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

Posts tagged ‘change’

The Hedonistic Imperative, Part The 2nd

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!

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.

Aside

Such a Business, continued…..

I come from a solidly blue collar background. My parents and grandparents were all middle class people, not long off their Oklahoma farms, who valued hard work and knew how to make things with their hands. My grandfather was one of those guys who could actually build a house, from the ground up. He taught me, for example, to never walk by a screw or a nut, a washer or even a nail on the ground, without picking it up. To this day, like most people of my generation, I keep containers of screws, bolts and nails, ready to make small repairs or hang pictures without a trip to the hardware store.

I learned that a job isn’t finished until it’s done- that is, when you’ve put your tools away and cleaned up the area. Then, you get to stand back and admire your work. There are few feelings as satisfying as viewing the results of your labor: you have made a change for the better. Whatever it was, it is now repaired or rebuilt and painted and ready for more years of use. Good job.

So, it’s odd that I have come to a profession in which I can’t be sure that the last hour’s work was useful. Every therapist knows the experience of having a client tell them, perhaps months later, that an offhand comment the therapist can’t even remember making was a life changing moment. Conversely, we all know the experience of thinking we’ve moved the very earth in our last session, and then having the client admit she can’t remember a thing we said. It’s a humbling experience, a reality check and a reminder that in my business we can influence, but we cannot control the outcome of a session or of the entire course of therapy.

That’s a good thing. As I’ve said earlier, my job, as I see it, is to create an environment in which my client is able to take chances that lead to discovery. I won’t pretend I have no hand in that, but it’s my client’s work and it’s happening within her. I might think I know what’s happening at any given moment, but mostly I’m making an educated guess. Neither of us may know, at the moment, that something profound has happened. For all that we try, certainties are rare in this work.

So it is that, when the fifty minutes are over, and it’s time for me to put away my tools and clean up, I can’t know what has been accomplished, not really. I always hold the faith that we did the best work we were capable of, but (as the old saw has it) time will tell. It’s a far cry from painting a wall or even replacing a washer, but we’ve done the best we can, and that has to be enough, for now. Progress, not perfection. Good is good enough.

Thank you for reading, and be well, all.