Crazy

(the following is a repeat of a post published on my mental health blog, Mental Health Matters. Click on the link to find archived posts on that site).

 

“How’s business?” someone asked me at a party recently.

I responded with my standard (and true) answer: that I’m happy in my work, and happy that I get to do it. Then came the joking next question, “So I guess there must be at least as many crazy people around these parts as there are in the city?”

It was a version of the reference to “crazy people” in connection with the work I do that I have heard more times than I can count, and yet it takes me off guard every time, since “crazy” is not a way I think of anyone I see or have seen in my therapy practice. It’s as if someone were to ask me, “Are there as many two-headed green space aliens around these parts as there are in the city?” To which my answer would be easy: “I wouldn’t know— I’ve never seen any.” 

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drawing by “Turnabliss” @ drawception.com

The fact is, the term “crazy” says more about the fear and judgement of those who use it than it says about anyone it is used to describe. Think about it: when you have described yourself or someone else as being “crazy,” haven’t you used it as a term of scorn, a shorthand way to judge, write off, and distance yourself from someone you see as not being able to cope as you think they should, or whose behaviors annoy you, or who seems eccentric in a way you fear?

Which is not to say that there are not people who don’t suffer terribly and persistently from disabling, disorienting, mental or emotional conditions (conditions which are usually treated with medication and case-management anyway, and not counseling). But to call people with severe and persistent mental illness “crazy” is to replace our compassion and curiosity with an all-purpose, scornful write-off label that only contributes to the stigma and isolation that they live with everyday, adding insult to injury, very literally.

Far from being either “crazy” (whatever that means) or being two-headed green space aliens, the people who go to therapy are just like you and me: humans grappling with the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary challenges of being human. Some are dealing with mental illness, which (like any other illness) takes a lot of energy and patience and skill to cope with on a daily basis. Some, faced with a difficult decision, life transition, or loss to navigate, use counseling to create a space in which to hear themselves think and feel themselves feel, the better to figure out for themselves what to do. And the purpose of counseling is to hold that space– a space for people to have a conversation with their own wisdom and emotions, not to get advice, have their problems solved by someone else, or be told how they “should” feel (our friends and families are happy to do that for free, right?)

Over the past several decades of my own adult life, I have personally seen a therapist on 4 different occasions at least, and each therapist I consulted was invaluable in helping me identify and effectively navigate the particular challenges I was working with at the time. One helped me see the need to develop more self-compassion, and taught me practices to cultivate it which I use and teach to this day. One helped my husband and me endure the challenges of parenting teens more effectively (and I hope more gracefully). Another offered me the kinds of questions to ask myself that made it possible for me to more clearly evaluate and take action on a difficult workplace situation. And one offered simply the anchor of her calm, reassuring, confident, listening presence that I needed to get myself through a scary episode of depression, until it lifted.

Could I cope with these myself without counseling? Of course— I was coping, just like everyone alive is coping: coping is what keeps us alive. The problem for most of us isn’t located in a failure of “coping,” it’s that “coping” alone reduces our experience of living to strategies focused on avoiding pain, at the expense of feeling fully and exuberantly alive. So when people come to therapy, it’s rarely about not being able to cope; it’s about being tired of paying the price of “just coping,” and wanting to also feel more fully (and joyously) alive.

Which makes me think, as I write this, that maybe that is actually a good definition of “crazy:” “being fully alive.” If that makes me crazy, I’ll take it. I’d be crazy not to.

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on “Care of the Soul”

Twenty-five years ago, American psychotherapist and ex-monk Thomas Moore published  Care of The Soul…and it immediately struck such a chord for so many readers that the book spent forty-six weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, and has been reprinted many times since.295132

Gathering some books from my shelves to accompany me on a soul-needed retreat recently, the title caught my eye, and I took it with me. Gratefully re-reading it over the course of my week of reflection, it was as though I was reading it for the first time, reminding me of how timely and timeless Moore’s words remain.

So what was the chord it struck then, and now? Maybe it is in the way the book speaks to the longings of so many among us to find a way to reintegrate spirituality (a sense of connection to mystery and meaning) into our lives—lives that have become weary and guilt-ridden as a result of all that problem-solving and striving for “self-improvement”  that our “can-do” culture tends to pursue (and to encourage), and that many (even most) standard therapy approaches reinforce.

