The Contemplative Life
BY STANLEY SIEGEL
As I approach my 67th Birthday I look back on my life, not as I once did with the striving of an archeologist to unearth the history and artifacts that shaped my present existence, but instead from a place of deep calm. Perhaps because of how the passage of time changes memory and emotion, many of the past events that once caused such strum and drang, that consumed so much emotional energy and seem to last forever, have now been reduced to no more than a few sentences or paragraphs in my biography. They no longer carry the same importance. The feelings once attached to them barely cast dim shadows today. Forgetting is the ironic gift that age gives to us. It makes us wonder why we suffered so much in the past when so much is forgotten now.
Yet, suffering is an inevitable condition of life, a result of physical illness or emotional conflict. But the paradox remains that along with suffering comes the opportunity for introspection and invention. In hindsight, we often recognize that if we had been more centered in our feelings during troubled times, we may not have arrived at the adaptations or creative solutions that helped us reconcile our sorrows.
In my personal life, I often found that the depth of my despair equaled the heights of the strength, creativity and courage I discovered as I worked may way through it. As a therapist, these experiences proved invaluable in identifying with and understanding the experience of patients, and sometimes illuminated the path for helping others find a way out of their despair. And as a writer, putting my experience into words often brought me deep satisfaction in the midst of suffering. There is something to be said for the stereotype of the suffering artist. Extraordinary creativity can result as we endeavor to express our pain and find a way out of the darkness.
Although many of my greatest acts of invention resulted during moments of pain, or alternatively, at those times when my mind freely wandered untethered from my emotions or conscious control, there is a world of buddhists and others for whom “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” For them, a peaceful, contemplative mind is an endlessly creative one. Many of the writers in this issue of Psychology Tomorrow Magazine explore the relationship between creativity and the mental states that allow for it, from still and calm to active and driven.
In, “The Neuroscience of Suffering – and its End,” Jeff Warren writes about scientist Gary Weber who had what in Zen is called a “kensho” – an awakening – which led to years of practicing yoga and meditation. Fourteen years after, Weber says, “I can still reason and problem solve, I just don’t have this ongoing emotionally-charged self-referential narrative gobbling up bandwidth. ” For Weber and many others who meditate, the goal is to end the suffering that results from forms of desire and their consequences.
Sarah Beller agrees. After suffering from years of depression, a breakdown, and hours of therapy, “I’d come close to giving up hope,” she writes in, “The Way I least Expected.” In a last ditch effort, she discovered a therapist who practiced Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), a therapy largely derived from Buddhist meditative practice. Over time she developed an inner stillness, a reprieve from the voices that had previously filled her head. She also began to make art again, proving that for her creativity was dependent on peace of mind. These sentiments echo the ideas of John Lennon, who wrote, “when you are one, you get things done like they have never been done.”
As the new poetry editor for Psychology Tomorrow Magazine, Charif Shanahan curates the first group of poems by award-winning poets Maureen McLane, Timothy Liu, and Paula Bohince. Taking the lead from Jeff Warren’s essay on non-duality, the poems presented, though formally and tonally distinct, each augment, complicate, or deepen traditional notions of non-duality and oneness.
In his essay Journey Through Madness, Dan L. Edmunds, Ed.D. exquisitely reframes the experience of what it means to be “mentally ill” in our society, turning the concept of diagnosis on its head. Edmund’s insightful essay addresses the creativity and truthfulness of patients’ symptoms: “The development of hallucinations and delusions are all metaphors for the very real demons they have encountered in a disordered society.” Edmunds regards the so-called “mentally ill” for their capacity to separate themselves from the greed and attachment in the world. Only by entering a patient’s reality — that is, becoming one with it, can a therapist understand its poetry and purpose in his or her life.
Self- esteem is an illusive concept according to PTM columnist Alyssa Siegel, who offers her opinion on the qualities and characteristics of those who posses it. In, “Self-Esteem and How To Get It,” Alyssa discusses her personal journey from young adulthood to motherhood as it relates to those experiences that contributed to the rise or fall of her own self-esteem. By learning to align her values and beliefs with actions she challenged envy and negativity and set forth to live a purposeful and compassionate life.
Two articles in this issue establish the uneasy relationship between penis size and self-esteem. In my column “Penis Envy: How Size Influences Self-Esteem,” I discuss the many different ways men think about their penises, where those ideas come from and how they get acted out in relationships, for better and for worse.
Patrick Moote was suddenly confronted with a life-long insecurity. The world learned from Patrick’s girlfriend, following a rejected marriage proposal videotaped and widely seen on Youtube, that he had a “small” penis. She summarily disqualified him from marriage. Adam A. Neal reviews Moote‘s response in, “Unhung Hero: A Cultural Dictum.” Through the making of this insightful and entertaining documentary, Moote, learns that his self-esteem was less a measure of the small size of his penis and more the size of his balls in publicly confronting his insecurities.
No one suffers through a ballet choreographed by Larry Keigwin. Over the course of a dozen years he has discovered a successful framework within contemporary dance to both entertain and speak to social and cultural issues. Psychoanalyst and PTM Dance Columnist, Dr. Velleda Ceccoli, uncovers what drives the man who leaves his audiences delighted in her column, “Once Upon A Mattress.”
I have rarely seen a more enlightened and contemporary description of the concept of “transference” as described in “From the Couch,” written by Anonymous in this month’s column, The Patients’ Room. In his musing about his therapist, Anonymous expresses the humanity of the therapeutic experience during a moment of insight, “something happened over time, when I came to you and saw you, with your different blouses from late spring into summer, and exposed skin and, yes, tattoos. You became, to me, a woman who once was a girl who had insecurities like I did when I was a boy, a woman who is now a mom, a woman who is bravely making her own way into the world, perhaps more bravely than I am, with all of my hiding places and expertise in hiding — not only the act itself, but hiding my real self from the world (and maybe from me).”
What would happen if designers or retailers took a radical or even subversive approach by providing the space (in every sense of the word) to broaden our fashion choices and even the way we shop to make them? In her fashion review “Gray Market: New Standards for Creative Dress,” Berglind Thrastardottir shows how retailers with a near Zen approach transcend trends and fashion prescriptions. At Gray Market, she writes, “each piece of clothing is regarded as an object to be collected in the same vein as art: a rare fabric, an esoteric designer, a unique method of production and variation on structure.” Gray Market encourages us to abandon the conventional elements of our current wardrobes and to curate our aesthetic toward the expression of our true identities.
In an extraordinary feat of creativity Rick Whittaker wrote an entire novel constructed of sentences taken from other books, stealing fewer than 300 words per book without combining two sentences together or making any changes, even to punctuation. The fascinating through-line of the novel, which tells Whittaker’s own story, is the way memory can be provoked, altered, and lost in seemingly random encounters with people, books, and dreams.”
Finally, in Porn Talk, the second part in a series of conversations with porn actors and producers Ben Peck and Nica Noelle, they go deeper in their analysis of the current porn industry and its relationship to influencing how we think about sex, gender and sexual identity.