We just returned from a 10-day stay in beautiful Ireland. I had been there years ago during the waning days of a failing marriage and didn’t like the place at all. Just goes to show how important state of mind is! This time, my wife and I joined our 21 year old daughter and traipsed around Dublin and the Southwest and I fell in love with the land and its people. Being away to another culture allows a wonderful insight into our own and America shines brightly through the Irish lens. So many came from the island to the U.S. – particularly during the catastrophic potato famine of the late 1840’s (which wiped out about 1/3 of the 8 million population through starvation or emigration. In fact, Ireland has never reached its pre-famine population!). Hardly a person we spoke to failed to have relatives in this country. Gracious, full of humor, delightful poetry in their expression and extremely friendly – a visit is like immersion into a warm human bath. Yet, there is a vein of pain which runs through the Irish heart and history. The oppression of the huge power (England) just to the east, that imposed laws which prohibited, upon pain of death, the open worship of their faith and allowed Protestants to move to the island and confiscate the land and property of the rural farmers under the policy of “plantation” – the depredations of Oliver Cromwell hundreds of years ago – the multiple uprisings seeking freedom and autonomy which were brutally put down – this was the same oppressive power that the American colonists rebelled against successfully. Looking at the U.S. from Ireland, you see an extremely optimistic people and a wealthy, wealthy land. You can make it in Ireland, but if you make it in the U.S., well, you have made it! I have spoken with immigrants from places like Russia and they repeat the vision of this country as having a basically optimistic spirit. Visions which will remain include the Irish field, with plots defined by chest-high rock walls; the greenest of green grass grazed over by large flocks of sheep; occasional ruins of 400 year old (or older) castles or monasteries as you drive from one rural town to the next; pubs, like Dick Macks in Dingle, where I walked in on a bachelor party of about 30 guys crammed into this tiny space raising their Guinness’, standing on tables and benches and singing at the top of their lungs or the traditional music jam in a Doolin pub with a fiddle, guitar, two flutes and a guy who played accordion like a god and was better as the night wore on and he got increasingly smashed; the Book of Kells which is adorned with the most beautiful inscriptions and monastic art (with scores of ways to depict in art different letters – like the letter “d” for example). We are so young – they are so old. Perhaps most importantly, it was revitalizing to go away for just a couple of weeks and return refocused and refreshed. It’s good to be back with our memories and the fun and interesting work ahead.
The seventh basic emotion circuit that was found by Jaak Panksepp (see prior posts) is what he, unfortunately, calls the “panic” circuit. He calls it that because of the panicked reaction of young animals who are separated from their mothers. I prefer to call it by its more appropriate and descriptive name, the Attachment Circuit. Panksepp describes the distressed cries of animals – identical to the distressed cries of separated young, which are evoked by the stimulation of a particular neuronal circuit in the brain. The distress is caused by separation. The resolution of the distress is caused by reunification. Panksepp’s work confirms what has been argued by attachment therapists like Dr. Sue Johnson – the co-developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy. We have a deep and biologically determined need for connection. When that connection is threatened, we become distressed and anxious. When we become distressed and anxious, we are inclined to react automatically. This is the painful dance that we see in the distressing cycle we almost always observe with couples who are in conflict. Brent Atkinson, a marital therapist and author, has created an entire approach to couples therapy based on Panksepp’s work. Atkinson repeats that individuals are overtaken by the intensity of their emotional reactivity. This is precisely the same kind of description that Sue Johnson uses to describe how a couple is overtaken by the force of their cycle. Imagine, when both people’s brain circuits are firing so fast and strong that they are swept up into the maelstrom, seemingly without any control – at least not until they are helped to s….l….o…..w it down and realize when they, themselves, are being overtaken by these strong, automatic, emotional discharges in the brain. The belief of emotionally focused therapists is that once we are able to slow it down and gain awareness of our process, we can create safety for ourselves and our partner. That’s at least what goes on in my office, anyway.