Disarming Your Negative Thoughts: How Meditation Helps

We expect too much of language. People use it to console, laugh, and express love. Phrases manage our relationships and help us make a living. We grab them to persuade and to injure.

Regrettably, our words also damage us. I refer to the private internal self-torture we alone can hear.

One remedy for this problem does not involve the pitiless expressions themselves. Instead, the method helps get us away from the typed black and white creatures inhabiting dictionaries, the ones we utter within our inner sanctum.

Allow me to explain the background first.

In cases of depression and anxiety, the voice inside our head is leaden, crushing. The word contraption called the brain pumps out endless discouragement, self-doubt, potential catastrophe, regret, and self-blame. All in letters of the alphabet, all caps in a giant font.

Some of this is caused by our genetic wiring, some learned. Homo sapiens survived because ancestors could anticipate problems and plan for defense. Communication helped. Thinking ahead and in our head was vital, allowing reflection on the past and learning from personal history, too. We take in criticism as they did, especially when young, to better adapt to conditions, meet inescapable demands, and achieve acceptance by the community.

For the troubled among us in particular, when nothing else occupies our attention, invading armies of words sometimes describe an unfortunate back story, accuse one of inadequacy, and generate fear of the future. The space between the ears is filled with emotionally charged, unsettling sentences. We try to avoid or escape them by occupying our time in productive and joyous activities, embracing love, and engaging in hobbies.

Some use the radio or TV to drown out their self-loathing. Books might distract, video games entertain. Others imbibe alcohol or take drugs. The lucky sleep self-recrimination away, fortunate unless slumber is all they can do.

When work and play are done — often late at night or when we are by ourselves — the loquacious intercranial attack picks up. Try as we do to kick the phrases away, they rebound in our direction. The more our ideas are repeated internally, the more they boomerang, as if connected to a rubber band we can only stretch so far before a snapping return to the original shape, shooting the trouble back at us.

The harsh routine at its worst implies, “Sorry, your lifetime allotment of happiness is used up.”The task for winning the battle for our distressed brain’s attention is to drain the words of their power. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can do some of that, increasing our ability to talk back to irrational cognitions.

Traditional dynamic psychotherapy, in addition, aims to relieve us of our sense of unworthiness based on mistreatment by parents and other misfortunes. Grief-work is necessary.

As for the rest, all of us benefit from being calmed and relieved of the tendency to give too much desperate meaning to the reflexive thoughts that seem to think themselves into us and against us.

Mindfulness meditation can address this. The usual instruction is to concentrate on your breathing. If you are like me, a few seconds into early meditation sessions a distraction will pull you away from a focus on the breath. Many of the intrusions are benign and random. This is typical and not a bad thing.

Once you recognize what happened you are informed how your mind works. Even more so, if the topic taking your attention off breathing is challenging and you notice this. Maybe it’s anxiety or worry about what is before you, perhaps downing yourself over a comment you made or sadness and anger about what a neighbor said about you.

The new meditator’s job is observing the unpleasantness and then returning attention to his inhalation and exhalation. You don’t flee the interruption, indeed you recognize it without judgment. Meditation experts tell us our value judgments (good/bad, right wrong, pleasant/unpleasant, positive/negative, wise/foolish) make such disruptive notions and feelings more painful than would otherwise be the case.

When everything goes as planned, a practice of daily meditation allows you to accept these thoughts for what they are (just thoughts). Life gets a bit easier. One’s intelligence is pulled away from self-disparagement, concentration improves, and you become calmer. Your head is emptied of incessant involuntary terminology and its tag-along emotions. Words separate from their previous emotional resonance and residue.

In one sense you have grown more observant of your cognitive and affective private life while more distant from it: less trapped and victimized by the historically fraught words. Their grip on you is loosened. A state of liberation follows, along with an experiential realization the punisher inside is not your master any longer: not essential to who you are.

A personal example: I once went to the Emergency Room with unendurable, hours-long pain from a kidney stone. I’d encountered a few such hard but injurious objects before, but never so lasting and punishing. I was given morphine, a narcotic.

