Monday, May 30, 2016

Louis CK and the happiness antibodies

“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
Brene Brown

“I was in my car one time and a Bruce Springsteen song comes on and it made me really sad. And I go, “OK, I’m getting sad, I gotta get the phone and write ‘Hi’ to like 50 people”… I started to get that sad feeling, I was reaching for the phone then I said, “You know what?? Don’t!!!  Just be sad. Just let the sadness stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck.” And I let it come and Bruce was singing, and I just started to feel “Oh my God,” and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much. And—and it was beautiful. It was like this beautiful just as the sadness is poetic. You’re LUCKY to live sad moments.

And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has like antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip. The thing is, because we don’t want that first bit of sad. We push it away. And you never feel completely sad or completely happy.’
Louis CK on Conan

It’s interesting to me to read these two quotes side by side. One of them is from one of the world’s most foremost experts on vulnerability and one of them is from a popular comedian.

But they both say the same thing really. It’s funny where you find wisdom in the world sometimes.

But they both make an extremely important point. When people guard their hearts and don’t allow themselves to paint with the whole palette of human emotions, it makes for a really boring picture. 

It’s a pretty common thing for men especially. I was explaining the “HALT” model to a guy the other day, and how we shouldn’t make decisions when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. He agreed with this assessment, and then playfully took my marker and added another H to my diagram.

“You had it close doc,” he explained.

"But it’s HORNY, hungry, angry, lonely, or tired."

I liked his better.

In any case it speaks to the point that we are taught at a very young age to blunt out certain emotions.  Boys don’t cry.

Now get your ass back in the game.

Which brings us back around to the idea of Louis and his happiness antibodies. Although he’s seemingly sharing a funny story on a talk show, his vignette clarifies an incredibly important point about the importance of letting ourselves experience the full range of human emotions. There is no sweet without the sour. And any human life that has known joy, triumph and resilience, has also known doubt, frustration and despair. It is these polarities that in fact help us clarify their opposite experience.

So thank you again Louis for this comic cosmic reminder. I can’t say I’ve ever cried while listening to Bruce, but I’ll be damned if I haven’t gotten some weird pangs of tearful nostalgia watching an old movie (the other day it was Dirty Dancing, that Swayze gets me every time).  Thanks for having the courage to admit as a man that this kind of stuff is okay.

Emotional toolboxes start like those big huge boxes of crayons with 100 colors in them. When we don’t let ourselves experience all of them, we end up with one of those shitty boxes with like eight crayons in it. Sure we can still draw a picture.

 But it’s not exactly refrigerator material.

Here is the clip in question. It’s well worth a watch.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

You can't be lonely if you like the person you're alone with

The above quote to the best of my knowledge comes from Wayne Dyer, whose book Your Erroneous Zones is widely considered one of the best self-help books of all time.

And last year on my first birthday celebrated in New Zealand, I went to see him. He was a guy I’d admired for 20 years, and now he was coming to our little island. On my birthday no less! Rather than going to a bar or buying something new, I decided to spend 100 bucks on a ticket. It seemed like a good way to start a new year.

And he was magical! He talked about the universe, personal responsibility, and happiness and travel and a lot of other things that I had been so attuned to in my younger and more passionate years. And you know what? I left that auditorium feeling a hundred feet tall. It was a wonderful reminder of a number of things I’d forgotten, and I vowed to start this new year of my life with a new sense of vigor.

Two days later Wayne Dyer was dead.

I really couldn't believe it. He seemed so full of life and passion and enthusiasm!

And yet I was at the last talk he would ever give.

And so I think there’s a kind of responsibility that comes from that. I too have taken the responsibility of trying to guide others in my life, although I’m certainly no Wayne Dyer. And in keeping with this spirit, I thought about the one sentence that continued (and continues) to ring in my head from that fateful night.

You can’t be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with.

I thought about this at it pertains to my own sometimes lonely life. I thought about my patients and their struggle for self-acceptance in the face of rejection and change.

You can’t be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with. God that sounds good.

So what does it mean?

I’ve thought a lot about this. Because let’s face it, 99% of this life takes place in our own heads. So many of our victories, defeats, fears, triumphs and tragedies are interpretations about things we process in our own grey matter.

So how do we learn to live with being alone? And not just live with being alone, but to be really okay with it. Perhaps even embrace it. What is the secret to that?

I think we learn to avoid being alone at a very young age. It’s how we punish children for God’s sake. Being sent to time out. Or even worse alone to your room. The ultimate insult to a child. Go be with yourself for a while.

And while we all have a natural inclination towards a sense of belonging, there are times we perhaps crave this a bit too much. Try taking a phone away from a teenager for an hour and you’ll see what I mean. A whole generation of kids are growing up with a fear of missing out. That one hour without their phone will certainly be the death of their social existence. Many really believe that.

