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From time to time, the KPC blog will present articles and resources we hope you'll find helpful and enlightening.

Saturday
Dec122009

"A Hole In My Soul"

By Dr. Lawrence J. Maltin

Having been involved in the psychological and addiction fields for many years, I've been witness to the many ways we emotionally suffer on a daily basis. Aside from the biochemical and neurological disorders, which create distinctive types of difficulties, most of us, to a greater or lesser degree, are confronted with tensions, anxieties, insecurities and uncertainties in our lives.

It has been my wish for several years to write about my understanding of the nature of human suffering, its perpetuation through the various psychological strategies we employ to cope with life and the means by which we can discover greater peace of mind and meaning.

This search to ease suffering and facilitate inner peace utilizes and attempts to integrate lessons learned from psychology, quantum physics and spirituality. What can emerge from this attempt at integration is a paradigm shift that affords a different perspective of self, the nature of reality and the meaning of our existence.

The paradigm shift contains concepts and experiences which may be quite counterintuitive. As such, I feel it requires patience and repetition to spell out, in a stepwise fashion, how to familiarize oneself with, and hopefully experience, what it has to offer.

The introduction, "A Hole In My Soul," is meant as a beginning overview of the kinds of issues I will be discussing in a more in-depth way. If this writing engages your interest, you can peruse the chapters to follow, which will build on our usual every day understanding of the nature of the self and the reality we think we find ourselves in, as contrasted to the views that quantum physics and mysticism (or spiritual frames of reference) afford us.

I welcome any and all feedback, questions and different perspectives you would like to share. My points of view are offered as starting points; the ultimate test of their truth or usefulness lies in whether they can promote your own inner experience to validate the meaning of what is being offered.

In exploring a number of works involving quantum physics, cosmology, psychology and mysticism over the years, I found that on many occasions I either couldn’t experience what I rationally understood was being explained, or couldn’t understand what I seemed to intuitively feel, or neither understood nor experienced what I was reading. Yet I somehow felt connected to it all, understanding it or not, and was hopeful that if I patiently persisted, the meaning inherent in what was being presented would make itself clearer to my mind. I haven’t been disappointed, and I hope you will proceed in the same open, patient manner.

In a well-written article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine on June 25, 2006, the author was exploring the current state of progress in the addiction field, covering the latest neuro-physiological findings and medications being forwarded for the treatment of various types of addictions. Attention was paid toward the end of the article to the roles of stress and environmental factors contributing to addictions. The author had attended a conference at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT to which a number of distinguished researchers and experts in the addiction field were invited. Also invited was William C. Moyers, son of  the journalist Bill Moyers. William Moyers has been in recovery from cocaine and alcohol for the past 12 years. The article concluded with a quote from William’s address to the conference members.

"I have an illness with origins in the brain ... but I also suffer with the other components of this illness. I was born with what I like to call a hole in my soul ... a pain that came from the reality that I just wasn’t good enough. That I wasn’t deserving enough. That you weren’t paying attention to me all the time. That maybe you didn’t like me enough."

A very powerful description, is it not? I think he poignantly captures what most of us have experienced at one point or other and to some degree or other: that sense of not being good enough, not deserving enough.

Yes, our patients suffer. We suffer. And if we care to pay attention, our world is suffering. At this point in human history, our dilemmas have reached such magnitude that our very existence and that of our planet is truly threatened. We will be fortunate indeed if we make it out of the 21st century.

Since I was child, I was always a fan of science fiction in literature and the movies. It could be a grade-Z movie, but if it had a spaceship or alien in it, I’m embarrassed to admit, I would be glued to the screen. Now, every time an alien of an advanced civilization would visit Earth in these movies or stories, if he wasn’t regarding us as dessert, he invariably would remark: "You know, your species is most interesting. You have such a potential for greatness, and yet such a tendency for self-destructiveness."

They would be divided between their fascination with the qualities of our human experience and their logical assessment that it would be best if they blew us up before we got out among other planets and  made a mess of things.

But we don’t have to look to aliens to get a bad rap. God, Him-/Her-/Itself in the Old Testament would frequently get fed up with the behavior of his people and threaten their destruction, which he had done several times, only to be argued out of it by Abraham, Moses or Mel Brooks.

Well, give us a break. Look at how our brains our constructed. We have this thin cortex sitting on top of a more primitive midbrain and an even more primitive brainstem whose only function is to make sure we can survive to procreate. We are filled with drives, hormones and aggressions for fight or flight, and it's only if we feel secure and satiated that we have time and inclination for higher-order pursuits.

