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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

How to Break the Anxiety-Worry Habit; Handling Uncertainty, another Musing on Impermanence in the Form of Uncertainty.

Readers, how do you feel about dental work?

As I write, I sit here with a modern poultice of clove in my tooth. Yes, I said poultice, as in the old-fashioned plaster poultice that is so often applied to injuries and wounds in nineteenth-century English literature. In Jane Austen, for example. Mustard plasters and poultices were the go-to’s for first aid back then. Well, Readers, I have endured some dental work involving medicated cement in place of an old filling. This is known technically as a temporary filling, but I prefer poultice. Having dental work always strikes me as a close cousin of the barbaric practices of yore. In other words, it is something to be avoided. 

However, I was unable to avoid a particular jaw & tooth situation, which may have been (definitely WAS) created by the pandemic: jaw clenching. Clenching led, apparently, to some difficulty with a filling. You don’t need details, and really, I apologize for this much detail. Who needs it? It’s not even the point of my blog post.

As I prepared for this feat of bravery—sitting in the dentist’s chair and allowing him to perform his barbaric art upon my mouth—I thought about a recent article in Psychology Today magazine by Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., professor at Brown University and clinician. His basic idea is that anxiety and worry are a habit created by a continuous feedback loop. A habit is a conditioned response, as we all know from Psych 101 or just hearing about Pavlov’s dog hearing a bell, getting a treat and salivating at the expected pleasure, over and over until just hearing the bell would stimulate the dog to salivate. 

These are not Pavlov's dogs

A habit of anxiety and worry is also a conditioned response. You feel anxious, so you worry—worry and anxiety are two different things. Brewer built his research on that of Borkovec in the 1980s, who discovered and posited that there is an element of habit in anxiety. Anxiety is a physical sensation; the sensation triggers worrying (stimulus and response), and that responding over and over to the anxiety sensation creates the habit of the anxiety-worry cycle


The apparent glitch in this theory is that worrying is rewarding. Do you find worrying rewarding? Well, Brewer says, in a certain way, worrying IS rewarding. Because anxiety is about uncertainty; we feel anxious when things are uncertain. Worrying is the response and it is reinforced because when we’re worrying we kind of feel like we’re doing something to address the uncertainty. 

Anyone who’s been in therapy—and there should be more of us, if you ask me, but then that’s the business I’m going into—has probably encountered a gentle admonition from their therapist that worrying about, say, the state of the world, makes you feel like you can control it. Or worrying, say, about your daughter driving a twelve-year-old car up and down the Eastern Seaboard, can keep her safe. We know, rationally, the worrying doesn’t do anything; but worrying becomes its own talisman. We’re afraid to let it go, because frankly, when it comes to daughters or the environment, there’s not much we can control. 

The good news is that this anxiety-worry habit can be broken. Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D, argues that we modern humans don’t need to feel much anxiety and worry. It’s not helpful. Contrary to popular belief it doesn’t keep us sharp and on our toes. It actually makes us feel scattered and creates difficulty concentrating and performing. So we should definitely not be proud of our intense stressed states. We should get out of the habit of having them. This is the stuff of CBT—cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT helps us identify our automatic, negative thoughts. Once we identify them, we can choose different thoughts. 

So, according to Brewer, the first step is to recognize that worrying is actually not rewarding. It is the opposite of rewarding. It is unrewarding. It makes you preoccupied. It makes you lose sight of your day and your time and your personal goals. It makes you wrinkled, grey, and old. Okay, no, that’s not true and Brewer didn’t say it. Life does that to you, if you’re lucky (a topic for a different day, perhaps). But anyway, worrying is a waste of time and energy and really doesn’t help hold up the world. This Atlas theory of world-holding by worry just exhausts us. The world will spin even if we don’t worry. Daughters will drive unreliable cars. Life seems predictable until it isn’t and then we feel uncertain. Even if we worry. And even if we don’t. 

