Archive for September 24, 2009

Ego Strength And Personal Development

In Western culture we have become fascinated, dazzled and bewitched by our own egos. We know what we like and what we don’t like. We know who we like and who we don’t like. And we know what parts of ourselves we like and those we want to change. Therapists collude with this tacit assumption that somehow more ego is better. Indeed in our increasingly atomised social world, where independence is prized above all other qualities, it often feels that we have to ‘fully’ be ourselves, in order to exist.
This view of self or ego, I want to suggest, is a modern malady, and one that hoodwinks us from our potential to become fully human. Let me explain.

When we are born we make a physical separation from our mothers. We are still completely dependent upon her, and our sense of self as a separate being is in embryonic form. We have no ego, or sense of self, to speak of.

As we develop as children we start to gain a clearer, and secure, sense of our own separateness from our mothers. Our ego is developing. But as children our egos are still very fragile, easily disrupted by the contingencies of living. We are still very much dependent on our mothers to feel secure in the world.

The really big shift in our development comes at adolescence. If things are going well, we feel secure enough to experiment with severing the ties with our mother. I think this is what Freud meant when he said ‘the duty of the adolescent is to rebel’. If we are lucky, we have parents who understand what we are doing, support us in our choices, and yet remain the bedrock of our security until we need it no longer.

If adolescence works well for us, we emerge as independent young adults’ capable of taking responsibility for our own behaviour. We ‘get a life’, and live it on our own terms.

This process is shown in the graph below.
ego strenght graph

Of course for a therapist, I see many clients whose movement from dependence to independence has been disrupted for a whole range of reasons. For example, a parent may have died catapulting the child to a position of responsibility in the household too early. Alternatively, a mother may fail to protect her child from an abusive father, leaving the child feeling vulnerable in the home and outside of it.

Whatever the cause, the result is the same. The child becomes an adult who is insecure at being an independent person in their own right. They have trouble taking responsibility for their own behaviour, and are dependent on other people to meet their needs.

Much of my therapeutic time is spent helping people build their ego strength. Separating securely from their parents, and learning to trust their own being to meet their needs.

But this is not the end of the story. Western culture would lead us to believe that achieving the height of ego strength and independence is the pinnacle of achievement, but this is not so. As human beings there is still further along the path of self awareness to travel. In fact we can learn to transcend ego.

If we allow ourselves to grow beyond independence, we find that our ego is not as substantial as we first came to believe. In fact our existence as a separate individual is itself slightly illusory. We need other people in order to exist. We find that our existence is mutually interdependent with other people’s existence. This may be experienced as frightening when we first come across it, and go retreating back into the safety of the strong ego.

For those who can work past the fear, there is a greater potential to be unlocked. The potential is for a balance between self and other, work and play, mind and society, a balance that transcends such dualities, and leaves the person with a deep sense of peace and happiness. In fact this is the only place where a lasting happiness can be found.

To start wandering down this path we need courage, for sure, we need guidance, undoubtedly, but we also need, paradoxically, a strong ego with which to start. For people with a fragile ego process, the fear encountered by confronting the true nature of ego can be simply too much to bear.

Of course the diagram shown above charts the rise and fall of ego with the move from dependence, through independence, into interdependence. It is true that some systems of thought such as Buddhism hold that it is possible to permanently and completely extinguish the ego. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know. In any event it is likely to only be a reality for a small proportion of humanity.

For the rest of us we wax and wane through different levels of ego strength. When we are attacked, for example, we may experience a challenge to our ego, one that leaves us feeling a fragile sense of self. When we give our Power Point presentation we may need to inhabit the full power of our ego. Similarly, in our more sublime moments, say when observing a beautiful sunset, we may capture something of the piece that comes from a release of ego.

Wherever you are on this continuum right now, and whatever range you occupy on the continuum at different points in time, I believe that this is one of the best ways of understanding where we are at, and what we need to do to progress.