As for our promise as a species ... well, the elder among us have lived through one of the most amazing centuries in history. Our scientific knowledge and understanding has grown exponentially. Witness the progression from the crystal radio to high definition TV, from taking an all-day drive to the Hamptons to space flight, from the coal stove to atomic energy, from bloodletting to Prozac. I have personally witnessed the change that psychiatry and psychoanalysis have undergone. The treatment of the mentally ill has become more humane and acceptable. Patients in the thousands who once languished in mental institutions for years were returned to community housing.

However, the atomic age did not rescue us from oil dependency, our psychiatric treatments are limited and palliative and all the advances in science have not solved hunger, poverty, violence, disease, pollution or contributed to our spiritual advancement. We still manifest the same narcissistic, insecure, self-centered and power-hungry features we have always displayed.

In our work as helping professionals, we confront this issue of our human nature daily. What do we think lies at the heart of a human being who is suffering and presents as wanting to understand their inner self? Of course, to undertake their quest involves our own as well. What will we discover within them, within ourselves? I can assuredly tell you that there is a fundamental fear in most individuals of this journey inwards. This fear contains the distrust of finding a deeply positive and trustworthy core of our true human nature. We often feel that to expose this core is to risk exposure to shame and humiliation, which will ensure our rejection and abandonment -- a fate worse than death.

What is the hope for our clients -- and for us? What are we to believe is our destiny, our purpose? Are we truly what we appear to be -- self-centered, prejudiced and self-serving? Is there a spiritual dimension to our universe to which we can have access, bringing solace, peace and harmony? Are we capable of a higher order of perception that will help us to develop greater capacities for compassion and understanding?

Where have we come from, and where are we going? The incredible mystery of our capacity for consciousness and the vast universe we find ourselves in beckons our attention, does it not? Reams of scientific papers have been written on the nature of the brain and its operations, and yet we still do not truly have a clue how we arrive at a conscious sense of ourselves and the world about us. We really do not understand how physiological processes involving matter and energy give rise to mental qualia; that is, the subjective quality of conscious experience such as color, taste, smell etc. It is these qualities that  make life palpable and wondrous.

A second great mystery is how the universe seems fine-tuned for the creation of planets and, ultimately, life processes. Physicists have pointed out that there are six dimensions of measurement upon which our universe is dependent. These measurements include: the conversion of hydrogen to helium, the strength of the electric force divided by the strength of gravity, the relative density of the universe and so forth. If any one of these numbers were different by one-thousandth of a percent, life would not be viable and the universe would likely be a cold and empty void. Remarkable, is it not? Does this imply the intelligence of a Supreme Designer, or does it point to the existence of multiple parallel universes as theorized in some current cosmological models, some of which support life and many others which do not.

A third very deep mystery for me is the fact that ever since the origination of  human culture, religion has played a primary role. We may define religion as a system of thought that contains beliefs and practices pertaining to the search for and participation in the meaning of life as it relates to a higher power. This higher power can reflect the belief in a deity or deities, or "ultimate truth."

Religion seeks to explain the connection we hopefully have to the prime source of love and guidance, giving our lives meaning and direction. Concomitant with religious strivings have been the development of numerous spiritual practices designed to impart experience, not solely rational knowledge, of a higher order dimension. The key word is "experience," not just beliefs or hopes or wishes, but rather the direct perception of a different type of reality (other than the ordinary way of perceiving) that leaves us victim to our fears, insecurities, needs, hungers and self-preoccupation. And what is the nature of this higher order of perception? Fascinatingly, despite the diverse nature of spiritual pursuits, the common underlying elements are love, compassion and harmony. All life is integrated, harmonious and just as it should be.

Now, isn’t this curious? Here our human history is replete with examples of death and destruction wrought by our selfish needs and desires, and running parallel to this manifestation of our apparent nature is this drive for spiritual understanding and experience -- with its foundation of peace and harmony. Can it be that love is the fundamental energy of an intelligent universe, if we can somehow utilize our powers of awareness to transcend our more primitive biological nature?

Is this wishful thinking? Is it a reflection of our childish unfulfilled need for the all-kind, all-knowing, protective parent, as early psychoanalysts such as Freud have theorized?

Freud was very pessimistic about human nature and had little hope for psychoanalysis as a general treatment. For him, it was more of a research tool into the human mind. His theories were based on the prevailing scientific understandings of the times, which included a very mechanistic perception of how the world works. This world view, scientifically enhanced by the findings of Newtonian physics, emphasizes discreet and predictable forces along with supporting our common-sense experience of an objective and solid material world of which we are a separate observer.

While this mechanistic worldview gave rise to numerous scientific advancements and accomplishments, confidence and predictability, it left no room or appreciation for the role of consciousness as a crucial element in the functioning of the universe. More importantly, it failed to include fundamental processes at the quantum (the very tiny) level which revealed the interconnectivity of the entire universe in which consciousness plays an active part.

