On Feb.2, 2014, (James Joyce’s Birthday), Philip Seymour Hoffman died of an overdose. On that same day in the United States, about 99 other people also died of drug overdose.
This week in my practice, I had quite a few intense sessions with people, the kind of sessions that feel like they are of an existential matter, or an existential crisis. Talking people from the ledge, not necessarily people about to end their life immediately or go overdose, but people questioning their own life and its possible meaninglessness, feeling a lot of self loathing and worthlessness, or destroying their creative spirit with judgments, comparisons and criticisms. In about 9 sessions yesterday, I think Philip Hoffman’s death came up somehow in about 8 out of them and the morning before also in another session. What does his death represent besides a reminder of the deadliness of drug addiction and polysubstance and heroin abuse? It’s about recovery and finding yourself at a crossroads in your life, your shadow is beckoning you to eternal emotional pain and despair and a small shred of hope, a light in the distance, is still also there calling you away from the darkness. It’s about the work in most therapy, the goal being for the person to come to like him or herself more and hate him or herself less…
Some of these sessions went to a very blunt place where I pointed out, we all have what I see as 3 choices when faced with existential angst and self destructive thoughts about life being meaningless or ourselves being failures, worthless, whatever we make is not good, and being told positive things about ourselves makes us feel worse instead of better. So your choice is to end it now and be done with the endless suffering — what the BUddhists refer to as suffering due to addiction, attachment and delusion. The other is to kill yourself off symbolically and destroy your creative spirit and continue living the life of a deadened person; this choice involves giving up on yourself but continuing to appear to be alive but to be dead inside. Many have made this choice, a kind of circle of hell on earth, an acceptance of depression as part of everyday life. The other choice is the hardest for people who have been to the darkest part of their psyche and lived through it: the choice to awaken and emerge from the traps of addiction, delusion and attachment. All humans are at times addicted, deluded or attached. People wake up everyday and live through the day in such a state of mind. Addiction is not just to substances or gambling, sex, love, shopping, food or work, money, success, approval, anger, etc.
Delusion is not limited to humans wandering around in psychotic states. We are in delusion quite often in everyday life, when we do not observe what is really going on and enter a kind of state of ignorance.
“In the Mahayana tradition, two levels of ignorance (avidya) are identified. Dzigar Kongtrul explains:
There are two levels of ignorance: ignorance of the absolute, or the essential nature of phenomena, and the ignorance that prevents us from taking an accurate reading of the relative world. These two kinds of ignorance are like two kinds of thread: When they are tightly woven together, they are not easy to identify, yet they make up the fabric of delusion.
As a result of the first type of ignorance, we lack wisdom. Lacking an understanding of our true nature, we perceive that which is illusory and spacious to be solid and real. The second type of ignorance is the inability to clearly understand the laws of karma and interdependence, which then results in an inaccurate relationship to the world.” From Wikipedia
Carl Jung referred to this type of ignorance in terms of “attitudes”. When a person does not see clearly what is real, they take on an attitude or attach a kind of power to something that then renders it not real and the person continues to see it that way. We see this all the time with various kinds of simple realities. Your “boss” at work becomes more than a “boss”. A boss is someone who has the role of directing people who work for him or her and defining the tasks and roles of the people who work for him or her, but for many they attach more power to their boss and their boss becomes too powerful or their parent instead of simply their boss. We do this with all kinds of things. As an artist I have done this with a gallery or exhibition. My work gets rejected and for a while I live in a delusional state of mind in which this particular gallery and the “juror” who picked the work to go in the show and the work that was not admitted to the show become more than what they really are. I give them some kind of power to decide that I am a “bad artist”, “not good enough”, a “failure”. The gallery is one of probably millions and it is simply a place that payed someone to look through images of work submitted by artists and decide which to put in a particular show that would take place for about 30 days. When I let go of my delusions and attachments to this delusional idea of the gallery and juror of the show, I see the reality, and go back to doing what an artist does whether s/he gets in a show or not, creates art on a daily basis.
In reality, the gallery’s juror did not want any of ten images I emailed them to be in some show of theirs. I know these are ten of countless pieces I will continue to make. When I am not attached to my work being seen or to this gallery’s show, or even to a particular art work being good or bad or craving attention for my work or addicted to approval from the outside, I can be a relatively happy being who engages in the creative process for the sake of the process and my happiness is derived from the engagement with the materials and the process not with any product or result of a product. Because I have survived many of these rejections, each time I am quicker to be able to return to reality. Reality is always much simpler than the delusional or attached or addicted version of reality. In reality a glass of wine or a new dress is a material thing to enjoy but it does not have more power than that. Having a book published or a painting in a show or an award for a movie is a part of reality but cannot define a person. Exhibit A: Philip Seymour Hoffman, human who, given 46 years on earth, achieved a level of success, reknown, acclaim and material riches, as well as a family, and promise of more opportunities to hone his craft, gain more reknown and more enjoyment from his creativity as well as further fame and money, perhaps the joy of watching his children grow, that few ever come close to, he, who with all of thi,s was not able to escape the suffering that addiction brings to all who succomb.
Bringing us back to the choices and the therapeutic session sometimes taking on the conversation of existential dilemmas nobody escapes. Challenge is: can you wake up tomorrow and show up for life whatever it brings and be awake, not living in the past or some fantasy of the future moment? If you can do that, you will escape your own attachments to some definition of who you are, who you are supposed to be, who you expect yourself to be, your addictions to anything that seems like it will fill an empty hole, your delusions about your own reality and the people and other beings you encounter throughout your day. It’s an invitation to let go of your beliefs, your assumptions, your cravings, your attachments to outcomes and goals. As Marsha Linehan wrote: “The fundamental nature of reality is change and process rather than content or structure.” I found this quote, wrote it in my journal and shared it with about 4 patients in the course of my day, as I need to constantly remind myself of this truth; armed with this one small bit of wisdom about reality, you may save yourself from the terrible fate of Philip Seymour Hoffman and the 99 other unknowns who died on Feb.2, 2014 in the USA of the same cause… as well as the countless people walking the earth, who have no awareness of their own suffering in the form of addiction, delusion or attachment…
The philosophy of playing legos, contributed by a five year old, to be explored in another post.