Wednesday, August 29, 2012

WHAT WE WERE BORN FOR



DESERTS

I was born for love –
to give it and to receive it.
Yet my life has passed
almost without loving.
So I’ve learned forgiving:

even the deserts
I have crossed
I feel no scorn for.
I just ask them
with astonished eyes:

What gardens were you born for?

~ Blaga Dimitrova, Because the Sea is Black, tr. Niko Boris and Heather McHugh

**

Imagine the Sahara irrigated, producing enough food to feed all of Africa. Imagine parts of it covered with solar panels, providing electricity for the world. Instead, a deadly desert. South of it, warfare, famine, and disease.

But talking about the Sahara evades the pain of confronting “what the poem is really about.” In a capsule, it’s practically every woman’s woman’s lament: I was born for love, but my love life has been a desert. I too used to be filled with the same lamentation: I was born for love, and look at the desert that life has given me instead.

I’m not sure if I ever met a woman who’d not agree that this is a summary of her life. Women have an insatiable hunger for for emotional connectedness and deep friendship. It’s practically the definition of femininity.

There, I’ve said it, the word that changes the equation: no, not femininity, but friendship. I mean it in a more European sense: friendship as a special kind of love, a deep communion of the minds and mutual affection. Aristotle put friendship ahead of erotic love. My mother said, “Friends are more important than lovers.”

This is the wisdom of maturity. An eighteen-year-old would probably be shocked at the idea that friends are more important than lovers. An artist can grasp it more easily, since the enormous importance of peers is hard to overlook. But I don’t mean to dismiss Eros. In youth, that’s simply impossible. Later in life, if one is lucky enough to fall in love, it can be the greatest feast imaginable.

Nevertheless . . .

My perception began changing as soon as I shifted away from “love” and toward “affection.” 

Recently I came across this amazing little story by Marnia Robinson
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/200909/the-lazy-way-stay-in-love

Waiting for a concert to begin at our local county fair, my husband and I checked out a reptile exhibit that included an animal trainer with a live alligator resting calmly on his lap. As we stroked the gator, I asked the trainer why it was so tame. "I pet it daily. If I didn't, it would quickly be wild again, and wouldn't allow this," he explained.

I was surprised. Only months earlier I had begun to grasp the power of bonding behaviors (skin-to-skin contact, gentle stroking and so forth) to evoke the desire to bond without our having to do anything more. I didn't realize reptiles ever responded similarly.

I didn’t realize it either. After all, reptiles allegedly don’t have the kind of brain that’s capable of bonding with others. But apparently even they can experience the pleasure of gentle touch, and apparently that’s enough. Strange as that sounds, pet an alligator daily and it becomes sweet-tempered. 



“I pet it daily.” I hope I never forget this story. It’s potentially life-changing for those women who happen to be married to alligators -- they know what I mean.

So we are not powerless over our relationships and the waning of both eros and affection? We may be largely powerless over Eros, in the sense of infatuation and romantic love. Eros is notoriously resistant to any struggle to keep it alive (which is probably for the best, if we ponder the finding that the brain in love looks in scans like the brain on cocaine). True, there are rare exceptions: Dostoyevski’s second marriage retained the glow of passion for fourteen years, to the end of Dostoyevski’s life. And that couple did it entirely without reading Reader’s Digest articles on “Ten Ways to Keep Romance in Your Marriage.”
For most of us, marriage is the opposite of romance, so let us leave it at that. But we are not powerless over affection. If we “pet [X] daily,” affection can grow and grow.Gentle touch, attentive listening, looking into each other’s eyes -- but I don’t mean to repeat the advice found in thousands of self-help books. Not that we need to read those books. We may not be as good at giving affection as dogs are, but generally we need no special training in how to give affection. The problem is not skill, but motivation.
That motivation may be born of in a moment of insight when suddenly we understand that marriage can be either heaven or hell . . . Well, not exactly heaven, but pleasant and supportive -- or it can be absolute hell, marriage as warfare. If your husband is an alligator, you have to figure out how to pet an alligator.
Here I am reminded of what I learned about Barack Obama that filled me with boundless admiration: in his youth, he made the decision not to be angry. That’s a terrific reminder: we are not powerless over anger. We are not powerless over affection. True heroes are neither men with guns nor self-sacrificing martyr-type mothers, but those who discover they are not powerless over something important. Realizing this is a lot more important than pondering “what we were born for” and lamenting that life has not lived up to our expectations.
“The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk,” Hegel observed. Wisdom often comes only late in life, after we have suffered enough and are finally motivated to make the best of what remains. I had to be cornered by mortality before I decided not to live in bitterness and regrets. I had to read Louise Hay, who showed me that we are not powerless even over having been an abused child and having internalized the abuse, perpetuating it by “beating up on yourself.” (I hasten to point out that by comparison with Louise’s childhood wounds, mine were mere woundettes.) Not powerless over the wounds of childhood? What else might we turn out not to powerless over?
Sartre asked, “What do you do with what was done to you?” More broadly, what do you do with what life and circumstances have done to you? Do you declare yourself a victim? Confession: that’s exactly what I used to do. Chronically. I’d rather not confess for how long.
For instance, I felt I was “born for” living in an exciting city with a vibrant cultural scene. I mention this in one of my poems, “If Dreams Are Returns”:
. . . boys with narrow glances
watching me. I march past them,
head high, knowing the train station

is not far, avenues lit with lilacs,
bridges with white towers, embassies –
what I was born for: the bright city.

