Friday, December 29, 2023

Accepting Life and Suffering as Opposed to Giving Up and Standing Still

Pathway next to Lagoon with Golden Light in the Sky
One of the few branches of modern cognitive therapy that actually excites me (for a change) is that of radical acceptance. I think that acceptance is an important characteristic and quality in our lives. Without acceptance, we would either blame ourselves for things that we have no say and control over or ignore and disregard our share of responsibilities in certain outcomes and results, postpone and delay the processing of feelings, or worse, unnecessarily draw out and propagate negative states and feelings.

Although I usually wince at the term radical and shun it like the plague (my motto in life is based on the Buddhist adage of everything in moderation including moderation), I am somewhat intrigued by its use in this specific context and may even understand the reason behind viewing and terming it as such. That said, I still disagree with it because of its extreme and hence limited view. The problem is that it all depends on the context and the circumstances, but in a way, I would not be too opposed to a somewhat radical mode of moderation, in the sense of fully involving oneself and getting involved with the item in question while still moderating it to a certain extent.

The other reason is that acceptance is hard enough on its own, but it is often limited or conditional. In the same way, I would not necessarily disagree with the concept of unconditional love, I find that it is hard if not impossible to follow through with it. I was myself rather relieved to read and find out that the person who coined this term he himself confessed that he did not always live up to this lofty idealistic concept. It is perhaps the line between humanity and sainthood and although we aspire towards the latter, we are often pulled back to the former regardless of will and intention but out of necessity of being human and living a human life.

Yet, first things first. Why is acceptance so important and what is it that we ought to accept in the first place? I think we can set the stage with the simple basic assumption that we are not angels; we are human and with it comes all the beauty and aspirations but also all the shortcomings and weaknesses associated and connected with this fact. A human life, starting with birth, is a seed that can germinate and blossom into a range of potential states of existence and can fluctuate on the dimensions of two extreme poles, the demonic and the eudemonic or angelic side of our nature.

Since a fully lived and experienced life is not a matter of either/or nor of neither/nor, we find ourselves on a spectrum of sorts. And this is one of the most important tenets, we ought to keep in mind from the onset. We must accept that it is not clear-cut and simple but messy, gray, and complex, or what I prefer to call colorful.

Buddhism has a more pessimistic outlook or premise, namely that life is suffering. I am not denying this and accept that suffering is an inevitable part of life. It is enmeshed with it, the same way, you cannot have life without its counterpoint death or a body without a head. Each side not only defines the other but keeps it in balance where hubris would be calibrated and grounded with memento mori. 

In the same way, doing good becomes useless without the existence of evil - and might I add the freedom and choice to do evil - there can be no life without death. A book that opens on the first page requires its final page for its completion, that is, to close off the story. As Aristotle would say and Shakespeare would not disagree with this, our life is like a play with a beginning, middle, and end. Each section has its own function and purpose.

To believe that we can cheat or escape death or remain young and youthful throughout our whole lives is a delusion and demonstrates a lack of acceptance if not a deficiency of reason. And yet many of us lie to ourselves and others about our age and we assume that we are immortal in this human shell of ours when we know if not consciously then unconsciously that this is far from the truth. (Please note that whether the soul can exist in the afterlife is another matter and not within the range and scope of this post, but may I direct you to a different post where the afterlife is the main topic of discussion.)

Consequently, the first pair of tenets of acceptance is that we are mortal and that life will bring with it suffering. Part of this suffering will be from external sources and part of it will be internally contingent. Some of them will be related to the facts of existence and others to the fact of being human. Some of them are just there and for everyone to see while some of them are created by ourselves and for ourselves.

In a sense, and keeping our analogies in perspective, we are moving now to stoicism. The stoic knows that they will have to face significant life events and turbulent times, but they train themselves not to be affected by them. At the heart of this approach and training lies acceptance. This diminishes and decreases levels and states of neuroticism. It is not within our reach to avoid certain facts of life. We do not linger or harbor upon how we could have done otherwise or circumvented it, but we know that it is what it is. We are not divine beings and do not have those types of superpowers (we may have other kinds though).

The serenity prayer may come to mind, and it is a life-long juggle to be able to distinguish between what we can and what we cannot control, and more importantly, knowing the intricate and inherent differences between the two. This does not mean that we are powerless in the face of life’s struggles. Au contraire, it helps us summon the strength and power to face them with magnanimity. Those aspects that we can potentially change, we have some power over, and those that we cannot, we have the power to face them stoically without feeling guilty, complaining about them, or blaming others for it all.

The stoic takes everything as it comes and does not discriminate. This is one of the superpowers we have in life, our reactions to it. Our outreach is often limited and out of reach but how we react is generally and predominantly within our reach and power. Acceptance is the first step and the step to avoid at all costs is giving up. Once you give up, you fold on life, and it is akin to death.

But as long as you are breathing, as long as the spirit moves, bounces, and rumbles within you and your body, as long as there is a spark or fire in your belly, you are alive and you can make choices, if not how to act, then how to re-act to life itself. This is the freedom no one can take away from any of us.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Exploring Trauma in Three Phases from Acceptance to Integration and Assimilation

A few dark clouds but with light shining through by the water
It is rather comforting and reassuring that the topic and discussion of trauma has come more to the forefront and that nowadays it is not being regarded, designated, nor limited to only unusual, exceptional, and major events in a person’s life. Trauma is not unlike feelings of anxiety and depression and is often connected and linked to the fact that we are alive and facing, trying to grasp and to come terms with life with all its ups and downs and the onslaught of pain and suffering that must accompany conscious living.

This is not to minimize it for those who have experienced more serious life-changing trauma with a capital T in their lives, but it is to democratize it and make clear that no one is immune from it in whatever way and measure we may experience it in our lives. Trauma like many other aspects of life, including morality itself, exists on a spectrum and can be designated in various shades and forms from minor to major.

In fact, as visionary psychoanalyst Otto Rank in his landmark book The Trauma of Birth has shown us the birth of trauma, our collective primal trauma commences the moment we enter this life and existence by leaving or rather being forcefully evicted and extracted from the ultimate primordial comfort zone, the warm home and abode of the womb in which we were held and nourished for what has seemed and felt like an eternity and where we did not have a single care in the world but rather passed and spent our days in bliss and peace. To exchange this promised land without being given any apparent rhyme and reason for an unknown alien world that seems cold and distant is a traumatic event that all of us humans share and have in common.

This is the first experience of intense stress and anxiety, and it is so much more impactful and long-lasting since it took place in a preverbal state of our lifetime, a time where we had no previous knowledge and experience whatsoever, a tabula rasa of experience of sorts, and suddenly we are separated from the person whom we felt one and whole with and are “thrown into this world” forced to live on our own, to borrow existentialist terms and thinking.

This feeling of anxiety was so strong and overwhelming that whenever we experience immense stress, we revert and return to that state by finding ourselves in the fetal position again and with difficulty breathing just as we uttered the first piercing cry to announce our arrival and existence in this new shiny but also loud, overstimulated, and very strange world of ours.

Although there are shades and variations of trauma and various resources for dealing with it, it is a misnomer to assume that anyone can be effectively and essentially immune from it regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, status, or wealth. Trauma is connected to the other common denominator that everyone must face sooner or later and of which there is no escape, our impending mortality.

Instead of harboring differences and accentuating and comparing traumas, it is best to deal with it in whatever shape and form it presents itself to us and that starts off with the simple but difficult acceptance that trauma is a necessary part of existence. It was this common cycle of existential suffering of all sentient beings that the Buddha tried to address and find a solution for, while Jesus tried to alleviate our sense of suffering by raising awareness and building a bridge between the natural and the supernatural or spiritual.

There are still those who deny the existence of trauma and the residues of anxiety that remain and stick with it and those people are not only mistaken and misguided in their perception but they are also deluded and deluding themselves. This obtuse blindness and lack of willingness to accept let alone embrace one’s vulnerabilities, which stem and emanate from the simple fact of being human is then often the cause of suffering, which is then projected, acted out, and passed upon other fellow human beings. Trauma left undiagnosed, untreated, or unprocessed is a gaping wound, which often unconsciously aims at wounding others to reach a certain kind of psychic equilibrium.