What a concept. We don’t need to worry. It’s not helpful. In fact, it’s hurtful. This is news to me. I am happy to look at this in a new way. 

Now, anxiety is a different story. Anxiety is a natural, primitive brain response to uncertainty. (Again, paraphrasing Brewer). So the next step in breaking the anxiety-worry habit is to respond to anxiety with something that actually is rewarding. Brewer suggests that getting mindfully curious about the sensation of anxiety is one option. I am sure there are others, but that’s what I have for you for now.

Before making the dental appointment, I was full of anxiety about this tooth and this ache and what it was going to lead to. I was so anxious and worried about it that I had to really work my courage up before making the call. Once I had made the call, and Svetlana in Dr. L’s office called me back, I had much less anxiety. This was because, Readers, mindful that uncertainty triggers anxiety and worry, I did the strangely logical thing and asked Svetlana what the heck was going to happen when I got there for my appointment. Armed with as much info as I could tolerate, I headed to my appointment. Since I had spoken to Svetlana, I had much less uncertainty about what was going to happen. As I drove, I noticed that I didn’t feel terribly anxious. I noted that perhaps I felt a bit nervous, but I wasn’t worried. Because I knew what was going to happen. It wasn’t uncertain. 

Of course, a moment later, I did start to think that perhaps being neither anxious nor worried was the sign of impending doom, lamb to the slaughter type thing; the unsuspecting woman headed to disaster. My mind traveled to a scenario involving me in the dreaded chair, numbed up and hearing Dr.L say, “Oh dear, I didn’t expect this and now I must drill through your jawbone and attach a wire to keep your lower jaw on your head and by the way you have no more tooth in that spot at all, oopsie.” However, Readers, I have been around many blocks in my many years and I recognized this as a habitual anxiety loop starting up. Because I noticed it, I was able to stop it. Mostly. Remember, it takes time to form and reform a habit. I am not saying I felt completely happy about the coming procedure, but I didn’t feel anxious, just nervous. Nervous is an appropriate, alert state response. 

After that was a blur of Novocaine and trying to picture myself on a beach watching dogs frolic, and then the scent of clove wafted into my nose. Sure, my tongue now feels like a hot dog and my lips are like potato rolls. And I am sipping a chai latte through a (contraband, evil) straw trying not to let any liquid dribble out. But overall, things weren’t so bad, because I didn’t make them worse by my habit of anxiety and worry. 

Worrying is a kind of holding-on. Worrying is about desiring, usually desiring the prevention of a bad outcome. We all know desiring is the root of suffering. Desiring something over and over and over doesn’t make that thing more likely. It simply reinforces the sense of lack, the wanting in the old-fashioned definition of the word wanting. Wanting means desiring and also lacking. Letting go of thinking things should feel or be different than they are is key to just relaxing in life. Letting go of worry is a habit to establish now. 

Or so they say. It’s much easier said than done. However, practicing letting go of worry by becoming curious about how anxiety feels seems doable. 

We all want things to be certain, predictable, and permanent. Too bad, us. In fact, according to an article I read called "Decolonizing Social Work," permanence is a Western value. 

Do I believe anxiety doesn’t have to exist? That it’s evolutionary trash that should be incinerated? Uncertainty is a cousin of impermanence, and we know how we struggle with impermanence. Uncertainty can make you twitchy. You are always on edge. It creates fear of loss, according to Kahnemann and Tversky, and humans fear loss more than we enjoy winning, supposedly. So, yeah, we value permanence. And yeah, we are out of luck, because what we get is just the opposite. 

Lots of ocean and swimming metaphors surface around this topic. Plus ca change the plus they remain the same is that old French adage, isn’t it? Being certain amidst uncertainty, understanding in a visceral way that everything is always changing can be its own kind of certainty, can’t it? This is the goal of the enlightened, I suppose. We befriend our anxiety in a non-clinging sort of way and maybe it’ll fade away. But we never lose our edge, we’re always having to make some minor adjustments to stay afloat. That’s the metaphor. That’s the truth. However, we don’t have to worry about it. 

