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. 


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A tribute to Bernie Dekker

Picture this.

A man dusts off the old “which way to the beach?” line in a bar. Except there’s no pretty girl. Or muscles.

Those are the circumstances I first met Bernie Dekker. I was new to New Zealand fresh off the boat from America. He welcomed me into the bar with open arms, got me a beer, and made me a pizza.

I never did make it to the beach that day.

But I did stay up pretty late talking to Bernie and his wife Stephanie that night. They told me all about their lives, how they came to open The Wines (Bernie’s lifelong dream) and their travels to America. He showed me some videos of his motorcycle trips to the south island. He had his bar, his wife, and his harley.

He was the picture of a happy man.

Over the next couple of months I returned to The Wines more than once. Often Bernie and I would stay up late into the night talking about different things. I really came to value his advice, his friendship, and his stories about the open road. It was a great introduction to New Zealand for me. As a new guy here I didn’t know many people, and he always introduced me around whenever he got the chance. Not a lot of people would have cared. But he did. He even let me stay in his home after being “overserved” a time or two.

I based my first impressions of the people of New Zealand at least in part on my time with Bernie and Stephanie. I figured if the people were all as nice as this, then maybe I’d come to the right place.

Eventually I left my first New Zealand home in Palmerston North, but I’ll never, ever forget these wonderful people who took in a stranger, showed him around, and welcomed him.

Malcolm Forbes said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” That was the kind of guy Bernie was. The kind that would give a total stranger the shirt off his back. When I walked in The Wines the first time I was a lost, scared, lonely dude completely out of his element.

An hour later I was one of the guys.

That was the guy of guy Bernie was. The kind that made everyone feel like one of the guys.

If I can draw these conclusions from only a few meetings with Bernie, I can’t imagine the stories those that have known him his whole life must have to tell about him. My guess is they’ll ripple on for a long time though.

So sorry to hear you’re gone Bernie. I’ll always remember you as someone who made a weary and wary traveler completely at home.

It really mattered to me.

You were one of the good guys…

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Tripping Billies

So why would you care
to get out of this place?
You and me and all our friends
such a happy human race

Eat, drink and be merry
for tomorrow we die

Dave Mathews Band-Tripping Billies

That it was everything. It was my life - like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.

How wild it was, to let it be.

Cheryl Strayed- Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Sometimes I go back and reread these little essays and think, Jesus man lighten up a little. I hope this one is a little more fun. It certainly was for me to live it.

But to back up a second. Let’s talk a little bit about Dave Mathews. I met him back in 99’. He came and played at a bar I was managing on St. Patrick’s Day. He was a cool guy and it was great fun. But I was never really THAT kind of fan. The dude that has all the bootlegs and spins in a circle during the 8 minute guitar solos.

Still though, it was the 90’s and they were on the top of their game. I particularly came to love “Tripping Billies” after I heard a story about the origins of the song. According to the version I heard, Dave and some friends were on a beach and he took some hallucinogens for the first time. That night he had one of those rare transcendental moments you hope will never end after hanging out the whole night on the beach by the campfire with his friends. It sounded like such fun. Tripping Billies.

I’ve had some of those kinds of moments myself. Big roaring fire. Great friends. Some dude in a ponytail playing a guitar, (there’s always a dude in a ponytail with a guitar.) Lots of beer. Lots of fun. They were in fact some of the best memories of my life when I was a young guy in my 20’s working in five different national parks. When I thought of those great times I called them my “tripping billie” days. I never forgot them.

Sadly, it’s been a long time since I’ve had one of those moments. I always wanted to have another one though. Dozens of them if I could actually. Sure I can’t party like I used to, and a big night out has its consequences. Still though, I used to spend whole summers like that.

Sometimes you just don’t realize the most significant moments of your life while they’re happening…

And yet, sometimes, if you keep yourself open to the signal, the universe spins its way back to you again.

This weekend I had one of those moments on the wild west coast of New Zealand. It’s just 45 minutes out of the big city, but it might as well be the other side of the world. Crazy big waves, and massive rocks, and weird surfers who look like the bad guys in the movie Point Break. It’s pretty awesome.

So after closing the little bar down the other day, I just wandered out to the beach and laid there for a while. It was a full moon and the stars were out and my mind was buzzing.

And then, just over the horizon, I heard something. Something like a guitar. I wondered for a second if I was time traveling. Or hallucinating.

