Monday, March 24, 2014

The "Jealous Guy" and the Empty Chair


This post will be a bit of a departure from my usual style, while still remaining true to themes frequently touch on here such as mindfulness and self-exploration. Perhaps the real departure is that I generally don’t try to be funny. However, I’m in the middle of some heavier writing right now and I need a little lighthearted break.

Those of you who are old enough to remember the old Steve Allen show might recall how he would, to great comedic effect, read the lyrics of the pop songs of the day in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice. I’m going to borrow from that schtick just a little bit with what follows. At any rate, I hope you enjoy it. If it’s not your cup of tea, then please check back in a week or so; I’ll soon be embarking on a totally different long-term project.




Anyway, this is how I imagine the lyrics of John Lennon’s Jealous Guy would read if they were part of a dialogue between him and a therapist using the empty chair technique of Gestalt Therapy. Cue up the song and see how it works! If the video thumbnail doesn't appear on your screen, then you can access it via the YouTube link.





THERAPIST: So, Guy, tell me how this latest episode began.

GUY: I was dreaming of the past,

THERAPIST: [nods] Past times in which you’d felt hurt?

GUY: and my heart was beating fast.

THERAPIST: It sounds like you were aware of what was happening.

GUY: I began to lose control…

THERAPIST: But you hadn’t lost control. That’s an important insight.

GUY: I began to lose control…

THERAPIST: Is there something that you’d like to say to her right now? How about saying it to her as if she were sitting right here in this empty chair.

GUY: I didn't mean to hurt you.

THERAPIST: Anything else?

GUY: I'm sorry that I made you cry. Oh, now.

THERAPIST: Good, go on…

GUY: I didn't want to hurt you. I'm just a jealous guy.

THERAPIST: Well, perhaps you behaved in a jealous manner, but jealousy is not what you are. Tell her about what you were feeling.

GUY: I was feeling insecure.

THERAPIST: Go on.

GUY: You might not love me anymore.

THERAPIST: That’s an assumption. Describe what you were feeling.

GUY: I was shivering inside.

THERAPIST: Were you afraid?

GUY: I was shivering inside.

THERAPIST: It’s okay to be afraid. It’s what you do with your fear that makes the difference. Can you tell her anything more about your feelings?

GUY: I didn't mean to hurt you.

THERAPIST: You’re feeling regretful.

GUY: I'm sorry that I made you cry. Oh, now.

THERAPIST: You acknowledge that you behaved in a hurtful manner.

GUY: I didn't want to hurt you.

THERAPIST: Regret seems to be a big part of what you’re feeling right now.

GUY: I'm just a jealous guy.

THERAPIST: There’s that label again. Do you really mean to say that jealousy is what you ARE?

GUY: [begins whistling]

THERAPIST: Guy, tell me what it means for you to be whistling right now.

GUY: [continues whistling]

THERAPIST: Guy, help me to understand how whistling goes along with your expression of regret.

GUY: [continues whistling]

THERAPIST: [scribbles note regarding possible insincerity, possible self-soothing behavior]

GUY: [continues whistling]

THERAPIST: [scribbles note about possible dissociative behavior]

GUY: I didn't mean to hurt you.

THERAPIST: Yes, I’m hearing regret once again.

GUY: I'm sorry that I made you cry. Oh, now.

THERAPIST: Yes, yes, you BEHAVED in a way that was hurtful.

GUY: I didn't want to hurt you. I'm just a jealous guy.

THERAPIST: [scribbles note about revisiting what it means for Guy to keep labeling himself]

GUY: I was trying to catch your eyes.

THERAPIST: [nods] You didn’t think she was paying enough attention to you.

GUY: I thought that you was trying to hide.

THERAPIST: You didn’t think she wanted to be with you.

GUY: I was swallowing my pain.

THERAPIST: So you didn’t want her to know that you were hurting inside.

GUY: I was swallowing my pain.

THERAPIST: And then what?

GUY: I didn't mean to hurt you.

THERAPIST: So that’s when you hurt her.

GUY: I'm sorry that I made you cry. Oh, now.

THERAPIST: You didn’t know how to tell her about the fear and the hurt you were feeling, so you hurt her instead.

GUY: I didn't want to hurt you. I'm just a jealous guy. Watch out. I'm just a jealous guy. Look out. I'm just a jealous guy.