We can all feel as peaceful as this scene. With practice. Lots of practice. 

Friday, June 25, 2021

Musings on Impermanence: Annals of Success and Life

    Readers, I am a creature of habit. I like to eat the same breakfast from the same bowl and drink the same coffee from the same mugs. I have done this on the regular, as they say, for quite some time. Now, I sometimes change my habits, but for the last several years, I have eaten the same breakfast nearly every day (steel-cut oats). And mid-morning, I drink a cup of coffee. I use the same lovely, handmade mug, of a set of two, given to the husband and me for our wedding. And I use the Moomintroll bowl given to the 19-year-old some time ago by her uncle—the Moominbowl. Indeed, that bowl was given to the 19-year-old so long ago, I had conveniently forgotten that, technically, the bowl was not mine; she reminded me not long ago that she would be taking that bowl with her when she moves out—a startling reminder of more than one truth, if I am completely honest. Daily, unless the dishwasher cycle prevented me, I reached for the bowl, I reached for the mug. 

One morning, I reached for the mug, and I thought to myself, Self, we have had these two mugs for a very long time, as long as the husband and I have been married, and they are unique mugs and special, and isn’t it amazing that they have lasted this long. 

    Well, Readers, you are all clever, so you know what happened. It didn’t happen exactly next, but it happened soon after. Having survived seven moves, two children, one dog, and the arrival of two puppies, one of the two mugs went kaput. 
    I once had a housemate who referred to precious objects as “on preservation.” Her precious objects were somewhat dubious in quality. A broken teapot, for example, was on preservation. As were some quite worn items of clothing. She fully embraced wabi-sabi. But, and here again, I must be honest, I totally understood what she meant. “On preservation” meant worn or used almost to not wearable or useable anymore; since the object was beloved, though, she would mete out the times she used the thing, so it would last longer. I realized that I did the same thing. Combined with my other propensity to hold off on using something new, almost until I forgot I had it, so it would always be new, this meant the period of using an object freely and without concern was truncated at either end by anxiety about keeping the thing. 
    However, since that time of the slightly nutty but enjoyable roommate, I have tried to take to heart my Aunt Wisdom’s maxim about things: Don’t Pickle It. I have written about this maxim before. It reminds me that a thing is a thing and it’s only of use if I use it. So enjoy it. Use it. Appreciate it. 
    Shortly after dropping one of the precious mugs, I reached for the Moominbowl. Ever since the 19-year-old mentioned taking that bowl with her when she leaves home, I had thought about that statement and felt, maybe, a frisson of guilt mixed with a soupçon of devil-may-care as I prepared my oatmeal in it. Perhaps that is why shortly after the mug bit it, the bowl dove to the floor and smashed itself into smithereens.  

On Preservation and Don’t Pickle It are two approaches to dealing with something unbearable about life: things don’t last. Life is impermanent. Don’t Pickle It is probably the healthier approach; you enjoy a thing until it’s worn out, and then let it go. On Preservation is about hanging on to it, probably past its usefulness. 
    Let us not forget Save It Forever, which is the dumbest of all, for reasons so obvious I don’t need to elaborate them. Do I? A girl I knew in fourth grade got a birthday cake in the shape of a heart that was decorated so beautifully she didn’t want to eat it. They put it on the mantel and let it sit there. I don’t know for how long. Maybe her brother’s boa constrictor ate it after he got loose. I didn’t go to her house after that.  
Old mug, new Moominbowl

    Now that I’m down to one mug of the pair, I am tempted by on preservation. The Moominbowl was irreplaceable, I discovered to my guilt; however, I found a very nice substitute, same size, same shape, different images. It took about eight hours for the 19-year-old to notice the new bowl when she returned for the summer. I think twice before using it, but I still do. Not every day, though.