Once medicated my body reminded me the affliction was yet there, but I was distanced and detached from the hurt: more accepting of it. I no longer cared. My feelings about the discomfort dissolved. For a meditator who is far enough along, the concepts once capable of hijacking your well-being lose the authority to harm you, though you still sometimes note the same terms in your head. You stop giving them importance, thus robbing them of their “truth” and impact.

Instead, you deem the terms as arguable statements, not indictments of your worth. They rest easier, not allowed to be a part of you, not taken to heart. These perceptions and notions have detached from your identity. The experience is like reading a book or watching a movie about someone else, not you. Separation from such things permits you to see the world and yourself in a more objective fashion.

In effect, the meaningful labels you attached to many of these internal communications lose their sticking ability, as if the “glue” adhering to your self-image dried up. The stickers fall off. The readiness to judge falls away. Room for beauty and fascination take up space once occupied by darkness.

Nor is your decision-making as likely to be influenced by the hyper-emotional thought-generation machine. The enemy within the language has been disarmed. Life can be more in your control, free of the ever-growing clutter of self-inflicted emotions and concepts you’ve been living with. The reprogrammed cerebral cortex is more settled. Moments of serenity are possible.

Do not minimize the amount of work involved in the process. Most people I’ve known who try meditation give up early. They believe they are “bad at it,” bored, or report the assault of troublesome beliefs and worries entering their attempt to quiet the mind makes them worse than before. Others only begin when their suffering is already at a peak rather than when depression or anxiety is not so present. Some find the needed time and discipline of a once-a-day devotion to the endeavor more than they can do.

I can only say that persistence, dedication, and the capacity to wait for delayed gratification are useful in meditation and much else in life. Combined with CBT (including any needed grief-work), the world may open to you in a new and better way.

—–

The first photo is of Cadillac Mountain in Arcadia National Park. Next comes Composition VII by Kandinsky, followed by 72 Seconds Before Actual Sunrise, Southern California, USA by Jessie Eastland from Wikimedia Commons. Finally, The Rayleigh Effect, Seconds Before Sunrise in New Zealand by Moriori, also from Wikimedia Commons.

Is There a Better Path to Happiness?

Most of us wish we were happier at least some of the time. In the West, we pick from a list of goals expected to boost well-being, targets outside ourselves: a better job, a more pleasing mate, and more status; money, too. But if we extend our reach in a different direction, we might find an unexpected road to joy: one demeaned or ignored by much of the human community.

I suggest we start by looking East and backward about 2500 years. An ancient teacher thought mankind’s flourishing required relationships invested in ceremony and ritual, in deference and respect. Here was a far more formal, harmonious way of interacting with others than we observe today.

The way fathers and sons addressed and behaved toward each other, for example, was a matter of custom and civility. Love, in part, was demonstrated by investing ritual deeds with sincerity, not grudging routine. Virtue and benevolence flowered in the performance of patterned actions and words. They became embedded in how people went about their lives, made their living, and honored the family.

What might be a ritual? Utterances and gestures as simple as our handshakes or embraces and expressions when greeting or parting. Somewhat more elaborate customs include how people are seated at a meal, who is served first, and who takes precedence in getting extra food. Use of stately words of address replaces familiar pronouns.

Voices don’t talk over others, but convey honor and recognize a hierarchy of roles. How we dress for dinner matters. So too, all expect the meal to unfold in a relaxed fashion. Our behavior indicates the importance of the event, not something less significant than whatever comes next.

Delight is taken in the simple presence and happiness of loved ones and guests. Think of conversation within appropriate boundaries, not a script.

This might sound unnatural to you in a world where time is money and ceremony reeks of elitism. Before you dismiss the notion, however, consider the growing incivility in our much less formal, modern, Western civilization, where corrosive vulgarity and worse are often excused.

