Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The King's Highway

“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us.”

“To awaken alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.”

– Freya Stark

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”

– Bill Bryson

A friend asked me the other day if I ever got sick of writing essays about myself.

That was kind of a humbling question…

Years back when I started this blog, I wanted to explore the relationship between laughter and healing as it relates to psychology. I wasn’t even a psychologist then, but it was a subject I was immensely curious about. Now as a licensed psychologist and the author of 15 books, I know a little more, but not that much.

But I never know where these little essays will take me now. I write when I feel I’m “on” to something. Sometimes that happens a couple of times a month, and sometimes it’s a couple of times a year. I never really know.

But let me tell you about the King’s Highway.

Specifically, it’s a song by Tom Petty. I found myself thinking often about a couple of lines that described my longing for travel and to see new places, it went-

“Oh, I'll await the day
Good fortune comes our way
And we ride down the King's Highway”

I kind of got stuck on it. I wanted good fortune to come my way sometime as I hit the open road without a care in the world. It sounded so cool. Yet every time I traveled I felt like I was kind of out of place. I’d go to the airport and my luggage didn’t quite look right compared to other people. I didn’t have kids to travel with and I was no good at mindless chitchat in those little rooms they serve the continental breakfast.

I was missing something, I was sure of it.

It bugged me so much that I decided to find the real King’s Highway and go there. At the time I was a 20 something dude managing a large nightclub in Chicago, making more money then I deserved. I bought the best luggage I could find, flew down to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, and rented a red convertible.

I found the King’s Highway and I was off. Wind whipping through my hair, cool leather bags, and nothing but open road ahead of me.

I almost had it.

But still, it wasn’t quite right. I watched the groups of men smoking cigars and playing golf, and I still felt, well, not quite right.

What was I missing??

I kind of forgot about this obsession for awhile and decided to just enjoy my time off as much as I could. For a while the exotic vacations took a backseat when I went back to school to become a psychologist. Still, that song remained on my playlist, and the elusiveness of the King’s Highway lingered in my mind.

Years later I found myself as a psychologist in New Zealand. I’ve been all over the world since then, and had plenty of cool experiences.

and yet…

As with many unanswered questions, this one came back to me recently. I drove ALL day to get to this spot.

Beautiful isn’t it? It’s a spot called the “12 Apostles” in Australia and it’s part of the great ocean road. It’s one of the ten great drives in the world, and the third one of those I’ve done this year.

And yet.

What you don’t see in the picture is the dozens of Asian tourists wielding selfie sticks in the air and the overcrowded parking lot and the flies and the car with the air conditioner that stopped working an hour ago.

But it’s always something.

But it was right then I took stock, breathed the ocean air, and saw what was stretched out before me. One of the most beautiful things in the world, and I was being pissy and irritable.

Then it hit me. I knew what the King’s Highway was! Finally, after all these years, I knew what it was. It wasn’t a place, or a fancy bag, or a ride in a convertible.

It was a state of mind. A way of thinking. Of enjoying the moment in its’ entirety without surrendering to the weight of the past or the uncertainty of the future. It was a break from your worries. A moment of pure mindfulness. A kind of gratitude for getting to be here. Whatever here that might be at the time. Maybe it was the open road, or maybe it was the end of a long journey where we truly got a chance to start over again.

I proceeded to have one of the most enjoyable days I can ever remember. I hiked down to the beach and enjoyed every second. Later I found a little pub in the country and learned some insider stuff about the area. It was awesome.

But I looked up at the clock, and realized I hadn’t checked into my hotel yet.

Then came the worry again. My moment and my day was slipping away. They always do. We just can’t bottle that feeling no matter how hard we try. Life creeps in and we forget.

But I feel better now, and until then,

I’ll await the day
Good Fortune comes my way,
And we ride down the King’s Highway

Friday, October 2, 2015

We Blew It- Guns, Violence, and America

One movie I enjoyed a great deal from my youth was “Easy Rider” by Peter Fonda. Two guys go out in search of Freedom, connection, and a better understanding of their own country and people.

In the end, they realize they have been nothing but a pair of selfish drug dealers, and they missed the whole point all along.

“We blew it",  Peter Fonda’s Captain America says to his riding partner Dennis Hopper.

They thought the problem was with America, or “society” or whatever convenient “them” we all use to rail against in these moments of righteousness.

But in the end, it was them. THEY blew it. 

And in America. It was us.

We blew it.

Yesterday in Oregon was the 297th mass shooting in America this year. That’s more than one a day. 