    The point is, we get attached to things, and sometimes the attachment is out of proportion. Attachment is what relationships are made of, but so is change and impermanence. To successfully navigate life, we have to come to terms with this paradox. My way is not especially unique or healthy. However, I know a couple of things. Habits are important because they make life easy; they also give it a kind of permanence. This is reassuring, unless the habits become rigid or obsessive, used to ward off thinking about things like impermanence and change and how scary those things can feel. A cake should be eaten. A shirt should be worn. A teapot that is broken? Unless you have the pieces and can repair them with gold and turn it into kintsugi, it should be allowed to go. Even then, you will have to say goodbye to it someday. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

Annals of Social Work and Life

Did I mention that the husband and I acquired two puppies? Maybe not, because there have been moments of sincere regret about that decision, and I don't know about you, Readers, but when I regret a decision, I also feel ashamed and embarrassed. Fortunately, those moments are becoming more widely separated than they were, and the puppies are growing up. Also, I have completed my first year of my Master's in Social Work and have the summer mostly off. 

   School is on my mind, still. Here's my latest post for Psychology Today. Please click below and read it so my editor there will promote my piece! 

Have We Resolved Social Work's Identity Crisis? 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Annals of Pandemic Life--The Paterfamilias and a New Post on Psychology Today

 Hello, Readers. I have been behind on my blog. The reasons are various, including being busy, busy with school and overwhelmed with housebreaking two puppies—what was I thinking? I was thinking about how fun it will be when they’re trained, and not about how much work is involved in training them AND going to graduate school at the same time. 

Also, I have been avoiding writing because I have to put in words the sad truth that the Paterfamilias is no more. He died on December 29th, of old age and complications of COVID-19. I am grieving. Of course I am. The anger over how he died—alone in the hospital, very hard to reach by phone or Zoom, is with me. What can I say about a 95-year-old man who died other than he had a long life, a mostly good life, a life with some tragedy and much joy, and he was my father. I am now an orphan. 

It’s not a tragedy that he died. We all must die, and he did not die before his time. That would be a tragedy. But how he died was tragic. Alone, isolated, frustrated, and afraid, as so many people have had to die this year. Even when loved ones were nearby and prepared, they couldn’t reach their hospitalized ones. They were trying, like me and my sister the psychoanalyst, to reach their parent by phone, by Zoom, and finding themselves baffled at every turn by difficulty communicating, even if we did manage to get through. That was tragic, to not be with the paterfamilias in the hospital to hold his hand and keep him company. 

Nevertheless, there it is. He is not. Life is going on, and I have a new blog post up on Psychology Today that I am sharing with you here. It’s about finding my identity in a profession that is having an identity crisis. Ah, the irony. Please click the link below to finish reading it on the Psychology Today website. The more views the editors see my post get, the better for me. Please continue reading below and click on the highlighted text to finish to post. 

Social Work's Identity Crisis--And Mine

I began writing this blog to help me figure how to define myself as a successful person when I had experienced very little of what the world considers success for an individual. And by world I mean my own part of the world, the world of educated professionals. I was not a professional, despite my education, and this ate at me most fiercely. I washed up on the shores of Regret and Should’ve, questioning my focus on writing novels and on being a mother. Worthy endeavors, but I couldn’t see them that way, because they didn’t amount to resumé entries. They were not professional success. I became something of a psychologist-manque, reading up on success and flourishing and goals, steeping in the tea of Positive Psychology and serving it up to you, entertaining myself and others with my forays. 

