The Root of All Evil – Gabor Maté on the Importance of Attachment

I am really starting to pay attention to Gabor Maté, a Canadian physician who has worked for many years with the most vulnerable drug-addicted population in a part of downtown Vancouver, which he characterizes as the most densely populated area of addicts in all of North America. His assertion is that all addiction is a result of early childhood trauma. Actually investigating his work is new to me, so this is just some early reflection on material that I see potentially significantly informing my practice. I also reflect on some treatments that are either already part of my toolbox, or rapidly becoming so.

Having worked with  people who have had significant early childhood trauma,  Maté’s observations and assertions ring deeply true. His insight on the impact of childhood trauma include the following:

  • The major contributing factor to all illnesses, psychological, addictive AND physical originates in infancy and childhood in the form of attachment disorder – insecure, intermittent or abusive caregiving in the earliest years.
  • As the brain develops under these adverse conditions, attachment trauma results in weak executive function. The lack of guidance by a loving caregiver in ways to soothe negative emotions results in a “narrow window of tolerance – the inability to tolerate peaks or valleys of emotion. In adulthood, and a client thus effected will spend much of their time either scared and angry, shut down and listless, or in escape mode – often where addictive behavior is found
  • Attachment rupture inhibits neurobiological development: the circuits that produce positive neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin are not working optimally. Therefore, the client will substitute with drugs, alcohol, workaholism, eating, shopping etc., all of which provide a pleasurable chemical “kick” that brains who don’t get enough soothing and pleasurable neurotransmitter activity crave.
  • Maté sees the “genetic” explanations as “nonsense”. He characterizes this popular explanation as a convenient way to pass off responsibility for the problem rather than address it at its root. Mate asserts that by “passing the buck” to the unchangeable genetics, society can justify a go-go world of success, profit and power where women’s maternal leave is a fraction of the 2 years he recommends, and caregiving is passed off to surrogates like daycare, nannies, video games and smartphones

The discovery the now well-known concept of neuroplasticity, the capacity of the brain to re-wire in accordance with new experience, appears to justify time-honored methods of cultivating attachment, and is prompting many of the new trauma paradigms of trauma treatment, now that there is hope of cultivating neurologically healthier brains in adulthood. At the bottom of these methods is some type of way to give the children the love and soothing that they never had; the treatment goal of these new methods is “earned secure attachment”.

Besides a complete reassessment by society of the importance of long term and frequent mother-to-child connection, Maté envisions the remedy for these deep seated attachment issues in adulthood in the realm of rediscovery of Authenticity – of who we really are mirroring D.W. Winnicott, the an early pioneer in the study of attachment, who famously drew our attention to what he termed the True/False self (p 140). As an infant involves itself in hard-wired attachment to the mother, her acceptance cultivates the burgeoning personality.

The more of the authentic self the mother accepts and encourages, the more likely the child will grow up feeling “authentic”. However, when the mother responds to the baby’s efforts with anger or neglect, the baby learns to suppress those offensive “authentic gestures” that trigger the mother’s ire, or devise strategies to get attention that otherwise would not have emerged naturally. With time, these messages create a self that is True, based on acceptance of spontaneous gestures, or partially or completely False, based on suppression and the inauthentic responses necessary to maintain the critical survival bond.

But how do we cultivate this often forgotten and elusive “True Self”? .

Much of psychodynamic therapy is based in the healing and reparative relationship of therapist and client in a thoroughly confidential environment. Winnicott, as do all psychodynamically trained therapists, felt that if people can be fully accepted as themselves, as they are in the therapy room, they could gradually develop a secure attachment with the therapist. This incremental re-wiring of the brain to learn the inner meaning of secure attachment could lead to the client accepting and finally embracing her “true self.”

Anyone who has seen the “Gloria” films knows that Carl Rogers had an iconically personal way with clients. By helping the client express verbally their true emotions, he could work toward an alignment with what was verbalized and what was felt fully within the body.  By mirroring the narrative expressed in therapy back to the client as best he understood, and as the client agreed or corrected his interpretation, they eventually would arrived at a felt sense of “congruence” in which themselves as a living being aligned with what they expressed.

But what of severe trauma? What happens when one’s childhood has been traumatic and filled with abuse, neglect or worse?