Think, as well, how we skate over opportunities for rich and meaningful social contact with friends and relatives, speeding through meals, checking the iPhone, and treating wait-staff in an indifferent or demeaning fashion. We do so at the risk of diminishing ourselves and triggering a reciprocal lack of kindness, patience, and interest from those we claim to care about.

Confucius, whose Way I am referring to, formalized his guidance during the chaotic and dreadful Warring States period in China. Little happiness was present. People, we are told, were reduced to animals.

Herbert Fingerette put the Confucian view this way:

To become civilized is to establish relationships that are not merely physical, biological, or instinctive: it is to establish human relationships, relationships of an essentially symbolic kind, defined by tradition and convention and rooted in respect and obligation.*

No zero-sum game of winners and losers lives here. Every honorable person has a place.

As Confucius wrote, “Virtue does not exist in isolation; there must be neighbors.”

Many of us, trying hard to get through a challenging day, are not at our best. For those who attempt to follow the Way, however, the danger is in performance done solely out of duty, to signal our goodness, or curry favor.

Were such self-interest and riches enough to guarantee happiness, the USA would be the happiest place on Earth. Instead, it ranks 10th of 40 rated countries in life satisfaction in the 2017 OECD report.

Fingarette adds:

Society is men treating each other as men … according to the obligations and privileges … out of love and loyalty and respect called for by their human relationships.*

In so doing we prioritize the group over the individual. We invest this beautifully choreographed social dance with a gracefulness that offers us grace. Profit, ego, and selfishness are restrained. Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom enlarge.

Our human potential grows, not to become athletes of conventional success, but like those whose humanity, not financial or political triumph, we say we admire the most.

Nor is this an extreme form of self-sacrifice. We are still permitted to make a good and honorable living. We needn’t give away decent clothing and a place to live, but are discouraged from taking license just because we can.

Reciprocity thus increases. Barbarism justified as a necessary means to a desired end meets with shame. We serve as models and thereby bring out the best in those we care about. They are drawn to us.

The elusive notion of happiness resides in the group’s ritualized performance, which, like a theatrical production, is larger and more meaningful than the individual players. In embodying our role, we share the bounty of human contact where all partake.

Can we do better for ourselves and our fellow creatures by striving to be members of an orchestra rather than itinerant soloists?

Confucius believed changing the world starts with what we control, what any single person begins to reflect upon and do.

We can do worse than find out if he was right.

——-

The top photo comes from the Himeji Oshiro Festival, June 26, 2010. It is the work of Corpse Reviver. The Respect Expressway, a hallway sign, was created by rrafson. Finally, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by Dan Lutz, date unknown. The first two are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; the last, from the Art Institute of Chicago.

*Fingarette, H. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. Prospect Hts., IL: Waveland Press, 1972.

Why Therapists Search for Your “Useful Discomfort”

One of the therapist’s first tasks is to gauge the new patient’s discomfort. If he is drowning, the doctor’s job is like that of a lifeguard, to secure and elevate him straight away. But if he is treading water, head still well above the chance of a big gulp, the inexperienced counselor’s mistake must be bypassed: taking or allowing the sufferer into the swirling downspout of his emotional whirlpool.

Entrance there leads to a subterranean dark place on a high-speed descent. His well-being and stomach for counseling might be left behind.

The depth of psychic trouble will often — and often must — wait. Trust in the relationship and safety come first. Only when some grounding work is done can you best search for a place I’d call “a useful level of discomfort.”*

Useful how? The patient, assuming the distress is not entirely new, waited for some time to come to a professional. The woman or man lived a complicated life, tried self-help books or will power or faith or work or drugs or sex or each of these to better himself. Arrival at the clinic means nothing worked or worked enough.

He needs to move past his sticking point, the concerns he didn’t want to think about, open up about. If he becomes overwhelmed, however — by too much, too soon — a premature end to the office visits is likely. Stopping short of the mucky floor of his emotions is necessary. There is a zone of useful discomfort in a less acute, sustainable place higher up.