And what happens? The same stupid head shaking.  The same stupid speeches by presidents and congressmen and politicians, whose speeches do nothing, say nothing, mean nothing.

We can’t have an intelligent dialogue anymore. We have two sides that have lost the ability to listen, to compromise, to reason. We’ve lost the ability to solve our own problems. We’re too invested in being right. All of us. For some taking guns is the most obvious solution in the world. And for every one of those there’s probably someone on the “From my cold dead hands crowd” on the other side. Watch these people talk on Facebook. They usually can’t even get past a couple sentences before their conversation devolves into personal attacks, name-calling, and disrespect.  

We blew it. 

But let me back up a second.

In the early 90’s, I myself was a young community college student in the sate of Oregon. I’d dropped out of school once already. I was pretty good at chugging beer and playing Nintendo, but otherwise didn’t have much of a clue as to what I wanted to do with my life.

I did like being in school though. It gave me a chance to begin to answer that question. Sometimes it takes a while.

Yesterday ten people who were probably at a similar stage of their lives got up in the morning, stuffed some books in a backpack, and went to school to try and figure it all out. 

They had no idea it would be the last day of their lives.

Why would they know that?

I think back and wonder if that could have been me. I would have never eventually grown up, traveled the world, and become a psychologist, an occupation that has allowed me to influence thousands of lives. My family would have been heartbotken, and who knows how this heartbreak may have influenced their lives.

Yesterday all that potential died in those ten students. The world will never know what they might have become, who they might have fallen in love with, or how they may have changed the world.

I’m not going to go into all the arguments about gun control, mental health, and the 2nd amendment here. What’s the point really?

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

I do want to make one point about the way we talk about school shooters. To do so I’ll use the chilling words of yesterday’s shooter.

I have noticed that so many people like [Flanagan] (SC shooter) are alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems like the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.

For one day, because we make these guys celebrities in their deaths, they go from being ineffectual nothings to a Kardashian all of a sudden.

It’s enough to make them shoot innocent people who wanted nothing but to go to school for the day.

Again and again and again.

When the drive for 15 minutes of false and fleeting fame has reached that level of absurdity, then we have reached the point of insanity.

And we all know the definition of insanity, right?

Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

In the meantime, I’ve settled in to my new life in New Zealand. In my heart of hearts, I’d rather live in America, the place where I was born, shaped, and raised into the person I am today. It’s the only home I’ve ever known.

But I can’t live in an insane place anymore. It’s not getting any better.

We blew it.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Steer into the skid

The other day my boss called me into the office and said the words that have been at the beginning of nearly every bad conversation I've ever had in my life.

"Joe we need to talk."

Nobody needs to talk.

"The thing is," he went on. "I've been going over your numbers and feedback ratings from clients, and, well-"

(Bracing for impact)

"The thing is they are outstanding. Like, top of the class outstanding. Really strong positive feedback. So what I wanted to ask was, what's your secret?"

Come again??

After clarifying I wasn't about to be written up or anything, I thought about the question.

"Okay, Here is MY answer as to how to be a good psychologist. By Joe Guse, equire. Ready?"


"Spend like 20 years screwing up every aspect of your life. Rack up some bad credit while you're at it. Burn a few bridges. Let them burn! Let good women exit your life without a word. There will always be more! Neglect your health. Drink too much. Don't exercise. And one day you'll wake up and realize that everything a client comes in with may be something you know something about, because you've screwed up just as bad."

Boss- "Jesus, Joe I wasn't looking for a real answer."

BUT. There is some evidence that I may be on to something. Jung said, "It is only the wounded healer who can heal."

I've certainly put that idea to the test.

Also though, I do have some cool handouts. Here is one of them. 

Change, Accept, or Let Go
Which brings us to the title of this essay.

Steer into the skid. Advice I got form my driver's ed teacher many years ago. If you're going to wreck,  don't try and radically overcorrect the wheel. You'll make things worse.

Steer into the skid. 

There's a psychological lesson in here as well. Much of what goes wrong in our lives has to do with avoiding things as opposed to confronting them. And boy do we get good at deceiving ourselves about these things. "I'll start exercising one of these days." "Someday soon I'll talk to my boss." "I'll work up the courage to tell her how I feel."

Which brings us back to the handout.

Change accept or let go. Where we often go wrong is in thinking about things over and over without trying to change them and without being able to let them go. That's called rumination, and it's at the root of a number of psychological problems.

It particularly loves to show up right before we're trying to go to sleep. Or 3 in the morning sometimes.

