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Whenever I have a ‘bad’ dream, it’s never about things like being in a car accident, giving a poor presentation, or getting mugged. Strangely, those situations don’t seem to antagonize me (although I’ve experienced the first two and remain vigilant against the third).

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Sleeping through a wake-up call and missing a flight does. During recent travel I heard the 3:30 a.m. Call as if it was part of a dream. At the end of my trip, I was completely exhausted and, having finally adjusted to my new time zone, was in Deep Rest that felt like a coma. I finally woke at the second call, but was so disoriented that I’d confused my shuttle-departure time and barely made it to the hotel’s lobby, where I was literally shoved onto the shuttle by two bellmen.

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Last night I dreamed I was in northern India, traveling with two friends and our guide. When we arrived at our new city I realized that I’d left my travel bag (passport and money), as well as my cell phone, in the previous hotel – a two hour drive behind us.

As a rule, awareness and sensations in my dreams feel visceral:  heightened or exaggerated. Even my physical abilities get amplified. (I used to dream – a lot – about being able to swim and breathe underwater, like a fish. In another dream, I could fly like a bird.) When my dreams are pleasant, they feel like an amazing escape into another world. When they’re fearful, however, the same rule applies and the terror is something that I want to escape from.

Last night’s dream about having forgotten my travel essentials was crystal clear and so real that its intensity woke me with a pounding heart and breathlessness. When faced with the travel-horror of ‘no documents and no money’, my Reptile Brain simply reacts and recoils:  there’s no reason or logic.

I’ve come to recognize (with resistance and resentment) that fear-based dreams are helpful indicators of what still lingers in my subconscious mind. I picture geology lessons from my childhood schooling on volcanoes:  that stream of molten lava, lying horizontal deep in the earth until a seismic event buckles the layers of rock, pushing liquid fire to the surface. Exposed to the air, it eventually rests and cools. But not before causing mayhem. So it is with the fears that still linger deep below, in the most primal regions of my psyche.

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Like many people, I’m engaged (most of the time) with the Personal Work to address and rid myself of my typically-irrational fears. It frustrates me that I continue to review and re-hash themes that echo with vulnerability and powerlessness: they present themselves in such contrast to who I think I am in my waking hours.

The every-once-in-awhile (not often, thankfully),  nighttime-jolt of how my Reptile Brain  really perceives things – despite what my Intellect might be telling me, on the surface of my Life – is a stark reminder. Not to think, but to feel into what I’m still afraid of, and why. It may be that I really don’t want to know, because my fears don’t fit with the Image I have of my Self at this moment in time.

Spiritual teachings remind me that I embody the essence of Light and Dark, the Lion and the Lamb, Yin and Yang. Instead of seeing Fear as an enemy to be vanquished, maybe it’s time I just let it be what it is, and do what it needs to do. Maybe it just wants a seat at the table, inclusion and harmony, as a natural part of Who I Am. Can I be the Gracious Host and allow it?

I hate going to the doctor. Any doctor, any time (even when I’m sick and might need one), for any reason. Even benign check-ups. It’s not quite at the phobic-level, but close. Recall what early American pioneers took note of as they moved out West, and encountered Native Americans for the first time. If a newcomer wanted to take a photograph of an indigenous person, they were refused. As American folklore explains it, these original Americans felt that a photograph would rob them of all, or part of, their soul-essence. Thanks, but no thanks. That’s how I feel about most of the medical profession. Irrational, maybe, but there it is.

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When a person reaches his or her 90’s, even in relatively good health, more and more doctors creep quietly onto the stage. Yesterday, as I do every week, I spoke with my uncle who lives about 2,500 miles from me. He’s 91 and still able to be independent; mentally and physically active. And yet, his health has to be ‘monitored’. As he puts it, “At my age, it’s always something.” So off he went, to one of his half-dozen doctors two days before our talk, feeling fairly strong and fit, considering. But as soon as he was put into a room to wait for the physician’s assistant, my uncle said he began to feel anxious. When the P.A. arrived and did a blood pressure check, my uncle’s was abnormally high. “You know,” he later told me on the phone, “it doesn’t do a damn bit of good for them to tell me to ‘relax’.

I can relate. The next day I went to get a flu shot (which I always argue with myself about, but end up doing it anyway). Waiting for the nurse my pulse was amped and my breathing was shallow. When she arrived and was ready to jab my shoulder with her needle, she put her arm down, eyeballed me, and said, “Relax this muscle and try to breathe through it!” as she poked the target on my arm. Easier said than done.

As I was leaving that place (as fast as I could), I began thinking about all of the scenarios in which someone had told me to Just-relax-and-breathe-through-it. Labor pains, and the birth of my son; a therapist I went to, when my entire organization was melting-down and people were literally ‘keying’ one another’s cars and slashing tires out of spite; trying to focus on my attorney’s words, as we discussed my brother’s lawsuit over my father’s inheritance, robbing me of two years of peace of mind.