By normalizing trauma, it becomes easier to accept it and the cure from it can be more accessible as a result. This first step and phase is the most crucial. As long as one ignores, denies, or rejects its relevance and its outreach, this trauma remains and remains unprocessed and ends up spreading and propagating itself. Although acceptance can be hard and harder for some than others, it is the necessary first step to take.

Then, we need to find ways of dealing with it and of processing the trauma. This trauma has of course accumulated over a lifetime and there is additional stress and anxiety and painful experiences and suffering piled upon it, ranging from simple seemingly innocuous comments and actions in our past and present to more profound experiences of hurt and suffering that eventually become lodged in our psyche and body; this stagnant reservoir or pressure cooker affects our overall health and wellness in the form of inflammation and different types of often chronic dis-ease.

However, as one manages to address the root causes of this malaise and refrains from barricading oneself from life via escaping to and seeking supposed refuge in a sterile and lifeless world of comfort, the proverbial comfort zone that we often enshrine ourselves in, then we go beyond simply accepting but also embracing and integrating our trauma. Once squarely and wholeheartedly faced, the anxious feelings tend to diminish and even dissipate completely. At that point, we start from a clean slate, and new traumatic experiences find it harder to stick to us as long as we remain aware and mindful of their impact.

In many ways, the so-called traumatic experiences now lose their sting and like phobias that used to haunt us but do not affect us anymore, we grow significantly and do not see them as threatening but rather see them from a distance, from a vantage point of emotional safety and security where it cannot faze or harm us no longer. From this point of safety, we also notice and sense a rather surprising element of curiosity. This does not mean that we will never be traumatized again, nor does it mean that we will not experience feelings of sadness and hurt, in some cases, we will feel them even more strongly than before, but we do not linger and harbor on them, and more importantly, we do not feel scared or overwhelmed by them anymore.

Like stress, it becomes a part of life that comes and goes because, at this point, we have learned how to effectively deal with them and not to see them as a threat to our existence. Again, there are life-shattering events that we will still have to face now and then but it works as a type of armor protecting us and making us more resilient, not necessarily meaning that we will not experience the heartache or pain but that we shall bounce back much more quickly from those experiences and setbacks. And in a sense, like stress, we need those feelings as reminders of our mortality and that of others like the phrase memento mori, which we may hear as whispers at times while at other times, it may be a cry from the depth of our souls. And yet, once integrated in its entirety, we can move to the final phase, that of assimilation.

At this stage, we have assimilated the trauma of birth and death, and we cannot be surprised or caught off-guard by it because it is part and parcel of the very fabric of our very existence. The armor that we wear meshes with our body and mind and is the recourse and immunization against intense and debilitating suffering. Death, where is your sting is how the Scriptures would refer to this stance and sentiment, and in a similar vein, the suffering loses its power over our existence. At the very least, we are not constantly traumatized by suddenly being taken unawares by bad news, rather we enjoy our life of tranquility until the events occur and then we deal with them on a case-by-case basis and head-on without feeling scared, panicked, or overwhelmed.

Nonetheless, there are two observations and potential obstacles I would like to mention here. First off, trauma is not easy to talk about. Ensure that you do so whenever you are reasonably ready to discuss it and approach it slowly. Also, one of the difficulties of trauma is that others may not wish to hear about it as it makes them uncomfortable due to the very fact that it may trigger feelings of pain and suffering and even awaken seeming impotence within them, not to mention that they would prefer their state of slumber and their quasi-existence of automatic zombie life. Put differently, some trauma can be too intense for oneself and others, and it would be best addressed by and with a mental health professional.

And then there is the issue of how and ways that trauma may protect us. We do not wish to eliminate and dissolve all types and sources of anxiety. Fear is something that is there for a reason, namely one of survival, and anxiety in its more productive form may help keep us safe. They are part of life for a reason, and we still need them as signposts and guidance in our lives.

Also, in a way, the trauma we experienced has shaped and molded us, and perhaps without it, we would be a rather different person. I do not mean that we should hold onto it, but we should keep in mind that it also has certain positive aspects because we may be and act a certain way and see it as an extension of our personality of who we are and what we have overcome. In other words, we do not want to wipe our lives completely clean from trauma as we are not factory-setting our lives. We should still acknowledge our traumatic experiences but not be driven, haunted, and paralyzed by them and give them and ourselves the necessary space and room not only to grow but more importantly to embrace and live life fully.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

The Magic Flute: Mozart and the Creation of Art as Healing

Cast from Magic Flute bowing at end of performance
Every opera by Mozart is an extraordinary event. It is a feast not only for the ears but also for the eyes as it is shiny and glossy and rock and rolls its way before rock ’n’ roll even existed. One of my all-time favorite movies is Amadeus by Milos Forman and although some of the events depicted may be debatable and may not be exactly congruent with reality, I imagine Mozart himself to be pretty close to the portrayal in the film (and quite close to Austrian singer/rapper Falco’s rock star depiction of him), a confident and cocky young man who was glamorous, irreverent, careless, and yet at the same time caring, generous, giving, and full of heart, love, and passion.

Although Mozart’s music had often eluded me in my younger years for its apparent simplicity even perhaps naivete, there is a lot of depth embedded and enmeshed within all his work. It may look and sound simple, but it is far from it. Although his music tends to be sprightly and youthful like bubbling Champagne, there are also other feelings that pop to the surface and shine through when perceived and taken in by the attentive ear, eye, and heart.

Let us, for instance, look at his Magic Flute. The story itself is hard to summarize as its plot is too confusing and convoluted to be put into words. There are also odd choices with the cast itself like the character of Papageno, a feathery bird catcher who tends to strike us as utterly silly but he is also quite amusing. The Queen of the Night with her three siren-like hench women at her side can appear cartoonish at times. The elegant poise of the baritone Sarastro seems a bit too pompous and self-important to be taken at face value. And the story itself is beyond preposterous with many twists and turns that make telenovelas look clear and straightforward in comparison.

And yet, despite it all, this is not slapstick or pure comedy as two of the characters in this opera attempt suicide. Both want to kill themselves for being jilted in love. Of course, this being a comedy, they do not succeed but having characters seriously contemplate this option makes it all look like a comedy that is walking on a tightrope with our fear and preoccupation that at any moment the scales could tip, and the opera could plunge and fall into disaster and tragedy. In a way, it is Mozart playing with us since we know in advance that it is not going to turn bad, sour, or tragic, so it makes him even more mischievous, but it does not change the fact that there are still serious undertones in what is often, and I would say unfairly, considered one of Mozart’s sillier or “lighter” operas.

What about the flute with its magical powers that can turn sorrow and sadness into joy and happiness and bells that soften the hearts of even the most wicked ones and hypnotize them or rather wake them up to goodness? This may have fairy tale aspects to it, but it is not silly. Considering the state of the world today, this is something we are seriously lacking in this world of ours and these bells and whistles are much needed and sought after the same way we desperately hold onto shards of hope.

I believe it is not childish at all. In fact, it points towards the serious power of the arts; music in its purer and rarefied form has indeed healing potential and propensities. It has the indubitable strength and power to lift us out of the dumps, energize and inspire us, and motivate us beyond the present moment. It is our companion through thick and thin and better and more loyal than a spouse, always there on our side to cheer us up, to hug us, and to love us. No more faithful companion available at a click and at the tip of our fingers has ever existed and in our technological age, it has never been easier to gain access and entry into this marvelous world. Because it deals with sounds and surpasses words with their evident limitations no matter how poetic they may be, music goes straight to the heart.

The composer needs and relies upon the musician and vice versa and each brings their own wishes, desires, and hopes to the table or the concert stage as their longing is reflected and shines through via the carefully crafted work of art that is presented to the audience. The page of scribbled notes is turned and transformed into music played and interpreted by each instrument and voice. Yet all of them are led and guided by the genius of Mozart without whom neither the orchestra nor the singers nor the conductor nor the audience members would have existed in this moment. It all comes from and flows and returns to Mozart, but each performance is slightly different and more unique than others before and others that come after them.

