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Strength and Resilience in the Face of Chaos

With the seeming abundance of whining, crying, complaining, instigating and melodrama going on during our trip, one wonders where all of the optimism comes from at the outset. It's not like we have never done this before. My central practice on this vacation is working with that moment when I feel unconscious emotional reactions arising, when chaos ensues. I want to stop the unconscious reaction, but I also don't want to repress it. The key for me is catching it and experiencing it to the fullest degree possible, with as little judgment as possible.

This blog has committed me to trying to find funny things happening on our travels as opposed to interesting or profound realizations regarding the development of our relationships, and I have realized that it is really hard to find funny stories because what is funny in hindsight often seems tragic in the present moment. For example, on the first day of our 10-day road trip last year, we had been in the car only short time after stopping and Will (10 at the time) proclaims his need to go pee. With absolutely no intention of depriving him of his need, and an equal desire not to stop again with so many miles to go, we half-jokingly suggested that he pee in his empty Gatorade bottle. We have even suggested this in the past with no serious takers, but of course Will was game, and I say that with full recognition of his gaminess. We were both very weary of this prospect and contemplated the negative impacts and reverberations of allowing such a thing, and we were also slightly curious and impressed by his bravery, and it was one of those wide mouthed Gatorade bottles so what could go wrong. We soon found out. Will gets up on his knees in the mini van, with seat belt still in tact, and starts going – so far so good – then he starts giggling and shaking , and the road suddenly seems to get bumpy and before we know it he is peeing all over the back of Peggy's seat, the Trader Joe's bag full of food on the floor and his brother in the seat across the aisle from him. This was not funny in the least, and while this was happening all hell was breaking loose – Will is laughing, apologizing and denying responsibility all at the same time – his brother is screaming at him, trying to get out of the way and I am scrambling for the paper towels wondering where it all went wrong. I still do not have a clear sense for how much of what happened was under Will's control, but it was a perfect start to a long family vacation. So while many funny things are happening, they don't seem funny yet.
The bonding process is painful. Thick skin turns to paper after 6 hours in the car. So we have to tap into something more resilient. The work of Joseph LaDoux on the amygdala shows that, from a very young age, we store instinctual emotional memories in our limbic system that initiate immediate hate and fear-based reactions that short-circuit the thinking part of our brain – the famous fight or flight response. Research on neuroplasticity is also showing however that we can strengthen and even re-wire connections throughout the brain. Much of this research indicates that certain types of practices can promote the mental resilience that will allow us to take back control of our responses during these volatile times.
In the audio book Peggy and I are listening to on our trip, by Wally lamb, he references the chaos complexity theory which states that “order yields habits and chaos yields life”. This is an apt aphorism in my current practice of feeling fully the mental and physical disturbance of the chaotic moments associated with this family adventure. When the frustration and anger is not suppressed, or expressed, but is experienced without prejudice, it does yield life force in a way that not only averts harmful reactions, but also promotes clear and decisive actions that do not harm or offend. I experience, in my body and mind, that resilience which was so lacking, like it is being delivered when I most need it, but in a form that is crude and needs some refinement to be effective and expansive rather than destructive and contracting. This is the case when the practice is initiated in a conscious, timely way, with intention – not all the time for me – about 20% - maybe 10%. I also recommend, consistent daily meditation, exercise and yoga to strengthen qualities of concentration and equanimity. This is of course anecdotal, but I contend that these practices together could be responsible for strengthening and forming neural connections that override the unconscious emotional responses of the limbic system, and breathe emotional (and spiritual) intelligence into all of our relationships.

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