Perspectives On Violence: Peter Levine, Ph.D.
We Are All Neighbors: Healing the Roots of Violence
"...despite our differences, we're all alike. Beyond identities and desires, there is a common core of self--an essential humanity whose nature is peace and whose expression is thought and whose action is unconditional love. When we identify with that inner core, respecting and honoring it in others as well as ourselves, we experience healing in every area of life."
Joan Borysenko, Minding the Body, Mending the Mind
The very fabric of society as we currently know it is threatened, literally being torn apart by violence and the rising fear of it. Children are terrorized in their schools and even the elderly and middle class families are being held hostage in their once safe neighborhoods. The alarming rise in gang violence and the coming to age of a whole generation of babies raised in violent neighborhoods--many born addicted to cocaine--threatens us with future violence on a nightmarish scale not even dreamed of!
While building new prisons, effecting tougher sentencing, more police, improving welfare, restricting guns, and limiting TV violence all of which have their legitimate and necessary place, they are not addressing the root cause of violence. Even during the Great Depression, wh en large portions of society lived in desperate poverty, there was vastly less violent crime than there is today. Something has happened in our society that has led to the breakdown in our basic cohesion and ability to function peacefully. These problems of violence and crime seem insolvable. The course of life as we know it in this nation will be permanently altered (and in horrific ways) if we cannot find effective solutions.
There may be no quick fixes, but there are long-term solutions suggested by rigorous research carried out--some decades ago--in governmental and university laboratories. This work in the biological and social sciences not only identifies critical roots of violence but suggests effective and inexpensive grassroots programs which can begin to turn this rising tide of violence.
In the 1960's revolutionary studies were carried out at the National Institute of Mental Health by Dr. James Prescott. Prescott traced the records of several tribes from throughout the world and ranked them in terms of violent behaviors including rape, murder, and torture. He showed that in societies that were peaceful there was a high degree of physical contact with infants, including being carried and rocked. Violent societies showed the opposite profile: These societies demonstrated little appropriate touch and interaction in the early stages of life. Building on the experimental work carried out by Harlow, Prescott and colleagues showed that when infant monkeys were separated from their mothers and raised by cloth surrogates, they were withdrawn as adults and became aggressive with other monkeys.
Even with their children these deprived monkeys were negligent or violent. Remarkably, when the monkey infants were raised by similar cloth surrogates but who could rock and swing on a rope, their behavior as adults was more normal and the extreme violence was not evident. Of course, normal mothers which both held, nourished, carried and swung their babies on their backs produced the most peaceful progeny.
Where there has been violence and trauma in human groups, there has been severe disruptions in normal health-promoting behaviors between mothers and infants. The deep urges of the mothers to bond and the deep needs of their infants for secure love are disrupted. A vicious cycle is set up under the stress of violence and trauma that will derail the bonding process and will be amplified into the next generation. When these infants later become parents their capacities to nurture will be impaired, leading to a progressive deterioration of cohesive peaceful behaviors. Violence will beget more violence in this trans-generational destructive vortex, each generation becoming more violent than the last.
In Scandinavia, we are currently involved in some exciting work inspired by our Norwegian colleagues. This project uses what we know about this critical period around infancy to allow not just one individual, but an entire group of people to begin transforming the trauma, stress and violence of past encounters. This method of bringing people together requires only a room, a few simple musical instruments, and some blankets strong enough to hold a baby's weight, all of which are readily available nearly anywhere at little or no cost. Once a group of people have participated in the experience they can easily be trained to replicate it with others The impact of this experience is so powerful that many participants want to spread it throughout their communities.
The process, which we originally envisioned for use in the Middle East, Bosnia, Africa, Latin America and other international "hot spots," works as follows: A group composed of mothers and infants (interested fathers are normally welcome are brought together at a home or community center. The encounter begins with this heterogeneous group of mothers and their infants taking turns teaching one another simple folk songs of their respective cultures. Holding their babies, the mothers dance while they sing the songs to their children. A facilitator uses simple instruments to enhance the rhythm in the songs. The movement, rhythm, and use of the voice in song strengthen the neurological patterns which favor peaceful alertness and receptivity. As a result, the rigidity and fixation that generations of strife have produced begin to soften.
At first the children are perplexed by these goings on, but soon they become more interested and involved. They are enthusiastic about the rattles, drums and tambourines which the facilitator passes to them. Characteristically without rhythmical stimulation, children of this age will do little more than try to fit objects such as these into their mouths. Here, however, the children join in generating the rhythm with great delight, squealing and cooing as well.
Because these infants are not blank slates, but highly developed organisms, even at birth, they send signals which activate their mothers' deepest sense of serenity, responsiveness and biological competence. In this healthy exchange, the mothers and the ir young feed off each other in an exchange of mutually gratifying physiological responses which in turn generate feelings of security and pleasure. It is here that the cycle of traumatic damage begins its transformation.
