emptiness


Many years ago, when I was searching for the answer to life, I thought I’d find it by going to the end of the world. That was the instruction I found in all the stories. You climbed the mountain, found the guy with the long beard, and he’d give you the secret. You’d come down a changed man, everything clear, all the doubts gone. You’d know what to do and how to do it.

So I got on a plane and I flew to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I figured if I was going to go to the end of the Earth, it should be warm and beautiful. After what felt like days on a plane I landed in Tahiti. The thick warm air and the smell of gardenias from the lei that was put around my neck made me nauseous in a swoonish kind of way.

But Tahiti wasn’t going far enough, I knew, if I wanted to meet the guru. I’d read in the Lonely Planet Guide about one of the remotest of the Society Islands. It was referred to as “picturesque,” and promised “quiet and solitude” which I knew meant it had little to recommend it. Just what I was looking for. The island was called Huahine. Even travelling to that postage stamp in space still wasn’t as far as I could go. Apparently, there was a guest house in a small village on the back-end of the island. That was my goal.

I got on a cockroach-infested ship that travelled to the out islands. After a few uncomfortable nights on the boat we got to the island. At the dock I found a bus headed for the village mentioned in my guide book. I was in luck!

The bus sat at the dock most of the day. A few local workers, naturally muscular golden-brown fellows with long, shiny black hair covered in baseball caps and big, toothy smiles sat on the bus, goofing around with each other, drinking beer. No one seemed to be in any kind of hurry and no one could provide information about the bus’s departure. The entire concept of “information” suddenly felt so western and embarrassingly out of place. Hey, who promised that it would be easy to get to the end of the world?

Before the sun started its precipitous plop into the water, the bus finally rumbled off. I asked about the village, and the driver told me it was the last stop. Perfect. After a few hours of adrenaline-pumping hair-pin turns, I remained the only passenger when the bus bumped to a halt. The driver signaled that we were at the end of the road.  Literally.

I got off the bus. Just me and my backpack. The bus turned around and this time didn’t wait. In moments, my only escape was a dusty dot on the horizon. I found myself in a ratty little village, with dilapidated tin huts, the streets riddled with crab holes. It sure was quiet and I sure felt the solitude. I looked around in vain for any sign that signaled a place for a poor pilgrim like myself to stay.

Eventually, a young woman, barefoot, wearing a wrap-around skirt called a pareu and tee-shirt, sauntered up to me with her two small children. She spoke English and asked what I was doing here. I said that I was looking for the guest house. She looked at me with a scolding look as if I had made a terrible mistake.

“No guesthouse here,” she said, shaking her head.

“When does the next bus arrive,” I asked.

“Four days,” she said.

She looked at me, I looked at her. “Is there any place around here I could stay? I’m willing to pay.” In a moment of anxiety, I stuck my hand in my pocket and grabbed my wad of Polynesian Francs just to make sure I did have the money.

With a condescending shrug, she said I could stay in the empty house next to hers. I expressed my gratitude.

The house had a bed and a chair. The toilet housed a dead fish. But it was a place to stay, and there was no doubt about it: I had gotten to the end. Or so I thought.

The woman invited me to share meals with her family. All meals turned out to be the same. Poi. It was perhaps the most putrescent food I have ever eaten. It was a glutinous, snot-like concoction, that should have been coming out of my body instead of going in. Meals were hard, smiling as I forced the spoon into my mouth, making rudimentary conversation with this woman, her husband, and kids.

I suffered my days alone pacing the short beach. I fell into a bone-crushing despair. I had done what I was supposed to do. Now that all of the distractions of modern life had been scrubbed clean, and I entered the emptiness, what I found there really depressed me. What I found was — nothing.

Sunday came, and the family said they were going to Church. I could come, or I could take a row boat out to the motu. They told me that Grandpa lived out there. He liked having visitors on Sunday. Here it was! The wise old man at the end of the world! It hadn’t all been for nothing! He was here! I quickly chose the boat to the motu.

