If you heard the recent episode on Parental Burnout, you’ll know that our identities can become really confusing when we become parents, especially for women. On one hand, society tells us that we have to work hard and do well so we can Achieve The Dream. And on the other hand, we’re told that a Good Mother sacrifices everything for her child – including her career. So what is a parent to do?
This episode brings together a couple of strands of my life that have been existing in parallel for a few months now. A friend of mine introduced me to meditation as a tool that I might find useful to explore when I was struggling with some personal issues. Not only did I find it interesting, but I also found elements of it that helped me to make sense of the situation I was in in a way that I had not been able to do until that point.
Like a lot of people, I had the common perception that meditation consists of sitting quietly on the floor cross-legged with thumb and pointing finger touching, saying ‘ommmm’ but when I looked into the research on mindfulness stress reduction that perception went away pretty fast. It had been shown in the scientific literature to be enormously helpful to people not just in reducing stress but also in reducing the severity of physical symptoms in the body that accompany stress.
But I was still having a hard time reconciling the thousands of scientific research papers I’ve read over the years on how children’s brains develop and some of these new ideas I was learning related mindfulness. And so that is kind of how I discovered Dr. Chris Niebauer and his book No Self, No Problem. After reading it I was able to reconcile those two strands – the psychological research and mindfulness – and I want to share that with you. Along the way, we’ll gain an understanding of the mind that may help us to overcome some of the challenges associated with Parental Burnout – so even if you’re not officially (clinically) suffering from burnout, this episode could still help you to better reconcile the different aspects of your life and identity.
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Dutton, D.G., & Aron, A.P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 30(4), 510-517.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps. Contemporaty Buddhism 12(1), 281-306.
Mays, J.C., & Newman, A. (2020, April 8) Virus is twice as deadly for black and latino people than whites in N.C.Y. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html?searchResultPosition=3
Meston, C.M., & Frohlich, P.F. (2003). Love at first fright: Partner salience moderates roller-coaster-induced excitation transfer. Archives of Sexual Behavior 32(6).
Niebauer, C. (2019). No self, no problem: How neuropsychology is catching up to Buddhism. San Antonio, TX: Heirophant
Click here to read the full transcript
Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. I’m really excited about today’s topic because it brings together a couple of strands of my life that have been existing in parallel for a few months and they’re now beginning to interweave themselves in the most interesting, useful and exciting ways. I’ve been struggling with some personal issues for several months and a friend introduced me to meditation, not specifically as a way to help me through it, but more of a useful tool that I might find interesting to explore. And I did find it interesting. And I also found the elements of it helped me to make sense of the situation that I was in in a way that I hadn’t been able to do until that point. And then sort of in parallel to that I had been aware of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work to introduce Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at a clinic in Massachusetts, and that it had been shown in the scientific literature to be enormously helpful to people, not just in reducing stress, but also in reducing the severity of even physical symptoms in the body that accompanies stress. But I kind of had this perception I think a lot of people have that meditation is basically kind of sitting quietly on the floor and your legs crossed and your thumb and your first finger are touching and you’re saying, umm, and so some reading got me over that perception pretty fast, but I was still having a hard time really squaring the thousands of scientific research papers that I’ve read over the years on how children’s brains develop. And then some of these new ideas that I was learning related to mindfulness. And so a couple months ago, the folks who are in my Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership had voted to cover the topic, The Sense of Self and Parenting, and they wanted to know things like, why do I feel like I have to be the perfect mom and the perfect housewife? And how do I reconcile the compromises I’ve made with my career and the things that I enjoy with as my role as a parent? And why does it feel as though I’m losing the very parts of myself that made me feel alive and real and valuable? And so one aspect of this work led me to the episode that we covered a few weeks ago on Parental Burnout, but another led me to our guest today, Dr. Chris Niebauer. And he wrote the book, No Self No Problem: How Neuropsychology Is Catching Up to Buddhism, and I devoured the book in a day. It’s incredibly readable. And suddenly it felt as though those two strands of my life, the psychological research and the mindfulness meditation had become one, and I wanted to share more about that with you. So Dr. Niebauer earned his Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuropsychology at the University of Toledo specializing in the differences between the left and the right sides of the human brain. He’s currently a professor at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses on consciousness, mindfulness, left and right brain differences and artificial intelligence. Welcome Dr. Niebauer.
Dr. Niebauer 4:23
Thanks. Thanks, Jen.
So I’m super excited about this. There are a lot of books you can read about mindfulness and meditation and some of them you read a sentence you’re like, what exactly does that mean? And how is that relevant and yours was just so clear, and so cogent. It was fun to read. It was interesting to read, and it was also just super, super clear, kind of walking you through this process. So it’s really an honor to have you here today.
Dr. Niebauer 4:47
Thank you. I appreciate those comments and a lot goes out to my publisher, Randy Davila. He is an editor. There were quite a few lines in there that were probably really complex and fortunately, he was wise enough to remove a lot of that and make it much more accessible to people. And so that goes out to him and people at Hierophant Publishing, they were super helpful throughout the whole process.
Hats off to them as well then. So I wonder if we can maybe start by having you tell us how you arrived at the ideas that you describe in the book. Did you have any kind of background in mindfulness or meditation early on? Or was it something you arrived at later? And how did those ideas kind of knit together for you?
Dr. Niebauer 5:30
So most of my childhood, I wanted to be a musician, and we’re talking like 80s hairband, kind of rock music kind of thing. And it was kind of late in my teens when my father had died very unpredictably, and death suddenly became a very big overwhelming reality in my life. And I found almost instantaneous neurosis, worry, anxiety. It was like a switch just got flagged on. And I was struggling with it, a lot of my 20s. And I was trying to figure this thing out and neuroscience sort of made sense. And the whole psychology thing made sense to me. So I was one of these types that knew instantly, I want to be a Psych major because maybe they have an answer. And so I went into psych, and I got my undergrad, and then it was just absolutely obvious I was going to go to graduate school because that was just a logical progression with it. And as I progressed, I was ever more disappointed that a lot of the things I went into it for, like, what’s the way out? You know, the mind and the psychological mechanisms got me into this mess, why can’t they get me out? And I started searching and I stumbled upon Alan Watts. And he introduced me to the whole concept of Eastern philosophy and Zen Buddhism, and Hinduism, and Taoism, and it just opened up just, it was like everything I was looking for. But I never left psych. And I never left neuroscience because I think the foundations and kind of the foothold that neuroscience provides us on some of these questions, it’s a great place to start. And so, even though I don’t think the brain is going to yield and give us all the answers that we want, the brain is a good place to start a conversation about these issues, because, you know, so many people are talking about the epidemic and the virus and how this is I mean, the whole world has changed. But the idea of anxiety, neurosis, worry, intrusive thoughts, these have been plaguing us for such a long time that they become normal. It’s the ordinary person is a quivering neurotic mess and that’s…
Hey, how did you know that about me?
