archaeology, life, Mayan Culture, mythology, philosophy, research, spirituality, travel, writing

Travels in the Mayan Yucatan

On the Trail of Mayan Secrets, Coba, Wind Ruffled Waters

This is the fourth in a series of articles that explores the philosophic and spiritual concepts of the Classic Maya. What did these intelligent people believe about themselves, life and the gods, and how did those ideas influence the way they lived? In seeking answers I went to the oldest and probably the largest ancient city on the Yucatan Peninsula, Coba.

“Wind ruffled Waters.”

I could see why Coba had been so named; the sun broke into a myriad of lights as it fell into the tiny waves made by the wind as it passed across the water of the lake and high-lighted the mist that rose phantom like from the tall grasses at the edge. From where I stood at the end of a small pier that jutted out from the barren shore beside the hotel, my eye was drawn further; toward the jungle at the far edge of the lake and the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan that rose above the mass of green like an aged forlorn space ship long forgotten, abandoned by the builders, no longer of use, a relic of past glory.

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Coba pier

With such easy access to water—there are five lakes in the region — it was not only mankind who was drawn to this spot: all manner of animal, bird, insect and plant would also have made their homes here and for that reason my exploration on this trip would be of the ancient Maya’s relationship to nonhuman beings; both mythic and spiritual.  Here the coral snake would have lived– famous for biting one’s shadow– the alligator was also dominant as well as monkeys, armadillos, coatimundi and jaguar.  As I gazed into the water around the pier several turtles bobbed, heads raised curiously toward me, the intruder in their realm. Turtles were a favorite creature to the ancient people; the earth was thought of as the rounded circular back of a great tortoise.

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boys on the lake

Located 26 miles east of the Caribbean, Coba’s Mayan settlement was once one of the largest in the Yucatan, extending three miles by six miles, comprised of several distinct sites connected by Sacbeob, sacred roads. The roads varied in depth from two feet to over eight feet when crossing swampy areas, averaged thirty two feet in width and most ran perfectly straight. The shoulders were made from roughly dressed stone, the bed of the road from large boulders with smaller stones on top, and finally the surface was plastered with limestone cement.  A stone roller, weighing over five tons was found here, probably used to compact the stones during construction. Over 50 of these Sacbeob were discovered in and around Coba making it the densest road system in Meso-America. One of these roads runs 60 miles to a settlement past Chichen Itza, another runs to the coast and others run both north and south, distinguishing Coba as an important trade center.

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Archaeological Hotel at Coba

As the sun gained height, the heat rose with it causing waves to rise from the dirt road and the last of the mist around the lake to disappear. The day would be too hot to explore the site until later, so I headed to the welcome cool interior of the hotel.

ArtBite8aIn the reception area I was greeted by a sculpture of a quetzal bird; a shy forest dweller capable of releasing humans from time’s bondage. One of the most important animals in their cosmology due to the importance they placed on both time and transformation, the quetzal’s feathers, beautiful iridescent blue-green, were highly prized by Mayans as totems. On the opposite side of the desk, housed in a glass case, was a serpent sculpture, dated 800AD.  The designers of the hotel must have been cognizant of the ancient beliefs when placing these artifacts, as the serpent was considered the opposite of the quetzal bird and both represent aspects if the life/death cycle.

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Viewing the lake

So far as Mayan gods were concerned, they were of two primary types: spiritual creation gods, and the creature gods who resembled a real animal, bird or insect in the physical world.  Purely spiritual gods had no comparable form on earth and for this reason, the gods who took a recognizable earthly form were more loved by the simple people whom they could more easily understand. The Principal Bird Deity, one of the first deities revered by the Maya for power, was often shown holding a snake in its mouth, possibly a reference to storms and lightning. Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god, the synthesis of bird and serpent, may have been derived from the Principal Bird in its relationship to both bird and snake, but whether or not they were connected, it was Quetzalcoatl who gained prominence and became one of the greatest gods in all of Mesoamerica.  Associated with the life giving elements of wind, it was often the patron of rulers and priests.

