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

Posts tagged ‘mental-health’

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.

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.