Saturday, July 31, 2010

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
Paul Bowles- The Sheltering Sky

Ain’t it funny how time slips away
Willie Nelson

Many of the posts I write about discuss mindful living, seizing the day, living life to the fullest, etc. Even still, I can be a pretty lazy guy sometimes, and find myself getting captivated by many absurd distractions, including watching hours of mindless TV. Sometimes I actually learn something though, and the other day while watching the show Lost, I was greeted with a profound life lesson that I have been thinking about ever since.

On the show, one of the leading characters named Desmond decides to deviate from the successful life he has built for himself, and concentrate on helping his friends reconnect with people he knew they were meant to be with. This course of action represents a revelation, as he has had an epiphany about what is important and life and what is not, and he’s decided to do things a little differently this time. One particular scene shows a huge smile splash across his face as he takes it all in and begins to shed the remnants of his former constrictive life.

This show was fiction, I knew that, and not only fiction but kind of crazy fiction. Still, I couldn’t shake the idea of how liberating it would be to shred some of my own dead skin. For a non-worrier, I had been downright neurotic for the last few weeks, and decided to actually sit down and make a list of the things that I was worrying about that would realistically matter to me in one year’s time. Know what? I couldn’t think of any, and shortly afterwards had my own big smile on my face as I freed myself from some of my own pesky skin.

My next move was to head to downtown Chicago and sit in Daley square and just watch people. It was an exercise I had been doing since I first moved here as a wide-eyed kid back in 1996. The task was simple. Watch people, really watch people and find something funny about their lives. Not in any mean-spirited way, but simply as a lesson in noticing the little moments of comedy in life that people perhaps don’t even realize about themselves. I’ve been doing it for years, and when I get too rushed or too serious, or simply too busy with my life, I slow down, hop on a train and repeat this exercise. I almost always fill up a substantial portion of my notebook jotting things down.

What occurs to me in these moments is that time is the most important thing we have. All of the other blessings in our life are contingent on having time. Making time is the fuel that feeds our relationships, kindles our sense of romance, and cements the bond that makes a family. Yet strangely we often don’t appreciate time until it’s gone. Who among us hasn’t complained and kvetched through a situation only to look back on it with nostalgia and longing only after it rests firmly in our rear view mirror? My guess is almost all of us.

A clue perhaps as to how to use our time wisely comes from Richard Moss, who said, “the greatest gift you can give another is the purity of our attention.” This speaks not only to spending time with someone, but actually spending this time in a way that truly demonstrates that we feel privileged to have this person in our life. To spend time really listening instead of waiting for our turns to talk. Anyone who has ever struggled in a relationship is I’m sure familiar with the difference. We often fail to realize that we too fail to listen, and even after working for several years as a therapist where it is the bread and butter of my profession, I find myself butting in on people all the time.

Beyond our relationships, I think there is a further lesson in giving the everyday moments of life the purity of our attention. Having spent time with a lot of comedians, I’m convinced that the best of them are funny because they have become amazingly adept at noticing the absurdity and comic relief every moment of life has the potential to provide. Spend a little time looking around a dollar store, or a zoo, or a doctor’s office, or virtually any other place you could name, and I guarantee you that if you really look closely you will find something amusing by taking a time out from your worries and starting to look around. That’s been my secret, and I suspect a secret for a lot of successful people who have made a career out of comedy.

This lesson came full circle for me when I was enjoying myself recently at one of Chicago’s glorious summer festivals on a Sunday afternoon. It had been a long weekend, and I had really just come to watch the music, have a couple of beers, and wind the weekend down as peacefully as I could.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the office. The band that day was playing a lot of cover music from the 80’s, and soon, like a frustrated lounge singer, my hips began moving back and forth. A beer later I was belting out a Tiffany song and doing the Roger Rabbit and generally making an ass out of myself. Soon I was doing the robot, the fishing pole, the shopping cart, and on and on. Because I was by myself I’m sure this looked incredibly odd, and as the show wrapped up I wiped the sweat off my head and prepared for the short bike ride home.

A moment later I felt a tap on my shoulder, and as I turned around I saw a young couple standing there with big smiles on their faces.

