Relationships, Conflicts, and War

by Ron Parks, MD

Two heart shaped red images, snuggly fitting together in a birds nests, representing oneness and compatibility in love.
Two Loving Hearts Together in a Nest

A Holiday with Meaning

Valentine’s day that passed recently reminds me that there are more profound realities than myself and related busyness. The holiday about love and relationship almost got overlooked, with my over-involvement and preoccupation with what I was doing. Luckily, my wife and something in the news gave a subtle reminder of Valentine’s Day coming. After reflecting on the day’s special significance — love, relationship, and our mutual interdependence — I went into action with roses and a special day together.

Unfortunately, the Russian invasion of Ukraine tarnished the loveliness of the holiday. The dynamics of relationship and choice-making become even more poignant when seeing the tragedy of another war unfolding. I reflected on the relationship between an individual’s emotional and mental functioning and extension to one’s social group, society, or country.

The inner workings of an individual spread and impact larger social groupings — the situation seen in local and international conflicts. It reminds me of the spread and contagion of the COVID-19 virus, beginning in an individual and rapidly growing into a deadly pandemic, with the resulting deaths and damage to the economy.

The key is looking at our mental functioning in terms of relationships and our constant need to choose between what we perceive as two alternatives — a binary choice. There is always a hierarchy of options and discernment to be made. Valentine’s day is a reminder to choose with “heart.”

My busyness usually comprises completing work-related activities or a task that I deem vital. I become convinced that the chosen job is essential for my peace of mind, health, security, or gratification. Options in decision-making between two things of conflicting value may range from deadly if you choose wrong, not so important either way, to critical for growth, truth, happiness, sustainability, or enlightenment.

The Heart

The heart representation central to Valentine’s Day captures the wisdom of choosing relationships wisely and “whole-heartedly.¹” The physical heart lies in the center of the body. It pumps and circulates the blood and its essential nourishment, regulatory hormones, vitality, and warmth to the body and organs. The symbolic representation, metaphorical meaning, and reference to the heart in literature and history imply the unifying aspect of mind and the body — the holistic union and balance of mind, body, feelings, love, emotions, spirit, and the essence of our being. Finding this unity and integration is vital for mental health and well-being.

Replica Of Physical heart in a doctor’s office

Metaphorically and poetically, the heart represents noncognitive emotional experiences as love, passion, warmth, feeling, and connection with others. In ancient times, the heart represented the connection with the divine and the soul. The “loss of connection with the heart” or “head over heart” expressions imply that a person’s mind, reason, and brain are disconnected from passion and emotions. In Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures, words such as “Citta” represent “heart-mind.” A person would be in the state of unity in the consciousness of both thoughts and emotions. The door opens for the “mindfulness of mind” with meditation and mindfulness practices. An enlightened and liberated mind is the ground for the union of thoughts, emotions, and spiritual essence.²

Common heart expressions:

Heartfelt, heart-of-the-matter, or tender-hearted

Wholehearted or listening to your heart

Being true to your heart or with all my heart

Heart-to-Heart, big-hearted, or heartbroken

Cold-hearted, heart-of-stone, or empty-hearted³

A broader understanding of relationships, heart, and health, like the high blood pressure responses, came from writer and researcher James J. Lynch, Ph.D., and his book.⁴ Blood pressure has, according to Lynch, significantly increases when a person is talking in social and interactive situations. Sometimes, blood pressure can rise more than during maximal physical exertion, even during casual conversations. There has been the concern of a potential link between these “communicative physiological changes” and severe future health problems. Dr. Lynch calls this “communicative disease.”

Lynch sees human loneliness as a marker and consequence of dysfunctional communications by which the ability to express and experience connectedness is lost. Blood pressure that increases when we speak to others often falls below baseline levels when we listen to others, relate to pets, or enjoy nature. Lynch felt that human speech had lost its “connection to the heart” — our ability to be in relational, effective contact; an open, non-competitive, loving, compassionate communication with others.

Remembering

Sometimes, I hate to admit; I can get so caught up in my day-to-day life that special occasions such as Valentine’s Day or landmarks like birthdays or wedding anniversaries can be overlooked. For me, if the event is not right in front of my face on my calendar or to-do list, I could miss it with the consequences that can follow.

Fortunately, I have an exceptional backup. My significant others, who recognize this occasional flaw in me, will subtly give a reminder. Once the subtle reminder is presented, I think, “Wow, that was close.” I almost forgot. It is less of a problem now that I have all these modern devices with reminders all over the place, but a helpful person on your relationship team, can be a lifesaver when you get too over-self-involved or focused on less vital things.