As I was sitting there with hundreds of strangers at the opera, I felt that this wondrous music connected us all for a limited but beautiful period of time. For an afternoon, we were all one and united as we were dreaming and fantasizing in our own little private spheres and bubbles. Yet it was Mozart who was guiding and conducting our dreams like a puppet master pulling on our heartstrings, leading us to the precipice of potentially impending death (at least twice) and yet getting us back to the shores safe and sound again.

Oddly enough, I had the strange feeling and sensation that at that moment Mozart actually cared about me. We had a personal connection, and it was not just me appreciating and loving his music but also him caring for and about me through his music. The magic flute went beyond a title or a prop in the opera and was more than merely a symbol of a magically carved piece of wood that turned people’s sorrows into joy. There was a personal sense and meaning attached to it. No matter how deep my troubles were on that day or during that week (and they were certainly knee-deep), they seemed to fly away for the length and duration of the opera. I was fixed and transfixed and transported into another world that looked like nothing like the one I lived in and yet had many similarities and affinities.

First and foremost, it is a quintessential love story or rather a bunch of love stories bunched together. Our hero Tamino sees a picture of Pamina and is immediately smitten with love. Papageno, the lonely but chatty bird catcher longs for his soul mate and meets her eventually in the shape and form of Papagena. Despite a few glitches here and there, some twists and turns, ups and downs, and surprises, all’s well that ends well. In the end, we are happy and relieved to know that there will be not one but two weddings in the offing and certainly more than one child soon gracing the bird family. A spin-off of the married life of the Papagenos would be amusing or on second thought perhaps not.

Yet, Mozart is nothing but straightforward, and, in fact, he is cunning, playful, and even mischievous not unlike his colorful creation in the shape of Papageno. Apart from adding surprising depth and shades of darker hues to a story that could have been from the mill, he also plays with conventions. As mentioned in a pre-talk of tenor Nicholas Burns, a typical and stereotypical opera would have the deeper voices, i.e. baritone representing the bad guy while the higher repertoires, tenor and soprano would be the good guys or gals.

We seem to be on track since the alleged bad guy has kidnapped the Queen of the Night’s beloved daughter, and if the good guy/hero Tamino accepts the challenge, he will get the girl and be married to her. In a sense, we also have the shaping and becoming of the hero who will not only have to face difficulties and dangers but will also need to prove his love. The whole thing becomes inverted as it turns into an initiation ceremony of a secret and clandestine society that seems to mirror traditions and ceremonies of the Freemasons of which both the librettist and the composer were allegedly part.

Yet, nothing is as it seems, and things start shifting and moving in front of our eyes. The soprano was in fact evil herself and her most famous aria with some of the highest notes humanly possible is in fact not an angel but like the name implies she is affiliated with the darkness and evil intentions. The baritone turns out to be a wise, just, and forgiving king and master at times reminding us of the Pasha Bassa Selim from “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (Die Entführung aus dem Serail).

This is not the only inverting and upturning of expectations. It is also reflected in the music itself. We have on one hand the high classical and refined music that the queen embodies with beautiful and elaborate melodies, and on the other hand, we have the folksy tunes that Papageno symbolizes, another point made in the pre-talk. We have the commoner versus nobility, and it is the first one we root for and the second one, we tend to dislike. This also tends to be rather different from the predecessors of the operatic tradition. It is furthermore a demonstration of general sentiment and resentment just a few years after the French Revolution.

Finally, there is one more point I would like to make here. We have music in the form of flutes, bells, and whistles that bring about change of heart and soften seemingly implacable hearts and minds. Justice and order prevail as the good are rewarded and elevated, while the repenting are forgiven and the evil are punished for their deeds.

The ones we thought unlikely, Tamino who cries for help and assistance and wishes to be rescued as if he were a princess himself and not a hero faints at the sight of a creature in the opening act of this opera. Yet with some aid and more than a little help from friends, objects, and destiny, he eventually becomes a hero. In terms of love, he does not slay dragons but faces the elements and what must be the ultimate test, he must not speak to his beloved feigning indifference, which breaks her heart and almost kills her. 

It reminded me of the medieval maiden test where the knight must lie naked with his beloved but leave her untouched, a tremendous amount of will, strength, and discipline being needed to fulfill this deed or rather to struggle with oneself to remain passive and not do anything in this case. On the other hand, Papageno is even more cowardly here and fails to be initiated, but he does not mind as long as he has food, drink, and his woman by his side, so he also receives his share of happiness.  

Apart from all of this, we also have each of them coming into their own and not necessarily becoming heroes as in the case of Papageno but finding their own voices. Tamino is more himself and much less scared, while Papageno remains true to his nature and does not need to be other than he is to get what brings him happiness in life, plus he finds his female match in all the senses of the word. It is more than fitting to have an opera paving the way for finding one’s own voice, and it is also another reason why I do not think this opera to be silly but rather noteworthy and worth our time with its potential to bring about not only entertainment but also insight and even healing of our soul.

Singers bowing at the end of Mozart's Magic Flute performance

This is the final post of a three-part series on magic in different forms and formats:

The Magic Box: How Nothing is Impossible and Everything Is Part of Something

Birthday Magic: How and When it is OK to Feel Special and Entitled 

And here's a post on another Mozart opera:  

Mozart's Don Giovanni as the Tragicomic Symbol of Unbridled Capitalism

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Birthday Magic: How and When it is OK to Feel Special and Entitled

Teen with Dad in a restaurant in front of two juicy burgers
On this impromptu magical trilogy, I started off with the “magic box” and will end with Mozart’s Magic Flute, but I decided to sandwich this one on the magic of birthdays right in between. Why? You may ask. Instead of the usual lippy comment of well, why not that I am wont to give, I would add because it was my birthday recently, and contrary to custom and practice, the day and event overall ended up not being special or memorable for that matter (though there were still a few bright moments courtesy of my son). It was a mix of as well as back and forth between unwanted rollercoaster drama, some bad luck, and boredom, neither of which I am particularly fond of, to be honest.

It was then I realized that no matter how entrenched we are in our supposed denial and upfront rejection of childhood wishes and fantasies - ironically, those who claim to be mature tend to be the least so - there are moments where traces of this desire and longing can still be felt. And I am not talking about the quest for a father figure, as in religion or politics, or even the search for maternal affection often encountered in various forms of arts and other types of connection, such as the sense of community, no I mean in its most simple, natural, and unadulterated form imaginable: the celebration of one’s birthday.

Unlike Christmas, the delusion and disillusion are not abrupt and sudden. The child or teen (God forbid adult) who discovers sooner or later that they have been duped (lied to, manipulated, taken for a ride) by the people whom they trust and confide the most (parents, caregivers, friends, families, or even credible sources like NASA with its annual Santa tracker) is suddenly confronted with the non-existence of the jolly Santa Claus they took relish in. Although they may have harbored doubts throughout, there will be one day when the proverbial scales fall from their eyes and they see and realize the truth. Although they will continue celebrating Christmas and accepting gifts (who wouldn’t?), the magic is irrevocably gone and lost forever.

Not so when it comes to birthdays. I remember as a child always looking forward to it. You would get the whole deal of cake and gifts and sometimes friends, but I would always enjoy the extra attention that was bestowed upon me. For most of my childhood days, I had felt left out, perhaps even ignored, and neglected, but on that specific day, things were different. With my brothers, we had an unspoken agreement that the entire day came with a free day pass of not getting bullied, ridiculed, or beaten. In reality, things were not that gloomy and violent between us, but it still brings the point across that this day would be considered out of the ordinary even through the lens and prism of sibling rivalry.

One of the cruelest things you could imagine is to be mean to someone on their birthday, something that becomes inversely proportionate to age. There was once an elementary school teacher who made my son cry on his birthday. I had only found out as we were celebrating his day by eating hamburgers in our favorite restaurant (the same one where various years later, we would be doing exactly the same thing), but it broke my heart as he was recounting there and then what had happened to him with tears streaming down his face. I was filled with feelings of anger and impotence. This was just not right and would and could never ever be justified.