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Relax. Breathe. Sometimes I play a mental game with myself during stress. I compare what I’m presently going through to the absolute worst-case moments I’ve had before.  Just to keep perspective. Which, I know,  isn’t the same as breathing-through whatever ‘it’ is. Because breathing-through it means allowing the terror to enter my heart, to lie coiled there for as long as it wants (while I try to ignore it), until it gets bored and goes away. Intellectually, I understand that a tensed muscle equals resistance, which equals more pain. But something much deeper, and more primal closes my ears and makes me want to hide from scary moments. When I hear, “Relax and Just Breathe Through It”? Well, the expression “Hold my beer…” comes to mind.

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Yesterday I was literally down on my hands and knees cleaning my floors, feeling so pleased with the results. But a few hours later, as the afternoon sun streamed through the glass storm door at the front of my house, I saw tiny little paw prints trekking figure-eights in the polished glow. How, I wondered, did one of my cats come in without my seeing it, to dance on my floor while it was still wet? I thought that cats were averse to anything wet, never mind sticky, as the floor wax is. Sneaky. Unexpected. Yet there the prints were, proclaiming ‘territory’. That’s how cats are. What did I expect – really? As I grow older, I think of a similar metaphor that’s been present throughout my life. Ideas and beliefs that were fulfilled, and those that were crushed to bits in the process of living.

Starting pretty early-on (I think it began when I entered school), I’ve always had expectations for myself; and soon afterwards, for others. To be honest, the bar was set pretty high for a long time; the pressure intense, for me and anyone I was close to. How did this develop? As I look at my own upbringing, it’s clear that my parents and grandparents drove much of what I thought was my own initiative. Turns out, it wasn’t. Still, I can’t say that their expectations for me were out of whack. Most of what they asked (make that, quietly and subtly demanded) turned out to be helpful.

But being shaped by our elders is a kind of an expectation in itself; the method doesn’t always translate so well when we try to shape others, so that their attitudes and actions conform to what we want and need. How much influence do our expectations have on the people we say we love? And how do we ‘put them – what we expect to happen — out there’ — as demands, and even ultimatums? Or, do we go into what I call ‘stealth mode’:  our expectations are very specific, but we don’t share them overtly. We alone know what they are; we  sit back, waiting for others to intuit what they are. Disappointment and resentment lurks, then grows.

Entering into relationship – especially the kind that is deep, heartfelt and crucially important (we feel) to our wellbeing – we bring expectations. They’re driven by our needs and our desires. As I think back, and look forward, I’m learning from experience how my expectations are sometimes unrealistic, ego-driven, and completely impossible for another to fulfill. It stands to reason, then:  either I’m trying to make someone into the version I want, or, my expectations are a reveal of my own faults (read unresolved fears or insecurities). Perhaps I’m basing my expectations on what others around me use as a measurement of Success and Happiness? Are they even mine?

That would be just as silly as waxing a floor in a household full of cats, believing that not a single one will go dancing on the wet floor.

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In the past few weeks I’ve had multiple experiences – first a trickle, then a steady daily stream – that’ve revealed a heartbreakingly common theme of being human. Many Readers are familiar with the thought experiment that shows the Law of Attraction at work:  holding an image in your mind during a normal day (a butterfly, for example) and noticing how many times you see images, or the real thing, from sun-up until sundown. It’s pretty remarkable – if you can maintain playful focus on whatever you decide you want to ‘see’.

The thought experiment I’ve been living recently first started (maybe 3 weeks ago) when a dozen or so of my colleagues were tasked with choosing teams for a project. Anyone could start the process of choosing – it began, and ended via email. But as those who were anxious to pick competent and capable friends began sending out Invites, others were left unchosen.  Memories from grade school athletics:  the unsparingly-cruel team captains selecting the best, or most skilled, players so as to avoid getting stuck with ‘losers’.

If you were in the small group of misfits no captain wanted (as I was, in most sports competitions), the lesson was unmistakable and painfully poignant:  no one wants you. In my colleague-teaming situation, this played out (via groupmail) in a very public way:  who was invited to join, and who was left asking to join. Yes, we’re all adults and this is Life, but still; it didn’t feel good. After all, we all want and need to be well-regarded; to be chosen; to be Liked.

In the 26 August “New Yorker” magazine, there’s an article titled “Trouble in Paradise” by Andrew Marantz. The piece focuses on the Tech industry’s efforts to confront its ‘demons’, in terms of its perceived (and fact-based) lack of ethics. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Apple and several others are being called-out for tactics that are now collectively referred to as “Human Downgrading:  …a reduction of human capacity…and human sensitivities” (p. 63).

There’s a ton of ‘psychology’, as it turns out, behind what these platforms do, and how they do it, in their quest for more and more presence in our lives. Turns out (many Readers might already know this), for example, an individual (not a Think Tank) came up with the idea of the ‘Like’ button. The button’s designed to gather data about our preferences, but also feeds our dopamine-hungry bodies in the same way that video games do:  by zapping our receptors with alternating challenges, rewards, defeats and punishments.