“Hey, just wanted you to know that we had the best time watching you tonight,” she went on. "It’s been a long time since either of us have seen those sweet 80’s dance moves, and we just wanted to say you kind of made our night.”

It was a sledgehammer moment for me. I realized that for all the time I spent watching and looking for the comedic moments in life, that I had become the subject of my own exercise. It was a wonderful reminder that life is not a passive affair, and that, although I strive for mindfulness and awareness, a big part of success in this life is about getting in the ring. Those people made my day, and I was humbled to learn that I had also made theirs. Laughter at its best is a pay it forward kind of exercise, and it’s a lesson I hope I will continue to remember.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Defending your life

I watched one of my favorite movies last night called “Defending your life,” with Albert Brooks. Although there have been hundreds of books and movies that speculate about what happens to us when we die, this movie did it in a way that has stuck with me since I first saw it when I was a kid. The premise is, that at the end of your life a small panel of judges examines 10 or so representative days of your life to see if you have conquered your fear during the duration of your time on earth. If they found you had, you got to move on to a higher level of consciousness, if not, you got sent back to earth to do it all over again.

The thing that resonated with me so much about this process was the emphasis on the role that fear played in determining the quality of a person’s existence, and how, according to the movie, our lives came down to a small handful of choices that gauged how much we allowed fear to influence our most important and pivotal choices.

When I first watched the movie I was a teenager, and found this to be a powerful way to think about living my life. Beyond morality or stability or security, I wanted to become truly fearless in my life, and shortly afterward took to the road. At the time I was, in my own mind, living a life without fear, perhaps even recklessly so. I spent my twenties traversing our great county, working in 5 of our national parks, traveling, performing comedy, and slinging a whole lot of liquor both as a bartender as well as a patron. Taking stock at the age of 30, I realized I had covered a lot of ground, but had little to show for my behavior but a lot of wonderful memories. A priceless thing to be sure, but it was at this point in my life that I first began to question if fearlessness was the only value worth living for.

Somewhere around this time I began to understand that there was a difference between conquering one’s fear and simply living in pursuit of pure hedonism. On a grand scale, conquering your fear was an amazing thing. It helped me bungee jump, get on stage as a terrified performer, travel into worlds unknown again and again, and hang out with a few women drastically over my head.

I look upon that period of my life with great nostalgia, but now, having been a therapist for several years, I have a little different take on tackling fear in our lives, and I find my position has changed a bit since the days of my sky-diving, hard-drinking youth.

You see I don’t think fear is conquered on a grand scale, although I certainly thought that for many years of my life. No I think the battle with fear is encompassed in a million little moments of our lives. The person we lock eyes with who we don’t quite work up the nerve to talk to. The promotion at work we don’t apply for because we don’t think we’re good enough. These are the little battles we face all the time, and as days give way to years, these are the choices that become the stories of our lives.

Even beyond these things however, there lies another layer of fear that rests at the deepest core of our psyches. This is the stuff we deny and put away on the back shelves of our minds to deal with on some faraway rainy day. This is the stuff that speaks to our deepest feelings of inadequacy and unclaimed baggage from the wounds that we never quite got around to dealing with. Stephen King describes this eloquently, saying, “So do we pass the ghosts that haunt us later in our lives; they sit undramatically by the roadside like poor beggars, and we see them only from the corners of our eyes, if we see them at all. The idea that they have been waiting there for us rarely if ever crosses our minds. Yet they do wait, and when we have passed, they gather up their bundles of memory and fall in behind, treading in our footsteps and catching up, little by little.”

