Understanding Your Parents

We can blame, accuse, or praise our parents. These acts come to many of us with ease. A more complicated task is to understand them.

An old friend told the following story. His mother was waiting for a baby sitter when he was little. Like all tots, he was attached and needed the security of mom’s nearness.

Having nothing better to do, she decided to hide behind a sofa. No warning was given to her son, no announcement she’d be playing a game of hide-and-seek.

When he called out, she didn’t answer. He ran around the apartment looking. The boy’s search turned into a frenzy. Soon came his screaming breakdown into tears.

Mom jumped out laughing. As my buddy asked me many years later, “What was she thinking?”

Here are some suggestions to help you understand your own parents: what they do, what they don’t, what they think, and how their particular brand of humanity came about:

  • Talk to your grandparents if you still can. Try to find out how they raised their children. Ask them to remember what their small ones were like before and after school arrived in their lives. Observe how these elders connect with their offspring today.
  • Look at old family photos. Ask your folks about them. Who are the unrecognized friends and relatives? What became of the relationships with them?
  • Are the people in the photos happy? If you are captured there by the camera, what was your mood? Was the youthful version of those who parented you remarkably more attractive before time’s transformation? What effect might the change have had?
  • Uncles and aunts are sometimes essential sources of illumination.
  • If you have children of your own, watch how mom and dad interact with them. People do alter, but not everyone does. Their behavior is the closest visible example now available of how they brought you up.
  • One by one, do life history interviews if your father or mother cooperates. Some oldsters will be flattered; others will say no. The reason for their choice might be enlightening.
  • Learn the background of their early years: the places, neighborhoods, and economic circumstances that impacted them. Did they change residences and schools often? With what consequences?
  • Find out about significant life events, the downs and ups of love, vocation, and health. How did they respond?
  • Ask about religion, including movement toward or away from the faith. Do they expect you to “believe” as they do? What values do they hold?
  • How do your caregivers talk about their progenitors? Look at their faces for evidence of emotion. Listen to phone calls between them and your grandparents.

  • Attitudes toward money, status, and material things are useful to know.
  • Friends of the family can supply relevant information if they offer you a factual account. Do your parents maintain long-lasting friendships? Why or why not? When buddies depart or are banished, who gets blamed? Do they make new friends?
  • Research the educational and employment time-line of mom and dad. Did they achieve what they hoped for? How do they explain their success or failure? Do they live to work or work to live?
  • If your folks hold racial, ethnic, or religious biases, attempt to uncover the origin of such beliefs. How do you explain their embrace of diversity or its absence?
  • Do you remind either one of somebody from their past? Were feelings toward those individuals transferred to you because of your likeness? Transference grows not only in a therapist’s office.
  • How do your begetters get along with each other? Who is in charge? Does one criticize the other in your presence or privately express spousal grievances to you? Did you ever occupy the role of a confidant or consoler? Was the keeping of secrets required? Was your well-being considered when they overshared?

  • Do mother and father accept responsibility for their actions? How affectionate are they, how distant?
  • Might they play favorites among their children? Are the ones who gave you life reliable and honest? Do they display preferences among their grandkids? Why?
  • How do these guardians deal with their physical issues, as well as illnesses or injuries you have?
  • In what ways are you like those who cared for you? Don’t say there are no similarities, there always are.

Consider this a start. The understanding of another (not to mention yourself), comes from thinking like a therapist. I’ve offered you questions as a launching pad for your inquiry.

Your understanding will change as life proceeds. Until you reach the stage another person passed through, you lack the knowledge such passage provides.

Attaining a complete grasp of the nature of any life is never achieved in full. In the meantime, remember to live not just a good life, but one enriched by experiences. The clock on your time here is always in motion.

—–

The above images in order: 1. Willem de Kooning, Untitled XI, 1975. 2. Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman, Summer 1909. 3. Paul Klee, Blossoming. Jackson Pollock, one of his untitled, numbered paintings.

The Risk of Emotional Openness: Of Therapists and Their Pedestals

Most of us in the West assume a stance of “openness” to a degree my parents and immigrant grandparents thought shameful and dangerous. Yet our casual ease in talking about “the personal” still has limits: lines not to be crossed.