Please click here to continue reading

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Tips from Pantone on Optimism and Strength: Success in Tunnel and Out

Did you know every year there is an official color? Indeed there is, and the announcement is met with some fanfare in the world of design. The Pantone Color Institute picks it and names it. This year’s color of the year is actually two colors, Ultimate Gray and Illuminating. That’s grey and yellow to you and me. The colors were chosen together because they create contrast and balance. Things being what they are, I guess even paint company employees are looking for answers to our current predicament. “The selection of two independent colors highlight how different elements come together to express a message of strength and hopefulness that is both enduring and uplifting, conveying the idea that it’s not about one color or one person, it’s about more than one,” said Leatrice Eiseman, Executive Director of the Pantone Color Institute, in a press release.*

Readers, I never thought I’d be passing on success tips from Pantone, but I find inspiration where I must. Optimism and strength are “two characteristics that are needed as we enter the new year,” according to the author, Nicoletta Richardson, of Pantone's colors.* Because things right now are very hard and dark. You know, we’re in it. The days have a ways to go to the shortest one, so we’re still tunneling down and we can’t expect that little upturn that means we’re going to make it out to sunlight again until then. The too short, too dark, too cloudy days. We know they’re going to get longer soon, though, and that does bolster the mood. However, as Kate McKinnon said on “Saturday Night Live Weekend Update” last weekend, it’s well and good to see the light at the end of the tunnel,“It’s just that the light at the end of the tunnel has shown us how stinky and bad the tunnel is.” What’s in my tunnel right now, aside from the wider world of politics and incomprehensibly stupid people, is the paterfamilias with COVID-19, alone in the hospital, in a city far away. Not that distance matters at the moment, because visitors aren’t allowed. 

On the side of Count Your Blessings is that he has a bed, he doesn’t need a ventilator, and he has enough energy to complain. On the side of Life is Infuriating, Hard, and Scary is the government’s murderous response to this pandemic means my 95 year old father is alone in the hospital with a disease he never needed to have. 

Okay, so what do we do? We gotta get through the tunnel. This blog is about success, at least putatively. Success is sometimes just plodding along. Indeed, often it is just taking that next step. How’re you doing, I would ask my stepmother, as she descended from sharp-witted lawyer to demented old woman. Oh, still putting one foot in front of the other, she would say. It’s what we have to do. 

But what can I do? Anne Lamott would say, do what we do: tend to the sick; feed the hungry; cheer the sad; practice self-care. My social work professors are big on self-care, too. What do you do for self-care, they all ask. Perhaps they know something. Perhaps we should listen. 

Of course, in times of stress, self-care gets de-prioritized. Okay, so here’s a tip. Don’t beat yourself up about that. Just promise to practice it more when things are better. That way, you’ll establish your practice, whatever it may be, and if it’s a habit, you might stick to it the next time a crisis rolls around. Or not. It’s not perfect. You’re not perfect. Meanwhile, whenever you remember to practice self-care, do so. 

Meanwhile, what to do about the outrage? That’s a good one. The answer, of course, is feel it if you feel it. Feel it if you feel it, and try not to get caught up in it. 

Because I’m only passing on wisdom, not generating it, at least not at this time, I offer this tidbit from Professor Bonnie Duran of the Schools of Social Work and Public Health at University of Washington, who offers a six word mantra to get you through a bad day: Not perfect, not permanent, not personal. (

Let that sink in for a moment. You can apply it to many things, but if you’re one to get caught up in the political moment, or to get whipped into a frenzy by covid numbers, or to wring your hands because the reforms you want aren’t happening fast enough or in the right way, just take a breath and remember, nothing is perfect, it’s not personal, and it’s not permanent. 

These people who are so incomprehensible to me, they make sense to themselves. It’s not about you; for them it’s about them. It’s not personal. As far as perfect, nothing is perfect. So remember that your idea for fixing the world may be great, but it’s not perfect. Nor is the world perfect. So all solutions once we get out of the tunnel will be imperfect. It’s not personal that everyone else doesn’t immediately grasp your great idea as the best solution. It’s just inevitable. Machinery as klunky as the human cooperative society is never going to move smoothly in one direction. Move it does, however. Remember, it’s not permanent. Now the more Fred Flintstone feet we get moving in the same direction, the more definite the direction and the movement will be, but still, there will always be other feet walking at a different pace or in a different direction. Maybe it's going a direction you like, and maybe it's not. Either way, it’s not permanent. 