THERAPIST: There’s that label again, Guy. It might be good for us to explore that further in our next session…


Jealous Guy music and lyrics copyright Lenono Music





Image Credits




John Lennon & Yoko Ono by Jack Mitchell via:




Der Stuhl courtesy Rocafort8 via:





Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank


Friday, March 7, 2014

Sleeplessness and Samadhi - When Waking Up Is Not So Good



Sleeplessness can be a truly hellish thing. When is our existential predicament felt more profoundly than when we’re alone in the darkness, ensnared by our rumination, unable to escape into the glorious embrace of unconsciousness or even a pleasant thought or two? And, yet, just as an athlete trains under the worst conditions that they expect to encounter during a race or on game day, we might also come to appreciate our sleeplessness as a time of fruitful spiritual practice. For if we can learn to find peace in the depths of our darkest hours, then it is likely that we will be okay as soon as the first rays of morning light creep over the horizon.

Now, despite what I just said about athletes training under adverse conditions, we needn’t go out of our way to make things harder on ourselves. In that regard, we’re well-served by knowing at least the basics of good sleep hygiene: Make your bedroom a place for sleeping – not reading or television watching or internet surfing. Be knowledgeable of how your body responds to caffeine consumed later in the day, heavy foods eaten later in the evening, and strenuous exercise engaged in right before bedtime. Keep in mind that that glass of wine that is so conducive to slumber late in the evening might actually have you waking up just a few hours later. Something to keep in mind, as well, is that difficulty falling asleep can be a sign of anxiety, whereas waking in the middle of the night and being unable to return to slumber can accompany depression. It’s worth examining our sleeplessness in a holistic way that takes into consideration our diet, lifestyle, physical and mental health, and our general happiness and contentedness. Much good information is available on the internet. I won’t pretend that this post can serve as substitute for some good research by a motivated individual. Thus, I will focus on some ways to approach sleeplessness that are not so much discussed.




Allow me to set the stage: You’re tired – perhaps even exhausted. You went to bed and fell asleep with no problem whatsoever. Then, just four hours into your allotted eight hour slumber your eyes blink open and you know…, you just KNOW that you’re not going to be falling asleep again anytime soon. A sense of dread fills your mind. Work is going to be challenging tomorrow and you have simply got to be on top of your game. But that’s not all. Work has not been going well at all these days and you’re feeling as though you’re being scrutinized in a way that does not bode well for your future with the company. And what if you get let go? The economy is pretty lousy these days; it’s definitely not a good time to be looking for work. You’d probably have to put your house up for sale. But you’ve kind of gotten behind on the maintenance, and between that and the downturn in the real estate market you’ll be lucky just to pay off the mortgage and walk away without still owing on it. Forget the idea of living off of the equity for a little bit. What a mess! You’re forty years old and you’ll have nothing to show for a lifetime of work. Oh, the mistakes you’ve made…  

Sound familiar? Indeed, some might even recognize their daytime thought processes in the above scenario. Isn’t it the case, though, that the darkness and our aloneness in the wee hours of the morning combine to make everything seem so much worse? So, what can we do about it? I’ll assume that you’ve done the research alluded to above and have made whatever dietary and lifestyle changes need to be made. But even if you haven’t, here are some things you can do:

Notice the negative effects of rumination. We tend to be productivity-minded and inclined to think that we should make good use of our nighttime wakefulness by thinking through our problems. Bad idea! Forget the stories of creative solutions visiting people in the middle of the night. Stress is not conducive to the creative process. Rumination at this point will merely maintain or even exacerbate your level of physical tension and mental duress.

Notice the negative nature of your automatic thoughts. What arises within you the very instant your eyes pop open? Is it not a full-body response to the notion that “it’s happening again”? By “full-body response” I mean the immediate physical tension and attribution of negativity to the circumstances of your awakening. Recognize the importance of your response to this first moment of wakefulness. An “it’s happening again” reaction positions you on the battlefield that you already know so well – with an end result that you already know so well. Make the decision at this point that you’re only going to pay attention to what you’re experiencing in the present moment – without burdening that experience with unnecessary baggage. The barest nature of your experience in that moment when your eyes first pop open is defined by just two components: 1) it’s the middle of the night, and 2) you’re awake. 

Conduct a body scan. A body scan is an important component of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. With practice you can find areas of tension in your body and invite them to relax rather quickly. National Public Radio has an audio guide to conducting a body scan that you may want to access. If this seems like too much work, then simply incorporate such attention to the body into the following step.

Give the moment your unadorned awareness. So often we make a situation into a negative one by adorning it with labels, attributing meaning to it, and conceptualizing about it. With unadorned awareness we simply notice that which is: You’re awake; it’s dark outside. Let awareness take in your experience as it happens – without adding anything onto it. Notice that creaking sound that the settling of the house just made. Hear the wind as it pushes against the window. Notice the tension in your back and how it feels as you gradually relax. Feel your spine settling deeper and deeper into the mattress. An owl hoots. Feel your abdomen rise and fall as you breathe. The thought arises in your mind that you wish you could simply fall asleep. Notice it and let it pass away. The furnace turns off and the ductwork reverberates. A truck engine whines as it makes its way down the highway... There is nothing inherently negative about anything that you are experiencing; it simply is. And while you’re attending to your experience with unadorned awareness you are NOT engaging in the rumination that turns your experience of sleeplessness into such a hellish one.

