Where is there?

Where is there? I’m honestly not sure of where “there” is myself, but I am told that when I get “there” I will find it. Quite recently I found myself back in a private search for there and I wasn’t quite sure where to start, so I turned to my regular meditation practice. I stepped outside and allowed the calming sounds of nature to permeate my mind, drowning out what seemed to be the inorganic ruminations of my anxiety. If you’ve dealt with anxiety before I’m sure you know of the feeling all too well- the incessant voice of your own self that brings up everything there is in the world to worry about. One thing I can say about anxiety is that is if anything it is consistent. Whether I am attempting to do something important or if I am simply being it shows up with the same old conversation. So I allowed it to be because at the time of my questioning, I had found another way to relate to it. So by sitting still, paying attention to my breath, feeling my sit-bones and slowly bringing my awareness to different parts of my body, I shifted my attention away from the voices in my own head and I allowed myself to be absorbed by nature, to the point where I couldn’t tell if I was breathing or if nature was breathing me. It was at this point that I began a search which led me down the rabbit hole of what I typically call my “studying routine.” Exploring the latest in talks and articles in psychoanalysis to philosophy, to zen, then to individual teachers in those traditions and a list of others all in about thirty minutes. I like to call it my intellectual channel surfing. Quite recently I was told it my “down the rabbit hole” moment. After coming back to the present I found myself on the page of an author that I had admired for some time, Jay Michaelson. Jay Michaelson’s work bridges the gap of non-duality for me; his relatable explanations of non-dual Judaism, philosophical discussions on the nature of the self and sexuality, along with his interpretation of the inner landscapes of the mind experienced during meditation made me purchase his book entitled, God is Everything, some time ago. Back in 2011, I decided after stumbling across his work and others in the psychological, spiritual and philosophical communities that I wanted to go back to school and have all of those authors become my instructors. So I started a podcast and was fortunate enough to borrow thirty minutes to an hour of folks like Jay’s time and share those experiences with the world. So after exploring Jay’s page I found myself googling my name next to Jay’s in sort of child like manner, similar to the way in middle school you stand shoulder to shoulder with the guy in gym class to see if you’re just as tall as he is or if in fact you had more work to do. I sometimes do that sort of comparison work to personally see what I should change, how I should present my work, and what the latest trends are in exporting this kind of thought to the public. It turns out Jay actually lifted me and my confidence a bit higher; the first link that popped up was an interview from my old podcast that Jay featured on his website. Admittedly as soon as I saw it I felt taken back a bit, almost to the point of tears; Was I “there?” Is this the answer to my question? Why did I have to do this search and why do I feel weirdly embarrassed that I went through all of this?

Adam Phillips the psychoanalyst and essayist calls this phenomenon “attention seeking.” For Phillips, this idea of attention seeking is based on the conversations we have with ourselves about what it is we are seeking and what it is that we need attending to. For me, I learned early on attention seeking capacity was based on my childhood desire for coaching and development. My mother raised four boys by herself with very little income and the occasional commercial breaks of a meandering stepfather. Growing up without a stable father-figure, took a tole on my young psyche and the indentation on my development followed me in many ways into adulthood. You too may know what it is like: second guessing yourself, that leery feeling of being found out to be a fraud, not sure if you are on the right track even if all the signs point that you are-you know the normal stuff folks with anxiety experience. For me, I would say it is sort of like a program running in the background of your phone. You don’t realize it’s running in the background until your phone’s battery fails to maintain a full charge. This part of my self isn’t anymore my shadow than any other parts of myself that I cannot see. Because for me, the shadow isn’t a bad thing, it is simply the parts of myself that I cannot see but show up in the world to everyone else. Although it does not often feel great, I am grateful when I notice their manifestation because I can now pay proper attention to that part of myself. So when I venture down the rabbit hole, I know that there is an answer being desired to a question posed long ago by some forgotten part of myself. I have given myself the space to not judge it but to go with it, and I have become all the more better by holding this space for myself.

