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.


2 responses to “Listening for instructions

  • Charles

    Good post, particularly this bit:

    “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.”

    I think of this as shifting my focus from the far off goal (e.g. becoming wealthy or famous) to the immediate goal (Rest, Eat, Cry). Too often I focus on my far off needs at the expense of my short-term needs. And of course since I’m constantly redefining the far off goal (i.e. I’m never satisfied), I never get to enjoy anything. That neglect probably leads to myriad emotional and physical problems.

    I suspect that is what the book ‘Be Here Now’ is all about.

  • Dave Kluger

    Too often during the craziest of times I forget the simplest things are what works .

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