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Posts Tagged ‘Deciding for yourself’

#20 – On Being Where You Are: “So, where was that again?”

July 7, 2013 2 comments

Psychology has always been a big part of baseball. When a rookie is preparing to go out on the field for his first time playing in the major leagues, the advice he is invariably given is, “Keep your head in the game.” Once he is on the field, opposing players, coaches, managers, and even some of the fans will try to frustrate, frighten, mislead, and most of all distract him and his teammates. And when this rookie comes up to hit, he will be the singular object of both obvious and subtle attempts at distraction. Infielders will chatter at him between pitches, questioning his readiness, doubting his ability, maybe telling him his bat is too heavy — anything to draw his attention away from the upcoming pitch. The catcher may offer misleading advice as to how he might distribute his weight or when he might start his swing. And the pitcher may go through powerful, determined motions suggesting one kind of pitch only to throw another. Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, who had All-Star seasons with both the Boston Braves and the Milwaukee Braves, made a career out of distracting hitters. He once observed, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” Ultimately, the challenge for all players — rookies and veterans alike — is to stay focused, to remember where they are and why. Anyone who cannot remember why he is there will not be there long.

For each of us, it is much the same as we head out to play in life’s ballpark. There are distractions everywhere. Every day we encounter more people heading for more places more quickly to do more things. And day by day, the growing numbers, the increasing desires, and the faster pace make life ever more complicated. In addition, many more distractions are arranged for us deliberately. The various “media” create a daily deluge of demands for our attention, advising us as to what to buy, what to wear, what to drive, where to eat, what organizations to join, what services to use, even what to think and how to vote. With rapidly advancing technology, our electronic devices have made us hostage to convenience, with the result that we have become so distracted that people are being diagnosed with “attention deficit” problems in record numbers. This fact alone has raised the stress level for a great many people, with the inevitable results of more illnesses and injuries, more absences from work, more visits to doctors, more sales of pharmaceuticals, and in many cases, more visits to a therapist.

In recent years it has become all too common in my therapy practice for me to see people who have lost their sense of personal control. These people consistently report feeling overwhelmed by daily demands for information, decisions, opinions, and in many cases just simple correspondence or even idle chatter. One man recently confided that during his typical day he can receive as many as three dozen electronic messages from people expecting him to respond immediately, without regard to where he is or what he might be doing at the time. As this man’s situation becomes increasingly common, more and more people come to feel hopelessly overcommitted as they try to stay on top of things and be the people they believe they are supposed to be. For many, it is as if they have somehow lost the right to be in charge of themselves, so instead they just plod through life by rote, accomplishing little and not knowing why. And, of course, that is the real challenge; because for many this loss of control is the result of having lost — or possibly never having had — a personal sense of purpose.

To be sure, some people are pathologically distracted and suffer from a neurobiological disorder that makes attention very difficult and requires them to take medicine regularly, much the same as someone with diabetes must have regular doses of insulin. But for more than a few, there is a failure to recognize, or perhaps to remember, how they have come to be where they are and where they could be instead. They seem to have forgotten that they are actually entitled to define and pursue their own goals and stay focused on them. Many have even come to see themselves as victims of life rather than active participants in it. As a result, in the heat of the moment, when they are presented with so many demands coming from so many directions, these people can easily lose perspective and, like that rookie batter, forget where they are and why.

Therapy will typically address this situation by encouraging people to connect (or perhaps reconnect) with their sense of personal power. Since exercising power consists of making choices, it is important to remember that we only get to choose in the present moment — here and now. We cannot choose in the past or in the future. But if we are distracted and our attention is not on our present circumstances, than our decisions will be made not by design but by habit, which tends to result in our simply staying where we are instead of moving on to where we could be.

To help with this situation, it has become popular in recent years for therapists to encourage the practice of “presence” or “mindfulness” as a way of bringing attention fully to the present moment — where we are and what we are doing. The idea is to be observant of our immediate experience, both internal and external, without judging it and, therefore, without simply reacting to it. This awareness enables us to make conscious choices as to the meaning of our experience, and it allows us to regain personal control and take action according to our own priorities. In doing so, we can then approach life not as victims but as volunteers.

In baseball, successful players, those who remain focused on what they are doing on the field, are often described as having an exceptional “ability to concentrate,” as if they are possessed of some unusual gift. And yet, concentration is not about ability, it is about intent! It is worth noting that the terms “attention” and “intention” have the same root — tension. This implies effort invested for a purpose. Remember, the phrase “paying attention” suggests that we are investing in something, that we intend to devote time and energy to something because we deem it to be important. This is what allows us to remain mindful of our own priorities and not be distracted.

It would be hard to find a better example of purpose than home run king Henry Aaron. From the moment he entered the on-deck circle, Aaron remained focused on the opposing pitcher, looking for signs of what pitch was coming. At the plate, Aaron knew what pitch he wanted, and when it came, no matter how much the pitcher had tried to disguise it, he was ready. His Milwaukee Braves teammate, first baseman Joe Adcock, once observed, “Trying to sneak a fast ball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.” Aaron’s record attests to the nature of purpose and the focus it makes possible.

The message for all of us then, as we strive to succeed in life’s ballpark, is the same as for that rookie. If you want to have control of your life, avoid distraction, set your own goals and pursue them, and achieve what is important to you, then keep your head in the game!

