So what are your goals?

Redwood Majesty

Redwood Majesty (Photo credit: MizzD)

Goals in therapy are interesting.  On one hand, it can be important and helpful, as in many undertakings, to set some.  Sometimes there are very pressing goals, such as ending episodes of panic that are debilitating, or alleviating some obsessive thinking, or stopping  a series of damaging relationships, or many others.  Goals can help give an intention, a direction; they can be a touchstone for evaluating progress.

But consider another point of view:  If I go to the Redwood forests in California for the first time and somebody says, as we set foot onto the fern-bordered path, “So what do you want to see?”, what is the answer?  Or even better, “What do you want to accomplish?”  What is the answer?

It would seem a pity to say, “I want to see the following seven species of flora, and also two birds, preferably males, that are said to live in this vicinity.” !!

Hopefully we would go into it with an attitude of wanting to see what there is to see; to explore; to experience the Redwoods and their amazing environment.  We can’t know in advance what we want to experience there, because we’ve never experienced it.  To set out with a list would keep us from really being in the Redwoods, like carrying a camera around Paris in order to snap shots of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and ten other famous spots, and then head south.

Opening up in psychotherapy to a point of view of exploring the self can be one of the most exciting parts of the journey. The psyche–that is, the whole of your mental, emotional, spiritual functioning, conscious and unconscious–is like the Redwood forests times a million.  Or rather, it’s like every possible kind of landscape on earth–and beyond.  It contains infinities.  “Know Thyself” is one of the oldest pieces of wisdom in the world.  It takes radical openness.

When we travel, we often feel particularly alive.  Our senses are sensing more.  Our minds are thinking more.  We’re open to new experience, which is invigorating and energizing–so much so that it also gets exhausting.  Can we experience our selves like we experience a new place we visit, something ever anew?


Emotions on deep freeze

Arnold Schwarzenegger for years kept secret from his wife the existence of a child he fathered with a housekeeper.  Many other significant events were kept from her as well, such as heart surgery and even the decision to run for governor of California, which he told her he would do only a few days before the filing deadline in 2003.

He says in his autobiography, Total Recall, that his habit of putting his emotions “on deep freeze” goes back to his days as a bodybuilder, because emotions make athletes lose.

Of course that’s only partly true, since ambition, excitement, anger, and adrenalin are all major emotional factors in sports and can help bring victory.  But Arnold makes the point that in many parts of life, emotions DO get in the way, and in order to keep pushing onward we sometimes have to push feelings aside.

However, as his life also attests, pushing feelings aside can lead to disasters in relationships.  In psychotherapy, sometimes a goal is to take emotions out of deep freeze so disasters won’t happen.  But at other times or for other people, feelings can be overwhelming and can be in the way of important goals.

These are simple but extremely important truths.  In the world of psychotherapy, some say it’s all about feelings and how we must let them in and experience them. Others want to control feelings with thoughts so we can get the messy stuff (often stuff from the past) out of the way and get on with our lives.

Both approaches, and every combination of them, are valuable for different people with different needs at different times.  There is no golden key to psychological health.

one hand clapping

The great Zen koan:  What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Koans can be like a tune you can’t get out of your head.  This one has long stuck in mine, and here is an attempt at understanding it.

When we clap, a sound comes forth, and it takes two hands to make the sound.  So we could think of one hand as a question, the other hand as an answer.  Together they make what in English we could call “a report,” like the sound of a gun, and a perfect word here because the sound “reports” what has just happened, two hands coming together.  But what if there is only one hand moving back and forth, looking for its partner; a question looking for its answer?  There can be no report then, no sound.  There is no answer.  Then the sound of one hand clapping might be the sound of—-questioning, unanswerability, the awareness that there is no answer, open-endedness, openness.  (Enlightenment?)

This is a wonderful theme.  American composer Charles Ives wrote a work called The Unanswered Question.  Leonard Bernstein used the title for his 1973 Norton Lectures.