One tool I've found very helpful is a simple whiteboard. Start by writing one thing down that may help you get closer to solving your problem. Keep adding to your list as you get more confident. It feels good to start checking off those items.

As for me, I'm the proud owner of both a moped and a motorcycle.

I have plenty of skids in front of me. Both on the road and in my life. Lessons are repeated until they are ingrained. Then we forget them again. 
Sometimes we have to learn these things all over again. 

Even us "experts."

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Equanimity- (And how my mother nearly failed me in the 4th grade)

(Latin: æquanimitas having an even mind; aequus even animus mind/soul) is a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind.

Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically.

"Perhaps," the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "What great luck!" the neighbors exclaimed.

"Perhaps," replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

"Perhaps," answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

"Perhaps," said the farmer...

It’s Monday, and today I’m reminded that on Mondays in the 4th grade, we would often learn a new vocabulary word.

Why am I telling you this?

Because my mother was my 4th grade teacher. And do you know what still exists on my permanent record? Two “I’s”. In the 4th grade circa 1980 in America that meant “incomplete.” Meaning, you didn’t quite grasp the lesson kid. Thanks for playing.

I still get a little red thinking about that.

Do you know what I’m not demonstrating when I get a little red? Equanimity. Which is today’s vocabulary word.

It’s a fabulous word really, and many of the world’s major religions have drawn on the definition as a part of their teachings. The Hindus talked about it as a detachment from the ego and a kind of pure awareness about the nature of reality. The Buddhist saw it as an inherent understanding of the transitory nature of reality. 

But that’s a little lofty for our purposes. What does it mean for the average Joe? (You see what I did there?) 

Let’s start with the idea that emotions are transitory. Everyone can probably buy that. At least in principle. But when we’re in the middle of an emotion this doesn’t make any sense at all. Our little feedback system tells us, “I’ve been hurt” or “I’ve been wronged” and then acts accordingly. All of us have a little justice system in our head where we are the supreme ruler, and if we feel we have been treated unfairly, then this must be true.

The ruler has spoken.

When we can take a step back however, we sometimes realize that things aren’t always so black and white. Often it’s pure flattery when we suppose someone has done something specifically to upset us. The truth is people rarely even think about us. Remember this adage and reflect on it. People aren’t against you, they’re for themselves.
Let’s repeat that. People aren’t against you, they’re for themselves. They are acting in accordance with THEIR little ruler. Sometimes this person will be your partner, or your boss, or a friend, and their needs are going to run contrary to yours.

If you have any interactions with other people in your life, this is going to happen to you, I promise.

Which is where the concept of equanimity comes in. It’s about cultivating the idea in our lives that emotions will pass. Always. In every case. Every time.

They will pass. In the meantime we can take an even longer view that we don’t know how our story ends, and we certainly don’t know what each interaction and emotional high or low is trying to teach us. We don’t get to know that in the moment. It’s only later when we get to see how all of the jigsaw pieces actually fit. In the meantime we can begin to try and cultivate this awareness with regard to our emotions as best we can. We’re never going to be perfect at this. But we can try. The first step in any change is awareness. After that it’s putting this awareness into action.

As for me? I’m seeing my mother in one week for what I hope will be a great week in San Francisco. I’ve been excited about it for a long time. So much so that I’m missing some moments of awareness in my everyday life that I should be paying attention to. So, I’ll stop, breathe, and see my clients today and try and stay in the moment. I’ll celebrate the San Francisco moment when that comes, but today is the only today I’ll ever have.

Will be nice to see my mom though.

And who knows, maybe I can even still get that grade changed.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

You ain't ever gonna burn my heart out

Step outside, summertime's in bloom
Stand up beside the fireplace
Take that look from off your face
You ain't ever gonna burn my heart out

Don’t look back in anger- Oasis

Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.

Carl Jung

I was recently approached by a certain media organization and asked about writing an advice column regarding relationships and dating.

I told them they must have called the wrong number.

But let me back up a few weeks.

I was recently in Sydney Australia for a few days and had the time of my life. On my last night I found one of those sing-a-long bars in the city and saddled up. I love sing-a-long bars, (truthfully I treat most bars like this). The singer played the song “Don’t look back in anger’” that I have quoted in the title. 100 drunken Aussies immediately began singing along. Not me though. Although I was a DJ for years, my Amerocentric self didn’t know all the words, so I did that thing where you just pretend to join in on the chorus. One line jumped out at me though.

You ain’t ever gonna burn my heart out.