On the dark side of that border, one finds all of us who are not “known.By this, I refer to the hidden aspects of who and what we are. In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky wrote about the parts of ourselves kept below the earth:

In every man’s memories there are such things as he will reveal not to everyone, but perhaps only to friends. There are also such as he will reveal not even to friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. Then, finally, there are such as a man is afraid to reveal even to himself, and every decent man will have accumulated quite a few things of this sort.

I had a taste of my mother’s notion of the proper place of privacy in repeated statements like, “What would the neighbors think?Her family’s advice for what was and wasn’t discussed came from a generation whose education was Eastern European and specifically Jewish.

Amos Oz, the late Israeli novelist, born in 1939, offered this commentary on those who fled Europe for Palestine before the genocidal erasure of their families and friends by the Nazis:

They had no difficulty at all in expressing communal feelings — they were emotional people and they knew how to talk. (But) the moment they tried to give voice to a private feeling, what came out was something tense, dry, even frightened, the result of generation upon generation of repression and negation ... They could never be certain that they would not utter something ridiculous, and ridicule was something they lived in fear of. They were scared to death of it.

Here, perhaps, is a partial answer to why so many of our friendships and romances fail. We want to experience the freedom and comfort of another’s knowing approval, but hesitate to leave more than a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the secrets Doestoevsky mentions.

No signpost to our camouflaged essence directs the curious to know what we want to be known, but dread will be known. The ridicule that terrified Oz’s parents is thus avoided.

Obstructions to external acceptance of our innermost selves are still more numerous. Unlike those mentioned, these come from the deficits in the ones whose respect we crave.

Few potential friends and lovers know how to enter our protected internal spaces or realize they misunderstand us without so doing. Much work is involved in achieving a depth of awareness of another person, time thinking about more than how to win someone’s friendship, or get naked with them.

Our observers see only the surfaces we present. I’m speaking of qualities like our appearance, intellect, or quick wit. We blind people with our externals, intended or not. What is obvious is like the topsoil of a garden, suggesting little of what lies underneath.

Beneath the stereotype applied to their veneers, the beautiful and smart, the handsome and wealthy, are always harder for an observer to see as they wish to be seen.

As amateur analysts of the human condition, we imagine most compatible acquaintances offer no challenges to comprehension. They are thought to be like us in nature, philosophy, and motivation, with perhaps a few variations due to age, gender, race, nationality, and religion.

Not always.

Whatever uniqueness exists in their clandestine attitudes and behaviors often defies stereotypes. The more unique they are, the less likely they will fit our usual classification system.

One group is skillful in lifting the veils of those who might dance away from in-depth exposure of who they are: therapists. With enough talent and experience, they uncover much of the shrouded but exceptional humanity missed by so many.

This quiet recognition astonishes the ones who are now, perhaps for the first time, recognized. The power of the event and the wizardry often attributed to the counselor confers a significant part of the appreciation and, sometimes, the love directed toward him.

The healer’s discovery confers on him a weighty obligation, as well. While he treats many patients and might feel great affection for them, he does not (if playing by the rules) share the same extent of meaningful attachment to them that he receives from them.

Whenever any of us recognizes the inner-truth of an unknown, defended soul, we are placed on a metaphorical pedestal. How do we manage the esteemed position conferred upon us because of our x-ray vision into his heart?

How much care and carefulness, how much gentleness, ought to be given to someone who believes we (and only we) hold the secrets of his universe? 

Regardless of whether one is a therapist or not, we now receive a responsibility we did not seek, ownership of a particular station in the life of the one stripped of his mask. Therapists, close friends, parents, or lovers — almost all of us sometimes take on the weight of this — or walk away in disregard.

No simple directions exist for managing the unsought for status. Comments on therapy blogs make clear that the best mental health experts can leave an indelible imprint. The memory of them may long occupy a living space in the minds and hearts of former clients, not quite a first kiss but still on a high shelf of importance.

In such cases, counselors are inclined to believe they have done their job. While they opened the patient to possibilities, that openness comes with the sometimes painful knowledge that much of their future will be lived without visits to the individual who did the unmasking.

Helping professionals think the toll is worth the reward, but only the client can say this with certainty.

I’m convinced not all do.

We live in a world of love and loneliness. Most of us have experienced both. The impact of being known is extraordinary enough to change the life of the one so revealed and accepted — accepted despite revelation of the dark treasure within their confidential, invisible fortress.