**

“What I was born for: the bright city.” Really? Then how come I had such a tepid reaction to New York, once I finally got to see Manhattan and had what seemed strange perceptions, e.g. “so old and mildewed.” The skyscrapers I thought I’d adore struck me as ill-proportioned. The crowds that I missed so much (I thought) struck as as downright dangerous as they stampeded to the nearest subway entrance, disappearing underground in a vaguely sinister way, the business district empty and abandoned-looking after office hours. I had to admit I loved California. I’ve even grown fond of the provincial place where I live, with its distinctly non-vibrant cultural scene (but there are worse places, worse fates).
You may ask, “What about returning to Warsaw?” Train stations, lilacs, a bridge with white towers, embassies -- need I say that many of my poems are in some ways about Warsaw? True, in my last year in Warsaw I totally fell in love with the city. But I don’t like the capitalist and increasingly Manhattanized version of it. You really can’t go home again. Some statements become clichés because they are profoundly true.

To assume that we were “born for” something special -- an elegant lifestyle, fame and/or fortune, the very best that life can offer (or, maybe, the worst that life can offer), or a particular vocation -- is to insert another layer of deluded belief between ourselves and reality. It’s hypermentalizing from the point of view of the teleological (goal-centered) illusion, a predestinarian view. I could say, “I was born to be a writer,” but it’s more modest and correct to say, “I have some literary talent, just like my three paternal aunts,” or even, “I love to write” -- let’s take the claim of “talent” out of it.

We were not “born for” anything particular. We were simply born. And here we are -- how are we going to use this one amazing life?

This may be particularly true of poets, who have to put up with poetry’s marginal position in the culture, but in my social set I sometimes meet people who feel that they are somehow “in the wrong life.” They were born for a different life, a much more pleasant one. The “born for” idea can easily lead to bitterness.

The logical solution seems simple: we should see whether or not we can change the conditions that make us feel “stuck as if by mistake in the wrong life.” If we can’t change the outside, then we need to change the inside, i.e. our attitude. “Bloom where you are planted.” Enroll in that acting class you’ve always dreamed of taking. Renounce the charms of being a victim. (I am, of course, preaching to myself. It still bothers me somewhat that being miserable takes no effort, while good things usually require work, and/or the stress of a long commute.)

But who operates by logic? The change in attitude happens or doesn’t happen. Once I said goodbye to depression, I discovered that I actually love my quiet life, and don’t crave an “exciting life,” as I once thought. This discovery and “attitude adjustment” wasn’t due to conscious cogitation. My brain did it without bothering me about the details. All I know is that a shift happened.

**

And yet, and yet  . . .  there is a certain power in the beautiful, doomed question, “What gardens were you born for?” No human beings should have to live in crushing poverty, without clean water, enough food, an access to education. Who knows what genius perishes when basic needs are not provided for.

And I dare say we were born to get and give affection. “Love” is a contaminated word, concealing a huge demand. But we can manage affection. I’m all for declaring affection a basic human right.

Yes, in an ideal world we’d all get plenty of nurturing and affection. And now and then, we get lucky. No matter how long we’ve lived an alligator existence, someone comes along and -- begins to pet us. Or, to mix metaphors, unexpected rain makes the desert bloom.

ANZA-BORREGO DESERT, SPRINGTIME
       

Every stick bursts into blossom.
Flame-beaked ocotillos
wave in the warm wind.
In the scar of an arroyo
silvers a live stream.

This is the most precious garden:
not hothouse orchids
but the desert lavish with gold
brittlebush, our-lady’s-slippers,
bells ringing indigo and mauve.

Just one season of unstinting rain,
and this place of thirst
blooms the richest Eden.
Prickly pear opens its purple veils.
Lilac-plumed grass tames to my hand.

So after years without love,
tenderness makes us flower.
So our face
becomes the face of all,
unfolding petal by petal.

~ Oriana © 2012


Hyacinth:

Great blog. My favorite line: "cornered by mortality." Brilliant.

Recently a young woman I know has fallen in love after a disastrous marriage. She said her new love is very romantic. I asked, But is he affectionate? Yes she replied. And does he show it? Yes. Good, I said.

In a relationship of my own what I found I liked was that my lover allowed me to love him, odd as that may sound. I recall a line from the movie "As Good As It Gets": Nicholson asks in a fury, "Did you have sex with him?" and she answers, "Better than that. We held each other."

Oriana:

The longer I live, the more I treasure affection. As Adrienne Rich said, “Without tenderness, we are in hell.” 

Lucrezia:

Re:  What you say reminds me in part of the Roman saying, “To live is not necessary; to sail is necessary.”

Well, what if you were a Roman slave?  And what defines living?  The luxury of sailing?  There is an entire psychology of the "haves" that is irrelevant to the majority of the world.

If it came right down to bread or roses (or circuses) we'd all choose bread.

Perhaps the above was somewhat molded by my Berkeley experience but my personal philosophy is far from Marxist!

