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Modern society has brought an increasing sense of isolation, anxiety, depression, addictions …loneliness, and spiritual alienation for many.
I’ve witnessed it in friends, colleagues, family, and felt it frequently, sometimes at twilight, sometimes in the darkness before dawn. I propose these states are not natural and that they arise because our implicit child-trust was broken, resulting in our unconsciously disconnecting from our tender body and our senses, and subsequently from our Mother Earth and from community. The result for many of us is that we live mostly in our heads.
To experience betrayal and loss is a natural and inevitable part of living. However, it’s not meant to occur at the very start of life: when we are in our mother’s womb, during birth, or soon afterward. That is the time when our body is rapidly developing, the circuitry of our brain is being laid down, and we are bonded with, and totally dependent upon (at least, during our womb life), our mother. This is the time known as the “primal period.”
Loneliness and alienation are a modern phenomenon. They’re not common features of tribal life or life in closely-bonded extended families and small village cultures.
Other well-done research has found 40% of Americans claiming to be lonely.
Social isolation may arise from current life conditions. However, a deep sense of loneliness is not the same as the feeling of separateness we feel when we are ill or, say, being new mother home alone with her baby, when everyone in the neighborhood is at work…And it is not the same as a chosen period of solitude, even though that may be hard to endure. I’m talking about the loneliness that doesn’t go away.
Social isolation – loneliness – is a disease state; and it puts a person at high risk for most diseases, and premature death, equal to the risk of smoking and twice the risk caused by obesity.
Sometimes loneliness drives individuals to deep spiritual seeking and it can result in personal transformation. On the other hand, it frequently drives many to embrace religious fundamentalism or political extremism, where they find comfort in black and white answers to the complex and paradoxical nature of so many challenges in life. In these groups, many find a sense of belonging. The same is true in teenage gangs.
Loneliness can also show up as walling off our heart, an inability to trust others (or ourselves), and spiritual alienation. All too often that includes a loss of that sense of awe in the face of the big mystery, a kind of living death.
I’m looking for the root causes of chronic loneliness, for I have found that when something can be accurately named, we have a greater chance of being able to address, accept it, even heal it.
What is it that we all long for? First of all, to be seen for who we really are; second, to feel we have value, that others see us as worthwhile; and third, it is part of the human condition to want to belong. Most tribal people experience all 3, right from in the womb. It’s the air they breathe. Their world is alive with a sense of “presence”. Every tree, every creature, every stone. They feel related to it all. Where does this come from? To start with, they have each been welcomed into this world by the entire tribe.
Babies born to tribal people are bonded to the whole tribe. Let me tell you a story about the Dagara people of Burkina Faso, a tribe who literally “welcomes spirit home” by means of rituals the group engages in as a whole. It’s a story that my friend Sobonfu Some, who was born and raised in that tribal culture, wrote about in her book titled “Welcoming Spirit Home.” When a young woman, for example, has her first dream of a baby, or a feeling that a baby’s spirit is around her, she tells one of the elder women and the women prepare a ceremony for her, done at night, in which an egg-shaped hole is dug in the earth at the edge of the village, she lies down in it, naked, in fetal position, and throughout the night the women’s hands are on her, massaging, stroking. And when she awakes in the morning she almost always has a dream.
This Dagara ritual is done to prepare the woman for the “spiritual” conception cleansing her of anything that might be harmful to a baby: including unwanted thoughts or fears. Then, right after the birth, which usually occurs in a darkened hut, the baby is welcomed, by the tribe. In this case it’s the children, who are gathered outside the hut in silence, awaiting the first sounds of the baby. An adult is there leading them, and as soon as the baby makes its first audible sounds, the children, in unison repeat that sound back to the baby. It’s done in order that this being knows it has made the long journey from the spirit world to its rightful home. then again, for the Dagara, as with most indigenous peoples, everyone is considered related to everyone else, not only those currently living, but those who’ve passed and those yet to come. It’s like being held in a web or net, from which we cannot fall. And along with this is the belief in most tribes, healthy tribes, that each being comes bearing a unique gift that is important to the wellbeing of the whole tribe. And it is the responsibility of the entire group to see that this child has all that it needs to grow fully, so that it can give its gift!
