In Honor of the Mother

“Ah to sing the song of you, my matron mighty!
My sacred one, my mother.”

—from “Delicate Cluster” by Walt Whitman

“There was a child went forth every day, And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became, And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day…or for many years or stretching cycles of years.”

—from “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman

Many refer to the operation of the universe as “mother” nature, the mastermind behind all that exists; mother is the being through whom all life springs. In honor of Mother’s Day, I reflect on the deep debt of gratitude that each and every one of us owes to the well-intentioned mothers across the globe and throughout time, for their immeasurable sacrifices.

In their pioneering efforts, psychology experts, such as, Melanie Klein, Donald Winicott, Ronald Fairbairn, and Michael Balint all contributed insight which eventually led to the development of a new paradigm in psychology referred to as Object Relations Theory. This framework essentially operates with the understanding that interactions with caregivers early in an individual’s life significantly shapes the manner in which that person relates to other human beings from childhood on through the rest of her or his life. Particularly important to note, is the critical importance of the role of the mother in shaping that individual’s psyche. The broad volume of contemporary research into the principles of attachment builds upon the contributions of those pioneers from decades ago. Looking beyond the, sometimes, painful and frustrating everyday tasks of rearing children, it is clear that the gift of life is incredibly precious. Without mothers, none of us would be allowed to experience the profound treasure that is consciousness.

It has been determined that the first three years of a child’s life, often referred to as the “critical period” or critical developmental years, are especially important in shaping the psyche of the individual. Surely, with the awesome responsibility of growing a human being from scratch comes much toil, and, this period of time is especially fraught with challenges. Because of the incredible attention paid to the well-being of the child, this early period represents a particularly difficult time for any two caregivers in a romantic partnership. It is at this time, in particular, that virtually all of the mother’s physical, emotional, and spiritual resources are exhausted in devoting her utmost attention to the care of the child. Understanding that the task can indeed be incredibly burdensome, at times, such as those sleepless nights, when nobody but the mother can comfort and soothe the child, often, one cannot help but find humor in the role of the mother that is both a blessing and, at times, a curse. For example, I’m reminded of the moment, this very morning, when my wife was trying to eat her breakfast peacefully on the only day of the year that truly honors the essence of her being and the important role that she plays in the universe, yet my children hung over her like a pair of monkeys. The moments have rarely been dull, and, it seems, there has never been a moment of peace for the mother of my children. Despite the difficulty, however, nearly every experience has been immensely rich and rewarding.

So, what is it about the relationship between mother and child that is so integral in shaping the human being? Some of the research on the subject of attachment focuses on a quality referred to as “maternal sensitivity.” This represents a set of qualities adopted by the mother which she brings to her experience of relating to her child. Acclaimed expert in the field of psychology, particularly as it pertains to matters involving the development of the child, adolescent, and young adult, Dan Siegel notes that adopting these qualities of presence more than likely will help produce secure attachment. Secure attachment, considered the ideal, is a type of “psychological immunization,” Siegel claims. This element serves as a protective factor, helping individuals ward of the detrimental effects that can typically result from significantly challenging life circumstances. Considering all of this, certainly, it is not to say that if a mother demonstrates an inability to follow-through on effectively rearing a child, that that child cannot go on to live a fruitful life. There are countless stories of resilient individuals who have overcome difficult childhood experiences, to go on to become successful and, sometimes, profoundly influential human beings, but those examples represent the exception not the norm. This, of course, begs the question, “what is success in a life?” What, ultimately, is the most meaningful aspect(s) of our experience, in the grand scheme of things? That is a discussion for another time. At the end of the day, we are relational beings. We exist in connection with other human beings, and the more adept we are at interacting healthily and effectively, chances are, the more content we will end up being. Interpersonal Neurobiology, the branch of psychology that explores the manner in which a human being’s brain is shaped over time according to her or his interactions with other individuals, is gaining increased traction, and is of profound value. This science is cementing the idea that we are social creatures, by nature. We cannot go at it alone.

Among the many stories about people, at the end of their lives, in reflecting upon their experiences, it seems apparent that what is ultimately deemed important are not the accomplishments, accolades, or financial gains, but rather the people that have been important to them throughout their years. That all begins, according to the Object Relations theorists, with the manner in which our primary caregivers, particularly our mothers, interact with us, early in life. Here’s to all the mothers, and the profound and priceless influence they have on each and every one of us. Today, the world honors you and the awesome responsibility bequeathed to you, in caring for and guiding the individuals of the future. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.