Love the photos and the alligator story.  There is a similar story called The Lady and the Tiger. A woman came to a wise man and asked for help with her troubled marriage. The wise man told her he would help her but first she had to bring back a whisker from a tiger. After many months of getting closer and closer to a tiger that lived nearby, she finally got close enough to clip a whisker, for which she thanked him. When she brought the whisker to the wise man, he tossed it on the fire. He explained to the bewildered woman that a man is no more fierce than a tiger, and that if she had enough patience to tame the tiger, she could do the same with her husband.

What is annoying about this story and similar ones is it's never the man who seeks advice regarding how to help their marriage/wife/GF. Men never buy or read books or attend seminars on how to maintain their relationships. The entire industry is supported by women. One relationship counselor said that the quality of the relationship is usually 100 percent women's responsibility, because if one is looking for one's partner to contribute in that area, it just won't happen. But then, men take on certain responsibilities like maintaining the family's cars or finances . . . so there may be a balance of responsibilities in many cases.

I don't think anyone's life is a desert who gives love, even if the quality/quantity of that which is received seems not enough.  If one can give love, then one has love in one's life.  As for being in love, am reminded of a relative who left his wife and two children for a younger woman who was in the same field.  His wife had put him through years of university study and he had a PhD.  My dad used to say "Maybe they're in love," and roll his eyes.  What is the higher deed:  keeping one's commitments or indulging in emotions that as you mentioned, often quickly fade?


Oriana:

Thank you, Lucrezia, for excellent comments. You bring up many valid points. Just to defend the Roman saying a bit, the admiral/commander did not mean sailing for enjoyment, but in service to the country. In addition, sailing was then rather dangerous, so it was also an act of courage, an expression of the human spirit of daring and accomplishing (with luck). Nevertheless, your point about the slaves is well-taken. The perspective of the privileged classes -- what you perceptively call the “psychology of the haves” -- has indeed tended to prevail, and only in the recent decades has there been a correction (now and then excessive, but that’s normal when a new balance is being sought).

I am outraged that a counselor (male, I suppose) said that the woman is 100% responsible for the relationship. The male partner has to be motivated to have a good relationship. That’s where some men's eyes are opened only when they retire. Now they realize that life can be either sheer  hell, marriage as warfare (you’ve probably met couples like that) -- or it can be happier than ever.

When the man understands the importance of his marriage or “marriage equivalent” -- the importance of the woman in his life -- he’ll get nicer, start bringing her flowers and little gifts. And she in turn will reward him ten times over, which no woman resents, as long as she gets her strokes and is not being put down and mistreated. I’ve seen some very good relationships where the woman could still be said to be giving more, but then the man is also giving in other ways. A wise couple establishes a division of labor: as you pointed out, and as is frequently the case, he is responsible for maintaining both their cars, for instance. But it need not be along traditional lines. Maybe she makes more money and he’s a great cook.

If a woman puts her husband through school, these days she can sue for breach of contract if he then leaves her -- which used to be a common story until one of those deserted wives sued and won. He (an M.D.) had to pay her back, just as if he’d taken out a loan. So there’s been progress.

I agree that giving affection -- and we can decide to be affectionate; we are not “swept away” by affection -- makes life infinitely better. You are absolutely right: if there is affection in your life, then your life is not a desert: it is a garden. Articles on Ten Ways to Keep Romance in Your Marriage drive me nuts; let’s concentrate on the doable, which is affection, a treasure vastly beyond the storms of passion.

Charles:

This you your best blog yet.

Love the image of the dark and cold city. Opposite of your dreams.

So much wisdom here.

My favorite line is, "shift happens."

Oriana:

“Shift happens” has become one of my mantras. The phenomenon of perception shift is my deepest source of optimism. It can’t be forced, but it can be facilitated, I think, through a bit of conscious cogitation, reading, and experimentation. I tend to agree that we don’t solve problems so much as we transcend them. We outgrow them. Suddenly the whole matter isn’t even relevant as we move to a different stage of life. 

Scott:

I enjoyed this post very much, timely as usual. There's a great movie, 'A Knight's Tale'; a B movie perhaps but there is a fantastic line I just remembered this week. The lead was told by his father 'Change your stars and live a better life than I.'  Is it not funny how stars are used so metaphorically in our lives from astrology to poetry? I really like Louis MacNiece's 'Thallassa' which ends;

'By a high star our course is set.
Our end is life. Put out to sea.'

My three great passions in life have been the sea, history and reading. Poetry has come to me rather late in life (I love the 'Minerva's owl' line) and I think I shall pursue the writing, reading and collection of verse the rest of my life. A harmless and 'impractical' pursuit, Auden called poetry 'small beer' but I think he in his heart knew different.

Love, affection, friendship, a good book, great coffee, birds at the feeder...simple pleasures all but as I near the half century mark I am truly embracing my age, I like this time in my life very much. No longer bound by the follies of youth and not yet hobbled by old age and it's frailties, I'm free to embark on my voyages of discovery, no matter how Quioxtic they seem. One goal is to have at least one volume of poetry in my collection by poets who are on record as being an admirer of 'Moby Dick' ( and many poets love that book!) The more impractical a thing is, the more I like it at this stage of my life. Worry, fear, guilt and regret I try to put in my wake; as W R Rodges said in 'Life's Circumnavigators'

'Oh, when shall we, all spent,
Row into some far strand
And find, to our content,
The original land,
From which our boat once went,
Though not the one we planned.

