Archive for October, 2010

The presence of meaning

October 29, 2010

We all tell ourselves stories – about everything: ourselves, other people, what others are thinking. Our stories all have morals to them, too. We give meaning to events. Events by themselves have no meaning. We ascribe meaning to them. We say “this happened and that means I am and/or others are (fill in the blank).” We even pronounce judgment upon our own thoughts and feelings that resulted from the event.

As I am meandering (and occasionally stumbling and downright falling on my ass) down the pathway of the past and not quite forgotten memories, I will come upon an incident that occurred over 40 years ago and still be able to recall the details including what was said and done, what I felt at the time, and what I was thinking. I also recall the meanings that I branded upon that incident, my thoughts, and my feelings. I can even recreate the feelings as well as think those same thoughts again. If I hang with the memory just a little while longer, I also discover the decisions that I made in those moments about how I was going to be from now on.

It is not a shock to discover that I am still living out those decisions over 40 years later.

It does not surprise me that when I think about changing a decision, I feel just a tad bit threatened and scared. After all, the child I was then made those decisions to survive the circumstances she was powerless over and remain as emotionally and mentally intact as she could. Now, looking back, I watch the child I was give myself a meaning based on what other people said or did even though clearly at the time my initial thoughts were, “that’s your problem.” I knew even as young as five years of age that what other people said and did was all about them, not me. But I gave meaning to that behavior. It meant I was responsible.

And, I took on responsibility for others because I had been told that my attitude was wrong, that I was making other people behave the way they did (all of us had adults who played this trick on us – remember the words “You make me so ________!”? They did that to manipulate us into behaving the way they wanted us to behave.)

This way of living pretty much strangled any growth of individuality. Instead, I became a puppet who thought she could rule the world if she just danced to everybody’s strings just the right way.

How nutty is that?

Let me reframe my nutty judgment. The skill and the insight are useful. I am living in a world where most of the population believes that other people control how they feel and, thus, what they do, including how they treat themselves and others. I know how to identify these people and thus limit my exposure to them. I appreciate the five-year-old in me who is wise enough to recognize the symptoms in others, and who took good care of herself way back then. At age five, she had neither the power nor the words to extricate herself from such people.

But now she does.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

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The presence of unknowing

October 26, 2010

Can a thing once known ever be unknown?

Can a truth once known ever be forgotten?

What if all of your history disappeared?

Who would you be without your memory?

Time magazine had an article in their October 11, 2010 issue about a woman who suffered brain damage in the hippocampi of her brain (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2022652,00.html) as the result of herpes encephalitis. As a result, she is now an amnesiac who has procedural memory (she remembers how to drive a car) and semantic memory (she remembers facts that she had previously learned) but she has very little access to episodic memory: only rarely can she remember the sensations associated with an experience – what it looked liked, sounded like, and felt like.

She does not remember the faces of people in her life, although she can remember their names.

The article is very short and focuses mostly on the device created by Microsoft to help her retain day-to-day memories. If I could, I would like to talk to her about what she remembers about who she is.

If we are the product of our experiences, what happens to our identity when we lose the memory of those experiences? From our experiences in life, we make decisions about how we are going to be in the world.

Some people hold themselves back from fully experiencing life the lives they want because of what happened OR did not happen in our lives. Perhaps we suffered a trauma. Perhaps our parents were not quite the role models we would have opted for. We come to believe that we are shaped by our experiences. We become adults who attach meaning to those memories. These memories dictate who we believe ourselves to be and how we trust ourselves.

What if those memories disappeared and you could invent new ones? Who would you be then? Can you imagine how you would be in the world?

If you can imagine it, you can be it.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

In the presence of others

October 23, 2010

We can never know the true experience of life for another. We cannot climb inside their skin, see through their eyes, think their thoughts, or feel their emotions. We can only imagine what their experience would be like for us had we lived it.

At my class the other night, we had an exercise where one person behaved as a client in therapy while the rest of the class worked on being present with that person using our feelings and responding to that person from our hearts.

It was a real eye opener to me to see how I (and others) defaulted to our analytic thinking and responded from our heads, not our hearts.

Responding to someone from a feeling place requires work and practice. It also requires a willingness to develop a way to be in touch with one’s own feelings while listening to another person’s story and, at the same time, get in touch with how the other person is feeling, and know which is which. It requires empathy for what the other person is experiencing. We must have enough life experience and a few mishaps along the way to truly empathize and identify with the pain of another’s experience. The important caveat was to be fully in another’s presence without falling into their pain and dwelling in the misery.

I focus on pain because I don’t know too many people who sign up for psychotherapy when everything in their lives is grand and wonderful . . . much less pay to share that information with me. Truth is the number that I actually know is . . . um . . . zero.

Among all of us, there was a tendency to diagnose and define the pain. We could identify it. We could exchange a sentence or two about how that must be for the client in the chair. Then, we wanted to fix it.

