Back to the Garden

And he (Jung) asked himself by what mythology he was living and he found he didn’t know. And so he said “I made it the task of my life to find by what mythology I was living” How did he do it? He want back to think about what it was that most engaged him in fascinated play when he was a little boy. So that the hours would pass and pass. Now if you can find that point, you can find an initial point for your own reconstruction.
~ Joseph Campbell

I might have liked to be an astronomer, as a child I spent hours on the deck behind our house looking up at the Great Nebulae in Orion and feeling a part of the entire universe. But, unfortunately I can’t do math.

In young adulthood, being a priestess of some sort seemed my best shot at a satisfying career and I supposed the sacred rituals around the theater came close. But, as you may know, there aren’t really too many priestesses in show biz.

A ritual is an action that puts the individual not only in touch with, but in the place of, being the agent of a power that does not come out of his own intention at all. He has to submit to a power that’s greater than his own individual life form. ~ Joseph Campbell

For several years thought it might be nice to be a Unitarian or a Quaker minister: I could picture myself in my 60′s plump and happy, with spikey short white hair, extremely sensible shoes, curled up in a worn leather chair in a well stocked church library surrounded by books written by theologians, ecumenicists, philosophers, anthropologists, depth psychologists, mythologists, my days filled with study, sermon-writing, teaching, and pastoral counseling. I still occasionally fantasize about getting an M.Div one day so that my psycho-spiritual practice might one day extricate itself from the professional restrictions and expectations of the medical model.

Although I imagine all that theism might get a bit wearing.

God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought…. So half the people in the world are religious people who think that their metaphors are facts. Those are what we call theists. The other half are people who know that the metaphors are not facts, and so they call them lies. Those are the atheists. ~ Joseph Campbell

When I am fatigued or overwhelmed I think it might be nice to be a cobbler. The smell of leather, the pleasure of making something tangible, real, practical, useful, that did not require that I take my work home with me, or feel too much. Maybe I could even get some elves to make the shoes while I sleep.

There is much much harder work in the world than mine, but every once in a while, after the 100,000th “I just don’t know how you can sit and listen to people’s problems all day. I couldn’t do it!” I begin to wonder what on earth I have gotten myself into.

Every individual has his own very special problem in this late mid-life crisis about what he has been doing. How deeply has it really involved him? Has he had other outside marginal interests of any kind whatsoever? What were they? All these are very special problems. ~ Joseph Campbell

No paid vacation, no sick days, and the out of pocket cost of crappy medical insurance for a self-employed family of four are daunting enough. When my kids or a family member are ill, there is more lost income. Income which fluctuates with the economy, with the season, with the twists and turns of fate, history, chance and my own bandwidth depending of the circumstances of my own life and ability to pay deep attention. Clients just don’t come, or don’t stick when you don’t have the psychological space to take them in.

Economics is what controls us. Economics and politics are the governing powers of life today and that’s why everything is screwy. You have to get back in accord with nature; and that’s what myths are all about. ~ Joseph Campbell

Late nights and weird hours mean missing several nights a week with my kids, who can also never call to check in or to chat while I am working. As well as being out of synch with those who live and socialize on the 9 to 5 time grid. “Time off” means running errands, answering email, doing paperwork and billing, none of which can be done during client hours.

There are therapists who have partners with large corporate incomes, or some inherited wealth, who are heavily invested in real estate, or who have discovered passive income streams of some kind. They have small part time caseloads and the luxury of pursing their work, not out of logistical necessity, but merely because it is meaningful to them. There are others who charge extraordinary sums and cultivate boutique practices geared at serving clients in the upper classes.

I am none of those. I am a working, work-a-day therapist. I have made my living as a private practitioner and nothing else along side my husband, who does the same thing. We have learned to ride the roller coaster together, and support each other economically and emotionally through painful binds and financial drought. We have learned to rest when we are “light” and not allow our financial anxiety to eat up all of our chance to renew ourselves. There will be another wave of overwork to come, an influx of new cases, a sudden mass return of old clients when the weather turns cold, or it is time for New Years resolutions.

So, if the goal is merely amassing wealth, early retirement and cultivating ease, this is not the profession, at least not the way I practice. My scale slides and my fee drops as I try to make sure that no client is abandoned when they fall into financial difficulties, or excluded because of their ability to pay. I’ve made choices not to accept insurance, which too often attempted to conscript and lure me into becoming my clients “care manager” -labeling them with diagnoses, counting out their allotted sessions, and referring to a psychiatrist if they don’t “get better” before their capitation kicks in.

And when you’ve got an invisible cure for an invisible disease, you’ve got something you can sell. ~ Joseph Campbell

And often, the work hurts too. It can burn and sting and instill fear sometimes, as clients often need to explore and test out the capacity to keep them safe in your most vulnerable, weakest places and moments. Narratives of trauma, cruelty and abuse can break your heart, and eat you up, and shatter illusions about yourself, about the goodness of humanity, about the realities of life. Even the best days, the ones filled with vicarious excitement and accomplishment are about other people’s accomplishments and successes, and can leave you totally tuckered out.

Its one thing to be equitable and give everything away. Its another thing to be equitable and give away yourself. Then you can’t really help anybody can you? ~ Joseph Campbell

And the people you work with often experience you as more powerful and fully self-actualized than you are or could ever be, and often feel abandoned, or annoyed, or intruded upon when you stumble and trip or they experience your limitations.

When I was young in this field, I once asked my therapist if he ever hated his job: “Just every time I see a copy of Travel and Leisure magazine” he said. And immediately looked worried, and began to back pedal a bit – as though his honesty might make me feel rejected.

Who wants to be remembered by the notes of his students? ~ Joseph Campbell

It didn’t make me feel rejected. It was a relief. There is a shadow that attaches itself to every job, every choice, every path. And in this field, which practitioners take up primarily driven by their own wounds, whether they know it or not, the shadow can be a particularly dark and thick one.

Who wouldn’t want to escape sometimes?

The saying that a friend of mine has given me for letting me know when you are in middle age is: You’ve got to the top of ladder and found its against the wrong wall
~ Joseph Campbell

Freud had clients lay down on the couch for no other reason than he couldn’t bear to be looked at, scrutinized all day. And I sometimes wish that I could escape the watchful, fearful gaze of clients who read the smallest crease in my forehead as a sign of my impatience, or intolerance, or judgement, when it may just be that my glasses are pinching the sides of my head. Consciously arranging my face all day to reflect exactly what the client needs to see reminds me often of what intensely physical work the process of “mirroring” can be.

My days, in and out of the office, are completely and continuously centered around people. Other people. No matter how much “self-care” I invest in myself, a life of meeting clients, living in a co-op, walking crowded city streets, caring for children, for older family members, is intensely peopled.