Dr. Niebauer 7:57
It’s so true for so many, for all of us really. And so when I got into this, it sort of was a strange disconnect to say, well, you’re a neuroscientist, shouldn’t you be into the science and you shouldn’t be off meditating and you shouldn’t be off, you know, doing Tai Chi and studying Kung Fu and all these ancient practices of the East. But I found that one, they really complemented each other in a way that it just felt right. It’s like, yeah, this is working for me. And so that’s the path that sort of got connected about maybe 20 years ago, and I just kind of followed it through. And the deeper I go into Eastern philosophy, the more it helps me with neuroscience. The more I go into neuroscience, the more it helps me with Eastern philosophy.
So let’s define some of the terms that we’re going to be working with today. And one of them kind of kicks us right in the deep end I think, what is me and I and the self as a sort of central concept?
Dr. Niebauer 8:56
It is perhaps my favorite question to ponder. You know, when I say I, what do I mean?
Right. Because, I mean, before I read your book, it seems sort of obvious.
Dr. Niebauer 9:07
Oh, it seemed. It’s one of those deceptive questions because it seems absolutely obvious. Who am I? I’m Chris. Well, I am what I do, right? I’m a professor. And I’m a parent. And I start off, I define myself by these social roles, that some are choices, some have been imposed on me, but they’re collectively defined by society, gender, age, so many, I could go through a long list of all these things that kind of just got thrown on to me. And then I find myself defining myself in terms of those characteristics. But when you tear those away, and people have moments where they start realizing, well, maybe I’m not my job, and oh, and sometimes it’s just a sudden they get fired and they find themselves who am I if I don’t have my career? Sometimes it’s thrown unpredictably and then sometimes it’s, you know, you get a certain age and you start thinking, am I really my paycheck? And no. And am I really this and all these socially defined roles. And so what’s underneath to all of that? So in my view, the self, as most people think of it is largely an idea of who we think we are. And when you tear all that down, you start shifting from this kind of left brain, categorical identity that’s socially constructed to something that’s much more of a mystery. And it is an actual mystery. And so when people say, well, who are you? The honest, I could give you a bunch of left brain answers, but the honest response is, I don’t know. You know, it’s a mystery and it’s maybe purposely a mystery. It’s an interesting little puzzle that I think in some ways I could, I think yesterday, this came up during a conversation when we were talking about the self and if all these ideas of the self are just ideas then there’s no kind of reality to the self. And maybe that’s true. It’s certainly my position. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no soul. Soul is an interesting concept that psychology got rid of a long time ago. And maybe they had to, to kind of investigate the science. But it’s an interesting trend now in psych, where they’re starting to throw that term around, again, not as a replacement for the self. So they’re not talking about the soul as this social construct, or the soul is what I do, or the soul is somehow identified with this body or the mind or the intellect. But they’re defining it as, again, a mystery. And it’s something we can’t put into words. And that’s one of the things that I find. We live in a very interesting time where science tells us if we can’t put it into words, it doesn’t exist. And we’re slowly picking up on this notion that reality is filled with interesting experiences, that even if they can’t be put into words, they’re real, nonetheless.
Okay, and so we’re going to come back to some of those ideas around language. And also, you’ve mentioned the left brain and right brains roles. I’ll come back to that very soon. But I think this is going to come up. So I just wanted to find it. What is suffering?
Dr. Niebauer 12:21
There’s two types of suffering, and I only address one. And so there’s real physical suffering in the sense that someone breaks leg or they have physical ailment or disease. And I really am not addressing any of that. In fact, this came up a couple times, I get this question where someone will say, well, you know, I’ve been to my physician, and if everything is fine, why do I have to take this pill? And I’m like, look, well, you know, maybe we are spiritual beings, but we’re having this human existence. And we have a body. And you know, sometimes it’s good to listen to your MD. And there are times, yeah, you know, all the answers may not be in the mind. There may be real physicality to the body. And that kind of suffering I don’t really speak to very much. The kind of suffering I’m talking about it’s the suffering that I experienced. And the one I talked about when I think of it as an epidemic and that’s the suffering caused by thinking. The suffering that’s caused by our thinking epidemic are overthinking and ironically, we think that the cure is more thinking. And so we’re trying to fix a problem by throwing the disease onto itself. And so we’re trying and this is what happens, a bunch of Western intellectuals were great at thinking and so we tried to solve the problem with thinking with more thinking and of course, that’s what has gotten us deeper and deeper into the situation, which is the kind of suffering that I’m really talking about. And that’s what I talked about in the book.
Okay, super. All right, so let’s get into some of this left brain right brain stuff because this is not, you know, men are from Mars, women are from Venus stuff. This is actually real neuroscience, this is how the brain experiences the world. So can you tell us about some of those differences between the left brain, the right brain and how they experience the world? And how do we know these things?