I do not wish to romanticize tribal life, which certainly had many challenges and discomforts and dangers. And tribes have tended to prevent much creative, outside-of-the-box, thinking and do not encourage individuality. However, they excel at belonging. Imagine if we came into the world this way and everyone around us both welcomed us and felt responsible for our childhood wellbeing.
In fact, we each do, each of us, have intrinsic worth…and not for anything we’ve accomplished. Simply, we have worth because of the fact that we exist. We are here, so we belong, and we matter. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But for those whose implicit trust was broken at the start of life, that’s not a sense they are likely to feel, not a “felt sense”, in their body.
I’d like to take a look at the first 18 months of life: the first 9 months, when we are developing in the wet, warm stimulus-rich world of our mother’s womb, the effort of labor and then emerging into the larger world; and then, the 9 months afterward, as we find comfort in being cared for during our physically dependent times, where we need others to provide nourishment, warmth and safety, as we slowly develop the ability to roll over, creep, crawl and then the strength to stand on our own feet and be able to toddle off toward whatever we find interesting or move away from what we dislike. As we do this, we are always looking to see that those who are caring for us are still there, so we can return to the comfort of arms and words and eye contact, being held and rocked as our brain continues to develop and communicate our needs and, hopefully, find them met quickly and with love.
All the qualities so many of us value – respect, caring, community, social justice, honoring life in all its diversity… and finding ways to behave non-violently – are meant to arise naturally in humans. And they do, if and when our needs are met at this primal stage of life, as we are trying to control and use our physicality and also are attempting to make sense of our world. And by the way, scientists are showing that human infants naturally show compassion and also a preference for beauty.
The newest child of cell biology, “epigenetics” (epi- meaning that which is above or around our genetic coding…because it’s not nature OR nurture, it’s nature plus nurture) has proven that our DNA, our genes, are only the blueprint of our potentialities…that it’s the environment in which we develop that triggers specific genes to express – think of it as a switch being turned on, or off.
We may have the genetic potential from a parent for being musical. And, given the right environment, this trait will naturally emerge. So it is with unhealthy traits too, such as addiction, most – if not all – forms of mental illness and more. Unnaturally high levels of stress in our biological mother, in the weeks prior to our conception, at conception, then during the months we grow in the warm sea of our mother’s womb, all goes directly to us through the umbilical from our mother. The blood that contains the oxygen and nutrients that we must have, also contains the hormones of our mother’s emotions: pleasure, joy, calm, or anxiety, fear, anger. During our labor and birth and in first hours, days and weeks after birth, whether those times are mostly positive or traumatic, whether we spend most of our time in our mother’s arms – or father’s – and never farther than a few feet from their body, or whether we spend most of that time apart, lying alone, or with needles in our body and bright lights, in an intensive care nursery, or lying alone in a room down the hall from our parents, or with a mother who is depressed or grieving, these experiences can turn an unwanted and unhealthy gene on. And that can have affects that last a lifetime, if not healed.
The key to what stress is not good is whether it is too much, occurs too soon/early in our development, and whether it goes on for too long. Everyone experiences stress; that’s not the problem. But too many of us experience too much at the start of life.
When we get our needs met at the start of life and we find life mostly pleasant and comfortable, then an unwholesome trait – perhaps its autism, which might show up months later, or schizophrenia, which may not show up until late teens or early twenties – might remain dormant in us. That’s if our needs are met at the start of life, and if our biological mother – who, as I want to remind you, is the 1st world to to us – wants to be pregnant, had a positive experience conceiving you, a mostly easeful pregnancy, and mostly positive feelings about you, her coming baby and being a mother…or simply feels good about herself and that she belongs, despite what we might observe to be horrible conditions she lives in. I want to say here that epigenetics proves that it’s the childbearing woman’s attitude as well as her feelings and the substances she takes in, that are transmitted to her developing baby. That’s been proven!
