Clumsy Solutions

For many years now, I’ve noticed something that I think is pretty interesting.

We all have similar problems.  Problems of love, death, loss, fears, mistakes, power, our bodies, work, school, relationships, resources, abuse, abandonment, depression, addiction, self worth and the like.  In one way or another, most of these touch all of our lives.  Our responses to them too, seem common between us- we all have “bad” feelings and “good” feelings associated with these experiences.

It appears to me, that we also have solutions in common.  But what’s strange about it, are the solutions themselves.  If we just look at the “problems” (for shorthand purposes) we have in our lives, and our response or “reaction” to them (or as I’m calling them here, “solutions”, though we may not see them as such in the moment), the way we deal with them from this perspective is tragically ineffective.

Here’s what I mean, more specifically.  The way I see us (and of course, have done myself in many cases), is that we respond to perceived problems with (in no particular order):

  1. Avoidance, procrastination.
  2. Using our limited human intellect, and our limited human will, coupled together as a salve we cover everything with.
  3. Drugs, alcohol, food, spending, money, property, prestige, gambling, etc. ad nauseum.
  4. “Codependent” behaviors (oversimplifying: doing things for others that they can and should do for themselves, so that we don’t have to feel bad for one reason or another).
  5. Lying (or, in addict nomenclature, “manipulating”… insert tongue-in-cheek emoticon here), often, when telling the truth would be easier.
  6. Perfectionism.
  7. Control.
  8. Enduring untenable circumstances or relationships.
  9. Isolation.
  10. Ruminating.
  11. Reasoning with “unreasonable” people, or in circumstances that may not always be subject to such (there’s a large philosophical question here that can’t be addressed in a blog, hope the spirit of the thing comes through…).
  12. Self obsession.
  13. Being critical.
  14. Thoughts or attempts of suicide or related self harm.
  15. Worrying (the behavior… not to be confused with being afraid- as John Bradshaw once opined, “Worrying is like beating the drums to keep the evil spirits away.”).
  16. Pride or ego.
  17. Lashing out verbally or physically.
  18. Intellectualizing…

Et cetera.  This is clearly a truncated list, but am hoping most of us can see our most frequent responses here.  What I’m hoping to get across (at the risk of reiteration) is that these are our responses to perceived problems, and arguably, when observed, appear to be solutions that we employ to a whole host of life’s difficulties.

More striking to me is what’s absent from the list:

  1. Emotional availability, disclosure, and the like.
  2. Asking for help (having a “responsibility partner”, other similar ideas).
  3. Responsibility.
  4. Having “boundaries”.
  5. Kindness.
  6. Critical thinking skills.
  7. Service focus on others.
  8. Writing (and preferably, sharing that writing with one or more people).
  9. Art (painting, sculpture, music, performances, poetry, etc).
  10. Honesty.
  11. Support groups, 12-step meetings, or other types of community.
  12. Amends.
  13. Mindfulness.
  14. Meditation.
  15. Diet, exercise, natural healthy sleep.
  16. Being self supporting through one’s own contributions mentally, emotionally, physically and “spiritually” (for lack of a better term).
  17. Acceptance.
  18. Therapy, counseling, coaching.
  19. Community, relationships.
  20. Intimacy.
  21. “Non intervention”, being still.
  22. Forgiveness, “letting go”, and other similar solutions.
  23. Gratitude…

Seems I’m laboring the point here (hopefully in a continued effort to be helpful).  Have long looked at my own old behavior (though it still shows up sometimes!), and of course the behavior of others, and as I see “problems” come up, inevitably, I see the first set of responses above.  Often, repeatedly and perpetually for the same problem and/or new ones.  Have also observed that these responses almost inevitably make things worse, or create new problems.

While the second set of ideas don’t always “solve” things (sometimes, when honest, simply in the shadow of our own limited perspective), when practiced, my experience is that we all start to feel better about things, and certainly act better.  Very rarely, do I see the second set of  ideas create or perpetuate more problems.  Making a practice of replacing our first responses in the first section with the ideas in the second section, has been life changing for me, and lots of my clients.  If the theme rings any bells for anyone, would love to hear/see other ideas.

Why Being a Therapist Is Better than Being a __________, at Least for Me.

