Best Slowly: Twenty-Six

Best Slowly:  A Better Narrative


I think it was Dylan Thomas who said, “There’s nothing I would rather hear than people telling me stories about their childhood.   But they’d better talk fast, or I’ll start telling them about mine.”

I’m guilty of more than just childhood stories, but here’s the dilemma:  no sooner have I finished telling some story about our childhood in Boulder, than I need to start over, revise, and retell it.

That happened yesterday writing about Duane, Mary, and the infamous wet towel.   It bothered me all day, and I went back into the blog and completely rewrote it.   It’s hardly the same story.

I would like to say it’s closer to the “truth’, but I know better.  Timothy Wilson calls psychotherapy a better narrative, and this revised one worked better for me.   Now I could drop it and move on.

Trauma, by the way, is like that.

Many years ago, when I was trying to learn this practice of psychotherapy, we had a supervisor at the Counseling Center who would jump on both Susan and me for wandering far from the presenting problem or chief complaint.

“Now why did they come in?” he’d asked.

He liked to give us grief, because instead of focusing on the symptoms, such as test anxiety, we had talked about their childhood and family of origin for much of the hour.

At this point, we’d hang our heads and appropriately grovel.  Groveling was a skill both of us had been forced to learn.

But, just as I did not know what the problem “really” was when I confronted Duane with the wet towel, many of the clients coming in for counseling don’t either.

You ask them, “What’s going on? What brought you in?”   They’ll answer, “My roommate uses my towel.”  Or, more likely, “She wears my underwear.”

Of course, these are simply the straws and not the camel or the load, and definitely not the destination.

One time, when I was treating the chief complaint, which was test anxiety, I decided to use hypnotherapy as part of the treatment.  I was well into the induction when I noticed her hand was making a fist and not relaxing.

I asked her to focus on the fist and suggested it might have something to do with the problem.  She almost immediately opened her eyes and said, “It is the problem.”

She was terrified of her alcoholic and abusive husband, and even worried he’d be angry if he learned she’d come for counseling.  He hadn’t gone to college and was extremely contemptuous of her dreams to become a self-sufficient accountant.

This was not the story she wanted to live, and it wasn’t the childhood she wanted her children to remember.

Scott Peck ends his chapter on Transference in The Road Less Traveled, with this very tight sentence, “Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”

Sometimes the revision to the map or narrative is minor, other times it’s life-changing.





Best Slowly: Twenty-Five

Best Slowly:  It’s Not the Towel


Many of my break-through moments have come with considerable embarrassment.   Some are big, most are petty.   Still the realization, which comes like a change in the channel, always catches me by surprise.   “I should have seen this coming.”

When I first came to CTA as the English teacher, I lived with a couple, Duane and Mary.  He was the counselor and she taught science and sex-ed.

Duane and two students had taken a dream class I taught in town, and it’s largely because of Duane I was hired.   But sometimes gratitude can have a short memory.

Our house was almost a duplex, except my side had the kitchen, the bathroom and laundry.   And the laundry could only be entered through my bedroom.   I should have seen it coming.

Looking back, I find the story has evolved.  I’m sure they didn’t like the imposition any more than I did.   The dynamic, I now realize, was classic.  They compensated by taking more familiarity and I reacted with pettiness and resentment.  Of course, we didn’t talk about it.

One morning, I hit the tipping point.  It’s like that proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.  I not only tipped, I dumped the load.

I let Duane know, in no uncertain terms, how pissed I was.   He had used my towel and left it wet.   I made it a matter of consequence and he was blind-sided and did his best not to retaliate.

When he asked what was really upsetting me, I wanted to tell him the towel, but it was not the towel.   The towel was only the symbolic straw.  It pointed to the problem.

That’s when I dumped all of the shit I’d been saving over the last few months.  I’d been sweeping it under the rug and it seemed, by the quantity, an elephant had been living in our family room.

Duane was actually remarkable.  He apologized for his lapse in manners with the towel, but he could clearly see the problem was not the towel.   By now, even I could clearly see it.

Conflict is not just a problem to be solved, but one of those existential mysteries.   It’s one of the great teachers in life.  Life is conflict.