It was a clear lesson in how to get out of our heads and out of our own ways. In the presence of others, there is no fixing to be done. We must acknowledge and accept. We must reflect that we understand. We must respect that their eternal presence was and is fully capable of dealing with life and knows what they need. We must honor the wisdom that brought that person to our presence. We are a presence for others to come and rest their stories. If we let our presences connect and speak with each other, they will find a healing path together.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

A presence of choice

October 20, 2010

I wonder what the children will remember . . . the children in the homeless shelter where I go to cook on Tuesday nights. It is a family shelter and there are ten children of all ages who live there.

I wonder what they will remember about this time. The older ones realize that they are homeless. The younger ones don’t quite know the implications. They all play and interact just like any other children I have known.

There is this underlying need to be normal. They play, they fight, they have fun just as they would in any other home. I don’t know their histories. It could be that being homeless is normal for them.

Children adjust so quickly to misfortune. It is like there is this inner guidance system that makes them gravitate toward joy and happiness despite their circumstances. As we become adults, though, we tend to lose that gravitational pull and instead let circumstances determine how we feel and how we shall be in the world.

I was never homeless as a child, yet I remember a constant drain on my energy that pulled me away from my normal gravitation toward joy and happiness. I grew up in an environment where to have any kind of thought, feeling, or action that was incongruent with my parents’ thoughts, feelings, or actions was considered improper, disrespectful, and punishable by having anything I enjoyed taken away from me. They were two of the most unhappy people I have ever encountered in my life, and my memories are full of a childhood spent learning how to be unhappy (about everything).

When the world became my parent, I had a real hard time keeping up with all the different responses I needed to accommodate. Everyone who I came into contact with who I imagined had any kind of control over my well-being (i.e., friends, teachers, employers) had control over my responses. As I gained physical and emotional distance from requiring any kind of parenting, I was able to see how I was allowing others to determine my way of being in the world.

Most of my adulthood has been spent learning how to be happy despite everything. For me, it is really a matter of choice. I can use my memories to recount my miseries and wallow in my woe-is-me fantasy. Or, I can watch these children play at the shelter and connect with the child within me who remembers how to be herself no matter what tune the world is dancing to.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

The presence of water

October 15, 2010

This morning, I was washing dishes at my sink, liberally rinsing the soap from my rice pot, and being grateful for the privilege of washing dishes. Here in America, I have the luxury of water available to use as I please. Not everyone on planet Earth has this luxury. About one billion people lack access to clean water and 38,000 children under the age of five die each week from unsafe drinking water and unsanitary conditions.

If we had that many children dying in America each week, we would set up a foundation and have a race to find the cure.

Today is Blog Action Day for water (http://blogactionday.change.org). On this day, bloggers all over the world have agreed to write and post a blog today about water and the water issues we face on planet Earth.

Water is liquid life – invisible magical particles that exist in the air, glittering crystals in snow and ice, and the marvelous unity of blue in the rivers and oceans that cover the Earth. It ranks right up there with oxygen – you can have all the oxygen in the world, but if you don’t have water, your chances of surviving beyond a day or two are pretty slim.

Water is a universal solvent. It has both positive and negative polarities making it cling to anything with a charge, including itself. Buddhists admonish us to live softly like water, yet it was water that cut the great and beautiful cliffs and valleys of the Grand Canyon.

We cannot make water. It is like trying to grow a dinosaur. In college, my environmental science professor said, “You can put a whole bunch of hydrogen and oxygen together in a sealed room and it will be a really, really long time before you get any water, if ever.”

Water makes up about 70 percent of the earth’s surface, but 97.5 percent of all water on Earth is salt water, leaving only 2.5 percent as fresh water. Nearly 70 percent of that fresh water is frozen in the polar icecaps. Most of the remaining water is in the soil and in deep underground aquifers and is not accessible for human use.

That makes less than 1 percent of the world’s fresh water (about 0.007 percent of all water on earth) available for human consumption. This is the water found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, and underground aquifers that are shallow and close enough to the surface for us to access. Water in these areas is regularly renewed by rain and snowfall, and can be sustained. However, the water cycle is a closed cycle – meaning that the same water is constantly recycled. On one hand, this is good news: simply keep the water clean and we can use it over and over. The bad news is that we are not getting any new water.

Every item that humans manufacture requires water. Every single one. It takes 1,500 liters of water just to make a T-shirt. Water fuels the energy systems of America. Every day, more than 500 billion liters of fresh water travel through our power plants—more than twice what flows through the Nile River. Think about that before you buy that next useless trinket or the cell phone with more gadgets that you could ever learn to use in your lifetime.

If we keep using water the way we have been, that lifetime will get pretty short.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

A big bang presence

October 11, 2010

A friend of mine forwarded me a commentary by Bishop John Shelby Spong (a retired bishop from the Episcopal Church) on Stephen Hawkings’ new book, The Grand Design. Note to readers: I can’t copy the entire commentary here, but it is available at Bishop Spong’s Web site at http://www.johnshelbyspong.com/publicsite/index.aspx for a fee. To receive his commentaries weekly will cost you about $40.00 a year.

Bishop Spong writes that “Hawking’s conclusion is that one does not need the God hypothesis to explain the origin of the universe.” That, of course, sent the Vatican and fundamentalists into a tizzy. I find any arguments about who created what and when or was it all just a freak accident highly amusing. Really. What if someone was just sort of mixing stuff up in a test tube just to see what would happen? What if we are fragmented organisms that resulted from that older-than-dirt (literally) big bang party we threw a bazillion years ago? I struggle with the big bang theory only because if that condensed ball of energy was all that existed, what did it exist in?