This brings me to the next point. We can’t give up. Just because life is hard, doesn’t mean we give up. When it comes time to give inspiration, I can’t turn to faith. Sure, humor, sure wisdom (sometimes), sure honesty—I can do those. Faith, though? Faith in humanity I have to some degree. I tend to skew towards faith that people overall are good, that most want to be good and do good.  

What I can put faith in is the power of purpose. I get that from Viktor Frankl. In Man’s Search For Meaning he drives home that to survive an existential crisis, a person must find a meaning and purpose to her life. Sometimes the purpose is simply to endure suffering. Bleak as it sounds, it is also a testament to hope. As Frankl worked himself nearly to death at Auschwitz, he told himself his job was to endure the suffering he confronted. We are close to the end of the tunnel, but we know that the light outside is pretty dim, and there’s a lot of scary stuff out there, too, with which we’re going to have to cope. Not perfect, not personal, not permanent helps with suffering, too. 

Maybe this post doesn’t seem that optimistic. Maybe there’s a paucity of Illuminating, or is it Ultimate Gray? I guess to that point I say this: it takes both strength and optimism to face the tunnel. “It is possible to practice the art of living, even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent,” says Viktor Frankl, and he should know. 

It takes strength and optimism to crawl forward in the dark and believe in the light at the end, and it takes strength and optimism to look at what’s in the tunnel, too. Here's Frankl once more, “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Sometimes the most optimistic thing I can muster is the knowledge that I will feel it once again. 

It’s what I have, today, Readers. That’s it.


Frankl, Viktor. Man's Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006. (1959).

Friday, October 23, 2020

Annals of Pandemic Life: Mere Days Before the Election

Where is everyone? And by Everyone I mean all the wonderful bloggers who used to have joyful or irreverent or informative-but-on-rather-privileged-subjects blogs.  Like fashion. Happiness. Shit like that. 

Oh, I know where they are. Under their beds. They're trying to figure out if they can write a post about something unserious during these serious days. 

And what serious days these are.

The state of things is this way. To wit, I wake up with a new toothache every day. I been clenching at night. M’jaw. Mostly on the left side, because it’s always m’left side with me. Traveling ache from top to bottom, way back to partially back. 

I always wonder the same things: have I cracked a tooth yet? Should I call the dentist and complete my transformation to middle age with a mouth guard? I wish I had more teeth. Why oh why did the orthodontists back in my childhood like to pull out s’many g’damn teeth? If Rump is re-elected, I am going to need a full set of implant chompers. 

Then I proceed through my day. 

But, listen, I have to be honest. Glennon Doyle, in her wonderful and inspiring latest memoir, Untamed, emphasizes the need to be honest with oneself and with others, so I am being honest. Here it is. Often I wake up and discover that not just m’jaw is clenched, m’whole body is rigid. Like absolutely rigid with tension. My hands are clenched in fists, my entire torso like it has rigor mortis. 

It is fortunate that I have over twenty years’ meditation and yoga experience to help me 

  1. become mindful of this rigidity, and 
  2. relax m’musculature so that I can get out of bed. 

I would love to get a massage, but—COVID. I would love to go out for a leisurely lunch with friends, but--COVID. 

As long as we’re being honest, let me add that waking up rigid with tension requires sleeping, and sleeping is something I do only every so often these days. 

Meanwhile, I am thankful for the distraction of GRADUATE SCHOOL. Readers, graduate school is a lot of work. For this I am (mostly) grateful. The workload does add to m'tension, though. 

*    *    *    *    *

I have tears drying on my cheeks. Why? Gloria Steinem. There she was, via video, on Live with Kelly and Ryan. It wasn’t just her presence. It was what she said. She said in her lifetime, she has seen that the issues that concerned her and a few social justice activists when she began are now supported by the majority of the country. One third of the country wants to hold on to the old order, she said, but two thirds are with her. With us. Tears just seeped out. Tears of sorrow, but also of gratitude and of relief. I think it’s also because I have felt so split off from everyone, and have seen so much awfulness out of the current administration, and so much isolation from the pandemic, that I have lost track of the unifying ideas so many of us share. It's a relief to remember that most people and I think along the same lines. 