“In the modern world we separate religion and psychology, spiritual practice and therapy,” writes Moore, in the introduction to the book. It is a separation, he says, that was unknown in earlier centuries of healing practices in the western world. But in our nation’s founding zeal to separate church and state in order to ensure for all the freedom to choose and to practice religion (or other spiritual practice) without persecution, we ended up pretty much throwing the “baby” (the conversation about the life of the soul) out with the “bathwater” (the power of any given religion to dictate the lives of its citizens), at least in secular life. As a result, modern psychology has become essentially secular and ego-centered. About the “self” (the ego) that is, but not about the “soul.”

With the soul having become off-limits to the field of psychology, psychology ended up aligning itself at the beginning of the 20th century with medicine: a safely “scientific” field which itself had become interested in understanding and treating mental and emotional disorders.

A result, however, was a severe impoverishment of the earlier scope of modern psychology, and a growing emphasis on “cure” (of symptoms) versus “care” (of soul).

And here’s the big irony: the word “psyche” itself in Greek means “the soul, mind, spirit, or invisible animating entity which occupies the physical body,” with “psychology” supposedly the field of knowledge of exactly that, and “psychotherapy” its tending practice.

In effect, then, we ended up with a “psychology” and “psychotherapy” without “psyche,” and treatment reduced to what could be called (I’m making this up:) “egotherapy.”

And it is that ancient understanding of the psyche/soul (the existence of which was assumed by both secular and religious peoples until very recent centuries) that Moore means when he talks about “soul” in the book: less a “thing” (in the object sense of a “thing”) than it is “the font of who we are […] holding together mind and body, ideas and life, spirituality and the world.” A dimension of our lives with a life of its own, distinct from the ego, connected with all other lives and with the source of life itself. “We can cultivate, tend, enjoy and participate in the things of the soul,” Moore says, “but we can’t outwit it or manage it or shape it to the designs of a willful ego.”

From the point of view of an ego-focused-but-soulless psychology, suffering and its symptoms are assumed to represent some kind of individual or relationship failure or imperfection. Add to that the medical point of view, and we have a way of looking at symptoms as indicative of a “disorder” or a “disease.” From both points of view, suffering and its symptoms represent “problems to solve,” which view encourages ever more striving for the perfection of some idealized self and trouble-free existence— a striving which, being futile, only leads to more suffering.

In contrast, Moore says, to attend to the soul is to understand that the soul’s life is, by nature, “complicated, multifaceted, and shaped by both pain and pleasure, success and failure.” It is a life “not without its moments of darkness and periods of foolishness.”  But instead of labeling these experiences as “bad” or “good,” or representing “problems to solve,” care of the soul focuses on the opportunities and possibilities that are inherent in all experiences for growing in “self-knowledge and self-acceptance, which are the very foundations of the soul.” It is an approach that also focuses on listening for, and giving the soul what it needs  to cultivate its well-being, many of which things might be quite ordinary: “more time in the garden,” say, or “a change of scenery,” or “taking the time to savor your food without checking Facebook at the same time.”

In essence, says Moore, The aim of soul work…is not adjustment to accepted norms or to an image of the statistically-healthy individual. Rather, the goal is a richly elaborated life, connected to society and nature, woven into the culture of family, nation, and globe. The idea is not to be superficially adjusted, but to be profoundly connected in the heart […] to all the many communities that claim our hearts.”

 

For more (including specific ways to put this into soul-tending practice, get a copy: Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Sacredness in Everyday Life, by Thomas Moore. New York: Random House, 1992.

“Nervously Taking a Seat at the Table of the Unknown.”

Visiting Rattle Magazine’s website just now to submit some new poems, I found the homepage dedicated to the heartbreakingly beautiful poem by Alexandra Umlas,  “Remembering You, Anthony Bourdain, at the Elementary School Talent Show.”     

Written in tribute to celebrity chef (which does not begin to describe him) Anthony Bourdain, who took his life a couple days ago, the poem was just what I needed this morning, in the wake of the “issue of suicide” media response to Bourdain’s death. And it reminded me once again of how much more deeply and truly and reverently the language of poetry meets us at the moist and messy heart of life and loss. It was such a contrast –in fact an antidote– to the news media’s formulaic responses: responses which  use language to aid and abet our collective, existential scramble-for-safety by quickly producing cheaply-made containers of “understanding” for our anxiety and confusion in the face of incomprehensible loss. 

