Love At The Bottom Of A Well

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“My lifetime dream is to be sitting at the bottom of a well.” –Haruki Murakami

Down the street from where I live there is an empty irrigation well, with nothing but an old wooden ladder reaching far, far down into it. The ladder leads all the way down into the bottom of the well and as many times as I had followed the ladder with my eyes to the bottom, I never had the courage to step down into it. I approached the well with the same kind of fear and apprehension that a person might when approaching a potentially intimate relationship or an airplane. Every time I pulled my head over the edge and looked downwards into the well, it was as if a gravitational force was pushing me in the opposite direction. I often felt upset with myself for feeling afraid to do the very thing that I knew I needed to do most- sit at the bottom of the well.

Life seems to have a rhythm all of its own making. Undoubtedly things happen in a non-quantifiable way. Those who try to quantify life’s rhythms, tend to lose a certain quality of magic and spontaneity. It’s a Faustian bargain I suppose. I have never been one to believe in metaphysical explanations for phenomena, but I do acknowledge a fundamental and uncontrollable rhythm that is always pulsating. We can hear it if we are willing to just stop and listen. Sometimes this rhythm creates the most mind-blowing sounds, other times the rhythm causes us such pain and suffering that all we can do to protect ourselves is plug our ears. Why it was that I was suddenly compelled to walk into the well that summer afternoon, I will never know or try to explain. All I know for certain is that as I looked down into the bottom of the well (for the hundredth plus time), I felt a complete absence of fear. Without hesitation, I draped one leg over the side of the well and put my foot on the first step of the ladder. Everything else seemed to happen on its own.

For a few months before prior to that afternoon, I had not been feeling well. My spirits were low and I was apprehensive about so many things. I felt like I was coming down with the flu but never really manifesting any visible flu-like symptoms. There was anger present but my anger had no specific object to release itself upon so I slipped into a subtle but always present depression. I felt physically fragile and knowing that I no longer possessed the invincibility and reduced odds that my youth afforded me, I was acutely aware of the impermanence of all things. When reflecting upon my own life and everyone and everything in it, I felt sad. In my sadness I was desperate to figure out away to make everyone last forever, and the best way I had found thus far was to push everyone away. The moment that I draped my right leg over the edge of the well, the negatively charged chemicals that seemed to be turning my thoughts against me, disappeared.

Step by careful step, I proceeded to walk down the ladder- further into the darkness. The ladder made strange, hollow, grunting sounds. Only an object that was really old could produce such sounds. I knew that what I was doing was not a dream, because as I climbed down the ladder the splintered wood pushing into the skin on my hands caused me to clench my jaw. I have always struggled with a form of claustrophobia that has always gotten in the way of my freedom to roam. I was glad to notice that as I climbed down the ladder I felt no shortness of breath, no tightness in my chest, no sweat on my palms and zero frightening thoughts in my head. I was on an adventure. The first really exciting adventure I had been on since I was an anxiety free kid.

When I put my foot on the bottom of the well, I heard what sounded like the crushing of little pebbles into sand. The same sound was made as I placed my other foot on the ground. The sound echoed off the concrete walls and caused my skin to vibrate in tune with the rhythm. I released my grip from the ladder’s wooden handles and felt an absence of pain in my normally tension-filled finger joints. The bottom of the well felt so uncomfortably cold that I contemplated climbing back up the ladder and returning home quickly to grab one of my winter coats. Even though there was an absence of detectable light at the bottom of the wall, I was still able to see a few feet in front of me. I noticed liquid slowly dripping out from the cracks in concrete wall, oozing down the wall until it disappeared before touching the ground. For a moment I tried to figure out how the liquid could evaporate so fast. I assumed that maybe it was because of the sharp cold, but deeper down I knew there was no logical explanation for what I was observing.

My superstitious nature prevented me from going beneath the ladder. I kept myself positioned on one side of the well. I looked around with curiosity and interest. I checked to see if my feet were actually on the ground and when I realized they were I felt a victorious kind of feeling. It was the same kind of feeling that I imagine a person would feel after they accomplished something they never imagined they could. I let out a loud and enthusiastic “yes!” Finally, I had made it down to the bottom of the well. As much as I often doubted it, at that moment I knew for a fact that I was experiencing happiness. Yes, happiness. I knew it because of the large smile on my face. I could feel the edges of my smile poking me in the eyes. I was beyond the fear that had hobbled me for so long.

