesistalkingtasksteachingtechniquetest anxietytest-takingThanksgivingthemethesisthinkingtimetolerancetomorrowtreetrusttruthunderstandingveteransvisualizationvoicewaldorfwelcomewholewillwillpowerwomenwordsworkingwriter's blockwritingyearningyesterday