Friday, February 5, 2010

Can it really be so simple?

I've been reading "Loving What Is" by Byron Katie.

Here's an transcribed excerpt from a dialogue Katie had with a participant at a workshop:

Woman: "I fear suffering about the future."

Katie: "So, in the future you’re going to suffer. Is that true? Can you absoutely know that that’s true?"

"I don’t know if it’s true. (Pause) No."

"So what happens when you think that thought?"

"I get scared?"

"Now, close your eyes. What images can you see when you think the thought 
I’m going to suffer?"

"I see a bag lady on the street. I see someone who’s dying of bone cancer."

“So who would you be without the thought in the future I’m going to suffer?”

“I’d be someone who isn’t suffering right now.”

The exchange goes on for a while. We watch and listen as the woman who is afraid of her imagined future is just turning on a spit, dying to tell her story, explain why she's afraid of becoming a bag lady, go deeper into her fears about cancer, but is stopped at every turn by Katie, who keeps bringing her back to the present. In the present, this woman is healthy, has a satisfying life, and is "only" haunted by experiences in the past that make her project bad outcomes for the future. Some would say she'll create those bad outcomes because she believes they'll happen. I do not. I think it's more likely a matter of bad luck if she develops the most unlikely brain cancer, and blaming her for thinking bad thoughts about it (you created your cancer!) is a lousy thing to tell people (thus proving, at least to me, that new-age ideas can be just as heartless as old-fashioned ones).

Every dialogue I've watched or read that Katie engages in with others demonstrates how attached we all are to the stories we tell ourselves about what we're afraid of and why. Of course, we're equally attached to the stories we've created for the reasons we are happy or successful. We don't like to think that luck plays an enormous role in our lives. I was lucky not to have died at birth. I was two months premature at a time when incubators were uncommon and rudimentary. My mother went into labor at a party, far from the hospital where she planned on giving birth, but close to one where there were state-of-the-art incubators and doctors who knew how to handle such tiny infants. Of course, you may believe God, fate, or some other higher power played a part in what I call luck. Feel free to do so. Either way, I had nothing to do with the fact that I didn't die on the day I was born.

That seems tangential, but it isn't that far off the mark. We desperately need to find a reason for everything. If I survived this birth, for whatever reason, there must be a reason. If there isn't a reason, we tend to make up stories to fill in the gaps.

Some people think Katie's approach to solving that which causes us suffering is "tough love"; some even call it cruel and without heart. When I see people desperate to talk, I tend to feel they should be given as much space to do so as possible. We go around in this life keeping so much held tightly to our breasts. "How are you?" is the greeting we are met with all day long, but no one wants a real answer. How refreshing to think someone will allow us to say how we really feel! And so, there is much resistance when Katie demands people to imagine giving up their stories. It seems almost cruel, but it is indeed a huge gift. These stories create enormous suffering. We spin tales that may be based in reality, but we spin them to create images of a reality that has not yet occurred and probably never will. What purpose does it serve?

When I'm in pain, and I project myself into a future where there's no one to take care of me when I'm so disabled that I can't get out of bed permenantly, I am not only taking myself out of the present moment, I'm causing myself completely unnecessary stress, grief, and misery by placing myself into the worst imaginable situation. If I spoke to a therapist about this, what would s/he do? Encourage me to examine why I have such thoughts, talk them through, seek their origin, "confront them." These thoughts are like bullies. The best thing is to tell them to leave and ignore them. If I engage with them, they'll stick around and torment me further. Who would I be without these nasty thoughts? Free.

Some would argue that I need to make friends with negative thoughts. Nope. I don't make friends with bullies.

Some would argue that without worrying about future possibilities, one will not have contingency plans in place. I was taught that anxiety drives action by a family filled with worriers. I don't believe it. One can make plans for the future without any worrying. If the only reason you are saving money is because you're worried about the future, it's a piss poor reason. If you're saving for unexpected calamities, that's fine. They do occur, no doubt. But worrying about them does nothing but cause misery.