The last Parkland, Florida, student survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School will graduate this year. Only staff who were present will be there to remember. Think about it. Those kids who have become activists because of that disaster are now in college, or are about to be, and they are going to make things happen in our political system. 

To all the progressives and the young, cynical, disaffected voting-age people out there, I want to say something. Change will happen, because change is always happening. Unless you participate in the political process, it may not be the change you want. That’s the lesson I learned the hard way. So it’s okay to want AOC and the Green New Deal and to be annoyed with Old Man Biden. It is not okay to give up because change isn’t happening on your timetable or in your preferred way. Keep at it. Keep at it. 

Some dude took the time to criticize me for criticizing our current administration on a blog post I wrote three years ago. He said he really loved what I was writing and was finding it helpful, until, until, until I “dumped on” my president. Then he didn't want to read any further. This dude said he was Australian, and therefore not even a voter in the USA, by the way. He told me he thought, essentially, that I would catch more flies with honey if I had steered away from politics. I gave the matter a few seconds' consideration. 

Well, hell with that. I’m not trying to catch flies. I’m trying to stay sane and maybe help m’readers with that mission. 

Speaking of flies, I did not watch the Vice Presidential debate, but I certainly heard about the fly. What a perfect living metaphor for the putrid, rotting body of this administration. The husband commented that the fly is a symbol of Beelzebub, and everyone knows from the movie "Beetlejuice" who Beelzebub is, and so we have a double metaphor. Surely VP Pence and Mother had a hard time shaking that off when they settled in to pray. One hopes.

That’s the stuff that gets me out of bed in the morning. 

*    *    *    *

By the way, I recently read that shopping and materialism are manifestations of aggression. (This is the sort of stuff I get to read sometimes for school.) At first I was like, Whut? Whut are you talking about, PhD author of peer-reviewed journal article? I've been letting that idea settle. I ordered a couple of items online and monitored myself. Was I feeling aggressive? Combative? Was I slamming and jamming those keyboard keys as I typed my credit card information into the virtual checkout cart? Perhaps. I considered the multitude of items I have considered or have actually purchased over the last six months. I'm not saying I totally agree with this PhD author of peer-reviewed journal; I'm not disagreeing either. Am I containing a lot of aggression and hostility in my body? 

You betcha. I'm gonna proudly wear it on my feet when my new shoes arrive. Unless they don't fit, because, you know, I bought 'em online without trying them on. In which case, I may just hurl them through someone's window. Possibly my own, but I hope not. 

So, hey, this is the lightheartedest I can be at the moment. I imagine many of you can relate. It is what it is, to quote a (in)famous politician. I would dearly like him out of my psyche. Let's work on that, shall we?

Be well, Readers. I promise to be a much more measured, perspicacious therapist when I get my degree and my license than I am a blogger. 

Don't forget to VOTE!

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Recollecting Impermanence

Hello, Readers. Since last I wrote, the beloved pooch has died. This is terribly sad, and I notice his absence everywhere, for example when I wake up and no longer have to step over a large, sleeping dog. Or when I peel a carrot, and I realize he is not waiting patiently on the doormat for me to toss him the ends. It’s sad and we are all grieving, and yet it was inevitable that we would outlive him, barring unforseen circumstances.To avoid this situation, I would have had to adopt a tortoise, I suppose, but they’re not much good for midday walks. 

Impermanence has, therefore, been on my mind. The truth of impermanence is one of those truths to which we pay lip service. We know life is short, and that change is the only certainty in life, but we usually only know it theoretically, or intellectually, not in a bone-deep way. Yet knowing the deep truth of impermanence is key to appreciating what’s happening right now. Understanding impermanence is the doorway to wisdom, so they say. They, in this case, being Buddhist teachers. 