The transformation continues as the mothers place their babies on the floor and allow them to explore. Like luminous magnets the babies gleefully move toward each other, overcoming barriers of shyness as the mothers quietly support their exploration from a circle around them. The joy and mutual connection that is generated by their small adventure is difficult to describe or imagine\emdash it must be witnessed. The group then continues with smaller groups of a mother and infant from each culture working together. The two mothers swing their inf ants gently in a blanket. These babies aren't just happy, they are completely blissed out. They generate a roomful of love which is so contagious that soon the mothers are smiling at each other and enjoying an experience of deep bonding with members of a community that earlier they feared and distrusted. The mothers leave the gathering with renewed hearts and spirits that they are eager to share with others. The process is almost self-replicating.
The beauty of this approach to community healing lies in its simplicity and its effectiveness. An outside facilitator begins the process by leading the first group. After that, certain of the mothers who have participated can be trained as facilitators for other groups. The primary attributes required by a facilitator are an acute sensitivity to timing and to interpersonal boundaries. It is our experience that for certain individuals, these are skills that can be easily learned through a combination of participatory experience and didactic explanation. On ce trained, the mothers become ambassadors of peace within their own communities.
Experiences such as this can bring people together so that they can again live in harmony, even if the experience itself does not completely heal all the aftereffects of trauma. Trauma's impact is different for each individual and these individuals must at some point accept the responsibility for their own healing, healing which will never happen if they are busy waging war on their neighbors.
Nationalities and others who live in close proximity can break the generational cycle of destruction, violence and trauma which often holds them hostage. By utilizing the human organism's capacity to register peaceful aliveness, even in the web of violence and traumatic defensiveness, we can all begin to make our communities safe for ourselves and our children. We can begin the process of healing that the traumatized psyche so desperately needs.
Healing Cocaine Babies
The tragic plight of cocaine babies and their mothers is another societal problem that cries out for solution. These infants are gestated in a minefield of stress and trauma. If that pattern is not quickly reversed, these children will have profound difficulties in regulating stress, arousal, and in bonding with others. They typically exhibit extreme deficits in emotional and impulse control, making them likely candidates for violent acting out. As ever increasing numbers of drug babies are born, the potential for pervasive mass violence in our society is greatly amplified. Unfortunately, politicians seem unwilling to deal proactively with such a long term problem. If anything is to be done, we must begin it ourselves.
Because deep neurological responses are generated when mothers and their babies move rhythmically together with music, there is every reason to believe that this will help facilitate the normal neurological development and bonding these children so desperately need. The process is simple and inexpensive, making it ideally suited for the socioeconomic group from which most of these babies come.
The experience of gathering to sing and swing each others babies offers a gentle alternative to the destructive cycle of trauma, suffering, and violence, allowing the biological imperative for natural bonding and love to assert itself. By helping to prom ote neurological responses which enhance relaxed alertness, security and trust, this experience interrupts the cycle of trauma and violence at three key points:
it reduces stress in the newborn. While we would like to promote healing measures even during pregnancy, our first opportunity to intervene in the cycle of trauma is in infancy. The experience just described helps to neutralize the effects of the mother's stress that has already been passed to the fetus. The timing of this intervention is critical. The mother under stress is less able to meet the increased demands of a stress-gestated newborn, leading to greater frustration and worry. And in a horribly vicious cycle, her agitation will be "absorbed" by the already distressed infant, making it ever more difficult to provide comfort, causing the mother to feel less adequate and more helpless.
Gathering to sing and entertain the babies helps reduce part of the distress-frustration-distress cycle by restoring the relaxed alertness that is lost in the wake of trauma and stress.
Second, the experience promotes the mutually beneficial effects and maternal-infant bonding which can occur only when relaxed alertness is established in both infant and mother. And, as Prescott's studies suggest, without close physical touch and movement these children are likely to add to the violence of society.
Third, in this experience, mothers and infants of tribes, nations, ethnicities, colors, and religions are developing close bonding and engaging in cooperative behaviors with each other. It is, of course, through cooperative bonds that the conflicts and tensions which can trigger war and violence are diffused.
"Give me a place to put my lever" exclaimed Archimedes, "and I will move the world." In a world of conflict, destruction, and trauma, we find this fulcrum in the close physical, rhythmic, pulsation between mother and infant. It lies within the human organism's capacity to register peaceful aliveness, even in a matrix of traumatic defensiveness. It is through the body's capacity for aliveness and bonding that the generational circle of destruction, violence and trauma begins to unwind towards the circle of cooperation and grace for which we all so deeply yearn.