Us on that happy day
This fierce sea will release.
On our rough face of clay
The final glaze of peace
Our oars we will all lay
Down, and desire will cease.'

**

Oriana:

What you say reminds me in part of the Roman saying, “To live is not necessary; to sail is necessary.” I take it to mean that humans need to have a meaningful goal, meaningful work. That’s why the ideas of heaven, whether Christian or Muslim, just don’t appeal to me -- what meaningful task would there be to accomplish?

At the same time, I’m against anything that smacks of predestination. Sure, we don’t just decide what to do, how to act, out of nowhere, but are influenced by our genes and circumstances in ways too complex to completely understand. Nevertheless, we as individuals do make some choices and decisions -- e.g. Obama’s decision not to be angry. That’s almost like “changing your stars”!! Someone could object that if there is plenty to be angry about, how can you not be angry? As human beings, we can in fact decide not to be angry. We have that freedom. We don’t have to be on automatic, reacting to whatever happens in a predictable way.

As for collecting books by poets who admire Moby Dick, you know of course that my book is now available on Amazon . . .










Monday, August 20, 2012

POWERLESS? SHIFT HAPPENS


I think I’m really not interested in the quest for the self anymore. Oh, I suppose everyone continues to be interested in the quest for the self, but what you feel when you’re older, I think, is that you really must make the self. It’s absolutely useless to look for it, you won’t find it, but it’s possible in some sense to make it. I don’t mean in the sense of making a mask, a Yeatsian mask. But you finally begin in some sense to make and to choose the self you want.

~Mary McCarthy, The Art of Fiction No. 27


An important disclaimer:
This post is not meant as a criticism of 12-Step programs, which have helped millions. Rather, it is an exploration based on my personal experience, reading, and conversations with others.

I’m surprised my hand didn’t tremble when, browsing in my town’s one remaining bookstore, I reached for Allen Carr’s The Easy Way to Stop Drinking. The moment I saw the title, I thought, riding a paradoxical undertow of excitement and fear and calm certainty all at the same time, “You decide not to drink.” You decide not in the sense of a New Year’s resolution; rather, your perception shifts radically, and there is no going back.

My hand should have trembled, just as, back in 2009, I should have trembled all over when I decided not to be depressed. After all, this goes against the accepted belief that we are powerless over depression, drinking, overeating, anxiety, hostility, compulsive shopping, and so forth. The list goes on and on. We are powerless and need to take very expensive drugs and/or stay for years in very expensive therapy. Or else we have to spend most of our leisure attending 12-Step meetings for the rest of our life, being endlessly reminded that we are powerless and it’s pointless to decide not to engage in a problem behavior: it won’t work. 

And you definitely can’t use your intelligence to try to figure out how to deal with whatever it is you finally feel sick of doing. The use of intelligence might lead you away from feeling powerless. Verboten.

But let me get back to Carr’s book. “Many people believe that quitting alcohol is about as difficult as climbing Mt. Everest,” Carr states. “If you find it difficult, then you are not doing it the easy way.” But he forbids the reader (presumably an alcoholic) to jump to the final chapter when the secret of  easy quitting will be revealed. No, first you have to reads several hundred pages of explanation of how alcohol destroys your brain, your body, and your life.

Naturally, I jumped to the final chapter right away.

I have never been an alcoholic. I don’t have the genes for it. Had alcohol ever worked for me as a stress reducer rather than a migraine-inducer, then given the compound stress of my teens and twenties, I’d be a goner. I mean it literally: I’d be dead by now, either of liver disease or by suicide.

When P, an alcoholic, shot himself at 28, I had the oddest feeling that he did it instead of me -- I was the one meant to commit suicide at 28. But I can’t take pride in having survived my youth: if it had been possible for me to drink, I would have embraced alcohol with a passion, and nothing would have stopped me from drinking myself to death. Instead, thanks to a genetic accident, I was sentenced to life.

But back to Carr, with that marvelous double r as in Starr. The reason I was fascinated by the topic was my instant intuition that the “easy way” would be similar to the way I ended decades of depression. I experienced a shift in perception and made the decision that changed my life. Carr calls that shift in perception (also known as “paradigm shift”) a “moment of revelation.” After absorbing all the information about he devastation and evil that stem from alcohol, the successful quitter will experience the holy hush, the moment of revelation when he knows he will never drink again.

Reading this, I felt that holy hush envelop me again, just as in the moment when I knew I’d  never be depressed again.

“Never doubt your decision,” Carr advises. As if that were possible. As if the previous neural configuration had not been deleted forever.

Powerless? Yes. I discovered that I was powerless over my decision not to be depressed. Powerless to reverse the insight that led to the decision (“decision” may not be the right term, since it came automatically with the insight; “paradigm shift” may be a more accurate term). My brain had rewired itself, and a different neural network was ruthlessly in charge. Again, I was sentenced to life.

I knew I should be feeling the rush of ecstatic liberation, but I just stood there dazed. Worse, now and then I couldn’t help feeling mournful. So now I had to work. Now I had to cope. Now I had to be strong. I had to be rational, slow down and keep calm. Now I had to count my blessings instead of my misfortunes. Now I had to see also the positive side of things (this was especially revolting to me; I always loved darkness and abhorred sunlight). I had to stop complaining. I had to take a  moderate view rather than an extreme one (this too was revolting, since I loved the extremes).