Buddhist philosophy feels impermanence is so important that everyone, layperson or monk, should contemplate it daily in the form of the five daily remembrances. They are as follows:

  1. Just like everybody, I am of the nature to experience illness. I cannot avoid sickness
  2. Just like everybody, I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot avoid aging. 
  3. Just like everybody, I am of the nature to die. I cannot escape death. 
  4. I am the owner of and heir to all my actions. 
  5. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
Those last two are listed in different order, depending on the translation.

—Upajjhatthana Sutta 

I’m not going to lie, these seem like a bummer. Number five is really hard to take, these days. I lost an earring down the bathroom sink the other day. I swear that thing committed harakiri, because otherwise there is no explanation. Unless it is that my ear holes have stretched and sagged along with everything else on my person? But I mean maybe the earring disappeared to get me to pay attention to the blog post I’ve delayed writing for days. Was this not karma showing me the truth of this contemplation? Really, it’s very sad, this truth. In the way I understand the practice, by facing this idea daily, I am to become less grasping after stasis and more accepting of the true nature of life, that it is transitory, from the briefest mental image or thought, from the strongest emotion to the longest life. Once I accept this, I suppose, I am free from a layer of sadness and anxiety about the inevitable changes, and this extra space allows me to appreciate what is before me more fully than I do when I am worried about something or someone slipping away. Earring. Dog. Daughters. Life. 

I may be a little tender on this reflection, considering the dog, considering that we’ve just dropped the younger daughter at college for the first time. The elder daughter will soon decamp from our comfortable pandemic bubble for a job in Boston. My sister the psychoanalyst is one year older today, which means I am, too. And none of your “she’s only one day older than she was yesterday” folderol. Sometimes the milestones hit you. 

Here’s a secret. I’ve found that when I contemplate these five remembrances, I feel a bit of relief. It’s just the teensiest bit of relief, more of a minute relaxation deep in my gut. I think it has to do with letting go of some of the struggle to collect and keep everyone and everything dear near. I think it has to do with releasing some shame around aging, illness, death, responsibility, and loss. I think there is shame around these things sometimes. We feel that if we experience them, it is our fault for not managing well enough in the world. We didn’t exercise enough, or eat the right food in the right amounts. We didn’t appreciate the gravity of our choices at the time and could have chosen better. Maybe you don’t feel that way, Readers. If so, I am glad for you. For me, I have found it so. Which means, that counterintuitive as it seems for me, these recollections do help me be more comfortable. 

I was informed that my earring, a thing I hold dear, was most likely retrievable from the trap under the bathroom sink. I marshaled my resources to figure that out—by which I mean I texted the husband, who said he would do it when he got home from work.

The husband did indeed find my earring. So what does that mean? It means that sometimes things from which we are separated come back to us. As Sting told us, back in the early 1980s, “If you love something, set it free, free, free.”

Sting’s lyric doesn’t exactly apply to losing an earring. It might apply, however, to letting your child leave for college, and your other no-longer-a-child child leave for a new phase of life as a college graduate working for peanuts and trying to make the world a bit better. By "letting your child" I don't suggest I have any choice in these things. The letting is internal.

However, because of the covid, the new college student will indeed be coming back to us. Her college is only allowing the first years one semester on campus. The rest of the academic year will be remote learning, so that the older students can have a semester there. Oy. Such is the ever-changing nature of things. 

Meanwhile, Readers, I started full time graduate school for social work this week. At the ripe old age of one thousand and ten, I am returning to school for a master’s degree, with a plan to become a therapist. I don’t know if this is wisdom or foolishness, embracing of life, or denial of time passing. Nevertheless, I go forward. I cannot escape illness, death, or aging. I cannot avoid responsibility for my choices or letting go of all I love. Okay. So be it.