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Hut protecting ancient inscription

When the sun sank low enough for me to venture out, I headed down the dusty dirt road that ran beside the lake to the ruins half a mile away.  The mass of tour buses from earlier were gone, and the many guides so anxious for business in the morning, lounged casually in the shade by the ticket counter unmoved by my approach.  Fine, I thought, I won’t have to turn them down.  I was on the trail of creatures that live within the dense cloud cover of the jungle: of Toucans, Macaws and Motmots, brilliant turquoise crested birds, as well as a myriad of other flying beings.

Through the dense shrub that covered the site, butterflies drifted lazily, birds with high pitched voices called out from deep in the jungle, and I followed their calls. To either side of the path were many mounds that I recognized as unexcavated structures where the shrub had taken over; where lizards and iguana hesitatingly peeked their heads out of the shade they’d slept within for the hot part of the day and would now be looking for dinner.

Populated from at least 600 AD to well into the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, this city sprawled to include outlying areas for over 600 square miles. Today very few of the original structures have been excavated. There are three main sections of several buildings each which are separated by long neat trails, a ball court, and the tallest structure in the Yucatan, named Nohoch Mul is 120 steps and rises to 140 feet. The climb to the top is far better than any stair-master at the gym; the steps half broken and extremely steep; a purposeful design to require one to crawl like a jaguar when approaching the temple at the top.

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Nohoch Mul

The trail between groups of buildings is wide and easy to follow, and as I meandered alone through the growing dark, far ahead I glimpsed a large creature run across the path to quickly disappear into the dense undergrowth on the other side. I raced forward, my heart beating quickly with the hope of seeing who it was that had graced me with a vision.  But once I reached the place I’d seen it enter, there was no sign or sound to tell me more.  It could have been a jaguar– they are still seen occasionally — or it could have been a large house cat, but I was quite certain it was of the cat family. In my years of research about the ancient Maya, the references to the jaguar—both the animal and the god– are the most frequent, and for me, have been the most intriguing.

 

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A pyramid in the interior of the site

 

 

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archaeology, beauty, Mayan Culture, mythology, philosophy, research, spirituality, travel, writing

Travels In the Mayan Yucatan

In preparation for the publication of my novel, The Jaguar’s House,this will be the first in a four part series that explores the beliefs and traditions of the Ancient Maya.

Astonishing travelers! What noble stories we read in your eyes as deep as the seas! Show us the coffers of your rich memories, those marvelous jewels made of stars and ether.
We want to travel without steam, without sail! To enliven the tedium of our prisons, set sailing over our minds, stretched out like canvas, your memories with the horizon for their frame.
Tell us, what have you seen?

Charles Baudelaire, “Le Voyage”Travel Stories

 

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On the Trail of Mayan Secrets

The Classic Mayan period of history in Mexico and Central America is unique in all the world and, as such, has captivated our imagination since we first became aware of them.  What we’ve learned is only a small part of their story but one from which a vague outline of their civilization can be drawn.  My intention in this series of articles will be to explore a few of their central concepts in an attempt to better understand what these highly intelligent people with very complex ideas believed about themselves, life and the gods, and from that, how they lived.

The road from the Cancun airport to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza cuts so straight through the jungle that I imagined even the crows eye it with suspicion.  I was in the interior of the Yucatan, land of the Maya. Their accomplishments were known to me from previous trips and 20 years of study.  I’d just completed an historical novel about the Classic Maya and had returned to explore the astronomical beliefs associated with the observatory at the ruins of Chichen Itza.

ArtBite8aWho were these people whose master mathematicians came up with the concept of zero, whose brilliant astronomers charted the heavens without the aid of modern technology, creating calendars as accurate as any in the Old World, who built architectural wonders in the Puuc region that Frank Lloyd Wright hailed as the best in the western hemisphere? I was determined to learn more about them and thought to spend time at each of the major archaeological sites on the peninsula delving into a different aspect of their cultural and spiritual beliefs at each place.