But no. It was a guitar. And more than that it was someone playing the Grateful Dead, (is there any better campfire music?) I followed my ears until I found the sound. I instinctively looked around for the familiar ponytail. There it was! There was also a bunch of people in tie-dyes and assorted hippie garb sitting around the fire singing along. At last I had found them again.

The tripping billies!!!

What was a chubby guy in a polo shirt to do? I didn’t exactly look the part, but then again, I never really have. I’ve had a checkered career after dark to say the least, but miraculously never have gotten a tattoo or owned a shirt with Bob Marley or Che Guevara on it. I’ve just kind of let my depravity speak for itself..

So I wandered in, singing the words to “Sugar Magnolia” as I did. Two things bring back memories like nothing else, the things you smell, and the music that you hear. I smelled campfire, (and some other things, use your imagination), and heard the familiar sounds of the Grateful Dead.

I quickly found some people to talk to. One particularly inspired guy in dreadlocks was delivering a monologue.

“What if man, like this was the edge of the universe, and we’re just, like right now, pushing against it, making it bigger and more spiritual all the time?”

I had a few logical answers to that query, but in that moment, I forgot all about logic.

“Right on man” was the appropriate answer, and it was the one that I gave him.

So we sat and listened to music and had some great laughs until the sun came up. It wasn’t just like old times. These were new times. And they were fantastic.

Maybe I WAS pushing the outer edge of my universe a little bit.

I did get the ponytail guy to play an old song for me though.

It went-

So why would you care
to get out of this place?
You and me and all our friends
such a happy human race

 Cause we're tripping billies...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care

An Open Letter to Caregivers

As a new doctor in New Zealand,  I’ve had my challenges. For one, I’m an American, and in a thousand different ways that comes with a legacy. Most people I work with want to know all about how I got here and why I left, and it’s usually a great introduction into building a therapeutic relationship.

But there’s also a little apprehension.

You’re an American. Not from here. Not even from New Zealand. What do you know about me and where I come from? And do you even care?

People take their time thinking about that last part, I assure you.

Do you even care?

New Zealand as a country is probably a lot like America was a hundred years ago. People come here from everywhere. And there were plenty of people here before the white people got here as well.

I heard the quote this essay begins with in a seminar about working with people from the Pacific Islands, and honestly it kind of hit me like a thunderbolt.

People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

I think every doctor should be locked into a room to mediate on this statement for one solid month. To really think about it and examine it, and truly reflect on why they got into a helping profession in the first place.

All relationships, from the friendship to the romantic to the therapeutic, at their very essence boil down to one important question.

Do I trust you?

Can I tell you things I wouldn’t tell another person? Can I let you behind the curtain of my little life and hope you’ll try and understand? Can I let my guard down with you? Tell you things other people might laugh at?

If I can’t, we’re colleagues. Or acquaintances. Or perhaps we have a business relationship.

But I promise I’m not telling you everything.

I think we as doctors often forget what a tremendous act of courage it is for a patient to even COME to the first session. They wouldn’t be there if they didn't know something wasn’t right. But they were scared to come and see us all the same. They probably worried about what to wear, and wondered if they were going to say the wrong thing, and hoping we wouldn’t see them as a loser or a failure or someone that had no interest in taking care of themselves.

We’ve all been there. Every doctor in the world. Every patient in the world.

But we forget. We get busy. One patient runs into another, and years later we find ourselves with a lot less empathy than we started with when we first heard the words “first do no harm.”

But there’s a real person there. A scared person. A vulnerable person. And they’re there hoping you might be able to make them right again.

There is no greater responsibility.

Interestingly, a lot of the heart and soul of these ideas is supported by research. Doctors who are kind don’t get sued, NEARLY as much as doctors who come across as cold-hearted. Even if they are inferior doctors! It’s fascinating research actually. Here is a summary, “physicians who were never sued were perceived by their patients as concerned, accessible, and willing to communicate. Doctors who were sued the most came across as hurried, uninterested, and unwilling to listen and answer questions.”,485345

The numbers are pretty convincing..

It’s a good reminder for me as a psychologist doing business 10,000 miles from home. No one cares too much about my accomplishments here, as well they shouldn’t. They want to know I care. That’s what counts. Sincerity, genuineness, and empathy. All of those tanks that get a little more worn out with each passing year in business. We all could use a little reminder I think. It’s certainly been humbling for me to think about doing business so far away from home.

