WHY PSYCHOTHERAPY?

counselingShould I or shouldn’t I pursue psychotherapy? And if so, then when and with whom? Important and sometimes crucial questions.

Truth is, most people wait until there is some kind of crisis in their lives. A loss, a break-up of a relationship, an illness, a job loss. These are the most obvious times, and it’s best, I think, if it’s sooner than later — before things get out of control or start falling apart.

But I think there are other not so obvious times to seek out a psychotherapist, someone who is most of all a good listener. We suffer most, sometimes, when we feel alone or when we feel as if no one really knows who we are. Conversely, we feel better if there is at least one person in the world who listens and cares or who affirms us just for being the person we are rather than for what we do. We are human BEINGS, right? Not human DOINGS.

We are a complex lot, we humans. And we are so imperfect. So, it’s easy to get in the rut of putting on a public face everyday for each other, for our children, for our partners, for our bosses. It can be frightening to let others know our hurts and our insecurities. But the  public faces we put on are like the tip of the iceberg — there is so much more beneath the surface of the lives that others can’t or may not want to see. Who knows the secret or private or even the hidden realities of our lives, the lives we know best usually only when we lie awake at night thinking, wondering, wishing, or worrying?

When I was in between relationships some years back, I posted a profile on an internet dating website. Instead of stating my vocation as psychotherapist or minister — which I knew would cause most women to run away as quick as possible — I listed my vocation as “someone who listens and keeps secrets.” I figured this might be more intriguing than frightening, and that I might attract someone who would want to get to know me beyond my public image, title, or job. And thankfully, I did!

We tell our therapists, mostly, our secrets — that which we would otherwise keep to ourselves. Oh yes, we might share over coffee or lunch with a friend something of what we are discussing and learning about ourselves in therapy. But with our therapist, we can go as deep under the surface as we wish; or we can go as deep as we feel safe to delve. Someone who has no judgment or no agenda except to be there for us and us only — to me, this is the core of a good therapist. Someone who knows me at my best and at my worst, and helps me to know even the darkest parts of me that exist like unexplored islands of mystery, discovery, and healing. I know well how seeds long buried in the fertile depths of the soul can grow into something life-giving and beautiful.

So, maybe there are many reasons to seek out a psychotherapist. But this is the key ingredient I try to provide: a safe sanctuary, a sacred space. We meet to talk about whatever is important, whatever hurts, and whatever gives the soul breath, life, hospitality, and joy.

A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO EVIL

Good versus evilWhat should we do now in response to the terrorist attacks in Russia, then Lebanon, and now Paris? What is an American response? What is a sane response? What is a response that predicts an effective remedy to an outrageous manifestation of evil?

Of course, these are just my reflections in the wake of a torturous week watching and hearing of atrocities inflicted on innocent victims by ISIS, the Islamic State. I feel what most feel: disbelief, helplessness, rage, more rage, and eventually numbness. But I confess that the rage remains. Part of me wants revenge. But I pretty much know the cycle of violence — we’ve seen all of this played out before. The Dalai Lama is right: “War is obsolete.”

As a Christian, I want to respond in a way that is true to my values, my faith,…and also true to my rage. I claim it as a “holy rage.” But the problem is, what to do with this rage? How can I can be truly authentic and also truly humane? Can I temper my rage with Christian compassion?

When Jesus told his disciples about his own destiny — that he would go to Jerusalem where he would suffer at the hands of the religious and political elite, and then be crucified and die — Peter spoke up for the others with his rage. He protested. He told Jesus “No!” Peter wanted a military solution. Which was when Jesus said the famous words, “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus pointed to the “Satan within” Peter — the same Satan that is within me, and you, and every member of the human race. We so naturally want to fight objective evil from the place of our own inner evil.

So, this week I have no final answers about a Christian response. I will pray. I will think about the suffering that the world experiences in the face of the evil that is ISIS. And I will also think about the children and the powerless, and the refugees who have left their homes. And I will try as best I can to keep Satan behind me and before me, always in my view. And I will seek the mind and the compassion of a Christ I long to know and to manifest in some way that feels both real and sane.