I could go on, but you get my drift. The first weeks of my emotional sobriety I felt tired, worn out by all this maturity. But there was no going back. And gradually I began to remember positive experiences (positive memories are blocked by long-term depression) and enjoy just looking at the world. I discovered that I loved my “quiet life” -- that was another shift in perception. And that quiet life has indeed become much more pleasant.

The first time I experienced the turn from powerless to empowered had to do with the “th” sound. In my teens, I thought I was powerless over “th.” Here is a poem that describes my struggles (I’m offering in the spirit of comic relief):

KEY TO THE WORLD


I stand in front of the mirror,
trying to place everything
correctly: tip of tongue against

upper teeth, right hand checking
vibrations of the larynx –
“This is your key to the world,”

states my English for Today,
a book of secrets where Tom and Jane
carry on their cracked romance:

Tom, is this a girl?
No, this is a lamp.

*

I rehearse the sacred chant:
Thelma threw thistles
through the thick of her thumb.

Thistle while you work!
A tooth for a truth,
a thigh for an eye!

“They lisp,” the teacher
explains. “Maybe because
of cold wind.”

“Your r’s are too guttural,”
teacher warns. Guttural,
that’s me. What’s the meaning

of the, I ask. Where’s the tip
of your foreign tongue?
Between Thelma’s teeth.

Tom, is this a mouth?
No, this is a hoof.

Today the the;
tomorrow I open the world.

 
~ Oriana © 2012

**

The shift happened when I discovered that I need to leave a little air space when I put my tongue between my teeth. Suddenly something close enough to “th” lisped in the room. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I started practicing.

And there was no going back to saying “fank you.”

This may sound awfully small in the scale of things, but believe me, Bewildered Reader, even the tiniest shift from powerless to empowered is a pearl of a great price.
 
*
Pondering other shifts, the one that led to my leaving the church was perhaps the most important. I was fourteen and reading about universal themes in mythology. A thought like a white cloud drifted through my mind: “It’s just another mythology.” The thought turned into a tornado that sucked out my religious belief. As of that moment, I was no longer a member of the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, for a while something remained: I did expect to be struck by lightning. The god I’d  been taught to worship was exactly the kind who’d exact a terrible punishment for a thought crime. (I told Adam Zagajewski about this waiting to be struck by lightning. He replied, “Sometimes there’s a delay.”)



VICTOR FRANKL AND THE WIDOWER

Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is on my short list of the books that influenced me most. What I remember most is Frankl’s session with a recent widower.

The widower was very distressed. He carried on about his suffering, which struck him as unfair: he’d always assumed that he’d be the first one to die, and instead his wife died first. Frankl asked: “What would it be like for your wife if you died first?” -- “Oh, she would suffer terribly,” the man replied. Frankl said, “Then perhaps the meaning of your suffering is to have spared your wife from going through it.”

After a moment of silence, the widower stood up. Without a word, they shook hands and the man left the office.

I myself remember catalyzing a perception shift in a distant friend. She kept  mentioning how much she hated her job. One time she began a really long lamentation about how miserable she felt because of the job, and how it prevented her from doing things she’d love to do instead. I asked, “Do you need that job for financial reasons?” “No. Not at all,” she said. The answer didn’t surprise me since I knew she was quite affluent. She was also around sixty, so I asked, “How much longer do you think you’ve got?”

She fell silent, and I saw a change in her face. Without a word, she walked away from me. The next news I had from her was that she was training her replacement, and would soon be free. A few months passed, and I learned that she was now playing with a local orchestra.

Yes, sometimes someone else can catalyze a paradigm shift. Cognitive therapy is pretty much based on that principle. According to what I’ve read, those who profit from it experience a life-changing insight fairly quickly. Those who keep coming week after week repeating their lamentations are not likely to improve. 


SHIFT SEEN AS COGNITIVE THERAPY                          
                                                          
In Richard Noll’s book about Jung,  The Aryan Christ, I found a description of how effective cognitive therapy works. In this case the therapist was the notorious but apparently also gifted Otto Gross, and the patient was the anarchist writer Erich Mühsam, in 1906. Mühsam writes:

The task  of the physician would be mainly to make the patient himself the physician. The patient is induced to diagnose his illness. On the basis of the diagnosis discovered by himself, he therefore carries out his own cure. He is brought to the point where he is no longer interested in himself as a sufferer but in the suffering itself. He objectifies his condition. He does not put the importance anymore upon himself as a pitiable patient, as the emotionally martyred, as a hysteric seeking cure, but as a physician, as someone who does not feel the sickness anymore but perceives it. (p.75)

This really struck home: the transformation from the pitiable victim, the emotionally martyred, the hopeless depressive -- to being your own physician! From “powerless” to owning your power over your behavior. From “emotionally martyred” (how well I know the seduction of perceiving yourself as the wronged one, a martyr . . . ) to a responsible adult who knows that she can make herself happy or unhappy: the choice is hers.                                     

But it takes time to arrive at the place where insight can happen. “Ripeness is all.” 


**
WHAT ELSE ARE WE NOT POWERLESS OVER?

Currently I’m considering the problem of sometimes being more anxious than I want to be, beyond what the situation warrants. While not exactly as terrified as in those minutes when I literally waiting for the avenging lightning, I’d like to be more relaxed, secure, serene, sagacious, cool.