 

The drive passed through several small Mayan villages; traditional homes of wood and grass roofs, surrounded by gardens and low rock walls where the women wear hoichel — a white cotton dress with brightly colored embroidery around the neck and hem.  Most people living in the villages of this area maintain the ancient way of life; they plant their corn with ceremony, conduct their families traditionally, and appoint a calendar-keeper, a daykeeper, to track the auspicious days and direct their lives.

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By the time I reached the hotel at Chichen, the sun was just going down, and the night creatures were already singing in full voice.  The songs of the night were far more elaborate than the day.  Rather than the sporadic cheeps and rasps of insects with an occasional bird call, there was a seamless blend of voices.  It seemed as if every unseen creature — of which there were millions — had a voice to contribute and didn’t hesitate to do so.

 

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The Mayaland Hotel, built on the boundary of the ruins, has 100 acres of gardens that surround the main house and its outlying bungalows where the grounds are alive with birdsong and butterflies and exotic fruits and flowers of the tropics.

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From the top of the steps of the hotel entrance I turned to look back, and my breath caught with delight.  The ruins of the shell-shaped observatory named El Caracol by the Spaniards, rose in the golden glow of the setting sun like a beacon of mystery.

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What must it have been like 1100 years ago when it was in its prime, a haven of scientific observation? Estimates suggest that as many as 50,000 people lived at the center at its peak around 900 AD.  I could hardly wait to check in and go to the site.  A private back-gate leads into the ruins where you’re free to walk in anytime between eight and five, and again for the light show at seven, fostering a sense that you too are one of the early explorers.

 

Fascinated with time and its relationship to events in their lives, the Maya became one of the first cultures to chart the passage of the stars in the heavens — with an accuracy that rivals modern technology.  In fact, they were so intrigued with time that they built whole systems of thought around it.  For hundreds of years they studied the sky and elaborated a complex system about the relationship between the gods and man.  So practical are their beliefs that each day has a god.  The qualities of that particular god inform the people how to relate to that day so that they may live with assurance that they’re in harmony with the will of the gods. They call it Hanab Ku.

 

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Eight o’clock on the dot the next morning found me at the back-gate ready to explore the observatory before the tourist buses arrived.  Today the road is lined with present day Maya selling their wares to the tourists. I approached the snail-shaped building, I imagined the area as it had once been; the temples brightly painted, the square paved and lined with trees where dozens of people went about their morning errands.

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The circular superstructure consists of a lower story with radial shafts emerging from its center, and in the interior, a circular stairway rises to the top where more shafts located at precise compass points allowed the ancient astronomers to chart sunrises, sunsets, eclipses and planetary transits.  From these observations they drew the heavens  and from those charts they deciphered the passage of time.

Thus a complex system of calendars emerged; a system unique in human history for it deciphered millions of years into the past and thousands of years into the future, predicting a continual round of days with particular attributes.  Armed with this information the priests could inform people both about their history and about what was to come.  It was also used to make decisions about planting crops, about going to war, about times for rituals.  In fact, the calendar was used for all decisions both cultural and individual.  For example, on an inauspicious day, one might not travel to the market.  When I say calendar, I’m over-simplifying because there are actually three calendars; each with a particular function that work together to create pin-point accuracy.

 

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First there’s the solar calendar

of 365.24 days, which is straightforward to our way of thinking.

Then there’s the Ceremonial Calendar

which is entirely different but operates concurrently with the Solar; with a 20 day cycle, each day representing a different god with particular attributes.  The attributes of the god make up the quality of the day.  The days are also attached to 13 numbers. The 13 numbers are multiplied by the 20 day gods to make a 260 day cycle.  This calendar was the more significant for the Classic Maya as they used it for divination and for decision making; both for matters of state and for personal choices.  It was also called The Book of Good and Bad Days.