Here, from a different musician, are the words to David Crosby’s song, Laughing:

I thought I met a man                                                                                           Who said he knew a man                                                                                    Who knew what was going on

I was mistaken
Only another stranger
That I knew

And I thought I had found a light
To guide me through
My night and all this darkness

I was mistaken
Only reflections of a shadow
That I saw

And I thought I’d seen someone
Who seemed at last
To know the truth

I was mistaken
Only a child laughing
In the sun

There is no closure, the singer learns.  Only the beautiful image (no matter how cliched from overuse) of a child jumping in joy in the sun on a spring day.  Total openness.

To feel this kind of openness there is a requirement:  One must feel no need, or one must abandon the need, to protect oneself.  Against what?  Against loss of this very experience.

Why can many kids feel joy so much more easily than most post-early-youth humans?  Because they are ignorant (blissfully) of loss.  Everyone soon enough and to some extent learns the reality and therefore the pain of loss.  Self-proctection is the instinctive response to it, which takes many forms, but perhaps most of all the form of HOLDING BACK in our pleasure in experience.  If we hold back, the logic of emotion says, we don’t have as much to lose.

On this understanding, the koan is a question which, in order to answer, we have to break with our normal way of experiencing life.  It is a different universe that the question comes from, and we have to change our universe in order to converse with it.  What is that universe?  One in which we wouldn’t need the closure of another hand.  One hand is pretty useless for protecting ourselves, besides.

Life in the balance and the I Ching


P yin yang

P yin yang (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The I Ching, the ancient Chinese book known in English as the Book of Changes, is one of the great wonders of the world.

The origin of the I Ching, like many ancient documents of various wisdom traditions, is not crystal-clear.  Texts such as this evolve over time and don’t have a single personality behind them.  Four authors are seen as the main sources:  Fu Xi, a chieftain from perhaps 3000 BCE, and then King Wen of the 1000s BCE and his son, the Duke of Zhou, and finally Confucious (551-479 BCE, overlapping with the birth of Socrates).  So its development took place over very many generations.

The essence of the I Ching is that heaven and earth are a unity, and this means that the processes of continuous changing ARE what all life IS  (hence, the Book of Changes).  To recognize within ourselves the natural processes that are so evident in the world outside ourselves, and vice versa–this is the thrust of what is expounded in the I Ching.  This teaching is of course in many traditions.  A central prayer in the Jewish liturgy, for example, is Oseh shalom bim’romav. . .  May the one who makes peace up above (the ordered movements and cycles of the planets, sun, and moon) also make peace here among US.  As above, so below, as an ancient saying puts it.

But the way the I Ching explicates this truth is its genius.  For one thing, it stays connected to the literalism of natural processes, rather than springing into metaphor.   It doesn’t so much talk about a relationship between the human and the other-than-human; it embodies their intertwinedness.  The concepts and explanations are neither literal nor metaphorical, but both.

To read the I Ching is to enter a world, and this is why it is so important and such a rich resource for the place the world is in right now in history, because it can give us a taste of real “environmental consciousness.”  It can bring us (back) to an experience, a feeling, of more oneness with nature.  When I read the I Ching, I feel what we have lost.  We have lost a state of mind, of being, in which “caring for the environment” requires no effort of consciousness, any more than caring for our child requires an effort of consciousness.  It is simply what’s done; it’s the nature of things.  The feeling is similar to sitting in a beautiful spot that you have reached after a demanding hike, in which it feels like no one has ever stepped there before.

With the I Ching, you can still feel how it grew (organically!) out of preindustrial soil, that is, consciousness.  An “environmentalist” consciousness, that is to say, a consciousness in which a term like “environmentalism” would have been possible, would not have come about because to conceptualize “environment” is already to feel ourselves as separate from IT.  The concept, “water” would not be thought of by the fish because there is no separation for the fish between fish and water. You can still feel a layer of a primordial holism, an Edenic, so to speak, state.

The book is organized in a way that no single point of view on it can suffice as an explanation.  You can look from countless perspectives at the symbols and the concepts and the interpretations that flow from them, and you see patterns and meanings from each vantage point.  In this, it is again like Jewish tradition, in which it is said about the Torah:  Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.  The implied metaphor of a gem, with facets that refract and reflect light in an infinity of flashes, applies to both textual traditions.