Yet I am glad to report that his other birthdays were much happier events and circumstances and even during the pandemic, we ensured that he had a good time and felt special and in that case, I especially felt it on my pocketbook as well. Yet, whether we acknowledge it or not, we have this craving to be acknowledged and feel special on our day! Interestingly, most people (with the exception of that awful unnamed schoolteacher) recognize this need and more or less oblige the birthday person regardless of their age.

And here is the rub indeed. Age can make a difference in our perception and experience of birthdays. What used to be a moment of celebration, you are counting your years up toward getting older and becoming a full-fledged adult (at least in legal terms), somewhat later down the road turns into this slope where you resent that day because it is now a countdown toward various unavoidable issues and limitations but most importantly towards our inevitable demise.

Whether single or not, the numbers keep piling up and we become worried about major markers in that respect, the big round numbers that await us as time flies and rushes in a hurry. We lose some of our glow and our faculties slow down, or at least we think so, and we may doubt and question our decisions in the past as well as our current conditions, be they on a personal, professional, or inter-relational level. It must be stated that birthdays due to their unique and personal importance to the individual are quite different than collective new starts and beginnings, such as the celebration of the new year with its various hopeful and optimistic resolutions that few of us accomplish, let alone take seriously.

Birthdays are all about you. So it also feels strange when yours coincides with someone else’s, a stranger, a friend, a family member, or even a celebrity. In a way, we tend to appropriate that day, it becomes ours and stands out from the three-hundred score other days of the year. And why shouldn’t it?

We are all born once, and it was on that very day that we entered the world and took our first breath. The journey, our journey started on that particular day. All the adventures and experiences, the joy and happiness, the pain and suffering, the lessons of wisdom alongside the many mistakes to get there all had a beginning point, the date of our birth.

That date is often used for identification purposes, but one’s birth is not merely important for keeping count of your age but also because where you come into the world is often tied and connected with your nationality. The country and city you set foot in become a major part of who you are regardless of your ethnic background. Space and time already combine to start shaping who you are and who you shall become on this footpath of life.

So yes, birthdays are a big deal indeed. And I say, not only do you deserve to celebrate it, but you ought to. Give yourself a day pass to feel free to feel special on that day. Nowadays, many people talk about entitlement, making others who may be more successful and/or privileged than the majority feel guilty while also shaming and blaming them often simply based on their appearance and/or background, but let that not affect you or bring you down, at least not on your special day. By the way, this also extends and applies to those who are not the best or ideal kind of members of the community. They also have the right to feel special for at least one day of the year. Be magnanimous and grant it to them even if you may feel deep inside that they do not deserve it.

Everyone is in their own way special. This comes simply from the fact that each of us is unique. By definition, that makes us special, and we stand out from the rest. We may dim our lights and the glimmer and shine that surround us, we may divert from who we are and try to mold it into something else to fit in better with others, or with groups, religions, and ideologies, or we may even pretend to be someone else or someone we are not.

Speaking of which, I am fully aware that there are some who always feel special regardless of reality and their current circumstances as well as those who demand to be treated special 24/7 often without putting any effort into anything, and then, there are those who feel more special than everyone else. To these types of people, every day may feel like a birthday, but my guess would be that deep inside they know it is a sham and pretense, and if not, life will let them know and wake them up to reality sooner or later. Put differently, even narcissists are suffering, and they crave constant attention. If you wish to ignore them every other day of the year, that is fine, but still do a little bit to make them special on the day they are actually entitled to feel so.

So circle the day of our birth on your calendar, take the day off if you can (I would like this to be automatic and legislated as a mandatory paid holiday for each and everyone), get together with friends and loved ones if you prefer or just spend it on your own doing something you love, and go ahead make our day and feel special. You know you are entitled to it.

Friday, November 10, 2023

The Magic Box: How Nothing is Impossible and Everything Is Part of Something

Rays of sunlight of setting sun reflected on water
This post is dedicated to two Bobs that I have had the pleasure of meeting via my podcast: Bob Thurman affiliated with the wonderful and colorful tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and by extension the Dalai Lama and Bob Kramer who has a vivid connection and impressive grasp (both in terms of understanding and reach) of the criminally underrated Otto Rank and his wonderful world and depiction thereof filled with insights and wonder. Apart from having identical first names, the subjects of Bob² open a magic box of endless cosmic possibilities, in which, to borrow the words of Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza (Sanskrit for box), tout est possible.

Presented here are my own, rather independent, perhaps eccentric, and certainly odd reflections, and neither of the Bobs is in any way or form affiliated with them, but both have at least inspired them to some degree if not served as midwives by making me give birth to them. And it is to both these brilliant minds as well as everyone connected with them and their work that I would like to dedicate this post.

To some extent, nothingness looms large in both their conceptions of the world. Whether it is the beautiful void of Nirvana or the wondrous nothingness of existence, there seems to be a push and pull towards that which is not versus that which is. Nothing is what it seems and there is certainly a ring of truth to it. Whether we point towards things, events, or people in our lives via language, words, and thoughts, or we try to grasp existence in a limited fashion by using the intellect or trying desperately to rationalize it, there is a common denominator at play: our life on earth is limited; whether we acknowledge it or not, it is marked and stamped with an expiry date.

In fact, Bob (Kramer) posits life between two bookends of nothingness: the void we come from and the void we end up in with a brief candle-lit flame in-between, that is our personal life. He firmly situates us in an unstable and precarious place: Carl Sagan’s conception of the pale blue dot that spins weirdly in the middle of cosmic vastness, which defies understanding no matter how you look at it. In fact, when looking at the “big picture”, our planet is so tiny in space and time that we may even consider it insignificant. We are not the sun like once believed but barely a single note in the majestic Beethovian symphony of the music of the spheres.

Although this may make us feel depressed and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, it is also oddly uplifting and inspiring. We have no time to waste and need to focus so much more on this brief interval given to us, appreciate it, love more, hate less, and not waste any time on things that are insignificant or harmful to ourselves, others, and our beautiful tiny dot blue planet itself. Instead, we need to calibrate and fine-tune our existence and play the music from the deepest recesses of our unique soul and being. I believe that the other Bob (Thurman) will not object to that either. 

And yet, I wish to disagree with nothing. By this I mean I am actively disagreeing not agreeing with it. Because I believe that nothing can come out of nothing. There needs to be some thing to bring out something and in the same way, our existence is not nothing nor is our starting point and departure nothing either. I do not think that nothing is possible but rather that nothing is impossible.

There is a thought experiment in philosophy entitled the box (here we go again). Imagine you have a small box that includes a few utensils, ranging from a book (let’s make it the Tibetan Book of the Dead for our purposes), a picture of Spooky (Otto Rank’s dog), a picture of Mr. Floofles (our once precious hamster), a pair of scissors, a broken watch, crayons of different colors, a piece of string, and a business card of Arash’s World. We may disagree with the choice of some of its contents, but we would all agree that the box is not empty.

Now let us remove items, one by one from this given box. First to go, is, alas, my business card, then the broken watch, the scissors, and then the colorful crayons. The box is not empty yet as it contains various other objects within it. So we continue removing the remaining objects (the book, the photos) until we are left with nothing but a box that has nothing in it whatsoever.

You have forgotten the piece of string, the careful reader might interject, and I agree. Let us also remove that last piece and empty the box the same way meditation attempts to empty the mind of thoughts, feelings, sensations, or anything that interferes with pure consciousness. We are now essentially left with an empty box.

Yet although the box (and the meditative-focused mind) may look empty, it is still not so. There may be remnants floating about, like air or oxygen. When we remove that as well, we have a vacuum. But the vacuum is still not nothing. It is something that contains things; it is not immaterial. In fact, it is hard to imagine, let alone have no-thing. Because nothing is indeed something, or at least it needs something to distinguish itself as being or becoming nothing. We can take away our thoughts, emotions, memory, identity, and personality, but something will remain whatever and however vague that something may be.