So how do we stare these ghosts down? Some of the ways that have worked for me are honesty and laughter, which at least in my life are intertwined in a kind of perfect union. All of those things, those little nagging things I don’t always like about myself? We’ve all got a box that’s full of them, and sharing them in a funny way is both liberating as well as generative. Others can use them, learn from them, and through your own self-deprecating spin on these things perhaps begin to diffuse the power of some of their own fears. This is our shared absurdity as human beings, and so often the only thing that separates intense disappointment and fantastic shared laughter is a little time and perspective. It’s a useful idea to keep in mind that has personally helped me conquer a lot of my own fears, both large and small.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Dancing on your own grave

Dancing on your own grave
“Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Dylan Thomas- Do not go gentle

When I was in my early 20’s, I used to enjoy the idea of global warming. Sometimes I used to dream about an asteroid hitting the earth. None of these thoughts were in a suicidal kind of way, but I used to think how nice it would be if something would happen that got us all got back onto equal footing. Credit scores, friends who graduated from college way too fast, endless comparisons with my neighbors and classmates? None of this would matter anymore, as we concentrated on survival in the rapidly approaching nuclear winter. This thought filled me with a feeling of great warmth.

On the other hand the poem at the beginning of this essay was a steady companion in those days, and I vowed to “rage against the dying of the light,” whenever I got the chance. I was however always curious about what he meant by the “wild men” who “learned too late they grieved it on its way.” I spent half my life trying to figure out exactly what that meant. What did they learn? What were they grieving? Now all these years later I think I have come to understand what this line means, or at least what it means to me.

I think what he was trying to say is that even when we are in the prime of our lives, when we seemingly have everything a person may need to live a passionate and rapturous life, we still find a million things to complain about. Later we wax nostalgic about the good old days, not remembering how much we complained about these very same days when we were actually living them. Rarely do we acknowledge the prime of our life when we are actually living it.

Studying the work of Joseph Campbell helped me understand that maybe, just maybe, this is the kingdom of heaven. Right here, right now, every breath we get to take in is a chance to experience the amazing gift of awareness. What if all of the ways we poison this life were just traps of the mind, and there was a way of freeing ourselves from these traps? I am certainly not the first one to suggest this idea, and it is one that has been proffered by people from the Buddha thousands of years ago to Eckhart Tolle more recently.

It’s very difficult to feel anything akin to being in the kingdom of heaven when bill collectors are ringing our phones and doctors are telling us our bodies are falling apart, and I am as guilty as anyone of finding ways to poke holes in my own happiness narrative. But truth be told, for all of its loss and heartbreak and disappointment, truthfully this is the best life I can imagine. Everything is possible, and if I am disappointed in something, it is, as long as I am drawing breath, possible to choose another way to live. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “This is the true joy in life: Being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Which brings me to one of my favorite scenes from a TV show called Northern Exposure, which was a wonderful character study of people sharing their lives in the Alaskan wilderness. There was one friendship in the show I particularly enjoyed between Ed, the twenty-something filmmaker, and Ruth Ann the woman in her 70’s who ran the local store and who had lived a wonderful life of adventure.

In this particular episode, Ruth Ann turns 75, and Ed begins to treat her like her death is imminent. Ruth Ann, who has truly learned to savor every moment in her old age, dislikes being treated like an old woman, and throughout the episode they discuss the subject of death, and how it is not something to be feared, but instead something to be reflected on to enhance the meaning and value of our time here.

The last scene is what really stuck with me, as Ed purchases her a grave on the top of a mountain, and the final scene shows them both dancing joyfully on top of it. It took rewatching this as an older man, but finally I think I got it. There was no grieving the sun on its way down here, they were actively celebrating a pure moment of mindful living, and in that moment they were blessed with that fleeting gift of appreciation for the miraculous set of circumstances that brought them there.

I think about these things when I wax nostalgic about my own “prime” and how much better life was at some other point in my own existence. This is a lie, a trick of memory that allows us to forget the bad and remember the good. One day we will likely even look at this period of our life with a kind of fond reminiscence, forgetting the thousand ways we rationalized how life could be better. For better or for worse, this is where we are, right here, right now, and it’s the only piece of our destiny we have any power to change. Give it a shot. Dance on your own proverbial grave and see how it feels. This is the power of emotional choice. We can be, as Shaw suggests, “selfish little clods of ailments and grievances,” or we can chose to laugh and be here now with total acceptance that where we have landed is exactly the place we’re supposed to be. All of our previous choices have led us to the now, and taking responsibility for how we are going to proceed from here is what we have. All we have.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Choose your own adventure

“One book, Inside UFO 54-40, revolved around the search for a paradise that no one can actively reach; one of the pages in the book describes the player finding the paradise and living happily ever after, although none of the choices in the book led to that page. The ending can be found by disregarding the rules and going through the book at random, sequentially, or by accident. Upon finding the ending, the reader is congratulated for realizing how to find paradise.”

