A psychotherapist thinks out loud about Being Human, and stuff…

Sometime after I achieved adulthood, a few years ago, I came to realize that there are some propositions that do not need refuting- that is, there is no profit in debating them, because they are so self-evidently wrong headed that debate is unnecessary. The assertion that some races (or genders) are inferior and, therefore, fit only for slavery doesn’t need to take up our time, and I don’t think the belief that our planet is only six (or ten) thousand years old (based, as it is, on faith, impervious to reason) needs to be given room in any conversation of which I want to be a part.

The more I think about “The Abolitionist Project” (see my previous posting for details), the more I feel it fits into this category. Raising objections, points with which to refute their premise- that a world without physical or psychological pain is desirable and attainable- seems like cheering one’s own pitching skills, because I am able to hit the side of a barn with a tennis ball; the difficulty lies in supporting the suggestion that such a state of existence would be desirable, not in refuting it.

I’m experiencing, in this cold, wet weather, some uncomfortable joint pain. Further, throughout most of my life, I have been given, infrequently, to bouts of depression- black moods, lasting a few days, in which nothing seems worthwhile and (as the DSM blandly puts it) I find no enjoyment in what are usually pleasurable activities. Now, what fault can be found with the introduction of a world from which such unpleasurable experiences are banned? Is not such a world, rather, a highly desirable thing?

I don’t think so. I am not fond of even mild suffering (and I should admit that in my long, and so far blessed life, I have never experienced the level of physical or psychological pain that life is capable of throwing at us), but, in the case of my physical pain, it is functional: like a toothache, if the pain reaches a certain level, I will hie myself to a Doctor and explore its causes. It may prove to be something that must simply be borne, but…maybe not. It may be that my body is trying to alert me to a situation for which there is a remedy, without which it will worsen. In such a case, I will have my pain to thank. Until we become entirely bionic (which I gather is part of the Hedonist’s vision), we need the warning system that is our pain; we, literally, cannot live without it.

The benefits of psychological pain are more subtle, but no less compelling. In my opening piece on this subject, I quoted Carl Jung, who said, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering”. Catchy, but what is meant by “legitimate suffering”, and what is its value?

I’m wading into very deep waters, here, in which pool I sense far greater minds than mine, but I’m willing to say, for the sake of our argument, that “legitimate” suffering is that unavoidable pain which comes with the condition of being human. The question of whether it is desirable is irrelevant. Shame, loss of love, fear of change and death- these, and a host of others, depending on our environment, are unavoidable and survivable. They come with the territory. Fine, but what makes them desirable?

Answering that question only raises a further, larger question- but, one thing at a time. I am content with noting that, as my friend, Allen Young pointed out, we learn and grow because of pain. Pleasure plays a large part, too, but our life’s avoidable pain tends to act as a “herding agent”: we move away from the source of pain, toward relief. So, we learn, most of us, what causes us to be accepted by our society or our family, and, painfully, what does not. We learn not to pick up a hot pan with our bare hands. We learn to look where we’re walking and to read the label on the bottle. Pain teaches these things. “Experience is a dear teacher”, wrote Ben Franklin, “but a fool will learn from no other”. Unhappily, I suppose, we are all fools, in one way or another. Painful experience can remedy that, too.

I’m grateful to Allen, too, for pointing out a further benefit: If pain is banished, what becomes of compassion? Of what use is empathy, and the exercise of that heart’s opening which relieves suffering and allows us to grow as human beings? Certainly, we can share another’s happiness, but is this experience as essential to our Spiritual Growth, as experiencing compassion, and forgiveness?

I can’t answer that question; I only know that any definition of humanity to which I subscribe includes “suffering” as an essential ingredient- and, yes, it finally comes down to this: if you remove physical and psychological pain, you redefine what it means to be human. Machines, so far, do not suffer; that is their advantage, such as it is. Human beings do; such as it is, that is our advantage. I am comforted by my belief that this fact cannot be changed, and I feel- yes- compassion, for those who would deprive us of that which defines us in so many ways.

I feel compassion, yes, but I do not wish them luck in their endeavor. Quite the contrary: I gift them, if I may, with the pain of frustration and disillusionment. My wish may return to me threefold, but, in this case, it will be worth it.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments, and thank you for your continuing support and interest.

Until we meet again, Buckeroos, happy trails to you!