“Some of us did not have the kind of secure childhood that builds a foundation for serenity,” a friend told me. But that doesn’t help me. Am I powerless over anxiety? So far I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to define being anxious not as a feeling but as a BEHAVIOR. A behavior can be changed. “My behavior is my choice.”

And a little voice in my head says “You slow down.”

Maybe that’s the closest I can come for now. Wait! -- now the voice says, “You slow down and practice being strong.” I have already decided to be strong, basically at the same time when I decided not to be depressed. I also hear a dear friend’s voice saying, “There is always a solution.” Again -- wait! -- now I hear my father’s gentle voice telling me not to worry about the universe. And this reminds me of the time I first read “Desiderata” and the sentence that affected me deeply: “You are a child of the Universe. You have a right to be here.”

Sometimes (probably most of the time) a lot of tiny cognitive steps are taken before that powerful change that seems instantaneous -- that burst of neural activity that creates a new configuration. Baby steps, baby steps -- and then, va-va-va-voom! Shift happens.

IF it happens. Stay tuned. 




POSTLUDE: PERCEPTION SHIFT = COGNITIVE AWAKENING

One of the important objections to a cognitive approach to changing self-destructive habits is that without a “spiritual awakening” (admitting that you are powerless but a higher power can remove your “character defects”), you are just going to substitute a new addiction for the old one, the way an alcoholic can shift to becoming an overeater. 

There are indeed plenty of examples of alcoholics who stopped drinking but substituted overeating, and vice versa. (In fact, I knew a woman who did just that, and ended up dying as a result of obesity. She was also an example that becoming spiritual doesn't always work. Maybe she didn't go into her practice -- mostly meditation -- deep enough. Maybe it was her bipolar disorder. And yet in Vermont I met a woman painter who made the decision not to be bipolar -- she self-monitors and regulates her mood with music.) In my own case, someone could argue that I quit doing depression only to become a workaholic. 

I am fully aware that a high-energy person is prone to becoming over-aroused and compulsive. My instant attraction to the “non-doing” of Taoism when I first encountered it in my late twenties had something to do with my dawning awareness that “effortless effort” can yield better results than overwork. And I’ve been spiraling around that insight ever since. I hope that I’m close to the point when it becomes a ruling principle of my behavior. I happen to be intense, so it’s not easy for me.

But “it’s too late for depression” -- my cognitive awakening -- started unfolding a whole set of insights that start with “it’s too late for.” It’s too late for any self-destructive behaviors, including overwork. Carpal tunnel lets me know. Chest pains let me know when there is too much adrenaline in my system, and force me to remember that heart disease and stroke run in my family. “Too late for depression” was a kind of “Yes to life,” its full meaning unfolding gradually. That’s why now I am so interested in becoming more peaceful and relaxed. I’ve been thinking and writing about the power and beauty of doing less for some time now, but it takes self-monitoring and practice.

Depression simply vanished, gone as soon as I had my perception shift. It took no effort. My brain did it for me. But I admit that I have to put some conscious effort into not getting over-intense and wanting to do too much at once. But I do turn off the computer earlier now. I am able to say, “Enough for today.” I have noticed the pleasure of working slowly, doing a bit at a time. I am shaping a different, more relaxed self. It’s an unfolding story. That’s why I say, “Stay tuned.” 

For me, being cornered by mortality and “it’s too late for” formula seems sufficient. But if someone finds it useful to join a Buddhist temple, for instance, or even to go to mass everyday, I say, “Whatever works.” I’m glad it’s not me, but I can see how a “spiritual awakening” might work for others. And no, I’m not going to lend them my copy of Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, with its brilliant demonstration that god is a cognitive illusion. In fact Jesse Bering keeps saying that a cognitive illusion can be beneficial. 


Hyacinth:

Love the cat. Remarkable that you were able to use your intellect to liberate yourself from depression. I believe it can be done. The perception shift. I remember having that moment when after months of emotional turmoil I said to myself "You don’t have to love this person." And I got well and went on with my life. 

Oriana:

Love the cat too. He’s really into perception -- that’s my excuse for using him for the opening image.

It was more than the intellect. I had a whole-brain experience, I think. The understanding of how little time is left -- and it may be even less than we estimate -- probably had an emotional component. For one thing, I was finally feeling ashamed of what I was doing to myself (especially the self-hatred part of depression) and how I was wasting my one precious life. I had to clearly see how idiotic that was. 

And I love your perception shift. Psychologists/therapists call it “paradigm shift” -- from Greek paradeigma, pattern. The pattern/matrix changes in such a profound way that you just would have to work very hard to try to go back to past behavior. And it might be impossible. Anyway, who’d want to go back to anything self-destructive. 

Charles:

That cat, that’s me.

I don’t know if you’d call it a perception shift, but Obama had a moment of revelation when he understood that black politicians don’t appeal to white voters because they are angry. So Obama made the decision not to be angry.  He acquired his “cool” manner of not losing his composure. 

Oriana:

We don’t have to insist on “shift.” Let’s just call it a new perception. An insight. And if you make a decision based on that insight, it’s not like a typical New Year’s resolution. An insight-based decision rewires your brain. I think that’s why it has such great power.