I’ve just come out of New York, and a place like this on the Big Sur coast just wakes another whole consciousness. Its further down. And the body feels, Yes, this is my world; Ive been missing this And it seems to me its out of the body and its relationship to experiences of this kind that the mythic imagination comes. This other experience of the city is far more rational, ethical… the I-Thou relationship in the city is to people The environment in the city is geometrical and rectangular, and there are no curves; its contrived by man, the whole environment is manmade. And here you find that there is a primal being experience of which man and nature are themselves manifestations; whereas in the city you just don’t get it. ~ Joseph Campbell

Everything we do, every choice, every gesture requires the sacrifice of some alternative, potential reality. At midlife, the sacrifices we made to establish an adult identity in our culture, to create security, to live out our values, to do what we should, to start a family, to build a life and pursue a career or a vocation – return to us, as fantasy. It returns as day and night dreams, yearnings or sometimes as symptoms. Whatever is repressed always returns to us in some other form

Jung speaks of the impact of the parents unlived life upon their children, and we should also wonder about how the unlived life of the psychotherapist impacts clients and the therapy itself. How does it constrict and constrain us in the room and why? Are these choices made consciously, with an awareness of their shadow and their costs, or unconsciously, reflexively, fearfully? How do our clients teach us about what we have given up? How do we respond to the experience of envy or yearning in the countertransference? Do we heed it as a call to reach for our own unfinished business? Or do we feel diminished? How do therapists, subtly or not so subtly encourage clients to make choices that either validate their own sacrifice, or diverge from our choices so that we can watch them live out our unlived lives?

The mid-life crisis is that of unshelling a system of life and immediately moving into a new system of life. Because if this life is unshelled and you don’t have a new intention there is total disorientation. ~ Joseph Campbell

These days my escape fantasy involves a farm house at the foot of small mountain. There are green trees and fields all around. There is a small food garden growing behind the house with big wide windows, with more sky, stars, trees, crickets, birdsong and empty space, both inside and outside, than will ever be available or affordable to me in NYC.

I read stacks and stacks of books filled with pencil marks and marginalia, and write a significant part of every day. Perhaps I teach a class or two at a nearby junior college, just for the pleasure of compiling the reading lists.

I remember Alan Watts asked me one day, “Joe what kind of mediation do you do?” I said, “I underline sentences.” ~ Joseph Campbell

I see as many clients a week as I now see in a day, some in a cozy home office, some for walking eco-therapies, others long distance by video conference or e-session. All arrange to talk to me only when and as they want to. They pay whatever they can afford, whatever they think the process is worth. I don’t concern myself with accounts or collections, or how big the children’s orthodontia bill is getting.

Or maybe, in this fantasy I stop seeing clients entirely. After a lifetime of operating as a Helper, a Caretaker perhaps I have sacrificed enough to that archetype to enable that myth to release me, as I take on a new role, a new task, a new myth.

This is the big problem of retirement … the life with you have involved yourself has suddenly been moved. And so what? I’m told that the life expectancy of a blue collar worker after retirement is about five years. That means his body says, “You’ve got nothing for me to do so lets just say goodbye” ~ Joseph Campbell

There is a trail out back behind the house that leads up the mountain and I take a long, contemplative hikes several times a week. I watch for hawks and eagles, woodpeckers, and other wild-life in an entirely deer-tick free woods. Up on the hillside I have constructed a small shelter where I sit for long stretches of each day silently asking that all sentient beings be relieved of their suffering, until my thermos of green tea is cold and empty.

I work in the garden, I cook meals for my family. I wash the laundry and hang it on the line to dry near the lilac bushes, so that in the spring, the sheets smell sweet.

But when the individual is acting only for himself or his family then you have nothing but chaos. ~ Joseph Campbell

This idyllic farm is somehow near to a racially and socioeconomically diverse small city which gives me a chance to engage in community processes and cultural and charitable activities. We travel whenever we want to. Take sabbatical years to live in other countries, in other cultures. My children never bicker. They climb trees, tame wild animals, swim in a clear water creek.

Fatigue is rare, and sweet, following labors that are restorative, generative for myself and others. Each night before bed, we climb the creaky narrow wooden stairs to the widows walk and aim our telescope toward the bright and visible Milky Way searching out our proper place in the universe.

Now there is a wonderful saying in the Buddhist world: “Life is joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.” All life is sorrowful. You are not going to change that. Its all right for everyone else to be sorrowful, but what about you being sorrowful? Well, participate!” ~ Joseph Campbell

And as I dwell deeper in my soul’s fantasy, my unlived life, the life not (yet) pursued, new sorrows emerge of the clients and of the work left behind in this life. Those who would never tolerate a Skype or phone session, who would feel abandoned, who I might harm by leaving, or a least cause significant discomfort. The stories I would never see unfold.

And the people I would miss.

Fantasies of Eden, of Shangrila and the Land of Oz live in all of us, in different ways, and serve many functions. They compensate and correct our course, remind us of who we are, what we have forgotten and who we are supposed to be. Sometimes it is necessary to chase these images literally, although they will rarely be entirely captured. The processes of midlife can involve dramatic overthrow of pre-existing orders. We do out grow old shells and need to find new ones. But sacrifices can be mourned and managed consciously as well, responded to as metaphor, channeled into creative processes, or integrated into present structures through ritual and symbol.

The work can be heavy, and costly in ways that are rarely fully tallied or reckoned with.
But it is mine, for now.

The gate guardian is a symbol of your own fear and holding to your ego which is what is keeping you out of the garden. Buddha sits under the tree and his right hand says “Don’t be afraid of those guys. Come through.”~ Joseph Campbell

But sometimes, through a long day, as I nod, and listen, my brow furrowed, my ears and heart open to the pain that the person across the room is sharing with me, I imagine, that my office window, just past my peripheral vision, offers a different view.

I imagine that – instead of the floodlight and fluorescence of windows upon windows, instead of the sounds of a harsh and noisy city, instead of helicopters and barges, firetrucks and ferries – there are instead green branches, and the smell of fresh cool mountain air.

I imagine that together we could, if we choose to, pause to watch Orion, with his belt, and his sword, rising through the night, reminding us of our proper place in the universe.

All quotations from The Hero’s Journey, Joesph Campbell on his LIfe and Work, Phil Cousineau editor.

Keep Breathing Please

To breathe is to assimilate spiritual power. (~ J.E. Circlot, A Dictionary of Symbols)

The word, in all its variants, that I heard most regularly in the early years of my own treatment, the most painful years, is also the word I repeat most often to my clients:

“Breathe.”

As in:
“Let’s take some deep breaths, please”

Or:
“Are you breathing? I’m pretty sure you’ve stopped breathing”

And more explicitly:
“You are holding your breath. When you hold your breath, you are trying to block the experience of a strong feeling – you are constricting your chest, your throat, it keeps the pain trapped, pressed down, it doesn’t let it move through.”