Is it possible, then, that spirituality represents a yearning to actualize a sense of something within us that is connected to a higher dimension of reality, that we intuitively perceive even if we cannot prove or demonstrate it.

I think part of the answer to this question becomes clearer if you have had a taste of a spiritual occurrence. It is the type of experience that shifts your fundamental frame of conscious perception. It contains the feeling of certainty, love, harmony, a sense of being connected to a greater whole, absence of fear and great gratitude. As a psychoanalyst, I don’t automatically regard such an occurrence as a euphoric, wish fulfillment or oceanic experience recapitulating a fetal or infantile state of mind.

A spiritual experience, in my view, does not feed the pleasure center of our being, which demands continued gratification. This type of experience seems to address a part of us that ordinarily we are barely aware of and, once touched, we are not the same again -- even if it was a relatively short experience. In brief, I think it feeds our soul, that part of us that seems connected to the stars. And it doesn’t require that we find God or have a direct perception of a divine being. It can simply be that profound sense of inner harmony accompanied by love, compassion and interconnectedness.

This is the definition of "spirituality" I am referring to throughout this talk. I would like to refer to this type of experience as "mindfulness." The term "mindfulness" has more of an "of this world" flavor and a set of operational practices to help achieve it. We do not have to resort to paranormal explanations to understand paradigm shifts, which greatly alter our perceptual experiences.

For example, a few years ago a number of computerized pictures in books were printed that consisted of many pixels comprising what appeared to be a two-dimensional picture. If you gazed long enough at it and relaxed your intent, suddenly a very rich three-dimensional presentation of the same picture seemed to pop out at you, which was quite astonishing. The three-dimensional information was present in the material -- reaching it simply required a shift of attention, a relaxation and openness to a different way of perceiving. Mindfulness is just such a shift in attention and focus that can reveal another dimension of reality.

I will return to mindfulness later in my discussion, as I feel its role is pivotal in understanding the healing potential within every human being. More importantly, I can think of no other mechanism by which a person can have such a direct experience leading to an unquestioning trust of their positive, inner nature. In addition, the accompanying sense of connectedness significantly helps to transcend the feeling of isolation and aloneness.

So, do I feel that there is truly a hole in our souls as referenced by William Moyers? No I don’t, even though it can feel awfully convincing. No, I think the soul is doing just fine; perfectly whole -- with a "w" --  waiting for us to discover it. And unless our minds are tremendously hampered by biochemical disturbances or traumatic past experiences, every human being has this capacity for discovery if they care to take that inward journey. Twelve-stepping is part of that journey, as is psychotherapy, spiritual retreats and any of multiple mindfulness practices such as mediation or Yoga for example.

I can share with you that one such personal, 30-minute experience of mindfulness 25 years ago shifted my entire psychoanalytic and insight-oriented practice from preoccupation with theoretical frameworks of human nature and contents of consciousness to the process of how we perceive and the core issue of acceptance and compassion as the foundation of any psychological growth process.

While in its flow, I could deeply appreciate why the original Buddha uttered upon enlightenment that life is suffering and that suffering is due to attachment. I will return to the nature of attachment and acceptance, but at this juncture I would like to shift gears a bit, to discuss how a different understanding of our physical reality may help us understand how easily we are seduced into believing that our perception of the world about us represents true reality. If we understand how we selectively create reality with our perceptual orientations, then we can more readily grasp that healing shifts in psychological orientations are quite possible.

The revolution in our understanding of the everyday world of time and space with its accompanying shock as to how deceived we can be came with the genius of Einstein, whose seminal papers in the early 1900s of first the Special Theory of Relativity followed by the General Theory of Relativity rocked the foundation of physics.

Because we exist in an ordinary frame of reference where speeds are relatively slow and the masses we deal with are relatively small, we are unaware of the effects of relativity. We believe that space and time are unalterable and constant.

Einstein's equations revealed that time and mass are relative to motion, and his work culminated in the most famous equation in physics, E=MC squared. What we thought was solid matter is a form of transformed energy. Who could imagine the incredible energy that could be released from tiny amounts of processed uranium? How could we intuit, with our common sense, that time is variable with speed and that what we perceive as empty space is a time-space fabric that can be altered in the presence of mass producing what we construe as gravity?

As famous as those revelations were, Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1925 not for relativity, but for his work on the nature of light, which revealed its dual nature as both wave and particle. Ironically, his work was an instrumental influence in the development of quantum physics, which he subsequently had great difficulty accepting for the duration of his life.

Quantum processes reflect that our universe at the subatomic level is not what it appears to be at the ordinary level of our consciousness. That is, the world is not comprised of solid, separate objects moved by forces of various types such as we learned in Physics 101. At a quantum level, the universe is a tissue of interconnected processes that contain infinite possibilities depending upon how these processes interact with each other. We are part of that process, and how we interact with what we are observing or measuring determines the outcome of what we end up observing as reality.

