Monday, March 28, 2011

Life as a tenuous balance

between striving for transcendence and making an imprint on the physical world:

The chassidic masters explain that life—the retention of a spiritual soul within a physical body—entails a tenuous balance between two powerful forces in the soul: ratzo (striving, running away) and shov (return, settling). Ratzo is the soul’s striving for transcendence, its yearning to tear free of the entanglements of material life and achieve a self-nullifying reunion with its Creator and Source. At the same time, however, every human soul also possesses shov—a will for actualization, a commitment to live a physical life and make an imprint upon a physical world.

Thus the verse calls the soul of man “a lamp of G‑d.” The lamp’s flame surges upwards, as if to tear free from the wick and lose itself in the great expanses of energy that gird the heavens. But even as it strains heavenward, the flame is also pulling back, tightening its grip on the wick and drinking thirstily of the oil in the lamp that sustains its continued existence as an individual flame. And it is this tension of conflicting energies, this vacillation from being to dissolution and back again, that produces light.

So, too, with the soul of man. The striving to escape physical life is checked by the will to be and to achieve, which is in turn checked by the striving for spirituality and transcendence. When a person’s involvements with the world threaten to overwhelm him and make him their prisoner, the soul’s ratzo resists this by awakening his inherent desire to connect with his source in G‑d; and when a person’s spirituality threatens to carry him off to the sublime yonder, the soul’s shov kicks in, arousing a desire for physical life and worldly achievement. Together, the conflict and collision of these two drives produce a flame that illuminates its surroundings with a G‑dly light: a life that escapes the pull of earth even as it interacts with it and develops it in harmony with the soul’s spiritual vision

So life’s constant to-and-fro movement is more than a cycle that runs from existence to oblivion and back. It is, rather, an upward spiral: man escapes his finite self, but is driven back to make his transcendent achievements an integral part of his individual being; brought back to earth, his “escapist” nature now reasserts itself, compelling him to reach beyond the horizon of his new, expanded self as well; transcending his new self, his shov once again draws him back to reality.

Back and forth, upward and on, the flame of man dances, his two most basic drives conspiring to propel him to bridge ever wider gulfs between transcendence and immanence, between the ideal and the real.

- Simon Jacobson

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Flourishing

I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. And it happens most when we connect with other people. I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. - David Brooks

Monday, March 21, 2011

Emily Dickinson's Refusal

The Plenty hurt me - 'twas so new -
Myself felt ill - and odd -
As Berry - of A Mountain Bush
Transplanted - to the Road -

Nor was I hungry - so I found
That Hunger - was a way
Of Persons Outside Windows -
The entering - takes away -

Friday, March 18, 2011

A poem as blessed breathing room

On some level poems can, of course, do good works and bind us together. Everybody will tell you about that, but I'm never very interested. I'm convinced, rather, that poems bind us apart. They disconnect us from that pestering illusion that we are almost connecting to the world.

Oh, what can that mean? Well, we are alone, and poems make us more alone. But wait, I don't mean "alone" in the bad way, what we feel when we know that spending all the money in the world isn't going to keep the shimmer on life; I mean "alone" in the good way.

Alone in the sense of experiencing inside yourself a cascading series of exquisite discriminations and connections which leave you in the fullest possible possession of your self while simultaneously providing the most intimate escape from self, as though the twisted double helixes of your secret code got some blessed breathing room from each other for a minute.

- Kay Ryan

Thursday, March 17, 2011

How corporations are sociopathic

The Supreme Court, in its Citizens United decision, effectively allowed unrestrained corporate influence in American politics, based partially on the idea that corporations are legally "persons" with constitutional rights.

If corporations are indeed "persons," their mental condition can accurately be described as pathological. Corporations have no innate moral impulses, and in fact they exist solely for the purpose of making money. As such, these "persons" are systemically driven to do whatever is necessary to increase revenues and profits, with no regard for ethical issues that might nag real people.