The Hedonistic Imperative

A, probably apocryphal, story is told about the composer, Phillip Glass. He was invited to the premier of a friend’s symphonic work which, according to the program note, was dedicated to the cause of reducing the world’s suffering.

After the concert, his friend asked him how he had liked it, and Glass said that, while he had liked the music very much, he had to disagree with the dedication. “Why”, his friend said, “don’t you think there is too much suffering in the world? “No”, glass replied. “I think there is exactly the right amount.”

In his “Collected Works”, Carl Jung wrote, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering”, and, of course, “Life is suffering” is the first of the “Four Noble Truths” taught by the Buddha. Recently, it has been suggested that the word translated into “suffering”, in English, might better be understood to mean “dissatisfaction”, or “unease”. I’ll leave that one to the linguistic experts. For now, let’s go with defining it simply as something unpleasant that we would prefer to avoid, somewhere between the tribulations of Job and learning that the movie you’ve been standing in line to see is sold out, okay?

Recently, the ever rushing stream of internet information washed up, at my feet, news of something called “The Hedonistic Imperative”. (Here is a link to their web site: http://www.hedweb.com/) We are told, at the git-go, that the purpose of what they are calling “The Abolitionist Project” is to abolish suffering in all sentient life, through genetic engineering and nanotechnology. Lest we misunderstand, they go on to say that their intention is to “banish” all psychological pain, in the way that, they say, all physical pain has been banished by our medical advances, ushering in…. well, I’ll let them say it: “States of sublime well-being….destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world’s last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.”

Got that?

I have to admit, I’m having an almost visceral response, here, not unlike, well….fear. Certainly far from the amusement (not to say cat calls) that such an assertion should call forth. When I unpack the feeling, it comes down to something like this: They are working toward the end of Humanity. These people are quite seriously suggesting the replacement of an irreplaceable part of the Human Condition with “heritable gradients of bliss”- nothing else. No, I mean, nothing else. No psychological pain of any kind. Nothing but varying levels of bliss, as our experiential baseline- if the word has any meaning, in this context.

Goddess help me; where to start?

I’m going to let this percolate, for awhile, in us both. I’ll be back with some thoughts about it, when my vitals have dropped to something like normal. In the meantime, what does this project, about which (I need to keep repeating to myself), they are quite serious, bring up in you? If such a thing could be accomplished, would it be a good thing? I’ve made it clear already that I don’t think so, but that’s just me. Let’s talk about this, some.

I’ll be back, soon. In the meantime, Buckeroos, don’t take any wooden nickles and Happy Trails to you!

Bring It Up On Thursday

In the early 90′s I had the great, good fortune to be a clinical staff member of what was, at the time, the best residential treatment program in the San Francisco mental health system. I’ll skip the name for now, but those of you who have worked in The City’s system over the last few decades will have a pretty good idea of the identity of the program I’m describing. It exists now in name only, and I still grieve its passing.

This was a large facility, located in a multistoried, ex-apartment building near downtown. It housed about a hundred residents, and another hundred and fifty came from all over the city for “Day Treatment”- group and individual therapy, case management, med assessment and monitoring, 12 step recovery groups and more. We were a subsidiary of a large hospital, who sent us a steady stream of people from their ER and Psych Ward, once they were stabilized. We specialized in what was called, at the time, “dual diagnosis” cases: serious mental illness and addictions of all kinds; mostly alcohol and drugs. Very busy, bustling place, with nary a dull, or free moment. Stressful, exciting, rewarding, harrowing. Some of the best training- experiential and otherwise, that I could possibly have received.

In any workplace, especially a place as demanding as this, there are bound to be problems. Our clients had problems, why shouldn’t we? I have worked in unhappy programs where the unavoidable stress was channeled into interpersonal wars- back biting, office politics, factions- and, people, don’t think for a minute that therapists are immune to such things. Pound for pound, we are probably the most unstable bunch of people you’ll ever want to meet. What do you think drew us to this profession? (I hasten to add, of course, that the therapists who are my friends and co-workers are the exception to this rule- all of you. Okay?)

But, I digress, as usual.

This program, as exhausting and demanding as it was, was also one of the happiest, most harmonious environments I’ve ever experienced. We respected ourselves and each other, as we respected our residents and day treatment clients. We were patient and forgiving with each other. We laughed a lot during the day and at day’s end we looked forward to coming back tomorrow- at least, I did. Above all, we were proud to be a part of that program. We were the best in The City, and we knew it.