Once upon a time we were all that little kid, terrified to go to the doctor and begging mom to forget it and take us somewhere else.

For God’s sake even animals get restless when they sense they’re going to the vet.

All of us have been that scared child. Some of still are at 20, or 60, or 90. By definition we’re seeing people at some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives.

The least we could do is care. It means a lot.

It means everything actually. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Suicide is Painless

The game of life is hard to play
I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay
So this is all I have to say.
‘Suicide is Painless

Theme from TV Show ‘Mash”

 I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?
Stand by Me

Found out today that an old friend of mine had died. I’d like to be writing an essay on how we remained friends throughout our lives, and what an amazing guy he was right until the end.

But I can’t do that. We lost touch.

It was particularly difficult to find that he had committed suicide. That’s not supposed to happen. He was MY age for God’s sake. Sure we are beginning to navigate all the stuff that comes with middle age, but a lot of the hard part is supposed to be behind us, right?

And why DID I lose touch with him exactly? Why do any friends? At one point he and a large number of us spent practically every day of our lives on the golf course as young guys. It was a lot cheaper than a babysitter for our parents. Man did we have fun. And antagonize people. And have a million laughs with each other on summer nights that seemed to last forever.

It doesn’t seem like anything will ever change when you’re young like that.

But somehow it always does. People go off to college. The first guy gets married. Someone has a kid. And the next thing you know, people you were virtually inseparable with slowly recede into the back of your memory. And soon enough you’ve got your own headaches and problems to deal with.

And time marches on.

We’ve been assisted a bit by living in the facebook era, but even that’s a kind of double edged sword. Sure it helps us keep in touch, but is it real? We get to instantly see a snapshot of people’s best version of themselves. A person’s facebook page is often like one of those annoying Christmas letters people send around detailing all of the ways their family excelled over the course of the year. Personally I’d rather have a fruitcake.

And I fucking hate fruitcake.

In a poignant essay entitled “The top five regrets of the dying” a hospice nurse recounts the major themes she heard again and again from people on their deathbeds. One of the items was, ‘I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.’ She writes,

“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”

That’s kind of heartbreaking to read actually. And we all let it happen. I’m a TERRIBLE culprit myself. You just figure there will always be enough time.

I’ve come to believe that’s the most dangerous lie there is.

I don’t know what my old friend was going through when he decided to take his own life, but I do know one of the most common things people experience in these moments is a feeling of hopelessness. What happened to my friend’s hope? Why did he feel he couldn’t talk about it or ask for help, or just tread water a little longer until the darkness passed?

That’s the thing about suicide. It’s often a reflection of a life that’s become simply too painful to bare. Nearly every suicidal person has serious doubts about the process.

But in that moment, suicide is painless.

I wish I could have been that friend to him. That one person he could have called to get through that moment. I wish he had any kind of friend like that. We all need them. In our youth potential friends are everywhere, but it gets a little harder as we get older. We don’t share the same history with someone, the same references, music, movies, and understanding of a time and place where we have a completely identifiable language between us. That’s rare. That doesn’t come along very often.

Cherish your friends. There’s a reason you found them in the first place.

So in conclusion, I would like to share a little story about my friend.

I was 15 and he was 17 and we were playing golf together. He hit a nice booming drive into the fairway, and mine went slicing into the trees. He was older, and could hit it a little further, and already I was pissed off.

We walked towards my ball, and found it sitting right at the base of a large tree stump.

“Man, tough break,” he said.

“Not really” I replied, as I preceded to kick the ball out into the fairway.

But rather than a lecture, he gave me some advice. He told me that we hit some of our best shots when we recover from these shitty mistakes, and how I was never going to learn to get any better if I didn’t begin to accept this.

It was a great lesson. In golf, and in life. You got yourself into this mess, now summon your best powers of concentration and get yourself out.

You just might surprise yourself.

So that’s how I’ll chose to remember him. As a guy who called me on my bullshit, and chose to be the kind of friend who doesn’t look the other way.

It’s the kind I want to be as well…

So if you’re (still) reading this, please consider me a friend. You can talk to me, and I’ll listen, I promise. I hope I can talk to you as well. Let’s not lose touch anymore than we already have.

Maybe we can help each other.

It's what friends do...