Not everyone you meet risks traveling to this place. Not everyone locates somebody who might hold the key to their closeted existence. No wonder Vincent van Gogh wrote the following in a letter to his brother Theo:

Many a man has a bonfire in his heart and nobody comes to warm himself at it. The passers-by notice only a little smoke from the chimney and go their way ...

The stakes are considerable for the unseen. Their smoke signals disappear in a moment unless repeated. Even then, not all follow the vapor and welcome what they find there.

What else can the undiscovered one do? Will he speak the words and uncover his feelings before a stranger?

The risks echo. Is the hazardous path to “becoming known” a wise adventure or a dangerous one?

Perhaps both.

—–

All of the images above are the work of Mark Rothko. In order, Untitled, 1968; Untitled, (Light Over Grey), 1956; Untitled, (Light Cloud, Dark Cloud, 1957); No. 12, 1960; and No. 17 (Greens and Blue on Blue) 1957. I encourage you to take more than a few seconds to look at any one of these and discover what is beneath the surface impression, a visual analogue to the subject of this essay.

Can the Honeymoon be Saved? The Ultimate Relationship Challenge

If someone tells you what love is, do not believe him.

Thus having given you good reason to ignore me, I shall pretend you’re still reading and provide a possible answer.

First, I’m writing about being “in love” and “swept away,” not a sedate, loving, and less ecstatic attachment. More the honeymoon than the place down the road where engines slow and the fire truck in charge of routine overtakes the couple and douses the flames. Here the dead hand of habit makes an unwelcome appearance.

Before I get to how to forestall that undesirable event, let me speak more about it.

Madness describes the state of new love — “the full crazy.”

Some call it obsession. The idea of the other floods your being with face, form, touch, scent, voice, intelligence, and laughter. Sex, too.

Love makes the world new: everything sparkles. Perception is enhanced, like the change from black & white to colorized, 3-D.

One day ago, you were a sleepwalking, beclouded person. With the sunrise of a new romance, each day is broken open the way a child attacks the gift wrapping on his Christmas presents. You come alive to what it means to be alive.

Love is foolishness and wisdom, silliness and joy, slavery and escape. The bewitched circumstance is so perfect that we make the arrangement a 24-hour cohabitation and risk killing it. “More” is not necessarily better. In a world where we adapt, adjust, do the laundry, and pay the bills, the mundane moves in and makes it a threesome.

Love is falling, but believing you won’t hit the ground. Reason plays little part. Friends question your judgment and warn you. Even astute ten-year-olds witness your rolling eyes. They fear for your safety. Unsolicited words of advice make abstract sense but appeal to a brain taking a smoking break.

This state of euphoria is heedless of tomorrow. One cannot imagine the emotion fading, the beloved aging, troublesome relatives, and quarrels over money. Intensity and gratitude are all.

Whenever amour is the real-deal, you are changed, enlarged. The personal, permanent passport of your existence gets stamped with the name of another, a human possessing an addictive flavor.

Thought alters. You conceive anew what is possible in life because you experienced a sliver of the impossible.

Love, when authentic, inflates your humanity, the capacity to give to another, and the knowledge that the world possesses mountain tops of rapture and well-being. No wonder an abrupt end to this journey rips your insides out.

This glorious condition rarely lasts. Time tends to mold the relationship into a different shape of love. The rip-your-clothes-off, rhapsodic fervor becomes more episodic, a tune you notice less often, assuming it is played at all. Heretofore unseen personality incompatibilities intrude.

The arrival of children enriches a marriage, but also stresses it. For most duos, the grinding of frenzy gives way to the rubbing of friction and familiarity.

Sometimes the marital pair discovers a challenge in their conflicting motivations. People live for love, for the kids, for money and objects, for fame, to live-on in artistic or scientific works, etc. Moving in tandem over a lifetime requires lots of coordination, tolerance of the other, and sacrifice.

Being crazy-in-love doesn’t demand much except a shower and a fresh set of clothes. A life together does.

Much writing offers guidance on perpetuating the enchantment. The list of suggestions includes effort, imagination, surprise gifts, date nights, sexual experimentation, playfulness, and remembering why you fell in love. Kindness, apology, and respect are essential, as is an absence of condescension. The therapist, Esther Perel, believes infidelity with the consent of the mate can also enhance the marriage, though I have doubts.

