Aunt Josie at 105

Today would be Aunt Josie’s 105th birthday; she was born on 04/04/04. Josephine Nicastro Sharp was my great aunt and Goddess Mother; she held me when I was baptized. She was there for me at many times in my life, fulfilling her role as Goddess. I used to think I would not have a career as an independent journalist, if not for Josie. I am staring to think I might not have lived through my 20s, certainly not outside a mental hospital, had she not been there to encourage, support and help finance my creative process, with the most genuine love I’ve ever felt coming from anyone. As many doors around me closed, she helped hold one open; and I would say that all the good that’s come into my life has come through that door. The only photo I have of her is attached to the article below, so in honor of her birthday, I’m reprinting it here. Aunt Josie Forever!

A Plausible Theory for How We Might Get Out of This Mess

Eric & family, from left, Aunt Josie, Joseph, and Justin, circa 1992. Photo by Sabine.
Eric & family, from left, Aunt Josie, Joseph, and Justin, circa 1992. Photo by Sabine.

My Hakomi Therapy class [Seattle, 2002] was assigned a book called A General Theory of Love and, doing my homework for a change, I gave it a read. Written by three medical doctors, specifically, men I can fairly represent as extraordinarily spiritually aware neurologists, it’s a look at our relationships from the standpoint of brain function. Lest this subject scare anyone away owing to its potential complexity, the first thing I must mention about this book is that it’s written eloquently and never once strays off into technical or intellectual abstraction. It’s also gone to the top of my This Book May Save Your Ass list.

There can be no doubt that our culture is in trouble, speaking emotionally. “A good deal of modern American culture is an extended experiment in depriving people of what they crave the most,” the authors write as the book draws to its conclusion.

What do we crave? Touch, eye contact, the sound of a voice, the reassuring presence of a warm human being breathing next to us while we sleep. What we get is a world in which intimate relationships are relegated to the level of hygienic routine or an optional extra-curricular activity, and in which the skills we need to coexist in harmony with our fellow people are being steadily stripped away.

The problem gets worse the more prosperous we become, as we overeat, overspend and create one substitute after another for human connection, then struggle with the results. The Spam filters on my computer have trapped more than 17,000 pieces of junk email in recent months. Most of them are offering me the comfort of a female body, which would arrive in the form of digital photographs. Pornography sells so well not only because we’re deprived of touch, but also because touch and its emotional results are alien experiences to so many people. We crave the pleasure without the emotional complexity; without the karma that sex can instigate.

This sounds like a romantic argument, not a technical one. But the authors are neurologists, and make their case from the standpoint of evolutionary science that has looked back at the 100 million year history of the emotional capacity that distinguishes mammals. It is not milk production, bearing live young or a coating of fur that makes us so, but rather the capacity to feel and resonate with one another using something called the limbic portion of the brain. Anyone who has ever felt the sweet universe of a child’s gaze has tuned into this portion of their awareness.

The brain, the authors say, evolved in three major leaps and we carry the legacy of each. First was the reptilian brain, located in people where the base of the neck meets the top of the spine. It governs what we do but don’t think about, like breathing and kidney function. Animals that have only a reptilian brain do things like eat their own babies and don’t feel bad about it. (It is clearly the reptilian brain that leads us into the Burger King drive-through.)

Then creatures developed the capacity to feel. That came with the limbic brain. There is a distinct difference between a frog and a dog (to name two critters that happen to rhyme) and that difference is called limbic resonance. Limbic resonance is that indescribable feeling of looking into your child’s eyes, or those of your lover, or in reality your cat, dog or even a rat, and feeling that deeply pleasurable sense that someone alive feels you back. It’s a trait common to mammals (some snake owners would disagree, I am sure, but if that’s the case, something besides a limbic system is at work). The less effectively animals have the ability to access limbic reality, the more it seems like nobody’s home when you look into their eyes (the Dubyasaurus, for example).