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How To Meditate – a Simple Meditation Technique

Mindfulness, through meditation, is gathering momentum in the mental health industry as a treatment that can help in a wide range of mental health problems, particularly depression. I thought I would write a post that explains a simple meditation technique that readers can get themselves started with.

meditationIt is important to sit in an upright position so that you can stay aware and alert and not fall off to sleep. Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the ground and a small cushion at the base of your spine. Your shoulders should therefore not be resting on the back of the chair. Rest your hands gently in your lap. If this is likely to cause a strain over time, you can place them on a cushion on your lap.

Close your eyes, breath in and breath out. Count one.

Breath in and breath out. Count two.

Breath in and breath out. Count three.

Continue counting the breath until you reach 10, then start again at 1. If you get lost or distracted, start again from one.

Do not try to control the breath; simply be aware of the in breath and out breath and the counting of it.

It’s as simple as that!

For most people, of course, it is far from simple. What happens is that the mind throws up a torrent of thoughts to distract you from your practice. This is perfectly normal. Don’t judge yourself harshly for the thoughts, and try not to get caught up in them. When you do notice you have got caught up in thoughts, this is a moment of awareness, congratulate yourself, and then return to the counting from 1.

For most people about 5 minutes of this is about as much as they can bear. I therefore recommend starting with 5 minutes of meditation every day. Once you are into a routine, and starting to feel comfortable with the technique, you can build the meditation time up to 30 minutes a day.

Don’t try to meditate more that 30 minutes a day unless you are being supervised by an experienced meditation teacher. If you feel that the technique is causing you harm, stop immediately and consult an experienced meditation teacher before resuming.

You will be amazed at the tricks your mind will play on you to stop you from paying attention to the breath. I can’t stress enough how normal this is. Whenever you notice your mind wander, just bring it back to the breath, and continue counting.

In my experience, it takes several months before you start to notice the positive benefits of meditation. It has been describes as like walking in a mist, after a while you get wet, but there is no rain. You need to invest the time to ‘get wet’ and get the benefits.

I would not recommend meditation as a treatment if you are in crises. Failing at meditation will just give you one more thing to worry about. You might be better advised to try another, more direct ‘relaxation’ technique, like a self hypnosis tape or a massage. Of course if you are a skilled meditator already, then your meditation practice will sustain you through a crises, my only concern is for people learning meditation for the first time while they are in crises.

One final thing, don’t try to ‘get’ anywhere in meditation. This isn’t about trying to ‘get’ relaxation, or insight, or calm or anything else for that matter. A meditation spent feeling agitated is just as valuable as a meditation feeling calm. This is about being with your self, and being curios about what’s there.

If you are interested in learning more I can recommend Meditation for Dummies by Dean Ornish MD and Stephan Bodian.

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Choosing a long term mate? Give them a good sniff!

Smell is an important indicator of sexual attraction, and science is starting to understand why.

One of the first studies to look at sexual attraction and smell was conducted by Claude Wedekind in the 1990’s. He asked over 40 men to wear t-shirts for three days at a time. The men deliberately avoided using deodorants or anything else that could mask their natural smell. A panel of women were then invited to smell the t-shirts and give their verdicts on which ones smelled the best.

What the researcher found was that women chose the men with a major histocompatabilty complex most different from their own. The major histocompatability complex is a series of genes that relate to our immune system. This is consistent with mate choice findings in other species.

What appears to be happening is that choosing a mate with a completely different immune system makes evolutionary sense. On the one hand it is more likely that any offspring will develop a healthy immune system and therefore survive. On the other hand, selecting a partner with a radically different major histocompatability complex means that you are more likely to avoid a kin member and the biological risks associated with inbreeding.

The implications of this research are clear. Pay attention to the smell of your partner. If it works for you, then you are more likely to be both fertile with that person, and produce healthy offspring. As an aside, the same mechanism seems to work for gay and lesbian couples.

