Archive for the ‘Philosophical Counseling’ Category

Two Standing Together

Is she the one? Is he my soul mate?

These questions epitomize the myth of the One for whom we are meant to spend our lives. This way of thinking embodies the Hollywood portrayal of love and romance yet has little to do with the Love spoken of by Christ: agape.

The practice of agape is humble. It is not brash or reckless. It is not compulsion or obsession – or fine words to market fragrances by meant to conjure up images of abandon to physical attraction and “falling in love”. Agape makes ever larger space for the other to evolve and finds fresh reasons to listen and learn and to wrap oneself in the mystery of souls journeying together.

At heart, agape and true love, Christic love, is a choice: a decision to remain open to possibilities. Anything less is a cheap substitute; hence the high rate of relationship failures and divorce in the West.

We are called to a higher state of interaction and inter-being.

Anyone married more than a decade knows the truth of this. Physical prowess and attractive features are transient. One reaches the point beyond which we have heard all of our partners’ stories many times over. Then, it’s all about companionship, finding deeper levels of connection and mutual interest. This is the work of authentic loving.

Something beautiful visited often is never less beautiful, though we may stop paying attention and seeing that beauty. Having eyes to see the truth is to see each day as if for the first time and this is a high form of spiritual meditation.

As one now celebrating 39 years of marriage, the choice is rooted in gratitude to have a friend forever. What could be more truly romantic than the commitment to keeping it that way?

© The Harried Mystic, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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We have all heard the phrase, ” a thirst for knowledge,” and many people are motivated by a need to discover, understand and reveal the essence of experience and phenomena. These are the people who take seriously the Socratic admonition to  “know thyself,” and embody the idea that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The times in which we live are times of great contrast. The United States electorate is acutely divided, and we see, once again, the perennial visage of culture, race and class warfare in the exchange of emotional and unthinking rhetoric.

What I see is a rising thirst for ignorance. Orthodoxies appear on the rise, and liberal philosophies in all arenas are ridiculed and demonized. When the appetite for “heresy” declines, one should be watchful for the erosion of liberty, critical thinking, and genuine insight into issues. At a recent dinner, I was part of a cordial conversation among friends and associates about this political moment in America. At one point, I was labeled by a colleague, only half in jest, as a liberal elitist. Why? The label was meant to sweep into a neat category my love of scholarship, incisive dialogue, taking nothing at face value, and seeing all orthodoxy as worthy of inspection. Ok, then, no problem. I am a card-carrying liberal elitist and proud of it. Dismiss me if you please.

In our current times, it is both easier and increasingly well-regarded to cling to the formulae fed to us by those who affix dismissive labels as their way of coping with what they fail to understand and have little energy to genuinely explore. It is easier to buy into a platform of ideological character. It gives one a sense of solidity when so much that swirls around us is uncertain and complex.

I, for one, love uncertainty. Doubt and the challenge of all assumptions is “philosophy,” the love of wisdom. I am absolutely certain that nothing is absolutely certain! I know that what I know is fact until new evidence reveals that it isn’t. Ideology is “window dressing” and icing for the mind. It entices. It draws you inside to look things over and encourages you to buy or partake. However, as so many things that are adorned with icing, the repast is likely one of many empty calories!

  • A few snowstorms where they aren’t typical and where the snowfall breaks records after many years, and many, including ostensibly intelligent legislators, are declaring the folly of “global warming.”
  • After decades of strong evidence of the veracity of Darwinian evolution and evolutionary developmental biological science, a good number have chosen to reject it for a more fundamentalist theology, and insist that this alternative be taught along with the science.
  • The facts around the necessity for government stimulus and spending in these recessionary times is denigrated as an example of out of control tax and spend big government.

Heretics and individualists are no fun. Their incessant challenge gives one a headache. They seem like they are not team players. They “move to the beat of a different drummer.” They are “not like the rest of us.” The Matrix movies were a testament to the will of many to stay deluded and comforted by machine generated, or, by analogy, party-generated or state-generated fantasy.

The price of the pursuit of knowledge is to place oneself in harm’s way. The deaths of Socrates, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Anwar Sadat and Jesus of Nazareth represent a dynamic that is as real and potent today as it has ever been. Salman Rushdie was under the threat of a Fatwah for his novel. Cartoonists have been threatened for offending orthodox beliefs. A demonizing and fear-mongering minority is actually succeeding in flipping the balance of power in the United States just over a year after the election of a President with a decade’s worth of serious challenges to address and a recalcitrant opposition hell-bent on denying him any meaningful legislation.

The appetite for ignorance always seems to overwhelm the true thirst for knowledge. Higher education in the U.S. often needs to be camouflaged lest one be labeled and set aside as an “elitist” or “academic”. Just look at out national values by comparing the very small percentage of the Federal budget set aside for education compared to what is allocated for defense and the story is told.