Amen

WHY AFFAIRS?

affairsMarried partners who have, at some point, participated in an affair is a phenomenon that is now a common part of our cultural landscape. Some estimate that only as low as 26% of Americans have had affairs while being married. Others estimate — when all kinds of “strayings” are included, from online relationships to the use of escorts and the regular use of pornography — that as many as 75% of married women and men have participated in extramarital sexual activity at some point along the way. So how come?

Something that happens with a great deal of frequency across the cultural spectrum of committed relationships must be important, in any number of ways. From a depth psychological perspective, the question needs to be asked: “What is the soul looking for in a marriage where one or both partners go astray?” This question avoids the too-easy kind of moralizing heard from pulpits or from a variety of cultural or sociological perspectives. A sociological analysis might, for instance, look at the pressures modern day marriages face: two-career income families that are stretched beyond thin, the demands of balancing devotion to the company versus devotion to one’s family, or the ways in which many families today are now child-centered rather than being centered on the ongoing development and maintenance of the health of a marriage. And this is only a very partial analysis.

But the soul-question lingers, partly because sociological pressures and other pressures will not simply go away or change. The momentum of history and the values of the larger culture are firmly in place. We can rely, however, on what people report in their closely held stories about their secret relationships. In my own listening to these stories during the 30 years of my practice of psychotherapy, I hear one particular, recurring theme, from both women and men in affairs.

That recurring theme is the theme of “aliveness.” People in affairs universally, it seems, feel incredibly alive. And they don’t primarily mean that they feel alive to sex. In fact, most often — and this is true as much or more in stories I hear from men — the aliveness to which they are referring is the kind of aliveness that they feel when they have someone who listens to and understands them and accepts them. It is this kind of aliveness that seems to create a kind of glue in affairs that is difficult to resist or to leave when that time comes. They picture returning to a dead marriage or a functional life devoid of feeling and meaning or returning to simply pushing the same rock up the same hill every day as in the Greek myth of Sysiphus. I can hear the protests of those who might judge such a simplification of the soul of affairs: “Oh yeah! Easy for someone to feel acceptance from someone they rendezvous with on occasion without any responsibilities or expectations of accountability?” And those protestors are right! The problem, though, is that the needs of the soul will not simply go away or return to the repressed land of psyche — without meaningful connections with others, we are all vulnerable to the allure of an affair.

Quite often, I get to be an honored witness to those courageous and determined couples who decide to transcend the violation of fidelity in order to make a new life for themselves — one that includes the needs of the soul. When they decide to do so, they are in for a lot of work as they heal what has been torn asunder. I am in awe of this process and the sorrow and suffering that has to be worked through inevitably. But for all of those who act on their fantasies of having an affair, I still worry as much or more about those who never act but only fantasize, maybe feeling guilty or ashamed or maybe even just incredibly frustrated by a life wrapped in the trappings of duty and conventionality. Where do they find solace for the yearning of soul? Where do they find support for the call to “be alive?” Life is short, as they say, and it’s certainly not a dress rehearsal. So where are the priests, shamans, and cultural commentators who will show us the way to transform marriage into the amazing mystery of a lifetime that it can and should ultimately be?

Movies with Soul

dreams and other mysteries

Woman in Gold     I’m known to go to a movie I think I’m going to like very much, and within the first few minutes, I’m nodding off. Woman in Gold is the most recent movie in which I found myself in this soporific state; but at some point, I was able to keep my eyes open long enough to get hooked by this powerful movie about redemption, justice, and human transformation.

David Putnam, producer and Oscar winner of Chariots of Fire and The Mission, said that, “If movies were what they might be, there’d be no need to go to church.” Such is the power of stories that tap into the depths of our souls. We recognize instantly stories that reflect the highest of human values in the characters depicted on the screen. Stories told well tap into our own personal longings for what matters most to us. They lift our…

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Movies with Soul

Woman in Gold     I’m known to go to a movie I think I’m going to like very much, and within the first few minutes, I’m nodding off. Woman in Gold is the most recent movie in which I found myself in this soporific state; but at some point, I was able to keep my eyes open long enough to get hooked by this powerful movie about redemption, justice, and human transformation.

David Putnam, producer and Oscar winner of Chariots of Fire and The Mission, said that, “If movies were what they might be, there’d be no need to go to church.” Such is the power of stories that tap into the depths of our souls. We recognize instantly stories that reflect the highest of human values in the characters depicted on the screen. Stories told well tap into our own personal longings for what matters most to us. They lift our spirits, or they challenge us, or they give us hope to live lives of courage and determination in the face of daunting odds.