What is a motu, you might ask. Have you seen those cartoons of the guy on the desert island, a circle of sand with a palm tree in the middle? That’s a motu. You couldn’t possibly get more remote than this and still be on the planet Earth. I got it now: the problem had been that I hadn’t gone far enough.

I got into the boat and glided across the lagoon to the speck of sand in the infinite sea. I got out and saw the one hut on the island. I walked to the door. Inside, there was a wizened brown man with white hair and milky-cataract eyes. He had a big smile, and greeted me as if he knew I was coming. He sat in a metal chair. Another chair sat empty, next to him. He patted the seat, signaling me to sit down. He faced a table. On the table was a small television with a built in VCR player. The screen was filled with gray noise.

I sat down and he nodded with anticipation. He smiled and pantomimed, pointing to the TV. I nodded, too, and smiled. He reached over and hit the play button. The video snapped to life. What I saw on the screen were three hula dancers: attractive, smiling Polynesian women with long black hair, garlands of flowers, coconut shell bikini tops, and grass skirts. They moved in unison, waving their arms, with undulating hips.

I looked at the wise old man and he looked at me with a big smile and nodded. Then he nudged me with his elbow, pointed at the screen, and said, “Vahine! Vahine!”

Which loosely translated, means, “check out the babes.”

I could have hailed a cab on Seventh Avenue and for $7.00 gotten this message. But no, I had to spend thousands of dollars, and travel to the butt-end of the universe to receive this wisdom.

For some time I chalked it up as a cosmic joke. But as the years passed, I realized that I got what I was looking for. The old man at the end of the world did give me the secret to life.

If you haven’t gotten it already, here it is. It’s not only about searching and finding, it’s about recognizing it when it is right in front of your shnozzola. I had to go to the end of the world to figure out the secret is available wherever you look. It’s all about how you look. It’s about being passionate about what is, embracing desire, finding the deep beauty, inviting in the stranger and giving away your heart to them. It is about a willingness to share every little thing you want to hold onto. It is about the daily practice of finding harmony and connection, having a giggle together, crossing the endless abyss to recognize each other. It’s about singing, dancing, and kissing the girl. It’s about knowing that the only thing worth traveling around the world for is true love.

Or in Polynesian, vahine.

Visit Shrinky at http://shrinky.net.

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My psychotherapy client, David, is 32 years old. If anything, David is neat. His blond hair is closely cropped. He wears a Banana Republic iron-free shirt, pressed pants, and shiny black shoes. This is the uniform of a mid-level guy at a major law firm.

His eyes are wide and confused. “I just don’t get it,” he tells me, “I think I’m doing everything right but my wife, Cindy, tells me she just isn’t getting her needs met.”

I ask him why he hasn’t been able to attend his psychotherapy appointments with me for the last three weeks. He tells me he couldn’t get out of work. Then he stops and says, “I know. I keep saying that time just keeps going on and things are not resolving. I was saying the same thing a year ago.”

I find out that David and Cindy barely see each other from Monday to Friday. They both work 70 hour weeks. Cindy is in finance. She is stressed and anxious. She has trouble sleeping.

“By the time the weekend comes, we’re both exhausted,” he says, “and we don’t want to talk about our issues. Then before we know it we’re back at work again, and another week has passed.”

He fears they are headed for divorce.

After David leaves I see Lucy. Lucy was just rejected by a 47-year-old guy who bounces from relationship to relationship because he can’t seem to find a woman who is “right” for him. Broken hearted, Lucy, at 39, is convinced she will be alone and childless for the remainder of her life.

Then I see Dierdre who complains about how much time Richard spends gaming. Next comes Alex who is upset that Jane never wants to have sex. Paul feels like there must be something wrong with him, because none of his friends answer his emails. Charles tells me that he can’t stop binge drinking and having random hook ups every weekend. He tells me he does this because that’s what everyone in his peer group is doing and he doesn’t want to be alone. Stephanie can’t get a date on Match.com.

The stories go on and on. Certainly, as a therapist working in the city, the sample of people that I encounter is a skewed one. But I wonder, is there a pattern here? Through my lens, it appears that though 500 million people are now members of Facebook, people aren’t connecting.

