Monthly Archives: August 2010

Dark in there

Years ago I had a friend named Richie whose favorite expression was head up your ass.

As in “Boy, that guy has his head up his ass.”  Or “Relax, Steve.  Get your head out of your ass.”

Colorful.  But I never quite understood what it meant.

(Probably I got hung up on the visual.   You know, trying to imagine what it might look like.  You know.) 

Anyway, Richie came to mind this morning.  My wife and I were sitting on the deck with our coffee, and I was thanking her for keeping me afloat, emotionally speaking.   

“If not for you,” I said, “I’d have lost my marbles years ago.”

She was pleased.  “That’s good to hear,” she said.  “Often I feel like I’m failing, because so much of the time you seem distant or worried or unhappy.”

“Oh,” I said, “that’s just me with my head up my ass.”

Apparently at some point over the years I reached my own understanding of what Richie’s trademark phrase meant:  Self-preoccupied.  Obsessive.  Living in my head.  Disconnected from other people.  Disconnected from reality.

I’m like most other men in this way.  Most women I know handle stress by sharing it, bringing it to their relationships; most guys carry it off into isolation.  Where a woman gets on the phone, a man retreats into his cave.

I’m a cave-dweller from way back. 

In grade school I decided that people were untrustworthy and best kept at a distance.  The cave into which I retreated then was my own skull — dark,  kind of cramped, but way less scary than the big fearsome uncontrollable world.  I furnished my cave with books and movies and tv shows and long convoluted conversations with my own puzzled fascinating self.  

I lived there through adolescence and into early adulthood. 

Eventually, when I had to leave the cave to make a living, I looked around for some way to do so which would allow me to stay mostly in hiding. 

I became a therapist.

Looking back on that choice now, I see two things that made therapy appealing.  The first was knowledge.  I loved the idea of becoming a magus, a magician of the mind, possessor of arcane understanding and skills that would enable me to transmute (and so rise above) the common run of human misery.      

The second was invulnerability.  Doing therapy seemed a terrific way to get really close to people without having to risk criticism or rejection or abandonment.  To make contact without making contact, so to speak. 

Guess what? 

It worked.

Well, sort of. 

I’ve spent decades doing this work.  I still enjoy it.  I think I’m reasonably good at it.  I know there are lives that I changed, even a couple I saved. 

But I’m also coming to see what being a therapist has cost.  There are parts of me which, constrained by my professional role, never developed as I’d have liked them to.  Spontaneity.  Creativity.  Emotional honesty.  The courage to be vulnerable, take risks, make real contact.  

But that’s how it is with defenses.  You strap them on, thinking they’re armor, and then one morning wake up feeling like canned tuna.

Defenses are indispensible, of course.  Without them we’d go nuts, or at the very least become paralyzed by our own fears and anxieties. 

But defenses can also be monkeytraps: attempts to hold on when we really should let go.  And six decades of living (not to mention two of doing therapy) have taught me to see cave-dwelling as just another futile grab at the illusion of control, another attempt to escape the wet weather of emotional life by hiding in the rocks.

So it sort of worked, and it sort of didn’t.  In any case, I find myself tired of living dry and in the dark.

So now I creep out of the cave occasionally.  One step at a time.  With clients, for example, I let more of myself show than I used to.  And with family.  And with this blog. 

It’s scary.  I like it anyway.  I’m learning to actually enjoy the weather. 

It’s wet and sloppy out here, but it’s dark in there.


Two monkeys meet in the mountains at sundown.

Each is alone, having been separated from his tribe.  Both are tired from trudging for days through the rocks.

But monkeys are wary beasts.  So for a long time they stand motionless, eyeing each other suspiciously.

Finally the tireder of the pair gets tired of this too. 

“Oh, screw it,” he says, and sits down in the dirt.

The other watches him for a moment, then sits down as well.

They look around at the dirt, the rocks, the huge sky, the sinking sun.  Finally their eyes meet.

“What’s your name?” asks the first monkey.

The second monkey scowls.

“What’s yours?” he replies.

They fall silent.

The sun’s lower edge touches the horizon.  The air chills. 

The first monkey reaches into his knapsack and pulls out a cigarette lighter.  He scratches together a tiny pile of twigs and pushes the lighter into the center of it.  The twigs catch.  A small flame appears.

“Got anything to burn?” he asks.

The second money is leaning towards the flame, but the question stops him.

“Do you?” he answers.  He places a protective paw on his knapsack.

The first monkey sighs.

The sun sinks below the horizon.

Now it is dark.  Dark in the mountains is especially dark.

“Oh, screw it again,” says the first monkey.  He reaches into his knapsack and brings out a small lump of something wrapped in cloth. 

“This is a secret,” he tells the other.   “I never show it to anyone.  It’s embarrassing.  But I guess it’s better than freezing to death.”

He unwraps a stinky old fish head. 

A rotten smell fills the clearing.  First Monkey swallows hard, then lays the fish head carefully atop the pile of twigs like an offering.  

It catches fire.  Flames leap up. 

The smell disappears.

Second Monkey now looks embarrassed.

“That’s not so bad,” he says finally.  “I can beat that.”

He reaches into his knapsack and comes out with a medium-sized lump, also wrapped in cloth.

“Really?” First Monkey smiles.

Second Monkey nods, unwraps his fish head, swallows hard and lays it on the fire.