There are all kinds of ways to respond, and most of us are expert at the usual strategies.   Typically, we hope it will go away on its own and we’ll never have to deal with it.   When that doesn’t work, sometimes we’ll try to escape by running away.

When that doesn’t work and we can’t avoid, some of us fight and others give up.  The surrender is called the depressive position, for obvious reasons.  Generally, we’re unpopular if we take the anger stance.

This time, the three of us talked, Mary had joined us, and we worked it through.   It’s another of the strategies.

We both apologized for our lack of insight, and then we expressed our needs. I still don’t like my towel to be used and left wet, unless we talk about it first.







Best Slowly: Twenty-Four

Best Slowly: Sansaku


Yesterday I posted something on the “About” page.   To be honest, I have no idea what this blog is really about.   I’m learning as I go.   I’ll probably revise the page often.  I’m grateful for this format; it allows me to drift.   I’m more about process than agenda.

When I first learned about sansaku, I immediately jumped all over it, and had Chyako look it up in her dictionaries and write down the kanji I couldn’t believe she hadn’t talked about it earlier.

Sansaku is a meditative way of walking, but not like the Zen kinhen, which is formal walking meditation.   Sansaku is not about concentration, it’s more about inspiration.   It’s not even Buddhist.

Sansaku is not about going from A to B.   It’s nonlinear and meandering, suddenly changing directions, without a destination or goal in mind.   It’s letting things happen, but still choosing.

Sansaku is this art.  You can’t go looking for the paths, they have to present themselves.  It’s about your state of being.  You prepare the ground and suddenly it’s there, the wind will guide you.

There’s a place in Kyoto called The Philosopher’s Walk.  It’s a reminder and a suggestion for how to experience this incredible world.

The first time I visited Kyoto, I went exploring.  Around the corner from our ryokan or inn, was an ultra-modern bank.   I love Japanese design and walked around the building.  And then I saw something unusual and entered the alley.

The architect had chosen to save an old willow, a god tree.  The building was actually built around it.  There was also a natural spring and small pond.   I thought of Okasan and how she taught me to worship beauty.

When I clapped and bowed, I felt like this old and living remnant of ancient Japan was an elder relative who also greeted me.  No wonder Basho said, even when I’m in Kyoto in the spring, I long to be in Kyoto in the spring.

When you think of a Japanese philosopher, think of a poet like Basho.  Or the tea master who said, the full moon is most beautiful in a cloudy sky.

I’ve always been a sansaku teacher, and have allowed distractions to become my fascination and focus.  The students, knowing my preference, would launch me on digressions.   It’s how I found my subject for the day.

Jung said to learn as much as you could about dreams, but when you came to one, start from the bottom up.   Unlike classical music that plays by notes, this is playing by ear and having no idea where the song will take us.

In one of his sayings, Chuang Tzu tells the story of a man going to a certain city today, but arriving yesterday.  Some people are like that, you know what they’ll say before they even say it.

When Chyako looked up the characters, she said, “It’s complicated.  San means to scatter.  Saku means to explore a way.”   At each moment, there are an infinite number of choices we can walk, take the one that surprises you.


Best Slowly: Twenty-Three

Best Slowly:  Okasan


Although Chyako and I had been living together for several years and had just bought a house, I had never talked to either of her parents.  I hadn’t wanted to.

Then it happened.   Chyako said, “My dad wants to talk with you.”   And she handed me the phone.

I was lucky.   He did most of the talking.   He said, “I hear you and my daughter have bought a house together.”

“Yes, sir, this is true.”  I was trying to be very polite and respectful.

There was a long pause and he spoke slowly, one meticulous word at a time.  While his English was uncertain, what he had to say was not.   “I have to tell you, we do things differently here in Japan.”

“Yes,” I said, “I imagine you do, Sir.”

Then he paused again.  I waited, unsure of what would he’d say.  But I did not expect him to say, “I hear you are a teacher.   I, too, am a teacher.  I think we will like each other.”

We went over the next spring with seven students from CTA.  We dropped them off in Tokyo and headed north on the bullet train.  I was drunk on Japan by the time we arrived in Nishinasuno.