But what happens when we put ourselves ‘out there’, in the arena of social scrutiny, and we are not chosen? Or, we don’t get the number of ‘Likes’ we want and think we deserve? Studies are now showing that we grow panicky and anxious, sad and even despondent. Combatting the Awful Truth of the phrase “If It’s Not Insta, It Didn’t Happen”, Instagram in Canada has removed the ‘Like’ button entirely from its application, knowing full well what this means to the company’s bottom-line.

So after my “teambuilding” (a deliberate oxymoron, here) experience, I continued to encounter friends and family members who were feeling invisible, neglected, unloved and even shamed in their experiences and relationships. I’m not trying to imply that all of these outcomes are the result of being “on” Social Media, or, Under the Influence of Social Media, but the New Yorker article presents pretty compelling evidence of a connection. The Tech Giants (the humans running this industry) themselves seem to be in growing realization that much of their money-making relies on promoting and maintaining human emotions such as apprehension, uncertainty, insecurity and a sense of inclusion or exclusion.

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Who are these people Liking and Following us, and why does this even matter so much? What might Likes and Follows be a substitute for? I note the symbolism of a simple ‘button’, like Roman Emperors of ancient times:  “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as to whether or not a gladiator’s life should be spared. Wait – did you think that ‘Thumbs-Up’ was invented by Tech? (smiley emoji)

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I can still remember the day my teenaged son screamed “I hate you!”:  three words that totally gut-punched me and shut down the argument we were having about his extremely poor choices (for the record, the kind that threaten life and limb). I was standing my ground, holding firm, sticking to the tenets of Tough Love. Until those three words eviscerated me. Feeling almost mortally wounded, I retreated. I’ve never forgotten how that felt.

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Whether we’re on the receiving end of Hate, or delivering Hate, the result is the same, as far as our bodies are concerned. In his book, “The Biology of Belief”, Dr. Bruce Lipton talks about the mind-body connection and the changes brought-about on a cellular level by negative emotions (giving or receiving). Lipton’s not the first (and won’t be the last) to connect the dots between human emotion and overall well-being.

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Anger – whether it’s impulsive, or becomes a lifestyle – is particularly harmful in the way it slowly corrodes our delicate internal systems. Lipton’s studies are too fascinating, too important, and much too data-detailed  (he’s a scientist, first and foremost) to summarize here. Instead, I’ll just share that Lipton’s one of my main Go-To’s,  when I’m struggling to understand hateful people.  

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) is another ‘giant’ in this area. Although she’s probably best known for her theory of The Five Stages of Grief, what I often — especially lately, here in the United States– “consult” (in my own head, anyway!) with her on is this:   when it comes to human emotions, there are really only two:  Love, and Fear.

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We know a lot about Love:  what it feels like, what it can do in our lives and in the World; how our bodies ‘float’ when we engage in pure acts of love toward other people, animals, Nature and our own Planet Earth. There’s no mistaking authentic Love. Even the superficial, media-created (think: films and TV) versions of ‘Love’– often cheesy and formulaic – can still be charming and sweet in their attempt to ‘copycat’ the Real Thing. What is harder to get a handle on is Fear, because it wears a few disguises: Hate being one of them  (Kübler-Ross, by the way, adds ‘anxiety’ and ‘guilt’ as other “masks” worn by Fear).

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When I consider the times in my life that I’ve encountered Hate, of course it’s always been a hateful person or hateful people:  animals don’t hate. That may seem like an idiotic observation, but I mention animals to make a distinction between what happens when Fear dons the mask of Aggression, versus when it shows itself as Hate. Fear can cause animals and people to feel threatened and go into offensive-mode.

But Hate is entirely different:  hate is a choice. Hate takes the normal survival-instinct of Fear and shoots one thousand volts of aggressive current through the body so that ‘fending off a predator’ is no longer the primary goal:  mental, emotional and even physical annihilation is.  And great suffering is a desirable part of the process.

How do we cope with hateful people? Is there a way of reaching their hearts, soothing their fears, disarming their need to inflict pain? I can only speak from experience and share what I know about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of this thinking. In my own family relationships, I came to the conclusion that, sometimes – regrettably — Fear appears more powerful than Love.

actor Malcolm McDowell as the despot Caligula

The Roman emperor Caligula, known for his extreme sadism and brutality, is supposed to have said, “I don’t care if [the People] love me, so long as they fear me!”  Some people, it seems to me, would much rather be feared than loved. Instilling fear in others equates with power, for these types. When powerful people (who have the ability to influence your happiness, sense of safety, stability and general welfare) decide to mobilize their own insecurities in hate-filled ‘attacks’, there’s really no reaching them.

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Kübler-Ross says that Love and Fear are mutually-exclusive:  they can’t co-exist at the same time. We must always – therefore – choose to operate from one or the other. In countering Hate, it seems to me that the only strategy is to acknowledge (actively, demonstrably) that Love is the better option. But since Hate is in full-body armor in our World today, Love must shield itself also, while remaining fully ‘present’ and steadfast, in a genuine struggle for Survival. It really doesn’t matter to me if you’d prefer to call Love’s armor God, the Universe, Allah, Jehovah, Divine Spirit, Gaia, or something else. As long as we stand together under one of Love’s many names, I’m with you.