But, you say, corporations are owned and managed by real people, so surely immoral corporate actions might be inhibited by them? Well, not really. First of all, the officers and directors who run corporations are actually duty-bound to act in the corporation's best financial interest, and that means they are obliged to do whatever they can within the law to make money. Thus, this fiduciary duty requires corporate management to set aside ethical niceties when they get in the way of corporate profits. This is why tobacco companies market their products to kids when they can - only laws prohibiting such conduct will keep them from doing so.

This is especially true when we are dealing with large, publicly traded corporations. Whereas a small corporation could have local ownership, management, and community roots that might resist the drive for profit in certain situations, publicly traded corporations almost always answer to institutional investors and have tremendous pressure to produce short-term profits. The management chain in a publicly traded corporation is necessarily geared for profit, not ethics.

Thus, the entity is a "person" with a totally self-absorbed psyche, a narcissistic "person" that has enormous resources to advertise and market itself to the public, to hire professionals of all types to influence public opinion, to litigate and lobby as needed, to ruthlessly pursue its goal of revenue and profit, and to join other corporations and industry associations in crushing any opposition posed by mere individuals or public interest groups.

- Dave Niose

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The creation of Falstaff

The wonder of Shakespeare’s creation [is] the immensely bold, generous imaginative work that took elements from the wasted life of Robert Greene and used them to fashion the greatest comic character in English literature.

Greene was by no means the sole source. Like many of Shakespeare’s most memorable creations, Falstaff is made out of multiple materials, much of it not from life but from literature. Shakespeare understood his world in the ways that we understand our world—his experiences, like ours, were mediated by whatever stories and images were available to him. When he was in a tavern and encountered a loudmouthed soldier who bragged about his daring adventures, Shakespeare saw that soldier through the lens of characters he had read in fiction, and at that same time he adjusted his image of those fictional characters by means of the actual personal standing before him.

In inventing Falstaff, Shakespeare started, as he so often did, from a character in a play by someone else, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, which had been performed by the Queen’s Men in London and on tour. This crude anonymous play, which chronicled the near-miraculous transformation of Prince Hall from wastrel youth to heroic king, included a dissolute knight, Sir John Oldcastle, as part of the crew of thieves and ruffians in which Hal had become enmeshed. Shakespeare took over this figure (he originally use the same name, only changing it to Falstaff after the descendants of Oldcastle objected) and built upon its spare frame his vast creation. He took the stock figure of the braggart soldier, the blowhard who is always going on about his martial accomplishments but who plays dead when danger comes too close, and combined his with another venerable comic type, the parasite, always hungry and thirsty and always conniving to get his wealthy patron to pick up the tab. To these he added features of the Vice in the morality play—shameless irreverence, the exuberant pursuit of pleasures, and a seductive ability to draw naïve youth away from the austere paths of virtue. And he conjoined with these some elements of a newer cultural stereotype, the hypocritical Puritan who noisily trumpets his commitment to virtue while secretly indulging his every sensual vice. But to contemplate these pieces of literary flotsam and jetsam is already to see how complete and unexpected was Shakespeare’s transformation of them…

To a degree unparalleled in Shakespeare’s work and perhaps in all of English literature, Falstaff seems actually to possess a mysterious inner principle of vitality, as if he could float free not only of Shakespeare’s sources in life and in art but also of the play in which he appears. If a theatrical tradition, first recorded in 1702, is correct, Queen Elizabeth herself not only admired Shakespeare’s great comic character but also sensed this inner principle: she commanded the author to write a play showing Falstaff in love. In two weeks’ time, or so it is said, The Merry Wives of Windsor was written, to be first performed on April 23, 1597, at the annual feast to commemorate the founding of the Order of the Garter. Famous already in Shakespeare’s lifetime, constantly alluded to through-out the seventeenth century, and the subject of a distinguished book-length study as early as the eighteenth century, the fat knight has for centuries provoked admirers to attempt to pluck out the heart of his mystery: great wit and the ability to provoke wit in others; spectacular resilience; fierce, subversive intelligence; carnivalesque exuberance. Each of these qualities seems true, and yet there is always something else, something elusive that remains to be accounted for, as if the scoundrel had and the power in himself to resist all efforts to explain or contain him…