Dr. Niebauer 14:12
There is a long line of research in the left and right brain and there’s a journal very reputable journal called Laterality that has published findings for 40 plus years in left and right brain differences. One of the problems with doing research in the left and right brain is the problem with all of science and that’s when it becomes popular. There’s nothing worse than science for an idea to become popular. And once sort of cut on, it’s a nice simple idea we have and if you look at the brain, a kid will notice this. It’s not like you have one big brain. It’s really obvious that you have a left and right side, they’re physically distinct entities and until you push them both back and see the corpus callosum which connects the two sides, I mean, they have their own blood supply. They’re really it’s like jamming two separate brains in the skull and then hooking them up with a bunch of wiring. So they have this called the corpus callosum, which means big bridge. So they have this big bridge that connects them. But the reality is that they’re two really physically separate brains that we have in our skull. And people have been trying to find a simple way to say, okay, what is the left and right brain difference, and I’ve got my way, I think I’ll just give you a little bit of the research. And so when we look at the left and right brain, the left brain does stand out in terms of what we do in Western culture. The left brain is language, it is the dominant speech center, it categorizes. And so categories are very interesting things. Because when we categorize the world, we skip over all the individual all these differences because the world is chaotic mess, and it’s fluctuating and changing and the limit the left brain does is it takes that one way in which you might be able to group things together, and it creates a category. The left brain is really good at categories. And using these categories, it creates what we might call our belief systems, our ideas, and I talked quite a bit about the split brain patients because what they discovered with the split brain patients who literally had that connection severed and they had the isolated left brain, it’s the left brains tendency to create theories about what’s going on around it. And the left brain spontaneously made up theories to explain the world told stories. Well, this is why I’m doing this. This is why I’m doing that. And the problem with this storytelling left brain is how wrong it often was. And it was totally wrong. But it never knew it was wrong.
And give us an example, please, because this sounds really abstract.
Dr. Niebauer 16:47
Yeah, okay. Sure. Let’s make it really, so you’ve got a split brain patient.
Okay. And when you say split brain patient is that someone who has, the brains have been surgically…
Dr. Niebauer 16:55
Surgically severed, they’re separated, they have no interconnection with each other.
And that’s the treatment for epilepsy, isn’t it?
Dr. Niebauer 17:03
Yeah. So the original treatment was for something medical, these individuals had severe epilepsy. And the problem was, is that the seizures would spread from one side of the brain to the other. And then the whole brain is experiencing a seizure. So the idea is let’s just cut that connection, and then we’ll at least keep the seizure activity on one side. And from a medical standpoint, it worked. It was extremely successful. But what they had discovered is that now that they had the two sides of the brain separated, they could test them individually with the split brain patients, and so they would send messages to the right brain things like stand up, well, the right brain is intelligent. And it would, then a person would stand up. Now, as I said, language, like right now I’m talking. The way I’m actually able to talk is a small area, it’s called Broca’s area, it’s here right in the left brain and it control speech. And for most people, it’s in the left side of the brain. So when you talk to a split brain patient, you’re really talking to the left side of the brain. Now the left side of the brain is totally in the dark about all of this. It has no clue why I just stood up, but it was so convincing and it spontaneously told the story that was complete confabulation. But it was believable, oh, my leg fell asleep so I had to get up and stretch, or I’m thirsty, so I needed to get up and get a drink. And so they did all kinds of studies like this with the split brain patients and time and time again, it revealed that storytelling capacity of the left brain. So it seems like our left brain is maybe that scientists trying to figure out the world around us. It’s just not a very good scientist. And so it seems like it has this capacity for storytelling. And the only problem with this is, one, the stories are often not accurate. But the problem is, is the way like if you’re going to tell a good story, you have to be convincing and you have to sell it. And the way the left brain sells these stories is incredibly convincing to the brain. The brain believes them. And one of the most convincing stories that the left brain tells is the story of who we are. So right now I’m talking. So the left brain says, well, it creates a theory. Well, there must be someone, a speechwriter, behind the scenes writing all the stuff you’re about to say. And if you’re thinking, well, I have all these thoughts all day, well, there must be a thinker to the thoughts. So the left brain creates this really detailed story about who we think we are.
And if there’s a thinker, there’s an eye and I’m here, I’m me.
Dr. Niebauer 19:42
I must be the thinker behind the thoughts. I am the doer behind the actions. I’m the pilot, sitting somewhere upstairs, you know, behind the eyes, between the ears and I’m running the show. And that’s the creation of the left brain. Now the right brain doesn’t seem to fall prey to any of these storytelling kind of myths. The right brain seems to be far more in tune with what we’ll call reality. Right brain seems to be much more in the moment, the present moment. It doesn’t seem to be caught up in fantasies about what might or may not happen. It’s more concerned with embodiment, being physically present right now, in this body, what’s it like to be here and now, like Ram Dass’s book from the 60s, it was so popular, you know, real simple statement, Be Here Now. To me, that was the right brain, you know, do what you’re doing, be where you’re at and that’s right brain awareness, the way I look at it. But to go a little bit, one step, a little deeper in terms of some of the ideas I’m going into for the left and right brain that I see more applicable to our modern culture. I see the left brain if it’s going to sell these stories and these myths and ideas and theories, it has to take on a seriousness to it. And so in my view, one of the costs of left brain awareness or utilizing the left brain processing is the price that comes along with that. And the price is a certain type of seriousness. You have to take this seriously. When we get into the right brain, it seems to be far more playful. And so we have things when we look at humor and sarcasm, these are all right brain processing. And it just seems like, you know, they’re complimentary ways to see the world but they’re really different. You can’t be serious about play. You know, I mean, that doesn’t make any sense.
You know, nonsarcastic listeners they would think, I knew it.
Dr. Niebauer 21:46
Oh, and when I talk to people who are very good at tuning in with the right brain, they almost always seem to love sarcasm. They’re very good at sarcasm. They’re very good at finding the humor and just about everything. And it’s one of the things that happened to us over the last 30 years, we were all pretty good at kind of joking about ourselves, joking about things in general. And right now, that kind of seriousness that’s kind of fallen on us. And we don’t laugh as much as we used to. And I think that’s because we’ve become, we’ve turned up the left brain a little bit more. So that’s a short version of how I see the left and right brain, I think the most important difference is this that left brain seriousness versus the right brain tendency to be more playful, less serious, and more in actual reality.
Yeah. And I think that language is really important to this, right? Because using language to express our experience is the best way to do it. And if you can’t express it through language, it’s not real and you have to express it very well. Not like I’m doing right now. But the better you can express it, the better the experience in a way so can you tell us a bit about the connections between language and our experience of the world?