When researchers talk about relationship problems in the post-industrial world, they usually refer to marriage statistics. And these numbers are painful. More than 50% of first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. The rate of marriage around the world has fallen precipitously and the number of out-of-wedlock births has skyrocketed.

But these well-known facts only tell part of the story. We have many different kinds of relationships beyond our marital ones. In fact, throughout our whole lives we are inextricably intertwined with others. None of us is, as Paul Simon said, a rock, or an island.

Our life of relationship may be the most important dimension of our lives. Yet, if what I am seeing in my practice is true, and the statistics about marriage and family are any indication, we are facing a connection crisis. Does my sample indicate a larger trend of people feeling increasingly isolated, alienated, lonely, and empty? Statistics bear out this trend. In 1950, less than one in ten people lived alone. Today, fully 25% do.

Where is this connection crisis coming from? None of us knows for sure. But we do know that we are in a period of massive technological and cultural transformation. As a result, many of our institutions are fracturing and this is leading to a great deal of personal dislocation. Though these changes can be painful, the results have both positive and negative aspects. Certainly, much about the old models of relationship needed improvement.

Anybody who is a fan of the hit TV show, “Mad Men” can attest that in many ways things are better for both women and men since the time of that show in the early 1960’s. At that time, men drank and smoked their way to heart attacks and cancer, and women were relegated to roles like secretary and housewife. The notion of an equal, healthy partnership between the sexes had not entered the common consciousness.

The traumatic life stories of all too many of my clients tells us that physical and emotional abuse and neglect were all too common in the child rearing practices of the past. Unfortunately, these practices still continue, but at least we are beginning to expose this behavior as wholly destructive and many, many people are changing their child-rearing approaches to a more positive one.

The transformation in relationships that is occurring as a result of technology is unprecedented and no one knows what the results of these changes will be. On one hand, the new technologies can be a lot of fun. The ability of Facebook to reconnect people who have been out of touch for decades is extraordinary. At the same time, workers are losing downtime to be with their families because of the demands that they remain tethered to their smart phones 24/7.

For all the good that the changes over the last decades has brought about, the connection crisis tells us that they have also created enormous problems that will be with us for many years to come. For example, at least 1 out of every 5 children are living with one parent, which ample research indicates can have lifelong negative effects. Even if children are living with two parents, the economy and parent’s lifestyle choices are keeping many parents of both genders separated from their children more and more.

Out of an awareness of these down-sides and the fear of change itself, many people are reacting to these transformations with a wish to return to the old days and ways. But returning to the past is impossible. Though we know we cannot return to a former time, the connection crisis tells us that what we have now is not the complete answer. We have been throwing over the past without having found something better to replace it with.

Rather than succumbing to hopelessness about the negative consequences to relationships and connection that we are experiencing today, we must look upon this time as one that offers tremendous opportunity. We must envision this as a time when we can advance the cause of human progress toward living in a more loving world.

How are we going to solve our connection crisis?  By improving the way we relate to others, whether it is with close family members or people from the most far-flung lands.

In fact, creating new forms for relationships is the most important task of our time. In order to do this, we need to foster a relationship fitness movement. We need to redefine the meaning and nature of relationship itself and find ways to teach humanity how to have better, deeper, more fulfilling, relationships.

This relationship fitness movement must begin with a positive vision of the world of relationships as we would like to see it and to propose methods for achieving this new vision.

Our times demand that we recreate long standing institutions like the family, marriage, religion, schoo,l and the work place. It is up to us to do what we can to improve upon these institutions, rather than to either throw them over completely or to suffer the effects of living with them in an outmoded form.

Not only will this relationship fitness movement improve our personal lives, but it is the only way that we will be able to truly live in a safe and secure world. We are not going to bring about this safer world through military might, which only serves to divide us more. When we truly learn how to listen to one another, and we ourselves feel heard, we become compassionate. And true safety will emerge in the world when we most fully develop our compassion towards one another.

In order to create this vision, here are some of the questions we need to answer.

What is the present condition of our relationships? How are we being affected by the ways we are relating now? What is the impact of our culture, institutions and the new media on our relationships?