The in-session professional senses this, watches for it. Imagine the consulting room divided in half. On one side of an invisible partition sits the counselor. On the other, his client resides in a breathable, transparent fluid. Much movement occurs within the liquid, high and low, serene or agitated or depressed: the entire range of possibilities to which our hearts are subject.

The individual requires acute attention. Where he exists within his emotional space might change a dozen times before the clock suspends his share of the therapist’s face-to-face focus; in the same place or another, up or downriver.

Here is one of the reasons the doctor monitors the elapsing passage of the hour. He must, if he can, retrieve the drifting, disconsolate patient before session’s close; get him to shore. Leaving him with “useful discomfort” is often acceptable. A client who is worse off with regularity as he leaves the building is a guarantee of treatment failure. Health care professionals don’t want those in their care suffering the engagement too much.

The time is and is not the patient’s, though he purchased the visit. He owns that it happens, but the provider’s job is to manage the way it happens. Think of the latter as a traffic cop of sorts, the conductor of the flow of ideas and moods. The doctor reinforces the guard rails, keeping his charge from careening off the tracks, the chasms in his psyche through which he will fall if the session ends in the wrong place.

Those in psychotherapy possess many escape hatches. Full frontal immersion in a place they have avoided will force them to rely upon these old survival techniques and defenses. Only these, not their healer, then signal possible relief. The patient will have returned to the place of his former misery, but be glad because the prescribed ministrations, interpretations, and nudges made him worse.

The lesson of useful discomfort takes you forward, not retreating from life. Much of our flourishing depends on finding a way to tolerate unpleasant situations, not flee them. Resilience and courage incubate here. With experience, the formerly uncomfortable territory becomes less noxious. The circle of life enlarges.

The therapist should not be like a sadist slow-cooking you on a spit. His desire for your useful discomfort is to sustain your capacity for facing your issues without making the offered remedy either a feel-good waste of time or an intolerable ordeal guaranteeing a defeat of the therapeutic project. In effect, he is saying, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, ‘”you are not in Kansas anymore,’ but this is the necessary place for you now. I will do my best to make it manageable.”

Like Dorothy’s “yellow brick road” Odyssey, the effort leads to discovery of the strength inside you. From there, whether home or away, new adventures are possible. You are now the master of your self.

——-

The second image is Ancient Harmony by Paul Klee. *The expression “useful discomfort” is borrowed from a recent article about climate science/

What if We Could Erase Painful Memories?

Why is memory this way? Why isn’t it content to hurt you once? Why must it remind you of all the times you’ve been hurt before?

If this doesn’t sound familiar, you have been asleep for a while.

Our hearts are given as hostage when we love. The kind of love doesn’t matter: children, friends, romance, and more. Our core is at risk when we treasure books and eyes fail, or music and hearing dims, or running and knees collapse.

Think of our loves as on loan from a magical library. This institution specifies no due date for the materials checked out.

Are we fools because the absence of a precise cutoff allows us to believe our possession is secure?

Perhaps someone already grabbed the object of our desire off the shelf. Will waiting help, hoping for the item to be returned?

You say rapture is yours? Then, suddenly, the library police snatch it away. No warning. No time to prepare. Maybe an accident robs you of your mobility or another love of a lover. No aid for this, no higher authority to whom you can appeal.

The officers provide only cruel compensation: a hole inside. The happiness of what remains begins to leak, the substance of life tunneling down the bottomless sink. Food doesn’t taste right, jokes don’t make you laugh, sleep gives no rest.

You climb in and reach for what is moving away. Or lack even the strength to lift you arm, open your hand, and try.

Oh, but shards of the remembrance cut, edges slow to depart.

Where is the repair shop when you need it, something to fill up the hole, smooth the jagged places? A replacement for “one of a kind” now gone? No second hand stores carry it, no reseller offers the missing part. A proprietor says they have something like it. You know they don’t.

What if you could simply forget you’d ever had the precious commodity, as if a surgeon removed an unwanted scar?