Dr. Niebauer 23:02
Particularly in our culture, I think you put it exactly as it is right now in our culture. And the interesting thing is when you click into anthropology, so one of the wonderful things about being a cognitive scientist, and so I used to be in the psych department for a long time, and I was too philosophical to be in psych. I mean that’s what happens when you study Eastern philosophy for 20 years. And so I ended up starting a department in cognitive science. And the wonderful thing about cognitive science is that it’s interdisciplinary. So I get to kind of pick from psychology. I can pick the best things from psych, the best things, in my opinion, from philosophy, and the best things from anthropology. And so the cool thing about anthropology is you get to explore different cultures and you realize that not every culture is so left brain dominant. And there’s a wonderful culture that it’s such a small group, and they used to be about 400. They’re down to about 200. And I’m not even going to try to pronounce the name that what we will call them because so much of this culture, the way they deal with language is so different than the way we experience it. In fact, when they communicate, it’s mostly through whistling or music. And they have very few articulated words. The words that they do use, though, can take on several different meanings depending on intonation. And so they may mean one thing. And so for us, words, we don’t really think as much about the intonation. So there’s no doubt that the left brain controls language. But it’s interesting that the right brain is actually far more in tuned with the emotional expression of the words that we’re using. And so we have a whole culture out there. This is all they do, that they’re only interested in the emotional expression, and the exact sounds that come out that are so produced, but that’s not really very important to them. And the interesting thing about this culture is when people visit, they described them as the happiest people on the planet and they have absolutely no need for the past, or to think about the future. It’s something about this, so we have this culture on the planet, several cultures to different degrees, but there’s one that seems to be almost completely right brained culture. And the most immediate impression they give to people visiting is that they are the happiest people on the planet. So that tells us something that we’ve kind of gotten into this left brain and we obsess. You get out, you know, we want to use the biggest words the most syllables. We want to be articulate, and we want to get speech down to perfection. And that’s the way we impress people in our culture. And it’s fine to an extent, but everything in the east is about balance and finding a middle path. And so there’s nothing wrong. When I talk about the left brain, sometimes it sounds like I am a little hard on it, and I’m a little bit critical. But what my real goal is to just get to scale. Let’s get everything back to balance and so let’s recognize language for what it is. It’s a symbol. It’s a symbol for what we actually mean. It’s not the real thing.
Mm-hmm. Okay. Firstly, I just want to make a humorous observation. We have our videos on it, I’m looking at books and books and books and piles of books on your shelf behind you. So clearly, language is an important part of your life too. And this idea of language being a symbol, can you draw that out a little bit for us, because I found your map analogy really helpful.
Dr. Niebauer 26:28
One of the ways you can you can talk about Eastern culture versus Western culture is in the east, it’s really, really obvious that words are simple. That words are a map of the territory. And in the east, they have sayings like, you know, it’d be ridiculous to go into a restaurant and try to eat the menu. And you can’t quench your thirst with the word water, you know, and so they’re deeply aware of the purpose of language, which is to create a set of symbols that are useful under certain situations. In the West, we get the map confused with the territory. So in many ways in the West, what we do is we eat the menu. And we wonder why we’re hungry. And I see this with my kids. I remember my daughter when she was actually graduated from kindergarten, and they do ceremonies for kindergarten graduation. And I looked around and all of us parents were taking pictures of the event. And there’s nothing really wrong with that, except we’re missing out on the actual event. We’re so busy taking symbols that we can think about in the future that we missed out on the reality of the actual experience. And it really hit me and I just thought, well, I’m gonna put the phone away for a little bit. I’m just gonna be here for a little bit. And it’s funny because my memories of the event are probably a lot richer than they would have been if I was so busy taking pictures. I would have missed out on the whole thing.
Yeah. And the way that we use language to describe what happened can really have an impact on it on the way that we perceive the event as well, right?
Dr. Niebauer 28:07
Oh, absolutely. And advertisers use this, whenever we want to try to manipulate a person’s experience, we do it through language, because we take the language symbol so seriously, that lets us fall prey to people using that against us. So they use words that you could take some week or a couple week old piece of food, but if it says the word fresh on it, well, it’s gotta be fresh. Why? Well, because it says it. And we’ve created an entire bureaucracies based on language and words. And that’s why, you know, we have the field of law and some people don’t leave their home without consulting their lawyer at this point because we’ve got huge contracts that we signed, and when you start a new job, it’s very likely they’re gonna have a big book they’re gonna want you to read and it’s gonna be, you know, here’s all the rules that we’ve created the giant linguistic adventure just getting through it. And so yeah, we’re definitely paying that price for taking language very seriously.
I think Gordon Ramsay has a rant on fresh frozen or something.
Dr. Niebauer 29:17
Yes. Because it was like, fresh frozen, I think and he got very upset because he’s like, no, it’s either fresh or it’s frozen. You can’t have fresh frozen.
It’s fresh when it was frozen.
Dr. Niebauer 29:29
Yes. And it’s not anymore. It’s frozen.
Yes, but it must be fresh because it says so on the pack. And so okay, so we use these labels all the time. So I’m just thinking about labels I might use for myself, you know, I’m a wife, I’m a mother, I’m English I think that forms a pretty important part of what I think of as my identity. I did the StrengthsFinder test and four of my top five strengths are related to learning. So I think of myself as a learner. If I feel some kind of pressure to inhabit one of these roles in a certain way and let’s just use mother as an example, because most of my listeners are parents. So if I’m feeling pressure to inhabit this in a certain way, in our culture that means giving up basically things that are important to me for my child’s well-being, is that a story that my left brain is telling me that it’s based on societal expectations?
Dr. Niebauer 30:19
Are you getting at the really old question about self-improvement?
In a way, I think it’s more about it has the language sort of become such a part of the way I experience reality that it’s putting pressure on me that otherwise shouldn’t be there if I wasn’t seeing the world in that way.