We do well to step back and reflect on our estate. How much have we bought into a ready-made set of comfortable mythologies and how alive do we want to be? Is freedom a value or a catch phrase that is nullified by a deeper need to be told what to believe, how to live, what to wear, how to talk, and what it means to be succesful?

It is our’s to choose:  Ignorance or knowledge. This is not only an imperative of citizenship and mind, but is a critical aspect of the depth and breadth of our spirituality. One cannot separate these from one another. They are inter-dependent parts of one true Self.

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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According to Plato, “all is remembrance.” But, there is so much that I’ve forgotten.

With each passing year, I lose more of what I once knew. As I catalogue the range of topics into which my lost memories fall, they include:

  • song titles and artists,
  • names of theorists,
  • book titles and authors,
  • names of key attractions in some cities around the world,
  • where I left my car keys, pens, collar stays, cuff links and belt,
  • how to drive to certain regional destinations I’ve visited in the past without benefit of a GPS device,
  • names of computer files, documents and passwords, and,
  • lists of things I need from the supermarket.

Hmm. Now that I look at the list, most of the items on it ( except for my car keys and maybe my belt), are trivial, unimportant clutter. In reality, it’s not that the brain is “winding down” with age. It’s just cleaning house. With each year, in fact, I am remembering things that I experienced years ago and doing so with added meaning. The time machine of mind replays the past so that more recent experiences can look at them with new perspective and through new lenses.

Memories are reintegrating, clustering, and interconnecting in novel ways. In our Western societies, aging is too often interpreted as degradation, an unwinding, a devolutionary experience, and deterioration.The social programming is strong and after the age of 50, one hears people talking about themselves as anachronistic. Every ache and every pain is enlarged as further proof that best days are no longer ahead. This is altogether a brainwashing; a set of expectations baked into the culture and its worship of youth. We can learn much by looking to the Far East.

In fact, the so-called “senior moment” certainly need not be a cause for embarrassment, apology, nor a fretting over the march of time. On the contrary, with the exception of diagnosed neurological disease, it is merely a sign of learning taken to the next level. Bits and bytes are rewoven into whole cloth, and the narrative storyline of a life emerges.

I raise a toast to the senior moments in celebrating their function as a cleanser for the soul. To forget some things is to make room for new ones. All learning requires forgetting.

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Perhaps you recall the lyrics of the Bobbie McFarrin tune with the title of this post. It sums up a pervasive philosophy that has wormed its way into the thinking of many. In this weekend’s Financial Times, philosopher Julian Baggini writes an excellent critique of the positive psychology movement entitled “Where happiness lies,” which I find myself agreeing with entirely.

The gist of the article is that it has become fashionable to dismiss negative emotions outright. People suffering from depression often feel guilty when others say such hurtful and ignorant things as ” just get over it,” “think your way out of it,” and ” just decide not to be miserable.” The uninformed even attribute laziness and selfishness to them. Actually, if there is any “laziness,” it is on the part of the  critics of the depressed who simply cannot bring themselves to entertain what it is like to suffer with this condition, or to think about the darker and threatening aspects of life.

We are increasingly becoming a culture obsessed with happiness. Even those with cancer are told to invest in a happiness campaign and to get beyond their anger and fear. Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is now touted as the only form of psychotherapy that is well supported by the evidence and recommended by physicians. (It is also much preferred by insurance companies given the promise of quick relief, and short-term therapy).

While there is certainly nothing wrong with genuine happiness and CBT, used especially in cases of “catastrophizing” thought, (where small things become debilitating worries), there is so much more to the mystery of persons. There is nothing wrong with searching for positive solutions to life’s problems either, but are we being suckered into a universe of smiley faces and emoticons: a plain vanilla and superficial way of living that is neither examined nor fully lived?

Is happiness the right goal or is it, as Baggini argues, the quest for truth, wisdom, and deep understanding? Worshipping at the altars of happiness seems at least conceptually correlated with the cry for relevance in education that led to the elimination of departments of history owing to under-enrollment at some U.S.  universities, the proliferation of “cream puff” courses that are not too taxing, and a myriad of professional licensing short cuts.

What’s so terrible about struggling? To look at oneself is to face one’s demons, our ignorance, and the plethora of paradoxes and dilemmas that make life at once rich and confusing. It’s not fun but it is real.

“All things in moderation,” advises Socrates, and this seems the soundest advice. A rich and joyful life is not necessarily even often a happy one. It has a lot of drama in it, commitments that are often challenging, and vexing circumstances that must be managed. There are deep lows and great heights, but the consistent quality of a joyful life is that it is meaningful.