To cite the most fundamental and familiar teaching of the I Ching:  the first two symbols (or ideographs, called gua in Chinese) are Heaven and Earth (sound familiar?).  These are the primary, or “pure,” yin and yang.  “The whole I Ching expounds the principle of yin and yang.  Yin and Yang exist in everything.  They are opposite but mutually interdependent; without yin, there would be no yang and vice versa.  Sun and moon, fire and water, brightness and darkness are the most obvious examples of yin and yang,” writes pre-emininent scholar and translator, Alfred Huang.

This simplest of all dualities is also completely abstract, since it is really duality itself.  It is about the most literal dualities–water and fire, say–while also about dualizing, the verb that acts, not just the nouns acted upon, and therefore it is equally about unifying.  Hence the yin-yang symbol:  the perfect picturing of duality within unity, or rather, unityduality, or even better, uniduity.  With our modern knowledge of the living cell, we have perceivable, measurable, scientifically vouched-for evidence, our most favorite thing, of the uniduity of all life:  cell division.

From the reality of twoness comes the reality of balance, or rather, twoness IS balance/imbalance.  And “life in the balance,” is a fitting phrase often used of the environmental crossroads in which we live.  We have battled the environment for a long time.  Technology became a battle:  we went from making tools with which to manipulate our environment for more convenient use (molding clay into a wheel), to wresting, or wrestling, our environment to our will.  And as with any wrestling match, there is a winner and there is a loser, and we have been hell-bent on being the victor.

In contrast to this frame of mind and being, the I Ching could be said to be a book about noncompetitveness–which is not to say it sees no overcoming or being overcome.  It is very much about strength and therefore weakness, but in its vision, receiving within cannot be separated healthily from thrusting forward. There is reason the male and the female are right there with heaven and earth as primary duality (though this is not to say it passes judgment on same-sex union!)  Constant thrusting forward, which is the way of technological humanity, is not a natural process; it is completely out of balance.

There is a tremendous irony about this Chinese masterpiece of spirituality.  The I Ching is an expression of our oneness with all of nature, but right now in history, China’s industrial development poses one of the biggest challenges to the health of nature.  For Chinese cultural life to begin rediscovering the teachings of the I Ching, and for the western world to discover its wisdom, would ground and deepen our relationship to the earth/air/fire/water that sustains us and which we must sustain.

It a pity that many people who know at least of the I Ching’s existence (I am amazed by how many people have never even heard of it) associate it with what they call superstition and therefore dismiss it as silly nonsense.  This is mostly because it is associated with foretelling the future, divination, and therefore with a Magic 8 Ball kind of amusement.   Like all things, it can be read and used insightfully or not.  It is heartening that the I Ching is taken seriously in at least some quarters of academia, as evidenced, eg, by a recent book, The I Ching:  A Biography, by professor of humanities and history Richard J. Smith, published by Princeton University Press.  It is part of Princeton’s Lives of Great Religious Books Series, which appropriately puts the I Ching in a category with the book of Genesis, the Koran, the Passover Haggadah, the Lotus Sutra, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Augustine’s Confessions, and other masterworks of spiritual traditions.

The I Ching is endlessly inspiring and enchanting and the world needs its way of being.

It’s not just a purse


Hermes Birkin Purse. Español: El bolso modelo ...


She got furious that her grandmother thought she might want a purse as a gift.  “How could she think I would want a PURSE?!?!  Of COURSE I don’t want a PURSE!!!  WHY would she THINK that?!!!” 

She is 11 years old and furious that anybody would think she might want a purse.  What is the fury about?  Behind anger is usually hurt.  What are the hurts?  Here are a few:

–I am not seen.  My grandmother, who has been so kind and close, does not seem to know me anymore.  Who does she think I am?  She sees someone I don’t recognize as me.  Is this what we’ve come to?  I am in exile, connection is lost; I have been pushed out of my home; I find myself on the ground outside, thrust down, alone.

–Should I want a purse?  Is this what is expected of me?  Is there something wrong with me that I don’t want a purse?  Do other girls want purses?  What would I do with a purse?  Should I know already?  I am all of balance.  What I thought I knew for sure a moment ago is now all called into question.  I am not the kind of person they think I am.