"Happiness is like a butterfly.
The more you chase it, the more it eludes you.
But if you turn your attention to other things,
It comes and sits softly on your shoulder."
Henry David Thoreau

When I was a young man I used to love a series of books called, Choose your own adventure. For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure, reading these books allowed you to make various choices as you read through the book, each of which altered your destiny in the story in some significant way. Whether it was chasing ghosts, or roaming through the old west, or even traveling through space, I loved the idea that each one of our little choices could lead to much more important consequences

In one particular story, referenced at the beginning of this essay, you found a kind of utopia by not playing the game correctly. You had to essentially stumble on the page by accident, or even totally disregard everything you had been told about how to read the book to find it. Upon finding it, you are congratulated on realizing how to find your own personal utopia.

I was wildly fascinated by this. What was the author trying to say? That the rules were completely unimportant? I’d always thought this myself, but that philosophy had resulted in a lot of trips to the principal’s office and lots of trouble. Was there some hidden message encoded in these children’s books? I thought about this for several years and then slowly but surely slouched into adulthood, never really following the rules without making a conscience decision not to do so. Cut to 20 some years later and I was in a thrift store looking for books, and while browsing stumbled across a copy of Inside UFO 54-40, the very book I had been so intrigued by as a kid.

I sat there for almost two hours taking a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and inevitably, just like I had when I was a kid, I somehow found my way back to utopia by not following the rules. It was a moment of cosmic significance that I was desperately in need of. This was it. Finding happiness by ignoring the rules had been the secret to whatever happiness I had found thus far, although, much like that kid in the principal’s office so many years before, this road less traveled had come with plenty of less than perfect consequences.

All of this was particularly fascinating because I had just been though a situation where my life as a comedian and my life as a psychotherapist had collided. Like I had been reminded of so many times before in my life, I was told there was a time and place for comedy, and that I was going to have to continue to evaluate when exactly this was. But I already knew the answer. Laughter is always appropriate.

Many people would take issue with that. What about death and suffering and disease and all kinds of other things that come up in our lives? Is laughter an appropriate response to these things? I still think the answer is yes. That is not to say that there aren’t situations that require empathy and gravitas and somber reflection. There are. These tragedies are not only possibilities in our lives, but downright inevitabilities. As RD Laing said so eloquently, “life is a sexually transmitted disease and the mortality rate is 100 percent.”

What other possible response to this is there than laughter? None of these storms that reverberate in our heads are really of any consequence. We are dying ashes on a cosmic fire that will burn so much brighter and longer than our little moment of time here. What we do leave behind in this echo chamber of collapsing time is the way we made people feel about their time here while we knew them, and that is why I have tried to spend so much of my time trying to make people laugh. I have failed often, and will continue to fail, as what looks funny through my personal kaleidoscope does not always register in someone else’s. I accept that, but also think there is perhaps no greater tragedy than becoming convinced that our little cubicle or office is the center of some kind of terribly important business that the universe cannot do without it. That’s a lie that takes some people a lifetime to understand.

The takeaway for me is therefore that it is not the what of life, or even the why, but actually the how that is most important. We don’t get to chose not to be sick or not to lose people we love, and we sure don’t get to chose immortality, but what we do get to choose is how we are going to spend this little handful of fairy dust we are given to sprinkle around the universe. Jean Houston said, “At the height of laugher the universe is thrown into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.” I think this is incredibly wise, as by taking this idea into our hearts we can not only share our own absurd view of the kaleidoscope, but also begin to look more deeply into other people’s as well, and really, to me at least there is nothing that connects people more strongly in this world than shared laughter. We are screeching through the universe on a malfunctioning rollercoaster, and we can choose to suffer through this reality or chose to laugh about it, even laugh hysterically about it, and that is the way I want to take the ride.