There were lots of reasons our program worked: the Director was an excellent clinician and a downright decent, authentic person. The large admin staff treated us like slightly addled children and that worked, somehow, probably because that’s how we felt a good deal of the time. The most important thing, though, was what happened on Thursday afternoons. That’s what I want to tell you about.

Every Thursday, at three o’clock, every staff member who could possibly attend- clinical or otherwise, manager and managed, filed into a room, coffee in hand and sat down. The door was locked behind us. Then, we sat in silence until someone had something to say. The rules were simple- basic communication skills we teach our clients: use “I” statements, don’t interrupt, treat each other with the respect you expect to be given. Beyond that, anything could be said to anyone in the room, unless they expressed an unwillingness to hear it, in which case, they were encouraged to make a later date to work out whatever the issue was. This happened rarely. It was, in a word, beautiful. People expressed gratitude for favors and acts of kindness. People expressed fear, anger and resentment. Sometimes it was nonverbal, someone just reaching out and taking another’s hand for a moment, or putting a comforting hand on a shoulder. Hugs were frequent. Sometimes we just sat in silence for long periods. The rule was, we stayed until the hour was over, whatever happened. With the exception of a couple of emergencies, I never saw that rule broken. We all knew how important this was to the maintenance of what we had.

The effect of this hour on the other thirty-nine was amazing. Griping was nearly non-existent. If someone began to complain about something that had to do with the program or a fellow worker, she would commonly be told, “Bring it up on Thursday”. We learned, all through the week, to remember something that we wanted to bring up in the meeting- something tough for which we wanted our peer’s support, or something good that we wanted to share with the others. Even better, we learned to take chances during the rest of the week, not waiting for the safe space of the Staff Meeting. It was not Heaven. Some people handled it better than others and, generally, staff members who didn’t use (or attend) the meetings didn’t last long but, unlike most busy, high stress programs in the field, we had very little turnover. We knew the value of what we had and were determined to protect it.

I offer this experience to you, to make of it what you will. Perhaps, if you are ever offered the opportunity to create a program or a community of any kind,  you’ll remember what a powerful tool it can be to feel safe and supported among your fellows.

Though we were safe with each other, we hadn’t the power to be safe from the larger world. Only a year after I began to work there the hospital, citing financial difficulties, felt the need to divest itself of our program and we were cut loose. We talked of running it as a Collective, but couldn’t find the funding that would have made that possible. Six months later, our program was bought up by a large, well funded mental health organization. The first thing they did was fire us all, (after assuring us for three months that there would be “no changes”), offering us the opportunity to interview for our old jobs. Very few of us were rehired, and those who stayed had to agree to take a significant pay cut, in line with the lower amount the new owners intended to pay their staff. We had seen, loved and worked for an effective, respected mental health program. They saw a cash cow.

The first thing that went, I’m told, was the Thursday afternoon staff meeting.

Thank you for coming by. As always, I cherish and encourage your comments and stories. Until our paths cross again, be well and live fearlessly. Why the hell not?

Happy Trails to you, Buckaroos!

“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind.”
William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject of love. Only a fool would do that and, while I have acted the fool in some circumstances and hope to again, I am not that foolish.

I have, however, learned a few things about love, both from my own experience of loving and my observations of other’s behavior. Let me tell you a story about love- this, of course, in honor of St. Valentine’s Day, just past.

Many years ago, when the world was young and my hair was long, DJ and I owned a funky, old, split window VW bus, festooned with Grateful Dead stickers. Our faith in that vehicle’s transportational abilities bordered on the delusional. With its tiny, four banger engine and it’s unpredictable electronics, it should never have been driven further than the nearest Dead show- if the show was here in Oakland. We convinced ourselves, however, that since it had wheels (one on each corner) and often started when we turned the key, we could drive it anywhere. As I said: delusional.

During this period of our lives, we were deeply involved in the support and maintenance of a spiritual retreat in the hills just North of Ukiah, California, which could only be reached by driving (after a long, slow freeway trip) on narrow, poorly maintained back country roads. These were not the country roads about which John Denver sang. These roads reflected the endless struggle between Man and Nature, and Nature was winning. We’re talking suspension breaking, tire busting, root jumping, car killing roads- and that was when they were dry. Given all that, and our state of mind at the time (you may feel free to speculate what that state might have been, given the era) it is not altogether surprising that our frail, overheated vehicle had a terminal seizure of some kind and gave up the ghost, halfway up a lovely, green hillside.

But that’s not what the story is about.