Dr. Niebauer 30:39
I think language takes up so much of our conscious awareness right now. And to a large extent, it’s the thoughts that go through our head. They’re almost always language based. I mean, if you just wake up in the morning and you start observing what you’re really thinking about, you’ll notice that we talk to ourselves all the time which is ironic, because if you look up the definition of schizophrenia, you’ll say one of the symptoms is hearing voices. But every normal person hears voices in their head all day. And they’ve analyzed this, and it’s something about 99% of these are pretty useless. And so what we need to do is filter out the usefulness of language, just like a hammer has a certain useful purpose to it. But if we start using it as a pillow, and we start using it as a plate in our coffee cup, then everything just becomes miserable. And we need to kind of put language back finding what is useful for instead of thinking it’s going to be useful for everything. And it isn’t.
Yeah. Okay, so connecting that again back to the idea of, you know, the self, I think and what is the sense of self, one of my membership group members had a question about the usefulness of the no self-perspective in terms of reducing suffering. What connection do you see there in terms of kind of living a more peaceful life that might be more right brain based and more based in the present, but they’re also sort of these productive parts of the ego and use of language that help us to pursue our passions and build our career and how do you reconcile those things in terms of what it means for our identity or for other things.
Dr. Niebauer 32:09
So we have this left brain storytelling device and one of the stories that tells us about the self. The problem is, is that this storytelling device is also one of the main problem solving mechanisms in the brain. In terms of basic evolution, it’s the reason, you know, homo sapiens won that battle. Because we, you know, we had this big brain that was a great problem solver, and we developed language and we use language to solve problems and all of this is really useful except, well, think about our lives right now. And think about how radically different it is compared to what our ancestors dealt with. And I’m talking about let’s go 40,000 years ago, back to when this what they call a cognitive revolution happened. And homo sapiens got this big, improved brain. And we got this problem solving, and we started speaking in complex language. And that’s how we kind of won that evolutionary war with all these other different forms of humanity, and we won that battle. The problem is, is that this problem solver is so good. It’s solving problems in the past, like, how do I live with an ice age? I mean, look at me. I mean, does it look like I have to deal with an ice age? I mean, I’m pretty comfortable. I have a comfortable chair. I know where my food is coming from. And so, but the problem is, is this program still running. I like to call this program mind version 1.0 that we got installed 40,000 years ago. And it’s never been updated. So this program is still running and it has nothing to do. None of the problems that originally evolve to solve are not even here anymore. And so it’s out there trying to find problems. It’s trying to make problems. And so it creates this self as an explanatory tool. But the problem is, is that that self gets tied in to all the problems that it creates. I think of it as going to the airport, and you’ve landed and you’re picking up your luggage and you’re picking up, you know, your luggage, the stuff you identify as yours. And it is like picking up all the problems that the self creates, but you’re identifying with them, and it’s heavy and it’s this huge burden and it makes life feel, you know, really problematic and not very pleasant existence. And so what happens when we put down the notion of the self? What happens when we see through it for what it is? What happens when we experience the self as just a thought of what we think we are? It’s like putting all that luggage down. It’s like putting all those problems down. One monk was asked to describe enlightenment. And he said that this idea of the self once he was able to put it down, he said, it kind of felt like ordinary existence except instead of standing on the ground, it was like be floating like two inches above the ground. Because the burden of the self once it’s seen through for what it is, and you put that down and you stop taking yourself so seriously, so, the self-idea isn’t really that problematic, as long as we don’t take it seriously. When we take this, but that’s all tied in with the left brain and then when you get that show going the left brain, you know, TV show turns on, and we get in it and we start acting out all that drama, we take it very seriously. Then those problems become really serious. And the trick is to sort of see through that seriousness, get a little bit of right brain consciousness going and to laugh at the things that we once saw as the source of our suffering.
Okay. So let’s probe on that a little bit more than in terms of, you know, what actually happens when we allow our left brain to become a little more quiet and our right brain to speak up more. And you talk about that quite a lot in the book. Can you walk us through maybe some examples on that?
Dr. Niebauer 35:57
For a lot of people, particularly in our culture, their first experiences of right brain awareness and the science hasn’t really caught up to this. So this is speculative on my part, but I think that we have right brain experiences all the time, particularly if you’re a musician, if you’re an artist. But the problem is, is that the right brain trivializes these so much, and you can see this why in our culture, how we trivialize the arts. We ask, you know, well, what good is this art? Is it paying off? Do you get a paycheck from doing your art and if you don’t get a paycheck, the left brain says it’s not real. It lessens it down as fantasy. But of course, if you’re a musician or an artist, you kind of get into this and you realize the reality and the peacefulness. So maybe like, when I was younger, I used to play guitar because I thought, you know, I was going to be this famous, you know, rock musician. And so I was doing it for a reason. And that’s not really what the right brain does. The right brain does not get into art for a payoff, it doesn’t do it for a paycheck. And so the wonderful experiences I have now, playing music, and any art forms and Tai Chi. You don’t do Tai Chi to be healthy. If you’re doing Tai Chi to be healthy, you’re doing it wrong. You do Tai Chi to do it. Health is this one of the pleasant benefits that you get from it. But if you’re sitting there doing meditation, and this was such classic me in my 20s I would sit there and meditate and go, okay, I’m really making myself better, right? And then I’m like, why isn’t it working?
Why don’t I feel better?
Dr. Niebauer 37:34
Yeah. Why is it? Because I wasn’t ever meditating. I fooled myself through my early 20s believing I was meditating. And the entire time I was meditating, it was just the left brain trying to make a better me. And you can’t do that. The whole idea of the better me is the idea of not identifying with the self. And then you slowly realize, wow, things quiet down. When you start focusing on the breath, things quiet down. And for me, it happened one day when I was out jogging. I was very caught up in the voice in my head. I was focusing on problems thinking about tomorrow and months from now. And I can’t explain why. But for some reason, I stopped thinking. All of a sudden I listen to the birds around me. And I couldn’t believe that this music was going on this whole time. Like the birds just start singing when I started paying attention to them. And I’m like, no, that doesn’t work. They probably been here and I couldn’t believe that they had that peacefulness had been present the whole time. I just wasn’t tuned into it. So we have made the left brain our home, and the right brain a place to visit once in a while. I think it’s a much more interesting experience to do the reverse, as the right brain, our home, our place, and just visit the left brain when we need to go to work or we have something practical that comes up.