When I was a kid and started thinking about what I was going to do as a “career”, I always knew I’d be a therapist or musician (as it turned out, was lucky enough to do both).  The reason is in part, growing up, I didn’t watch the usual TV shows- I was watching “The Twilight Zone”, “Kung Fu”, “Star Trek” (the original version), “M*A*S*H”.  What so intrigued me about the likes of Rod Serling, Kwai Chang Caine, James Tiberius Kirk and Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce was that they seemed to think there was “more” to the world, saw things others didn’t, and had deep passion.

In their wake, I tried to be “good” at lots of things.  Some of this came from feeling a deep sense of “not being enough”, and what still feels to me an unavoidable passion to do things That Matter.  The former almost killed me (as Sheldon Kopp said, “Why be perfect when you can be good enough?”), but the latter stays with me to this day… thankfully.

My first inpatient job while working on my Psychiatric Technician licensure (completed in 1988), I remember thinking how cool it was that all I needed to do my job was a black Bic medium point ball point pen, and my personhood.  In subsequent years, have come to a number of other awarenesses that have meant much to me.

It seems to me that it’s become a luxury for many of us to simply do what we would like to do, if we were to have our choice.  Many of us fall into what we do and begin to love it, maybe we do what our parents did, or simply honored a family business.  Lots of us do what we think we ought, or simply take on what feels best to serve and provide for our families.

All these are of course noble pursuits, but on the coattails of Rod Serling, Kwai Chang and Hawkeye, I have always felt compelled toward human service.  Famously, Lloyd Dobler (played by John Cusack in the film “Say Anything”) said, “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.”  Some of this points to why I’ve resisted other careers (and, Lloyd and I also turned to martial arts… a totally different story).

Many of us serve ourselves, but are still unsatisfied.  We work at jobs we are unhappy about, sometimes with people we are unhappy with, sometimes for things we don’t really need.  In some cases, these pursuits relieve others of resources that might be used otherwise- resources like money of course, time, and all too infrequently mentioned… our attention.  Some of these efforts are unsustainable, and environmentally unsound.

Not as if therapy, counseling, psychiatry and etc don’t have their defects that are creating some problems.  Overdiagnosis, starting with interventions like medication when arguably not called for and/or lesser interventions haven’t been endeavored, pathologizing and symptomatizing everything (often even the most understandable and euthymic kinds of feelings/emotional experience), passivity on the part of the clinician and more create big and often lifelong difficulties as well.

It’s hard though for me not to see a poor relationship with ourselves, others, our sense of worth, depression, addictions (and “codependency”), anxieties and fears, and maybe a couple more as being the soul (and result) of much human suffering.  That also creates in my view, the suffering of other creatures.  In the shadow of this, helping us through these concerns, and providing a framework for others to operate on in a like way are at this point, the most useful thing I can think of doing.  At least a thing that I’m good at.  ;-p  That’s a quip about my “musicianship”.

It is of great import to me that I have a small footprint on the planet.  Deeply concerned about where humans are going mentally, emotionally, physically and “spiritually”, I can scarcely think of a way to be more useful.  Therapy is a practical way of putting philosophy into use.

Something that matters to me a lot in light of some of the above is that it’s a great way to create something that can be easily passed on by others.  An organized, simple (but unfortunately not terribly easy…) and principled way of behaving in the world that can be shared can create great change of course.  Doing clinical supervision, teaching, giving tools to parents, or simply doing work with people who are in a place to impact others are my favorite areas of focus, and seem to be the most practical way of passing on what we’re capable of.

In the digital age, I don’t even have to use my pen or paper as often.  I get to impact people deeply, and most of what it takes is just me being as healthy a person as possible, and my time/being deeply present.  It’s also something I should be capable of doing for a long time.  I get to share and experience different people, cultures.  Many types of work are possible- use of humor, sharing resources, sharing experiences, teaching, problem-solving, processing, consulting and more.

Gratefully, all these years later, I could scarcely think of doing anything else, and still feel deeply committed to The Work.  The “how’s” and “why’s” of avoiding what some call “burnout” are an entirely different thing to write about.  Point is though, I’m so, so lucky I get to do something that I still feel so deeply passionate about, and doesn’t violate any of Lloyd’s principles.

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Attitude of Platitude

Talking with a client the other day, the subject of platitudes came up.  Many of us use them routinely.  Whether opining about inferences made, used polemically, or giving feedback to a friend or loved one, they’re used fairly often in all different kinds of discourse.  These certainly occur in therapy, twelve step programs (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Co-Da, ACA, Overeaters Anonymous, etc).  We hear them at church/synagogue.  They’re used copiously in political speeches and discussions.