It is the same paradox of nothing staying constant when nothing itself actually does stay constant whatever we mean by or define and refer to as nothing (a similar point could be made about everything in moderation). Along the same vein, nothing is what it seems neglects the fact that nothing is indeed the same as itself, it may be its mirror image or reflection. And if we zoom out, just like Sagan with the expansive view of the universe, then everything is the great whole, das Ganze in Otto Rank’s perspective versus the part or fragment thereof. The drop is not only in the ocean, but it is part and parcel of the ocean. One might say, in its own way, it is the ocean itself, albeit on a microscopic and microcosmic level.

Similarly, atoms from the universe are and flow within us, and the outside is reflected in the inside. According to the analogy of theologian Matthew Fox, we would be the fish in the water and the creative cosmic force within us flows outside while the outside forces also enter within us and indeed are us in the same way that we are one and interconnected with them. The fish needs the water, but the water needs the fish too to become fuller and more fulfilled. Each of us is filled with living cells without which we could not exist, and which need us for a fuller and more living and conscious expression. “I think, therefore I am”, Descartes famously said, whereas in the Bible God, defines himself as “I am that I am”.

But Descartes overlooked the whole, which includes feelings and sensations, and God cannot possibly exist outside of the realm that He has created because just like the artist, the work and art reflect their creator, and the creator is reflected in and within them. If we are created in His image, then at least part of Him must reside within each of Us. And a spark of divinity is divinity itself, or at least has the potential to transform into it. A drop of infinity is infinite itself, like divinity, it cannot be divided into parts.

By extension, everything is included within everything (everywhere and all at once) and nothing can be excluded from it. Nothing is also something, but it is still part of everything. In fact, since everything includes nothing or nothing is included in everything, the whole or das Ganze would also include opposites of each other. In this quantum perspective of sorts, logic is not necessarily paramount and opposites can live side by side peacefully while nothing and no one is ever excluded. Everyone not only feels but is in fact at home in this cosmic world and no one feels alienated or left out from this cosmic dance.

No one can exist on their own. This is what Otto Rank discovered with his relationship therapy as we do not and cannot exist in isolation and separate ourselves from others. We need others to exist, and others need us to exist. This was ingrained within us in the womb and it is necessary for our stay on the blue tiny dot, but it also holds true for the existence (in whatever shape and form it may have been) that came before our earthly Dasein (existence) and the realm, or post-world that we must head towards, which must be different than the one we have experienced during our limited stay here as temporary guests.

Finally, darkness, a distant cousin of nothingness, is nothing of and by itself. It is the absence of light, but light has the power to dispel it. Case in point: our universal existence emanating from the Big Bang. But it is not just sound we are talking about; it is a bright explosion of light and sound and powerful waves and atomic vibrations and the music of the spheres that brought all our existence into being. We collectively and individually made our entrance with Schall und Rauch (a confident tightrope class act amidst buzzing and whirring sounds and smoke around us). This is certainly not nothing and it cannot possibly have come out of nothing either while nothing can equal it!

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Sting Notes on the Soundtrack to My Life

Sting singing with a guitar wearing an orange T-shirt
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see the legendary singer-songwriter Sting in concert. As always with those types of events, one feels star-struck to be simply in the same room or rather stadium with the person one considers one’s idol. There is something magical about the whole experience although for the musician you are nothing but one tiny blurry blot among many; he shall never know of your existence let alone your momentary presence that you share with thousands of others at the same time.

And yet, despite being a lonely face in a concert-going multitude, one’s own experience will be unique and vary to degrees. To witness this special event - special because unbeknownst to Sting, I have a long-standing history and close connection with his music that hearkens way back to my teen years - I took my family with me. It is noteworthy that the relationship that my son, his first major concert event, and my wife have with this singer is worlds apart. Where my son, unfamiliar with Sting’s music, could not shake off a sense of boredom, my wife may have been imbued with a relatively mild thrill at best; for me, it was extraordinary and utterly delightful.

I am not merely referring to the concert itself, which was, by all accounts and purposes, much better than I had expected. This person on stage was in his seventies and he was both physically and vocally in outstanding shape and form. In fact, he out-sang and outperformed his son who preceded him in a somewhat lackluster opening performance, especially in relation to his father; Sting had a continuous full set without showing or demonstrating exhaustion or any signs of fatigue. Moreover, he improvised and offered new twists, arrangements, and versions of some of his classic songs that were outstanding.

But apart from singing Sting’s praises here, and in my humble view, they are indeed well-deserved, I realized during the concert how this musician had not only influenced and even shaped me in many ways but that his music was essentially a soundtrack to my life. There are few musicians who play that role in my life, the others being (apart from composers of classical music) Billy Joel and Bob Dylan, both of whom I discovered somewhat later than him.

I must admit that Sting has had a stronger influence overall. As I was listening to his impressive medley of songs that evening - and thankfully, he included many of my own favorite ones – I was amazed how each and every tune brought back to me like a colored polaroid a snapshot of my emotional state of back then. It was like revisiting scenes from the past that played out again in front of my mind’s eye elicited by the sounds as well as lyrics (most of which I knew by heart) of a given song.

There were far too many to count but also some that had become underpinning themes to the soundtrack of my life. The most overarching one would be “Englishman in New York” with its poignant and inspiring lines of “be yourself no matter what they say”, a life-long mantra that has been playing in my subconscious and has given me the necessary emotional support and pillar throughout my life. Mind you, not that I always followed and heeded it, but it served as a constant reminder to try to do so as much as possible, which must have been the founding block for myself to think outside of the box despite fluctuations in my levels of confidence while also facing consequences and repercussions to some of those decisions and actions.

Then, there are those hauntingly beautiful love songs. Lines from “The Shape of my Heart” I secretly slipped to a crush in high school, while I personally sang – for better or for worse - “Mad About You” to a crowd that included another love interest of mine. The lyrics and the sentiment of this tune still resonate with me to this very day. In fact, I believe Soul Cages to be not only his best work but one of the best concept albums out there. It is also his darkest album to date as he was dealing with grief around the death of his father. Psychoanalytically, it is quite rich in texture because it starts off with a birth and ends with a death followed by an apocalypse and possible physical and spiritual rebirth. It is certainly spiritual and soulful but not necessarily religious.

Interestingly, Sting included various songs from that album on his concert set list, which pleased my ear and heart. He did not include, perhaps for obvious reasons, the song that made me a Sting fan in the first place. That would be “Russians”. The reason I decided to check out his songs was due to his connection with classical music. As a teenager, I would only listen to Brahms, Dvorak, Beethoven, Mahler, and many other great composers. But I had heard about this guy called Sting who used and incorporated themes from Prokofiev in one of his tunes. I was immediately intrigued, went to our local music library to take out a cassette, and went down this rabbit hole to come out again some decades later at this concert.

As you can see his music has been important and memorable to me. Although there are many others as well, they often pale in comparison. Strangely enough, maybe because of their general lack of lyrics, I do not have a similar vivid reaction to classical music. There are pieces that are tied to various moments of time but oddly enough, although they tend to bring out stronger and deeper emotions, they do less so in terms of memory and recollection.

It might be also related to the connection with time itself. Neither Beethoven nor Brahms would release a new album or symphony but artists like Sting would and could. In fact, the release of a new album was a high-priority event on my list in the era of CDs. In fact, in an introductory psychology course, we were once asked what it was that we were looking forward to doing. I answered to get my hands on the latest Sting album.

My instructor just smiled and insinuated that there might be more worthwhile things and activities to undertake and anticipate. At the time, and especially considering that my romantic prospects were near to nil, I did not think so and after class, I ran to the nearest music store to buy his latest album. As I was listening to the songs for the first time, I would compare them to his previous output. There were always some that would immediately stick out while others would make me wince and shake my head. “They Dance Alone” is to me one of the worst songs he has ever recorded while I still find it hard to accept his country song “I am so happy I can’t stop crying”, let alone him sporting an ill-advised mohawk on a truly awful music video.

Evidently, it has not always been all gold with his music, but no one can produce hits all the time. Then again, some of the so-called hits that made it big would elicit a mild reaction like “meh” on my part. To this day, I do not understand the craze around The Police as I think they lack sophistication and artistry both lyrically and musically compared to his solo work.