“An upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers”: Greene and his crowd, despite their drunken recklessness and bohemian snobbery, saw something frightening in Shakespeare, a usurper’s knack for displaying as his own what he had plucked from others, an alarming ability to plunder, appropriate, and absorb if Shakespeare took what he could from Greene—if, as an artist, he took what he could from everyone he encountered—he also performed a miraculous act of imaginative generosity, utterly unsentimental and, if the truth be told, not entirely human. Human generosity would have involved actually giving money to the desperate Greene; it would have been foolish, quixotic, and easily abused. Shakespeare’s generosity was aesthetic, rather than pecuniary. He conferred upon Greene an incalculable gift, the gift of transforming his into Falstaff.

– Stephen Greenblatt

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Mystery and Solitude in Topeka

Afternoon darkens into evening. A man falls deeper and deeper
into the slow spiral of sleep, into the drift of it, the length of it, through
what feels like mist, and comes at last to an open door through
which he passes without knowing why, then again without knowing
why goes to a room where he sits and waits while the room seems
to close around him and the dark is darker than any he has known,
and he feels something forming within him without being sure what it
is, its hold on him growing, as if a story were about to unfold, in which
two characters, Pleasure and Pain, commit the same crime, the one
that is his, that he will confess to again and again, until it means nothing.

- Mark Strand

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On King Lear in the storm

A man walks and walks. He wants to escape, in these mountains, the shadow of his enemy. That shadow comes upon him like a storm of rain. Walking, he runs, tries not to run, not to be seen to run, lest running make him seem afraid. His baited hurry makes him grotesque. He moves mechanically, like a scarecrow. The wind catches him before the falling water does. He draws his coat around him and pulls his hat over his eyes, but the wind and rain pour through unstopped. He cannot see. Mud clogs his feet, stains his clothing and hands. Falling, in flight, he yells, and finds in that alien sound a way to outwit what he cannot outrun. He screams again and again, and then turns the scream to a laugh. He turns his face to the weather, opening it to the rain. When the water makes him wince, he makes his wince a smirk. He flourishes spray around with his arms, kicks up fresh mud, catches water in his hat and tosses it back into the laden air, or pours it over his own head. He throws shreds of hair into the wind or hurls up soaked paper from his pockets. His mouth tastes of earth. He shuts his eyes to increase the darkness, pressing his palms to his eyes to make flashes that mirror the lightning. He makes of the rain a dancing partner or a puppet. The air is full of water drops, full of children, statues, palaces, and eyes. The storm is full of noises that amplify his speech; it answers his calls and drives other sounds from his ear…what he cannot outrun he tries to outwit, or out-jest; he tries to mock, co-opt, or…make it over into a home or a kingdom. [These shadows] fly in the air, arrive on the rain and wind; they slip behind eyes, echo in the unreadable laughter of fools or the demented babble of demoniacs. They are scattered like seeds on a barren landscape. They conceal themselves within gifts and benedictions, becoming parts of a world. – Kenneth Gross

Monday, March 7, 2011

Therapists on The King's Speech

Traditionally, the theory behind trauma treatment is that you relieve the pressure of haunting memories when the individual talks about it. Yet research shows that Developmental Trauma Disorder affects a part of the brain words can't reach-the limbic system, specifically the amygdala and hypothalamus, all lower in the brain and far from the cortex, the seat of thinking, logic and reason. This is why the understanding and insight produced by "talk" and behavioral therapy doesn't fix trauma. The patient doesn't hear it. The traumatized brain cannot process the words.

Consider Logue's methods: singsong, guttural utterances and curse words, physical movements such as rolling on the floor. The patient's intellectual grasp of his condition is irrelevant. Although Bertie eventually opens up about the childhood abuses he endured: humiliation and criticism, harsh disapproval of his father, King George V, the leg braces he was forced to wear and sexual abuse by a nanny. Yet healing is the product of the developing trust between him and his therapist. Since trauma involves a psychological injury resulting from multiple, chronic, prolonged, developmentally adverse events, treatment requires the establishment of intimacy. Logue knows he has to create a "safe place" for his patient: "I will call you Bertie, and you will call me Lionel."