And sometimes this:
“Okay, listen, I can see this feeling is overwhelming, and your breathing has become very shallow and rapid, you are trying to find a way to keep breathing to stay on top of some frightened, maybe panicky feeling. I don’t want you to hyperventilate. I know you are scared, but I want you to just listen to my voice, and we are going to breath more deeply together. Put your hand on your belly, and breathe in slowly through your nose. Let just inhale slowly…. Good. Now breathe out, slowly… good. Lets just sit and breathe and then we can talk about what was coming up. But, first, I just want us to breathe together for a bit.”

I remember when the consultation room would start to spin. My head would feel very large, on top of a small, atrophied body. Although my therapist sat just a few feet from my place on his couch, he seemed a football field away. Only his reminders to breathe offered me a sense of continuity, an anchor to the present, to him, and to myself.

Other times I’d sit on the couch, certain that I was totally fine, making perfect sense, forming completely rational sentences filled with logically consistent deductions about whatever circumstance I’d been recounting. I thought his direction to take a breath was just silly, reaching for some feeling that simply wasn’t present, wishful shrink-thinking. I’d take a breath just to placate him – and then feel a sudden internal catch, a flipping sensation in my stomach, a shiver of fear. A wave of hot, shameful, dissociated emotion rose up from the depths, tears gathering behind my eyes, my throat shaking, I tried to stop myself from revealing the unbecoming repressed affect in front of his accepting gaze.

Such an intense internal combustion can occur when oxygen mixes with emotion that I sometimes worried that I might actually vomit. He wasn’t distressed by that possibility either – but simply offered to move the office wastebasket close to the couch if I thought I really needed it. I never did, thank god.

It was just pain, riding on breath’s coattails, as it rose up from below.

My own clients often release a small snort of recognition when I make the observation:
“You’ve stopped breathing again I believe… please breathe…” before their own swell of pain begins to crest.

Children, in stubborn fits threaten to hold their breath, a refusal to inhale new experience or unwanted information from the world around them, an attempt to freeze time, to arrest all change and motion, and to assert their omnipotence as Central Commander of the universe.

But, as our pediatrician once pointed out, you can’t hold your breath to death. You will simply fall unconscious and resume breathing.

Holding our breath only creates the illusion that we are in control, but the illusion is fleeting and ultimately empowers our unconscious to solve the dilemma itself whether we like it or not – without conscious assent.

Difficulty in breathing may therefore symbolize difficulty in assimilating the principles of the spirit and of the cosmos… and the rhythms of the universe
(~ J.E. Circlot, A Dictionary of Symbols)

Sometimes the pain is so intense, that all you can do breathe, as all else has become overwhelming or impossible – like a woman in labor, or a post-operative patient in a recovery bed, or the concentrated, labored breathing of the dying.

And sometimes, when extreme emotional/psychological pain makes a client yearn for “Breath’s Departure” all I can ask of them is make a promise to me that they will commit to keep breathing until the next session, or the next day, or the next scheduled check-in a few hours away.

The regularly scheduled therapy appointment lets us know when our next respite (time to breathe) will arrive. The psyche learns that we will only have to hold our breath until the next session when we can at last exhale again.

We breathe in good air, and breathe out the bad. Breathe in cool energizing oxygen, breathe out hot toxic carbon dioxide. Breathing is the ultimate, most inherently non-dualistic, bivalent act of living, our embodied light and darkness.
And the archetypal representations of breath reflect this:

Vayu, (also known as Vata, or Prana) the Hindu god of wind and breath, is “a destructive god who has an intemperate character and is often subject to violent desires which he never strives to repress.” (~ Sumanta Sanyal http://www.pantheon.org/articles/v/vayu.html Encyclopedia Mythica™)

In the Prasna Upanishad, the sage, Pippalada describes Prana variously as the primal energy of the universe, as the sun, as fire, as light that illumines all, as food, as the creator, the destroyer, the Self and as the breath. (~ The Upanishads- The breath of the eternal)

We take in anything new by inhaling, and dispose of anything no longer needed through exhaling. This is true in psychotherapeutic process too. And I watch my clients breath closely for clues about where my support is most needed and where the block resides, if resistance obstructs the processes of integration or release.

Ideally, psychotherapy allows previously unexperienced feelings, memories, instincts, intuitions, self-states to transpire (to breathe through, to become known) for the first time. It is where we say things out loud that we would, under normal circumstances, only mutter under our breath. Breath is the vehicle that we ride to conscious awareness.

We aspire to (breathe on) transformation, to new lives, to better worlds, and easier ways of being, fresher air and deeper breaths.

When we try to blow-off discomforting information about ourselves, minimizing injuries and anxieties, our dreams, our Unconscious processes, our true selves and our deepest needs, we become the destroyer, the squelcher, the smotherer of our own internal self-states.

Examining our dreams, our words, relationship patterns, assumptions, projections, and our internal responses to external events inspires (breathes into) and energizes us to press on through the stale air of stagnation. Greek pneuma means wind, soul, spirit, and breath, and represents an internalized fragment of the world soul, the generative, creative, healing principle that moves in and out of us.

Breath is the archetypal initiator of all acts of creation. In creation myths world-wide, gods breathe spirit on to the earth, into inert globs of clay, and in the therapy office the act of breathing likewise enlivens self-states that are inert, repressed or deadened.

The therapeutic process at its most elemental, is where we conspire (breathe together) to bring forth new experience of ourselves, and others into being.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Pain/Full

I grew up in a haunted house with a parent disabled, possessed and ultimately devoured alive by chronic physical pain. One day, Pain, an occasional intrusive visitor, burst its way in, and never ever left. Pain sat with us at the dinner table, rode with us in the car, spent sleepless night in front of the television reclining in barca-lounger, or in a home hospital bed manipulated by magic buttons. Pain spent up all of our financial resources, taught us to walk on eggshells, pressured us to forgive all outbursts and unreason, and garnered the tongue-clicking pity of the neighbors. Eventually, Pain blocked all obvious pathways to warmth, comfort and connection, as cold and dark as a cloud blocking the sun. It took up more and more and more space each passing year – until there was no room for anyone to live with it at all, until there was barely room to move or breathe.

All of us were so used to Pain and the daily incantation of its horror-litany that we grew to hate its oppressive presence. We hardened our hearts, and had no empathy or patience left for it. We were sick of its specter, and sick of its name. We surrendered to its power as it disabled us all. Pain sucked everyone dry, and left nothing behind.

Pain runs in families.

I had my first migraine at age 7. By adolescence it was typical for me to become blind-sick, with an invisible hot metal spike in my eye and throbbing skull, nauseated or vomiting before and after any high-stakes event: A big test, an audition for the school play, a nervous first date, or at the mall choosing matching his and her outfits for the high school dance.

Through young adulthood I was sick more often than not: 18-20 violent, nauseating migraines a month.