Besides the necessity of a safe and warm therapeutic, I turn to Janina Fisher for additional help. Fisher who worked for many years in the clinic of famous trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk has created what she calls a “new paradigm” for trauma treatment. Her method, which draws heavily on the neuroscience of attachment, as well as other established methods, breaks down each defense against or in compliance with the “scary” behavior of caregivers manifests in “parts”, each one arrested at the age in which it was forced to emerge. By seeing the parts as individual entities of various ages, the client can be gently guided to use the high functioning parts of themselves to slowly get to know and learn to welcome these parts with the love and security they still perceive is lacking.

For many decades, the concept of attachment has been identified and elaborated. With thousands and thousands of studies to its credit, it is about as well researched a psychological concept that exists. Virtually every therapist in practice today is familiar with the concept, knows the damage that insecure or traumatic attachment can cause in adulthood, and incorporates this knowledge into their work. What Maté is proposing takes attachment to the true forefront of virtually all human maladies. His implication brings the realization that healthy attachment is not a luxury; it needs to be seen as a necessity. This makes the notion of earning a secure attachment all the more vital for a healthy life, society and world.

Tao de Ching – #6

The Tao is called the Great Mother

Empty, yet inexhaustible

It gives birth to infinite worlds


It is always present within you

You can use it any way you want.


There is great, indeed infinite, flexibility to an “open mind” or “thinking outside the box”. The capacity to be open to all stimuli, to “resist nothing” is what allows for the greatest creativity and the the best possible solution for the moment.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1973), there is a passage concerning the American way of governing, and how inbuilt into its philosophy is the pragmatism of using the best solution for the problem at the time. Harry Truman said, concerning his administration’s programs, “We’ll just try them—and if they don’t work—why then we’ll just try something else.”

But we seem to have reached a point in our nation’s history where the parties have rigid, ideological stances that are perpetuated on an individual level through social media. We have lost our flexibility in general. In keeping with our stuckness, our Shadow, the anti Harry Truman is all about enforcing his way rather than follow the Way.

Solutions can be found where you least expect, but if you are not open to them, you won’t find them. We are in Chaos, the Void. Infinite possibilities are available. Will we force one, or let Tao guide us? We can only make individual choices

ZAMM Reflections – Phaedrus’ Quality

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is known for being one of the best selling popular philosophy books of all time, and for encouraging a slew of disaffected youth to study philosophy. However, one of its major lasting contributions was an exploration of the notion of Quality. Later, in his follow-up Lila (which I have not yet read) he expounds on this philosophy as the “Metaphysics of Quality” (MoQ).

Phaedrus, the “crazy” genius, who is the narrator’s electroshock annihilated self, but re-emerging ghost throughout the novel, became early in his professorial career, obsessed with the quest of Quality. Ultimately the sheer magnitude of the meaning implicit in this “metaphysical mountain climbing” led to his psychic demise. The narrator picks up where Phaedrus left off, and with snippets of memory and having read the “a trunkful of notes”, attempts to create a useful version of the theory.

As Phaedrus goes through the ringer trying to figure Quality out, his thought process is something like this:

As soon as you try to define quality, you lose it. Yet, you know what it is. You could name certain attributes: unity, vividness, authority, economy, sensitivity, clarity, emphasis, flow, suspense, brilliance, precision, proportion, depth and so on. But how do we understand it? Any irrational attempts to define it fall apart. Since you can’t define it, it has to be defined irrationally – it has to be sensed.

We know it exists, he says, because if you were to imagine a world without quality, it would be a rational world – a world where all needs were met, but nothing more. It would be grey, bland, banal. There would be nothing else but life support delivery. Imagine 1984, or Communist Russia. These are quality-free dystopias. To us, this is unsettling at best and hellish at worst. A lack of quality is apparent, and is negative. Therefore, Quality exists and is critical.

The Classicist wants to define it, but it is the Romantic who understands it. Yet, we see it in Classicism too. So what is it? Is it what unites the two? Is it somewhere in between? Perhaps the Quality of the Romantic is aesthetics and the Quality of the Classicist is function. Romantic problem is the experience of aesthetics in the present. Classic quality is long term, looking to things working in the past, now, and in the future. Again, these reflections point to an immaterial emergence. So it is not subject nor object, but where the two meet. In the Trinity, God is the Object, Christ is the subject. So maybe Quality is the Holy Ghost?