For the candle of courtship to remain lit, both parties must grow and transform. They otherwise offer nothing new to their partner. Boredom out of the bedroom is a killer of passion within it. While renewed love is not so effortless as the new kind, recapturing a time when you were an explorer to an undiscovered country is worth another safari.

Sensitive conversation is required. Some people listen only to fashion a reply. Instead, the husband and wife must hear to understand.

The wise pair benefits from balancing time together and apart, hours without the spouse, and solo interests as well as activities they share.

If the lovers do not bring fresh ideas into their interactions, nearness becomes a dreadful repetition. Each might take comfort knowing every thought before their companion thinks it, but dullness makes an extramarital affair appear enlivening.

I know a magician, a specialist in racing with the moon when not nursing the rabbit in his hat, who conjured a way to keep marital bliss rolling forever. The plan requires the sweethearts to live in different cities and meet every few weeks, traveling back and forth, sometimes to places beyond their homes.

Habit wouldn’t play any part, but a vacation atmosphere of excitement and adventure would. No children were offered a role in the trickster’s equation. He recommended regular phone calls, however. The wizard guaranteed a “Saturday Night Date” aura to every encounter, no matter the place and time.

Of course, few have the resources or vocation to permit this. Moreover, the urge to join together — the want for “more” — still presents an ever-present risk.

Relationships change like everything else in the world. Youthful newlyweds are endowed with a spark but don’t yet possess the history awarded by age alone. Nor do many of us realize the one-we-can’t-get enough-of lacks the magic to make us whole. That heroic task is a never-finished solo assignment.

The clock takes away but also gives. If grating and the sense of imprisonment in a two-person chain-gang are what remains of the dyad’s past ardor, these souls missed a great opportunity.

Yes, long romance always finds its way to conflict. But shared challenges, mutual support, tragedy endured, joyous memories, acceptance of shortcomings, pride and love for offspring, aligned values, and countless moments of tenderness compensate for the diminished presence of the enkindling thing that brought their hearts together.

The lucky older couple has encountered the absurdity of life as a team, sometimes in laughter, sometimes in tears. In the best of cases, their love is now different, in part because of what they lost, in part because they have transcended the honeymoon.

=====

The images above in the following order: The Family by Gustav Klimt, Upward by Paul Klee, White Line by Kandinsky, the Red Balloon by Paul Klee, and Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne (aka In Fronto of a Door) by Modigliani.

 

When Beauty Interferes with Your Life

A therapist learns more about private lives than almost any other professional. Such knowledge informs him of the double-edged nature of many glorious qualities.

Take beauty.

Take beautiful women.

The upside of their charm is well-known: admiring glances, an expansive range of potential suitors, the possibility of marrying into a superior status. People who will do more for you, show you great kindness, pick up what you’ve dropped, and make exceptions for your failings because you dazzle them with bright eyes, a smile, and the symmetrical proportions of your face.

The genetic wheel of fortune blesses some of us, sideswipes others. One does nothing to earn this. Gifts of intellect, athletic talent, and disposition are subject to random distribution, but none more nakedly evident than how you look.

What of the downside of this accident of birth? As the Greek myth of Prometheus relates, we must be wary of a gift received from the gods. Here are a few observations about those complicated presents. One cautionary note: these remarks do not fit every one of those who make men look twice:

A number of the gorgeous ones become accustomed to the unearned advantages bestowed upon them. Some believe they needn’t develop other facets of themselves: education, tenderness, social intelligence, or financial independence, etc. Life demands less, so they give less.

An additional factor contributes to their confidence in a seemingly permanent entitlement. Few can grasp the reality of future unwanted changes to their physicality.

All of us believe advanced age is our destiny, but the idea is an abstraction. The magic mirror, like the one possessed by Snow White’s evil stepmother, reflects an everlasting prime. Time stretches when a rose is in bloom. Its alteration is imperceptible. A different life is unimaginable.

Perhaps we survive as a species because aging long remains at a distance, beyond the horizon, an affliction without application to ourselves.

An enchantress wonders about something else, at least early on: why does he love me? Everyone thinks about the reasons for another’s affection, but a beautiful woman confronts the plausibility her pulchritude alone is paramount.