What does it mean to have a good relationship? What skills are necessary to have good relationships? How can these skills be taught? How can we teach these skills to the greatest number of people? How can we recruit our schools, religious institutions, the work place and social media to foster better relationships?

The changes that need to be made do not mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The new needs to be informed by the wisdom from the past. More than ever, we need what the Akan people of Africa call a sankofa, a reconnection to ancient truths to ground us in a more promising future. What can we learn from our great cultural heritage to help us become something new?

What all of my clients need – what every one of us needs — is basic to human nature and has been primary for people since the beginning of time. Through changes upon changes certain eternal truths remain. In the end, both for our personal fulfillment and the very survival of the planet, we need to figure out how to move humanity ever closer to the realization of universal love.

If we are to survive and thrive in this new world, we need greater and greater numbers of people to learn how to authentically connect in deeper and more sustaining ways. This idea of a relationship fitness movement hopes to contribute to this end. We can only transform our world of relationships if we start doing it here, ourselves. I am very interested in your ideas of how we can bring these kinds of ideas into reality. Please share your thoughts.

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The Unifying Thread

Everyone has problems. People everywhere, and for all time, have been searching for an answer to the great mystery of human folly and self-inflicted suffering. As a psychotherapist, people come to me to provide them with some wisdom, knowledge, expertise and direction on how to find their way out of the darkness and into the light of peace, confidence, success and fulfillment.

In an effort to help myself, my clients, and to do my part in what the Hebrew tradition calls tikkun olam, or fixing the broken world, I have devoted my life to trying to find what Confucius called “the unifying thread” or the psychological theory of everything. Is there a common, underlying, root cause to the unnecessary human pain that plagues us individually and as a society?

After decades of research I have found the answer. The reason for our struggles is that we have a lost heart. In order to understand this defining psychological syndrome and how to fix it, we need to answer four questions: What does it mean to have a lost heart? What is the heart? How did we lose the heart in the first place? And most importantly, how do we find the heart again?

In the next several posts I will answer these questions. In this post  we begin with the first:

Part One: Life With a Lost Heart

We know we have a lost heart when we find ourselves suffering with problems that we cannot solve. We might wake in the middle of the night gripped with terror, or find ourselves smoking pot every day rather than achieving our aims. Maybe we eat too much or do not know the purpose of our lives. Perhaps we can’t get out of bed in the morning or we are lonely and can’t seem to forge loving relationships. We may face a reversal of fortune; a setback in our lives. Our partner asks for a divorce or we’re stuck in work we hate. Where once we found success we now fail.

Whatever the symptom, we may avoid the reality of our situation for a long time. We wander in a somnolent state, as if lost in a dream, stumbling in confusion. Sometimes we make excuses and play the victim, finding the cause of our distress in others. This is the most dangerous phase of the crisis: we don’t yet know the trouble we are in and what we are to face when we try to escape our difficulties.

Whether we suffer a vague sense of dissatisfaction or a total anguish of being—we ignore these signs at our peril. The bells ring. We hear the clanking of chains. The sound gets closer and closer. Despite the danger foretold when things go wrong in our lives, we try to minimize the experience, saying the problem will pass, or it’s just a matter of luck or chance. Yet even as we deny impending doom, the ghost of dreadful consequence looms before us, demanding our attention. The universe, working its mysterious ways, always finds the means to awaken us to our lost condition. Until we recognize that the maze we find ourselves in is a call to confront the truth of our lives, living will continue to bring us pain.

“What do you want with me?” we ask when the ghost enters our room.

“Much!” the voice answers.

When first we confront such conundrums in our lives, we usually discover that the answers are not easily found. Opening our eyes from slumber, our vision remains obscured by sleep. We find ourselves caught in magical binds, ensnared in seemingly insoluble dilemmas.  Trapped in depression, lost without love, riven by anxiety, we want to know why we are being tormented by the universe but we can find no apparent cause. Our mind’s limitations stop us from fully grasping the true nature of our condition. Nothing makes sense. We are bewildered.

The code of life’s problems is inscrutable. What is the secret message they are trying to reveal? (more…)