Whether I like those songs or not, one thing is for certain, he is a unique artist who is not afraid of taking risks, trying out new things, and thinking and singing outside of the box. It all started with The Dream of the Blue Turtles. That said, I think that his visual sense is rather impaired and tends to put him in a negative light; his videos are in fact some of the worst I have seen, and his album covers are either surprisingly unimaginative or just plain and simple, or both. Just look at the image of the tour and enough is said on the matter, whereas the rest is silence. His career as an actor has been interesting but not outstanding. What he lacks in visual style, he makes up for via auditory means and channels.

But as I was listening to his songs that evening, I was amazed at how much he got away with without us fully or consciously noticing it. There is a famous love song about a prostitute, another one about a stalker essentially, there is a song about a dog in love with his owner, half of which includes French rap (there is also a completely French song that sounds good but includes bogus lyrics), there is a song about a vampire in love, one on St. Augustine in hell, another one with St. Agnes on a burning train, and then, a modern version of Noah’s Ark! The list of creative endeavors and ideas goes on and on like the rain that falls like tears from the stars. And I had the wonderful opportunity to be in the more or less close vicinity of a star myself.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Otto Rank The Soulful Psychoanalyst: From Psyche to Beyond Psychology


Black-and-white photo of a man with glasses
(This is the first part of a planned series on the work and legacy of psychoanalyst Otto Rank)

The founding father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud is undeniably an important historical figure. His discovery of or rather focus on the unconscious and its hidden processes brought a new understanding of human psychology and behavior. It is akin to Galileo’s act of turning binoculars upward to gaze at the sky, Darwin’s looking back into our common evolutionary past, or Einstein’s forward positioning of the relativity of time: it was a game-changer that like any important and relevant insights not only need time to be fully processed but also will find stubborn and persistent resistance along the way.

Yet often we tend to idolize the founders, and this leads not only to very high if not impossible standards and expectations, but we assume that they are infallible. Being a genius does not make you infallible and even someone as "bullet-proof" as Einstein can, given time and space, demonstrate occasional blunders. This does not make them wrong but only reminds us that they are human and hence fallible and not perfect.

In Freud’s case, we may also add a relatively big ego, which confounds things a bit more. But he certainly did not lack in ambition. For his brand and branch of psychology to succeed, he tried to legitimize it by putting it on or "raising" it to the field of science. This is yet a seemingly impossible if not misguided task not because of his views being wrong (for the most part, he is spot on) but rather because science is lagging in this respect. The scientific conception is by choice and design limited as it is too narrowly focused on logic and rationality, which makes the job of psychology much more cumbersome as human beings tend to be irrational and not rational beings as they are driven predominantly by unconscious motives, desires, and processes. 

Enter Otto Rank who attempts to bring in a fresh and soulful perspective to psychoanalysis and psychology as a whole. In fact, the word psyche refers to that concept and reality precisely. At the inception of psychoanalysis, Jung tried a similar feat that led to major disagreements between him and Freud. The problem with Jung was that he might have ventured a bit too far into the spiritual and the occult and that did not please Herr Freud much, especially considering his preoccupation with being accepted and embraced (in other words legitimized) by science. This alongside other factors, perhaps Jung’s free sexual entanglements with some of his female patients (including the influential and to this day underrated Russian psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein), led to their ideological rupture.

Since Jung started to disappoint him with what was seen or interpreted as extreme or radical, Freud had his eyes set on Otto Rank, Freud’s promising secretary, and considered him his potential successor. But this turned out to be a classic case or a textbook example of the student exceeding the master. Rank was a fan of Freud, but he was also very ambitious and fortunately, Alfred Adler noticed this passion and fire within the young Rank and introduced him to the great Freud. Seeing great potential in him, Freud took Rank under his wing making him his secretary, a duty that the latter performed diligently and dutifully for various years.

Yet Rank noticed that while Jung was admittedly giving too much weight and ponderance to the spiritual realm, Freud had done the same when it came to the issue of sexuality. Through Freud, psychoanalysis started off on a mechanical and deterministic note and was too much guided by biology, again the attempt to embed and tie and ground it closely and firmly within the field of science. Marx would try a similar feat by trying to see human behavior and existence predominantly through the lens of economic struggles and necessities to build his own version of political science.

Rank saw that all these perspectives lacked soul or life’s essence. Humanity was not driven and run merely by sexual or economic instincts but there was a quest for immortality that was embedded into our genetic code and psyche from the moment we came to life and breathed our first breath. For instance, birth itself creates unspeakable (pre-verbal and not able to communicate) trauma that becomes deeply woven into our existence from the get-go. Each of us leaves the warmth of the womb to be suddenly, unexpectedly, and inexplicably thrust into the world and exposed to lights, sounds, and scents that are truly overwhelming to human psychology. 

This trauma becomes so much part of human nature that we find ourselves in a fetal position in moments of extreme distress, and we often tend to lose our breath when faced with fear, the same way, we entered the world out of breath until we announced and marked our entrance with a piercing long-lasting cry of despair. And with our birth, the looming shadow of death will haunt and follow us for the rest of our days until death separates us from life as we know it. These two often unspoken, unacknowledged, and unprocessed traumas are essentially the root of many of our irrational acts and behaviors. Then, there are other traumatic experiences that add to it to make the human condition even worse than it already is.

It is Damocles’ sword dangling above our heads, and while he was consciously aware of it, we try to push it deeper into our unconscious preferring not to deal with it. And yet, it leads us to both beneficial and harmful acts to ensure ourselves of our existence beyond our ordinary and limited lives. Religion was created not merely because of an infantile wish to have a father figure protect and guide us but also due to a need for our existence to continue after our lives.

In a similar vein, culture ensures the confirmation and continuation of our specific rituals and traditions into the beyond. The same thought process could be applied to the creation of states and nations so that we can ensure our unique differences stand out from the others. By doing so, we preserve our identity and see our heritage pass on to subsequent lives even if we may or may not exist afterward.

In either case and at any rate, death is the motivating factor and the Ursprung, inception, and foundation of our fears and actions. Once we notice this and bring it into our consciousness, we can better understand and shed light upon our (seemingly) irrational actions and behaviors. This switch from Freud's insistence on sexuality, which is no doubt a necessary and vital part of our existence to the focus on death, our looming and potential non-existence, can lead to not only a better explanation and understanding of ourselves but also a better management of our underlying existential fear and dread.

Why is it that we relish in bad news, that we are glued to the screen watching footage from the latest natural disaster, the mass shooting, or even going close to a scene of an accident to get a better glimpse of its repercussions and bloody aftermath? Some may see it as a form of morbidity, our often denied and neglected obsession with the dark side, and this is certainly partially true, but it comes also with an unspoken element of relief if not glee as we reflect that thank goodness it was them, and not us and that we find ourselves unharmed and alive in the safety of our home or our vehicle.

This can also explain the "drive" to kill others, whether physically or symbolically, as it ensures our own survival and the survival of our kind, be it family, nation, or political affiliation. On the other hand, we see their attacks as trying to uproot us and steal our existence and immortality from us. These ideological narratives that guide us both on a conscious but even more so on an unconscious level can lead some people to a willingness to sacrifice their lives for a cause or a motive deemed important.

From this perspective, we may lay down our lives to protect our nation in a war, we may sacrifice ourselves to protect our family, or we may die for an ideology, whether it is a Buddhist monk immolating himself as a form of protest, a soldier dying in a war, or suicidal bombers killing themselves in a terrorist act. These are of course different contexts with different moralities and justifications, but in essence, they are driven by our fear of death and non-existence with the willingness to die in order to live on in one form or another.

This has its roots in the totem in which the existence of the clan or tribe was superseded by any personal worries, concerns, or preoccupations. At this point, the given individuals give less importance to their own personal safety and survival but rather the collective survival and well-being of their people by adding to the already existing chain built of, from, and by their ancestors continuing the lifeline and accomplishments of their predecessors.

To sacrifice one’s needs and at times existence for the common good are often emblematic themes of totalitarian regimes and ideologies, be it fascism or communism. As Rank himself puts it, “both fascism and communism are the results of unfulfilled promises of democracy”. Interestingly, while communism forces people to be and become equal, fascism has its sights on forcing freedom onto people and both are two faces of the same impossible coin. 