Stephen Hawking, even with his exceptional brilliance and insight, is still a limited human being just like the rest of us who is examining the evidence left behind by that little pop in the universe a long time ago. He still has only limited conjecture because he wasn’t there when it happened. Breaking news: NO ONE WAS THERE WHEN IT HAPPENED. At least, no one was there as we are now. We were probably all locked up inside that tiny flaming atomic particle screaming for more space and Gatorade, and our frenzy was so great that eventually we became critical mass and exploded into a gazillion particles and in between us was the space we craved.

And now we’ve spent the last 15,000 or so years trying to explain it. Uh-oh. We made a mess. What did we do? Wait. It’s not our fault. Let’s blame someone else. I know, let’s blame it on something that was totally out of our control . . . like . . . like . . . a supernatural being who is all powerful . . . so powerful that none of us could control, um, him. Yeah. That’s good. Make him a man. Men are always stirring up trouble anyway.

Bishop Spong argues that Hawking’s book that “the idea of God as a supernatural being who started the universe, and who from time to time has intervened in miraculous ways in the affairs of the universe in general or of this world in particular, is no longer viable.” What Spong is arguing against is not that God does not exist, but rather the definition of literal theism: belief in a deity (an immortal being) who is in charge of everything. Hold on to your wobbly beliefs because here comes my punch line:

Read the title of this blog: Eternal Presence. We are all immortal. We have been and always will be a presence in the universe. We are in charge of everything we do.

Sounds a little bit like we are God, doesn’t it?

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

The presence of shadow

October 7, 2010

Now that I know, what shall I do?

I’ve discovered the nature that lurks in me – a shadow self – one that is starkly present when I shine an inner light on myself. I can tease it out from all angles. Even if the light is directly overhead, the shadow is still there beneath my feet. This shadow side of me is an aspect of self theorized by psychologist Carl Jung and it sleeps, feeds, and grows within my unconscious.

My whole life has been about waking up and becoming fully conscious. I prefer to be consciously wonderful brimming with goodness, salvation, sanity, charity, understanding, and forgiveness.

According to Jung, once I discover the shadow side, I also discover my dark side.

Within my dark side are my monsters, and if I do not acknowledge them as being mine, if I do not discover their nature and the validity of that nature, I will project them out into the world and suddenly the world is a monstrous place. If I keep my shadow in the dark, it hides until the moment is right to burst forth and suddenly what might come from me is a reaction that speaks of fear, uncertainty, anger, and desperation, and I would not have a clue where it truly came from. Instead, I would blame others for evoking that reaction in me.

I play victim to my own beliefs, and am held prisoner by my ideal projection of how the world should be, constantly locking myself away as the world reveals that it is the projection of billions of other souls who have a different agenda. And, I battle with everything that does not meet my ideal. What I do to others, others are doing to me. Thus, the world becomes what Jung called the “collective unconscious.”

The cure, of course, is sociological critical mass consisting of enough souls who have encountered and accepted their shadows. I need to become aware of the root of my reactions and whether those reactions are feeding the monster or if I am truly responding to others as they are.

Now that I know, this is what I shall do: live by the intent of creating a world where life recognizes and promotes itself as One.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass

The presence of projection

October 2, 2010

To love something or someone makes us see the beauty of it, not the wrong. (Unknown Chief, Science of Mind, September 2010, p. 61)

There is a saying in the Talmud that we see things as we are rather than as the way they are. In psychological speak, we call this projection. We project on to others what we imagine we see in them and the only qualities we can project is that which we know. In other words, we must have that quality in ourselves in order to see it in another person.

I can’t name it if I don’t know it.

If I see a quality in another person, I must first assume that it is me, my quality that I am projecting on to them. I can also check with the other person by asking them. For example, I can say, “I see you are displaying (behavior) and for me, that behavior means (happy, depressed, angry, sad, joyful, irritated, annoyed, content, connected, bored . . . you get the picture).” Note: good judgment is required here and if someone is acting out their anger by threatening to shoot someone, run first, and ask questions later.

I need to always be ready for the person who is so out of touch with their feelings that they cannot identify or associate their behavior with their feelings. And there are people who are in denial that they feel anything at all.

As I live my intent every day to bring my true presence to life I am working to recognize the universal consciousness in me (God, the divine presence, higher power) and I am doing that by seeking the universal consciousness in others. If I can see divinity in another person, then I can find it in myself. As I am seeking to love someone even when that person is being everything but lovable, then I rely on the quote above – I look to find one beautiful thing about that person and focus on that. It is not easy because this method goes against the programming of my childhood but it feels more real.

The amazing thing about recognizing myself in others is that once I see the quality in me, then I can own it. Once I own it, I am in charge of that feeling or quality and, therefore, in charge of my behavior.

I look around at the beautiful people in my life, their generosity, their loving and giving natures, and I find that I love me a whole lot.

©2010 by Barbara L. Kass