I was acutely aware of the latter yesterday, when –listening to NPR over the course of the afternoon– I noticed how much focus there was on “the issue of suicide” in response to Bourdain’s death, the producers and broadcasters first shaping “the issue” for us that way, and then responding predictably, unimaginatively and heart-numbingly (as is the news media’s purpose, however unconsciously for many of those involved) to our collective anxiety by delivering “the usual” to it: the usual psychology “experts” soberly and expert-ishly proferring some version of the standard trifeca of Explanations, Advice, and Call for More Mental Health Services…none of which may have had any pertinence at all to Bourdain’s own suicide, and all of which collectively fail to honor the gift of his life, however  much longer we might think that life should have been.

Thought experiment: What if Bourdain actually knew perfectly well that he was deeply loved by, and important to many? And what if he knew his life had meaning and purpose? And what if those around him knew and persistently responded as well as anyone could to help him find relief for his suffering? And what if he did, in fact, receive the best that mental health treatment had to offer?

What if, that is, Bourdain’s suicide was not a result of a deficiency of love, of information, of vigilance, or of attitude, nor representative of a mental health services insufficiency? What if all of these resources were in fact present abundantly and in full for him (which I find more likely than not) and he still found his suffering to be too much to further bear?

What if no-one failed, including Bourdain himself?

After 25 years of practicing psychotherapy, I know how often this can in fact be true, and I believe that any truly seasoned “expert” knows it too. So why the bromides that suggest otherwise in the news media interviews?

But maybe the answer is that as “news,” that is not in fact “news we can use” as news, because that’s where poetry (and music, and stories, and all the arts) meet us instead: in that place where the heart is left to find a way to hold all that the mind cannot solve and decide away. And in doing so, it enlarges our hearts’ capacity for compassion, reverence, and joy.

As does Umlas’ poem, which, in the way it honors the life in the life of Anthony Bourdain, in turn honors the way the gifts of every life enlarge the one Life we all share together…

which is  the heart of the matter.

 

You knew how to savor
an experience, how sitting with strangers
makes friends, that what we put in our mouths
matters—you pointed out the thread
spooled between us when we have a mealanthonybourdain_portrait
together, the connection that takes place over
coffee or beer. This morning, after hearing
you were gone from this world, my daughter
danced on the stage, nervously taking a seat
at the table of the unknown. 

 

(from “Remembering You, Anthony Bourdain, at the Elementary School Talent Show,” by Alexandra Umlas; for the full text, visit Rattle.com)

 

 

To see/hear my archived poem,  “To Tinnitus” published in Rattle in 2011, click on the poem’s title

Seeing with the Eye of the Heart

Halfway through Cynthia Bourgeault’s stunning book, The Wisdom Jesus, I could not wait until I finished it to begin writing about it, so rich it is with wisdom in general, and with a take on Jesus as a wisdom teacher that strikes me as profoundly, radically, and tradition-shatteringly true.  Personally, I could not be more grateful for this book, since it answers for me the question (a question I have simply trusted until now that I needed simply to just ‘hold’ versus seek to “figure out”) as to how it can be that the more “real”  Jesus has become as my primary guide in my own growth in wisdom and in love, over the years since my baptism (as an adult, in the Catholic Church)…how it is then that the more strongly I connect with Jesus, and feel I understand him through my own heart, the less of a fit there seems to me to be between what he was up to (and is up to, still) and the traditional portrayals and understanding of his messages –of his very Being– in Christianity and its institutions now.

In short, it feels like the more I “get” Jesus, the less like a “Christian” I feel.

It also seems less and less to me as though there is any significant difference at all between the radical, challenging teachings of other ancient Eastern transformation traditions and their mystical paths (and we tend to forget that Christianity is one of those “Eastern religions” with its own mystical paths) and the teachings and path of Jesus- an observation that Bourgeault concurs with heartily, being herself a self-described “serious student of the worldwide wisdom tradition” including the work of Gurdjieff, Sufism, and Vedanta and Kabbalah studies, as well as Christian mystical practice traditions.