Then there is The Venus Calendar,

based on the transits of the planet Venus.

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Time on earth was seen as cyclical

— with a beginning and an end –reflecting the spiritual belief that the world is continually created and destroyed.  At the end of the long count of the calendar cycle the gods may decide that humans have fulfilled their vision for them and it will continue.  However, if they have failed to please the gods, the creation will be destroyed.  This concept also supported the ruler’s choice of action. For example, the best time to go to war would be at the end of a cycle.

When I wound back down the stairs to stand once again on the wide platform that supported El Caracol, I could just imagine an event when a priest stood at this very point after having predicted an eclipse, and the people bowed down in awe as it occurred on schedule.  To be able to describe the secrets of the universe through their calculations must have been truly inspiring, and also reassuring.

Might this ability of the Mayan intellect be responsible in a fundamental way for the richness of the Classic Maya period for when people feel secure– and this knowledge would certainly have that effect– they’re more open, creative and productive.

 

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inspiration, life, psychology, spirituality, story, writing

Connect With Your Creative Muse; for fun, for help with a problem, even for Directions.

There are so any times, and so many reasons, we need help from a source greater than ourselves.  As 12 step programs say, we need to understand what is in our control and what is not.  However, when it is not, that’s when I make the call.  Jungian Psychology names that force: the anima or animus; the contra sexual part of the psyche that supports the ego when it is at its wits end; when we need to know what we don’t know.

The best examples in my life have been when I’m traveling. greece3

 

I was alone in Greece doing research for my novel, Echo the Ancients, and had rented a car to drive to Delphi from Athens.  If you’ve ever driven in Greece, you’ll know what an adventure that is; the signs are all in Greek.  After a magical day and night at the site, I was faced with the daunting task of finding my way back through Athens to the car rental agency.  I was definitely at my wits end, and so, had a tearful conversation with my animus to please get us there in one piece and without getting lost.  I hate to get lost.  Maps would do no good, as the street map of Athens is a labyrinth of twisting turns, one way streets and streets that end with no warning.  I knew that there was no choice but to drive, and hope and believe that my unconscious would do its job because I’d asked for help.

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You might call it, being on auto-pilot.  Within minutes of arriving at the city limits I drove directly to the rental car agency.  I called it a miracle then, and still do.

That was not the first time or would it be the last that I found the help I needed when traveling alone. For those of you who are like me; intrepid lone explorers,I know you’ll understand; when we have companions we turn to them for help, when we’re alone, we turn inward to a power far greater than ourselves.

The fun part of relationship with the Muse is on creative projects.  My favorite example is when I was in love with a place: The Yucatan.  My first trip was with my daughter and friends to Isla Mujeres: The Island of Women off the coast of Cancun.  On our visit to the archeological Mayan site at Tulum, I went alone into a cave and envisioned a Mayan girl who’d gone there to be alone.  That was the beginning of 20 years of research about the Maya, of 12 visits to the area, of several newspaper and magazine articles about the place, and my novel, The Jaguar’s House.

Several years into my intoxication with The Yucatan, I went alone to photograph images and capture the magical spirit of the land.  I’d taught myself how to photograph in a way that part of the image was transparent; that would represent the spirit.  It was the most fun I’ve ever had.  I went to each of my favorite places; the beach at Isla, Cenote Azul off the coast, Tulum, of course, and the inland archaeological site at Coba.  Using my new technique, I played with the land and the spirits that lived there. The following images are from that time.Ruins 4 Cenote 5

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I was never alone, but always with my dearest love; my animus, my muse.  Whatever name I call that force, it is with me always and most evident when I’m alone.  At home in everyday life, it arises when I’m sad, or especially glad and in need of inspiration.  I believe that at root, it is inspiration; an uprising from the unconscious of something that wants to come into being.