As a matter of fact, whether they accept it or not, they all have their ties with religion and even culture cannot be spelled without the word cult, an agreement based on conformity and universality of old “spiritual life values”, which is generally intolerant towards difference as it attempts to express the irrational and immortal in its own seemingly rational terms.

This maintenance of traditions and values is to be presented as a form of preserving one’s nation or the common good, but it may often have dangerous unperceived repercussions for us and our surroundings. This rather common (both in terms of prevalent and simplistic) morality builds upon the segregation of an Us versus Them mentality (essentially an extension of the “I” and “not-I” way of perceiving the world) fueled by a misguided and dangerous form of black-and-white thinking. To be “good” is less a moral question or issue but would simply mean to be bigger than oneself, with this extension, to reach if not individual then collective immortality.

This type and genre of absolutist thinking has been the underlying driving force of various misdeeds and evil actions throughout history and continues to be perpetuated to this day while at the same time underscoring humankind’s eternal conflict between a need for likeness (conformity) and a desire for difference (individuality, i.e., rebellion). Yet the given group, be it a family, a tribe, a culture, a religion, a nation, or a political party needs to carve itself out and distance itself from others hence the indifference and intolerance towards others in terms of appearance, thoughts, lifestyles, and behaviors.

I believe that Rank’s focus on birth and death as the starting and end point of life on this planet filled with an individual life in between provides a much more complete picture and explanation of human psychology and how and why it can go so awry at times. The injection of the soul into psychology incorporates the desire for immortality and has its roots in the beginning of culture and traditions.

It seems that Rank did not personally believe in a soul per se and much less in a divinity, but he understood the necessity for wanting to do so. More than many others, especially of his own times, he noted the irrational forces at work and the incapacity for therapy to fully reach and address them in a constructive and healing manner. The aim of therapy should not be the adjustment to the social environment, which may be incomplete or questionable at different times, but the strengthening of the individual will.

Rank’s views on the chosen and more empathic mode and manner of therapy, which was also at odds with Freud’s more clinical and almost sterile approach, have had influences throughout the field of psychoanalysis, psychology, and psychotherapy. Combined, his influence and legacy are undeniable but unfortunately even up to this day, Rank has not received the credit and recognition he should have had, and he would have deserved.

In fact, the opposite has been true as he was maligned, demonized, and excommunicated from the psychoanalytic circles because he dared to object to and disagree with the reigning master of the times, his teacher Freud. And yet, that is what has made Otto Rank not only highly influential but immortal in many forms and aspects to this day - and beyond.

(If interested in knowing more about this revolutionary and visionary psychoanalyst and thinker, I recommend you check out my podcast as well as the upcoming Online International Conference Unleashing Otto Rank: The Creation of Modern Depth Therapy” on November 4th and November 5th, 2023!)


Wednesday, September 6, 2023

On Real Control Freaks and True Leaders: The Difference Between Being Controlling and Being in Control

Sculptures from Montreal Notre-Dame Cathedral
There are those that we often pejoratively refer to as “control freaks” and then those whom we call, more favorably, perfectionists, but they are in fact not that far from each other and if they are not the same, they are at least closely related and on the same spectrum. You certainly may know some yourself, or you yourself may perhaps qualify as one.

To put it simply, these are people who must have it their own way no matter what regardless of the circumstances, and will give or leave you or themselves for that matter not much of a choice; it’s either what they want, or else, it’s the proverbial highway. And if you like me do not own a car, you must hitchhike all the way there, perhaps with your own baggage in hand.

In fact, those who try to control others the most tend to be the ones who have less or little control over themselves. To cover up their own internal loss on or lack of control, they become more controlling of as many aspects and people in their lives as humanly possible. It is a matter of externalizing and projecting their fear and discomfort onto others. Since they are not able to deal with and handle their own feelings, they give a semblance of control by controlling others and/or outer circumstances. When people or things do not comply, they get all angry and all hell could break loose, literally, and figuratively speaking.

And yet, not only does this attitude and worldview often not get them where they want or at times nowhere in particular, but they will also make a few enemies along the way. Naturally, things in life often do not go according to plan, and worse, you might have already experienced Murphy’s Law in the flesh and in person or shall do so soon enough: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong given the necessary time and space.

To illustrate, you have painstakingly prepared the best picnic ever to gain everyone’s praise and admiration by ensuring that all conditions have been met, confirming with everyone, ensuring that there is no lack in terms of food, drink, and music, and you have not one, but two back-up plans handily at your disposal. You even double-checked, no triple-checked the weather on five different weather networks, and it was clear and smooth sailing and a sure go.

Then the unexpected occurs, which you could not have possibly foreseen but you naturally still blame yourself for not expecting it in the first place. And the picnic turns out to be a total disaster and you swear never to have another one ever again until your dying day. Ironically, on that day, your sworn enemies may have one around the vicinities of your grave but that amounts to pushing the metaphor too far and beyond.

Now, being a control freak or a perfectionist is not all bad either. Your constant anxiety will keep you on your toes and make sure that four out of five times, you will be successful at your endeavor, be it of an extracurricular kind and nature or be it work-related. And since control freaks tend to seem and appear that they have it all under control (which they evidently do not, see above), their supervisors will be impressed and will promote them unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly) hence extending the vicious cycle that will catch and entangle everyone else as well.

At the workplace, the now-promoted control freaks (who are more often than not narcissists and sometimes even sociopaths) will make all other employees suffer from the dreaded and dreadful acts of micromanagement. (In fact, only control freaks like and relish in micromanaging and it must have been invented and approved by one of them.) You cannot go to the washroom or breathe without their permission and blessing, and they try to mold their surroundings as closely and faithfully to their own internal mess.

Yet, the irony is double. First, control freaks are not in control even if they think and assume they are, and two, they do not have lasting control over others. Put differently, they are not free because they are simultaneously being controlled and controlling themselves and others, and they do not qualify by any possible stretch of the imagination as leaders.

Not only will others feel undervalued and underappreciated and be resentful towards these types of “directors” (i.e. dictators) or “managers”, but the moment these unnatural supervisors are out of sight, the employees, students, and children will do as they please or fully and joyfully engage in what they were previously told not to and were prohibited from doing, and tenfold so!

The whip may look good, but without cubes of sugar, it can only be skin deep. In reality, not only do control freaks not have control and power over others, but those others will rebel the first moment and opportunity they see fit. Since the control freak knows this, she or he lives in constant fear and paranoia, trusts no one, and always looks behind their shoulder, at least twice and once before falling asleep.

And then, there are those who are in control. In many ways, they are the exact opposite, and yes, they are true leaders. This is so because they act from a calm center and perhaps have even attained lasting inner peace. They are grounded, stand their ground, and are not easily perturbed.

At the same time, because they are in control of their feelings and are not being run by them and certainly do not need to fear them, they have deep and profound trust and confidence in themselves, and this freely emanates onto others. The inner world will be projected onto the outside yet in this case, it is not passive-aggressive vibes and energy, but it is in harmony, it flows naturally and beautifully, and is in the best interest and for the profit of most if not everyone involved.

In fact, you ought to trust yourself first to be trusting of others. If you are in control, you are not blindly driven by the desire to please others nor to impress others constantly but rather, since you know your salt and worth, you become and embody confidence. Others will respect you not because you tell them to do so or drum, beat, and flog them into it, but because it flows from and out of them naturally without being forced, controlled, or manipulated.

By not trying to impress, they impress because that is actually rare and impressive in this world; by not trying to control others, others will follow them willingly. This is also the breeding ground for respect, which, contrary to popular opinion, is not automatic and cannot be demanded or imposed but must be earned with either one’s actions, one’s essence and being, or ideally both. And the same way you will not betray your friend if you are a good, honest, and decent person, then they do not have to fear being stabbed in the back by you unless you qualify as a control freak yourself (see above again).