For example, there is an often-quoted experiment that involves sending electrons through either a single or multiple opening. Depending on how we do our measurements, the electron can turn out to be either a particle or a wave. In this experiment, we are a participant in the creation of what we find: either a wave or particle. We make a difference in selecting out of the electron's realm of possible existence where it will be at any given time and how it will manifest.

At a very fundamental level, then, what we perceive as solidity at a macro or ordinary level is the coalescence of energy into particular form, from the wave of possibilities, interacting with the world about it. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that consciousness is the only agent collapsing the wave front of a potential particle, but it does mean that consciousness can be an important determinant in the quantum world's energy processes coalescing into the reality that we perceive.

Another essential concept to understand is that you can never precisely determine both the momentum and location of a particle at any given moment. This is referred to as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and it is this uncertainty that Einstein could not accept because it meant that one could never predict with certainty what was to be, even if you knew all the variables involved. This uncertainty is what prompted Einstein to retort to the quantum physicists, "God does not play dice with the universe." In his debates with another giant of physics, Nils Bohr, he was bested at every turn. The principles of quantum physics have endured, and at one point Bohr rejoined, "Don't tell God how to play with his dice."

So strangely enough, everything is interconnected and every bit of energy and particulate matter in the universe has an effect upon what you are measuring in that moment and in that space of existence.

A particularly interesting experiment involves sending originally paired electrons in opposite directions and then measuring their spin. Paired electrons have complimentary spins. When you selectively alter the spin of one of the separated electrons, you instantly affect the spin of the other, no matter how widely separated, even to the ends of the universe.

Somehow there is interconnectedness inherent in nature if particles started off being interconnected. Now since it is postulated that our universe started with the big bang from an unimaginably dense point, in theory every aspect of the universe is related to every other, regardless of the immense distances involved.

Thus, while our everyday world seems solid, steady and predictable, it is an illusion created by the way our perception occurs. Reality may instead truly be a dance of energy, now coalescing into particles and interacting with each other in an endless play of possibility and change that we cannot perceive at our macro level of observation. It is a participatory universe and both the observer and the observed are altered in the process.

The fact that we cannot directly perceive quantum processes taking place is not the only source of illusion that we have to contend with. Our entire perception of the external world is a convincing creation of our central nervous system, which projects its compilation of various forms of energy into a consistent and coherent whole, which appears to us to be external to our corporal body.

For example, our nervous system contains sense organs designed to interpret a certain frequency of energy in a particular way, which makes it more practical to negotiate the world. While energy is one continuous, undifferentiated spectrum, our senses convert portions of that spectrum into conscious experiences with different qualities such as multi-colored vision, sound, heat, taste, touch etc. Other creatures with senses tuned to different frequencies would perceive the world quite differently.

In appreciating the ability of the brain to construct reality from our connection with energies to which we are exposed, we can conclude that the only awareness we truly have in our ordinary state of consciousness is a representation created by our brain. While we are free to move about in whatever constitutes reality, we are ordinarily trapped within the confines of our brain activity. The act of perceiving creates the unquestioned conviction that we are the perceiver and what we perceive is the perceived. Thus, there is a self and other, an outside and an inside.

It is possible, therefore, that in the act of perception, together with the brain's ability to discriminate, supported by language, the illusion of a "me" or self located in our heads, behind our eyes, reviewing all that is happening, is a fundamental, unshakeable belief.

Anatomically, there is no particular place in the brain where everything comes together, where all our sensations are integrated and pass in review of an observing self. If you regard the complexity of the central nervous system, there may be no single, real self. Horizontally, we have different sides of our brain -- left and right hemispheres, each with differing qualities. Vertically, we have different levels of neuronal organization -- brainstem, midbrain and cerebral cortex, each creating and transmitting electrical inputs that affect conscious experience. We are as yet ignorant of how these various anatomical components and brain processes yield what we perceive as a single, unified self, persistent through time.

One has only to consult the literature on split-brain research in which the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibers connecting both hemispheres, has been severed, to discover the astounding situation of individuals with two separate conscious states, each with different qualities of experience. The most dramatic, subjective description of such a situation was described by Jean Bolte Taylor in her autobiographical work, My Stroke of Insight.

Ms. Taylor’s plight occurred because of a rare stroke that rendered her dominant hemisphere essentially inoperable. Her fortunate recovery, which took eight years, allowed her to finally communicate the way her ordinary consciousness, ruled by the operations of her dominant hemisphere, was transformed by its functional suspension. In recovery, she could grasp the way her usual sense of self was previously created and influenced her perception of both self and reality.