Your dog probably can’t program in C++, however. Not yet, anyway. That came with the cerebral brain, or neocortex. Abstract thinking, cold logic, developing concepts, and the invention of ideas are all neocortical programs. We used to think that this is what really made us human: the ability to design a bridge or machine gun. At some point we stopped listening to poets. As the aeons marched on, particularly in the past few hundred years — the equivalent a nanosecond in the context of evolutionary time — much of human culture abandoned limbic thinking (feeling) in favor of neocortical thinking (so-called logic, often devoid of feeling). As a result, we are left with the ability to design aircraft carriers and for the most part an utter lack of remorse about dropping bombs on people. Those who are alarmed about our culture’s propensity toward war are the ones who have a functioning limbic system. They are also the ones who feel the devastation of the environment as a reality.

These three brains exist within us as something akin to separate identities. Operating in what we call the personality, they may express as instinct, emotion or conceptual reasoning, and the various qualities of identity that come with them: a person who acts with sensitivity, or ruthlessly, or is extremely instinctual, or is empathic. Some people have an ability to detach from pain, and from people in pain; others must do so; yet others will respond with empathy or even telepathy. The authors are wise enough to explain that even this model, while scientifically demonstrated, is a metaphor, like art. A General Theory of Love does not take into account documented phenomena such as memory and trauma stored in other organs (the liver, the muscles and so on) but using the brain as a model does not deny these possibilities.

There have been many attempts to divide up consciousness into three aspects: Freud’s id, ego and superego; the Sun, the Moon and the Ascendant of astrology; the Self, the Soul and the Spirit of some theologies. The authors say that the three portions of the brain function as identities and that these identities. And in most cases, neocortical reality is overdeveloped, while limbic reality has been damaged or is underdeveloped. We meet people all the time whose tolerance of feelings is extremely low and who ‘stuff’ their emotions; others are whelmed with emotion and cannot seem to think. Some people give the distinct sense of having neither a functioning neocortex nor a limbic system and run in fully automatic mode — pod people.

Yet here is what I consider to be one of the most important qualities on which this book sheds light: the propensity of people to attract the same kinds of partners in relationships, in particular, people who resemble their parents. Different traditions have explained this by karma, lack of maturity, needing to work on our issues or stupidity. Here is a different theory.

When we are growing up, the limbic system is extremely impressionable, and it’s developing rapidly, particularly in the first two or three years of life. We learn to feel by resonance with others, a little like musicians tune up the band. Hopefully the keyboard is on key or the guitarist used an electronic tuner, or somebody has perfect pitch; if not, the whole band may be flat or sharp, or playing in a variety of different pitches. So it is in families. If the family is tuned to pain and resentment, the child will grow up harmonized to these emotions. If the family is tuned to compassion, support and caring, this is what the child will grow up — biologically, as a function of brain development — to both be aware of and to accept. People who are raised under harsh, depressive or insensitive circumstances will tend to attract just those tones of feeling. We develop what the authors describe as ‘limbic attractors’, which are neurological patterns that help us resonate with people kind of like the people we grew up with. As Will Hunting’s therapist told him, “it’s not your fault.”

Not only is it difficult to resonate with others unlike those with whom we experienced childhood, it is nearly impossible to even see them. We quite literally tend not to notice, or to see, or to be able to hold any stability in a relationship with people who are tuned to a different frequency of limbic resonance than we are. And this explains why it’s so easy to slip into relationships with people who resemble our parents and to some degree our siblings. This explains the concept of a ‘love map’ (developed by John Money) that teaches us how we seek love based on what our family of origin was like.

And they note that our culture is developing very strong patterns of limbic resonance that are cold, insensitive, and driven by logic and reason and not by compassion, and that from a scientific standpoint, this is extremely dangerous. They offer as one example the managed care system in which corporate drones are trained to intentionally send patients to hospitals where they are likely to get poor treatment, suffer and die, or to outright deny them the treatment they need as a way of saving money and increasing profits. They argue that mammals need to be put back at the helm of healthcare.

The solution, the authors reason, can happen in two stages. First, they offer a theory of why psychotherapy works, why it’s important and how to allow it to work better. Working with a good therapist, we are developing new limbic patterns; we are literally changing our brain structures, granted, in subtle but effective ways, and developing the capacity to feel. As part of this process, we begin to recognize that relationship experiences other than the ones we had as children and repeated (and reinforced) as adults are possible. We can then take these experiences into the world and relate to others, now that we both have the capacity to do so, and the sense that it’s even possible. But the authors caution that therapists must be chosen carefully because when we work with someone, we don’t become generally healthier; we become more like that person.