Along with the power conferred by her sexuality, she regrets that her lover values her without knowing her. Perhaps she is an objectified prize to be displayed beside his most conspicuous trophies; as a testament to his worth and his victories in a chest-pounding macho competition.

The totality of the female as a unique, self-created, moral, emotional, perceiving entity might be obscured by the man’s singular focus on her arresting face and form. The woman’s periodic dismay at the irony of being “unseen the more she is seen” betrays the existence of an invisible depth.

The fetching lady is like a bejeweled well, so breathtaking and artistically constructed on the outside no one thinks to examine what is inside.

I met movie-star-beautiful women whose personalities, wit, imagination, generous humanity, and brains were more impressive and magical than anything else about them. And yet the floodlight of their externals blinded far too many who were already blind to the possibility something more was more important.

If a damsel’s charms are also long-lasting, females share the tendency to discount her strengths.

I recall treating a gynecologist whose appearance suggested early-20s though she was 45. Upon acquaintance, patients did not believe she was a doctor.

Once persuaded, a minority continued to question whether her medical experience justified trusting her. The physician’s presence confronted them with the contradiction between what she was and what she appeared to be.

To the extent one retains youthfulness and allure, an evergreen body postpones the portion of maturational instruction a fading flesh provides. How one adjusts to its transformation and the changing reactions of others to its metamorphosis influences everything else.

Aches and pains aren’t fun, but they are informative. Prolonged youthful skin plays the trick of extending the period in which you can act as you did in your chronological springtime.


Any of us might wish for this blessing, but wisdom is acquired not only by exposure to events and the passage of time. Sages achieve enlightenment, in part, by adjusting to alterations in the package containing their soul.

A significant number of good-looking members of the fair sex find relationships with their same gender comrades challenging. Rivalry for the male gaze creates unease among possible friends. Would-be chums and colleagues hesitate to stand in the shadow of an apparition more magnificent than the hanging gardens of Babylon.

If these captivating creatures get divorced, married women guard the home turf against the temptation they represent. Dinner and party plans leave the insecure wondering if they would do better not to invite a Trojan horse into their walled dwelling place.

The signs of seniority and declining loveliness inevitably arrive, even when late to the game. The loss of a man’s instinctively turning head is still a loss, however long the delay. Grief is enlarged when self-concept is too dependent upon the vanishing thing.

Comparisons can’t be escaped. For one who caught every eye, she not only measures her effect on neighbors and friends but judges her current self against what she was.

If you are beautiful, you are aware of the downs and ups of nature’s largesse. A sense of well-being is enabled by gratitude for whatever one has. Those women who hang on to their appreciation of the whole of themselves will handle both their sexual objectification and its departure as well as possible.

When considering the beautiful, do remember that the higher they climb on the list of bathing beauty winners, the farther they must fall into the water.

While no one escapes gravity, some qualities defy it. Shoot for the stars with whatever excellences best define you today.

—–

All of the images above are sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago. The first is Three Beauties of Yoshiwara (1793) by Utamoro. Next comes Madam Pampadour (1915) by Modigliani, followed by Dorothea and Francesca (1898) by Cecilia Beaux. Finally, Two Sisters (On the Terrace) (1881) by Renoir, Bust of an African Woman (1851) by Charles Henri Joseph Cordier, and Celestial Beauty from 8th century India.

Are Therapists Ever Really Irreplaceable?

Counselors offer conventional wisdom to solitary, long term patients who are attached to them:You have grown, and that growth will enable you to meet new and satisfying people. I’m merely the first person who understands and affirms you. I won’t be the last.

I shared this with those whose attachment to me was substantial. Some doubted my words. Now, at a distance created by retirement, I’m less sure which of us was right.

For those who said I was wrong, I’m more than a little late in offering an affirming message in response to their concern. The belated acknowledgment is double-edged good news. The confirmation of your fear means you never found another person in your life who understood you enough, saw you clearly, and deemed you worthwhile.

Am I giving myself credit for insightful, redemptive compassion no one else duplicated? It is not as if I didn’t work hard to understand. It is not as if I didn’t recognize qualities that had gone long unseen and unappreciated. Many healers do this, however. I was not unique.

But, I was singular in several lives because I was their psychologist.