She notes the dual capacity of the dominant hemisphere to allow for critical functioning in the day-to-day world at the same time creating entrapment in the various types of suffering and fears accompanying this way of perceiving reality. While under the major influence of her non-dominant hemisphere, she could experience the world as a field of energy in which she was an intimate participant, released from the fear of aloneness to participate in the joy of connectedness. Many of her descriptions relate to the experiences of others in transcendent or altered states of consciousness and point to our ability to perceive reality and our connectedness to it in other ways.

In my perspective, I consider ourselves to be quantum beings. In this regard, the sense of self is, in a way, being re-created moment by moment by perception and continuous reference to memory and past experience, such that we think of ourselves as an enduring entity through time with consistent characteristics and a relatively fixed nature. This incredible process happens so rapidly we are unaware of this creation and re-creation. Our sense of self just seems to be there. And oh, how we fear that it won't continue.

How many times have you heard your clients or even yourselves say, "Oh, that's not me, " "I can't be like that," or "I can't change" even when the evidence is quite visible that this is not true. I've had many clients express that even after they find themselves calm or peaceful or experiencing joy, they feel a discomfort in perceiving a difference in the way they usually feel.

Now, we have many, many distortions and illusions we take for granted. Our brain has this capacity to create stories or explanations that we readily accept without question. For example, if you instruct a person under hypnosis that they will open a window upon awakening but are not to remember that this command was issued while they were under hypnosis, they will indeed open the window. When asked what the reason is that they are opening the window, they will offer a number of different ones and believe each reason, without a clue that this is not their true motivating force.

I want to draw attention at this point to several illusions that have significant relevance to the nature of psychological suffering -- and how this relates to the whole issue of mindfulness.

First, the rather narrow beam of our ordinary consciousness makes us believe that we are acting, thinking and perceiving in the here and now. The powerful forces that shaped our memories, and hence our notion of our inner self, are mostly unrecognized. We are apt to believe that the inner child we carry with us into adulthood has automatically grown up and we are no longer under the sway of primitive assumptions that our child experiences convince of us.

Our conscious sense of awareness is composed of both thought and feeling. The two are not necessarily integrated in the same moment and so we are often capable of compartmentalizing the two and shifting rapidly between these compartments such that we are left with the notion that to know about the subject we are discussing is the same as fully experiencing it.

This is rather critical, because the two compartments often contain different types of belief systems. That is, the rational part of our mind can hold one logical position while the feeling compartment can contain a quite different set of assumptions and beliefs that may derive from childhood with all its accompanying distortions.

Let me give you a personal example of this type of situation. Some years ago I took my daughter, eight years old at the time, on a rather large roller coaster ride. As a youngster, I was always told by my older brother to hold on tight, otherwise I would fly out of the cab. So we are ascending this monster of a thing and I’m bending the bar with my grip and my daughter is laughing and throwing her hands up like all the other kids on the ride. And I’m looking at this situation, ready to tell her to hang on. But something prevented me from doing so, because I was very curious about the whole process.

Now we are at the top and starting to slide over with that typical deep sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach and my grip is getting tighter and my daughter is still laughing and waving her hands. Now I’m getting really curious, even as I’m battling my fear as we are careening around the roller coaster track. "Isn’t this interesting," I’m thinking. I'm holding on for dear life and she is not and I'm afraid to let go because I'll be a goner and she is going nowhere not hanging on. I have the evidence right before my eyes that I can let go without danger, but I'm not letting go.

So now I'm really getting into this thing because I'm realizing that despite my awareness of my fear and the irrational nature of it, I can't let go. My logic cannot control my feelings, and despite the fact that I know about my feelings, it doesn't help to change them. I then become aware, as I'm fully engaged in this witness to myself, that while I think I am experiencing my feelings and my logic as a single unit, this is actually not the case. I can begin to appreciate, as I carefully observe my consciousness, that I am shifting in microseconds from one perspective to the other. At one moment I'm in my fear, which tells me not to let go, and a microsecond later I'm in my intellect, which is telling me that my fear is silly. And I'm shifting back and forth thinking I'm a steady self and unable to change, because this is I; this is the way I am.

So who am I? The fearful person who won’t let go or the logical adult who realizes I'm being silly?

Actually, I was both and neither at the same time. I was who I thought I was because I accepted the illusion that I was fully integrated, being aware of both my fear and logic at what appeared to be the same time.

However, because of my full attention and fascination with the process, I realized I was not integrated, otherwise I would let go. The change in my experience leading to the action of letting go would automatically happen if my awareness would be integrated. I felt intuitively that I had to be in the same compartment as my fear. I would have to hold my attention more steadily and not let my consciousness  compartmentalize -- that is, not push away my fear and make judgments about it because that would make me push away from the part of me that was afraid and create a me that was adult and a me that was the fearful child I was trying to disown. No inner child wants to be disowned, no matter how frightened or painful it feels. It wants attention: to be heard and helped, to be rescued from its fear.