On Fleeting Life

“Imagine you were now dead, or had not lived before this moment. Now view the rest of your life as a bonus, and live it as nature directs.”

Marcus Aurelius

What will you do with the precious gift of life which you have been granted? How will you pass the time, over the course of your life, before you vanish? With that, consider this sage wisdom from Dr. Viktor Frankl, the late influential psychiatrist who wrote one of the most profound metaphysical discourses in history: “…is not this transitoriness a reminder that challenges us to make the best possible use of each moment of our lives? It certainly is, and hence my imperative: live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” Upon examining our lives, it’s critical to consider the fact that we are each given but one chance in this universe–one chance, to leverage the awesome power of our hearts, our minds, and our spirits. Choose wisely.

 

 

Lifting The Veil

“The most that one person can do to further it in another, is to create certain conditions which make this type of learning possible. It cannot be compelled.”
Carl Rogers

For me, it is difficult to work in a field in which there is very little that is certain. There is no guarantee that the effort that a clinician puts in will result in a particular change or set of changes in the client. Ultimately, change relies on the capacity and the willingness of the respective individual. No amount of force or coercion is going to influence the client to move in this direction or that. A therapist might come into a particular session with a predetermined agenda for how they would like the events during the session to unfold, but the client often brings something entirely different into the room, desiring instead to address the crisis at hand.

Irv Yalom, in the literature that he produced, cited an occurrence whereby he utilized a specific literary intervention to help guide a client who was experiencing writer’s block. The intention was two-fold—on one hand, he sought to snap her out of her slump, and on the other, he used it as a means to have them each reflect on what they perceived as the most profound moments they had experienced in therapy. To his surprise, he found that what he thought were the most memorable interpretations and occurrences, turned out to have been completely glossed over by the client. Instead, she had identified elements that he had virtually no recollection of. That is why therapy is very much a balance between art and science. Often, what goes on in the room is completely subjective and difficult to quantify.

There’s nothing I want more than to be able to say, “if you come to therapy, commit to the process, and do the work, you will heal and find peace and happiness.” It’s not quite that simple. It doesn’t always work that way. If it were that simple, there would be little need for psychotropic medication. Managing one’s brain chemistry is a truly delicate science, as psychiatrists are aware. In some cases, simply removing one’s self from a difficult environment can allow an individual to thrive in ways, they never new possible. However, there is always the likelihood that no distance is great enough to wash away the pain. “Wherever you go, there you are,” as Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote. Similarly, Michel de Montaigne wrote, “Socrates was told that some man had not been improved by travel. ‘ I am sure he was not,’ he said. ‘He went with himself!’” This brings to mind the age old nature versus nurture debate. The psychology textbooks talk about the diathesis-stress model, which points to the biological predisposition for succumbing to the pains of psychological distress, which ultimately depends upon the volume of stress (acute or chronic) placed on the individual over the course of their life. There are far too many variables to account for, such as the mother’s disposition, the father’s disposition, the amount of stress hormones present in the mother’s body during the gestational period (i.e. the pre-natal environment), the environment surrounding the child during the critical developmental years, the attachment relationship between primary caregiver and child, and the list continues. Whether or not a child is certain to struggle down the road is entirely unpredictable. In that same vein, it’s near impossible to determine whether or not one will be able to heal, based on work done in the therapeutic setting. There are individuals who have been in therapy, from childhood into adulthood, and yet it seems necessary for them to endure a lifelong process of healing, whereas some individuals, after an acute crisis, require only a short-term therapeutic intervention, to reach a place of optimal functioning.

Carl Rogers dedicated virtually his entire life to identifying the fundamental factors that elicit therapeutic change in the treatment setting. He came up with a simple formula, namely that the client is entirely responsible for change, but a therapist should always demonstrate genuineness, accurate empathy, and unconditional positive regard in the therapeutic relationship, in aiding the client to tap their innate potential. Michael Lambert developed his common factors theory, which posited that forty-percent of change is due to “client factors and extra-therapeutic events,” thirty-percent of change is due to the therapeutic relationship, fifty-percent is due to models and techniques, and the remaining fifteen-percent is due to expectancy and placebo effects. In addition, there are views on where the client might be, in terms of their willingness to change, or lack thereof. In this respect, there is the stages of change model (Pre-contemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, Maintenance) and the Solution-focused approach, which seeks to determine whether the client is a Customer, Visitor, or Complainant.