Something about the pooling oil under the car told us that this was not a bailing wire and duct tape fix; the car was going to have to be towed, somehow, to the nearest mechanic. How we hoodwinked a grumbling tow truck driver into coming into the hills and hauling our bus out is a story in itself. Suffice to say that we were towed to a local shade tree mechanic who, miraculously, had a spare VW engine in the back of his garage- and, finally, we’re reaching the story I’m telling, here.

In the mechanic’s front yard, was a large, grey goose. Also in the yard was a battered, blue, plastic cooler. When we commented on the goose (discarded coolers were too common in that neck of the woods to warrant comment), the mechanic said, “Ya want to see something funny?” We did. “Go on over and pick up that cooler”, said the mechanic, grinning evilly. Shrugging, I took a few steps toward the cooler- and the goose suddenly launched herself at me, neck outstretched, hissing wildly. This was a big goose, and she meant business, so I jumped back ten feet, while the mechanic had a good laugh. When he recovered, he told us the story I’m telling you.

It seems that, a few years previously, this goose had lived in that yard with her long-time mate. Geese, as you may know, bond for life, but a cruel fate (I admit I do not remember the details) took her mate from her. Upon her mate’s death, the goose seemed to have transferred her loyalty and affections to the old, blue cooler, perhaps because it was always in the yard they shared. She would not allow anyone to come near the cooler without rushing to defend it, perhaps for fear that the cooler, too, would be taken from her. Who can tell? Certainly, the mechanic told us, she never strayed more than a few yards from its side. No one, as long as she lived, was going to harm that cooler or take it from her.

So, what are we to make of this story- we, the creatures who assign meaning?

Like a Rorschach test, what you take from the story will depend on what you bring to it. If disappointment has made you cynical, you may find the goose’s behavior laughable. If love or loss has wounded you, the story may be painful. If, like me, you are a hopeless Romantic, you will find a moving nobility in the Goose’s fidelity. Perhaps the ways of the heart, avian or human, are too mysterious to be neatly classified at all. The possibilities are as numerous as the story’s readers. How do you receive it? Does it matter what or who you love, so long as you love? For that matter, is this love at all, or merely some kind of instinctive attachment, gone awry? Judge, and observe what your judgement says about you. May the insight serve you well.

As always, I welcome your comments , questions and shared experiences. Until we meet again (and may it be soon), Happy Trails to you!

Aha!

Psychotherapy is about change.

You’re experiencing your life as an endless, painful slog through a joyless, grey landscape, filled with treachery and betrayal- or, maybe you’re just having trouble relaxing and your doctor has suggested you find some way to reduce your stress.

In any case, you come to a psychotherapist because we’re the people who are supposed to be able to facilitate change. That’s what we do for a living. If we’ve been doing it for awhile, we can get pretty good at creating opportunities for change. We do this by using (among other things) a host of “interventions” that hopefully will cause an “Aha!” moment that takes you out of your ordinary way of thinking and kicks you over onto a fresh neural track.

Interventions are not new. Zen Buddhist koans have been used for thousands of years to bump the mind out of its rut by bringing it face to face with seemingly insoluble contradictions that can only be resolved if you can find a way to release yourself from your unexamined, limiting belief.

Psychotherapeutic interventions come in many shapes, sizes and flavors, and a big part of the endless fascination I have with being a Shrink is the constant discovery of new ones — or new ways to riff off the old ones. This is what I think of as the Art of psychotherapy. Sometimes I feel like a jazz musician as I work, opening myself to some new variation on a well-known theme, hoping to evoke a matching harmony in the person across from me.

I’ve mentioned, elsewhere, that a good part of my training came from my own experiences in therapy. Amazingly, it is still not a requirement that the holders of some professional licenses undertake their own therapy. I offer you this inflexible advice: if, as you are interviewing a potential therapist, she tells you that she has not undertaken  her own therapy (and don’t be bashful about asking; you’re the customer examining a potential purchase, and probably not a cheap one), thank her politely and keep looking. She’s only half trained and probably doesn’t know it. But, I digress.

I think it might be fun to share, in this and following columns, a few of my own more memorable “Aha’s” — a few times when my therapist (or life) managed to bring me face to face with some limiting part of my belief system that was keeping me from growing as a person. What I hope to do is get you to respond with some of your own moments of enlightenment —  like the time another lover walked out on you and you realized you were, in fact, acting like a jerk, or a mountain top acid epiphany. It could be the moment you realized, looking into the mirror, that you are mortal and finite, or the night you realized that some fun habit has turned into a destructive addition. It might be interesting to share these moments when, as Leonard Cohen says, the light got in through a crack, and you saw something more clearly than ever before.