Through this process of steady attention coupled with patience and curiosity, I brought myself over to that frightened part of me to coach it through the process of letting go, with encouragement and acceptance. Lo and behold, toward the end of the ride I was able to let go. The fear stopped immediately. Now who am I? Different from before because I am neither my logical self nor my fearful self. The process of integration created a new me. It was created through participatory integration, not through the discovery of new content since I was well aware of my fear. Nor did it require that I force change upon myself or to change the way I was feeling. The change was actually effortless once the process of integration took place.

But you might be tempted to respond, "Wasn’t my sense of myself still the same, qualitatively speaking?" Yes, and you would be right, as the difference in myself afterwards is very subtle and my need, as is everyone's, is to maintain a steady sense of self. But you have to remember, this was just the beginning of a reflective process. The process of attentiveness can be mastered in a much greater form so that one can begin to appreciate the transitory nature of all thoughts and feelings that create the illusion of a coherent sense of self. Well then, you would ask, who is doing the observing? And that of course is the greatest mystery; the nature and origin of this abiding, open, deeply reflective, compassionate and understanding awareness. I will have to leave that for later chapters.

Fear and insecurity keeps pulling us back and causing a reaction in our adult self, to either disown, change or deny aspects of ourselves. And it isn’t only fear that leads to this process of compartmentalization. It can be any negative feeling we become aware of. Any attempt to initially react with disavowal or distancing will create this compartmentalization.

The compartmentalization, with its intellectual knowledge about the way we are feeling, creates the illusion that we are dealing with our problem when in fact no change can take place. Then the fact that we can't seem to change creates the impression that we are stuck with our current self. Many people have been in therapy for years, talking about feelings rather than being able to mindfully integrate them. All you have to do is listen very carefully to people when they are discussing issues and you will witness the compartmentalization taking place: "Yes, but" they will say and then you know everything before the "but" loses its experiential effect. Or, "I hate when I do that" or "I feel so guilty for feeling that," all of which is disavowal that ferments the compartmentalization.

Another subtle technique consciousness has for avoiding the inner self is the sense of an urgent need to solve a problem, which is the subtle mind's way of not having to deal with the problem to truly understand it before we rush off to solve it. Most often the person does not really want to invest the time and energy to really understand the problem, because then we have to face things within, don’t we? Who wants to do that? Then we find things out about ourselves that narcissistically injure our notion of ourselves.

Thus, the task, in my mind, is for the therapeutic process to help the person stop and listen and come to realize how and when and why the compartmentalization is taking place. It doesn’t matter what the content is, because the compartmentalization is more of a difficulty than the feelings they are discussing.

You can see from this process that the fundamental agenda to healing and growth is full acceptance. Many people are confused by what is meant by acceptance in connection with mindfulness. Acceptance is not the act of condoning. It doesn’t mean when I accept something I approve of it and have the privilege of not having to do anything about that which I accept.

No, acceptance is rather the very deep appreciation of what is. No fighting it or disavowing it or trying to be something different in that moment. Instead, one brings a compassionate understanding of how it came to be. It is this process that ends the conflict between the different compartments within, which is so draining, divisive and paralyzing. We are then free to move forward because we are doing so with our whole self.

I will state categorically that no change can take place without acceptance. When acceptance takes place, change is automatic. But acceptance requires a steady, patient, non-judgmental, curious attention. We call this "mindfulness" -- a very steady and very patient attention. This is why, in the listening act, my attention is drawn even more immediately to the process of consciousness than to the content of consciousness. It doesn’t matter what the problem is that the person is talking about. If you pay attention, you will see this compartmentalization taking place, no matter how much the person knows about himself or the situation. People can talk in therapy for years but unless integration takes place experientially, no change will occur and the person will end up thinking, "Well what do I expect? This is me!"

It is hard for me to explain how multiple judgments, value systems and beliefs enter our perception in such a subtle way as to convince our adult self that we are seeing things just as they are. When you have some moments of intense clarity, you are suddenly awed by what it means to perceive without all the filters of judgments that we have incorporated in our ways of thinking over the years. All of these filters and judgments intensify the compartmentalization process because we want to be the person we think we should be. Certainly not be the person we are, because we have a hard time believing in and trusting our inner nature.

I'm reminded of a client I treated some years ago who made a point of reminding me each session that her path to recovery would inevitably end in failure and my skills were probably not up to the task of helping her to avoid this fate. Her traumatic and emotionally abusive upbringing left her with distrust, cynicism and the conclusion that the world and her life "sucked," and she might as well go back to drinking. She had a continuous underlying sense of discomfort and angst. However, she continued in therapy and remained abstinent.