I knew a man who reached a very high rank in his field, and a bit of his story. He came from a poor Italian family, worked as a waiter to put himself through college -- yes, that story, but here comes the twist: in his early twenties, he made the decision never to raise his voice. “The foundation of my success in life was that decision never to raise my voice,” he said, quietly but with great authority. 

That’s pretty similar to Obama’s decision, and reminds me of “Anger is the emotion of a victim.” You can refuse to see yourself as a victim. 

Lucrezia:

Abraham Lincoln said, “ A man is about as happy as he makes up his mind to be.”

Oriana:

I’ve been familiar with that quotation for a long time, and it did haunt me at times. But I’m still not that eager to decide to be happy. I need to make it more specific, e.g. No complaining, or, to quote Jack Gilbert, “It’s too late for discontent.” By the way, the latter did influence me and no doubt contributed to my perception shift.

To return to the theme of making an insight-based decision, I’m struck by a similarity in the various stories: it’s the refusal to behave like a victim.

Now, as long as I remember, throughout my childhood and teens, I heard my mother say, “Don’t be a victim of fate. The worst thing is a victim of fate.” But she’d say it in such a sarcastic way that it sounded like “How can anyone be such a schlemiel!”

This is a very rare instance when English proved more effective for me than the Polish version, or call it my mother’s version. In English, “Don’t be a victim” or “a victim’s mentality” or “anger is the emotion of a victim” -- these phrases resonate for me in an inspiring, empowering way.

Darlene:

I remember a guy who used to comment on your blog. He really disapproved of your decision to get rid of depression.

Oriana:

This reminds me of something I saw on TV after the Aurora shootings. A girl in early teens, one of the survivors, was being interviewed. She was remarkably composed and focused on what can be done now to help the bereaved families. The male interviewer interrupted her and said, “It’s OK to cry.” She replied, “I don’t want to cry. I want to be strong so I can help people.” So the interviewer didn’t get what he apparently wanted, a dramatic display of sobbing, falling apart, being a victim. And I wondered how many educated viewers were going for his point of view, and worrying that the young girl was just “repressing” and would later pay the price -- perhaps even end up on the mental ward.

I happened to admire her. I don’t mean to judge those people who did fall apart in front of the camera. Most people would, given the circumstances. But the girl reminded me of my grandmother’s strength.

Back to depression. Some Jungian analysts believe that depression is good for you, a holy state in which the psyche reveals some profound truths. What’s even more scary, there are those who believe that schizophrenia is good for you, and even more holy than depression. 

I can’t speak about schizophrenia, though I know a remarkable schizophrenic/alcoholic who is doing quite well. I suspect that the secret is that through incredible luck he has acquired a valuable skill, and when the right circumstances came, he managed to use that skill to start making money. His motivation to make money is making him act remarkably rational and keeps him sober (he needs to drive) -- even though, for all I know, he may still think he’s Jesus. It’s perhaps the most amazing transformation from victim to -- well, if not hero, then a successful small-scale entrepreneur -- the most spectacular crawling out of victimhood that I’ve ever witnessed. And it also reminds me of Dostoyevski’s observation of his fellow inmates in a Siberian prison: some of them were skilled craftsmen who became quiet and content when busy with their work (aside from the forced labor, they were allowed to produce small articles they could sell to people in town).

As for the supposed profound truths revealed by depression, I had a choice of channels. One was the “I hate America” channel, often activated during driving since I detest the hideous advertising billboards. My sane thought was that capitalism made America both great and ugly. The depression channel showed only “ugly.” Another channel turned on when I was working on a poem and wasn’t happy with my lines. Then the message was: “You are not a real poet and should commit suicide.”

Skeptical Reader, I’m not making this up for the fun of it. I could go on, but I realize that it’s best not to persist in this vein. The delusional nature of depressive thinking is dreadfully embarrassing from an emotionally sober point of view. Of course I can always say that it wasn’t the “real me,” which is radiant, bright, energetic, creative, generous, and other good things. We can judge the person by her worst or by her best -- but the wise thing is simply not to judge. As Spinoza said, “Not to weep, not to laugh, not to ridicule, not to be full of anger -- but to understand.”

And I’m not even sure if it’s necessary to “understand.” All understanding is partial at best, and sometimes it hurts rather than helps move us on. Cancer patients who are in denial of how bad their condition is do practically as well in terms of survival as the “activist” patients who take charge of their health. Whatever works. The point is to keep building on our strengths, keep developing our talents and to share our gifts with others. 


WE HAVE MORE CONTROL THAN WE THINK

Scott:

Your post raised some interesting thoughts; I wish I could find the quote but I recall the poet James K Baxter saying that we all had more control over things than we think. Just reflect on so many areas of our lives; are you overweight, then start eating less, eating right and exercising, simple walking is a good start. Are you in financial straits, control your spending, find ways to make more money. Lonely? Get involved with a charity, contact family and friends...you get the idea. A cynic would say, 'it's not that simple' and yes, for the chronic depressive or someone with a medical condition it may not be so but for the vast, vast majority of us, it truly is. And every day, no, every second is new; we should not beat ourselves up for living up to some standard, either self imposed or set by others; everything will turn out all right. I have found out that most of the things I have worried on in my life either never come to pass or if and when they do it's seldom as bad as I think and many, many times not even bad at all...sometimes even a great positive thing I never saw coming.