In Pain’s clutches there is no room for anything else, no comfort, no connection, no conversation. It hurts to talk, to open my eyes, to listen, to breathe. Clothes hurt, light hurts, sounds hurt, smells hurt, the throbbing of my heart beat hurts. There is nothing but Pain.

But more often than not, Pain would pack its bags and slip away before morning, like a one night stand – as if it had never been there at all. I was ready to start the day as if I had not spent the previous 24 or 48 hours nauseated, throwing up, dozing in-between waves of pain on the cool tile of the bathroom floor, the street light burning through my eyelids as it seeped in under the crack of the closed door.

I was actually getting off easy compared to what I knew Pain was capable of. I was able to have friends, to work, to fall in love and sustain a relationship, (although early in our relationship my now husband worried that I had bulimia because of my constant nocturnal nausea). I could read, play, study, live as long as I did it in between headaches.

No doctor ever asked about it. If I did mention that I thought I might have migraines, they responded that it was common and suggested that I try some product over the counter.

I assumed it was normal. It was how it always had been for me.

At 30, my first social work position, required me to have an employee physical. The agency MD noticed I had ticked the “headaches” box and conducted an earnest assessment.

“Eighteen to twenty a month!” she exclaimed. “And you’ve never had any treatment?!?”

Treatment? What are you talking about? What for?

“Most people do not spend 20 nights each month in severe pain throwing up in the dark!”

The new fangled medication she prescribed for me twenty years ago to spray up my nose made me throw up immediately. I decided on the spot that medical treatment was ridiculous if this was the best they had to offer. I deepened my mediation practice, sought out acupuncture, took Feverfew, B supplement, magnesium, yoga practice, Qi gong, Food eliminations. I reduced my migraine load to 9-12 a month.

I thought it was a miracle. I felt cured.
Better than I had ever hoped for.

The only time I saw my condition in the popular culture was in old re-runs of my favorite sitcom from childhood. “Frank, take me home, I have a sick headache!” Darren Steven’s overwhelmed mother would whine, the back of her hand pressed dramatically to her forehead after Samantha and Esmarelda had let their magic loose in her presence. Like the Bewitched script writers, I associated migraine disease with weakness, manipulation, psychosomatic illness.

So I had headaches a lot. There were hundreds pain reliever/headache commercials on TV. Other people could cope it seemed, why not me?

Early in my practice, I could get through most of my work hours. A couple of times a month, I would excuse myself from session, to be sick, and then return to the client and resume the work.

Like a cat hiding its symptoms, I’d sit in session, grateful to focus on the client’s narrative instead of the mounting pain, the excruciatingly searing light emitting from the 60 watt light bulbs, the hypersensitivity to the smell of the therapist’s perfume in the adjoining office.

A few times a month I would have to cancel out and reschedule my day all together. My therapist never did this. Never once in over a decade together had he cancelled out at the last minute due to illness. I did it regularly. For years I was ashamed to admit to my clients what had kept me out of the office. I fobbed it off on flu, tummy bugs, bad colds, “coming down with something” I worried about treatments disrupted, the precarious appearance of my emotional fortitude and reliability as I teetered on the brink of disability:

“I feel another sick-headache coming on Take me home Frank!”

The rare but most shameful moments occurred when I couldn’t/can’t make it through a session. The session begins with a manageable amount of low-grade pain, which suddenly escalates, or an intrusive visual aura partially blinds me letting me know I am mere minutes away from Pain’s explosive arrival, and I need to stop suddenly.

Pain has cut clients off mid-thought, when I realize that the line has been crossed between manageable Pain, and Pain that has possessed me:

“I am so very sorry, I need to stop. I get severe migraines, and I can’t always predict when they will strike. I’m so so sorry to leave you hanging like this – but I think the most responsible thing for me to do now is stop. I hope we can reschedule, and I won’t charge you for this session, or the next one so we can talk about what this leaves you with.”

The client looks stricken, worried, fearful that they caused my headache. They rush out gathering their things and offering well wishes over their shoulder. I cannot get their distressed faces out of my mind or shake the guilt of having abandoned them as I sit, face buried in my hands, slumped and Pain-drunk on the long, smelly, flickering-florescent subway ride home.

When it cracks and I am myself again, I send a note, letting them know I am all right and not to worry – and schedule a time to talk about what happened, what it was like to see me vulnerable, to feel abandoned, what it activates from their past, and how it changes our dynamic going forward.

It took a long time for me to figure out, on my own, that certain clients, in certain self-states, could communicate to me through a migraine – that Pain could sometimes serve as a somatic countertransference, surfacing latent content in the session.

One man, kind, charming, intelligent talented, and highly anxious left me puking into my wastepaper basket immediately after session, several weeks in a row. I monitored my food triggers- no obvious culprit. I changed his session time – to the early afternoon, to the first session of the day – still it continued. I enjoyed him, cared about him, felt touched by his struggles, and courage. Yet, somehow, unconsciously, he was making me sick. Others wondered if I should keep working with him, but had no impulse to abandon him – I was used to this. When the anxiety, illness and chaos that he was struggling to repress finally erupted into a psychotic/depressive break, my somatic countertransferential symptoms disappeared entirely and forever, and we went on to work together for many years, forming a deep and treasured therapeutic alliance.

I don’t know if I have more clients with chronic pain conditions than other therapists, if I assess for it more, or if its manifestations sit with me more intensely.

I have clients who live through, with, and in spite of pain far more severe and disabling than mine: chronic cluster headaches, spinal injury, chronic severe nerve pain, endomitriosis, permanently disabling bone injuries, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory diseases, autoimmune illness.

Am I therapist that is “good with” pain related issues?

There is no easy answer to how well therapists treat cases that activate our core conflicts. I suspect that I am simultaneously my best, and my worst with these cases.

I’ve seen clients, spend years, even decades like myself, ignoring, denying, hiding, carrying on, prematurely resigned, certain that their pain load, as excruciating, untreated, and disabling as it is, is immutable.

I have seen Pain annihilate people, drive them into a permanent haze of narcotic dependency and abuse, make them wish they were dead, or drive them to consider killing themselves to escape.

I’ve watched Pain eat relationships alive and suck their bones. It destroys by obliterating our ability to experience other people or even one’s own Self. At its worst, it doesn’t permit the experience of anything other than Pain itself.

I’ve also watched people move into states of conscious acceptance that Pain is permanent, and unescapable, and sometimes through that surrender, they discover how to survive and thrive.

When I sit with clients trapped in its jaws, I am terrified it will chew them up slowly, in front of me. My office transforms into the haunted house of my past. My own brushes with a near disabling pain condition rears its head. My demon-pain-fears, past and present whisper in my ears, terrorizing me.

These are the most harrowing countertransferences that I face. Yet, cognitively, I know that everyone one will and must forge their own, unique relationship with Pain.