And I think this pattern sticks. The archetypes about “the outsider”
 and “the loner” usually paint them as eccentric and strange and unwilling to conform to the normal rules about things.

And yet. There have been some beautiful things written about being alone as well. Thoreau retired to the woods to live, writing “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Schopenhauer said, “A man can be himself only so long as he is alone, and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom, for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.”

So how do we make sense of this discrepancy? This strange
 avoidance of being alone versus these great minds extolling the benefits of solitude?

In the end, I think like most things it comes down to relationships. From my experience seeing people on all sides of the romantic continuum, when we aren’t okay with ourselves, we’re not going to be okay with someone else. When the student is ready the teacher appears. We need to learn to be okay with ourselves as opposed to borrowing and trying on the identities of others. That’s co-dependence, and it leads to a loss of our own identity in the service of supporting someone else’s.  

In aid of this idea, I think it’s healthy for all of us to have a little
 time to get to know ourselves a little better. To sit with being alone and listen to our own intuition and hearts for a while. Sometimes this makes us suspect. But so what? Elizabeth Gilbert says it wonderfully in her book Eat Pray Love, “When I get lonely these days, I think: So BE lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person's body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.”

It’s wonderful advice. 

And in memory of Wayne Dyer I’m going on a hike this
 weekend. Nothing fancy. Just a little trip to the beach to read, and think (and okay maybe some wine), and come down a little from a week spent talking to people all day every day. 

And yes, I’ll be on my own.

But I’m learning to enjoy the company…

Sunday, May 1, 2016

You can't put your arms around a memory

Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel, it's called the carousel. It let's us travel the way a child travels - around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.

Don Draper- Mad Men

The Greek word for "return" is nostos. Algos means "suffering." So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.

Milan Kundera

One of the things I hear most often as a therapist is people talking about the past and all of the things they have lost. And fair enough. Depression is highly correlated with loss, and it’s something we can all relate to. We’ve all lost something. Maybe it’s our youth, or our looks, or someone we loved.

Where we can make a mistake I think, is when we look at the past as some kind of magical time we can never replace and never return to. A belief that we had it good and we’ll never have it that good again. This is not, I believe healthy thinking.

I had this lesson presented to me recently on a Christmas trip to the lovely island of Rarotonga, when I scheduled a walk with the local guru who guides people up into the mountains of the islands and shares local knowledge of plants, herbs, and local legends. Although I was happy to be learning so much and enjoying the beautiful views of the island, he sensed a heaviness in me, and asked what was wrong.

And truthfully, there was something wrong. I was thinking about Christmas back in the United States, and all of the memories of snow, and food, and presents, and family and my heart was getting a little heavy. I felt that nostalgia, the “pain from an old wound” regarding Christmases gone by, and was all at once overwhelmed by the urge to travel back in time.

“Let me tell you something, doctor,’ my new friend began. “I can see you’re thinking about Christmases past and how you’d like to go back there.” (How did he know that!?) “But let me tell you something from one of your American songs. You can’t put your arms around a memory.”

I did indeed know that song, a classic from the 70’s by Johnny Thunders. It was used in the shows Californication and The Sopranos and a number of other shows I enjoyed, but I’d never really stopped to consider the full implications. Seeing as I had a real life guru here, I asked him to explain a little more.

“I’ve been all around the world my friend. And I can tell you I’ve had romances, family, children, and experiences in a number of the places I’ve lived and travelled. And this walk we’re doing now? I’ve done it over 4000 times over the years. And every time I see something different or meet someone new that forces me to think about life in a new way.”

That gave me pause. And there was certainly a good lesson about keeping our eyes open for new experiences every day. I could hear my patients arguing with this idea in my head. “But I’ll never be young again.” “No one wants to date an old lady!” “I don't have the energy to start over." "She was the only person that ever understood me.” 

All of these litanies are indicative of a “yes, but” approach to life. Yes, that sounds like good advice, but it just isn’t applicable to my life. My circumstances are uniquely special you see.

And now I was doing that shit too.

It’s strange where you learn things in life. Sometimes it’s in a book, or in a classroom, and sometimes it’s while you’re panting and weezing your way up a mountain on a little island in the middle of an ocean.

You can’t put your arms around a memory. Meaning, what’s gone is gone. It seems like a sad thing, but I’m not really sure that it is. Maybe when we stop “aching” to return to the past we can surrender and let these remembrances crystalize into fond memories.

You can only start where you are in life. Right here, and right now. That’s day 1. The only day you’ll ever have control over and the only chance to start putting one foot in front of the other again.

So the rest of this trip was quite a Christmas extravaganza, I realized I still had a lot of years left to create some memories, and I couldn’t wait to start. There were pigs to roast, islanders to dance with, and girls still left to disappoint.

And let me tell you something, it was one hell of a memorable Christmas. And I'm sure one day I'll be dying to come back and do it all again.

But honestly I probably never will.

Because you can't put your arms around a memory..