–Will she approve of me if I don’t want a purse?  Will anybody?  Will I be an outcast?  Am I already?  What’s next?  It all feels dangerous.

These are all versions of the same thing:  ruptured connection, disorientation, isolation.

So strong is our need for connection.

All of me


, , , , , , ,

From childhood on,  in so many settings, we learn:    This is within the limits of OK; that isn’t.

–It’s OK to pee here, not there.

–You can eat here, not there.

–Loud voices are fine here but not there.

–Use better manners here; at other times you can relax.

and so on.

It leaves many people with a hunger for a place in which all of me is OK, is acceptable, is good.  We might be so lucky as to find a relationship as we get older that feels this way.  Falling in love is in large part this feeling:  all of me is OK with this person, is loved.

Does it last?  Before too long, we have changed, the other person has changed.  We realize we were holding back some parts of ourselves without even knowing it.  What felt like all of me being loved and accepted now turns out to be just some of me being loved and accepted–more than before but still not all.  I hadn’t shown and expressed and been all of me.  I didn’t know how to be all of me.  So much had never been accepted; I stopped even realizing that certain parts of me existed.  But in new circumstances of new relationships and a changing life, other parts surfaced, and now I’m scared they won’t be accepted–even by myself.

We feel disillusioned, sad, mad, resentful, crushed.  We may flee, we may stay and withdraw, we may try to understand what has happened and try to forge ahead into new territory where the relationship can be built on a bigger, wider footing that can include more of each person being expressed and OK, accepted.

Some people find in religion a place where all of themselves feels OK and loved.  “God loves you.”    “Jesus loves you.”  This can be experienced as a relationship.

In Chinese Taoist tradition it is said in the Ch’ung-yung, The Tao is that from which nothing deviates.  That from which you can deviate is not the Tao.

How comforting this can be.  There is something, some place, some zone and experience where no part of me can stray outside.  If I’m furious and vengeful and petty, I’m still not outside the Tao.  If I’ am coarse and crude, I am still not outside the Tao.  If I’m even criminal and depraved, I am still not outside the Tao.  If I’m depressed, jealous, hateful, kinky–the Tao is still there, still these.  I’m inside it; it’s still holding me.  Nothing–no part of me–can deviate from it.

This Tao, or God, or Eternal Spirit, or Jesus, or Brahman must be infinite, because I keep changing, and yet nothing is outside it.  So I have a home.

How much am I worth?

The materialism and consumerism of our culture is easy to look down on, despite how much a part of it most of us are.   But seeing materialism as simply superficial is a too superficial view of it.

The desire for material things is a psychological compensation for other deep desires:  Because we can’t “have it all” in our soul-lives, we try to “have it all” in our bodily lives.   Think about a person with an eating disorder.  The desire is not just for food.  Eating the food is an attempt to satisfy other needs.

By “bodily lives” I mean the pleasures of the senses:  the better TV, the more luxurious car, the cashmere sweater, the leather sofa.

By “soul lives” I mean our emotional lives.  For instance, the competition in consuming  (My purse/watch/car is as good or better than yours, ie, as expensive or more so.)  is a need to be perceived as OK, acceptable to a group and to oneself, valuable, worthwhile.  “I’m worth something!  My worth is shown by the worth of my STUFF.  It proves my worth.  Look how much I’m worth.”

There are other soul desires that are compensated for by stuff.  For instance, I want a rewarding, challenging career that I’m passionate about, and I also want to be there for my kids, to go to their games, their plays, their recitals, help them with homework, and I also want to have time with just my spouse and maintain and build that relationship, and I also want to work out several times a week and pursue a few of my own interests and hobbies, and I also want to read and, and , and.

It is so important to understand materialism on a deep level because it is one of the most pressing ethical issues of our time, in that it is the root cause of our environmental crisis.  The earth gets despoiled because we crave more and more stuff that must be made out of it.

And on the deepest level, materialism is about the soul’s hunger.  It yearns for something, and the hunger is apparently infinite.  Maybe this is because what it yearns for is infinite.   Connection, love, nirvana, God, enlightenment, oneness, whatever we call it.