There have been times I have chosen to disclose my circumstance, in order recuse myself from the illusion of objectivity, and allow my client to protect themselves from my own Pain-fear. A decade ago, a young client with chronic pain (who I had seen for many years for other issues) contemplated a surgical intervention that I was too tragically familiar with from my family history.

“Listen: I know that this is a very important decision and I want to support you in making whatever choice you feel you need to make for yourself. But, I have to let you know, it will be very hard over the next few months for me to separate my own experiences with this procedure from our discussion. I had a family member who had this very same procedure many times, with increasingly bad outcomes each time. I know that this is not objective data – that I am drawing on a sample of one, and it offers no statistical significance to help you figure out what you need to do. I have seen only the worst outcomes, not the best. So, that being said: I plan on doing my best to support you through this – but I need you to know that I hold biases that are specific to me – and if it ever feels like it’s getting in the way of hearing your own reason and intuition about this, please, I’ll need you call me out on it. If you see me very uncomfortable or looking fearful or worried, I just want you to be clear that it is about my history – and not about my approval or disapproval of your decision.”

The client ultimately chose to go ahead with the surgery, and we were able to stay close and connected through the pre-operative period, the surgery, the recovery and its aftermath.

And there are times that calling out my client’s Pain-blind-spots have helped me to see my own.

After years of feeling that I was functioning “well enough” with my 9 to 12 incapacitating headache days a month, my cancelled/rescheduled sessions, and my wellness practices – I heard myself confronting a chronic pain client on his resignation and encouraging him to find a reputable pain clinic that offered real treatment – not just narcotic pain medications.

“Your anger and fear that the pain will never go away entirely, are blocking you from exploring any avenue that could reduce your pain, and give you more of your life back!”

And then I thought to myself:
Ah yes, well then. Pots calling kettles, physicians healing themselves, doses of my own medicine and all that…

I googled “NYC headache specialists neurology” immediately after the session. I’d had chronic migraines since childhood. I was now over 40. I had never seen a neurologist in my life.

Two things had changed that made those 9-12 sick days or nights no longer acceptable. I began waking up ambushed by Pain in the morning. It snuck in as I slept – and it was staying longer – sometimes for days consecutively – violating all rules of migraine-hood as I knew them.

And I had become a parent.

A baby sleeping on you while you are in a Pain-stupor can be sweet and comforting. Trying to get two toddlers out of wet bathing suits, and diaper-changed under bright lighting in a noisy, crowded locker room after baby swim classes half-blind, in level 8 pain, and throwing up in garbage cans on the street while pushing a double stroller home is a nightmare.

I heard myself begging my kids to “be good” to “be quiet” because Mommy’s head hurt very badly. I heard the irritation and exhaustion in my voice 9-12 days and evenings out of the month as I scattered eggshells on the floor for them to walk on. I heard my kids ask, when they didn’t see me: “Is mommy throwing up again?” and watched them play Family: “I’ll be the mommy and lay down in a dark room!” I heard the voices and whispers that had haunted the house of my childhood. It now seemed a terrifying and real possibility that it could all happen again.

I found an excellent neurologist. With some trepidation, I went forward to try Botox – which paralyzes my scalp and back of my neck. (The standard protocol is to do the forehead and brow muscles too – which I opt out of. Being able to look worried, furrow my eyebrows and lift them happy surprise is three quarters of what is required of me professionally. )

Botox brought incredible relief -(and I have a very youthful scalp!) the number of headaches were not reduced, the severity was: no more nausea, and Pain took up much less square footage. I still had the accompanying neurological symptoms: occasional aura and visual distortions, agitation and irritability, light, sound and smell sensitivity, fatigue, dry mouth, word-loss, garbled speech.

Over time, I added preventative medication, as well as the medication needed to stop a migraine in its tracks. I still eat medicinally and mindfully, practice meditation, and martial arts based energy work, I still use natural remedies whenever possible, take supplements to support neurovascular health, and draw on the support of alternative medicines. My migraine load, for the past four years or so is down to 4-6 a month. For now. Some months I am entirely migraine free. I haven’t missed whole days of work, and only occasionally need to cancel a late night session.

My journey has been from alternative and wellness modalities, to deepening my use of allopathic support. I have had many clients who have traveled the opposite path – traditional western medicine maxed out its offerings, or proved to be harmful or useless and engaging in alternative methods of treatment and self-care and wellness has been able to carry them farther.

Three years ago, Pain reared up and threatened to consume yet another client, with no prior warning, in the form of chronic cluster headaches – which bring with them some of the most severe, acute physical pain that human beings can endure. For a full year I watched a woman I cared about being sadistically, demonically tortured by Pain at its most hateful, explosive and destructive. Neither of us knew that she would survive if or if Pain could be successfully controlled. My own fears surely led me to make many errors. There were times as I watched her collapsing, her sense of self slipping away that I flailed and clutched too tightly, acted out my agitated panic, and probably compounding her sudden violent disability with my own urgencies. I could not sit at a distance, with naive certainty that “everything would get better.” I was not able to be inherently calm or soothing. I was afraid with her.

Was that what was needed? It was frankly all that I had to give. I knew what it was to be neurologically altered, to be unable to think clearly, to post-traumatically avoid any potential trigger, to have my senses Pain-distorted and to be surrounded by Pain on all sides. I knew how cold it could be when the Pain-cloud blocked out the sun. I don’t know how she or I could have gotten through that year together if Pain hadn’t taught me how to stay with her.

It was an unfathomably brutal and traumatizing year for her before the cycle cracked – and a year that made me re-encounter all of my own worst fears on a near daily basis in and out of the office.

But even as it was happening, and certainly once her pain was finally controlled, I was extraordinarily grateful to be reminded of what my relationship to Pain was good for.

Pain becomes bearable, meaningful only when we can discover how to make it of use.

Pain can sever relatedness, but it can also blast open a portal to connection. It reminds us of our own vulnerability, our mortality, and our powerlessness as an inherent aspect of our humanity. Pain can teach us how to be tender to others, and can lay a foundation for empathy, and intimacy to flourish.

Several months ago, my son, to whom I am not biologically related, developed recognizable symptoms: His coat hood pulled over his face, his thumb inserted into his left eye-socket – he complained that the subway lights would make him throw up, and retreated to a dark room to sleep two or three afternoons a week, sometimes missing school off and on for several months.

I knew what to do. We eliminated common food triggers, found him an acupuncturist, and pediatric neurologist headache specialist to confirm the diagnosis.

“Common conditions are common” the headache specialist said when I enquired about the nature/nurture questions that live in the heart of all adoptive families. “But because you have migraines, you were able to identify it quickly and get him care. Many kids go for years and years, or through their entire lives, without ever knowing what is happening to them or that there is help available.”

Don’t I know it.

Pain’s bestows the capacity to recognize its presence and to be moved to alleviate it in others.