And I think children do this already, don’t they? I mean, I read a sentence in your book, you said the right brain takes a more global approach and gives attention to the whole scene and processes the world as a continuum. And that really reminded me of saying, I think it might have been Alison Gopnik, who was talking about how children have this kind of floodlight attention, they take everything in. And the parents see that as such a problem because they can’t focus on one thing. You know, they’re looking at something and they get distracted by something over there. And the parents, like just focus on the book. Because we have this kind of spotlight attention, we can shine this super bright spotlight on whatever we’re doing. And then when we’re ready, we shift the spotlight to the next thing, and it seems as their children are so far ahead of us in this.
Dr. Niebauer 39:41
There’s no doubt that we have this issue where we impose our left brain seriousness on our kids. And that was one of the most enjoyable things for me as a parent, that I had access to right brain consciousness with my kids. And they were in this wonderful state of play, and I would approach it as a scientist, and why are you playing with these Legos? They’re just looking at me like why are you asking the question? Isn’t it obvious? And I remember in grad school, one of the developmental psychologists had a wonderful quote on his door up to this day it just stuck with me. It was something like a rocket science is child’s play next to figuring out child’s play. And the whole problem with that quote, the reason I think it’s stuck in my mind is it’s a terrible way of looking at it. Child’s play is not something to figure out. We take the left brain and we say, well, this is a problem that needs to be solved. But the way kids are playing it’s not a problem to be solved. It’s an experience to be had. That’s the whole purpose of play. It’s own reward. But as these left brain, parents, we look at it, we go, well, you must be doing that to achieve some of the goal, right? And they’re like, no.
Even if they are not we impose it on them while they’re learning about math and they’re learning about the community.
Dr. Niebauer 41:00
Exactly. So we try to, let’s make play educational. And so we’ll slip math in there, because we know we’re gonna use that. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with the study when they took kids who were engaging in spontaneous play, and they tried to reward them.
Talking about rewards, let me share, yeah.
Dr. Niebauer 41:17
Yeah. And then as soon as you start rewarding them, then it actually the kids will stop playing. And that’s what happened to us as adults. We take the original notion of play and we’ve turned it into work. I mean, who says I’m going to play today. As adults we’re like I have to go to work. I mean, work is not fun. We’ve constructed work as a very serious place for serious issues and serious problems. And if you go to work and you start playing, I have a terrible immature side to me that I have to kind of constrain a lot of times at work because I’m surrounded by a lot of very serious left brain people. And that’s very difficult when you’ve been influenced. The wonderful gift my kids gave to me was that reminder that instead of me teaching them to focus their attention on one thing, they helped spread my attention even more, and engage in play to a greater degree. So it was a great reminder. And I think I took that away from parenting and it stayed with me. But the cost of that is I’m in many circles, I’ve looked at as terribly immature.
No judgment here. And so okay, I wanna try and may be take this to one step further, we’ve talked on the show about Jennifer Senior’s book All Joy and No Fun and the basic premise of that book is that one of the reasons we find parenting so hard is that we say that our children bring us great joy, kind of in an abstract sense, the moment to moment experience of being with our children, a lot of us don’t find it that fun. If we’re building Legos, or pretend to be a dinosaur, or maybe it’s just changing the 16th diaper that you’ve changed today. And so is this an example of trading kind of ego happiness for meaning, like, because you said in your book that you found joy in parenting and I’m wondering, you know, is this your left brain making up a story about what your experience with parenting was as a way of rationalizing that or what’s going on with that?
Dr. Niebauer 43:25
Just having kind of a weird synchronicity moment, because that question has come up so many times to me lately. And the question is, how do I know the difference between meaning because many people have connected meaning with the right brain. The meaning of my existence versus an interpretation, how do I know the difference? And I haven’t really been able to give a good answer, because I don’t think a good answer is going to be able to be one that we can put into words. Because interpretations are things that we can break down and we can test. Meaning is so much deeper, and so much more like you can’t fake it. Like if you have a genuine connection with the meaning of your existence, I can do no test to disprove you. You are your own authority. And if you remember in Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he starts it off with a quote from Nietzsche. You know, if you have a why you can deal with anyhow. And that meaning is such a powerful thing that it gets people through some horrific suffering that we’ve experienced on this planet. And so meaning is really, really powerful. We almost never deal with it here in the West. We’re far more busy making a paycheck. I mean, how many times as a kid to someone say, how are you going to find meaning as an adult? We almost never asked our kids, we say, what kind of career do you want? We don’t say, well, you know, what’s your path to find the meaning of your existence? And if you ask kids that they look at you, well, you know, like, that’s the first time anyone’s ever had talked about meaning. But the research seems to be very, very pointed in this direction. That meaning is far better payoff psychologically than short term happiness. And so it’s something in the West that we’re just picking up on, even though that was the point of Viktor Frankl’s book. And it was his experience in the concentration camps is that the people who survived were the people who had meaning. And so it’s one of the most powerful things that we can connect with and for me, and I had not thought in my 20s that wasn’t a goal in my life to become a parent. It wasn’t like on my list of things I wanted to do as an adult or it just kind of happened. And all of a sudden I found this, like, meaning it grabs you and pulls you in, and you find it and it’s unshakable. It’s like, there’s nothing that’s going to tell me that this is not the reason why I’m here. Now, in terms of ego, satisfaction, when I was parenting, and doing the diaper thing, I’m not sure why I kept track of diaper changes. I had a little notebook and I think when I…
It matters now.
Dr. Niebauer 46:10
Oh, yeah, this is probably before then. But I don’t know it was in the tens of thousands or something I don’t know why I wanted to keep, it was a silly thing. But there’s no doubt we have these emotions of frustration as parents. And I remember times when, you know, my daughter just would not go to sleep. And I’m like, all I want right now is I wouldn’t, I just want to sleep. And my son had chronic ear infections. So he went about two years where he did not sleep. Of course, you would walk in a room, you know, had come in and like, he couldn’t sleep and wake you up, right, when you’re about to dream. You know, you’re about ready to go into REM sleep, your brain so desperately needs REM sleep, and then the kids wake you up. And so one of the pieces of wisdom I got from the east was that there are no wrong emotions you know. I don’t care how far you are along the spiritual path. It’s okay to get cranky. It’s okay to have feelings of frustration. And as someone has got you in a sleep deprivation experiment, it’s okay to be frustrated. And I think one of the problems is that we are on this path, again it’s the left brain judging itself and expecting perfection and the left brain categorizes it. So it says, here’s all the emotions I should be feeling. And here’s all the emotions I’m not allowed to feel.
