Monday, 29 September 2014

Book review : "The Continuum Concept - in Search of the Happiness Lost", by Jean Liedloff

"For some two million years, despite being the same species of animal as ourselves, man was a success. He had evolved from apehood to manhood as a hunter-gatherer with an efficient lifestyle which, had it continued, might have seen him through many a million-year anniversary. As it is, most ecologists agree, his chances of surviving even another century are diminished with each day's activities".

This is, essentially, how Jean Liedloff, an eminent psychiatrist, psychotherapist and writer, summarises the problem which gave rise to her book.

In her youth, Jean had spent a substantial amount of time living amongst the Stone Age Indians in South America, and gained fascinating insights into how their society, which we might call primitive, actually supports its members' well being and happiness much better and more effectively than our 'civilised' one(s).

The continuum referred to in the title is the evolutionary continuum - the ancient continuum of our species containing the experiences of the hundreds of thousands of generations of our ancestors. These experiences have resulted in certain implicit expectations, on a genetic and instinctive level, which each of us have from the moment we are conceived in the womb. The ways and manners in which modern life has interrupted this continuum and these expectations, leaving us deprived of essential developmental experiences, is the ultimate focus of this book.

Jean is particularly interested in what these expectations might be in a newborn baby or a very young infant. Observation of Stone Age tribes confirms that a continuum baby enjoys a very different existence from our civilised one - the continuum baby is constantly in contact with its mother's body as she carries him while going about her day's work; he is also next to her at night, in the same bed, still enjoying the safety and pleasure that come from being in her close proximity; the continuum baby is a passive observer of a busy, active life from an earliest age, but experiences no longings as they are instantly met by the mother, and the baby is never left alone, never left to cry, never put in a cot in a separate room, never denied their mother during the night time hours, never put on a feeding schedule, never over-protected and under-stimulated, and so forth.

The result of this fundamentally different start to life is a human creature who is deeply content within itself, and this manifests itself in adults who live in a state of what to a Western observer appears to be a bizarre and inexplicable joy.

Jean is a firm believer that this joy is our birth-right and that it is the horrific interruption of the continuum which is to blame for the modern humanity's problems of dissatisfaction, mass-depression and anxiety evident particularly in the highly developed societies, low self esteem and that permanent feeling of looking for something, outside of ourselves, which will make us happy one day when we manage to attain it (but that day never comes).

Jean puts forward an extremely convincing argument and we might even say that popular thought on child rearing, especially in the UK, is starting to shift this way. Midwives now strongly emphasise the importance of immediate skin to skin contact between a mother and her newborn, breastfeeding, many mothers are choosing to wear their babies in a sling and so forth. While we cannot simply reverse civilisation and start to live in total harmony with nature the way these tribes still do, there are many things each of us can do to bring us back closer to the continuum and closer to the 'lost happiness' of the book's title. This is the focus of the final section of the book.

I found this book enjoyable and painful to read in equal measures, as I considered the inevitable suffering of so many babies in our culture. I have also found it immensely inspirational in terms of what more I could do for my own children, going forward. While some of the ideas are probably a step too far for me, anything that involves safety for example - I still consider myself the ultimate guardian of my children's safety and I'm not convinced by the suggestion that they would have sufficient self-preservation instincts if left to their own devices - other ideas will definitely be implemented in our family (if we have any more children, I will use a sling full time, for example).

If you are interested in a new (but old!) approach to parenting that is more in harmony with what nature had in mind for us, this is a highly recommended read.

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