Many years ago, a friend began saying to me when discussing platitudes, “Cliche alert!  Cliche alert!” ala the robot from “Lost in Space”.  It was his way of indicating that the user was often either not really saying anything, and/or wasn’t really aware of the content or context of the cliche being used.

One of my favorite quotes is from Gandhi: “It is because we have at this present moment everybody claiming the right of conscience without going through any discipline whatsoever that there is so much untruth being delivered to a bewildered world.”  What I think he was getting at was pretty fundamental, and horror-producing… we all claim a right to truths and perceptions without really going through any real self or “concept” examination, and impose a subsequent template on the world in its wake.

That’s a fantastic way to create and/or perpetuate problems.  Am bringing it up because it seems that platitudes are a common ways this occurs.  Not that many platitudes or cliches aren’t true, just that we often don’t seem to examine if we’re using them, truly understand them, use them in context and the like.  I often see therapists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use cliches and platitudes simply because they don’t know what else to say.

Going back to twelve step programs, one cliche that is often used is “attitude of gratitude”.  With equal measure, it seems that an “attitude of platitude” is what is often in use.  Ideas like “just do what you’re doing”, “keep it simple”, “I decide for me, you decide for you, we decide for us”, and more are arguably great ideas.  These ideas even have utility for depression, relationships, self esteem, addiction, grief, loss and more.  However, our command of the language doesn’t necessarily indicate a real handle on what they mean or how/when/what context to use them and make them practical.

You can find out more about Petar at: April30th.org

Sheldon Kopp

You may remember being a kid, and having someone suggest you write an essay about the person who influenced you most.  With the exception of a musician or two, the person that is likely that for me is Sheldon Kopp.  I was given his most famous book “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients” by my then “mentor”, when I was 17.  It’s really a book about principles, an organized way to live our lives and deal with Things As They Are.

He’s written something in the way of 18 books, died a while ago not of the brain tumor he had (that required removal 3 times), but of heart failure and pneumonia.  Having heard a rumor about his death, I looked him up on the internet once, and sent an email to a similarly named person, hoping I might find him or learn of his passing.  Essentially my note stated that this was a person who had been extremely influential and helpful in my life, and I wanted to know if it might be him.  I was lucky enough to get a response, that made it clear it was actually him: “Yes Petar, I too have heard rumors of my untimely demise, but I find them unconvincing.”

In “Buddha”, as became customary in many of his books, at the end was included ideas that he considered truths, or principles.  This was the most famous of them, called, “An Eschatological Laundry List: a Partial List of 927 (or was it 928?) Eternal Truths.”  Many of the ideas here have guided me in everything from my own emotional and “spiritual” work, work with my clients.  People that have suffered all of the things here that I’m trying to diminish for as many people as possible- depression, stress, relationship issues, abuse, loss and grief, addiction, self esteem issues and the like.  Hopefully, they will give you as much as they’ve given me, inspire you to read his books, and of the greatest importance: give you a ways and means of passing the ideas on to others.  Would love to hear what you think of them.  And to the “Truths”…

1. This is it!
2. There are no hidden meanings.
3. You can’t get there from here, and besides there’s no place else to go.
4. We are all already dying, and we will be dead for a long time.
5. Nothing lasts.
6. There is no way of getting all you want.
7. You can’t have anything unless you let go of it.
8. You only get to keep what you give away.
9. There is no particular reason why you lost out on some things.
10. The world is not necessarily just. Being good often does not pay off and there is no compensation for misfortune.
11. You have a responsibility to do your best nonetheless.
12. It is a random universe to which we bring meaning.
13. You don’t really control anything.
14. You can’t make anyone love you.
15. No one is any stronger or any weaker than anyone else.
16. Everyone is, in his own way, vulnerable.
17. There are no great men.
18. If you have a hero, look again: you have diminished yourself in some way.
19. Everyone lies, cheats, pretends (yes, you too, and most certainly I myself).
20. All evil is potential vitality in need of transformation.
21. All of you is worth something, if you will only own it.
22. Progress is an illusion.
23. Evil can be displaced but never eradicated, as all solutions breed new problems.
24. Yet it is necessary to keep on struggling toward solution.
25. Childhood is a nightmare.
26. But it is so very hard to be an on-your-own, take-care-of -yourself -cause-there-is-no-one-else-to-do-it-for-you grown-up.
27. Each of us is ultimately alone.
28. The most important things, each man must do for himself.
29. Love is not enough, but it sure helps.
30. We have only ourselves, and one another. That may not be much, but that’s all there is.
31. How strange, that so often, it all seems worth it.
32. We must live within the ambiguity of partial freedom, partial power, and partial knowledge.
33. All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data.
34. Yet we are responsible for everything we do.
35. No excuses will be accepted.
36. You can run, but you can’t hide.
37. It is most important to run out of scapegoats.
38. We must learn the power of living with our helplessness.
39. The only victory lies in surrender to oneself.
40. All of the significant battles are waged within the self.
41. You are free to do whatever you like. You need only to face the consequences.
42. What do you know . . . for sure . . . anyway?
43. Learn to forgive yourself, again and again and again and again. . . .

