Becoming Empowered

Recently, I re-read the spiritual classic, Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castenada, a book that was wildly popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I didn’t understand it at all in 1984 the first time someone recommended it to me. But having to recover from COVID the last few days, I had plenty of time, and I devoured every word.

Castenada was later suspected of being a fraud, having borrowed from others and fabricating much of what he experienced with Don Juan, his mentor-shaman. But what made his work so relevant was his attention to the human need for myths to live by — at a time, when all myths of the establishment were being called into question and dismantled.

While counseling a young man with whom I had worked for over three years, discussing his thoughts about the kind of man he wanted to be, Journey to Ixtlan spontaneously popped into my mind. It was if I had suddenly time-traveled back to a period in my young adult life when I, too, was struggling to decide what kind of man I wanted to be. I had a shaman of sorts — a Chaplain supervisor — who often helped to put me back together after long days of tending to the sick and the dying. Young men and women need such shamans or mentors to model what a meaningful life as a man or woman looks like. They demonstrate what personal empowerment is and what a difference inner power makes.

Falling apart and putting oneself back together is not an uncommon experience — if you live long enough. Like Castenada following Don Juan into the pitch-dark night, you have no choice but to trust your instincts in the face of the terrors that befall us: broken relationships, lost jobs, depression and anxiety-filled traumas of all sorts and kinds, and near brushes with death. We’re left feeling disoriented and off-balance — not readily aware that these “brick walls” sometimes turn into welcome “detours.” I consider myself fortunate to have had several mentors along the way who had already built up a store of power from their own life experiences. I became an apprentice to how they had learned to manage ordeals of suffering. They spared me the gory details of their own experiences, but in essence, they taught me how to transform my own encounters with sorrow and suffering into personal power.

We pay it forward anytime we lend our emotional support to a young adult who is looking up to us. Our own experiences of transformation help them, not by giving them our power but by showing them how to develop their own internal resources.

A client may say to me in the middle of a counseling session, “I wish this wasn’t so hard!” I feel that, too. But then, reflexively, I think, “If it hadn’t been for the hard things I’ve dealt with, I might not be here, right now, today.” I may recall and even share a funny but poignant scene in the movie, A League of Their Own, when the coach, played by Tom Hanks, yells at his right fielder for dropping a fly ball. Right there on the baseball field, in front of all to see and hear, she melts in tears, crying out at her coach, “It’s too hard!” To which Tom Hanks replies, “Hard? Hard? It’s the ‘hard’ that makes baseball great!”

The most important, if not all, lessons that I’ve learned in life have come by using the storm force winds of life to steer me along the edges of apparent or real defeat towards some new perspective or some new awareness that I may have, otherwise, missed completely. The guiding stars of my life have only been noticed by embracing the darkest of times.

So when my clients sometimes comment that they wish they didn’t have it so hard, I’ve been known to quip, “Is it really harder to face this and challenge yourself than it is to continue doing what you’re doing? It may take as much energy to change as it does to maintain the status quo – but the payoff is a heck of a lot better.” It would not surprise me at all if, in response, I was told “Go to Hell!” But so far, that has never happened.

Our best friends, by far, are those who can tell us the truth in the face of our ordeals, while being kind about it, too. Personal power comes from these moments of truth that are like seeds that take time to germinate and grow. Later, we may laugh together when they tell us, “I’ll never forget the time when you told me…, fill in the blank.” What was hard to hear at the time became a lesson never forgotten, because it was exactly what we needed in order to move forward, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Light found in the midst of darkness becomes truth that empowers us to live fearlessly and with joy.

You can make an entire life worth living by mining the treasures buried in sorrows, frustration, and defeat. It probably won’t be easy, but each time we face our ordeals with the right kind of support and with courage, we experience a new burst of power, while becoming stronger, wiser, and more deeply in love with the mystery we call life.

Unwanted Dreams and the Freedom of the Soul

In a recent dream, I was in the act of taking black and white snapshots of my father (long deceased) who was behind bars. He looked forlorn there, standing in a tiny jail cell where apparently he had been sentenced for an unknown crime.

I don’t like these kind of dreams. They’re disturbing and depressing. Though my father and I were never close, I still would never want him to be jailed. But I also know that in my dream my father’s image is actually a stand-in for a part of me. So what’s up with that? What part of me is feeling sentenced?

I have a new appreciation of late for people who suffer with chronic pain. When my orthopedist, who has already replaced my right hip with an artificial joint, looked with me at an X-ray of my arthritic left hip, it made perfect sense why I had been having lots of pain and lots of difficulty walking. Bone on bone! A cortisone shot would help to tide me over for a few months, but a second hip operation is definitely in my future.

Pain does things to the mind. It makes me feel old at 65. Even though I work out, try to eat right, stay active, work five days a week, and basically have a very positive outlook on life, I have been feeling much more “mortal” recently. I’m quite unhappy about what I refer to as “design flaws” in the human anatomy — those much too human vulnerabilities that seem to rear their heads more and more among almost every friend I know.