The top quote comes from Mem, by Bethany Morrow. The novel deals with some of the implications of memory erasure, also treated in the 2004 movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Outside of fiction, scientists envision a possible future including electro-convulsive therapy (ECT), brain implants, or other methods to treat PTSD by deleting disturbing memories.

The researchers make an assumption: the stinging, sorrowing, traumatic remembrances are distinct, limited, and not integrated with the rest of you. Not all troubling events fit into this tiny package, however.

Stop for a moment.

Would you sign up?

Many questions can be expected to arise if such a tool comes to the hospital nearest you. How would the doctor measure whether a memory is terrible enough and fenced-off enough to qualify for medical vanishing cream? Would the emotion disappear along with the recollection or might one experience the trauma without the reference to what caused it?

How would a forgotten past allow us to learn from our mistakes? Some amount of pain is both inevitable and necessary for human development.

What might such experiential carve-outs do to our humanity? How might we relate to those who remember the event, but didn’t use the medical white-out?

Could the richness of life and our capacity for empathy — our moral growth and resilience — diminish with a too ready instrumental “end (to) the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?”*

If the technique were extended to matters of romantic heartbreak, would the wonder of love vanish too? Might our species turn reckless once assured that losses needn’t last past our next doctor appointment?

Remember, taking something away doesn’t add anything back. Would these scrubbed souls become like white boards without the written names and meanings of the people who were once our “everything?” Does spotlessness await or just mindless?

For now we must weather the bad luck and pack an umbrella. Perhaps go to a therapist or seek the drug dispensers, insurance approved or otherwise. We count on time to pass so we no longer count the time “since” and “after.”

I wish we were guaranteed a puddle remover for the rain and a hole closer for the drain. At least they tend to get smaller.

Gratitude for what abides offers consolation, though hard to summon with speed. New people, new tasks, new beauties beckon. Acceptance, too, is instrumental in healing, another job needy of practice and patience. Religion helps some find solace.

To me, the essential lesson is to live with urgency. Not stay up nights wondering when the librarian will demand the book back. Rather, to be exhausted by bedtime for having embraced the fullness and possibility of the sunlight. If, by evening, the tale of your life is claimed, the desk won’t be piled high with regret.

Your library card might appear battered by then. Look carefully, though, and recognize something else. Good use was made of your time and the invitation to enter a wondrous place called the globe. I mean the bounty offered there: books and relationships, work and sport, nature and laughter and fulfillment from striving to repair the world.

In a place where everything is borrowed and brief, Andrew Marvell’s centuries old advice, To His Coy Mistress, still applies:

Thus, though we cannot make our sun

Stand still, yet we will make him run.

——–

The second image is Erased de Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg.

*Excerpt from the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, Scene I.

Is a Breakup Ever Harder Than a Death? Reflections on the Complexity of Grieving

“You need to grieve,” is easy to say, hard to do. Some equate it with “feeling sorry for yourself” or insufficient religious faith. Others tell you the endeavor is not “manly.” A few give it a time limit and cut off the process too soon.

What else might block this dark passage to recovery?

The short answer? It sometimes takes longer to recover from the end of relationships with the living than those who are dead. Their continuing life holds out the possibility of a long shot, perfected resumption: a second chance at the prize.

As terrible as it is to survive the demise of one you love, the psychological remedy is relatively direct. Death means losing not only the departed, but the disappearance of whatever future you desired. Was there an apology you never got, but awaited forever? Would he have said, “I love you,” the words you never heard? “I’m proud of you” perhaps? Were there plans in the offing for a continuation of your bond with a being like no other?

All hopes are shattered by Death, a bigger than Life opponent with an undefeated record. Grieving becomes the only way to reconcile yourself to what you missed.

But what about a person who yet lives, but not within the relationship you desire?

Let’s say you reside with your parents or an unloving spouse, are financially dependent, and the object of unrelenting emotional neglect or abuse. Your dependency evokes grudging gratitude, but also fear of losing financial support.