As I looked up at the top of the well, I could see a small, tubular ray of light hanging out above me. The ladder that I climbed down seemed to become smaller and smaller the further up it went. My smile was causing my mouth to open and as I looked up I could taste the light. I know that it makes no sense to attribute a taste to light, but ever since that moment I have always been able to taste light. If I try hard enough- I can smell it. As I looked up at the small circular patch of light above me, I was again perplexed by the absence of fear. I was alone, in a small-contained foreign space. If anything happened to the ladder, I could potentially be trapped forever. There was no help to be found anywhere. But still I felt calm. The kind of peace that in my punk days I would have pointed my middle finger at. I could have cared less about anything going wrong. I was at the bottom of the well and that was all that mattered.

I exhaled a deep breath and felt chilled dust settling on my hair and face. My smile started to adjust itself accordingly as I slowly squatted down onto the ground. I put both palms of my hands down onto the ground and then lifted myself into a four-legged position. I don’t know why but I started to laugh a little. I investigated the ground with my eyes and hands. How long had these pebbles I was sifting through been down here on the ground? When was the last time another human being was down here? I saw no footprints and nothing that resembled the imperfections that occur upon human contact. It seemed as if I was the only person in the world. Claustrophobic me, a discoverer of an entirely new world. How cool was that? I didn’t care that the threads in my $159.00 pants were being ripped away by the small pebbles on the ground. No one discovers a new land, without getting a rip in their pants.

I will never be able to represent accurately with words, what happened next. If I was able to compose music, a song might better describe what took place. I am not a very spiritual or religious man so I don’t attribute my experience to anything supernatural. It was what it was. I’m ok with the mystery.

I sat down on the ground in a kind of tangled lotus posture, with the side of my left shoe resting upon the inside of my right thigh. My right foot was being compressed into the ground by my left leg. My spine was attentively upright as I rested the palms of my hands on the top of my thighs. I closed my eyes and began listening to the sounds of my breath moving in and out through my congested nose. I noticed the sensation of microscopic vibrations, in perfect tune with the rhythms of my breathing. I was not trying to explain to myself what was going on. I was present. Not one step ahead. Not one step behind. For once there was an absence of madness in my mind. I was no longer a slave to thinking about all the things that need to get done and all the things I didn’t like. I was letting my ego slip away. Time disappeared and as a result, so did I.

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I’m not sure how long I was gone for. Could have been a few minutes, could have been hours. With my eyes still closed (I did not want to open them yet) I realized that my hand was holding what had to be my heart. It felt like the frog that I had dissected in junior high school, except this was palpitating. I was not afraid or freaked out (as you would think you would be if you realized you were holding your heart in your hands). I was just enjoying the peculiar sensations without any need to know how it got there or to validate its presence with my own eyes. I felt a cold, lactose like liquid dripping on my hand and assumed it was blood (which, strangely was not there when I opened my eyes). I can’t remember the last time I cried but in that moment, tears were streaming down my face and onto my chest. I wish I could use another word to describe my experience but the word love fits perfectly with what I felt. There was an abundance of love coming out of this pulsating muscle that I held in the palm of my hand. The feeling was upsettingly bliss-filled. Even with my eyes closed I could see all the pulsating light waves that were illuminating the bottom of the well. If I had been around another person earlier that day I would have been certain that they managed to slip LSD into something I consumed. But just like most days, I had been alone.

It is not like me to feel like this. As I type this account now I am finding it difficult to find the right words to describe the experience. As I sat there, I knew for certain that what I was holding in the palm of my hands was not just a heart, but also the physical manifestation of love. I had so much love in me towards everything in my life. My dogs, my birds, my wife, my family, my teachers, my enemies, the world. A stream of thankfulness was pouring forth from the center of my chest where once there had been so much constriction and heaviness. Everyone who ever caused me hurt, I thanked. I thanked all the people I could think of. Everyone. Instead of the Oscar for best screenplay in my hand, I held my heart high in the air and thanked, and thanked, and thanked. What a liberating feeling it was, even though within a few short hours the feeling would be gone.

