Love What’s Real

Love What’s Real

What can you count on?

The Practice:
Love what’s real.


Because this practice could seem so abstract or so obvious that it’s not worth doing, I am going to take longer than usual to explain why it’s so important.

As I grew up, my family and schools felt like shaky ground. I didn’t understand why my parents and many kids reacted the way they did, with worry or anger that was unrelated to what was actually happening. It felt shaky inside me, too, and I didn’t understand my own feelings and reactions. Outside and inside, both felt twirly, up in the air, unnerving.

So I looked for solid ground. I tried to see and understand what was really true. The orange groves and hills around our home were natural and comforting, and I spent a lot of time there. I started reading science fiction and liked an orderly universe in which you could figure out why the spaceship was falling and save it.

I also tried to figure out what was real inside other people and myself. Why is my mom so cranky? Oh, she’s mad at my dad. Why is this bully picking on me? Oh, he’s trying to look big in front of his friends. Why does that girl look so hurt? Oh, it’s because I did something mean. Why do I feel shy in groups? Oh, I’m afraid they’ll make fun of what I say. 

Years later, reality is my primary touchstone and refuge. Sure, mysteries remain, and our descriptions of what’s real are incomplete and shaped by culture. Still, there is a LOT that we can know – from details about microbes in your gut and feelings in your mind to a ripple in the fabric of space-time produced by two black holes crashing together.

Besides knowing what’s real, we can love it as well, gobsmacked by its existence, reassured by seeing clearly rather than being tricked or deluded. We don’t have to like what’s real to love its realness.

It’s striking: What’s the one thing that healthy individuals, couples, families, organizations, and governments have in common? They are grounded in what is real. They seek the truth and help others find it themselves. They tell the truth, and they deal with it.

Flip it around: What’s the one thing that unhealthy individuals, couples, families, organizations, and governments have in common? They hide, distort, or attack the truth of things. For example, “family secrets” are classic signs of trouble, in which good stories – Oh, mom doesn’t drink that much . . . Oh, Uncle Bob isn’t creepy; he’s just affectionate – hides bad facts. Religious organizations (as I’ve seen personally) become corrupted when truths about their leaders are suppressed. Governments that attack a free press while spreading propaganda are clearly not seeking the common good; lying in order to hold on to authority de-legitimizes it.

In every unhealthy case, power is used to hide what is real, promote lies, and punish others for pursuing and naming the truth. Deliberate efforts are made to undermine people’s confidence in their own capacity, even to know what is true – which could be the evilest thing anyone can ever do.

This suggests that seeking and honoring what is real could be just about the kindest and wisest thing a person can do.

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Sometimes it is not safe to say what is true. But you can always say it to yourself inside the sanctuary of your own mind. And find others you can share it with if that’s possible.

I start with physical objects: a stone in my hand, water being swallowed, and the sound of a train in the distance. Let your eyes move from object to object, seen or heard or touched or imagined: one after another, all real . . . extending to the hand holding the rock or the brain constructing the experience of sound: it is all real! If you relax and open into this, a kind of wild ecstasy can bubble up, gratitude and awe.

Loving what’s real is a fundamental thankfulness that you exist and that anything exists at all. There is an accepting, humility, and respect. Many things that are real are also painful, even horrible. We would not wish them upon others and don’t want them for ourselves – yet we can still love the real everything that includes these things.

Loving what’s real makes it easier to see what you may tend to turn away from, such as facts about your health, finances, or relationships or what is happening down in the basement of your own mind. You might consider, as I am lately, the real effects adding up of personal health practices, compassion or anger toward others, and choices about how best to use the remaining years and days of this life.

One way to love what’s real is to listen or look for it coming to you from others. How are your friends or family really doing inside? What do they need? Where does it hurt? How could you help? And how, perhaps, could your own real needs be better met in these relationships?

Last, what’s real? What’s true in your country and the world? The basics are usually pretty easy to see. Who’s getting richer, and who’s getting poorer? Is the ice cap melting at the North Pole?

There’s a widespread idea these days that we can’t really know what’s happening with big things like national governments, or even if we could know, it doesn’t much matter. I think that’s crazy. Truth is truth at any size, and if it matters whether a child is actually learning to read or a plane is actually safe to fly, then it matters whether a foreign government actually manipulated a U.S. presidential election while the candidate it favored cheered on their efforts.

We are intimately affected by real events in the halls of power both here at home and on the other side of the world. When someone tells you, “Don’t worry, you don’t need to know the truth, you don’t need to worry about that,” . . . you usually do. Same with politics: any person, party, or government that says facts don’t matter, or makes it harder to find them, or spews lies to crowd out the truth is attacking the foundation of democracy. Sometimes you can’t stop them from doing this – but they can never stop you from knowing what is real and what matters.

Know Someone Who’s Searching for the Things That Are Real?

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Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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