The second is how we arrange our family lives, raise our children and conduct our relationships. The authors present evidence from numerous scientific studies which demonstrate that, for example, parents sleeping with their children allows the development of proper limbic functioning and will reduce the astonishingly high rate of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS, or crib death) in the United States. Many children spend too much time in day care to possibly develop healthy limbic responsiveness, in part because their actual parents are necessary to this process, and because day care centers have too high of a staff overturn for a solid attachment to develop between the child and the worker, which might at least offer a poor substitute. Correspondingly, we need to work within our relationships to consciously develop healthy emotional functioning, doing what spiritual teachers have said for many, many years: using our relationships as the most fertile ground for healing that there is.

And we need to do so not so much as a matter of pleasure, but of survival. But we can be sure that survival will feel really good. ++

A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis MD, Fari Amini MD and Richord Lannon MD, published in 2001 by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York.

12 thoughts on “Aunt Josie at 105”

  1. I wanted to engage with “Musicman”, I feel that’s where this is going,but I’m still not quite sure. You have an extremely bright perception of the universe in general. I’m always learning from your words… I understand your style of writing, not to mention the words, and context you throw out… You do though have this inaccessibility, through words themselves…. to make the transition, your front, although such, much informative, has to be a little more human, and less the robot…. You’ll probably kick my ass right now, (and I’ll probably sit and laugh, but… )

    Write a bit more, please. I honestly would like to hear what you have to say.

    Your insights are a blessing to this community,(or, at least ME). (Watch, in a hundred years, these words are going to be turned to reflect (in it’s most benign sense) the devastation that overtook our planet Earth…… But, that’s a dull dream….

    I’ll stand, … and die…. before this … Please forgive me… Pathetic fucking world gets to me in any serious sense… There’s nothing but the universe to reflect my state of being… (dull, dull,dull). Hah,Hah.

    But, I DO laugh. And smile. All the freakin’ time! The whole entire universe seems like one big joke , all the time., indefinitely, and never ending for our personal endeavours….

    So,,,, if you care,,, give me a bit of YOU.

    Lay the data down….

    Throw it out like you’re goin’ down… I can grasp…

    My faculties are open.


  2. Musicman, I think that every time someone has sex there is lust involved, and children are a by-product of that. It isn’t a choice of this or that, it’s just that part of the time the woman gets pregnant. The woman doesn’t have to feel lust obviously, but the man does. If a woman isn’t turned on, she can think about something else and escape.

    That rat in the experiment died of stupidity, and serves as a reminder that most men think with their dicks. That said, the survival mechanism IS sex! Without procreation we’d have been toast many moons ago!

  3. Eric, one astrologer equates the Id to the Moon, the Ego to Saturn, and the Super-ego to Sedna! If you haven’t already, please read Boots Hart’s article, “Sedna: Uniqueness in Perspective” at daykeeper journal dot com. It is interesting and could prove useful when studying someone’s chart. She says Sedna was discovered in March, 2004, but that was when it was discovered that she had no moons. The true discovery was in November, 2003, so it’s close enough for government work, as my dad used to say.

    She puts a lot of emphasis on the part of the myth that tells us Sedna didn’t want to leave the comforts of home and compares that to today’s grown children who return home, and/or don’t want to wait the 30 years it took their parents to accumulate those comforts. I found her perspective fascinating and think you would too.

  4. I have been thinking about entering into this debate for a while…………..let us examine the obvious differences… that we may yet shine a light on the common ground………………!!!

    The above assumptions work…..only if the patient/analysand/one to be healed……is a victim……!!!

    By that I mean that ……if you accept that your place in this world… to be pissed on from a great height……..and that is the way of it… are of the “me victim” school…..!!

    (Incidently….anger is the gateway out of this “life just passed me by “cul-de-sac…”!!!)

    If…however you can relate to the idea that “shit ‘appens”….. even to those who appear to have it all……rich ….successful……..etc etc…..then you understand that “ups and downs” is a phase thing….and that you are a long term master of your energies….. or at least a student of how to become one…..!!

    Cogito ergo sum…

    The neo-cortex is actually the place at which astrology works… the lunar phases of the month shift a whole lot of water in the form of the earths’ tidal system……and the pressure on the water in the outer lining of the cortex….is precisely the pressure that translates into lunar ticking……lunatic……derivative moon child behaviour…!!