Pain can destroy, no doubt. I still sometimes hate its guts and it can still scare the shit out of me.

But I’ve grown to also feel grateful for its dark gifts, and surrender to its teachings, as it has guided me, and others, toward unfamiliar routes to connection, relationship and love.

Last week, I had a whopper. My son, curled up with me, and began rubbing my head.

“Right there, right Mommy?” he clucked. “That’s the worst spot, I know. Don’t worry, you don’t have to explain. I know just exactly where it hurts…”

copyright © 2013 All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Butterfly Effect

We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.
― Neil deGrasse Tyson

Every late August /early September it comes, whether I like it or not.

As soon as the wind shifts, without any invitation at all.

In fact, when I resist or forget that it is arriving, it bursts in a rage, like some slighted and pissed of fairy-witch that spits curses, wreaks havoc, and grinds the whole works to a stop.

When I just remember to behave with grace when it knocks it becomes a respectful, polite, if somewhat impinging guest who is aware that their presence is inconvenient, and unavoidably disruptive, and their scheduled stay just a little too long.

When I am attuned, prepared and accepting, it brings with it quiet pleasures and relief.

As the earth under my feet cools, and draws the heat out through the bottom of my feet, my sap no longer expands, but contracts, retreating from my extremities redirecting itself down, down my trunk traveling from the tips to the roots.

There was a time when I would have had no word for it other than “depression” – perhaps it was at the time, and could be again – maybe there were even a few seasons of my life -especially when I stubbornly refused to heed the signs or adjust my behavior- when it could have met the official diagnostic criteria.

Although I no longer think of it that way, not at all.

Now, with many years of practice, and deep listening to myself and the world around me, I know it is my body’s response to the season changing. It is time to start to pull my attention inward and conserve my energies again. To shift the rhythm of my household from spontaneous, open-armed outdoor adventurousness to books, indoor art projects, and homework at the kitchen table. To warm up my diet. To carry a light sweatshirt on my morning run. To eat less raw, cold food. To give up the iced coffees of summer. To start cooking again. To put cinnamon on my oatmeal, and to wear closed shoes on my feet. To find my light cotton scarves, to make sure my kids have windbreakers handy, and for us all to come in from outdoors a little earlier each day. To get the garden, and the rest of us, ready for a colder season.

The green drains from the leaves, the downward migration begins.

Everything turns, and begins to head south when summer is over.

Even the monarch butterflies

Why should I be exempt?

Why should you?

Living in NYC it is shockingly easy to forget that we live in a larger world, that we are among the animals on the planet, that we are inextricable from the natural world.

Our clocks, and TVs, computer screens and lightbulbs, our subways and taxis and over-air-conditioned workplaces and shops, the cement and brick and glass and steel horizons and the meticulously groomed parks help us forget our instinctive selves and our place in this world.

We cannot easily wade in the rivers, climb trees, we do not rake our lawns – we must schedule long car trips out of the city to see the leaves turn. We see only a few stars faintly, and the moon is more often than not, hiding behind a building. Windows look out on other windows.

Right now there is a storm raging outside, the winds are gusting up to 50 miles per hour, but out my office window you would never know it. Nothing moves. If I look long and closely, I see a pot of dead decorative tall grass bending on the sun-deck of the condo a few buildings over, only a very thin slice of the river far off and barely visible between skyscrapers shows some white caps on the waves.

But I have seen the Monarch butterflies – every single day for the past two weeks – but certainly not today in this wind – I have seen them, in purposive, directional flight, past my office window on the top of a Wall Street skyscraper. One at a time, flying by every couple of hours, migrating like birds, to their winter roost in Mexico.

The Eastern monarch migration is endangered, and monarch numbers dwindling. Stateside, municipalities mow highway medians covered with milkweed – which feed and sustain monarch breeding – to improve highway safety. Corn farming uses pesticides – which kill caterpillars – to insure sufficient crop yield. The local resident loggers in Mexico facing overwhelming poverty, cut down trees – that millions of butterflies route to, and roost in – selling lumber to feed their families.

Neither are the butterflies safe from the measurable effects of climate change: drought, dehydration, forest fires, increasingly severe storms.

And neither are we.

The clients who come to see me have heard many such stories, if not this one, then others. The plight of the distant polar bears, the poaching of elephants, the ever growing list of extinct and endangered species. The short-term, immediate desperate human demand for food, for folk medicine, for oil, for energy for money, for stuff, for power that makes us a danger to the natural order, and corrective natural phenomenon a danger to us as well.

The battle, a false dualism, appears to set human needs against the natural world. An intricate and complex interconnectedness has created a scenario that leaves all parties, residents and butterflies, in insufficiency.

This is the dark side of the archetype of Interconnectedness:

Nothing is without its shadow.
Every action has its reaction.
Everything we do can fuck something else up.

Acts of creation are usually reserved for gods and poets.
But humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how.
To plant a pine for example, one need neither be god nor poet;
one need only own a good shovel.
For one species to mourn another is a new thing under the sun.

~ Aldo Leopold

as quoted in Monarch Butterflies, The Last Migration, by Benjamin Vogt

All archetypes are bivalent, and two-faced.

Every gesture we make has the power to heal something too.

What often looks terrible can be essential and transformative.
And what looks good and clean and perfect will eventually reveal a darker under-belly.

If we were to live with awareness that we are of the earth and effected by it, and that we also have a significant effect up on the world – what would change?

Many shut down such questions down, dismissing the dilemma entirely, defensively certain that none of it matters anyway.

Some live in constant fear about coming catastrophes. Some are paralyzed with hopelessness.

Some believe, self-righteously, that they know as a point of fact, the “best choices” to make, the one right and true and obvious answer.

Others are just trying to tolerate the questions.

I ask myself what are my responsibilities and capacities as a psychotherapist in the face of it all.

Social workers emphasize the importance of understanding clients as “persons in environments” and as therapists, we are further trained to assess our client’s (and our own) capacity for healthy relatedness and ability to empathize with others. We try to discern and describe attachment styles and strengths. We take note of how well impulses are contained, if gratification can be delayed, and the development, or lack of judgement as well as short and long term reasoning. We determine the of severity of symptoms, orientation to reality, rigidity and effectiveness of defenses. All of these assessments are based, in large part, on our proximal environment of human relationships and structures, particularly co-workers, immediate friends and family.

But perhaps we are also called to asses the larger circles of interpersonal functioning beyond the immediate tribe and social environments, widening to include our interconnections to the much larger communities we dwell within: the local, regional and global community, our immediate habitat, region and ecosystem.

Insurance companies do not require us to assess the sense of relatedness and relationship to the planet itself. Our training rarely helps us figure out how much our client may or may not feel themselves to be a indivisible part of the natural world, or how divorced they may be from understanding their integral and entwined position among plants, oceans, animals, weather, bugs, bears, bats, clouds, soil, light and climate. How aware are we of the fact that our individual beings, and our supposedly self-determined fates remain absolutely inseparable from each other and the rest of the creatures, minerals and vegetables and vapors swirling around on this blue dot?

