Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Glass Straw

 The Engine and the Glass Straw

When I work with people I often am struck by the power of their minds. Here are people so good at thinking, so good at analyzing, and so sure of their correctness (maybe desperately so) that involving myself in a cognitive wrestling match proves often….well, futile.

This leaves me in a bit of a conundrum. As a therapist, I’ve been trained to work in lots of ways using lots of techniques, most of which are aimed towards one goal: changing thinking.

Changing thinking is a noble and sometimes effective aim. Identifying cognitive distortions and working to correct thinking to reflect reality more accurately can help an individual limit the anxiety and sadness distortions cause. This work can help organize sane responses to stressors. Who would argue with that?

I would. But not because there’s a fundamental problem with cognitive approaches. I would argue that, ultimately, they prove mostly ineffective with people I work with.

Working with a mind both powerful and certain can prove exhausting and frustrating. Early in my work with patients I often thought to myself, “Can’t you see the way you’re thinking is the problem? Can’t you take a different perspective that might work better?”

The answer was….no. Despite my best efforts, and dare I say, the best efforts of my clients, the thinking persisted, unmoved by any force of logic or persuasion.
I liken it now to interacting with a mind that operates as a powerful car engine, roaring towards some undesired destination, yet absolutely committed to its direction. It took me a long time to realize that this engine was designed to drive the car away. 

Away from what? Away from the place remembered, but not known.  The mind here is a machine, designed to race towards forgetting. No mental effort of mine was going to change that. No mental effort of the patient’s was, either.

And so, with no way to change the map, our work became a kind of daring journey towards the place escaped from. This psychic destination was often so filled with pain and panic that any movement towards it appeared slow and difficult, often accompanied by a sense of terror and futility.

After a bit of time clients often become aware of a thin glass straw up around the corner of the engine. Its fragility in the face of a bumpy road and a hot, exhaust spewing machine seems the essence of absurdity; in fact, encountering it seems to lead only to the intermittent detection of a slight breeze across the top of this straw, a breeze gentle enough to carry a white feather by. 

Learning to pay attention to that breeze is like learning to receive a wisp of a breath in the midst of a raging storm or like straining to discern a whisper offered from a far corner of a hall filled with a cacophony of voices. 

The attention narrows, the whisper is heard, the cacophony silences. 

The glass straw is, after all, no silly remnant, no appendix of the psyche. It serves as a vertical tunnel of sorts, to another way of being, unmapped. 
The mind roars its objection.

But the call home has not been silenced. Only repeated, infinitely to ones own ear, until, finally heard.