All of us seek quality, what’s better. If we did not seek what is better, we would cease to exist. So, Quality is an innate goal-direction that keeps us looking for food, looking for mates, looking for warmth. As we build up a repertoire of analogs of quality, our specific notions of Quality become individualized dependent on these experiences. Quality is the continuing stimulus that our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live. Collectively, in this way we end up creating all the categories of man, creating our world: Heaven, Earth, Good, Evil, Philosophy, Art, Science “ All of it, every last bit of it”, he says.

With this statement, something shifts in Phaedrus – He then realizes he can no longer attempt to break it up as “types” of Quality, Romantic, Classic, elements of the Trinity, any component at all. “He put his pencil down and then—felt something let go. As though something internal had been strained too hard and had given way. Then it was too late.” He has begun his climb up the metaphysical mountain, into the mystic.

His realization: Quality is the source of everything. He sees it now, not as a completion of the Trinity, not Classic vs. Romantic, but as absolute monism. Quality is the pattern behind everything. He picks up the Tao de Ching, and, by replacing the word “Tao” with “Quality”…

Quality is all-pervading.

And its use is inexhaustible!


Like the fountainhead of all things—

Yet crystal clear like water it seems to remain.

I do not know whose Son it is.

An image of what existed before God.

…realizes that Tao is Quality. “He had broken the code”. With this realization, he tumbles down the mountain into madness.

The narrator picks up where Phaedrus leaves off. Not only is he not certain about Phaedrus’ conclusion, he does not believe any comparison will do. All Phaedrus has done is come full circle back to Reason, that which he was bent on destroying. He has come to compare Tao with Quality, acknowledging two absolute entities and attempt to grasp them, neither of which they are, or can be.

Quality is, yes, indefinable. Like the Tao, you can point to it, but you will never catch ahold of it. All you can do is, like the Taoists and like the mystics, live you life in accordance with it.

The narrator finds something in Phaedrus’ research that parallels his own view of Quality – the revelations of 19th century mathematician Henri Poincaré. Poincaré, mulling over the crisis in mathematics, being the early 19th century discovery of the impossibility of proving Euclid’s fifth postulate (parallel lines), realizes neither geometry is “true”, they are tools for handling facts. Since facts are infinite, we must choose from the best ones, but how do we do so?

There is not an absolute, a priori “truth” that we discover in science and mathematics, rather, something else that facilitates the emergence of something that seems right and true. This something he called the “subliminal self”, that which guides through the morass of facts and determines an underlying harmony that we, as a species, innately agree upon. These patterns become apparent through the work due to something like elegance – an aesthetic that the scientists and mathematicians know. His reflections left an “unfinished edge”, though. What about the aesthetics that artist knows?

“What brought tears of recognition to my eyes was the discovery that these unfinished edges match perfectly in a kind of harmony that both Phædrus and Poincaré talked about, to produce a complete structure of thought capable of uniting the separate languages of Science and Art into one”; The unification of Classic and Romantic. While categorically entirely different, the way an artist and a scientist determine quality is the same – it is universal.

So how does Quality manifest in day-to-day existence? Through Care and Meaning. What is meaningful, what you care about – this is where you will find Quality. The narrator cares about the maintenance of his motorcycle and demonstrates this care in the ongoing narratives of its maintenance. His careful, in-the-moment attendance to his machine is propelled Quality; the “psychic gasoline” that keeps him suspended in timeless pursuit of “better”.

Once as established as best he can, much of the novel, and many more of the narrator’s “Chautauquas” (edifying reflections) are dedicated to pointing at the moon of Quality. He also gives some advice on how to get back Quality engagement when it is lost to a “Gumption trap”, which I addressed earlier in this blog and in this one. So now that a sense of Quality is outlined, really the best way to further understand it is to see it in action and learn some life lessons. I advise you read, or re-read the great ZAMM.


Training Dogs – Finding Strength in Unruly Emotions

We cannot change anything unless we accept it

-Carl Gustav Jung

A child is born. Although he has innate tendencies based on biological factors, the whole of human experience is available to him – and has infinite personality possibility. As we grow, our tiny brains “prune” away neurons, molding and shaping based on the interaction of our biology with our experience. However, the potential for all capacities of human emotional experience remains, even as some of these tendencies become latent and unconscious.