It’s interesting that so many young people are waiting to marry, living together instead to “kick the tires” so to speak, and see if the relationship works out. How are they defining “working out”? Are they waiting for the first sign that it might not be perfectly happy? Are they waiting for the “joker in the deck” when strain and conflict develops as proof that marriage isn’t a good idea? Marriage is a vow to take it on forever regardless of how it all turns out. It is not a vow to happiness but one of definitive choice based on instinct.

I, for one, admire those who take large vows with gusto and intent to permanence knowing full well that it wont be a walk in the park. I feel close to those who laugh and cry with their whole bodies, fully, spontaneously, and honestly. I respect those who smile naturally and not the many who wear false political smiles and who always say what is politically correct. I am vulnerable and truly myself only with those who have no problem being vulnerable themselves, who don’t have it all together, and who make no pretense about it.

To avoid all that makes one unhappy is to avoid really living. To be always unhappy is to not really know love. Finding the “sweet spot” between the extremes takes self-learning, existential honesty, courage, and realism with the capacity to imagine all the possibilities.

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Love and Pain by Edvard Munch

Today, we went to see an excellent, though disturbing, Broadway musical: Next to Normal, a Tony Award winning rock musical with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, music by Tom Kitt of High Fidelity fame, and directed by Michael Greif (who also directed the original production of Rent). It focuses on a family, their daily interactions and conflicts, and the anguish that lies just beneath the surface.

A married couple, Diana and Dan, go through the motions of being in a deeply loving and close relationship as they pursue their clockwork efficiencies and complete their daily rounds (10 minutes of sex in the morning, little by way of meaningful communications about what people are thinking, feeling, and experiencing, they shower, dress, Dan goes off to work, Diana does many domestic tasks with clear anxiety, emptiness, and disgust reaching a boiling point, and the cycle repeats the next day). Diana and Dan have a college aged daughter, Natalie,  a very bright and successful student, obsessive, with not much of  a social life.

The dark truth underneath the early action is Diana’s manic-depression, and her delusions about interacting with her 18-year-old son, their first-born, who  died at 8 months of age of an “intestinal blockage”.  [ His memory is portrayed as another character, the son, Gabe, as the 18-year-old with whom Diana delusionally interacts.] As she goes from one wardrobe of pharmaceuticals to another, all miserable failures, she finally gives up on all pills, feels briefly like her old self again, and then attempts suicide.  Diana receives electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT)  next, prompted by the family’s desperation to find relief from the emotional torture of the 18-year-old open wound.

The ECT disrupts Diana’s memory so extensively that she loses all recollection of even being married for 18 years to Dan, who has stood faithfully by her side, and of having a daughter, Natalie. Slowly, her memories begin to return, but she senses a missing piece, a hole somewhere deep inside of her. At a critical moment in the play, she suddenly recalls the loss of her son, and Dan then reluctantly shares the details of his death. Diana’s delusion of seeing her son as an 18 year old returns, and her psychiatrist recommends another round of ECT. However, this time, she refuses, deciding instead to take her chances, knowing full well that there are no guarantees. Ultimately, she decides to leave the house, her husband and daughter and goes off on her own to work things out: a decision devastating to Dan, though he and Natalie find a way to carry on, as they hope for her eventual return.

The play is a very sincere and emotionally compelling piece of theater with music well matched to the action. We were all deeply moved by it. There were few dry eyes in the theater. The reason it had such an impact is that many could identify with one character or another. Those married for a long time could easily relate to awakening one day to find that you can’t recall the man or woman you were when you were in school and chose to marry, or the person you fell in love with when you made that youthful choice. You don’t know how it happened, but now you tire quickly, and everything seems a chore.

In addition, grief strikes every family with the loss of loved ones eventually. For some, recovery never quite happens. Many can also relate to the cornucopia of medications prescribed in our times to deal with it all ( e.g., xanax, valium, wellbutrin, elavil, celexa, leaxapro, paxil, prozac, zoloft, effexor, cymbalta, trazodone, and on and on) and their potential side effects which may include: weight gain, weight loss, sexual dysfunction, dizziness, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, constipation, bladder problems, insomnia, stiff neck, headache, etc.

Only upon dumping all of her pills, does Diana feel like herself again, but her protracted and unresolved grief and depression reach a peak, and she tries to commit suicide. Many people I treat, friends and acquaintances, suffer from a variety of mood disorders ( often major depression). Combinations of psychotherapy and medication sometime bring a modicum of relief, but the battle is long and hard, and there are no definitive “once and for all” answers. In such instances, we especially need to broaden our view as caring for “souls” and not merely treating mind and brain alone. This is the proper place for spiritual dialogues wherein we face our existential terrors together.