In the movie's last scene, Hitler's shadow looms, and an entire country awaits reassurance. "Speak to me," Logue commands his patient in a calm, firm voice that breaches the canyon and places this momentous speech in the safe place of intimacy.

The red light flashes. Bertie begins to speak. The trauma has been overcome- by the trust and security of his friendship with the man who understands his problems and treats his deep, underlying issues. The King has entered the safety of a world that makes room for the goodness that was inside him, waiting for a chance to emerge. I work every day to establish this kind of trust with my patients. If only the outcome of trauma therapy were always as beautiful as the end of this poignant Hollywood movie.

- Frederick Woolverton, Ph.D.

Understanding Prince Albert's ("Bertie") nonverbal language of stuttering and body twitches, Lionel has him practice relaxation exercises sing, roll on the floor, shout obscenities and feel his emotions, probe painful childhood repressed memories and finally feel a growing friendship between two equal human beings. Using seriousness, rhythm, play and improvisation in the "transitional space" between them, Lionel bridges Bertie's negative self-talk with positive glimpses and new narrative of his future as a respected and self-determining king.

- Ilene Serlin, Ph.D.

Logue uses Socratic means to re-shape Bertie's long-term irrational core beliefs: Stuttering is irreversible; I am weak of character; I am defective; I cannot be a competent king. In the course of working with his coach, King George VI discovers that he has far more strength of character than his older brother; that he is able to meet the challenge of war with Germany; that being left-handed and knock kneed as a child are not signs of inferiority or defect. Perhaps the biggest revelation is that in contrast to remaining brow-beaten by the words and teachings of his pompous and hypercritical father, and intimidated by his inept and insecure brother, the new monarch, King George VI, reshapes his personal narrative and discovers his own inspirational voice.

- Harvey Milkman, Ph.D.

Lionel Logue, the speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush, lacked credentials, fame, a posh office, success in his own acting ambitions and a home that was sufficient for hosting royalty. What he had was the ability to both believe more in the King than the King did himself, while also creating an equal relationship, insisting on calling him Bertie and setting ground rules that he chose.

Rush's character held his own, believing in his own worth and what he could offer (even in the midst of vast inequality). He also never lost sight of how human the King really was, seeing him with his imperfections and wounds. He saw him-his amazingness and his insecurities.
Isn't that what we all crave?

And the final line of The King's Speech came onto a black screen before the credits rolled, attesting that it can work: "Bertie and Lionel remained friends through out their entire life."

- Irene S. Levine, Ph.D.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Getting out of our rut: psychotherapy rewires the brain

“Psychotherapy works by rewiring the brain. Every time you become aware of something new in a psychotherapeutic session, you activate an existing rigid neural network, you make it more malleable and you can alter it with the help of awareness.” – Dr. Norman Doidge

In psychotherapy, clients are guided to be more aware of thoughts, challenge them and ultimately change their brains at a cellular level. Ironically, plasticity can lead to flexible behaviors and positive change, as well as to rigid behaviors and habits, both good and bad. Doidge calls this the “plastic paradox” and offers the metaphor of fresh-fallen snow on a ski hill. On your first pass down the hill, you create a new path in the pliable or plastic snow. If it was a good run, you’ll likely stick close to that path on subsequent passes down the hill. But well-worn tracks can eventually become ruts in which you can get stuck, he explains, likening these ruts to the rigid, destructive behaviors patients want to change.

In therapy, patients are, among other things, guided to set up road blocks on those tracks and to discover new pathways through the snow. Sometimes that roadblock can be as simple as learning to recognize and inhibit what had been an unconscious response.

“The fact is...we are all on a continuum and all of us have these areas that are not functioning okay and others that are functioning okay,” Doidge says. “Anyone can benefit because neuroplasticity is the modus operandi of the brain. It’s the way it works.” - Theresa Boyle