Everyone knows what it is like to be hijacked by negative emotions. There are few experiences worse that pain and anxiety that arise out of nowhere and often at the wrong times. The negative experience of this dynamic leads to the logical conclusion that one must put up barriers to these demons, to suppress them, and optimally to rid ourselves of them. Counter-intuitively, however, this is not where the solution lies. There is a Buddhist maxim which states, to escape the heat, go to the bottom of the furnace. This means learn to tolerate the heat in order to find out where it’s coming from.

Much of the work we do in therapy is to gain more control of our reactions and decrease the instances of being flooded with unwanted, painful emotion. At birth, we have all of human potential within us, and even though we cultivate some traits and bury others, we never lose this capacity. Keeping this in mind, the idea of us possessing latent aspects to our personality becomes important. The implication of this is whatever emotion or tendency troubles us, it is not going to go away. We must grapple with it. We have vicious dogs that need taming.

Let’s take a common example used in shadow work (a Jungian concept of working toward wholeness of self by integrating at forgotten, ignored or feared aspects of the self, much as I propose here) – that of aggression. Suppose you had mother who became overly upset if you were a noisy and angry and breast-grabbing little baby demanding milk. Because maintaining the attachment relationship is hard-wired in our emotional system as a life or death endeavor (which it is), our little brains learn to put this part of us away and associate it with the danger of losing what is keeping us alive. Later in life, this tendency to suppress our aggression may be reinforced by certain teachers, our religion, or any numbers of factors that remind us we may lose something if we allow this part of us to emerge.

The result is, our capacity for aggression is undeveloped and we pay for that. And if that isn’t bad enough, this wild animal gets out and goes for the only “safe” target –ourselves – in the form of self-destructive behavior or self-loathing. That latent aggression that we attempted to cage up early in infancy and childhood as a necessary defense gets out on occasion and emerges as an unwanted and malevolent attacker.

So what to do? Make friends with it. Really?? You say…I just want it to go away! Look at the problems and pain it is causing. But think about this. Wouldn’t it make sense for all of your internal family members to get along? When has it ever been constructive to banish the black sheep? What would happen if that aggressive delinquent would be taken back into the fold and given the acceptance that it needed from an earlier time? This is what we need to do with the parts of ourselves that, through being ignored, unexplored and unloved, are unruly and unpredictable.

Here’s something that might make the idea of making friends with those parts a little more enticing – embedded within all these troublesome parts are positive elements. We are talking about aggression, so what could be positive about that?

Well…we want a raise, but are too frightened to ask for one. We have an abusive partner, but can’t bear to call the police, we want to stand up to an exploiting authority, but have a deeply embedded defense that says: Danger! If you let that dog out, it will bite the thing you need to live, and that thing will go away! This being the case, it’s no wonder we don’t want to let it out! But you treat that dog well, and it will be a loyal friend. Developing the understanding that it can bite when you need it to, but will obey you to not bite at the wrong time then becomes the work.

A good therapist can guide you to towards meeting these parts gradually. Together in your work, you can come to see how they are trying to make themselves known to you through these intrusions. By noticing the times in which you are taken over by unwanted negative emotions or what triggers your engagement in self-destructive behaviors, you begin to see who these parts are. By decreasing your fear of them and increasing your compassion, you get to know them. As you learn to tolerate them, they become less inhibiting, and you are able to go to the bottom of the furnace.

This work can be challenging, and getting to know these parts can be elusive. Tolerating them takes time, practice, and often some good tools. But in a secure therapeutic alliance, gradual work can pay off as you get to know the unexplored and unused parts of yourself. And gradually, as they become your friends, they will reward you with the untapped benefits. Ultimately, and obviously you become more whole as parts that were once suppressed and “disavowed” are allowed to rejoin the family of the Self.


Tao de Ching – # 4 & 5

These two are very much related.


The Tao is like a well:
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.

The “void” of not doing can achieve more than doing. It is like a well, in the case that if you stay in the void, you see all the possibilities and act on them as they arise. This does mean, don’t have a goals. Unless you are living as a mystic or a sage, we must live in the world and need goals. However, with the goal in mind, be open to the routes to get there, and let the goal guide you whether than to force it. Alan Watts compares this with the Chinese notion of “Mu-Shin”, no mind. Pull back from “making it happen” and allow Quality (Pirsig) to guide you. Use your mind as a mirror and don’t try to hold onto the reflection.

It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than God.