A couple of caveats need to be mentioned before you go drawing conclusions about the smell of your partner. The first is that as a general finding, women tend to dislike the smell of men except for the week that they are the most fertile. My guess therefore, is that this is the time to test if a women finds you hot. The second is that women on the contraceptive pill give out smells that fool the body into thinking they are pregnant and therefore unavailable for sex. This strategy is therefore best avoided if you partner is on the pill.

My view is that whatever the science says, if you find your partners smell offensive, then you are unlikely to make it last anyway. So get sniffing, take note, and be warned!

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Foods for Prostate Health

Approximately 50 percent of men in their forties experience prostate problems while one in 11 North American men over the age of 50 will develop prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men.

Fortunately, medical research has demonstrated that BPH and other prostate conditions and diseases can be prevented, reduced and treated by a variety of procedures, medications, herbal supplements as well as nutritional and lifestyle changes.

The right nutrition can protect the prostate and reduce the risk of disease. Early detection also increases the chance of beating prostate cancer. Physicians estimate that almost 80 per cent of all cancers can be prevented by making healthier lifestyle choices.

Foods that Prevent Prostate Disease

To reduce the risk of prostate cancer avoid saturated and trans fats and add foods that protect against cancers, such as tomatoes, soy, and green tea. Ripe tomatoes contain lycopene, a nutrient that is especially important to men because of its protective effects against prostate cancer. Unlike other nutrients, there are actually higher amounts of lycopene in cooked and processed tomatoes such as tomato sauce.

Soy contains isoflavones with specific anti-cancer activity and green tea is rich in polyphenols which prevent the formation of cancer-causing compounds and block the growth of prostate cancer cells.
Add nuts and seeds to your daily diet to significantly prevent and reduce prostate enlargement. They contain essential fatty acids and zinc, nutrients which inhibit the hormonal processes that cause swelling of the prostate. Unrefined, cold-pressed nut and seed oils such as flax seed, walnut and sesame seed oil are excellent sources of essential fatty acids. Fish oil has a similar, healthy effect.

Take a daily nutritional supplement that contains high doses of the antioxidant selenium (200 micrograms) and vitamin E (800 IU). Both these supplements have been shown to dramatically lower the risk of prostate cancer.

It is no surprise that prostate cancer is more common in western, developed countries, or that its incidence rose in the turn of the century when processed food containing hydrogenated and heat-damaging fats became more available.

Herbal Supplements for Prostate Health

Extracts of two herbs, saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) and pygeum (Pygeum africanum) have been shown to reduce enlargement of the prostate without adverse side effects. Suggested doses are 320 milligrams of saw palmetto and 40 to 80 mg of pygeum daily. Saw palmetto extract has also been combined with an extract from the herb nettle root, to successfully treat prostate problems other than prostate cancer. Consult a physician before using natural supplements.

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Iron Man Family Outing Book Review

Book Review: Iron Man Family Outing – Poems about a transition into a more conscious manhood by Rick Belden.

Fathers are important, especially to little boys. The author of this anthology of poems, Rick Belden, describes his father as “angry, abusive” and “unavailable”. To cope with the hurt, Rick escaped into imaginative fantasy. His favourite was the comic book hero, Iron Man. When the Iron Man started to appear in his dreams as an adult, it precipitated a forensic examination of his childhood and the man he had become.

This book of poetry documents, often with brutal honesty, Rick’s penetrating and uncompromising search for himself. As a therapist I am used to accompanying clients on such journeys to the core of their being. Rick’s journey is often heartbreaking as he reveals his angst, anger and despair.

Like all books of poetry, I let the words wash over me. Some spoke to me more than others. Those that did speak to me addressed the damaged child within. That child I had to learn to befriend, and even take out to play.

Indeed, Rick’s book speaks to the damaged child in all of us. But Rick goes further and shows how that damaged child, with low self worth, becomes an adult that acts out in unhelpful ways. For example by using sex to give and receive pain.

Rick’s work, if it anything, is transformative. It holds out in optimism that by courageously facing the child we were, we can create a more rewarding future for the adult we want to become.

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