Connected.

This will relate to you and psychology/therapy/counseling, I promise… just hang in there with me…

Some friends of mine have been really struggling with the BP oil… spill? (Wiki here)… it’s so big, I scarcely know what to call it.  Have seen and heard some things I’ll not reiterate- not because it wouldn’t serve, but simply because we’ve been so inundated with the details of most of this news I’d be afraid that anything I’d have to say to describe such would be heartbreakingly insufficient.  The effects of this are catastrophic, to say the least.

Earlier too today, I was talking with a client about consciousness.  What is “I”, how we know such things and etc, a lot of things rooted in Eastern thought, the ideas of Daniel Dennett (Dennett’s Wiki), Stephen Pinker (Pinker’s Wiki), and the like.  My client began to talk about having the awareness that we’re all “one” (maybe that should be capitalized), and what that means in terms of how we experience our world.

This made me bring up another great thinker, a gentleman named Chuck Chamberlain who wrote a book called “A New Pair of Glasses“.  In it, he asserted what I think is a fundamental truth (paraphrasing), that our real problem as humans is seeing ourselves as separate from “God” (the “universe”, physics, whatever one prefers).  Ignoring this is far from inconsequential.  Our view, true or not, that we are somehow separate from others is part of what enables us to lie, cheat, steal, things much worse.  Even make oil spills.

As I’m alluding to above, whether we are all “one” or not, it’s arguably true that we indeed operate (behave) this way.  We certainly see the consequences, but as with many things, we don’t really see the etiology of them.  The Horizon spill is only the most immediate example.

Had we been behaving since the industrial age as if we are all connected, including the flora and fauna we are surrounded by (or more tragically accurate, that we are surrounding…), our world would look much different.  As promised, bringing this full-circle to the soul of this little corner of the web, the application of the idea that we are all connected has deep-reaching utility in psychology/therapy/counseling.  My world, and I hope the world of my clients have likely been improved greatly by finding ways to operate on this premise.

As noted earlier, it’s pretty easy to see the negative consequences of operating as if all humans, animals, plants, etc are different, whether this is true or not.  There’s pretty amazing benefits to operating as if we are indeed one in the same.  Behaving this way allows me to be as gentle a person as I intend.  It’s a great method for being more considerate/thoughtful.  This may be true, because it’s an idea that lends itself to increasing empathy.  It’s a great way to diminish selfishness/self-ful-ness.  So many people are speaking in the “human potential movement” (*ahem* I struggle with these kinds of euphemisms and etc, but for the sake of simplicity…), behaving as if we are all one is fantastic mindfulness training.  We could certainly use a softer, warmer world (among some of the other ideas above), and this is a great way to help turn some of those problems around.

Again, I find that there’s too many positive things to gain from such an idea to write here.  What prompts this though, is my own deep sense of sadness for the creatures upon whose lives we’ve so encroached because of not just our desire for a certain way of life, but because we avoid the emotional consequences of such a life in part, maybe because of the misperception that we are separate from these creatures, making it much easier for us to operate the same way every day, regardless of the consequences theyhave to endure.  Much as it’s important for us to clean up the spill, have clean means of energy and etc- all of these things are rooted in a philosophy of separateness, that if we sit with a minute, we might realize how much less of our own hurts, sadness, fears, shame and etc might have been avoided had we or the person who stepped on our toes behaved as if this encroachment was really upon themselves.

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