    (Discuss….physiological evidence of Astrological results-driven behaviour…)

    Next….the Limbic system….now this is interesting……..!!!!!

    In behavioural psychology….favoured by Americans such as John Watson…..and also Mr Skinner…….should you happen to have a rat in a cage in your basement ….with 2 pedals ….in its cage….and one pedal…when kicked…..delivers a large number of volts to the rats’ hypothalamus … via a neatly inserted electrode…….and the other provides pellets of food after each kick….then the rat will actually starve itself to death while delivering electronic orgasms at a rate……!!

    This is addiction….psychotics tend to have crystalline deposits in their hypothalamus….. and Goldie Horne …not withstanding…where he does actually get f****d to death on the bathroom floor…… Private Benjamin….leads me to humbly suggest that as soon as we lose our instinct to survive…………the victim consciousness has overaken our primal drives ….and to quote my sales manager…”you are toast…”

    So let us begin with the Darwinian idea that we adapt and survive…….he has been shown to be about right for as long as the Galapagos turtle has been in the 200 year old club….!!

    There are simple rules to the way in which we play the game of life….!! I read of “I am curious…I dont want to play by the rules….I just want to explore…..” and “choose your therapist carefully”

    Well that is all very well…but stick your fingers in the fire why dont you…lets all just invent a new game called sex without frontieres……it is after all …your body….only you have the right to decide the experiences that ye shall process…..!! But you….will be held accountable…….!!

    What worries me…is that for every other activity on the planet…. chess…. music….. making pizza…….. cycling…….. photography………even the old fashioned boy meets girl activity called courting….there are “rules”…accepted modes of conduct…that allow one to participate.

    Once these have been mastered…then….and only then can you have the freedom to be creative……..!!

    Sure …you can do the sexual equivalent of musical anarchy…..(Pisceans everywhere… and 7th house Uranians…… suddenly got wired up…..hey man…where do I get some…?) but hang on in there….!!

    Music flies out into the ether…and people can choose the listening or not…….!!

    A master of his/her energies can play that sex game….and make porn movies all day…!!

    But for the tender ….gentle….freedom loving soul…who is primally driven by the urge to mate….and raise a brood….in the nest…this is completely counter productive…..!!

    So we can reduce the argument to a straight choice……

    Procreation…..or Lust……..!!

    and I have to say that that is like somebody asking me if I want Yin or Yang…..?

    Do not be so ridiculous….!!


  5. Eric, I wish you well with this. I did pick up on the spiritual dad aspect of your personality, and fatherhood seemed to be a natural next step. I see you with a backpack with a little tyke in tow, studying the universe together as the little one teaches you wisdom.

  6. Thank you, Aunt Josie, for the positive energy you’ve birthed into this Earth life…ripple, ripple, ripple. I hope you’ve plenty of reasons for smiles and a light heart as those around you celebrate your existence!

    I’m heading out the door for a hike…this article is a continuation of the thoughts I’ve been contemplating lately. Thank you for your insights, Eric; I hope to more thoroughly understand the concepts as the fresh air clears my being and I am more open to inspiration. What a glorious day…enjoy!

  7. Happy birthday aunt Josie. I’ve had some elders in my life who have seen a spark in me and thrown a lifeline when I’ve needed it, and they are invaluable.

    I am painfully aware of having chosen to be in relationships with men who resemble my father, and now feel fortunate to have left those relationships. The similarities were never overt. Primarily they constantly challenged my desire to live as a creative, free person. Why would i choose to be intimate with someone who questions my choice be an artist? it is hard enough to find support in the culture let alone fight the battle at home. Being single feels like the jail cell door is wide open and I’ve been looking at it, planning the escape, yet don’t recognize I can simply walk through the door.
    And though I miss having an intimate relationship, i treasure the eye contact, conversations and laughter with friends. Your writing helps me see the value in finding my voice and not looking for approval, and even celebrating my freedom rather than feeling like an outcast as a single woman.
    Thanks for all you do! And thanks Aunt Josie!

    patty, it is ok for people to choose not to bring children into the world.
    in fact it is imperative that some of us make that decision.