Clinician and patient encounter each other at a challenging juncture. The latter’s life is like a coin tossed above the crowd. Will it land heads or tails? If the therapist is a figurative fair wind, he tips the spinning silver for the better in an unrepeatable moment.

To the extent such an instant is a decisive one, perhaps the client will never meet another like him in a similar, poignant, and needful time. Whenever life is fraught after the treatment concludes, he might look back on past psychotherapy as an oasis worthy of an expensive return ticket.

Alternative paths exist. Not every person who enters counseling becomes so attached to the purported wise man sitting opposite him. Even among those who did bond before its conclusion, multiple people perhaps now provide more fulfillment than a therapist. Those relationships extend to meals together, bus rides, weekend evening plans, and physical intimacy. None of these occur in the patient/doctor range of interaction.

Nonetheless, the doc can be a hard act to follow for several reasons.

For a significant number, the healer made an indelible impact, perhaps an imprint. Remember what you learned about imprinting? Some birds and mammals will attach to another creature, not even of their species, who arrives during a critical, brief period: a moment fertile for bonding.

The right counselor at the right time with the right kind of intervention might be a bit like this.

Most patients — if they continue to work on themselves — will encounter new people who evoke as many positive emotions as the old psychotherapist. Still, these relationships are about both people, not so much about the client alone.

Trust develops in different ways inside and outside the clinic. Within the office, it is carefully orchestrated and permitted to be gradual. The room holds the possibility of becoming almost holy because faith (in another mortal, not a deity) enshrines the place.

In contrast, routine contact in the real world provides riskier opportunities to achieve confidence in another. The restaurant, workplace, and movie theater do not resemble sanctuaries. The ethical guardrails of the cloistered healing space are absent.

An impatient civilization puts down hurdles to closeness not everyone can overcome. Moreover, even best friends and mates do not hear all of the secrets some clients hide in the shadows.

Therapists do and, because they do, they double as confessors. They listen to the sins and inadequacies the client believes about himself. By bearing witness and accepting the reported frailties and flaws, the counselor frees him from the weight of the insecurity and doubt he carries.

Regardless of the wonders of a new friend or love, those companions cannot always be so focused on you as a person who gives professional guidance. This is true despite a weekly, clock-governed hour or two of purchased attention.

Indeed, the hour’s brevity and artificiality assists in creating the uniqueness and makes such focus possible. Where else in our busy, routinized adult experience does anyone get this?

There is a potential erotic quality present in the consulting room too, adding another level importance. Secrets are involved. Providers make appointments in advance, like a date.

The eager sufferer thinks ahead to these future engagements, considers what he wants to say, hopes to feel something soothing and enlivening.

Other competitors for the healer’s time exist (families, friends, spouses) as do additional “suitors” (other patients), and the troubled one worries about termination (aka getting dumped) just as we do in romance.

Experiences in the consulting room, as confined as they are by professional borders, remind us of impassioned events in our history. Perhaps the reminders come because we find ourselves talking about such past times and resurrecting dormant feelings. The memory of exposing one’s inner life to a psychologist lingers for many of those who allow this lowering of their defenses.

The ghost of the therapist might reside in the remembering mind as does a first love. Youthful friends, too, occupy a place in the heart to the end of many lifetimes. You passed with them through the same moment in history in the same place, experiencing like challenges and the same people in your shared world.

Wartime buddies, as well, understand things no one else fathoms. Nor should we forget the long-married, aged couples who are so molded to the other that they pass away close in time.

The sharing of something important, formative or reformative, is present in all these intimate contacts.

Intensity is a determinant in what can seem irreplaceable in such connections, whether with parents, childhood and adolescent friends, lovers, wartime comrades, and counselors. Similar ties are elusive.

I do not wish to understate the chance you will meet people who “get you” after you depart psychotherapy. Still, I now believe the possibility you may not is higher than I did before.

Each of us, no matter the losses we have had, must search to find new people who can become precious to us. Risks are required. The tightrope of homo sapien interaction offers no safety net, but we are a resilient species.

While many candidates for intimacy exist, if the task were comfortable, the patient would have been embraced by numerous such people before entering the mental health clinic.

Happiness is not a constant. Counselors do not erase the demands of living, including the filling of our social sphere. At their best, however, they empower you to identify and enhance the capabilities inside you to surmount them.