Early on in the book, Bourgeault (who, by the way, is an Episcopal priest, as well as a 41bf17fb277871f32260d3100ab2910496931fffrespected theologian and writer) addresses this  directly in Chapter 1, “Jesus as a Recognition Event,” where she lays out her primary thesis:

The angle of approach I will be using throughout this book is to see Jesus first and foremost as a wisdom teacher, a person who (for the moment setting aside the whole issue of his divine parentage) clearly emerges out of and works within an ancient tradition called ‘wisdom’, sometimes known as “sophia perennis,” which is in fact at the headwaters of all the great religious traditions of the world today. It’s concerned with the transformation of the whole human being […] from our animal instincts and egocentricity into love and compassion; from a judgmental and dualistic worldview into nondual acceptingness. This was the message that Jesus, apparently out of nowhere,  came preaching and teaching, a message that was radical in its own time, and remains radical today. 

And over the course of the next several chapters, Bourgeault reveals and suggests how mind-blowingly radical Jesus’ vision and intentions were, in the path of transformation he represented and offered. Bourgeault likens it to no less than “upgrading our operating systems” as beings, from “the egoic operating system (a binary system of perception which makes sense of world by dividing it–into “this and that,” “bad and good,” “inside and outside,” “you and me,” etc.) to a unitive system — a system of perception centered not in the egoic mind, but in the mind of the heart. 

In wisdom, she says, the heart is primarily an organ of spiritual perception, a highly sensitive instrument for keeping us aligned […] to the realm of meaning, value and conscience. (p. 36)

This is a very, very different take on Jesus from the Sunday-school Jesus that many Christians were raised to recognize, the essential teachings of which one Southern Baptist theologian has summed up (perhaps tongue in cheek– hard to know!) as “Jesus is nice, and he wants you to be nice, too!”  (p. 28)

I am mindful, Bourgeault writes as an aside (and I love this:) of  one of my favorite quotes, attributed to the writer G.C. Chesterton, who reportedly said, “Christianity isn’t a failure; it just hasn’t been tried yet.” 

This is a great book by way of which to “taste and see” what it might really mean to “try it.”

Meanwhile, below is a contribution of my own to the conversation, since prayer-that-is-poetry is my own primary way of “seeing with the eyes of the heart.” It speaks to another radical notion that Bourgeault suggests and develops: that Jesus’ spiritual path is essentially not a transcendent one; in fact it is a path that proceeds “not through acquisition or attainment but through self [ego] emptying; not through up but through down,” (p.66). It is about bringing down and entering in…wherein lies the possibility to experience that “The Kingdom of Heaven is within/among us.”

(Note: this poem was originally appeared in an issue of Christian Century magazine)

* * *

“And Were the Damned Glad?”

When he’d breathed his last, Jesus
hurried down to hell.

They thought they’d known the worst,
stewing and burning alone in the outer

darkness. Still,
they’d been secure in their fate,

its familiar misery
snug as a nest.

He entered this,
not cruising the rim

like a tourist,
sorry but separate—

dropped straight
into their deadness instead

and relentlessly loved them there,
each wretch in each foulness—

that was torment.
And it seemed

to the damned and eternity before
he left, tearing a hole in the seal

between hell and sky as he rose,
and that hole remained…

                                –Donna Henderson

 

 

 

 

Listen

 

 

A poem for June, and for grieving. 

 

Listen–

some dusk to the varied thrush
keening its single long, cool note.
This is what the thrush has waited for all day:
the busy light leaving,
shadows slipping home from their exile.
For the spacious
silence that hears it, answers.
Lean ecstasy you might have thought
despair—

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Listen then to your own,
that other
loneliness that is our vast capacity.
You thought it longed for filling.
It longs to sing.

                           Donna Henderson

“Our Soul is an Abode”

 

In the introduction to perhaps his greatest work, The Poetics of Space, (translated beautifully from french into english by Maria Jolas) the twentieth century french philosopher Gaston Bachelard describes himself as an “addict of felicitous reading […] I only read and re-read what I like.” (p. xxv) And I loved that confession, because it is by exactly that way of reading that I was led back, this morning to this book…and it was as though I had never read it before.

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Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962) was one of Europe’s leading philosophers, and for many years chaired the philosophy department of the Sorbonne in Paris. As a young philosopher, his attention was focused primarily on the philosophy of science (physics in particular: one of his earliest of many scholarly books is entitled The Experience of Space in Contemporary Physics) But his interests and investigations soon began moving outside of the established molds. More specifically, his thinking and writing soon shifted away from considerations of reason and science to investigations of the metaphysics of the imagination; to the philosophy of art, aesthetics, and the poetic imagination in particular. Which is where his interest and writing remained concentrated for the rest of his 30-year-or-so career.