Were you to open the full extent of your heartbreak and anger, it might be more difficult to contend with the ones who continue to heap misery on you. The wall built to endure mistreatment could crumble. A darker depression and rage against them or yourself will not now improve your life. Postponement of this therapeutic exploration (beyond awareness that you need to get out) is often the wisest course until your living circumstances are favorable.

A faith community that believes in instant “forgiveness” (or reflexive honor to parents and spouse) is also challenging. If you lack congregational support for the therapeutic process, you are likely to experience the very kind of invalidation, guilt, and misunderstanding you want to escape. Beware, too, an internal and external pressure to “be good,” win the approval of your coreligionists and friends, and don a smiling mask disguising private unhappiness.

Parental death, at whatever age, supplies notice of one’s permanent eviction from childhood. We receive automatic sympathy upon its publication. Widows and widowers are honored in the same fashion.

Not so for the ones who cannot have the other they prefer. No plot of land called a cemetery — respected and visited — is dedicated to their loss; nor the black attire or armband officially signaling their grief.

The graveyard of ended love affairs exists only in the mind of the bereft. Visiting hours are listed in the imagination as “anytime,” the garments of mourning observed from the inside alone.

Many face this grief in the world of divorce and shared child-rearing responsibilities. Continuing friction between the adults can endanger the well-being of the child. Treatment must honor the heartbroken parent, and enable a tightrope walk over a cesspool of emotional turbulence that might swallow you as well as your offspring.

Another roadblock to ending a living grief resides in a simple word called hope. Who can say when it is time to give up hope? How do you know when hope is misplaced? Who among us is certain when a fantasized future is the equivalent of a sunk cost: in effect, throwing good money after bad because you have already invested so much in another human being?

Exit from love’s casino is always a gamble. Memory and desire insist, “‘Tis not too late. …” When friends suggest you move on, however, they are not always wrong.

I recall a young lady in her early teens. Her father’s death years before did not unmake the “relationship’s” continuation. The worshipful veneration at the shrine she erected permitted an idealization that made the stepfather pale in comparison.

The latter was a fine man who wanted to give the teen all possible affection and guidance, but could not leap the barrier with which my patient surrounded herself. Only when she recognized the cost of her preoccupation with the biological father, did she embrace the decent man holding on to his own version of hope.

Loss of love, whatever the cause or consideration it receives, is not well-captured by the clichéd word heartbreak. Rather, the heart cracks, seeps, bleeds; it shudders, submerges, or bursts. The tissue tears and weeps. For most of us, the blessed thing will force itself to repair, reform, and — yes — take heart and try again. The heart, remember, is a muscle.

Patients always need to clean their wounds and suffer the sting such cleansing brings, even if touching them requires delicacy on the counselor’s part. The demands of work, child-rearing, housekeeping, and the daily indignities of life must also be respected for the therapeutic obstacles they can be. These complications function like the huge linemen in American-style football, blocking your progress toward the place you need to go.

Like therapy, American football is played 60-minutes at a time.

The best players find a way to get around and over those giant opponents; not as fast as one would like, of course, and not without bruising. Those who “break through” to victory are talented and relentless.

Courage takes more than a physical form, you know.

I saw it displayed in my office, in the therapeutic integrity of people just a few feet away.

They have long since left that place, but my awe and pride in them have not departed.

———————-

The first image is called, Knock Apparition Cloud by Froshea. The next one is entitled, Sad Woman. Jiri Hodan is the creator. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom photograph is Georgia O’Keeffe, Abiquiu, N.M., 1984 by Bruce Weber.

The Voice of a Therapist: An Interview with Dr. Gerald Stein

When you get old enough, survival becomes a kind of distinction. I was therefore not surprised when my interview by Masters in Counseling was called, Career Longevity in Psychotherapy with Dr. Gerald Stein. For those who would like to know how I sound, here is a chance to find out what this 70-plus-personage knows about that and several other topics; from — pardon me — the horse’s mouth.