Here is what I do know: we are rarely destroyed, but usually strengthened by facing our fears and integrating our shadows, both personally and collectively.

As psychotherapists it has always been our obligation to promote our clients awareness of themselves in a larger environment, and deepen their contact with strengthening realities, even if approaching reality is uncomfortable or difficult.

As clients, we are called to face and accept what we do not want to know about ourselves.

Jesus sat under the sky on the hot desert sands to face down his shadow, Buddha sat under the Bohdi tree, with a finger touching the earth. Fairy tale heroes and heroines must commonly align themselves with animals of the forest, and draw on the support of flora and fauna to conquer the witches and demons that threaten them. The desert, the tree, and the animals guide them into deeper contact with themselves-as-part-of-the-larger-world, and therefore, more in touch with themselves, and more in touch with the world.

When we allow ourselves to wonder about what it means for us to be absolutely intertwined and interdependent upon the natural world at this point in history, we may feel angry or impotent, afraid, overwhelmed, anxious about what is to come, disoriented about how to proceed when our culture produces so many diversions, distractions and explicit minimization and misinformation.

Raised in captivity in labs, experimentally living under controlled temperatures, sheltered from the wind, the sun, the rains, adapted to prolonged artificial lighting, or exposed to electromagnetism the monarchs also become lost and disoriented. When they are released during the migratory season they scatter in random directions.

How do the wild monarchs find their over-wintering trees? They have no cognitive knowledge of how the hell to get to Mexico. They are two or three butterfly generations away from the tree where their grandmothers wintered before laying spring eggs.

Like us, they are heading somewhere they have never been before.

But somehow they do know. Or they figure it out.

They feel the cold slowing the beat of their wings. Too cool, and they are paralyzed, frozen. Too hot and they dehydrate. They fly just enough toward the sun, to the south, toward conditions that allow them to keep moving, that maximize their strengths, and ultimately to the roosts that support the survival of their species and the lives of their offspring.

Like the Fisher King who must heal his own wound before his land and grounds will be fertile again, our work will begin by accepting that we hold many illusory beliefs about ourselves as entirely autonomous and self-determining, and by addressing our own estrangement from ourselves, and the truth of our essential, undeniable interdependent nature.

Some how, monarchs are able, with much smaller brains than ours, to feel their own bodies, to read the weather and to instinctively feel where they are and where they are headed and how they should respond to the earth itself.

They will start the trip all alone, heeding the warnings of colder realities. They glide and soar and flap toward the sun, and catch thermal winds that warm and animate them, they follow a circular and indirect route. In time, those that survive and are not eaten or blown off course will gather in a flocks – or more properly a rabble of butterflies. The rabble will increases in size until they are in the hundreds of thousand in flight together. As they near their destination millions upon millions of them will soar together, they will stop traffic, and darken the skies.

But for now, I sit in my office and watch for them – one at a time, caught in updrafts, swirling through thermals, sometimes switching directions and then switching back, undaunted and too small to be afraid of what lies ahead or to dread the arduousness of the long and treacherous journey, each slowly, steadily finding their way to where they are meant to be.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Books that informed me in writing and for more reading:

Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly
by Sue Halpern

Monarch Butterflies: The Last Migration
by Benjamin Vogt

Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy
by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
by Alan Watts

Advice: Dismissed, Unheeded and Pooh-Pooh-ed

There are things that most therapists say, wish they could say, or have given up saying, that no one ever listens to anyway.

You probably won’t listen either:
But what the hell – I’ll give it another shot:

Please get your thyroid checked, your blood sugar, make sure you aren’t anemic. Get a blood test and a physical. If you are an older man, check your testosterone levels. (I see your eyes glazing over already) Let us make sure before we spend hours and hours and you make a significant financial investment in psychotherapy that we aren’t trying to talk your glands or your pancreas into functioning more consistently.

Your symptoms don’t just live in your mind. Your mind is housed in your body. You have to treat your most pernicious anxious/depressive symptoms in your body too.

And, sure, yes, I am also talking about exercise (recent, flawed studies aside) If you’ve had your exam and your physical health permits: Get some air, some sunshine. Or get rained on. Go to a gym. Find some exercise that you find pleasurable, and do it whenever you can find time and push yourself out the door. Work up a sweat. Salsa dance. Rock climb. Or just walk. Especially when you don’t feel like it. Just around the block a few times, or to the corner and back. Spend a little time in the company of your own body – pay attention to it. We just feel and function better when we treat our bodies with self-respect.

If exercise offers no gain at all – or your energy and motivation is too too low to even consider it – then we need to intervene with your body in some other way: Medical intervention and medication may be a possibility for those who feel committed to the medical model. There are other routes as well: Acupuncture, yoga, a nutritional consult. Therapeutic massage, qi-gong, tai chi, Some believe that a ‘cleanse’ can reboot their bodies response. Some consult an herbalist. Eat aruvedically if that is your thing.

Whatever.

Any gesture that will get you respectfully engaged with your body’s needs again.

The futility of directiveness, I suppose, is why I allied with psychoanalytic, existential, and depth psychology models – as I’ve surrendered to the notion that there is no such thing as effective, directive advice, and that our cognition is rarely changed with out understanding our deeper fears, inheritances, habits, survival mechanisms and resistances.

But I’ll admit, sometimes I still try to slip it in, sandwiched in between moments of exploration and mirroring, amplification, and empathy.

Sometimes I am just itching to tell you what to do.

Especially when you are asking me to.

Actually, its when you ask me to that you seem to listen least of all.

Medication:
I would prefer, if you are considering taking, or feel that you will benefit from psychiatric medication that it be prescribed by a board certified psychiatrist, and please please please, if you won’t or can’t use someone that I refer you to, please find someone who will collaborate, or at least return my call. Please ask them at the first consultation.

Say words like these:
“Will you feel comfortable collaborating as part of a treatment team with my psychotherapist? How do you prefer to be contacted? I would like to be sure to sign a consent for the two of you to communicate before I leave today. Are there times when you might want to know what is happening in my therapy, or would want feedback, or have questions for my therapist?”

I would prefer that you see someone who truly believes in the construct of the lowest therapeutic dose as an guiding ethical value. I would prefer that you consider it as a last resort rather than a simple quick fix. No matter what medication you may utilize for whatever emotional symptoms trouble you, please bear in mind that medication will not change anything enough in and of, or all by itself. In the very best case scenario, it is a single, potentially effective tool to apply to a multi-pronged problem. Tools can be necessary and make things easier. And tools can be dangerous and injurious.

And you will still need to talk things through, look at your choices, heed your intuition, change your life-style, confront changes that you would rather avoid.