Here’s one of mine: Forty years ago, when I was young and callow, I took a good friend’s advice (and, yes, there is a story there; some other time), and sought out a therapist — my first, in fact. I liked him, felt safe in his presence, so the therapy was going nicely, which is why I was able to take the chance with him that I did.

You see, in the parking lot of his building, where I had to pass it every week after parking my ratty, coughing VW bug, was a beautiful, white Porsche roadster. My therapist’s white, Porsche, drop-top, roadster!

Every week, I was writing him what was at the time a pretty hefty check, and every week, as I handed him his check, something deep in me got angrier and angrier: “I am writing this man a big check every week and he dares to spend it on a car that I can never, in a thousand years, own! He flaunts it! He should, at very least, have the decency to hide it where his clients can’t see it! Better yet, in deference to the rest of us, he should drive a car like mine, something dented and faded and barely running!” So it went.

Finally, during a session, I think he saw something in my face or body language that caused him to ask me if there was something on my mind and out it came: all the pent-up resentment and anger and outrage at his “insensitivity”, given the fact that such a vehicle was forever beyond my means. How could he?

One of the more useful interventions in your therapist’s tool kit is the good ol’ “Reality Check”, and that’s the one he pulled out. He asked me how much I made in a month, as an AC Transit bus driver. I gave him the figure: a solid, middle class income, especially for a single guy. He asked, how much did I spend on rent and other, unavoidable overhead? I calculated that quickly; there really wasn’t much to it. He sat back and looked at me: “Why don’t you drive a Porsche?”

Insert, at this point, a long silence, during which my mind frantically tried to come up with some answer, other than “Because I don’t choose to”, and failed. The unavoidable realization was that it was only my belief that I could not — should not -- have such a car that kept me from owning it. More importantly, perhaps, I was holding him responsible for the limits I was putting on myself, and, resenting his failure to place the same limits on himself. Whew! Thank you!

You may be wondering if I went right out and bought myself a Porsche. I did not. When I stopped blaming other people for depriving me of things, I was able to see clearly for the first time that it was my own values that caused me to make the choices I made. In this case, in the early 70’s, I had to admit that, as a practicing Hippie, I liked driving an old VW bug. That was the car hippies drove. It identified me. I would have been, well, embarrassed, to be seen driving a new Porsche. I could buy new furniture for my apartment, too, to replace the cast-off chairs and the splintery spool table, but that wasn’t me, and I realized that I did not really want to change that about myself. What I needed to do was to stop blaming others for my “deprivation” and it was a relief to be able to make that change.

Interventions, however arrived at, bring change by increasing our consciousness about ourselves. Plato tells us that Socrates used to say, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. I’m not sure I’d go that far; there are all sorts of things to live for. I do think, though, that we limit ourselves by failing to examine our beliefs, with or without the help of a therapist.

So, that’s one of my stories. What about you? What were your turning points, when life smacked you up ‘side the head, or gave you a gentle, unforgettable kiss, and you saw? Give it some thought, next time your mind’s in idle mode, and if your change was facilitated by someone, somewhere, take a minute to thank and send them a blessing. The world is a better place for your being a happier person.

If you feel inclined to share your story, this might be a good place to do it. Certainly, I’d love to read it, and perhaps some of the light you saw can illuminate some part of our darkness. Who knows?

Happy Trails to you all, until we meet again.

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game.  True.  And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.”  ― George F. Will

I am a baseball fan.

I am not a “sports fan”. I am indifferent to football and annoyed by basketball, which seems to be played year round, thus taking up space on the sports pages that should be devoted to baseball.

I am, more specifically, a fan of the San Francisco Giants – this, despite the fact that I live in Oakland, where the local team has been steadily undermined by its owners who wish to move their team to another, more profitable venue. (Delightfully, the Oakland team – The Athletics – responded by playing their hearts out and making it to the playoffs before sellout crowds, thus putting the lie to the owner’s claim that no team could find support in Oakland – but, I digress, perhaps. )

I am aware of all the arguments that many friends make against paying attention to baseball or, indeed, any professional sport. I know that these men are mercenaries, multimillionaires, most of them, who may be playing for a rival team next year. I know that some of them (mostly Yankees players) are not nice people, and that more of them use performance enhancing drugs than are detected. Mostly, though, the argument goes, “Why should I care who wins or loses some dumb baseball game? What difference does it make?” Fair question. Here’s why.