  8. Hi Patty,

    I do love kids and would love to meet my own. I have not had children because I have not been in a relationship that would support children. I have long been keeping my eyes, ears and heart alert for such a connection. For many years my intention was to have children, but only with the right partner. (As for the right time, I just need to feel confident that I can support a family, which I basically am.) As for being a dad, I am sure I would be an excellent one.

    So, short of the appropriate partner for the journey, I’ve scaled back my ideas about a family and I am living the life that I have, which is being a kind of spiritual dad and guardian to a tribe; a cosmic lover to many and occasionally, in person. The partner that I share the parenting journey with, I would imagine, needs to be fully present for the journey that I am currently on, since it amounts to much the same thing: nurturing the world, stewardship, focusing creative intention.

    Anyone I do that with well, I think that a child would be a natural outgrowth of the conversation. I can tell you that, where children are to be involved, I am seeking a partner who is all about raising a child. I am old-fashioned. I feel that for at least 10 years or so, raising a kid is a full time career for at least one parent, with a second one directly involved.


  9. Eric, Why no kids? You would be a fantastic parent and a truly thoughtful husband.

    If the fear of being an abusive parent is stopping you, stop worrying. I suspect you don’t really have a mean bone in your body and besides, the decision to abuse or not is a conscious choice. My husband and I both come from rough homes, but we have been very conscious of the way we reared the children – no shouting, no spanking. We explained things, we showed affection. It was simple.

    I read recently that children get upset hearing the mother criticize their fathers, because a complaint about your father is a complaint about you! It’s true! Children like to see parents holding hands and showing affection, because the love reflects back to them. Love conquers all, and heals all, and your aunt Josie is proof of that too.

  10. As always Eric you seem to be able to write so eloquently about what I consider a complex topic. Did you ever read “Families and how to Survive Them” written by Robin Skynner (who is a psychiatrist) and John Clesse (the paitient and also a member of Monty Pythons Flying Circus). It is in dialog format between the two men and not only very well written covering the many dynamics in different families but the humor is outstanding. I was given this book by my father when I was 14 years old . I still have this book but it’s binding is a mess pages are rolled.
    I have read numerous books and while all offer valuable insights I found this one to convey the concepts extremely well on all avenues. I have also been in and out of therapy since I was 14. When I was 36 years old I lost a friend to cancer and this was to be a catalyst that sent me back into therapy . It seemed as if all of my reading , prior years of therapy seemed to reach a climax the 4 years I spent with the most wonderful therapist. It was a extremely profound dark time for me . I was later to find out that it is commonly called the “Dark Night of the Soul” of which began in 1994 or 1995 increasing in intensity in the last stretches. It was a profound experience . Much of what I learned prior to this experience remained in my head and this experience allowed it to penetrate the heart/soul
    It wasn’t that I was without emotions , its just that I was sabotaging my life by
    my own hand completely unaware of it. The years I spent in therapy prior allowed for significant growth I was still operating from a shame , people pleasing , negation of self to obtain love and validation . I lost myself a very long time ago and it was deep in the hollow where I finally found me. My life now is a wild thing , lots of wonder , still serious too but I devote large amounts of time just being silly and laughing.. People are precious to me and enhance my life beyond words.
    Thanks for having this site Eric I appreciate it beyond words. I’m especially greatful that you give generous exposure to the topic of Sex and our sexual natures openly.
    The importance of addressing this is so well overdue, needing to be reclaimed from deep in the hollows hollow.

  11. I am fascinated by this article and equally dazzled by its appearance right now, precisely at a time when I am realizing how my significant other has lately shifted our dynamic into that of his parents (and that ain’t good) and I, at the same time, am trying to identify deeper reasons for the patterns I have long recognized in my own romantic relationships. A very, very helpful article. Thanks.

    How lucky you are to have had such a steady and loving influence in your life. What a gift.

  12. Many happy returns for your Aunt Josie.

    The General Theory of Love – I ordered this after you mentioned it previously, however, I have not been able to get my hands on it as my beloved Aqueerian partner has had it clutched between his mitts since it arrived. Reading with some considerable fervour has ensued, only to be interrupted regularly by shouts of, ‘listen to this…’ followed by some fascinating quote or nugget of information.

    I can’t wait to finally get to read it…

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