Furthermore, and this is critical, epigenetics has proven that our cells grow and operate in a binary way. On…or off. Right from the preparation of our mother’s egg that will one day be fertilized by a sperm and become a zygote and then a human being…our cells, all billions of them, working together, are reading the information from the environment and responding by either growing fully or growing in a state of defense. Who is that environment? The mother. And this is why the female of our species is innately more resilient than the male: because, despite the influence that men have, it is women who carry life forward.
Here’s the thing: anything trying to protect itself cannot grow fully. That may be the key to why we humans have been such a fear-based, aggressive and violent species…ever since we evolved from being small bands of people who lived and foraged for food together and depended upon each other for survival, healing, pleasure and play. We as a species, have simply had too much un-named, un-addressed and unhealed trauma and everywhere you look you can see the results. There’s historical trauma, like war and famine – and we in the U.S.A. haven’t had one generation without a war since the civil war. There’s racial trauma, such as slavery and genocide. Then there’s inter-generational trauma like parental abuse and neglect, addiction and other dysfunction that all too often runs from one generation to the next. And then there is birth-related or “primal” trauma, which has been occurring for centuries – think about ancient Greece and the father’s right to say whether or not a baby was allowed to live – but which has become institutionalized trauma, once we moved birth into the hospital, starting around 1915 and created a system based upon isolation, separation, routine use of narcotics and anesthesia, hyper-stimulation, and maternal deprivation. And maternal (and paternal) deprivation is a modern hallmark of life, with attachment disorders at epidemic levels.
As a brief aside, I want to once more mention that the male of our species is innately more vulnerable than the female. This is true right from conception. Baby boys are more deeply affected by trauma of any kind during the primal period. And the results are that boys show up much more on the spectrum of learning disabilities, autism, behavioral problems, aggression, anger, addictions of all kinds, and violence. That’s a whole subject of its own: what we’ve been doing to men by teaching parents to depriving baby boys and young boys from getting their needs fully met, in the name of toughening them up for life. All we’ve really done is create brittle men who wreck havoc on women, children and other men they consider to be “sissies”.
The neurosciences and attachment research have proven how important the job of parenting is: parents are the true artists of any society. They literally create the architecture and circuitry of the brain of their child, as well as it’s immune system and gut. And the human gut is directly related to the brain and how we think.
It’s a sad but proven fact that it’s a much lonelier and more difficult job, parenting today, in the shrinking nuclear family, with two parents with no support around them, or a single parent, with parents working long hours (often having to work more than one just because they don’t make a living wage), waking up stressed and coming home stressed, and in this state doing their best to be what their child needs. Parents today for the most part do not feel valued, feel isolated, are lonely, and have no real community of support around them, pitching in, helping in practical ways, taking some of the weight off their shoulders.
I want to address what might be the most serious issue of all, other than the level of toxins that come to us from every part of our world. It’s this: we not only interrupted the natural biological processes that develop and sustain life. We have stretched to the breaking point, the critical bond between the mother and baby. Science has proven what ancient peoples knew intuitively: each mother-baby pair are one biological system. What we do to either of them – or fail to provide – we do to both…The human baby is not ready to be treated as a separate individual when its umbilical cord is cut. We are uniformly stressing mothers. And babies are growing in a state of defense.
Fact: It takes 9 months to a year for human infants to develop physically to the level of where a baby horse or goat is within minutes of being born…to get on its feet, follow its food source, and flee from danger!
Fact: We humans are paradoxically both exquisitely sensitive and aware – in the womb… both innately trusting and resilient… and also vulnerable to trauma. And it’s we humans require 9 months after birth of what is called “in-arms” time. During these months babies are not in any way designed to be in full time day care or in front of the tv and computer or with a distracted, overly-busy adult. This time Is the outer womb and should be treated as such.