A few days ago, my wife, DJ, and I took a day trip, up and over to the coast. Since the National League playoffs were at a tense point, I wore my Giants cap, black with the bold, orange “SF” on the front; a little magical spell on my head. Wherever we went, strangers smiled and said “Go Giants”, offered opinions, asked what time the game started- reached out and spoke to a stranger, because I was wearing a particular hat.

Think about that for a moment. These are not easy times.  We are an unhappy, distrustful people, as a whole. Granted, I’m a pretty unthreatening person: an older, white man with what I’m told is a disarming smile. Still, there’s a disinclination to speak to strangers. The consequent distancing breeds suspicion and fear, but the wearing of an iconic cap or jacket signals that we have something in common. This matters, I believe, because we want desperately, on some deep level, to break out of our isolation and be social ( which derives from the Latin word socii (“allies”). To put it simply, baseball and perhaps all sports to some extent, allows us to trust a stranger, enough to initiate and respond to contact with people of all classes, races and colors, and that brings a sense of relief that can bring tears to your eyes. Doesn’t last long; the moment I look like I’m about to change the subject some of the distrust is back, but it’s a moment. It’s a start. It can go somewhere. It matters.

There’s a more profound value, though, to be found in baseball: it speaks to our deepest spiritual needs.

Sports, and particularly games involving some form of ball, go back to our pre-history. The first “balls” may, in fact,  have been human heads, in more than one culture. This was, evidently, the case in the well-documented Mesoamerican ball games, played at least four millennia ago, continuing into the arrival of the first European explorers. From numerous statuary and reliefs we know that the losers of these games were- at some time in the game’s history- sacrificed, their hearts cut out and offered to their gods. The player’s skulls, it seems, (we don’t know if the skulls were from the losers or the winners) were sometimes encased in the balls, to make them lighter. Pretty nifty, but not something I’d like to see return. The old uniforms are enough.

It seems that we humans need a mythic spectacle, of some kind, an iconic struggle on which we are able to project our hopes and fears- while we, maybe, bet a few clams on the side. The Winners allow us, for a few minutes, to believe that we, too, can win against overwhelming odds. The players become demi-gods, representing our aspirations or our clan’s hatreds (see previous reference to the Yankees, most of whom are probably nice enough people, actually). So far, so good. I see you nodding in agreement, but why is baseball particularly important, in this context?

It’s because, my people, baseball begins in the spring, and it ends (or should end) with the waning of the light, the coming of the fall. The archetype of the Year King, born with the coming of the light and dying with the approaching darkness is hardwired in us. Every culture of which I know has some version of this story- often more than one-   going back beyond that of Damuzi, Innana’s foolish lover, written in cuneiform five thousand years ago. We feel this story in our DNA and respond to it, whether we know it or not. The “Boys Of Summer” are our Year Kings, particularly the stars, whose triumphs and slumps we follow with an interest that make no sense in any other context. We know that this year’s Most Valuable Player will, eventually, falter. No matter his level of skill or his training regimen, his reflexes will lose their edge; his mighty thews, their power; and he will go down, swinging, into the darkness of mediocrity. He must, because the only thing that makes the Human Condition – and especially our helplessness against Death – bearable is the certainty that even the Gods are finite: they, too, must go down. BUT, with the coming of spring and the return of the light, they will rise up again. The cry, “Play Ball” will be heard, once more!

So it is that baseball matters, whether you are a fan, glance occasionally at the scores, or ignore it altogether. It matters because it provides badly needed lubrication to our social interactions but, far more important, it matters because it gives us Hope. In these secular times not many of us believe, literally, in the old stories of death and rebirth. Even at Christmas time and Easter we sing the old hymns more from a sense of sentimental nostalgia than belief. But we know that spring will return and that there will be superhuman feats and unbelievably boneheaded mistakes and that “our team”- that is, the one with which we identify for whatever reason – will carry our hopes and fears at least into the end of summer. The playoffs represent our momentary victory over death, still present with every play, and The World Series?

Immortality.

Baseball matters because it’s the best model we have for transcending the fix we’re in: whatever it is, if these guys can do it maybe I can do it. If not, there’s always next year.