Be aware of the interconnectedness of the eyes and the brain. Yes, you already know this, but do you realize the true nature of this interconnectedness? It is not merely the case that brain activity prompts eye movement; the causal relationship works in the other direction also. So, if we determine to fix our gaze behind our closed eyelids, we will also minimize the ruminative thinking that habit prompts us to engage in. Thus, upon settling back down into stillness after your initial reaction to your awakening, settle also into a still gaze – remaining mindful of any wandering about that your eyes might be doing. This wandering of the gaze often accompanies the reactivation of the mind.

Follow this protocol and you might just settle into deep samadhi. On the other hand, you might just end up going back to sleep, but that’s probably the preferable scenario under the circumstances, anyway, right? Good luck, and sweet dreams!

  

Images
Sleepless image by Yulonda Rios via:


Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Right Speech in the Trenches

A couple of posts ago, in Right Speech, I summarized four criteria that the Buddha suggested we consider when deciding whether and how to speak: “Is what I am about to say truthful? Is it beneficial? Is it timely? Will the hearer welcome it?” These criteria seem pretty straightforward and readily applicable to all of our myriad utterances, don’t they? Let’s be clear, though, the Buddha had a pretty high bar for determining whether something was worth talking about or not (at least for the renunciants in his midst) regardless of how truthful or beneficial or timely or welcome it might be. For instance, in the Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life, he is reported to have said of virtuous contemplatives:
Whereas some brahmans and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to talking about lowly topics such as these — talking about kings, robbers, ministers of state; armies, alarms, and battles; food and drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, and scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women and heroes; the gossip of the street and the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity [philosophical discussions of the past and future], the creation of the world and of the sea, and talk of whether things exist or not — [the virtuous contemplative] abstains from talking about lowly topics such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue. (Digha Nikaya 2)

So, no matter how truthful it might be to say that the new Ethiopian restaurant in town is simply superb, no matter how beneficial it might be for both your foodie friends and the owners of the restaurant for you to spread a good word, no matter how timely it might be that your friends are looking for a new dining experience just as the new proprietors are beginning to wonder about their investment, and no matter how welcome such discussion might be to all parties involved, it would still not necessarily be an appropriate topic of conversation amongst virtuous contemplatives. Why not? Because the renunciant neither needs nor wants to have his or her passions stirred up with talk of the sense delights of food and drink. And how much more would the passions be stirred with talk of politics and people and the philosophical speculations of the day. Such talk can only lead the contemplative away from the path of liberation.

But think of the awkward silence that would exist if we more worldly spiritual practitioners were to refrain from talking about any of these subjects. How strange our social interactions would be! How few our social interactions would be, for that matter! We are not all like-minded contemplatives living in a tight-knit and highly structured spiritual community who can coexist in near silence. We exist as family and friends and neighbors, fellow citizens and human beings, and we (at least in our presently evolved social state) need the social lubrication of conversation in order to build trust and relationship. Thus, what makes perfect sense for the avowed contemplative seeking to remain in the deepest meditative state possible for as much of the day as possible may not be so skillful for the rest of us. Furthermore, what makes perfect sense for the renunciant may not be in keeping with a bodhisattva’s vows to alleviate the suffering of others precisely by remaining engaged in the affairs of the world.

It is worth pointing out that at least one other translator, Walshe (1995), chose to translate the above quoted text as The Fruits of the Homeless Life (emphasis mine). How, then, might we worldly practitioners, we contemplative householders and engaged Buddhists, think about right speech as we go about our days providing a voice of witness here, a word of support there, a consciousness-raising comment here, and a rebuke of injustice there? Let’s consider a much discussed recent event in order to possibly glean some insight.



Ruth Orkin's American Girl in Italy

  

As most of you probably know, the New York Times published an open letter one month ago today in which Dylan Farrow alleged that she was sexually abused by Woody Allen when she was a girl. The allegations are graphic and appalling and worthy of our thoughtful consideration. Thus, I mean no disrespect to Dylan Farrow or her personal experience when I say that the media coverage that ensued had all the ingredients of a typical media brouhaha: private tragedy, public interest, alleged legal and moral transgressions, all wrapped in just enough ambiguity as to have us abuzz with the taking of sides and the lambasting of those who would refuse to take sides. Yes, for some strange reason, the very ambiguity of a set of circumstances seems to make the taking of sides all the more inviting and compelling.