The healing professions have established a litany of proscriptions about how therapy is best conducted. For the most part, the training includes an admonition to keep an objective “clinical” distance from the person being treated, and not to share too much of yourself. This builds into the psychotherapeutic regimen a professionally schooled institutional neurosis that can only make matters worse. This is what the depressed person already experiences : a sense of alienation, disconnection, a growing sense of being “a burden”, the object of critical attention, failure to find a reason to get out of bed, a loss of meaning, and lost intimacy. Those who suffer from this so often feel as if they are walking in a fog, going through various motions that are an all-too-thin shield against the strong desire to scream.

While it is imperative that therapists  know why they might share something about themselves with a client, to guard against projecting their own needs and psychic material, this guideline, blindly applied, can too easily appeal to half-trained professionals who carry unexamined complexes into such conversations. They may unwittingly “go through the motions of caring” in the name of being professional, while not really caring at all. They are, after all, too often, in their own minds, treating “patients:” a word that itself makes them more objects of care than subjects of authentic regard.

That presumed objectivity becomes too easily  a power trip and, potentially, a professionally sanctioned act of violence dressed up as treatment. So, how can hope be returned to the depressed and the grieving? How can we help each other relate to the shadow times and the existential chiaroscuro that we inevitably all face as we age? How do we come to grips with life when it loses all its taste; when, as said in the play to Dan by Diana, ” You say you know what I’m going through?! Do you know what it feels like to be dead while still alive?”

The answer lies in accepting the fact that there may not be one. It just may be that we will struggle throughout or lives. The roller-coaster of life has moments of quiet with many troubling and emotionally tumultuous punctuations. We are emotional creatures first. Some people are especially sensitive, and these are the souls that suffer greatest anguish.

Part of the darkness of depression is the belief by the depressed that they are defective, diseased, abnormal, incapable of functioning, too fragile to survive. The way out is to stop looking so hard for a way out. The sensitive soul has a faculty that is powerful and it can be put to work in response to the darkness. It is imagination, and the very capacity to experience life’s emotional challenges in exquisite detail.

While medication certainly has its place in acute circumstances, when one simply needs the help, it is not an answer. The answer lies within. It is a spiritual matter. So, in the face of the monster of dark days, how do we claw our way back:

  • Express it – in words, sculpture, painting, movement, song; run toward it, not away from it, since there is no way to outrun ourselves;
  • Embrace the beautiful – whatever you find beautiful, surround yourself with it; throw rose petals on your bed, open up all the shades and let the light stream in, play the music that creates pleasure, find fragrances that lift you, get a massage ( best from someone you love);
  • Act “As-If” – as if you are already beyond the darkness and out in the light, already embracing the wonder and joy of being alive, seeing yourself as strong, and as an artist ready to discover something new;
  • Adventure – plan an outing to a place you haven’t been, look it up online, read about it, visualize it;
  • Spend time talking to others like yourself – create or join a group of people who share the experience of these days of listlessness and inner pitch, talk about it all, describe it all, hold each other in a place made safe by authentic fellowship and friendship;
  • Examine it – with a professional who can engage with it as a matter of life’s complexity, not solely as a disease that warrants a bucket of pills, and who can join you in finding a new language to apply to acknowledging what you’re feeling without minimizing, labelling, making you feel small when you are truly grand, or merely getting frustrated when the challenge simply refuses to go away.

We have become an over-diagnosed and over-medicated society, and we’ve come to believe that we are our diagnoses. No! Hell no! It’s time to reclaim our souls. Enough already.

Look at the lives of the poets. So many of them lived complicated and often anguished lives, and they used their creativity to make beauty out of dark days. Look at the philosophers. Many found the courage not to run to pills, but to grapple, hand to hand, with the complexities of living. They were courageous in thinking through to all the edges. The answer lies in putting aside the belief that we are ‘”not supposed” to be depressed, to grieve, or be anxious, lost, and confused. We compound life’s real challenges by adding self-denigration and self-loathing to the mix. Let us find our voice with each other’s help. In doing so, life will still have its dark days, but the burden will be easier to carry.

The poet, Anne Sexton, beautifully captures the spirit that helps her work through her pain in the poem, The Fury of Rainstorms. She describes depression with such emotionally honest precision, along with the alchemical moment when she transforms it into a life-affirming choice.

First, she moves in, and then, she moves on.

The rain drums down like red ants,
each bouncing off my window.
The ants are in great pain
and they cry out as they hit
as if their little legs were only
stitched on and their heads pasted.
And oh they bring to mind the grave,
so humble, so willing to be beat upon
with its awful lettering and
the body lying underneath
without an umbrella.
Depression is boring, I think
and I would do better to make
some soup and light up the cave.

In the spirit of the Broadway play, it would be good if we all aspired to a life “next to normal.”

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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