As always, I’ll be interested in whatever comments you may have about any of my musings. Until the next time, keep your eye on the ball, happy trails to you, and Go Giants!

 

Feeling the Gratitude

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” – Epictetus

Today is my seventy-sixth birthday, which seems like an appropriate time to talk about gratitude.

I backed into the gratitude practice that I do, more or less formally, every day. Some years ago, it occurred to me that it was, well, rude, to fail to give thanks for whatever meal was placed before me. This raised a problem, since I was (and I remain) an Agnostic, an Agnostic who has images of Deities all over the place, and who feels a deep connection to the idea of a Mother Goddess- but, an Agnostic who thinks, much of the time, that these are just nonsensical, self-soothing tales, except when I need soothing. Got that? The problem, of course, was that, if I’m going to give thanks for my food, to whom (or what) am I giving those thanks? If I was going to “say grace” over my meal, it seemed, I had to first resolve this little theological problem: do I believe that somebody is listening?

I wrestled with this question for quite some time until, one day, it occurred to me that it wasn’t necessary. I could (I reasoned) feel and even express gratitude, whether or not anything “out there” was listening. The important thing was not who heard the expression, but the fact that I expressed it. If, in fact, there is some great, loving Mother (or Father) for whose bounty I am giving thanks, that’s great. Thanks for the burger and fries and beer; I really appreciate it. If they do not exist, then I am no poorer for having expressed gratitude. The expression is the important part. Whether it’s heard (and brings a smile to a Cosmic Face), is beyond our knowing. No need to get hung up on it.

So, I became one of those people you might have seen who, briefly and (I hope) unobtrusively, close their eyes and pause for a moment, before tucking in. I don’t make a big deal of it, and I hope that other people don’t notice, and especially that they don’t think I expect the same of them, or am making some kind of judgement. It’s just this thing I do, most of the time before I eat. When I forget, I don’t judge myself, either.

But, that was only the beginning.

In my psychotherapy practice, the most common complaint I see is depression. Pretty understandable, right? You’ve got a big problem or two and you don’t think you can get on the other side of it, so that’s depressing. Depression feeds on itself and, after awhile, the depression is your biggest problem, squatting on your chest grinning at you. One of the most effective ways of countering depression, as Epictetus suggests, is to give at least equal time to your blessings. Depression doesn’t like that. Ever the liar, depression insists you have nothing for which to be grateful, but he’s lying about that, too. Like the proverbial two aspirin, just a little bit of gratitude can (to mangle a metaphor) poke a hole in depression’s wall, letting in enough light to see more clearly. Good stuff.

One day it occurred to me that I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching. I wasn’t given to depression; my life was pretty good, although there were some dark moments and ol’ man Death was beginning to peek around the corner at me with disturbing regularity. I guess I thought I had to be hip deep in chronic, clinical depression before this intervention could apply to me. Typical Shrink’s problem, I’d imagine. The day came, though, when it occurred to me that even my “pretty good life” could probably be enhanced by a gratitude practice of some kind. I started to experiment with technique and timing.

What I’ve come up with, that’s working for me, so far, is this: I let myself feel gratitude at any time it occurs to me, but I especially practice it at the end of either my working day (on the days I see clients) or the end of my other days, before I sleep. Notice that I say “feel gratitude”, rather than “think gratitude”. This is the last, and maybe the most important part, other than doing it at all: first I open my mind, non-critically, to anything that suggests itself as an experience or thing for which I am grateful. It may be a smile from a passing stranger or a moment with a client that felt inspired or the two humming birds that floated outside my window. It may be something as basic as my full belly and the roof over my head. I may feel nearly overwhelmed, comprehending my incredibly fortunate life, for which I feel so undeserving. Whatever comes to me, I hold it in my mind, until I feel it. It’s not enough to merely think about it. It needs to get down into your heart and guts and wherever you live, and fill you up, for a moment. Then, you can release it, with thanks, and resume regular programing. The work has been done.

I don’t promise that this practice will make your teeth whiter, or your hair grow back, but it feels good. I feel better, having done it, good enough to make a regular thing of it. Tonight, maybe I’ll feel gratitude for writing a blog entry again, after a long hiatus. I certainly feel grateful, right now, for my loving wife’s suggestion, that led to this entry. And, I feel grateful for any and all of you, who take a few minutes to read what I’ve written, and perhaps drop me a line in response. We’re all in this together, and it’s good to see you, over there, on your path.

Until next time, be well and Happy Trails to you.

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