As the sessions progressed, I would encourage her to share her experiences and observations, requesting her to be more in the moment than briefing me on the various reasons for hopelessness. An example of the evidence for her conclusions was her comment that as she would wait for the train to Manhattan where she worked as an executive secretary, the end of the platform was surrounded by weeds which created an environment of ugliness and neglect.

A number of months into our sessions, she entered the room with a half-cynical smile. "What’s up?" I asked. She almost guiltily admitted that she had reflected on some of our talks about being in the moment. "Yes, so?” I inquired.

"Well, I’m standing on the railroad platform going on the train to work in Manhattan like I always do. I’m looking at the ugly weeds at the end of the station and I think about the ugliness in the world.  I decided to take a better look at the weeds and pay attention. You know, I realized they weren't weeds. They were wildflowers, and then I realized they were beautiful."

Of course I jumped on this, and asked if she had other experiences like this. "Oh, yes," she replied casually. "You know, I use to do Yoga and meditate." I was floored by this and asked her to relate more of her experiences.

She stated that one of her interests was visiting museums. One weekend in Manhattan, she had the opportunity to be present in a gallery which happened to be sparsely visited at that particular time. She sat and quietly immersed herself in the wonderful paintings of nature that surrounded her. In describing her experience further, she related she was totally at ease and free of all anxiety, being fully absorbed in the beauty of the pictures.

"So let me understand," I pursued. "Here you have been trying to convince me that you are one step away from drinking and destruction and the world sucks and you are hopeless, yet you are capable of this experience of incredible beauty and inner peacefulness, which reflects a very different dimension of yourself. What do you think of that?"

"Oh," she smiled, "that isn’t really me, you know. I had to give that mindfulness stuff up. It was scaring me."

She eventually left therapy. I don’t know how much more content she was, but she remained sober and ended up publishing a book based on a passion that she had quietly but persistently pursued.

I would like to call attention to one more crucial aspect of mindfulness, which this client was making reference to in her experience at the museum: the tremendous beauty the observer feels when one is totally absorbed in the moment. Full attention is accompanied by the reward of very deep appreciation and abiding interest no matter what is being observed.

I think this is the fundamental power of entertainment and why it is so prominent in every culture. The individual is given permission, and indeed gives himself permission, to stop all activity except observation of the immediate experience -- to open himself up to what is being presented. It is that openness and lack of self-absorption which I feel gives the entertainment the impact that it often has. The artist is saying, "Pay attention and you will be rewarded, and even the commonplace will become very meaningful." That is the essence of the Japanese haiku: three unrhymed lines of some observation of nature yield the utmost of beauty, if but focused on with deep meditation.

Have you not had the experience of watching the beginning of a movie where they are introducing the players and creators of the movie and the camera is scanning something that is at first difficult to recognize but you are fascinated by the images only to suddenly realize that you are looking at raindrops on a window pane and recognizing the beauty of something you would ordinarily ignore?

A number of times when I have taken initial histories from housewives and would ask them about their daily lives, they would respond, "Oh, I live a very boring life, you know, day-to-day. Washing, cleaning, shopping, talking to my friends." And then I would ask them what they really got into. Not infrequently, they would respond, "Well, I like the daily soap operas." I would ask what interests them about them. Well, it’s just their lives, they are really interesting to watch what happens. Now here their life may be like a soap opera, which actually is not infrequent, but for them to be the impartial observer helps to alter their perspective from one of self-reflective boredom to one of objective fascination.
    
Sometimes when watching the ocean at the seashore, I wonder if we are similar to the waves that continuously swell and return to the sea. If waves were endowed with consciousness, wouldn’t it be likely that they would emerge from the vastness of the sea and, for a precious time, stand up over it and think they are separate from the sea. And they’d like to draw attention to themselves and say, "llook at me, how tall and powerful I am," all the time being terrified of the time they must be absorbed back into the ocean and disappear. In their fear, they feel unique and separate -- and how can they suffer to just disappear into the sea like this? And always somewhere in us we are afraid because our usual consciousness, like waves, makes us feel so separate and alone.

Wouldn't it be healing to really experience that, like the ocean and the waves, our universe and we are one -- that there is nothing to be afraid of in returning to the origin of all existence?

Thursday
Dec032009

What's A "Dry Drunk"?

"Dry drunk" is a term describing the state of the alcoholic who is uncomfortable when he is not drinking. "Dry" simply refers to the fact that there is abstinence, while "drunk" signifies a deeply pathological condition resulting from the use of alcohol in the past.

The "dry drunk syndrome" is a group of symptoms that occur together and constitute an abnormality. Since the abnormality of the alcoholic's attitudes and behavior during his drinking career is generally recognized, the persistence of these traits after the alcoholic stops drinking might seem equally abnormal. Therefore, the term "dry-drunk" alludes to the absence of favorable change in the attitudes and behavior of the alcoholic who is not drinking.