Uncertainty

In reaching for certainty I have sometimes found more uncertainty that I would hope for. But this too can be a sign of growth even when it may seem a bit disheartening and unsettling. Uncertainty can have a sort of stability to it when you become used to it being there. Do we have to have all of the answers to life’s most important questions or are we allowed to say I don’t know every once in a while? While relaxing into my own uncertainty, as ironic as the phrase sounds, I have found that life can take on a more fluid and adaptable quality. Acknowledging your own uncertainty is not an excuse for not working hard or doing the best that you can in your life. For me, acknowledging your uncertainty weakens the false self that needs to have all of the answers. It becomes another part of yourself that falls away in order for you to continue your own journey of becoming more of yourself. This kinda of uncertainty isn’t debilitating or lazy. In fact, this kind of essence gives you a sense of agency to operate in your life from several vantage points, rather than substituting the parts of your life you would most like for folks to see. Donald Winnicott, the pediatrician and psychoanalyst from the early 1930’s suggests that this self that we build up as our true self and are most proud of is actually our false self. This facade is initial response of our ego in order to have us fit in a mechanistic society that demands perfection. So to participate in the game, we split off a bit of our own consciousness and create a character that doesn’t humiliate us too much internally but fits into the world without making too many waves. This characterization of the self is able to move through the world with a sense of agency that provides us comfort, certainty, financial security and romantic interests. So we adopt this formulation over time and designate it as our true self, only to find that it too is fragile and can shatter like everything else in the world. All it takes is the loss of income, divorce, family dispute, or a major trauma of the sorts that occurs within normal everyday life and we find out all too well that this is the truth.

There’s sort of a reckoning that happens between yourself and reality when the self you know of yourself to be collapses. Sort of like a creator who invents a product that goes into the world and does well temporarily, only to be crushed later by folks that don’t read the manual properly. One can become angry with life when after your hard work to create a workable self you can be proud of, tragedy strikes. But what remains of who you are after that self has crumbled is still just as good if not better than the self that you built up. Why is it that we tend to burrow into these identities? It is because of the payoff they offer us. Growing up I was never the attractive one in the family or so I was told; I was never encouraged for my good looks or my height. I was never told that the girls would go stir crazy over me because my voice was telephone appropriate. I was awkward, introverted, sort of outcast, and thinner than most my age. I was designated the smart kid in the family; so I built a self off of that idea, for the sole payout of being most rewarded.

Little did I know my early trauma within my own family was conditioning me for the cruelties society can bring; conform and we will reward you greatly-rebel and you will be cast out and ridiculed. It wasn’t until my mid-20’s that I began the work of slowly cracking the shell that I had built up so long ago in order to fit into my world at the time. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt with degrees in multiple disciplines, by the world’s definition I was smart as a whip with all of the alphabet soup after my name that anyone in their 20’s could want in order to enter into society and lay claim to the rewards that an awkward kid from a small town could want. But that was just it, I didn’t feel smart-I felt used by the very system that I was trying to enter into and by the same self I as its creator built. Was my whole life a lie? It felt real? These questions plagued my mind until I could finally come to terms with the fact that the payoff was not worth it, and I needed a change fast. So I began the serious process of feeling out my own inner landscape. Spiritual practice became my psychotherapy and psychotherapy became my spiritual practice. And I quickly realized I wasn’t alone in the world. Surprisingly, in its own way, it made things better. Perspective didn’t make my angst go away but it did give me a different way to relate to it-which offers its own kind of ease.

Poking Through

I think that what constitutes as healed or healing depends on the person that has experienced the trauma. If you have ever done any serious work on yourself involving healing your own mind then you may know first hand that the degree of your healing depends on how much you were damaged. Over the course of our lives, through sometimes no fault of our own, we are accosted by nature of our interactions with the world. Engaging in society involves a sort of collective trauma that makes up the fine print of our lives, that we don’t often read into. After the uncomfortable circumstance, whatever it may be, moving onward involves a daily process of talking about it, being distracted from it, and allowing time to have it fall behind you. But if your mind is as anxious as others have suggested theirs may be then you too could suffer from what Tibetan Buddhism refers to as Shenpa. Shenpa is the hooking of things in us. The feeling behind our action to respond to the uncomfortability or the aftermath of a distressful event that our bodies and minds are participants of, right before we respond to that thing. Shenpa is the feeling behind our response.

Psychologically, how one deals with shenpa, whether it is flicked off as if it doesn’t exist at all, or suppressed and avoided altogether, can determine how we move through trauma. Trauma happens to us all; no two traumas are alike, and it is not the aggressor that gets to decide the impact of the display of trauma, it is the recipient of the traumatic incident that decides how effective it is. Shenpa, when it is allowed to do its work, hooks us after we have been distressed and it expresses our attachment to an expected outcome. The need to clap back, the need to defend ourselves, the need to walk away, the need to not respond, the tendency to judge an incident by labeling it good or bad are all ways to describe the feelings that grip us and pull us in either direction.