That night, Chyako and Okasan, already I called her mother, took me for a walk.   There’s a nearby shrine, and we walked around the pond and old temple.   At one point, Okasan clapped three times and bowed.

She noticed I was watching her.  She said, in her precise English, for she too was a teacher, “When I see beauty, I want to worship.   You understand?”

I do.   I had married Japan.

Besides having taught high school English, her mother is a long-time student and master of tea ceremony.  I get emotional just trying to describe the way she enters her tea room.   I’ve never seen anyone walk like that.   She’s not in a trance, she’s in eternity.   I can feel the ages gather.

This has been her practice for decades, and I was initiated into the culture.   The simple act of making tea, pouring, tasting, and appreciating the moment, is taken to the highest of the arts.

The poetry is like this, too.   We would sit around in the evening, and she would translate the Basho haiku that were on the postcards she had given me.   The one I sent to the Counseling Center was fitting, given my appearance.

Okasan described the scene.   Basho is traveling around Japan.  His clothes are bad.  When he comes to the border crossing, he decides to pick a flower.   He thinks it will make him look better.

Taking what is ordinary and making it high art, is not something unique to the Japanese.  I have studied dreams now for over forty years, and I’ve learned the psyche cares about these seemingly small and insignificant details.

“I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.”   That’s Alice Walker.





Best Slowly: Twenty-Two

Best Slowly: The Gap


Christmas might not matter all that much to Chyako, but New Year’s does.   She tries to go home each year, to spend this important time with her mother in Japan.   Her dad has been dead close to twelve years now.

At the airport, early this morning, a Cowboy from Dallas decided I was someone he could impose upon.  I could smell last night’s alcohol on him, but he was easy-going and not a bother.   He had witnessed an event a few minutes earlier at the counter.

The line was moving slowly, and the guy in front of us was up-tight and starting to boil.  When the lid blew and some nasty words spilled out, we all looked at each other.

“What the hell,” he said, “makes people act like that?”

“Who knows, but it helped me remember how I want to be.”   And it had.   I was no longer impatient or pushy.

This has long been one of my “go-tos” in therapy, and it’s basic to mindfulness practice.   My own teacher, Lee, called it the Gap; and he taught me to be aware of it in myself and others.

He thought most people meditated when they were still and quiet, but he suggested we be still and quiet when it’s most chaotic and noisy.   An airport or a traffic jam, where people are anxious and upset is the perfect place to center.

These feelings are contagious, and Lee said to let them be the reminders, the signal, to meditate.   This meant to be aware, alert, attentive, and to remember what matters and what doesn’t.   You suddenly hear the meditation bell, “Oh, yeah.   I almost forgot.”

When I got back home, Chyako called to say the guy had sheepishly apologized for his bad behavior.   Not only do apologies almost always work with a Japanese, but I was glad for him as well.   He’ll have better dreams because of it.

The unconscious cares about such things.

In my blog yesterday, I mentioned a long talk I had with my father before he died.  It was not exactly an apology, it was something much better.

In the early Star Wars, the ones Joseph Campbell helped George Lucas write, Luke is horrified to learn his Jedi father is Darth Vadar.   But Luke would never know himself, nor would he find his true identity, without this meeting and confrontation.   In the end, they saved each other.

My father, too, had made the Darth Vadar move and I had grown up believing him to be the incarnate devil.   And still I was drawn to him.

Somewhere in Gide’s notebooks about writing, he said that a novel can explore the conversations between a father and a son that should have happened, but never did.   It’s a dialogue both need to have if they want to be whole.

Because we had that talk and I asked those questions, I know my father dreamed a better death.   I did not take his way, I never will.   I take my own.   He taught me that.



Best Slowly: Twenty-One

Best Slowly:  Those Questions


My father was born on Christmas Eve and always considered it an undisguised paradox, just like his name: John Smith.

When his best friend called and told me we needed to drink.   I knew what had happened; he was dead.   The last time I had seen him was Christmas, and we talked about death.

Doug called that time, too.  He was a director at the VA hospital.  “You’re father’s dying and you need to get on down here.”   I drove the distance from Durango to Prescott that night.   When I reached the fourth floor and started across the sitting room, I saw an old guy with a pony-tail, smoking a clove cigarette.   I sat down next to him.