Such is the story depicted in Woman in Gold. As a psychotherapist trained in the art and science of depth psychology, I find many themes related to Jungian concepts: both the  personal and cultural shadow, the struggle between conventional paths of life and vocation versus living from the deeper collective roots of personal and societal callings, and the nature of conventional religion in tension with an authentic living out of spirituality that enriches ones life in relationship to both self and community.

Maria is cast as an adult living the golden years of her life in Los Angeles, far removed from her Austrian and Jewish roots in Nazi occupied Vienna. Having left her family behind at the pained request of her father, she also left behind her aunt Adele who was the subject of Klimt’s famous painting ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.’ The gorgeous and also priceless painting hung in Maria’s home until confiscated by the Nazis along with thousands of other  wonderful works of art during WWII. The plot of Woman in Gold hinges around Maria’s desire to reclaim what belongs to her family; but more importantly the story hinges on Maria’s need to face her traumatic losses and the losses suffered as a central aspect of her Jewish heritage. Randy, her young inexperienced attorney, destined for a successful career in line with his father and grandfather before him, becomes Maria’s hero – her knight in shining armor. But Randy, unbeknownst to himself, is also on a journey of facing his personal shadow as he encounters the not so repressed unconscious of Austrian political power. In a moment of defeat and recognition, Randy repents of his desire for status and financial reward, opting for a second chance to reclaim the stolen work of art through passion, personal sacrifice, and commitment to a higher calling. In the process, Randy discovers his place in the great story of our shared yearning for redemption and justice, while Maria is afforded an opportunity to confront and to grieve the losses of hers and her family’s past.

Movies like Woman in Gold, in my humble opinion, do not come along often enough. So, I’ll continue going to church, but will also relish these wonderful opportunities to encounter the sacred through cinema and story. What movies have you seen recently that capture the yearnings of our souls?

 

THE NATURE OF ACCIDENTS

th  What do we make of accidents that befall us? Harrison Ford’s plane lies, mortally wounded, on the lawn of a local golf course after being skillfully landed by the experienced pilot. Accidents happen to the best of us as well as to the average Jane and Joe – no one escapes. Accidents, both large and small, are part of everyone’s life at some point.

Planes fall from the sky, just as relationships sometimes do. A person’s health can take a dramatic nosedive, or one’s bank account is critically depleted, the stock market takes a sudden tumble, or a career on the way up takes an unexpected turn downward – sometimes from out of the blue. These experiences often happen without any warning at all. Being wise and being smart and being careful do not seem to provide ultimate insurance against those things that can literally or figuratively drop right out of the sky.

Are accidents random? Maybe. Do they have meaning? Possibly. It’s always somewhat subjective whether we say that everything happens for a reason or not. Was it pilot error or a mechanical failure, or was it an “act of God?” Is an illness recently diagnosed the result of unhealthy behavior or a mutated gene gone haywire? When a relationship we really cared about goes south, despite our best efforts, is it something I did, consciously or unconsciously? Or is it just bad luck?

These questions have no absolute answers. If they did, someone would write a book about it, and it would be the final word – we would all rush out to purchase it in a flash while the author retired richer than a small country to a secluded island in the Caribbean. But so far, that book has not been written. And so we are left with our own subjective answers in order to find meaning when life goes awry.

It is, however, worth the effort usually to take a philosophical approach towards accidents that befall us. There is ample documentation in the narratives, the novels, and the religious accounts of those who have succeeded in transcending ruptures in their journeys. Buddhists tell us, for example, that suffering in life is not an option. Learning, however, to minimize one’s suffering certainly is optional through the practices of mindfulness, meditation, and the development of loving-kindness. A delightful poster depicts a bearded Yogi riding a surfboard on a huge ocean wave. The caption below states delightfully, “If you can’t stop the waves, at least learn how to ride them!”