Relationships and Choices

Our lives, success and failure, health and well-being revolve around relationships, whether with a task, choosing between two alternatives, or choosing a life partner. The mind operates in a binary manner for making choices, problem-solving, and completing tasks. Decision-making constantly happens for survival, gratification, and even for species reproduction by finding a suitable mate. Our mind’s binary or dualistic mode of operation classifies and places new perceptions, events, and information into memory.

Newly arriving data may get labeled as desirable, safe, dangerous, or toxic. A relationship exists between the choices as desirable or to be avoided. When a choice or decision is required, we go to our memory storage files to assess data about something previously ranked or classified. Our thought process compares any retrieved information’s positive or negative qualities to facilitate decision making. This type of mental processing occurs for our daily activities, such as choosing our food, projects to be done, a friend, colleague, or partner. It gets more complex as we begin sub-classifying the qualities of a selected person or object.

A very super gratifying, rewarding experience that happens in opioid addiction gets stored away in memory and shapes some of the heightened reactions to perceived environmental cues or stimuli. Dopamine, the pleasure hormone, gets co-opted or imbalanced in addictions. A substance such as heroin or cocaine receives preference, as its potency can elicit the release of more of the dwindling supply of the pleasure hormone. What we might consider sensible gets overridden and corrupted in addictions.

The operations of a busy mind give a plus or minus rating to any felt, perceived, or observed sensory input. The data then gets stored in memory. When any new information is classified and moved into storage with frightening or traumatic aspects, it probably gets stored with extra layers of neural energy or activity that becomes like a flashing red light of warning.

People who have suffered trauma or life-threatening occurrence will get an almost instant alarm when a retrieval from the memory banks occurs that signals danger. The body and mind respond by entering, almost reflexly, a hyper-aroused state to prepare for the worse — a fight or flight nervous system activation with a pounding, rapid pulse, as in a panic attack.⁵

In the relationship between people, individuals often relate as a distinctly separate entity from any others viewed as different — you and them. The binary mind and its dualistic perceptions and operations are potential traps and places to get mired down or stuck. If everything gets trapped in a choice between alternatives, it becomes what has been called a double-bind — a risk either way you choose.

Value of Heartfelt Relationships

Individual mental workings extend to society’s larger communal support systems, as seen today in politics, racism, or group warfare. People get caught up in a tribal mentality — this group of people is safe and supportive, and others are toxic or threatening. A violent extremist or radicalized person gets caught up in extreme partisan politics. A traumatized individual can become very isolative and fearful of everyone.

A well-functioning democracy is where relationships are built for mutual benefits and care for the whole group and society, to meet everyone’s needs fairly and justly. Deeper “heart values” prevail and function with loving care towards relationships and acceptance of diversity. Autocracies often ignore the rights and privileges of the individual and minorities. Authoritarian governance is a setup for abusive, destructive behavior towards the ruled and vulnerable.

The authoritarian government and individuals leading them, often respond to self-serving choices rather than acting in the public interest with a caring relationship and positive regard towards everyone. We often see the autocracy model in large organizations and businesses where efficiency and successes of the group or leader are paramount — profits and power are valued over people.

Abuse and discrimination are often a by-product of autocracies or societies stuck in self-limiting binary choices. Decisions often go to power and greed, rather than healing “heartfelt” relationships, mutual respect, love for others.

The eloquent philosopher writer Martin Buber’s classic book, I and Thou,⁶ explored the nature of relations and his philosophy of dialogue. Buber taught that we all find the true meaning of life in relationships. His existentialist philosophy examined the distinction between the I–Thou relationship and the I–It.⁷

Bringing It All Together

So, what is the takeaway here? Maybe it is not to forget Valentine’s Day, the heart, and relationships. Importantly, remember the need to realize the workings of our minds in their relational ways and the critical need for awareness and care.

There are many ways of caring for mental well-being as allowing adequate downtime with relaxing and restorative activity — free of and outside of the energy-draining binary, problem-solving, type of mental work, and processing. All this might sound frivolous, but a mind without this needed time out to restore and recover can lead to exhaustion, loss of creative drive, poor functioning, and in extremes, burnout and illness. Or worse of all, loss of heart.

The applications to discovering and bringing help to the individual who has gotten locked into conflict, isolation, and suffering, are the valued work of mental health professionals that serve the public. The challenge is more significant for larger social groups, societies, and countries when leaders fixate on destructive reasoning and politics.