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childhood, health, life, parenting, psychology, spirituality, story, writing

How Stories Can Facilitate Psychological Health

greece13Many years ago, when I’d been working as a therapist for several years,  I came upon an ancient Greek tradition where people suffering from an illness (whether physical or mental) went to healing caves for a cure.  At the site there were caves where the patient slept and then healers aided their patients in interpreting their dreams.  A healing dream is a story that speaks in the language of symbol to directly impact the conscious mind. The key to the cure is that it is the unconscious that heals.

The greater part of my work with clients was working with their dreams, so this ancient process had great appeal for me.  Excited to learn more, I literally went in search of the places where this had occurred and found the best example on Crete where the Minoans had once lived from 4000 to 1500 BC.

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Thus began my 20 year fascination with a culture that appeared to have been amazingly balanced between the masculine and feminine principles.  The Minoans are considered matriarchal but my research has shown me otherwise.  Most scientists who’ve come across them have automatically classed them matriarchal because most cultures in that time period were.  They hadn’t the vision to realize that everything in their art spoke to a highly developed consciousness.  It was not one-sided.

once heard that if we haven’t seen something before, we can’t see it at all.  An example given was that when the first ships arrived on the east coast of the United States from Europe, the indigenous population couldn’t see the ships; they were invisible to them.  It was the shaman who revealed these odd new forms to the people, which he could do since he traveled in the unconscious on a regular basis.

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I knew by then that simply telling someone something goes in one ear and out the other; it has no real impact on the psyche, but stories do. Many great and small teachers over the years, realizing the powerful impact for change in parables, myths, fairytales and stories of all kinds, have used these tools to create a change in the point of view of the listener.  There is no erase button in the psyche but there is an add button.

Keeping in mind that a story is a waking dream, I set out to tell the story of how a young girl was healed by her encounter with this culture that was based on feminine values; love, nurturance, connection, play, art, and beauty.  I created a situation where a young person with a ‘bad’ mother was renewed and given hope for her life through her exposure to the ‘good’ mother.  Her mother’s dark world was all she’d known, now she could see what had previously been invisible.

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As a healer my job is to show people what they haven’t seen before.  My favorite method for doing that is to tell them stories.

My novels, Echo the Ancients, and The Jaguar’s House, A Mayan Tale, were written with this in mind,.

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childhood, health, life, psychology, spirituality, story, writing

Mothers Milk is Mother’s World.

The first truths are taught to us by our mothers. 

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They are the truths that support all others; the people I see, the earth at my feet, the plants and trees around me, the sky above, are neutral until given meaning, and the original meaning comes from her.  Our mother gives us access to the world.  Her beliefs are transferred to us like the formation of our first cells in her womb. We drink the milk from her breast and ingest her emotions, how she sees the world, and how she sees us.

This process happens before we have the consciousness to know that it’s happening.  We are utterly dependent on this information to understand our world. We must have it just as we must have her milk.  And then, worse yet, we forget.  It is staggering how important this is.  No wonder, we, both men and women, are both enraptured and frightened of the feminine.  She does, in fact, have the greatest power.  As the Indian Vedas say, She is the creator and the destroyer.

In the beginning, we see the world through our mother’s eyes not ours.

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If we’re lucky enough to have a ‘good’ mother, she will also teach us to believe in ourselves; to find our own answers that may be different than hers; to constantly seek our own experience and meaning.  In other words, she will point us back to ourselves, freeing us from the limitations of her mind and into the vastness of our own; she will nurture the creation of our own selves.

If we’re not so lucky and have a ‘bad’ mother  (by bad I’m referring to a person whose limitations prevent them from nurturing our individuality) All of the above will happen, however, she will not point us back to ourselves.  Instead of nurturing our unique world view, she will destroy it, insisting that hers is the correct way to see.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story.  Our personal mother is not the only feminine force in the universe.  As important as she is to our early life, many people with ‘bad’ mothers naturally turn toward Mother Nature.

A story I’ve heard over and over again from clients with difficult early home lives, is that they found such solace in nature; trees, birds, insects, animals, rivers, all became their friends where they would go to feel some aspect of nurturance.  Because nature is not personal their needs for self awareness could not be satisfied, but they did feel momentarily better.