Continuing on:

If you are single:
That is fine. Single is not pathology. Life as a single person can be an excellent and healthy choice, and far far preferable to life in a toxic destructive relationship. You are not less than because you are not in a relationship. You are not more unhappy than many many people who have partners. You may have different kinds of unhappiness then they do. Committed partnerships do not inherently make people happier. There are miserable people single, and partnered. There are joyful single folk, and joyful married folk.

No one ever listens to this at all.

If you are dating:
You can have no idea if someone is “perfect for you” after three dates, or a couple of hook ups. Truly. You, and everyone who loves you will be spared a great deal of agony if you can tolerate that fact that we human beings can be extremely attracted to someone who we don’t know at all, probably exactly because we don’t really know them at all.

Enjoy the pheromones. Try to guard your attachments until trust is earned.

And the second prescription for dating singles is like unto it:

Just because you have a somewhat icky feeling after the third week of seeing someone doesn’t in and of itself mean that you should dump them. That icky feeling may very well be a signal that this is a relationship that has the capacity for intimacy. Intimacy is scary, and dangerous. It could hurt you. But, it is what most people are seeking when they look for love. When intimacy begins to emerge – it can scare the shit out of you. Wait a few more weeks before bolting. Get more experiential data. Maybe it is a signal that something is wrong or not working between the two of you.

Or maybe its a signal that you could change each others lives.

In someways, being consistently ignored in my more advice-y moments has been relieving from the inflated illusion that I may have substantial power in my clients lives.

Its proven to me that none of of us take in anything that we do not want to, or are not ready to hear.

And none of us can take any action, or change our thinking until we are ready.

But, lets keep going shall we?

For parents of young children:
I know it is expensive, I know its a hassle. I know you are so exhausted you are done for by nine o’clock. But for god-sakes you need to get away from that baby sometimes. If you are in a couple, you need a date night. Single parents also need nights out with other grown ups: Ideally once a week but for many that is a tall order- but at least twice a month – once a month? Your child truly, ultimately doesn’t want to eat you alive, but they will if you let them.

For the chronically overworked:
You need to leave work at a reasonable time at least once a week. If it were up to me it would be more. I know there are deadlines, and this is a big ambitious city. But you need to have some sacrosanct activity – in addition to therapy – that you leave work for and show up to regularly. A book club. A painting class. Any of the activities that I already mentioned that you don’t remember because you were just yes-ing me and not really paying attention. You need to leave work sometimes. Your employer, may, in fact be happy to eat you alive, but if you let them, you will be even more miserable.

My words wash out into a wave of white-noise: just as any adult in Charlie-Brown’s universe: Wah-wah-wahwahwah-wah.

For those who complain about boredom and isolation:
Volunteer somewhere, or get connected to a community organization. We feel better when we are connected to a community of others who share similar goals and values.

A church, a temple a mosque, a political campaign, a charitable organization, and animal shelter. Habitat for Humanity, an urban garden. Its easier to feel connected to people when we are working side by side. Its easier to chat and get to see something about another’s character when you are pulling up weeds, or serving soup, or doing something meaningful together.

There is a vague and anxious guilt that accumulates when we stockpile all of our personal energy for ourselves – and don’t generate something for others. Do something that makes you feel clean and aligned with your own values and proud of yourself.

Certainly by now I have lost you.

But shall I continue to proffer and assemble my beautiful bouquet of all things ignored?

If you are “stuck”:
Keep a pen and pad by your bed and write down whatever you can remember about your dreams. I know, I know, you don’t dream, you never remember your dreams, your dreams are “just weird”, about nothing, are just little bits here and there, mostly about your job. Please. Pretty please? Just indulge me?

When you complain of feeling stuck, and spend hours and hours polling your friends and family and neighbors, and me about “what you should do” to get out of your circumstance – the problem is that you haven’t forged a sufficient, or patient relationship with your own intuition.

You don’t know what you are hungry for and you are asking other people what you want to eat for dinner. The answer will only come from the outside in that your internal hunger will recognize it or reject it.

You can eliminate the middle-men and learn to listen to yourself directly. Your dreams, your unconscious, your psyche is chewing on all of this stuff day and night. When you sleep – you produce little mind-movies about the dilemmas that are most central to you. When you have failed to solve the problem with your consciousness, why not try letting your unconscious have a crack at it? What do you have to lose?

Turn off the morning talk radio ( you only have about 30 seconds to a minute to remember your dream upon waking) set your alarm 7 minutes earlier and hit snooze. Use the 7 minute interim to think about where you just were, and write it down. Even a few key words may help. It might be boring at first. Detritus from the day – nothing exciting – but these are symbols produced by you – and if you keep paying attention – we will certainly find some content to riff on, some grist for the mill, that may lead us right where you need to go.

A drip, drip drip at a time, water built the Grand Canyon, and its part of my work to chip, chip chip away at people’s resistances to the activities of daily living that will at least make our work in the room flow more smoothly, and best put you in more contact with yourself, your core needs and a sense of well being.

But, certainly, you can feel free to ignore me about this too.
Its fine.
I’m resigned. I’m used to it.

For those who “do not know what they want:”
You will likely need some space in your life for some kind of conscious, waking contemplative activity. Learn to mediate, or write in a journal, or draw or create something. You need to spend some time listening to your inner world. Even if its boring or hard. You need to grab your fishing pole, cast the line, and wait for a nibble. Day dream. Paint. Garden. Hike. Buy some charcoals and one of those squishy erasers.

I know its embarrassing. Its not about creating a masterpiece, its about exercising your creative imaginal capacities so that your creative self is more engaged with the process of figuring out how to live a fulfilling live. Something quiet, and a little bit alone. 5 minutes! Thats all I’m asking! Fine, then just 3 minutes doodling and fantasizing and exercising your imagination?

Your imaginal world is going to give you far better advice than I can if you will just spend a couple of minutes listening. How will you be able to surprise yourself if you fill up every moment with email and texting eating and fretting, and TV and live-streaming, and errands, and work?

But I still I sit in my chair, week after week, year after year, trying to restrain myself but, of course, I crack, and indulge in re-re-re-reciting the most basic life prescriptions.

My words blow back to me like spit in the wind…

But random reinforcement is the most enticing: Every once in a while, one pushes through the icky feeling and finds the love of her life. Another, who had become hardened and frozen and cynical discovers his yearning for meaningful engagement with the world by listening to his dreams. Someone treats their thyroid and finds they have more energy for life. Two or three date nights reanimate an unhappy couples dormant sex life. A regular mediation practice slowly relieves life-long anxiety.

Just enough to keep me hooked.

I try not to. I know its dangers.
It almost never leads to anything good.

Except for when someone actually listens.

A quick note about this post: WG at Therapy Tales illustrated a silly, lovely distillation of this essay – Be sure to see the previous post for the charming result!

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

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