Again a bad smell fills the clearing.   The second head catches fire.  Again the smell goes away.

The monkeys inch closer to the flames.  They reach out their paws.  Overhead the moon starts its climb across the sky.

“You got more, I hope,” Second Monkey says.

“I do if you do,” replies First Monkey.

Both giggle.

And so the night passes, hour after hour, fish head after fish head, each larger and more fragrant than the last, until both knapsacks are empty and the fire burns on without feeding and the sun peeks up over the mountains in the east.

“I’m Sid,” mutters Second Monkey suddenly.

“I’m Barry,” replies First Monkey.  “Pleased to meet you.”  


Nobody on this bus but us monkeys.

Listening for instructions

Each weekday morning my wife’s alarm goes off at six o’clock.  Usually I ignore it.  Today it wakes me immediately and totally. 

I swing my legs out of bed and sit up.  I sniff the air. 

I groan. 

 My bedroom smells of bananas. 

Oh good, he whispers.  You’re up.

“I’m not up,” I mutter.  “Dead man walking.   Give me a minute.” 

I stumble off to the bathroom. 

Out in the kitchen Mr. Coffee gurgles at me, implying there may be hope after all.  I fill my cup (ah, sweet nectar of life) and let the gravity of habit pull me down the stairs to my office, to my cluttered desk and my cluttered mind.    

Are you up now? Bert asks.


So.  Last time you said something about listening for instructions.


I have no idea what that means. 

I know. 

It means turning your attention inward.  Listening to your body.

Why do that?

It’s where the feelings live.

Oh.  Well, I already do that.

The hell you do.

(Startled:)  Why so cranky?

If you were listening I wouldn’t be here now.  I’d be upstairs in bed.

Oh.  (Defensive:)  But we have work to do.

Sure.  There’s always work to do. 

And that’s why you’re cranky? 

No.  I like working.  Cranky is how I feel when I stop listening. 

Oh.  (Pause.)  Most people I know are cranky, on some level.


Why is that?

Most people don’t listen.  They’ve been trained not to.  Actually they’ve been trained to act like they have no bodies at all.

Trained how?

As kids.  We learn early on to stop listening to our bodies, to follow rules instead.  To eat on schedule, sleep on schedule, poop in the right receptacle, and so on. 

You’re saying that’s bad?

I’m saying it’s the thin edge of the wedge. 

What wedge?

The wedge that eventually separates us from who we are.  We stop listening to our internal voices — feelings, instincts —  and as we get older the distance between us and the voices gets wider and wider.  School widens it bigtime.  Work widens it further.  Eventually most of us forget how to listen.  And end up permanently cranky. 

On some level.

Yes.  Not always a conscious one.

Does this wedge have a name?


Is there an alternative?

To socialization?  Maybe, if you go live on a mountaintop by yourself.  If you live with other people you get socialized.

I remember how shocked I was during my training when a supervisor told me that the healthiest anyone ever gets is neurotic.  I didn’t understand.  Or maybe I did and didn’t want to believe it.

What’s that mean, “neurotic”?

Split.  Split by the wedge of socialization, into controller and controlled.  Divided against yourself.

So.  What’s the answer? 

Answer?  To what?

To the problem of neurosis.

You’re not listening.  There’s no “answer.”   Neurosis is inevitable.

I’ll ask it another way.  How do I achieve happiness?

Same answer.

What?  Unhappiness is inevitable?

Pretty much.  What was it Freud said?  Something about the goal of analysis being to transform neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness.

But then Buddha said the same thing two thousand years ago.  “Life is suffering.”  The first Noble Truth. 

Are you trying to bum me out?

No, no.  This is actually good news.

How can you say that?

Look.  Most of us don’t know what the hell we’re doing, or why we’re doing it.  We have this idea that we’re supposed to be Happy, and if we aren’t, well, we must be screwing up somehow. 

It’s a sort of secret perfectionism.  We keep comparing how we feel to how we want to feel, and when the two don’t match we decide something’s wrong.

Nothing’s wrong.  Life just hurts.  

And we have to live with it.  Like we live with bad weather.

Right.  And there is great relief in giving up this perfectionism.

Where does listening to the body come into all this?

It’s something to rely on instead.  It replaces chasing some mythic Happiness with the more achievable goal of getting our simplest needs met.   Tired?  Rest.  Hungry?  Eat.  Sad?  Cry.  Like that. 

Does sound simple, all right.

Simple, but important.  

I’ll give you an example.  Let’s say a client comes into my office all twisted up over some problem or other.  And he’s looking to me for magic.  To make the problem vanish somehow, so he can feel better. 

What do you do?

I offer him a cup of water.

That’s it?

No.  I push my hassock over to him and tell him to put his feet up on it.  I may suggest he take off his shoes.            

Then I put a pillow behind his head on the sofa and invite him to lean back.

Then I tell him to breathe.  Just breathe.

Then what?

Then I wait.  

And what happens?

He feels better.  

This works?

Almost always.  Takes about five minutes, for most people.  Some take longer. 

Of course some people won’t even take the water, or put their feet up.


It scares them.  Listening to feelings means not controlling them.   And they think they need to stay in control. 


Usually they’ve been traumatized.  These are the seriously scared ones, the ones that never relax. 


What’s the matter?

Nothing.  I’m thinking I’d like to stop now.

Stop talking?


Really.  Why?

I’m a little tired.

(Smiling:)  May be hope for you yet.


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