If you listen, you will hear my kind interviewer Megan Hawksworth, herself a therapist, tell you why she claims I’m worth attention. My response to her request for “words of wisdom” was, “I have lots of words, but I’m not sure how many of them are wise.” Later however — my brain stirring — I asked myself, “How have I come to know whatever it is I know (or think I know) beyond what I learned in school?”

Well, maybe the most important way was being open to new ideas. A conversation shouldn’t always be about defending yourself or trying to win, but listening and evaluating what the other says. Not to apologize, not to defer, but to enter regions beyond one’s imagination and experience; to be enlarged by such gifted souls as still walk the earth. I can say I prefer the company of people who possess ideas I’ve not considered to those who think as I do or live as I do.

Getting “banged-up” also contributed to my enlightenment. Not just physical dings, and dents, and divots; surgeries and sedation and stitches.

I’ve strived and failed. I’ve tried and triumphed. Once I won a battle and lost some friends who opposed me. I’ve been cheated of lots of money. I gave away plenty, too. I helped a philanthropy I started with friends raise funds. My heart has been broken by a few lovely women and I’ve broken a few hearts.

What might be worse? Breaking your love’s heart and your own simultaneously. It happens.

Are those words of wisdom? If you think so, here are 10 more:

  • Over time I learned to give sentiments a prominent place beside clarity of thought: laughter and tears, both, but love above all.
  • Disappointment and loss are the forge of character, but only if you pass beneath and beyond the blacksmith’s hammer without losing your faith in the promise of life.
  • There are things I cannot possibly convey to you unless you’ve lived some version of the same event. Only music might come close to communicating them.
  • Much as I am a hard guy sometimes, kindness is essential and in shorter supply than macho competition; and therefore, more precious.
  • I know I will never know everything, though I try.
  • Life moves too fast to keep up with all that is important. How do we know what is important? Pay attention, at least, to the words of William Bruce Cameron:

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

  • While the probable is most likely to occur, many improbable things will happen in any life. Be grateful for the ones that give you joy. And perhaps, if you realize your luck could have been otherwise, disperse your good fortune to others by paying it forward.
  • Whatever wisdom I own today applies more to the present version of myself than the 30 or 50-year-old models. I did not know then all I am relating to you now.
  • Smile at the checkout clerks and call them by name.
  • No one can “have it all.” If anyone ever accomplished this miracle, we never met. Life is rich without “everything.”

Enough. If you listen to the interview you will hear the voice my patients heard; hear me tell a joke, a story, and have a good time. I am indebted to Megan and Scott Hawksworth for giving me the chance. I think you’ll be able to tell that, too.

Do remember, you won’t be listening to an immortal personage. I subscribe to Woody Allen’s words on the subject: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”

Here again is the link: Career Longevity in Psychotherapy with Dr. Gerald Stein.

The photo just above is the author during his days as a cowboy. Unfortunately, it does not include the horse’s mouth mentioned in the first paragraph.

The Ups and Downs of Living in the Past

The conventional wisdom about “living in the past” tells us the place is a toxic sinkhole to be visited sparingly, if ever.

I’d say this is often true, but not always. In my last post I described the value of “living in the present moment.”

Not today. Let’s look back. Start with the upside of spending time in

THE PAST

THE THERAPEUTIC USE OF THE PAST:

Psychodynamic psychotherapy allows us to observe repetitive patterns of our historical behavior, the better to recognize areas we need to change. History is grist for the treatment mill. The close examination of our life course permits the discovery of unresolved relationships and misfortunes. Historian George Santayana advised us all to keep hold of our bygone experience:

When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

My friend Henry Fogel put the same message a different way: “I like to make new mistakes.” In other words, don’t replicate the old ones.

When we recall prior examples of resilience under the duress of a painful present, we can also boost our confidence. Knowing we came through earlier challenges reminds us of what enabled our survival and recovery. Those capacities are likely still within us.