Hungers for the infinite are infinite.  It seems to be one of the ways that, as some Eastern traditions put it, Thou art that, or in Western idiom, we’re made in the image of God, or in the language of medieval alchemists, As above so below.

But infinite hungers aren’t the fashion nowadays.  The ads are for desires we can believe we can satisfy.

Paring down

Minimalism, such as in design and architecture, is a distinctive artistic impulse.  Creativity in general operates on association (as does psychotherapy), on freedom of thought and feeling.  In a creative spurt, one is following the form, whether the musical form, the form of line or color, the form of a scientific phenomenon, etc.  This is why it is a common feeling about creative moments that “the stone wanted to be sculpted this way,” or “the character [as in a novelist’s work] is still telling me what’s going to happen next,” or “the music just came out of me, I didn’t know where it was going.”  Creativity is perhaps not even the right word for what is so commonly called by that name.  Discovery is more descriptive of many people’s creative moments.  For they are experienced not as concocting something out of oneself, but of having the focus to follow a form, to go wherever it leads, with no pulling back, no exertion of the ego to direct it or dominate it, or even question it.  And this is why true art must be, at least in its making, amoral, because the artist needs the freedom to follow forms, and there is no way to know if that will lead him or her into territory that is forbidden or suspect to some people and by some standards.  The result of the work art may be deeply morally meaningful, such as many have felt Beethoven’s 9th symphony to be, or the paintings on the Sistine Chapel.  But the making of art, the activity itself, cannot feel restricted to pre-drawn moral–or any other–categories.

But back to minimalism.  Much artistic activity proceeds by associating, embelllishing, building-up, drawing on new sources, such as when writing a song or another piece of music.  One starts with a seed of an idea, a rhythm, a verse, a feeling, and gradually builds it up, following its many emerging forms.  But minimalism is about taking away; it is an enlargement of the editing stage.  Most creative works go through a stage of editing and paring down, but paring down IS the art of minimalism.  It’s like an editing department with no new books coming in.  All they can do is pare down more and more what they already have.  In this way, the minimalist artistic impulse is a more intellectual activity than an inventively creative one.  Such an intellectual quality is obvious in, eg, Schoenberg’s and other atonal musicians’ works.  A great many listeners report  that such music does not evoke feeling in them (except, in some cases, frustration with it).  Thus the entry point into finding meaning in such works is the mind; it is in understanding the concepts and then going back to the works to see how they manifest or explore the ideas.  Minimalist architecture, too, is often described as cold or cool.  This needn’t be a value judgment.  For some people it is, but all it need imply is that there isn’t a “warm” feeling, a coziness.  But cozy is far from the only value in architecture.


Rearranging the room

You move into a new apartment or house, you have some furniture and you need to get some more, maybe sell or give away some that you brought with you.  You start figuring out where it all goes:  the sofa here, this lamp on that table.  Should that wall have one big picture or several smaller ones?  It can take a while and lots of trial and error before it feels right.

It feels rightthat’s when it’s done.  It’s no more scientific or even especially rational than that, yet the feeling of rightness can be as sure and settled as the conclusion of a syllogism.  Feelings are facts.

It’s time for meditating now.

Compare two people who meditate.  One person does it whenever s/he feels like it.  Another does it at an appointed time each day, whether s/he feels like it or not.

The difference is very big.  The second person has surrendered to something other than the will of the moment (whether it is something “higher” is open to question).  For her, what prompts meditating is not a feeling, but a commitment.

For this person, it’s not, “I feel like meditating now.”

It is, “It’s time for meditating now.”

For the second person, meditation has become meaningful as ritual.  Interesting that when someone does something on a fixed consistent schedule (it could be checking the stock market or going to the bathroom), we say, “He does it religiously.”

Perhaps the ritualistic kind of meditator could even be said to retract her own will in her practice, because her practice does not issue from the feeling or desire of the moment.  Perhaps it is a diminishing of the ego.  You can feel this kind of quality in full force in some writings by very spiritually developed people, for instance Thomas Merton.