Also, it is often the case, though not necessarily, that accidents that seem to throw up brick walls to our efforts at progressing through life may also may be timely detours toward hidden, yet-to-be-revealed rewards. Our vision in the moment of disruption is limited to the immediate scene: the loss, the pain, the brokenness, the hopelessness of our felt sense of demise. Only with 20-20 sight a year later or five or 10 years even, do we see that the brick wall was ultimately transformed into a portal of hope and success beyond our limited mental capacities at the time of said accident. I would not trade now, for example, an ounce of temporary promise for some or maybe all of the accidents that have happened in my life, as I review them through the rearview window of my mind. What seemed disastrous at the time eventually became a path hidden in a tangled forest that opened, slowly but surely, into unseen vistas of new life with time and with one other factor….

Consciousness. What seems to make the difference in whether an accident is an objective tragedy or a subjective experience of mystery and hope is what we refer to as consciousness — the capacity to see with the eyes of intuition and wisdom rather than the eyes of literal facts. Of course it helps to have each other in the midst of these times. Particularly is it useful to have the eyes and the ears and the compassion of wise mentors, life coaches, pastors, counselors, and shamans. They’ve been there. They have studied the sacred texts that address the realities of accidents and human pain and suffering. And they are always there to hold the beacons of hope as we wander, haltingly, towards a distant but sure light.

In Praise of Being Old

Live Oak TreeI am declaring publicly for the first time that I am unequivocally and unimpeachably old. I reject all those other words we use in order to step gingerly around the word “old.” Senior citizen, elder, representative of the golden years, etc. On my birthday, March 28th, I will be 62 years OLD – not 62 years young. I am old, and I love it!

The first time I taught Developmental Psychology, I came across the notion that, according to science, when we use the qualifier “old” in reference to something about ourselves (“I can’t remember that name – I must be getting old.”), we’re doing something that is very unhealthy. As the logic goes, our brains record hearing the word “old” used to describe our state of mental and physical being, which then speeds up a proverbial neurological domino effect that gradually wreaks havoc on us. The more we say the word “old,” the more we actually age ourselves — so it is said.

To this line of reasoning and so-called science, I now say “Horse-feathers!” The assumption is that our brains recognize the word “old” as a bad word, a toxin if you will. But it needn’t be so. Although in our culture, with its obsessive comparing of what is new to what is old, and with its contrasts of the glories of youthfulness to the pitfalls of old age, it is easy to see how we are already far down the road towards being brainwashed to believe “old = bad.”

Again, however, it needn’t be. Yes, at 62, I have more aches and pains than I once did. I have a new right hip and a left knee that may someday require replacement too. I seem to add one or two new supplements every other year or so to my daily regimen of vitamins and such. I now have sleep apnea and a cute little machine beside of my bed that helps keep my breathing steady and my wife satisfied that she can now get a good night’s sleep without the sound of my snoring. I’m old — what would one expect? Every time I go to a conference and reconnect with old friends, we spend about half of our time catching up on what new ailments our old bodies have developed. We’re like a group of grizzled survivors from the latest reality TV series!

Old is good, I say. I am the happiest I have ever been in my life. Most days I have a sense of contentment that is beyond words and, at times, beyond what logic would predict. I am more aware than ever of the sadness and sorrow of life lived in this world and of the sorry state of affairs in many corners of my country and our world, and I find myself checking the obituaries more frequently than ever before. And yet I celebrate being old. I celebrate simple pleasures like walking my dog and making a pot of yummy soup on a Sunday afternoon. I celebrate learning more and more to appreciate opportunities to just “be,” rather than running pell-mell towards new things to do or accomplish. I have a vocation that makes my daytime activity satisfying and meaningful, friends and family about whom I care deeply, and I have a loving wife with whom I can share both laughter and tears, good movies and good food, and a rhythm of togetherness and being separate that feels right and healthy and harmonious.

Old is good, I now know, though the world has been trying to get me to avoid using this word for a long-time now. Give me the senior discounts, and yes open the door for me if you see me struggling a bit. Bring me the best medicine healthcare and insurance can provide — not to keep me from death’s door, but in order to give me every second and every breath and every moment of gratitude that I can enjoy. For I no longer laugh in the face of the word “old,” as if I could thus keep old age at bay. I laugh, instead, to be old and to make old age a good, and true, and faithful friend. And most days, I find life as an old person to be an unbelievably amazing and wonderful mystery. I can almost not believe that I have been allowed to live in it’s autumnal glory.