Another criticism of Katie is that she minimizes suffering. I heard her talk about losing a home to foreclosure. She described how it was a beautiful day, and as the van drove away with an imaginary woman's possessions, while this imaginary woman was sitting on the sidewalk, she looked up at the sky and saw how beautiful it was. In that moment, she was fine. The world was perfect as it was. My reaction? Yes, it was all very well and good that it happened in California where the weather is warm and, sure, one can bask in the beauty of nature for quite a while, but, what's going to happen when this imaginary woman gets hungry? Where is she going to use a bathroom or sleep?

I felt a sense of outrage for a moment, and then paused. I realized I've been in some dire situations, ones that objectively would be considered intolerable to most Americans. Because I can see the beauty in the smallest things, those supposedly bad situations were all not only bearable, but perfect. I've had times in my life when things were objectively going great, but I was suffering inside, and I felt life was unbearable.

So, in my experience, these stories that we tell ourselves, and we allow our society to tell us about what we need from life, well, they are the cause of our suffering. This doesn't mean that being hungry, homeless, sick, or alone is perfectly fine and if you're suffering because of it, you're at fault. It only means that if you are in a bad situation, adding to one's misery by refusing to see what possibilities for learning or appreciation they hold is a bad strategy. Being angry about one's situation doesn't make it better. Righteous anger is still anger. Is it really fulfilling to be angry?

I was once scolded for enjoying a meal too much in the middle of mourning. I was also told I was crying too hard around the same time. Either way, the crux of that matter was that feeling too strongly in this society is not approved of. I might not like Tom Cruise for a number of reasons, but I positively approved of his jumping up and down on a couch crowing about his love for whoever it was he had fallen for. Fantastic! We should all be that enthusiastic. But no. Suddenly, Tom Cruise was "crazy." Hell, he's been crazy for years. He's a Scientologist. Of course he's crazy!

I could keep on ranting for hours. Kids get pills for being hyperactive (too much for the teachers to handle), and pills because they're depressed when their parents aren't parenting them. Wouldn't it be better if we let the "hyperactive" kids run around more? Wouldn't it be better to acknowledge the truth of the pain of a child who's not being taken care of? That's not depression. Depression is being unhappy for no good reason.

Oh, we are so confused.

I never got around to what my entry's title asks, "Is it really so simple?" Well, it is. Reality is what it is. The less we argue with it, the better off we'll be. That applies as well to kids who are being treated with drugs when they should be treated with respect as it does to those who are crying about that which is long gone or has never happened. Denying reality, dampening our reactions to it (keep yourself in check - no big emotions allowed!), or all attempts to alter our feelings about it by external means (booze, drugs, both legal or not), well, it's a losing battle. Reality is as it is.

End of tonight's rant and lecture.

Photo note: As requested, something I've made - my first attempts at coiled thick and thin yarn.


Abigail said...

That was great. Thanks.

BitterGrace said...

What Abigail said.

Julie H. Rose said...

Great! Thank you, both.

jmcleod76 said...

:o) Thanks, Julie. That was beautiful.

I see Byron Katie's books in the Self Improvement section at work all the time, but I didn't know what they were about. I generally mistrust the books in that section. This one sounds good. Convincing ourselves to face reality (we can never truly convince others, I suspect, only point the way) is tough, but it is ultimately the truest act of kindness.

Your observation about hurting kids is spot-on. I used to work in a group home with kids who had been removed from their homes for any number of reasons, most of them amounting to some of the most horrific neglect you can imagine. I had one girl whose mother was a prostitute with 7 kids. At 10, she was the oldest and the caretaker for all of the others. Eventually, teachers and social workers caught on to the situation and she and all of her siblings were removed from the home. This girl blamed herself: "If only I had taken better care of them, no one would have known. My family would still be together." Can you imagine carrying that weight at 10? Shortly after she arrived at our facility, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and put on psych meds. This made me sick. Don't get me wrong. I know psych meds can be helpful, and I know that the line between grief and depression is a thin one, with each interpenetrating and feeding into the other. But this kid wasn't mentally ill. She was a sweet, normal kid with a lot of hurt, anger, and confusion who just needed some warmth and space to work out what she was feeling. Unfortunately, with 11 other girls in her house, many of whom were in semi-constant crisis mode, those were the two things we weren't able to give her. Instead, we gave her some pills and told her she was broken. Nice.