This stanza is another way of characterizing Tao in its infinitude and timelessness. While this is exactly the sort of declaration that occurs throughout this text that a Westerner will find perplexing, due to our culturally inherent drive for understanding and “solutions”, it is holds with in it one of the keys to enlightenment – the acceptance of not-knowing. Infinity is probably the most confounding of concepts and to reconcile with our drive towards completion is a great spiritual quest. Quantum scientists assure us that there is a way to understand the constituent elements of experience, and that some day we will find them in a physical sense.


The Tao doesn’t take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn’t take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.

The “Te” of tao means something asking to “Virtue”. Watts said that the best way to look at this form was as the “healing virtue” of, say, medicinal plants. Both of these verses discuss “Te”, which in this context is a way of handling the experience as an ongoing flow to be responded to rather than fought. Good and evil are there, they are not going away. To say you are “virtuous” because you welcome good and denounce evil is not Te. Te is accepting that both exist as necessary, and finding virtue in operating within that acceptance.

The Tao is like a bellows:
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Hold on to the center.

Speaks again about living with Mu-Shin. To be self-conscious, to act deliberately and without spontaneity causes the Tao to flee. To gain self-consciousness was to lose Eden. Regain your connection with the nature of being. Amid chaos, Tao stays grounded.





Tao de Ching – #3

If you overesteem great men,
people become powerless.
If you overvalue possessions,
people begin to steal.

This is another example of the ongoing investigation of opposites. Power and powerlessness are only definable in the presence of the other. By esteeming someone, you devalue others. There is no way around the notion of mutual arising. This is something to consider as we ponder the obvious extremes of the “alt-right” and the “social justice left”. Could it not be that they grew together out of a back and forth reactivity? This is mutual arising, which is a key concept in this text.

The Master leads
by emptying people’s minds
and filling their cores,
by weakening their ambition
and toughening their resolve.
He helps people lose everything
they know, everything they desire,
and creates confusion
in those who think that they know.

The master “leads” by demonstrating that to hash out our problems and relationships on a tit-for-tat level of material interaction, thinking and arguing is not going to keep us in Tao. What will do so is developing our embodied sense of Tao in our “core”. He leads them to understand that “ambition”, again, the longing for a particular desired outcome leads to turmoil – as exemplified by the notion of mutual arising in the previous paragraph. In the Buddhist sense, this is “attachment”. Therefore, they must lose “everything” that attaches them to the matrix of desire. The confusion he creates is telling them to relinquish their attachments to what they are sure they desire.\

Practice not-doing,
and everything will fall into place.

This is how “Wu-Wei” works. or “Doing, not Doing”. By observing and experiencing, one will act when it is necessary to maintain harmony, or not at all and let Tao guide harmony in its Way.


Tao de Ching #2

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

There is no way to determine the merit of anything, or assess value, if you don’t have something to compare it to. While we see “wealth” as a good thing, it is only because we know what poverty is. In the United States, where almost everyone has running water, electricity, and certainly enough food, we still see “poverty” in relative terms. In remote African villages, without any of the above, the lives lived by our poor seem rich. We are continually offered choices our ancestors could never fathom outside the realm of witchcraft.  Without the latest smartphone, we feel deprived – we all do.

“Marilyn” Munster looks very much like her iconic namesake, yet her monsterous adopted family perpetually attributes her woes to her homliness. What is beautiful in the Muster family is not what is beautiful to the viewer. Beauty has been named, so it’s opposite is ugly.

Good and bad are creations of one and other. All opposites create each other due to the schism from the “darkness” of unity from which emerge opposites for comparison. To articulate what is Good and Evil is not the jurisdiction of the Tao de Ching. You go with Tao, or against it. Sometimes in between. That’s as close as the book will get to dogma.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

This is the first appearance of what I see as a parallel to the Matthew 6:28-34 in the  Sermon on the Mount.

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

The mystical vein that runs like a low river through the New Testament, if you are open to receiving it. In the same way, if you are open to receiving it, beautifully parallels this verse of the Tao de Ching. Just as you have to look past dogma to find the experiential essence of religion, you must look past the structure of past and future to experience Tao. This theme will re-emerge again and again in the book,  as do the simple yet eternal truths of the Way of Tao. If you are open to the Tao, you need not devise a particular future. By allowing the Tao to be a guide, the future is as it should be and by being aligned with the Tao, becomes part of the universal, eternal flow.