When friends and colleagues are stricken by illness, I automatically assume that I am immune from such things because I take such good care of myself. Wrong though this thinking is, I hold onto it like a cherished possession, creating a neat image of immortality and invulnerability….And, apparently, setting myself up for this other dream-image of being sentenced behind bars.

But as I worked with this dream and after sharing it with my therapist, I realized that actually I am not sentenced. I have choices: a great surgeon whom I trust, a wonderful job that I find fulfilling and doesn’t require a lot of physical strength, and retirement savings that I can use to get me through a time of rehabilitation after surgery. I am blessed with caring friends, a loving and supportive relationship, and a wonderful family. So with a new hip, if all goes as well as the first hip replacement, I should be pain free again. But obviously, I am entering a phase in my life when I will need to alter my delusional expectations of invincibility as I make some adjustments to my level of activity.

Growing old gracefully is not necessarily for the weak of heart. But it seems now to be a better challenge than kicking and screaming against reality. I won’t, obviously, live forever; but neither am I sentenced to the jail of my own making.


happinessI would like to be happy, and sometimes I am. I can’t predict it though. Some days are blue sky and sunshine, and my mood is anything but. Other days are cloudy and rainy, and my mood is all sunshine and light. So, what’s up with that?

The Bell Curve for Happiness is actually real, according to psychologists. A thin slice of the population seems to be helplessly happy, purely by luck of genetics, or some combination of genetics and environment. Literally, these smiley-face people couldn’t be un-happy if they tried. They are no more immune to bad things happening in their lives than the rest of us, and they can be as sorrowful as anyone when there is something about which to feel sorrowful. But their temperament — rain or shine — is one of sheer happiness. Wouldn’t that be nice?

The rest of us, as it turns out, have to work at happiness. Or else, we have to learn to live with the temperament that we have. We live, to some degree or other, outside of that thin Bell Curve zone of happiness where the happy minority live. The majority of us are moody, at least some of the time. And a fair number of us are moody almost all of the time. “Melancholy” is a word that describes us, as defined by Webster’s, “a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.”

Now, having “no obvious cause” to be sad, blue, or upset is a difficult thing. Our culture is inordinately uncomfortable with this. “No cause for your lack of happiness,” might be met with quizzical gazes when you share your current mental state with a friend; or worse, you may get scolded: “Cheer up, be happy! There are people who really have something to be sad about! What’s wrong with you?”

Or, let’s say, you are one of the many, unblessed by being born outside the Bell Curve happy population, but you grow up in an environment where “happy” was the privileged state of being, and “sad” was against the rules or, worse yet, just out and out ignored. Your sadness had to be repressed, landing in a place in your soul where sadness turned to misery, isolation, and any number of other shadowy moods or nascent addictions. I worry that this common family dynamic is also becoming the privileged American, cultural dynamic. It’s as if there is a “Happiness Club,” and you’re either in it or you’re out. And if you’re out, just run down to Barnes and Noble or your local library and find a book on the shelf telling you how to be happy in 10, 5, or even 3 easily imitated steps. We even have an entire new branch of psychology now known as Positive Psychology that has much to be said for itself in terms of making conscious choices to optimize the possibility of happiness. But I think it is still fair to ask the question: “Why are we so quick to judge sadness or melancholy as a bad thing?”

As you may be able to tell, I have struggled with the Myth of Happiness pretty much my entire life. I’m sure that, even if everything is going well — or seemingly so — my psyche can easily find itself rolling around in some muck, some dis-ease, or restlessness. It has always been so, so it’s a good bet, it shall always be this way — not just for me, but for many like me. Do I need a break from myself sometimes? You bet! But do I value my muck-loving psyche too? That, I most certainly have learned to do. I have had so many experiences now, of leaning into the sadness or melancholy and finding some illusive but transforming fruit there, learning something I needed to know or do. Sadness can often be a well where the only way to bring up the healing water is to go down into it.

You see, with all due respect to people as admirable as the Dalai Lama and his book, The Art of Happiness, happiness is often used in our society as a marketing ploy — it’s just not reality for most of the world. A mindful person, a person who meditates, a thoughtful person, a person who has not stopped listening to the news, or just a human person knows the truth that sadness and melancholy are often mirrors for life as it is. As Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, states, life is both wonderful and monstrous — life is not universally happy, nor has it ever been.

“All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be. So if you really want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” (Joseph Campbell, Reflections on the Art of Living)

So well stated: “to live in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is.” Sorrow AND joy — they seem to be conjoined twins, destined towards eternal togetherness.

I have learned that avoiding my sadness is the quickest path downward into staying stuck in the muck. But when I see my sadness as a friend, melancholy as a mood about which to be at least slightly curious, then sadness becomes the path towards meaning…, and sometimes, yes, incredibly mysterious wonder and joy.