Occasionally I wonder, if in those few moments I was able to somehow heal my heart from the harmful effects of all my anger and fear. I’d like to hope I did. I have heard neurobiologists talk about how the heart has neurotransmitters that are stronger than the ones in the brain. When a person feels love the heart is able to flood the body with these feel good neurotransmitters, which in turn has a healing effect upon our entire organism. Even though I did not see it, I like to think that it was the neurotransmitters exuding out of my heart that illuminated the bottom of the well. Who would have thought that on that afternoon, at the bottom of a discarded irrigation well in the middle of a lower-middle class neighborhood in suburban Los Angeles County, a middle-aged man would be conducting a symphony of love and neurotransmitters with his heart in the palm of his hand. That’s got to be worth something.

The moment I opened my eyes, I knew it was time to go. I looked down at my hand. My heart was not there. I was perplexed since I did not doubt that I was holding my actual heart in my hand. My hand was resting flat on my chest just above my heart, which was safe behind ribs, tissue, skin and my white t-shirt. I smiled and laughed a little as I tried to comprehend what the hell just happened. Maybe I imagined everything. But it all felt too real. There was no way this was all a creation of my imagination. No way.

I looked around at the walls and noticed that all the liquid that had been dripping was also gone. Not a drop was anywhere to be found. Was there ever any liquid there in the first place? To say I was perplexed would be an understatement. It was not as easy as I will make it sound here, but I lifted myself off the ground and back on to my two feet. I bent over and dusted off all the dirt from my pants. As I put my aching feet and hands on to the steps of the wooden ladder and looked up towards the daylight (it seemed to be almost dusk), I prepared myself for my ascent back up the wooden ladder. One final time I looked around the bottom of the well and said goodbye to no one. Then I began taking step after step up the old ladder. The more I stepped up the ladder, the more vibrant and excited I felt. I had not felt this way in years and climbed the ladder with the energy of a teenager. Mid-way through my climb I realized I had completely forgotten about how cold it was at the bottom of the well. That was strange, since it was the kind of cold you would find on the inside of a glacier. I looked back up at the daylight, which was not much further away, and continued to climb towards the opening.

I returned to the well a few days later to see if I might still have the courage to climb back down and sit at the bottom of the well again, but the ladder was gone.

The Anxious Therapist

images-1 In a world where a nine-year-old girl accidentally shoots her instructor in the head with an uzi, one human being publicly beheads another and where the “terror” alert in the UK has been raised to severe- I suppose the problem of the anxious therapist is not such an important cultural issue. But the anxious therapist is a kind of conundrum that is a stark commentary upon the times in which we are living.

The psychotherapist is often perceived by the general public as being a professional person who is the pillar of mental health, wisdom and neutrality. A kind of modern-day Socrates. The therapist plays into this persona because it is a luxury (and for some a curse) that their profession affords them. The position they hold comes with a kind of enlightened status, even though most of us know deep down this is rarely ever the case. The therapist is symbolic of a wide-spread misrepresentation that puts into question all of  our perceptual abilities. If we perceive the therapist as someone or something they are not, what does that say about the state of our own minds? After all if we really were able to be accurate in our perception of the therapist, we may no longer elect to pay them for their time. And then who would objectively help us through the struggles that haunt our souls?

The anxious therapist is a threat to the entire sanctity and effectiveness of the healing potential of psychotherapy. I am not telling you anything that the anxious therapist does not already know deep within themselves. They represent everything which is false about the claims that they make. At least this is what we may think at first glance, but as we go deeper into the conundrum of the anxious therapist maybe we will find the opposite to be true.

During a session in the anxious therapist’s office, the client and the anxious therapist sit across from each other. The anxious therapist sits in a reclining chair and the client on a couch or in a chair. As the client talks to the anxious therapist about whatever issue they are dealing with, the anxious therapist is struggling to pay attention. To the client, the anxious therapist appears to be deeply listening, but what appears to be true to the client (even though the client may suspect that something is not quite right) is far from the truth.

The truth is that the anxious therapist is trapped in her chair. Her body is doing incredibly strange things to her, which causes her to be fearing that life could slip away from her at any moment. As the client talks, the therapist is stuck in a hypervigilant and panicked negative thought process. She is thinking about ways that she can excuse herself from the room without losing the client and all her credibility. She is using every fiber of her being to remain composed, despite the ominous feeling that within her body their is something terribly wrong and at any second she is going to lose all control. Without moving, the anxious therapist is enduring a kind of arduous inner work out, which causes her palms to sweat, staining her pants with a salty liquid in the areas where she plants her hands. In this very moment, the anxious therapist is working harder than 99% of human beings on earth to not only remain attentive but to also avoid a complete freak out. Even though there is an unlocked door and the anxious therapist is not confined to her chair, the client sitting just across from her causes her to feel painfully stuck.

The phenomena of the anxious therapist is hardly an isolated one. The anxious therapist has been around for as long as the practice of psychotherapy has. Sigmund Freud is the most well-known anxious therapist. He wrote a lot about the various terrors that he struggled with. Freud would often break out into fits of sweating during his psychotherapy sessions, due to the onset of the sudden fear of dying that would come upon him in his sessions. Freud used a plethora of drugs to try to control his anxiety, but besides having his dog besides him during psychotherapy sessions, was not able to find much relief. This resulted in Freud’s life long struggle with depression.

In the field of psychotherapy, a few researchers believe that the phenomena of the anxious therapist is much more wide-spread than is documented. It is only natural that most therapists would not come forward about their struggles with anxiety during sessions with clients. It is embarrassing to admit that during a session with a client the anxious therapist is often struggling with mental health issues much more than her client is. With all the education and training that the anxious therapist has had to go through in order to get to where they are at, publicly admitting their struggle with anxiety threatens to diminish the credibility that keeps them in practice. As a result, most anxious therapists struggle silently through a kind of inner hell from which they see no chance of rescue on the horizon. It is a miserable and unpredictable fate that they have to endure.

But is the anxious therapist really a discredit to the field of psychotherapy? Is the anxious therapist really presenting to his clients as a kind of fraud? Or is the anxious therapist a living example of how a person can struggle through the darkest and most frightening experiences, but still remain calm and composed (for the most part)? After all, in life shit happens and at some point all of us will find ourselves faced with absolute terror. Maybe the anxious therapist is like a shaman because they are silently and energetically imparting the most valuable lesson that a client can learn from psychotherapy: the ability to remain calm and composed in the face of absolute fear.

Personally, as a therapist myself, I believe that the anxious therapist is a kind of hero. In a situation where most people would run to an emergency room or doctor and need to take a Valium or something stronger in order to feel some sense of safety and relief, the anxious therapist silently wrestles with immense fear and physical discomfort while remaining calm enough to continue to engage with her clients without giving much notice (other than the sweat spots on his pants) that something is terribly wrong. This is a skill or ability that even some of the most disciplined meditators struggle to posses.

Most of us are way behind on the current scientific and psychological research into the neurological explanations for anxiety. The scientifically validated explanation for the development of anxiety disorder is that it goes back to the individual’s parents (or primary care-givers) and the psychological and emotional environment that their parents raised them in. It is well documented that a person is not created with a mental illness (mental illness is not genetically pre-determined). Mental illness is created by the environment that the child grows up in (environment begins to have its effect in the fetal stage of development). From a nuerobiological perspective the root of the crippling anxiety that shows up in the anxious therapist’s life can be directly traced back to how she was parented, but knowing this does not make the anxious therapist’s struggle with anxiety during her sessions (and outside his sessions) any easier. All the anxious therapist can do is take full responsibility for her current situation and practice various techniques that can help her navigate her way through the terrifyingly uncomfortable terrain of anxiety. You can not change the roots of a tree, but you can give a tree water, which will hopefully help its leaves to hang on.

It is well documented that Freud’s anxiety often drove him to the edge of isolation and despair. The isolation and despair that he experienced (which he described as a “disappearance of hope”) caused him to often contemplate suicide as a solution. After the potentially life threatening bout of anxiety, which always leaves the anxious therapist thoroughly exhausted, depleted and depressed for days, the anxious therapist finds herself feeling what some could describe as suicidal. The anxious therapist does not necessarily think about ways to kill herself, but feels hopeless up against the anxiety which she knows will soon reappear. Once the anxiety has run its course, the anxious therapist knows that it is only a matter of time before she has to go through it all over again. She knows this because it has been this way for her entire life.

In the end, the most difficult hurdle for the anxious therapist to get beyond, is to accept that no matter how hard they work on themselves, they are not the model of mental health that their clients and profession raises them up to be. The anxious therapist is surviving with a mental illness, that effects their life just as much (if not more) as whatever issues their clients are struggling through. In a profession that demands that the anxious therapist not publicly admit their personal struggles for fear of losing credibility and the luxury of appearing better off than they really are, the fate of the anxious therapist is to feel terribly alone. They live with an inner contradiction that can not be fully expressed in the work they do in the world. If it is expressed, chances are they will lose a lot of the luxuries their profession affords. What pains the anxious therapist most, is that as much as they are able to help their clients to get well, they seem unable to help themselves. Every time the terrifying anxiety returns during a therapy session, they are reminded of just how ill they still are.

For the anxious therapist there is no greater relief in the world than when they look up at the clock and notice that it is time for the session to end. They have made it through the session without freaking or passing out. What a great relief to have not been exposed! But like all temporary rewards, the price to pay for this feeling of great relief is the terrifying and imprisoning feelings that rise back up when the anxious therapist realizes that her next client is sitting in the waiting room. For fifty minutes she must endure all over again the exhausting fight to remain alive.

 

 

 

On Solitude….

I’m sitting here alone at my desk. I’m in the writing/painting room in the backyard of my house. The house that my wife and I bought came with a detached garage and so my wife and her mom and dad and I, converted half of the garage into an extra room. We built the walls from scratch, did the wiring, put in the window, floor boards and an all glass front door. We painted the walls bright white and left the floor, which is a nice glazed concrete with some paint and oil stains. The window looks out onto a teardrop trailer (guest bedroom) that sits on the grass under and extremely large maple tree. My desk is up against the window, which I often getting distracted by looking out of it.

In this room it’s quiet, other than the small pond with a fountain outside the door and an occasional dog bark. In the far away distance if I try, I can hear the mechanical whooshing sounds of the 10 highway. If you don’t know the 10 highway in LA, then I should let you know that it’s probably one of the busiest highways in the world. I grew up in a country club surrounded by gold and golf courses, but I prefer living on the fringe of a ghetto with a busy highway in the distance. Helps me to feel less alone.

It’s almost 9pm and I’m tired after a long day spent sitting with people and listening to them talk to me about their personal struggles. I know that they are paying me a good amount of money, which they do not have a lot of, just to feel better. To find some freedom from the pain which weighs them so heavily down. I can’t help but get teary eyed just thinking about it. Anyways, I feel its my obligation to give them my best. To really be with them in their pain and with all my effort help to guide them towards a more ease filled place. If I’m taking their hard earned money, I owe them every piece of wisdom, insight, heart and soul that I got.

But now at the end of the day and well into the evening at this point, I’m alone in the solitude of my backyard room. The only company I got are the insects that bump up against my neck trying to get to my blood and the flies, which no matter how hard I try I just can’t live with in domestic harmony. I always pledge to myself that today I will not kill a single fly. I want to respect life in all its manifestations. But once I’m sitting at my desk or reading a book and trying to harness focus, the hyperactive buzzing of the flies drives me to quickly revoke my pledge. I find a book or a magazine and I swat at the flies like Jack Nicholson’s character in the Shinning did when he took an axe to that bathroom door.

I’m not sure I remember how to be entirely quiet and still. I’m trying to ease my way into the solitude even though my thoughts want to distract me in every way. I think about watching a movie, or reading a book, or surfing around on-line, or listening to music. But I really want to just sit here in solitude. Why is it so darn hard just to be alone with myself? Why can’t I just sit here and listen to the sounds and ease my way into the solitude? I feel like I’m always trying to push the solitude back just a bit, but as soon as I am done writing and re-reading this for spelling errors (I don’t really give a fuck about grammar errors, just spelling), I’m going to spend some time just resting in the solitude. Alone with or without my thoughts. First I might look around on-line a little, read a few things, but I will eventually get there. For a few minutes at least.