POSITIVE REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST: 

The past can be a sweet reminder of loving relatives and friends, triumphant moments, hurdles surmounted, and what has been good about life. In those who are middle-aged and beyond, remembering the youthful beauty of your sweetheart can spark continuing attachment, even though you and your love no longer resemble springtime flowers. In the elderly or the infirm, positive memories sustain one in the present, especially when a limit exists now on what might be experienced and accomplished. Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX ends this way:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

THE NEED FOR A COHERENT STORY: 

Most people value their own story to make sense of the life they are currently living. It binds them to those with whom they have marched together through time. It tells them what they valued and what remains of importance. No wonder amnesia sufferers are so distressed. Their self-definition has been lost along with their story.

One cannot doubt, however, that the past can resemble the sinkhole mentioned earlier, if used to foreclose present opportunities. What is the downside of living too much in the long ago?

VICTIMHOOD IN SERVICE OF THE EGO:

A focus on the past allows some people to claim a status they would be unable to achieve in the present. I treated a woman of about 40, disfavored by nature and fate. Testing revealed her intellectual limits. She was neither physically attractive nor graceful. Worse still, her early life had been one of abuse, neglect, and rejection. Life’s unfairness to her historical-self was what she focused on, to the point of telling new acquaintances of her bad luck soon after meeting them. They fled, thus further confirming her sense of unique disadvantage.

One day I questioned her about the extremity of her beliefs. After once again acknowledging how fortune’s wheel had been unkind, I asked if she thought perhaps there were also others who met similar tragedy. “No.” What about in the history of the world? “No.” Not even Jesus or victims of genocide or torture? “No.”

In coming to grips with this, I wondered what advantage she found in the belief she was the most unfortunate person ever. I concluded this attitude allowed her to claim a distinction she could not otherwise attain. In effect, she prided herself on her disadvantage. Such a manner of living caused her to continue pleading her case with every new acquaintance, always failing to obtain the friendship and validation she wanted. In her own way, she gave it to herself in the ever-present litany of woe she called up daily. Her ego was thus bolstered.

AVOIDANCE:

Yesterday may appear safer than today or tomorrow. Whatever happened at a distance tends to be less acute. The past will not change and holds no surprises. Even if it is a dark place, no new demons arise. You know the territory. Indeed, one becomes quasi-friends with those demons. Stay put, some people think. They rationalize their stasis as a wise avoidance of fresh pain and heartbreak, humiliation and failure.

Psychotherapy helps a willing client recognize the cost of such an escape into yesterday, thus encouraging a return to human contact in spite of the risk we always face in our effort to live full lives and attain happiness.

POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS:

This condition is not a voluntary choice. One who has witnessed a murder or shocking death, or been threatened with the same, can be triggered by reminders of the event into a visceral return to tragedy, sometimes unable to tell past from present. They then re-experience the awfulness and are re-traumatized.

The worst example known to me of such repeated reliving – due to brain damage and not PTSD – was an elderly women about whom I heard the following. Her memory was so compromised that each morning she awoke believing her long-deceased husband was alive, and proceeded to search for him in desperation. The nursing home staff then had to inform her of his death. Thereby she was newly stricken every day. To the good, actual PTSD can be treated, as this woman’s condition could not.

TREATMENT STUCK IN THE PAST: 

Significant focus on the past is a necessary part of many psychotherapies. Still-tender wounds and long-nursed grudges must be grieved. How much your history remains a central topic is up to you and your therapist. At some point life has to be lived, because we cannot repurchase our yesterdays. Cognitive behavioral therapies try not to delay such a reentry into life. Remember, there is always more self-examination possible, in or out of therapy. Even Socrates – the man who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” also lived his life.

As Kierkegaard wrote, “Life is understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” No one ever understands everything about himself, past or present, including this writer.

Understanding is but one part of human existence. The driver’s seat in the vehicle of life faces forward, just behind the windshield and steering wheel. Rearview mirrors are less prominent. The rules of the road tell us to consult the latter only on occasion.

The second image is Brassai’s 1936 photo, Les Escaliers de Montmartre. The following photo was captured by  Alfred Stieglitz in 1894. It is called Venetian Canal and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.