Such a great line, and as somebody CONTEMPLATING writing a column about relationships, I gave it a little thought.  Broken hearts are probably the most common problem people come in for in my work as a psychologist, and I considered the line in that context. I think we all tend to go into a bit of an emotional spiral at the end of a relationship, and ask ourselves the same kinds of questions. Why couldn’t I make it work? Is there something wrong with me? Will I ever find love again? Do I even WANT to find love again?

This shit can make us all a bit of a neurotic mess. I know from experience.

And not just therapist experience.

I think what happens in those moments is we lose our sense of hope. We invested so much time and energy into a person, and then somehow it all went bad. In the worst of these moments we think, how could someone do that to me? Why is this happening to me? I gave you everything and you threw it away!!

These are normal responses, but not, I think the entire picture.

Over the years as a therapist, (and a failed dater), I’ve cobbled together some things to think about when we are experiencing one of these moments.

1   1. ‘We accept the love we think we deserve.’ This idea (as quoted in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower) has been around for a while. If we have a low opinion of ourselves then we are likely drifting towards relationships that confirm this opinion.

2   2. ‘We train people how to treat us by what we allow, what we stop, and what we reinforce.’ Again, not a new idea, but a very important one. Did your partner make you feel bad about yourself? Make negative comments about your appearance? Say insulting things about your friends and family? If so it is up to YOU to draw the line in the sand about what you feel is appropriate. If you sit passively by you won’t change anything.

3   3. ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ Taken from Buddhist thought, and suggestive of the idea that things come into our lives when we are ready for them. Have we recognized our own patterns of self-sabotage? How our own insecurities contribute to jealousy, tensions, and communication patterns? If we haven’t, then the end of a relationship gives us a chance to think about these things and work on them.

And maybe someone HAS tried to burn our heart out over the course of a relationship. If so, we have to take at least some responsibility for bringing that person into our lives in the first place. But even if we have been mistreated, why should the story end with you feeling sad and miserable? Take this time to better yourself. Pick something you want to improve and work on it. Maybe it’s your physical health, or some hobby you have been dying to try, or a place you want to travel.

Your story doesn’t end with a breakup. It might seem like it at the time, but every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

And no, that line doesn’t come from the song “Closing Time”.  It was written thousands of years ago by Seneca.

Even ancient Romans got the relationship blues. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

And those who were seen dancing

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Some days as a therapist, the world stops to listen carefully. Your advice is welcomed as well thought out and life affirming, and patient after patient informs you how much they appreciate your time, wisdom, and advice.

Today was not one of those days.

Some days you’re the pigeon, some days you’re the statute.

Today I’m covered in birdshit.

I’ll live. On the whole there are more good days than bad.

But it was something that happened after work that provided perhaps my best educational moment today.

It was a woman dancing. Just dancing. There was a little man playing a ukulele on the street, and she had stopped to dance. Wildly dance. Inappropriately dance. It was the middle of the afternoon and everyone else was simply going about their business. Not her though. She had something inside of her she wanted to express, and nothing was going to stop her. Some gave her dirty looks. Others rolled their eyes.

It was then I thought of Friedrich Nietzsche and the quote at the beginning this essay.

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”

It perfectly summed up the moment. Everyone (including me) seemed busy and irritated except her. How dare someone dance in the middle of the day?

I stopped to join her.

As the little man took a break from his Ukelele, the woman decided to take a break as well. It was just as well, I may have been cramping her style a little.

But I did get a chance to talk to her. She was a Maori woman born and raised in Auckland who had seen a lot. Abuse, poverty, alcoholism, and all kinds of suffering and loss. But still she danced. She danced because there was nothing left to do BUT dance. What else could life throw at her? (her words). Yet still she could hear the music while a lot of the rest of us apparently couldn’t.

Of the 100 or so people I saw in that little square that day, she was the only one who stopped and danced. Joyfully. Mindfully. In the moment.

While the rest of us hurried about…

It was a good lesson for me actually. Good, bad, sorrow, suffering, comedy, and tragedy. If we’ve lived at all in this life we’ve probably seen a little bit of all of them.

If we’re still drawing breath however, we still have a choice if we’re going to stop and listen to the music.

So tonight I’ll go home, dust myself off, have a glass of wine, and prepare to do it all over again. A little wiser from having watched a woman dance in the middle of the afternoon. At 7 A.M I’ll get up, hit snooze a couple of times, and get up. There’s a lot more life to live.

Tomorrow I'm gonna remember to listen to the music.