This past Monday I received an email from a friend that saddened and surprised me. It was a copy of an Open Letter written by Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass and Sharon Salzberg. A few years ago, each of these folks had been intentionally supportive of a Handbook I put together intended for therapists and caregivers. Though I have never spent one-on-one time with any of them, they nevertheless feel familiar to me – like old, dear, trusted friends.
In the Open Letter Jack, Sharon and Ram Dass were making a public appeal on behalf of friends of theirs – Stephen and Ondrea Levine. Ondrea is suffering from leukemia and Stephen’s health is such that he is no longer able to travel and teach. In my own work and studies in dying and grief, no two people have played a more seminal role.
I attended my first workshop with Stephen and Ondrea during the week between Christmas and New Years back in 1981. It remains memorable for one primary reason: most of the people attending that weekend were parents of children who had been murdered or who had died from serious illnesses or automobile accidents. In my experience, there is no grief greater. The equanimity and grace and compassion and empathy with which Stephen and Ondrea were able to be fully present to such profound suffering, as each parent painfully struggled to relate their story, has stayed with me for all these years. Their ability be heartfully present to such suffering remains a model I continue to aspire to today.
Though I have only spent time with them in large group settings a half dozen times at most, Stephen and Ondrea, too, feel like old, dear friends of mine. They have consigned their money and their lives to support their beliefs in the desire to address and alleviate suffering in the world, something I deeply respect and admire. I also remember Stephen once speaking indirectly to the subject of friendship. He was talking about the inbuilt fear many of us seem to have of people we don’t know, like homeless people, and Iraqis and members of the Taliban. In response to such automatic conditioning, he asked one of Mother Teresa’s favorite questions. It was one she used to put to people who feared lepers: “What if you were simply to think of them as Jesus or Buddha in one of his most distressing disguises?”
What indeed? A wonderful question. Nevertheless, I have come to discover that, while helpful, holding such a thought is not fully sufficient for a friend of your friend to immediately and effortlessly show up and feel like my friend, too. Something more is needed. What that something more turns out to be is doing things to “get my head more together,” that is, significantly increasing the connectivity between my orbital medial prefrontal cortex and the limbic structures in my brain. Noted child psychiatrist, Dan Siegel, writing in his book The Mindful Brain, cites a number of recent studies that confirm this connectivity is just what the doctor ordered. So, in order for your friend to become my friend, even if your friend is a bona fide saint, I may need to first grow some additional prefrontal connecting fibers. Otherwise, at a minimum your friend might look suspiciously like someone wanting something from me, or like some huckster trying to perpetrate one scam or another – the simple result of my conditioned limbic structures doing their distorted best to look out for me.
Understanding this turns out to actually be a comfort to me. There are things I can do that work to actually grow such fibers and make these crucial connections. A number of things, it turns out. If we’ve been fortunate enough to be born to parents with their own great OFC (Orbitofrontal cortex) connectivity, that’s a great start. They will almost automatically do things to help us grow our own. If not, then an alternative option is to spend a lot of time with a teacher or mentor who has their own neural undergrowth in good integrated order. Andrew Newberg at Princeton and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, in their work with wired-up meditating monks, have produced some empirical evidence that contemplative practices, in addition to their stress-reducing abilities, also work to increase orbitalfrontal connectivity.
These are a few of the ways that I can work on myself so that your friend might effortlessly and easily become my friend. I’ll offer up more possibilities in the coming weeks. As a result, the hope is that you and I will perhaps gain back some of the neural real estate that no longer needs to be concerned with fear and self-protection. With such internal neural abundance, we might then be able to generously devote some of it to the compassionate care of good friends like Stephen and Ondrea Levine.