One of my earliest memories serves as an example: DSC_0142

I was five and had been following the creek down the side of the mountain, jumping from rock to rock in and out of quaking aspen that bent in close and, somewhere, sometime unbeknownst to me, led away from the cabin where I was staying with my mother, father and little brother.  It led to a morning full of meadow.

I remembered the names of Columbine and Indian Paintbrush that I found there, but they were only a few among a myriad of other, as yet, unnamed mountain flowers and grasses that smelled both sour and sweet.  It was beautiful beyond imagining.  I thought that the many drops of lingering dew captured in the plants had been left by the stars the night before.

I was entrance, but also, realized I was lost.  Suddenly I saw a fawn and its mother.  I held my breath. The grasses came above the fawn’s legs as she pranced behind her mother.  She didn’t know yet that her mother’s power was not hers.  She owned it all.  More than anything, I wanted to follow them across that wide expanse of wet wild wonder; that green and purple field of love, where snaking creek waters gurgled, murmuring soft phrases of reassurance.

As the doe ran ahead, the fawn followed, a delighted shadow yet to be solid in her own right.  When the mother stopped and turned her head to her child, I saw her eyes; brown orbs of everything.  I got up from where I’d collapsed on a piece of granite and ran toward them, but before I could catch up, the doe bounded through the barrier of trees, and her fawn, stopping a moment to feel me behind, leapt also.

At the spot where they’d disappeared, I found the creek.  I knew if I followed the creek, I’d find our cabin.  They’d showed me how to get back.  I never told my parents about the meadow; I already knew they would take it from me.

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The memory of that experience was so important to me as a child, I thought about it hundreds of times and would remember the details as clearly as I was able.   Most summers our family returned to this place in the High Sierra’s of California.  The first thing I would do when we arrived was to go in search of my lost place.  I never found it again.  As I grew older, I doubted that it had ever happened.  I had taken on my mother’s dark view of life so fully by then that I called it a silly dream and stopped looking.  However, though I didn’t actively look for it as I once had, I was always on the lookout for it.

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What parents need to know about growing a healthy child.

There has been a monumental change in human evolution.  A new balance has emerged over the past decadeHippyPollard family 1970 which sees father’s more and more involved in the raising of their children from infancy.   With this newly found balance, children born today have a greater chance of psychological health than ever before.

As has been said before me, It takes a village.  However, most of us in the modern western world don’t have a village.  At most what we have is a mother and a father, and hopefully, a grandparent or two or four.  But the core is, a mother and a father.

In conversation with my sister recently we were remarking on how involved her son in law is with the raising of his son; a story I hear regularly about new parents. Father’s today are changing diapers, getting up at night for the feeding of the infant.  At the very least, they’re supporting their wives in the daunting task of caring for an infant.  This was not the case when we were raising our children.  Father’s at that time followed the example of their father’s before them; they went out in the world and left the raising of children to their wives. No matter how good a mother is, their child also needs a father.

CO profile2Whatever the gender of a child is, to be balanced, the feminine and the masculine principles need nurturing, and sooner works better than later since the first three years form the core of identity.

Most of my work as a therapist is reparenting; simply put, the problems an individual faces as an adult usually arise from some aspect of early development that is missing.  Though it’s true that abuses in childhood cause problems, what is more often the case, is that one or more areas of development got skipped.  When both parents are involved in raising the child, there’s a better chance that one of them will be able to compensate for the limitations of the other, raising the possibility that the child’s needs will be attended to. IG Mime9It’s has also been said that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.  I would be out of a job if that wasn’t the case.  But it’s so much easier to do it right from the start and do away with my job.

As parents today are taking more responsibility for the health of their child; as they’re taking their jobs seriously, I’d be glad to see the end of the need for so much reparenting.  But that time has not yet arrived since there’s so much cleanup to do for the failures of the last generation.

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