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#5 — On Being a Counter-Culture Operative: “But I thought you were . . “

October 22, 2011 1 comment

Along with my regular therapy practice, I also teach and provide clinical supervision for young therapists seeking licensure.  This is a part of my work that I especially enjoy, because it allows me to introduce the next generation of therapists to the actual practice of psychotherapy in the real world and not simply in a classroom or laboratory.  An esteemed colleague of mine refers to psychotherapy as a “counter-culture operation.”  After all, it is the job of the therapist to challenge people and get them to ask themselves the very questions that they have long been conditioned not to ask.  What is it like to interact with people?  How do you respond?  What results do you get?  What do you believe about yourself?  About others?  What is the basis for those beliefs?  In a very real sense I think this does make the therapist a kind of emotional revolutionary, intent on challenging and helping to undo the patterns of conformity and control that society relentlessly seeks to impose.

 The instructions I give my students and supervisees are both easy to understand and difficult to do.  I tell them to learn all they can about disorders, theories, and therapeutic techniques, and then, as they approach the therapy room, leave it all outside.  Once inside the room, they are to do only the following: be present and assume nothing! 

 Being present is something that most people assume they are doing when they are not.  In today’s sound-bite world, where there is a television in every room, a telephone in every pocket, and people are expected to be wired to a dozen or more locations other than where they actually are, being present is often problematic at best.  Most of us are conditioned to deal with life in terms of there-and-then rather than here-and-now.  Conversations typically address experiences had elsewhere at other times or with other people, while the immediate experiences of people in the conversations are avoided.  There is, of course, a certain element of ego protection in speaking about people and events other than those with whom we are directly engaged.  There are also risks. 

 First, the experience of the present moment between two people is lost and with it some important truths which, if honestly acknowledged, could help validate and deepen the substance of the relationship.  Second, the shifting of attention away from the present causes us to divest ourselves of our personal power.  Since we shape our lives through the choices we make, if our attention is drawn away from the present, our choices are made by habit — essentially repeating choices we have already been conditioned to make.  If our attention is in the present, our choices can be made deliberately to serve us and, more importantly, to make change possible.  The very first job of the therapist, then, is to bring people back into this present, where life is actually going on. 

 Still, as difficult as it is to remain fully present while engaged with someone, it is all the more difficult to avoid making assumptions.  After all, assumptions have a certain utility value; they are necessary aspects of daily living that we all rely on and don’t even notice until one of them turns out not to be true.  Consider how each of us gets up in the morning unconsciously assuming that the world and our lives in it are continuing pretty much as we left them the night before.  Most of the time this turns out to be true.  Yet imagine what life would be like if we could not make this assumption.  To say life would be chaotic would very likely be understating the case.

 Problems arise, of course, when our assumptions extend to the interpersonal — the ways we see ourselves and others.  We make assumptions about people we deal with and then we proceed as if our assumptions are true, often without being aware of them, and certainly without questioning them.  This means we are no longer dealing with real people but with some concocted ideas of people or what we think they represent.  All this tends to create distance between us and people who, if we could see them more as they are, might add richness and value to our relationships and our lives. 

 During my recent stay in the hospital, I had occasion to be on the receiving end of some of these assumptions.  Almost immediately upon waking in the ICU following my surgery, I had a bad reaction to some of the pain-suppressing drugs I had been given.  This reaction lasted for a couple of days.  I found it difficult to focus, to concentrate, or even to engage in simple conversation.  Despite my wife’s protests, she was repeatedly told, “This is normal for older men.”  To her everlasting credit, my wife refused to accept this pronouncement, insisting that, while the condition might be normal for many men, “It’s not normal for him!”  The original drugs were stopped, and I was switched to a milder OTC medicine instead.  The problem cleared up almost immediately. 

 Later, surrounded by energetic young clinicians eager to check my vital signs and tell me how I was doing, I was often advised, “You know, when you get to a certain age . . .”  My sense was that upon seeing me, they assumed I was just a doddering old codger with nothing to look forward to but his next meal, who might start drooling on his shirt at any minute.  I stayed present and made clear that their assumptions about me were largely false.  Most of them were genuinely shocked to learn that, not only was I not retired, but I was actually a mental health professional with a very active practice. 

 Of course, there is always reason for me to question my own assumptions too.  In Mary Pipher’s classic book about aging, Another Country, she describes the two stages of elder life as young-old and old-old.  While I have always appreciated the construct and used it often in my work, I have never managed to apply it to myself.  For years, I have simply thought of myself as old-young.  However, this recent experience involving my health has caused me to reflect.  It seems one of life’s great ironies to find that, like your car, your body is running out of warranty, with replacement parts harder to come by, and all of this happening just when your brain has started to catch on to things.

 And so, I think we owe it to ourselves and our lives to continue our own individual counter-culture efforts.  The more we can be present, be fully engaged with the people and experiences in our lives, the richer and more satisfying our relationships and our lives are likely to be.  The more we can be aware of and question the assumptions we and others are making, the more we can free ourselves and our relationships from the sterile compartmentalizing that assumptions tend to produce.  It is certainly not easy to be present and assume nothing.  But the good news is that none of this requires us to be perfect, only to work at getting a little bit better!

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