"Dry Drunk" Traits:

  • Grandiose behavior
  • Pomposity
  • Exaggerated self-importance
  • A rigidly judgmental outlook
  • Impatience
  • Childish behavior
  • Irresponsible behavior
  • Irrational rationalization
  • Projection
  • Overreaction
Thursday
Nov122009

Detachment: What Does It Mean?

By Claudia Peters Ragni, Director, KPC

At first glance, "detachment" is not an attractive word. It sounds cold and insensitive. But detachment is something the families of alcoholics must acquire if they are to recover from the family disease of alcoholism.

Detachment is a valuable concept, necessary for the family’s good health. As individuals (through self-help or therapy) develop a healthier sense of their own identities, the concept of detachment serves to strengthen the family relationships. When you “detach with love,” you are detaching from the problem, not the person. This means allowing the alcoholic to experience the effects of their illness and live with the consequences.

Exactly what does this mean?

Well, it means don’t call in sick for the person when they are, in fact, hung over. Don’t make excuses to bill collectors when they haven’t met their financial responsibilities due to their drinking. Don’t enable them to continue their behavior without significant consequences.

In the earliest stages of detachment, people tend to swing a little too far in the opposite direction and become unwilling to have any interaction with the alcoholic. This often causes the alcoholic to feel that others are punishing him. This is not detachment.

With detachment, a person does not engage in heated arguments with the alcoholic when he is drunk. For instance, assume that the alcoholic has passed out in his car in the garage. His wife checks on where he is -- then leaves him there to spend the night after making sure that there was no physical condition in need of medical attention.

The next morning, when he shuffles into the house, she may quietly describe what happened and why she left him there. Maybe he’s missed work, an important social engagement, or some important appointment. But it is up to him to experience the consequences of his behavior and his disease.

Detachment is a valuable concept for all people to experience in various areas of their lives. For the families of alcoholics, it has specific importance: It is necessary for their recovery, no matter what the alcoholic is doing about his.

Sunday
Nov012009

The Therapeutic Necessity For Family Members To Become Part of the Recovery Process

By Teresa Palmer, Family Counselor

Family members often question why they should become involved in the process of recovery. "I don't have the problem; he/she is the addict." Addiction is often referred to as a family disease. The family members living with an addicted person are affected by the addiction; as a result, the family itself becomes "sick."

There exists a tug of war: The addicted person desperately clings to the addiction while the family tries to diminish or stop it. Because of this unhealthy interaction, the family members need rehabilitation as much as the addicted person.

The family members are the primary focus of family treatment.

Individual members of the family develop maladaptive ways of handling the addicted person that lead to disappointment, depression, irritability, withdrawal and helplessness. Blame games begin to emerge. Shame or the inability to live up to expectations (one's own or others) lead to secrets, hiding, and exaggerated guilt. The interaction of all the family members is affected. Feelings of inner vulnerability and sensitivity are no longer tolerated. Yearnings for someone to rescue them and take care of them begin to dominate, with the resulting increase in dependency and anger. Sometimes the frustration is so great that the only way to escape is to join the addiction and become addicts themselves.

The family members have become sick and need recovery for themselves.

The successful treatment for the addicted person is very much enhanced when there is family treatment as well. The family environment must change. Family treatment focuses on the family members; without family treatment, the addicted person is the sole focus of treatment. The family's need to change is once again hidden; it is secondary and overlooked. It doesn't work!

Family members need to learn how to deal with their situation. The significant others need to learn to deal with their environment in such a way that they feel a sense of accomplishment. They empower themselves. They make good decisions that will give a sense of self-direction and reduce the dependency patterns of addiction. Family members need not be trapped in a bad situation. They don't need to cover up. They do need to learn how not to enable. They do need to learn how not to "protect" the addicted person.

An example of this is the spouse who calls in to work for the addicted person stating they have the flu when, in fact, they are sick with a hangover. With family treatment, the non-addicted person learns that these attempts at protection merely protect the addicted person from taking responsibility for their addiction-related behavior. Enabling refers to any "help" that facilitates the continuation of pathological addiction. Family treatment teaches ways not to foster the addiction. It allows the family members to make choices -- good choices -- that facilitate the genuine communication, enhance self-perception, reduce feelings of victimization, and stop the maladaptive patterns of support for the addictive behavior itself.

Family treatment provides the antidote to so many painful experiences. For individuals who no longer know what to do or where to go, the group process offers the protection and confidentiality of a safe haven. Sharing replaces hiding; communication replaces secrets; support replaces isolation. There is a positive blueprint for addiction-free living.

There is a way to heal and grow.

There is a way -- not to escape but to move ahead!

Family treatment works.