Unfortunately, the taking of sides in this instance does nothing to change the facts of the unfortunate situation, and I’m not sure it does much to keep similar situations from reoccurring. The taking of sides really only reveals the way the various lenses through which we might look prompt us to overlook the inherent ambiguity. So, is your lens colored by the factual, yes, factual knowledge that instances of rape and sexual abuse are tragically frequent, underreported, and egregiously under-prosecuted – thereby leading you to conclude that any and every accusation of sexual abuse or assault constitutes prima facie evidence of a crime? Is your lens colored by a belief in the incestuous nature of Woody Allen’s current marriage – thereby leading you to believe that any allegations of sexual transgressions must undoubtedly be true? Is your lens colored by an awareness of something referred to as false memory syndrome or allegations of the vindictive and manipulative nature of Dylan Farrow’s mother, Mia Farrow – thereby leading you to totally dismiss what Dylan has to say? (The interested reader might want to check out Woody Allen's response and Moses Farrow's response to Dylan’s letter.) It behooves us to be aware of what lens we might be looking through so that our speech might have a positive effect – that it might be as “right” as it can be. Let’s face it, while the media brouhaha might have done a good job cleaving off members of Woody Allen’s fan-base, it has done a less than stellar job – although I hope that I am wrong in that regard – of changing in any way the underlying social dynamics that give rise to the following statistics as reported on the website of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network:

·         44% of [sexual assault] victims are under age 18
·         80% are under age 30
·         60% of sexual assaults are not reported to police
·         97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail
·         Approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim
·         38% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance

I’m confident that Dylan Farrow (regardless of her religious affiliation or lack thereof) sincerely strived to engage in right speech when she wrote her open letter. I’m fairly certain that the allegations are either truthful or believed by her to be truthful. I also trust that she believes her open letter will be beneficial in encouraging other individuals to come forward and speak of their having been abused. Her letter is timely also in that it coincides with Woody Allen being given a lifetime achievement award, something that makes it appear to some as though society at large condones his alleged behavior and his lack of punishment for having committed it – a view that is certainly defensible given the nature of the statistics cited above. No, the letter was not welcome to all, certainly not Woody Allen or his current family, but welcomeness was not mandated in the Buddha’s criteria for right speech – it was a consideration. Sometimes unwelcome words need to be spoken. Thus, I do not fault Dylan Farrow for speaking out as she has done. As far as I can know, her intentions are positive and she firmly believes that she is speaking THE truth.

And how did the rest of us do with respect to right speech on this issue? Sure enough, the conversation is timely and beneficial in that it calls attention to a major societal problem that drastically needs addressing. It is pretty clear that this is an injustice for which a bodhisattva, or at least an engaged Buddhist, would seek redress. Thus, it should be a welcome conversation for many of us. However, what do we know about whether our own words on the matter were truthful or not? Yes, we might all be able to say with confidence that we spoke “our” truth, but did we speak THE truth. I hope that everyone will recognize that whereas Dylan Farrow either spoke THE truth or what she believes to be THE truth, the rest of us can only surmise that we know what THE truth is; and therein lies all the difference as far as I can tell.

How, then, would a true bodhisattva, one who has vowed to save all beings, have spoken on this issue? While we can’t know with certainty how such a perfected being might behave, we can perhaps intuit a few things. I’m fairly certain that a bodhisattva would acknowledge the pain and suffering that Dylan Farrow has lived with and would want for that pain and suffering to be mitigated in some way by her being able to experience both personal justice and greater social justice in how sexual abuse is dealt with. I would also think that a bodhisattva would recognize that Woody Allen is also worthy of compassion and justice, and that any clumsily applied “justice” that sacrifices him for some perceived greater good, regardless of THE truth, is really no justice at all.

It may be that we won’t be able to give Dylan Farrow a sense of personal justice. So much time has elapsed between the events of which she speaks and now that it simply does not seem likely that she will have her story heard and adjudicated in a way that might bring her the peace and resolution that she deserves. However, perhaps we can at least give her the peace that might come from an improved climate of social justice regarding how accusations of rape and sexual abuse are dealt with within our families, communities, workplaces, and within our justice system. It seems to me, then, that we would do more to honor THE truth in the long run by focusing on the statistics quoted above than by making this issue all about the guilt or innocence of one man, Woody Allen, and then forgetting the issue as soon as the next salacious media storm appears on our horizon. Towards that end, here are those statistics again:

·         44% of [sexual assault] victims are under age 18
·         80% are under age 30
·         60% of sexual assaults are not reported to police
·         97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail
·         Approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim
·         38% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance


References
  
Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1997). Samaññaphala sutta: The fruits of the contemplative life (DN 2). (Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.) Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.02.0.than.html#speech
Walshe, M. (1995). Samaññaphala sutta: The fruits of the homeless life (from The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya). Wisdom Publications.

  
Image Credits

American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin via:



Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank