Focused, present relating takes practice.
When I wrote my first book, I sent it out for review and comment. One of my friends, David Sheedy, e‑mailed me with the idea of talking about what I am “in,” as compared to what I have “learned.” In other words, to talk about the process of dealing with what, for me, might not be working.
I’m thinking of this and also of a recent weekend. Actually, I’m thinking about Sundays, and how I often have mini-meltdowns on Sundays. I blame this on getting kicked out of the church back in 1996, and at the same time am aware that I make me miserable.
I won’t belabour any of this, as I think the overall process is what is important to me. I notice that my process, over the years, has not shifted much at all. In other words, I torture myself in familiar ways — this is one of those slippery insights we are always talking about. The piece that is most important is that there is a pattern for each of us, and that what changes are the details (how we see it “presenting.”)
Because our minds are looking for complexity (as opposed to Simple Presence,) we resist the idea that the “many, many” issues we think we have are usually the same issue, in different guises.
My favourite way of saying this is, “Baskin Robbins has 32 flavours, and they are all Ice Cream.”
I suspect my primary issue is that I endlessly choose to create a sense of dis-satisfaction, as in “never satisfied.” The Buddha’s First Noble Truth is that “Life is suffering.” The word translated “suffering” is dukkha, which is a Sanskrit word meaning “unsatisfactoriness.” When you translate the statement as, “Life is unsatisfactoriness,” you see that the concept flows both ways.
On the one hand , we could read that life is unsatisfactory, in its intrinsic nature. In other words, the nature of life is to suffer. On the other hand, we could look at the sentence and think, “I suffer because of how I approach life, because life itself is neutral.”
In any event, my sense of what I do, (and I suspect you might do this too, in your own way,) is to set my internal thermostat for “how I am supposed to be feeling.” I say that I set my thermostat because it’s not a permanent setting. I certainly have, for periods, re-set it differently. My nature, though, is to think that feeling sad or morose is normal, and that extremes in either direction are aberrations.
What happened the particular weekend I’m thinking of was that Darbella was wondering aloud about our retirement adventure in Costa Rica. She really, really wants to go now, and that is not happening. I listened to her talk about her imaginings about the future, and initially I maintained my perspective. (My perspective is that the future is not here, and worrying about it is actually worrying about a figment of our imagination. Better to deal with now, which is actually here.) I encouraged her to talk, and to discuss what, if anything, we could do right now.
So far, all well and good. Then, my “little voice” kicked in. “Wayne, this is your fault. You should work harder. You should make this happen. Get a job. No one likes you anyway.” I felt my “self” slide down an old and familiar “slide.”
I made myself quite miserable. We decided to go for a drive to check out the location of a restaurant we have been meaning to try. The town is a lovely place, right on the Grand River, and is the town where my first training placement was as I studied to be a therapist, back in 1981–82.
We sat in a coffee shop, on a beautiful spring day, overlooking the mighty Grand, sipping lattes. Darbella talked some more about buying a hotel in Costa Rica. She asked me how I was doing. I told her. And I really milked it. How I never assumed, in 1981, I would be where I was today, woe is me, and how the miserable state of the Universe was all my fault. I won“t bore you with the details, but as usual I ended by declaring that I was going to stop writing, close shop, and go live under a bridge.
Dar sat and listened. And gave me a hug.
Now, I use this illustration to indicate that this is my pattern for making me miserable. This time, the ostensible topic was money, hotels, timing and Costa Rica, but it could have just as easily been about client numbers, publishing, or whatever. This is what I do — I take whatever is presently going on and apply my pattern to it, and thus create the very familiar feeling of “unsatisfactoriness” for myself.
The place where all of this can really go off the rails is if I allow myself to think that any of the things I am “saying” to myself are either “real” or “true.” The important part of learning to live in the present is to recognize that the game I was playing in my head is my reality, and my “present.” Not the details. The game.
What I mean is that the only significant thing going on was that I was telling myself the stories I knew would fuel my efforts to create the most misery for myself. It was essential, then, that I be willing to share what I was doing with someone — and that someone, usually, is Darbella. Not to get her to “fix me” (she can“t) or to make it all go away (she can“t and there is nothing happening right now that needs to go away — it“s all a figment of my imagination.) My job, using total honesty as the guiding principle, was to share with Dar what I was telling myself.
Now, if you are into protecting your ego and acting all wise and stuff, this will be difficult. I am not, obviously, as I am writing about this here. I admit freely that I am quite good at torturing myself. I am also quite good at letting go and getting back to a “satisfactory reality.”
The key exercise here is to continue to communicate in the “here and now” even when my “here and now” is focussed on the stories in my head, which are about past and future. As I share my crazy-making internal theatre in the “here and now”, as opposed to clamming up or looking for someone to blame, the edge comes off the stuff I am telling myself.
Darbella and I have learned to listen to each other with little judgement and no need to rush in and fix. I do not scare myself over Dar“s stuff, and so far, she hasn’t scared herself over mine. This is a learned skill — sitting with another without judgement or the need to rescue. We practice this all the time.
Do I still want to rescue? Of course! I love Dar, and do not like seeing her hurting. I recognize, however, that there is nothing I can do, inside of her head. And vice versa. I do what I do inside of me, and I will only stop “unsatisfactoriness-making” when I choose to stop. And then, I will do it again.
I remember working with a client, who, in eight weeks, made great progress. She terminated therapy. Six months later she called, to book an appointment, and let me know she was really mad at me. When I asked her why, she said, “Because my problem is back! You didn’t fix me!” I laughed.
Her appointment was a time for her to vent, and for me to help her to look at how life really is. She had learned some skills, last time around, for dealing with her issue. She applied the skills, and she stopped torturing herself. After six months, something shifted, or she relaxed her vigil, and her pattern re-emerged. She thought “it” had left, but in reality, she does not have an “it.” There is, always and ever, only she and her choices.
The practice part is, “practice until you die.” There is no cure for how we abuse ourselves (other than death, which finally shuts us up 😉 ) — there is only noticing and shifting how we act.
Have a look at “all” of your issues, and see if there is not an underlying theme of “unsatisfactoriness-making” going on (hint: there is!) Notice all of your self-justifications, the blaming, and the finger pointing.
Then, have a breath, and remind yourself that all of this is nothing more than the game you are playing in your head. Your reality is your reality, until it isn’t.
Hold yourself and your internal processes gently. Find someone with whom to share your games and dramas. Let him or her know that you do not expect them to “fix” you, as you are not broken. Be honest. Be brave. Let go. And be gentle when you do your pattern to yourself, all over again.