Yeah. If I was doing it right I wouldn’t be feeling those things.
Dr. Niebauer 47:29
Yeah. If I was a good parent, I wouldn’t be frustrated. And that’s just not true. Every good parent gets frustrated, every good parent…
Because of the mindfulness I wouldn’t be.
Dr. Niebauer 47:38
Yeah, yeah, if I was more spiritual, I’d be able to just let this roll. Why am I, you know, so frustrated, right? And but that frustration is, there’s two ways you can approach the frustration. The one is the left brain stepping in and saying, here’s an emotion that I shouldn’t be experiencing right now. And that I think is what really causes the problem. When you step back and become the observer of your thoughts, the observer of your feelings. All these feelings are fine. And it’s okay. It was an old Zen storyabout a student who had an anger problem. And he goes to the teacher and he’s like, I have a real bad anger problem, can you help me deal with it? And the teacher said, well, show me your anger. And he said, well, you know, I can’t do it right now. It just happens. And it’s like, well, if you can’t control it, then it’s not who you are. And so I tried to remember that as a parent that, you know, these emotions are just part of the kind of biological machinery of being in a body for this time and frustrations are going to happen and it’s interesting the more I kind of connect with people on a very “advanced” people on the spiritual path, the more I realized that these are just ordinary people. There’s nothing magical about them. They have bad days. And so as parents, I think we have to recognize our humanity and as human beings and maybe ultimately we’re spiritual, but we’re still having a human existence. And if we’re having a human existence, we’re going to have bad days, bad moods, we’re going to get frustrated. But in the end, I think we recognize the trade and it’s always worth trading meaningfulness in life. We can take the meaningfulness if it cost you a little bit of ego suffering.
Mm-hmm. Okay. And think about ego and tying to patriarchy, this thing to go next. We’ve done a couple episodes on patriarchy on the show, we were lucky enough to talk to Dr. Carol Gilligan a few weeks ago. She’s done decades of research on patriarchy, and we were talking about the ways that some qualities are seen as masculine. And some qualities are seen as feminine. Of course, it’s a completely arbitrary split. There’s no reason for a quality or a way of thinking to be seen as masculine or feminine. But intuition, and this sort of what seems to me to be a very right brain way of seeing the world is perceived as this kind of feminine quality. And then rationality and a language based experience of seeing the world is very masculine, as it were. And I’m wondering if this is why there’s such a preference for left brain way of seeing the world and prioritizing logical thought over intuition. Do you see it the same way?
Dr. Niebauer 50:14
That’s an interesting question, and it probably has some degree of accuracy that probably fits a very good story that, you know, because we asked…
A nice left brain story.
Dr. Niebauer 50:24
Yeah, it’s a great left brain story and which is what science does. And it also helps us take account for one of the interesting things about intuition. And I was very specific about this in the book to talk about all the research in the 70s that showed us very explicitly when our God is wrong. And we’re apt to use stereotypes and we use these quick categorical judgments. And we feel that they’re right. Because this mind is programmed for simple solutions. And that’s not intuition. And so one of the things I have to explain to people is that all of these things, we call them juristic. They are these quick problem solving techniques that the mind uses. None of these are what we would call intuition. And the problem is that there’s about 300 of these they’ve listed. And so we make the whole good deal of psychology during the 70s and 80s and even now, is made its career out of showing how the mind makes mistakes based on our gut. But the problem is, is that quite often our gut is actually right. And the problem as I see it is knowing the difference between when our intuitions are wrong, and when our intuitions are right is itself an intuition.
And I think I should express that.
Dr. Niebauer 51:43
And that takes a little while. But the problem is, is as a culture, we don’t encourage because you’re right, we’re in a state of imbalance. And we don’t trust the intuitive mind. And because we don’t trust that we do nothing to encourage it, we do nothing to help develop it. But the intuitive mind is just like anything else. I mean, without practice, without fine tuning, it’s going to make all these mistakes.
How do you practice that?
Dr. Niebauer 52:12
Becoming far more conscious. Okay, so this is one of the practices I do in my class. It’s a tough one. And so, it’s a practice where and remember the left brain when it came up with these interpretations, it was absolutely certain that this was right. And so what we do in classes we practice focusing on when we were wrong, and I say okay, think of the last time you’re wrong about something and it’s interesting because the students go go back and they’ll be like 2020. You know, I’ve been pretty good this year. And going back to 2019, maybe and then they’ll pick up really trivial, maybe I was wrong about that. And so we’re predisposed to believing that we’re right all the time. That system kind of works. You know, if you have to make decisions, you kind of have to believe that it’s the right thing to do. The problem is, in reality, we are often wrong. And one of the ways that we can kind of figure out when our intuitions are right, versus when they’re actually quite off track is becoming more conscious of all the times we’ve made our mistakes. And that’s a real tough introspective path to take because it’s like acknowledging the shadow. It’s acknowledging that we’re flawed human beings and you start recognizing your mistakes and then the self feels really, it’s not a fun trip for the self to take a path of all the mistakes I’ve made. But it’s going to be necessary for us. If we are going to fine tune in our intuitions and get the intuitive right behind to develop into its full potential, we’re going to have to dive into intuition and take some risk. And there’s going to be times when our intuitive mind is going to be wrong. And then we’ve put a checkpoint, okay, and then it’s going to be a subtle, my guess is going to be a very subtle feeling between when the intuitive mind is accurate, and because the whole thing about the right brain is, like you said, with kids, the right brain is a parallel processor. It’s processing all this information all at once. And the way it communicates that to the left brain is through this subtle feeling. This kind of like they even call it the sense of rightness. And sometimes when you go on a job interview, you just walk away, like everything just felt really good. That was the right brain processing everything in parallel and then communicating it just in a simple way that the left brain can understand, like, look, everything’s good with this. So we need practice. And we need feedback. And it’s another thing, not only are we really hard on ourselves and unforgiving when we make mistakes, but we do the same thing with those around us. And if we say, look, you were wrong, like, as hard as it is to admit when we’re wrong, try telling someone else they’re wrong. And that’s a tough, you know, sometimes you may be doing this as an act of compassion. You may be compassionately right brained and telling someone you deeply love and like, look, you’re wrong. But the problem is their egos gonna jump in, and they’re gonna be no, you’re wrong. You’re wrong about me being wrong. And that’s just because like I said, we haven’t found a sense of balance. We have to take a leap of faith and kind of do an intuitive experiment. See what happens when we start trusting the intuitive mind for a little bit.