We all fail and fall short of what we should do or become but the constant beating oneself up is a horrible waste of time; when we fall short, shake it off and endeavor to do better. I know that sounds incredibly simplistic but the alternative, to wallow in guilt and remorse is just....well, nonsensical. Melville intrigues me as a writer but his life is hardly one to emulate; unhappy in his family, always fleeing them to chase some dream. Tolstoy is even worse, a man who truly had everything; wealth, fame, loving family, title, lands......and was miserable. No no, better to be a Tolkien; career he enjoyed as a professor, a writing career he had as a separate enjoyment, family, friends and with the exception of serving in France in WWI I don't believe he ever left Great Britain. I've been around the world, seen exotic locales but am happiest in my home with my girls. My armchair, 'in a river of books and black coffee'....my 'New Nantucket' if you will is my sanctuary.

Oriana:

So much wisdom in what you say. One reason people’s New Year’s resolutions fail is that the motivation and the focus aren’t strong enough. It’s just not important enough. We resolve to do what we think we should do, but the brain remains wired as before. After that moment of revelation, that shift in perception, we KNOW what we must do.

Take weight. My experiment with being a low-fat vegetarian made me feel chronically hungry, so I became an eating machine, with predictable results. The more “healthy” I tried to eat, the more weight I gained. But it took that one minute of standing in front of a mirror -- I remember the exact life-changing spot -- when quite involuntarily I had the thought, “A fat pig.” The next moment I decided to lose weight, and went to the nearest bookstore to browse through diet books. I came across Atkins, instantly knew that he was right (in my case, the carbs created the bottomless hell of hypoglycemia), and sure enough . . . Lost 25 lbs so easily, I was euphoric.

But that’s not the only way. I knew another formerly obese woman who decided to fast during Lent. No, it didn’t lead to anorexia. Basically she eliminated sugar, and thus stabilized her blood glucose, which is crucial for preventing insulin spikes (insulin is the fattening hormone). Others may do it through portion control. Whatever works. The motivation has to be strong enough, and then you’ll discover what works for you. Knowing that you need to lower and stabilize your blood sugar helps, but is not essential.

Happiness . . . Now that’s a complex issue, but one can tackle one aspect at a time. Not “beating up on yourself” is an example. Louise Hay considers this an essential first step. And not beating up on others. The odd thing is that I had this “non-attack on others” insight already at 19, when I sensed that somebody expected me to scream and maybe call him a klutz for making a mess -- and I said nothing, just reached for a paper towel. I acquired the motto: Everyone can make a mistake. The awful thing is that I didn’t apply that kind of sensible compassion toward myself. I continued to beat myself up for decades. Don’t ask. Some weird blindness. (a big sigh . . . )


Darlene:

If I remember correctly, you see depression as an addiction.

Oriana:

I think I may have said it that way in email to a few friends. I know I said, “I no longer do depression.” It was important for me to view depression not as a feeling but as a BEHAVIOR since I don’t feel powerless over my behavior (I classify brooding as a behavior).

Different people have different responses to stress and to certain triggering stimuli. When the going gets tough, some go shopping, others drink or gamble; I did depression. I wouldn’t want to write an essay on “Depression as an Addiction.” There are some traits that depression has in common in addiction; the reinforcement is withdrawal from even trying to cope. Another similarity is overreacting, overdramatizing versus “emotional sobriety” (or call it rationality). But I wouldn’t want to put serious time into analyzing this matter; for me it was a pragmatic definition. “Whatever works” is on the short list of my favorite mantras, and the pragmatic definition worked me for. I don’t mean to universalize it.

I’ve met a few others who also made a decision -- and at an earlier age than I did, which makes me so envious! Now, those few people did it without going to a therapist, but cognitive therapy has been proved in clinical trials to be effective in ending depression. Not for everyone. Those who succeeded were the ones who experienced their shift in perception early, in a matter of weeks.

I have a friend who is a therapist, and she said, “You did cognitive therapy on yourself.” 


IF THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION WERE CLEANSED

Lucrezia:

I think depression is mainly biological. What
works best for me is exercise.

Oriana:

Depression can stem from hypothyroidism, PMS, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, the use of certain Rx drugs, and so on. And yes, exercise has been clinically found to be a mood lifter and de-stressor. I don’t mean gentle strolling, since that still lets a person engage in brooding. For some people qi-gong can work, but it didn’t for me. I did experience temporary mood lift from strenuous exercise back when I was still doing depression. Intense exercise kills thought -- I think that’s the secret. But if you have enough motivation to go to an exercise class, then your level of depression is relatively mild.

To summarize my case: I experienced a perception shift (also known as paradigm shift or cognitive shift; my guess is that “intuitional revelation” refers to the same experience). The decision not to be depressed was essentially simultaneous with the perception shift, and automatic; I chose to reinforce it with conscious commitment, but I suspect that the shift did all the work (rewiring the brain, that is). I also switched from intense self-absorption to an intense external focus (“the answer lies outside”). 


As my brain normalized, I discovered that my external focus didn’t have to be as intense, just as my physical exercise could become more gentle and pleasant. I also gradually regained access to positive memories and regained the ability to experience pleasure (chronic depression produces anhedonia). The doors of perception were cleansed, and the world enlivened.

Again, an insight-based decision is not like a New Year’s resolution. It stems from a radical change in perspective, a new understanding. And there  is no going back.