The Psychoanalysis of Fire  (1938) was the first book representing this departure, followed by a number of books in which he took on other elements (Water and DreamsAir and Reverie, The Earth and the Reveries of the Will, and others. As he gradually became more involved in poetics, and with the question of the nature and function of reverie itself, his later books reflected that specific focus, and included both The Poetics of Space (1958) and The Poetics of Reverie (1960).

Along the way, as Bachelard’s dive into poetics deepened, he began to question the very definition and function of rational thought, challenging even its “givens.”  Il faut donc distinguer entre la raison qui invente à contre courant et celle qui systématise après coup (“We must therefore distinguish between the kind of reason that goes [invents/creates] against the current, and the one that systematizes afterwards”), Bachelard wrote, and called for a “return to rationality its function as a force for turbulence and aggression.” A rescue, that is (at least as I think I understand Bachelard’s thinking) from a cold and distant rationality to the kind of passionate, engaged rationality that is the realm of the poetic; a kind of rationality that for which he coined the term “surrationalism.”

But I am starting into the weeds here…as I was afraid I would if I even started to write about Bachelard (because it is so, so fun to get into, those weeds).  So, back to The Poetics of Space, specifically.

So what is the book about? It’s hard for me to describe (more about why that is in a minute), so I am going to just quote the publisher’s description (from the 2014 Penguin Classics edition) for the basic gloss:

This lyrical journey takes as its premise the emergence of the poetic image and finds an ideal metaphor in the intimate spaces of our homes. Guiding us through a stream of meditations on poetry, art, and the blooming of consciousness itself, Bachelard examines the domestic places that shape and hold our dreams and memories. Houses and rooms; cellars and attics; drawers, chests, and wardrobes; nests and shells; nooks and corners: No space is too vast or too small to be filled by our thoughts and our reveries. In Bachelard’s enchanting spaces, “We are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.”

Probably for good reason (to invite as wide as possible a readership) the list of “containers” in the description above (which reflect several of the 10 chapter titles) left out my favorites, so I’ll add them here: Chapter 8: “Intimate Immensity,” Chapter 9: “The Dialectics of Inside and Outside” and Chapter 10: “The Phenomenology of Roundness.”

And as I reentered the text itself this morning, I realized why it is so hard to write about Bachelard’s ideas (which I have made attempts before to do): it is precisely because of the way the lyricism and poetic density of Bachelard’s philosophical writing about poetics itself enacts and embodies, in language, exactly what he is writing about. How to say this? In the way Bachelard enters into the very “space” (a space of reverie) about which he writes, and writes from it as much as about it, he invites the reader into that space also. So that a reader comes to an understanding of what he is writing “about” from the inside-out also…which makes it difficult to “describe” from without, without completely betraying it. It’s like trying to describe what a piece of music “means:” it means what it is. 

So instead of trying to do that, I am going to simply share below some favorite passages from Bachelard’s lengthy Introduction, most of which passages are less about the specific focus of the text to follow as they are about his poetics in general (especially the nature and function of the “poetic image”).  I love the way these passages and short quotes reverberate and shimmer with the ideas they present (and Bachelard is all about reverberation and shimmer). In how they stand alone, and in how they engage the imagination, they are as good an introduction as any, I think, to Bachelard’s thought, and his writing.

 

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Shadow selfie with barbed wire (author)

“The poetic image is a sudden salience on the surface of the psyche” 

 

 

 

 

“In this reverberation, the poetic image will have a sonority of being. The poet speaks on the threshold of being” 

 

 

“At the level of the poetic image, the duality of subject and object is iridescent, shimmering, unceasingly active in its inversions.”

 

 

“The poet, in the novelty of [her] images, is always the origin of language.”

 

“To specify that the image comes before thought, we should have to say that poetry, rather than being a phenomenology of the mind, is a phenomenology of the soul.” 

 

Then, in a long reverie on the paintings of George Rouault, he writes,

“The soul possesses an inner light, the light that an inner vision knows and expresses in the work of brilliant colors […]. [A] painter […] knows from what heat source the light comes. He experiences the intimate meaning of the passion for red. At the core of such painting, there is a soul in combat– the fauvism, the wildness, is interior. Painting like this is therefore a phenomenon of the soul. The oeuvre must redeem an impassioned soul.” 

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And finally, the title (of this post) quote…which, come to think of it, probably tells you all you need to know about the specific premise of The Poetics of Space :

                                                            “Our soul is an abode”