Even for those who profited from therapy and still lack fulfilling nearness, that satisfaction may yet occur. Our emotional lives never can be flash frozen. Children and grandchildren grow or move away and make their own families. Friends die or seek work elsewhere. Conflict with those we love is not always avoidable.

The cemetery is full of irreplaceable people who must be replaced.

Aristotle believed a person who did not require human connection was either a god or a beast. Thus, our quest for an essential other is a part of our nature.

You are not alone in your need to take on this challenge.

Many, many are looking.

They may be looking for you.

—–

The paintings reproduced above begin with Man with a Pipe by Joan Miró. It is followed by three works of Edvard Munch: Self-portrait in Bergen, Young Woman on the Beach, and Woman Looking in the Mirror. The final image is The Mask with the Little Flag by Paul Klee.

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.

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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.

Some “Super” and Surprising Advice

Though I am not Ask Amy, Carol Hax, or Dear Abby, today I present advice over 100-years-old. Life-changing notions, many think. Below is memorable guidance on how best to live from a man famous for saying, “I am dynamite!”

While lions and tigers and bears don’t menace us anymore, the writer in question claims we face towering psychological challenges without them. The following aphorisms try to scale those heights.

I’ll reveal our secret advisor, N, before this essay’s end.

Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.

We are, according to the author, desperate to be many things to many people. The masses are hypnotized by beliefs learned long ago, beliefs repeated over and over by our parents, relatives, our community, teachers, and religious leaders.

We want to fit in and “succeed” as defined by our nation and neighbors, and rise to the afterlife. This leads to a “herd mentality,” in the words of the wise man.

Winning a mate is dependent on what others think of us and how well we conform to the popular estimate of desirability. As N observes, we wear masks instead of embracing our own inner truth. Thus, he also wrote:

Become what you are.

Put differently, he refers to a potential transformation of ourselves once we throw off the training wheels and invisible guide wires society uses to constrain us. Having accomplished this emancipation (no one else will do it for us) we can be what we should be. Humans are otherwise automatons tricked into believing they are liberated and enlightened.

Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has drawn your soul aloft, what has mastered it and at the same time blessed it? Set up these revered objects before you and perhaps their nature and their sequence will give you a law, the fundamental law of your own true self.

When those words are followed, N believed they lead us to discover that which is at our core. The real identity within us can be glimpsed if we possess the courage to break the “group think” of the tribe. Few will have the will power to do it. N insisted only a handful of us will identify and reject the restrictions stamped onto and into us from our beginnings.

Finally,

You repay a teacher badly by becoming merely a pupil.

Here, the German philosopher (I’m giving you a hint as to his identity) defines what he means by a student. N tells us we are pupils not only of the instructors we meet in school, but the received “wisdom” of institutions and authorities, including government, religion, philosophers, and books. We must dispense with whatever part of their thinking doesn’t survive critical analysis.

Our task is to leave behind worn-out doctrines and replace them with our own. Indeed, he hopes the beginner will, by dint of his internal strength, courage, and intellect, create a revolution in his thought. The most extraordinary among us, N imagined, become breakers of norms, inventors of a re-engineered vision of the world and our own place outside of the mainstream. The former novice thereby morphs into a superman (Übermensch).

The creator of these ideas was Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), a German philosopher and cultural critic. This groundbreaking thinker had the misfortune not only of an early breakdown but an anti-Semitic sister who misrepresented his work just as it began to gain attention and after he was incapacitated.

While Nietzche rejected the doctrine of Aryan and national German superiority voiced by the reactionary writers of his time, the Nazis caused the further posthumous distortion of claiming him as their philosophical mentor.

His Übermensch was a rare and solitary hero of individualism, not part of any racial white herd who bowed robot-like before a leader, whether religious or governmental. He rejected materialism, capitalism, and outward show. Nietzche’s enlarged man, instead, met life without fear, realizing his personal (not group) potential and finding joy in his short existence, come good fortune or bad.

Shall we develop and live by our own out-of-the-box ideas, rejecting the tribal masses in their lockstep march to a tune other than their own?

Only if we are brave enough, said Nietzsche.

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The first two paintings are by Paul Klee: Senecio (1922) and Magic Mirror (1934). They are sourced from Paul Klee.net/ The final image is Friedrich Nietzche (1906) by Edvard Munch, from Wikiart.org/