Since they are in control of themselves, they can also relax, they do not have to pretend, lie, impress, or impersonate others, and they have the ability to see others the way they really are and not the way they wish to them to be or would like to see them. There is a sense of realism that accompanies such an individual because they can see situations and people the way they are and can act accordingly.

There is the mistaken notion that a person in control can easily become a pushover. It is actually the opposite. The ones who lack control can be easily swayed and influenced, which is why if you know the sweet spot of a narcissist for instance, you can get your way with them until they think that you have betrayed them or become disloyal to them.

Keep in mind that control freaks and narcissists tend not to see reality as it is but are constantly gazing through layers, filters, and shades of their own insecurities. Inversely, some of them would hold onto their views no matter how wrong they are only to prove to themselves and others that they are capable of not flinching while harming everyone in that process due to their lack of common sense, empathy, reason, and humility.

Yet, the person in control is confident in their own abilities and in their actions. As I mentioned earlier, they stand their ground and although they are often gentle, something the person out of control finds very hard to do, at the same time, they can be firm and steadfast when the situation or occasion requires it. In either case, deep inside they know what the right action is under the given circumstances, and they are not afraid of what others may think of them. They also tend to deal with adversity and opposition much better because they do not take it (too) personally. They know it is as natural and inevitable as rainwater.

Finally, the person in control is aware of and knows that their control is limited. There are certain things that are outside of their grasp and control. They know this and they accept it and do not fret over it. We have seen it with the pandemic recently. Those who are control freaks took a long time to adjust to the new normal and to accept the different circumstances while those in control looked for actions and measures that could be undertaken and that would provide them with the safety they needed.

They were not driven by fear but took the situation seriously and approached it with a calm mind. And then, when the time had passed and the situation had become less threatening, they just moved on and did not remain bound to the fear and fright that characteristically tends to accompany the ones that are controlling and that are inextricably bound to themselves and others.


Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Billy Joel and The Stranger Within and Inside of You

A man in a suit is sitting on a bed looking at a mask
Well, we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone”

Billy Joel

One of the questions that often remains unasked and underexplored is the one about who we really are versus who we think we are. This is a matter of great importance, especially when we are encouraged, motivated, and even driven to be ourselves often without acknowledging the unknown, often hidden, and sometimes repressed aspects of ourselves. Naturally, and most likely for good reason, there are parts of ourselves that we hide from others or rather choose not to reveal to them but there is also a stranger within us that we fail to look at and who may suddenly and unexpectedly lurk its head from the shadows and kick us right between the eyes.

To delve further into this, I am going to look at a musician who despite his fame and glory is in my view still underrated especially when it comes to his lyrical and poetic qualities and propensities. In fact, I believe that his repertoire, which includes numerous hits and catchy but meaningful and impactful tunes, has become part of our global psyche no matter where we live and regardless of what generation we may be from and what our belief system is.

This particular post represents a trilogy of sorts vis-à-vis this rather interesting and versatile singer-songwriter by the name of Billy Joel, and in this cyberspace and blogosphere, I have previously discussed his song “Honesty” in the context of a professional and personal lack thereof and his rocking “Room of My Own” with the background of re-creating, refurbishing, and re-decorating your very own place and creative headspace.

For our purposes here, I shall discuss The Stranger. This iconic song starts off with about a minute of a purely musical and melodic introduction that includes soft dreamy piano combined with melancholy whistling both of which are filled with yearning and longing. This song made an impact on me during my youth. The youth in question was interested in existential philosophy while cautiously dipping his toes into the deep waters of depth psychology but with limited knowledge and much less experience in these fields, let alone the minefields of love and romance.

Although The Stranger is mainly a song of self-discovery and the revelation or realization of hidden aspects and dimensions of oneself, it provides an additional layer of complexity by considering and looking at interpersonal romantic relationships, an area in which I had practically no experience whatsoever at the time. In fact, my first encounters with this song occurred during a bittersweet period of youthful idealism and constant and continuous yearning and longing for desire and romance.

And yet this song not only appealed to me but also spoke to me, albeit in a language and in terms that I did not and could not consciously grasp at the time. Yet the overall message is that there is a stranger in each of us, a part of us that we intentionally hide from others and that others hide from us – as the singer finds out to his surprise when he tries to seduce his partner. In fact, he used to consider himself a “great romancer,” i.e. skilled and adept at the art of seduction but his loved one bluntly and unexpectedly rejected his advances without even giving him a reason (ouch!).

(Incidentally, in a rather hilarious mishearing and misunderstanding of lyrics, something which I am not immune against and which was more prevalent during my youth when I was not as fluent in the English language, for the longest time I had assumed that she refused him and gave him the slip for the western Bonanza, a fact that would have been a much funnier and even more shocking line and reason had this indeed been true!).

Interestingly, the first time I encountered Billy Joel in my youth was via an interview he gave about his most recent album at the time. In that program, he was wearing shades and looked cool but then he said something that made an impact on my youthful ears. He said giving a concert was like having sex; the louder they are, the better one gets, and the more he would enjoy his performance on stage. I was immediately intrigued by this artist and have been listening to his music ever since.

Yet this specific song appealed to me back then and continues to do so throughout the years. With 20/20 psychoanalytic hindsight, this may not be so strange after all because I was a triple stranger myself, at home with my family, as a foreigner in a country that often reminded me in no uncertain terms that I did not belong while also being a stranger to myself or rather misrepresenting me to myself.

Hence, my fascination was not just based on its catchy tune but moreover the lyrics and the theme of The Stranger, which strongly resonated with and within me. We all have a face that we hide from the purview of others, it told me. As a teenager, these words are most soothing because you feel misunderstood by your parents and sometimes also your peers. So you start wearing a mask with which you decide to please others or hide aspects of yourself that you think they do not appreciate, or a combination of both. The more you wear the mask, the further you move and remove yourself from your true self and identity.

Essentially, this comes down to a case of authenticity versus putting on an act, and that is certainly part of the song’s appeal as it points to the fact that we intentionally and intently hide facets of ourselves and bring to the foreground parts that have little if anything to do with who we really are deep inside. Everyone is so untrue.

And yet, seen from my current perspective, this lack of connection also includes parts of ourselves that are lodged in the unconscious and that we do not have currently access to. In fact, there is a stranger that we have never met but resides within us. It can be a dark side of our nature, but it could also be the amalgamation of repressed desires and wishes or even realizations. In that sense, we are strangers to ourselves and may find ourselves at odds with thoughts and feelings that seem to come out of the blue and supposedly have nothing to do with who we are.

This gets more complicated when another person becomes involved and entangled with it, especially since they also bring their own stranger and emotional baggage with them. And if neither side knows themselves, we can find ourselves in deep waters and much bigger trouble. This then comes in addition to and on top of the secrets we willingly withhold and conceal from the eyes and the ears of the other.

This should not be a source of worry and concern because we all make mistakes and we hold mistaken assumptions both about ourselves and others. A relationship that is filled with secrets cannot be authentic but a relationship with no secret whatsoever may not be realistic or even commendable either.

Moreover, there are parts that we hide because we feel others will not appreciate or tolerate and accept them. But in a truly loving relationship, you should be as close to who you really are deep inside and as much as is possibly possible. Put differently, the fewer secrets you have the better. It also reduces your stress level because if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Nothing can be revealed if all has been already exposed, whereas no dirty laundry means no washing is needed.

In that sense, your relations can be your home, not only literally but also figuratively. Home is not merely where your heart is but where you yourself find yourself and reflect who you are, warts and all. And it is this whole package where you need to accept yourself first and then have the other accept it in the same way that you accept them with all their flaws and glories. All this time, perfection and/or idealism can be the enemy, the hidden poison to any real life-and-blood relationship.

To sum up, do not ignore the voice of the stranger. Listen to it. It wants to communicate something to you, and you may not understand it immediately, but it does have something important to say to you. As Billy Joel sings, he is not always evil nor is he always wrong and all your good intentions will not quench its desires while the fire will keep burning deep inside. 

And if you are not aware and careful enough, don’t be surprised to be kicked right between the eyes. Instead, it is best to listen, make amends with him or her, and get to know your stranger better. Because in the end, the stranger is not merely a part of you, it is you.