He didn’t look my way.   Finally I said, “Good-morning, dad.”   He turned and said in his unflappable way, “What are you doing here?”

“They told me you were dying.  I wanted to say good-bye.”

“They don’t tell you anything around here.” We talked until the New Year.   The next time I saw him was in the box.

When I went back that time, I told Doug I was sad he hadn’t taken better care of himself.   Doug said, “Don’t say that, Colin.   He would not have been the man he was.   Be thankful you knew him.”

I’ve often thought about it, “Would I want his life to be different?”

I got one answer more than thirty years later, when my good friend, Reece, died. We were sitting under his beloved cherry tree and it was deep into summer.

He had decided to go naked, which meant he was no longer taking the chemo.  He was peaceful and serene, and I asked him what he’d miss.   I hoped he wouldn’t take the question wrong.   He didn’t.

But he did take his time to answer. “You might think I regret the cancer and dying, but I don’t.   I want my life just as it is.”

He looked up at the cherry tree and over to the garden.  His home and family never left his mind, not for a moment.   I could see the story of his life passing in front of his inner eyes.  It felt like a holy moment.

Once again, he said, “I want my life just as it is.   All of it.”   I had tears in my eyes and said, “Reece, I’ll say that at your memorial.”   I did.

Just yesterday, reading an interview in the recent Sun magazine, two sentences caught my eye.

“Philosophy professors call that last question epistemology.   Dying people call it damn important.”

He’s a doctor who specializes in pediatric oncology, but he wouldn’t say it that way.   He’d say, “I deliberately use ordinary language…  None of my patients ‘ambulate’ – they walk.   I tell medical students to talk to patients the way they do to people outside the hospital.”

“The language people use is a sign of what they think is important… I spent more time memorizing the names of enzymes than I did learning about (people and what they need).   I forgot the names of most of the enzymes a month after I took my board exams…”

It’s all about those questions – the ones dying people say are damn important.

Best Slowly: Twenty

Best Slowly:   Roots and Wings


A Christmas story on Christmas, and one of my favorites.   It happened back in the early 1980s at Timberline, and involved one of the many colorful characters who landed there for a time.

Erik, from my perspective, had taken far too many trips on LSD.  He wasn’t fried, but he was coming close.

For those of you who know the place, he’s the one who built what we call Stonehenge, that strange earthen mound and circle of stones on the first hole of the Frisbee golf course.

He would stay awake at night, with the door to the woodstove open, staring into the flames.   He often slept there, in the lodge.   Most of the faculty and students thought he was crazy when he talked about the beings he saw in the flames.   They didn’t think about asking him if those beings talked.   I did.

One time, at Christmas, we were sitting around a table, with a handful of other students.  It was getting late.  A large Christmas tree was standing in the corner of the dining room, and we were talking about roots and wings.

I had told Erik he had magnificent wings, but his roots could use some tending.   He wasn’t so sure.   I was probably lecturing, and that is rarely the way.

I had told him, in no uncertain terms, “Erik, you’re too far out in space.   You’ve flown too far.   You need to come back down and grow some roots.   I’m worried about you.”

I also used a metaphor I had taken from Castaneda.   Because Carlos is so dense, don Juan used psychedelics to loosen his glue.   This was not Erik’s problem.   He had precious little glue holding him together and I thought, at any time, he might come apart.

He didn’t agree.   The other students had begun to take his side, and I was trying not to argue.  It was then I heard another voice.  This one was coming from the other side.

I pointed and didn’t need to talk.   The Christmas tree began to move.   There was no one close.  We all held our collective breath, and watched.   In slow motion grace, the big tree leaned and then it fell.   Ornaments and lights, they all came down and crashed.  It made a remarkable noise.

The kids looked at me and waited.   They knew the miraculous had just happened.  It was meaningful in the extreme.

I simply said, “No roots.”

Erik, whose mouth was open and wouldn’t shut, said, “I get it.”

Synchronicities are what don Juan called “agreements” or “reaffirmations from the world around us.” They let us know that the world is far more mysterious and meaningful than we have ever guessed.

In fact, and I have this on good authority, the world herself, she cares about us.   And she’ll let us know.