Virtually everything in modern society separates, isolates and stresses us – from in the womb on – and intervenes with the natural formation of a strong and healthy mother-baby bond, which, by the way, is the template for all other relationships we have. Societies have been interrupting this bond for thousands of years. But never as much as today. We live in a continuum of disruption of our bond with mother and Mother Earth. Is it any wonder we are increasingly lonely?(If you love this article - please support Suzanne's Human Attachment Project here. )
Fact: Because this country has no guaranteed paid maternity leave, most U.S. mothers start to unconsciously separate from their baby, protecting themselves from bonding fully before they have even held their baby, at around 6 months into pregnancy, as they turn their attention to the difficult job of finding suitable infant day care, so they can go back to work.
Fact: We’ve created a system of hospitalized birth that artificially starts and speeds up labor and routinely drugs the mother, which gets to the baby, then separates the mother and baby, especially when the baby is born too small or too early and needs intensive care. And we tell parents not to sleep with their babies and we compel women to go back to work just weeks after birth.
And so, many of us here, in our privileged personal world, suffer from some kind of attachment disorder, which began in the 1st 18 months of life: from conception to age one.
HeadStart, the program for enriching the minds of under-privileged toddlers, estimates 80% of their kids suffer from attachment disorders, and that in our society as a whole, 70% of people have bonding problems, which translate into anxiety, depression, over-doing, having difficult forming safe, intimate relationships…and finding it hard to regulate our emotional states and be optimistic and happy in our core.
This generation of modern kids also has “nature deprivation” – tragic, because the natural world connects us to our senses and our soul.
By the way, our earliest experiences, right from conception, still exist as implicit memory in our very cells, whether we are conscious of them or not.
The holiness of birth and the critical 1st hours afterward are physiologically and spiritually so important. That, and our mother’s breast. Where do you think the term, “the milk of human kindness”, comes from?…Taking in that sweet warm complete nourishment, as we seek her face and gaze up into her eyes, and imbibe the scent of her skin, accompanied by the vibration, resonance and energetic field of her heartbeat. I wasn’t breastfed and I certainly didn’t spend much time skin-to-skin with my mother and was required to sleep in a separate room, and not picked up quickly when I cried. This was how my mother was socialized to care for her babies, trained by the experts, in this case the pediatrician. Were you?
Science is unwrapping more and more of the mystery of what it means to be fully human and how to rear children capable of reaching their potential. Conscious conception, low-stress pregnancy, natural childbirth, breastfeeding, sleeping alongside and “wearing” our babies and ending shame-based parenting, and patriarchal forms of education and religion. A combination of these are, I believe, the best prevention and antidote to the modern epidemic of loneliness and spiritual alienation, addiction, aggression. It will just take one generation to see the benefits of meeting the needs of mothers and babies, fathers and families from the start. Yes, it does require a change of heart and consciousness, and putting humans ahead of profit. However, the changes required will save vast sums of money and heartache. Following sound biological processes is sustainable.
I like to think of this congregation and the principles that guide Unitarian Universalists communities around the world as creating a safe place for people to heal and grow, a trust-based community, a cradle – or a chalice – that honors each person and holds each of us gently, as we journey to re-member fully who we are and why we came, especially those of us who were not properly welcomed and nurtured at the start of life.
(If you love this article - please support Suzanne's Human Attachment Project here. )
(If you love this article - please support Suzanne's Human Attachment Project here. )
It’s never too late to heal the wounds of our soul. First we name them; then we allow the truth of their existence. Then we can turn our attention of understanding their cause and their nature. And then we can remind ourselves that we are not alone in either the wounds or the journey of healing.
***In closing, I’d like to read a few lines from Irish writer, poet and theologian, the late John O’Donohue, from his poem called A Blessing:
May you have joy and peace in the temple of your senses.May you experience each day as a sacred gift, woven around the heart of wonder!(If you love this article - please support Suzanne's Human Attachment Project here. )
|(l) Barbara Rivera (R) Suzanne Arms|