A Brief History of Psychoanalysis-Freud, Breuer, & Klein

The difference between psychoanalysis and psychotherapy can be said that psychoanalysis looks at the unconscious, while psychotherapy works with what we are conscious of. Now this isn’t 100% accurate, but from a layman’s perspective, this may be the easiest way to draw a distinction between the two techniques. Today, we tend to view psychotherapy as sort of an umbrella term in which psychoanalysis seems to fall, similar to Alzheimer being a type of memory disorder that falls under dementia. There was a time when psychoanalysis (in the early 1900’s) and its talking-therapy (free association), was the most popular form of working with emotional and mental disturbances. While many view Freud as the father of psychoanalysis, it was really a collaborative effort between Freud, his mentor and teacher Breuer, and the “success” of their publication entitled, Studien Uber Hysterie (Studies on Hysteria) and their patient, “Anne O.” History suggests Freud never met Anna O. but her real name was Bertha Papenheim, an Austrian-Jewish feminist and the founder of the Jüdischer Frauenbund (League of Jewish Women). More information on Anna O. and modern applications can be found in later blog posts.

Later, after Freud broke away from Breuer, and the subsequent publications of his The Ego and Id, and later Interpretation of Dreams, it was Melanie Klein’s contribution to child psychiatry, who helped to shape psychoanalysis as we know it to be today. Others contributed massively to the psychoanalytic movement, but Breuer, Freud and Klein were three of the early contributors, along with Alfred Adler and others whose independent theories were also as equally impactful– It should be said that Klein’s first patient was her child (parents make the best therapists….sometimes…).

Melanie Klein

For a time, psychoanalysts were strictly psychiatrists; later on in its matriculation into the world of mental health, non-medical analysts joined the ranks, dividing analysts into two categories: medical psychoanalysts and non-medical analysts. Furthermore it should be said that psychoanalysts of color, particularly African American psychoanalysts were not able to train as analysts until some 30 years after Freud’s inaugural address to the psychological community in America in the early 1900’s, the first African-American psychoanalytic child psychiatrist being Dr. Margaret Lawrence.

My Personal Experience

My personal experience and connection with psychoanalysis has more to do with its theories about the mind and approach to understanding trauma, addiction, the conscious/unconscious conversation, and various emotional states, rather than the discipline of psychoanalysis by itself. One of psychoanalysis’s trademark techniques in accessing the unconscious is through free association. Free association is the process of freely talking without regard to typical rules of conversation or subject matter, in order to reveal tells, motifs and patterns of the unconscious. The subject would talk about what is important to him/her/them without pushing, questioning, or too much intervention of the self of the therapist. Without the pushing, scolding, or blaming, how a someone really feels about a subject, habit, or another person is revealed. Later, child psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott referred to this experience as a holding environment, similar to what happens in childhood if a good enough parent can create a healthy space for a child to grow.

A Buddhist take on Anxiety and Suffering

Dukkha

A good take on Buddhist psychology suggests one examines the four noble truths which are the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering (dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, and magga). For the sake of this post I will just speak on the first two; Dukkha has been interpreted as meaning, “suffering” but Mark Epstein, a noted Buddhist Psychotherapist and Psychiatrist suggests the Sanscrit word “duk-kha” means hard to face,similar to the word “suk-kha” meaning pleasant, happy or blissful face. The things in life that seem to cause us the most distress, anxiety and worry are those things that are hard to face. Because if they were easy to face, then we would simply meet them head on and move through them. The longer we avoid them, they fester and pick at our mental stability until we either break down completely, or cave in and address them, regardless of how ill-prepared to tackle them we may be. To use any form of spiritual discipline or practice to avoid the natural suffering or uncomfortably of everyday life would send us down a rabbit hole of endless chasing. One practice leading to another, one group leading to the next, and one bad circumstance would be compounded with even more things to worry about and micro-addictions to face later down the line.

Samudaya

The second of those truths suggests that “samudaya” or attachment is the cause of the things that disturb our inner worlds. And there could be some truth to that; the thing itself, to borrow a phrase from the spiritual writer Ernest Holmes, may not be the problem alone; our attachment to the rewards, payoffs and benefits that we get from the thing that is causing us distress could be the bigger problem. Although, there are some things that we encounter in our lives that are just plain wrong no matter how you look at them. We attach ourselves to our lives and the way in which we expect our lives to look and when we don’t live up to that expectation we suffer. We back ourselves into corners in our relationships with the world and when the world makes demands upon us via those relationships we do as the child Psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott suggests and we create a false self that can answer that demand. The only problem is that the false self takes over so much of our lives that it becomes difficult to either distinguish that self from who we really are, or we then attach ourselves to that false self and refuse to let it go no matter how much it chips away at our inner space. Yup-anxiety is horrible.

So What Can We Do?

But if we can see ourselves as we are and learn to accept ourselves for where we are, perhaps we can start the process of healing ourselves. Healing is a gradual process-it does not come overnight, and for those who may not be able to remove the thing that is causing them distress at all-then the discovery of how to relate to it in a different and less distressing way may be of service.