I once heard a metaphor about change stemming from within the organism. When a flower is wilting, one does not tend to the flower, but rather she/he treats the environment around the flower, and the flower will persevere. At the very least, the therapist creates and maintains the safe-space, as it is called, which allows the individual to thrive.

Currently, there is a laundry list of theoretical orientations, whereby therapists act as directive agents and non-directive agents. In some cases, therapists take on the delicate balancing act of straddling the two ends of the continuum. Overall, non-directive therapists generally do fewer “interventions” during a session, allowing the client/individual to do most of the “work” in the therapy room. Directive therapists, take a very active approach (Strategic, Structural, CBT, EMDR, etc…) commanding the client to take action toward certain steps in their lives, through a number of strategies:

• Modifying boundaries among members of the family system
• Goal-oriented tasks
• Interventions to alter destructive patterns of interacting with the world.
• Challenge faulty thinking patterns
• Worksheets and exercises
• Sensory exercises to mend the wounds of past trauma

What can a therapist control? Just as a client should place their focus on the aspects of their life that lie within her/his control, in order to minimize distress, a therapist should put forth effort toward controlling the things he/she can: their presence, what they model, how they attune to the client, the physical space of the therapy setting, and the psychological “holding environment.” At the end of the day, at the very least, a therapist needs to trust that there is an innate resiliency that rests within each and every individual. We are brokers of hope. Holding hope is what is absolutely within our control. All else is up to the client.

On Death

“If you regard your last day not as a punishment but as a law of nature, the breast from which you have banished the dread of death no fear will dare to enter.”

Seneca

 There is no dialogue thorough enough to cover the topic of death in its entirety. Certainly, history’s greatest sages have been exploring the subject for millennia. With that, just as the great philosophical minds have attempted to reconcile their thoughts on the matter for several thousand years, the conversation will likely continue on until the end of human existence. In these passages, I try to settle my thoughts on the topic, in a way that brings me a sense of peace. This is likely just the first entry, of many, on the issue of impermanence.

On my best days, when I carry on without a concern for the yolk that father time has cast around my neck, I feel as if a weight has been lifted from atop my shoulders. On other days, when death’s imminent touch is present in my mind, I’m reminded of the myth of Sisyphus. His punishment—to roll an unforgiving boulder up a relentless hill, on and on again, until the end of time. A thought follows; is this all there is? What life is this that I must go on about my days, believing that the existence that I’ve come to know as “I” will cease, at some point in the near or distant future. Does anybody else find themselves in a similar predicament? Do you share the same sentiments? If you can relate, then of course, we must consider the fact that death is not always at the forefront of people’s minds. For those who walk this earth, impervious to the impending end to it all, I rest in awe, as it seems like a wonderful dream that I will never come to experience. “Ignorance is bliss,” as they say. Some get to carry on with their everyday lives, paying virtually no attention to the fact that their time on Earth will one day come to an end. For those of us who proceed with the constant awareness that we will eventually perish, the ability to stay focused and present in carrying out the tasks of a given day is often marred by this dark reality. Which manner of living leaves one feeling more content? To be free of thoughts of dying or to live knowing that “this too shall pass?” Clearly, some of us expend more psychic energy pondering the notion more deeply than others. Why is it so much more present in some, and not in others?