When the individual dynamics of a person’s mental functioning and inner psychological working are better understood, there can be potential interventions for a destructive leader that is breaking down the cohesive bonds between the working parts of society.

A misguided community leader, for example, can contribute to the spread of disinformation and dysfunction, creating conflicts and breakdowns in essential relationships. When recognized early, better educated and trained public servants and elected officials would be better prepared to do interventions when needed — especially where laws are being transgressed. It is like slowly developing heart disease when no early preventive actions are done.

TIPS:

  1. Take the time for study or practice to shift into non-dualistic, non-binary ways of experiencing and being present in the here and now moments. Breathe and take a time-out from the intensity of daily problem solving and perhaps “critical thinking” to relax into the timeless moments of peace and tranquility when not driven by purpose or mental problem-solving activity needed to accomplish something.
  2. Be aware of relationships that are entrapments, whether with another person or with tasks or activities that take too much of your vital energy. To maintain balance, stability, health, and productivity for your needs, keep a high degree of awareness that too much intense dualistic thinking and work with the exclusion of positive connection with work, planning, or any activity can lead to breakdown and ill health.
  3. Choose a relationship that gets you outside of yourself and narrow or restrictive perspectives and isolative dualistic mental processing. Too extensive isolative self-occupation, self-centeredness, or self-serving is counterproductive and can be diminishing or destructive to yourself or others. Find healing, nurturing relationships that expand your experience and perspective outside of your self-preoccupation. A relationship with a pet, a significant other, a meaningful caretaking activity with a person in need, physical activity like tending a garden can nurture well-being and happiness.
  4. Find connection and attunement with the spiritual side of being in the non-dual experiencing peacefulness and tranquility.
  5. Take time-outs or vacations from intensity and problem solving, either in moments or when you can get out in natural settings
  6. Do physical exercise to move your blood and energy around to feed and nourish your vital organs, including your brain; seek the best nutrition available, with as many whole foods, vegetables, healthy fat, fiber, proteins, and a safe amount of complex carbohydrates (starches).
  7. Avoid toxic substances when possible, including alcohol, drugs, chemicals, food additives, and sugar.
  8. Take part in groups or community activities, especially those that care for and help others and the environment — the best healthy relationship that moves us out of dualistic isolative and restrictive mind activity and closer to non-dual experiencing. Find others as a group or organization that provides meaning, a feeling of purpose, and connection.
  9. Take part in group activities or retreats; exercise, yoga, meditation, mindfulness classes; spiritual or religious events; outdoor activities such as walks, biking, or swimming.
  10. Think in terms of the larger impact and influence of heart-based understanding that can apply to our larger society and chosen leaders. As citizens, take actions to not only increase your well-being but that of our society and world. Maybe future wars and conflicts are preventable.

I appreciate your support and interest.

Thanks,

Ron Parks

ENDNOTES

1. The Heart Addiction Connection: Holistic Approach to High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure (BP) can be alarming when found during a medical visit or at any other time. High blood pressure readings may be a wake-up call to take affirmative steps for your health. Natural holistic approaches, and integrative treatments, whether you are on medications or not, can help lower…

Read more

2. What is Citta in Buddhism? https://www.learnreligions.com/citta-449530

3. In a Brainy Age, the Heart Retains its Symbolic Power By Julie Beck

Scientists no longer believe that the soul lives in the heart — but we continue to use it as a metaphor for far more than just its physical function. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/08/the-enduring-metaphors-of-the-heart-this-mortal-coil-fay-bound-alberti/494375/

4. Lynch P. Language Of The Heart [Internet]. 1 edition. New York: Basic Books; 1985. 349 p. Available from: http://amzn.to/2twtgqm

5. Surviving Anxiety and Trauma

Unexpected Fall Dr. Sid drove through the city in the early morning darkness. He’d traveled this route to the hospital for the last 15 years, but the ordinarily busy city was now quiet, a sad reminder of the ongoing pandemic’s impact. A shiver crept up his spine at the thought of what lay ahead of him, and he cranked…

Read more

6. Martin Buber book: https://www.amazon.com/I-Thou-Martin-Buber/dp/1578989973

7. Information on Martin Buber, philosophy, and career: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Buber

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Ron Parks

Ron Parks

Ron Parks, MD, is a physician, consultant, a writer in integrative psychiatry, holistic medicine, and healthcare.