Yeah. And you mentioned gratitude and compassion. I think that’s an awesome place to end up because we actually ended up in this on that topic in the episode on Parental Burnout as well. And we were thinking about sort of meditation. And that’s kind of tricky when it comes to parental burnout. I guess there are some people who have found actually doing meditation if they have burnout, it can be a difficult thing for them to undertake. And we ran out of time in that interview, and I was emailing with my guests afterwards. And she said that self-compassion actually has really profound impacts. There’s some preliminary research coming out, this is really pointing in that direction, that it can be a useful tool to cope with these kinds of experiences that people are having where they just feel as though they have to give and give and give until there’s nothing left to give. And then they’re just done, done with it. And so I’m wondering what kind of aspects of gratitude and self-compassion do you see as being most helpful to us and how can we kind of cultivate that?
Dr. Niebauer 56:24
One of the interesting things that I’ve experienced through this whole adventure is the notion of freewill. The notion of choice.
Dr. Niebauer 56:36
And it’s a tough one. For a scientific viewpoint we’ve had to all but delete freewill from the picture because there’s no room for it in a scientific world. But the problem is, is that inexperience, you get up and you live your days. And it seems like we always have a choice. We can get into this left brain mode of complaining and finding problems and vocalizing these problems. And then there’s this right brain world. And when we step into it, and we choose to step into it, it’s a different reality. Instead of complaining, we are grateful, you find something that you’re grateful for. And then we find this deep connection that we have with other people with the world around us. And we’re part of the whole show, in this left brain world of complaining where isolated, separate, existentially anxious beings. And this right brain world, everything makes sense. We have meaning and we’re deeply thankful for every second and the interesting thing about the whole trip is how much choice we have in this. And the problem is that bad habits, and habits can be very addicting. And some of us were so addicted to that left brain reality of complaining and drama that it’s like giving up drinking or smoking. It’s, we know it’s bad for us, but it’s such an addicted lifestyle that we have a difficult time and it doesn’t feel like we have the choice. And William James, the famous American philosopher psychologist once said that my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will. And so in this sense, even though it’s not terribly scientific at this point to talk about such things, recognizing our choice, in the morning, you’re choosing your existence. And, you know, the philosophers like Sartre talked about this, that we’re choosing our realities and the spiritual people talk about this too. And when we talk about that in terms of a neuro psychological, left and right brain, you choose, do you want today to be a left brain drama? And there’s some good in that, because if you win you get that kind of rush of like, yeah, us versus them and my team won. And that’s great with the victories, but it’s really tough with losses. And even the victories are short lived, because you’re very quickly looking for another battle, another drama. Do we choose that? And if you do, there’s no guilt with it. Go ahead. You know, enjoy your drama. But it’s our choice. And at least give it a shot. The compassionate world, the grateful existence, if you try that out a little bit, I think leaving the drama behind, well, you’re not going to miss it as much as you think you will.
Mm-hmm. Yeah. And that’s a sort of a radical revolutionary idea. I think for a lot of parents who might be listening to this they might be thinking but my kids are gonna be screaming at me and you know, all of the stuff that I can’t control and It’s not my fault, but I react in this way. And it can be very powerful to see the way you respond to this as a choice. And that you choose to respond from a tight, you know, this is affecting me and it’s driving me crazy. And there’s nothing I can do about it. And it’s, you know, I feel tense and tight, or it’s this is what it is, and I choose a different reaction. And that was what I loved about the book is, is you conclude by saying, you know, yes, you can choose to stay in this left brain world and we’re not going to judge you, nobody’s going to judge you. And you’re going to have high highs and you’re going to have low lows, or you could be a monk. You can follow this path or you could choose this kind of third way where you can sort of see what’s going on in the game. You can participate in the game enough to kind of get a little bit of a high every once in a while. But at the same time, you can always have this sort of blinkers off idea that this is a game where rather than getting caught up and not being able to see that it’s a game, you’re playing it without being able to see that you’re lifting the blinders off and saying, I see the game, and I’m going to participate in it a little bit, but not enough that it really affects my well-being and how I experience the world. Did I summarize it?
Dr. Niebauer 1:00:53
Oh, that’s absolutely, what you just described is the nature of play. You know, it’s just like, when my son who’s so obsessed with soccer right now, he’s 12 and that’s all he does is soccer. And he goes to these tournaments. And I really tried to keep those two worlds simultaneously going on the one hand, you know, yeah, he’s winning. And oh, that was a great move. And yeah, you know, and you’re cheering for him and you get upset with a bad call, and you play into it. But then on the other hand, it’s like, look, it’s just a bunch of kids hitting a ball around on the field. These teams are imaginary, you know, this tournament isn’t real, I mean, and so that’s what play is. Play is having both of those realities and sort of going back and forth. And enjoying it, you know, picking out some of the real cool experiences but not taking them that seriously. And as soon as you don’t take it that seriously, it becomes really quite entertaining.
You’re right, and on that note, thank you so much. This has been so much fun. It was a real joy to read your book and to explore some of the ideas in it. So thanks for sharing your time with us.
Dr. Niebauer 1:01:58
Thanks for your time. I appreciate it.
All right, so Dr. Niebauer’s book No Self No Problem: How Neuropsychology is Catching Up to Buddhism can be purchased hopefully at your local bookstore if not on Amazon, and all of the references for the show can be found at YourParentingMojo.com/Self.
About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.