Some of the most influential minds in history have boldly chosen to attack the subject head on. To what end? Through the annals of history, the number of wise men and women who spoke their mind on this subject is far too great to count. Seneca, arguably one of the most notable, had much to say on the matter of death, as he discusses in his profound work—On the Shortness of Life. Seneca stated: “No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly. It will not lengthen itself for a king’s command or a people’s favour. As it started out on its first day, so it will run on, nowhere pausing or turning aside. What will be the outcome? You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.” Indeed, we cannot cheat death, though certain eccentric tycoons might relentlessly keep up the pursuit, with their endless resources which accompany their visionary minds. If, in fact, we cannot prolong our time on this earth, what then do we do, in the meantime? Michel de Montaigne shared some choice words with us; he wrote of wanting to spend his time reading literature that educated him on how to live fruitfully and to die with dignity.  Irvin Yalom urges us to explore the subject deeply, so as to work-through our gravest concerns, such that we can proceed through life with more resilience, and free from strain. Irvin Yalom was one of a handful of esteemed clinicians who made existential theory, which includes a deep conversation about death and dying, a prime focus in their therapeutic efforts with clients. In his seminal work Existential Psychotherapy, Yalom cites John Fowles, in a discussion of death: “Death’s rather like a certain kind of lecturer…you don’t really hear what is being said until you’re in the front row.” The closer one is to death, through thoughts or experience, the more we tend to pay attention and not a moment sooner. How do we come to terms with the finality of life? What sets us apart from other species is the capability of our minds, but what angst is created by our ability to comprehend the fact that our time here is limited!? How do we make sense of the world, knowing that we will lose pets, friends, loved ones, even ourselves one day? God forbid any parent should have to face the grave circumstances of laying a child to rest, long before their own time has come. What heartbreak!? Philosophy is sometimes referred to as a love of wisdom, a perpetual search for truth of sorts. With our current understanding of our notion of human existence, one of the only, and certainly the most profound, uncontestable truths in life is that: one day, we are all going to pass on from this world. What does each free thinking and acting individual do with this information? How does one choose to carry forward, given this hard and fast rule of life?

So, again I ask: where do we go from here? Let’s, again, look at it from the perspective of some of the great thinkers of the last few centuries. Existential thought is something that I hold near and dear to my heart. One of the chief tenets of Existential Philosophical thought and Existential psychological theory revolves around this very notion of death, specifically how we make sense of the concept. Irvin Yalom, the estimable psychiatrist, along with other influential minds in the field of psychology, and the great existential philosophers followed in Montaigne’s footsteps, seeking to aid individuals in gaining a greater understanding of their lives and guiding individuals hoping to cope with the idea of impermanence. On this note, Yalom speaks of studies done with a series of cancer patients, who were given a terminal prognosis, and found that these individuals often found themselves filled with more purpose than ever before, once they had been given a definite end date, so to speak. This is profound!

So, whether you go on about your days conscious of your own mortality or not, it’s important to consider how each moment of every day is spent. For those of us who dwell incessantly on the morbid, what do we do with this information? How do we cope? How do we gain clarity and peace of mind? It may seem hopeful, for some, to believe that the end of corporeal existence may not be the end to the essence of what we are. The soul, the spirit, may continue on, indefinitely, but we may never come to know, for sure. We are limited in our ability to comprehend being in the world, based on the rules and confines of language. Science can only prove circumstances so far as our current understanding allows us to. A scientist might argue that, since all matter is comprised of sub-atomic particles, then even as this body “dies,” our essence is reincorporated back into the universe. So, in effect, it never actually leaves, nor does it ever go anywhere. It is always right here, just not in the way that I am able to fully comprehend. What then is the soul? Where is it? Does it, in fact, continue after the corporeal cage expires? This is certainly a conversation for another time. For now, eastern philosophical gurus seem to have settled on a fairly reasonable interim solution. They aim to guide individuals not to wonder what we are, but rather that we are. They urge us not to try to pick things apart and analyze the pieces, which is so often typical of western culture. They stress the importance of choosing simply to live in the present moment. This task is easier said than done, of course, for in the back of our minds will always be the idea that we will one day part ways with our friends and loved ones, with our materials and our accomplishments, with our memories and dreams. I close with the following reflective thoughts by Viktor Frankl. In Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the great metaphysical discourses, Dr. Frankl poses the following question: “Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?” He ties up his exploration with some concluding thoughts, of them, this critical moral particularly stands out: “…is not this transitoriness a reminder that challenges us to make the best possible use of each moment of our lives? It certainly is, and hence my imperative: live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” With that being said, at what point do we stop attempting to grasp the meaning of all things, put the book down and make a conscious choice to begin living life true to our unique nature, regardless of the impermanence of life? Death represents the end of life, as we can understand it now, but when and where does life, or more specifically living, truly begin?

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