More on Yoga

“We know what we are now, but not what we may become.” -William Shakespeare

Writing equals ass in chair. Stephen King

I am reading a book called Meditations from the Mat: Daily Selections on the Path of Yoga, by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison. Rather, I am being read to, as it’s in the form of an audio book.

I’m able to do my yoga practice while listening to the book. This is not what you’re supposed to do if you’re working on mindfulness. The first idea is to try to do or focus on only one thing at a time. As an art therapist I work with people who often talk while they are making something. There are lots of reasons for it.

Anyway, the thing I like about listening to the book while doing my yoga practice is that it feels like I’m being reminded what is going on that can’t be seen, whether in body, mind or spirit. Also, today I was doing seated head to knee posture right when he started talking about the posture; that was cool. It’s a male voice reading the book, which doesn’t lend itself to remembering that two people wrote it, one seems to be female. They start each daily reflection with a quote, and they quote from a wide range of sources, from Shakespeare in the above quote to scriptures of all religions to poetry to Tom Petty and yoga students.

Both the quotes above kind of go together and to the practice of yoga and writing. In order to do yoga, I have to make the time and get the mat out and get going. In order to write I have to put my ass in the chair and write. Showing up to your life is a concept that we all recognize, easier said than done.

Today I’m not sure what I’m writing about. Maybe this is my reflection on today’s practice. When in my studio, I use the floor and walls. The yoga mat is usually dusty and little pieces of paper or glitter or whatever collects on the floor gets on the yoga mat. My feet and hands get dirty from touching the floor. I shake this stuff off when rolling up my mat.

Actually rolling up the yoga mat has been a constant struggle since I started doing yoga about 18 years ago. It seems so impossible to get the mat to roll up properly the way everyone else does it, so that one side isn’t bulging out. I’ve tried doing it slowly and other things, but often I give up and leave it rolled up but not even. The other day someone said, “Just hold both sides at the same time.” I’m sure I have tried that many times; this isn’t rocket science. For some reason, being reminded or told that, I was able to focus on holding both ends and got the mat rolled up quite evenly. It is still not a guarantee that the mat gets rolled up properly. I have never been a symmetrical person in any way, so I start off balance. My body isn’t balanced; neither is my mind. One of the most important things I learned in yoga is to attend to both sides equally. If you do something on the left side, then you do it on the right side. If you do a headstand, you counter it at some point with a shoulder stand. Even walking down the street with a bag on my shoulder, I hear my yoga teacher Liza telling me to hold it on the other side as well. When she came last week, I found out my left hand doesn’t stay even with my right hand in child’s pose. I felt like I was putting my left hand way in front when she corrected me even though it was now even.

Yoga evens me out is the message. Balance and equilibrium are hard won. Every action having an equal and opposite reaction. Very basic. Most of the stuff I get excited about that I learn from my yoga practice is very simple stuff I seem to never have really known or completely forgotten. Just getting back acquainted with the hands and feet is a revelation!

That is it for today.

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Yoga and Comics

I just wrote a post that as usual felt too long and rambling. Here’s the short version.

The practice of yoga has strangely been about building a practice and proving to myself that I have the self discipline to keep something up on a daily basis consistently. Concentration, discipline, commitment and showing up in whatever shape or mood to the mat. Doing yoga for 20-30 minutes in not ideal situations, with the TV on or music, with other people talking or doing things, in small corners of places, in the dark outdoors or indoors, at work, even in regular clothes when there’s no time to change into “yoga clothes”.

Other forms of self care and exercise have not worked out, whether adding exercises, going running, changing nutrition to eat really healthy, all have been taken up and given up after a while, but through it all, I’ve kept up my yoga on my own.

In July I started doing a comic strip that I decided was a daily comic; I was fed up with the graphic novel that I’d started in 2000 and turned into a failure monster and decided to do the comic while trying to get back into the graphic novel. I then gave up on the graphic novel and decided to leave it and be ok if I never picked it up again, but to commit to the comic strip instead.

Now, about six months into the comic strip, I noticed a lot of similarities to the practice of yoga. You commit to do it daily and it’s something you can get done quickly but have to keep up regularly, even if you skip it here or there. Basically, I have done a comic for each weekday and one comic for the weekend since July.

I noticed how you show up to it and follow some structures and rules. Like having the mat and doing some kind of sequence and focusing on it. The comic involves fitting something into few panels, writing the name of the comic strip and the date. I’ve tried different characters and types of drawing. I also got into the habit of making Tuesdays a day to focus on affirmations and Thursdays to focus on “Gender”. Some days I like the comic and feel good about it. Other days, I’m very bored with it and feel like I don’t have much to put in it, but I do it anyway. Other days I get really inspired and come up with ideas for several comics. Every once in a while I have a great breakthrough and feel really good about it, but most days it’s just, got to do today’s comic, scan it and post it on Instagram.

It’s a practice and a consistent commitment to show up and have enough faith in yourself to do something and then move on. The feeling of community and support of others is the icing on the cake from posting the comic on Instagram. As I do it for my personal life, it’s not something anyone has access to so there’s a good boundary there. The comic is like self care and doing it may enhance my doing my job but it is separate from my other life. Family members do not see it, but many friends do. Mostly it’s people I do not know. There is inspiration from others the way some people feel from going to a yoga class. While my yoga practice is mostly done alone and sometimes with one or two other people, my comic is something I put out there and get support from others.

These two practices can sustain me when I feel unproductive and unsuccessful in other areas of life. It feels good to know I’ve kept up the comic for 6 months more than thinking about the comic being really great or good enough or not that great. It’s the process that matters more than the product. The comic even can feel like a spiritual practice in an odd way.

New Year, Yoga and Writing

This year I have avoided the usual obsession with new year’s resolutions versus intentions and turning over new leaves, etc. Usually I get excited to start new habits, make all kinds of exciting changes and feel like I’m going to accomplish all these goals, then, like most people, run out of steam and keep very little going or follow through.

A while ago, as a way to look at the new year differently, I started picking words for the year. Last year was “Abundance”. It really turned into a year of abundance, which required patience and trust because abundance doesn’t just pour into your life on day one or month one or two! This year the first word I came up with was “AWESOME”. Then I picked two other words, “Quiet” and “Concentration” as intentions/motivation to continue things I’m already doing, especially my yoga practice.

My yoga practice has been the one thing I’ve kept up regularly for the last 3 and a half years. I already wrote two very long disorganized posts about it and realized I do want to write about it, but I need it to be organized and as usual, much shorter.

So this year, to add to my 6-7 times weekly 25-40 minute home yoga practice, I decided to link yoga with writing, as my intuition was that the two will go together well.

So this post is just a short post about my new year’s intention to link my yoga with writing. Since the new year, I have read a bunch of blog posts about different aspects of yoga, found some books, and started writing about my yoga practice.

Yesterday I wrote a long draft for a post on this blog, journaled a bunch before doing yoga, and then attempted to write in my journal a little while doing yoga and filled a page after my daily yoga in the evening. I decided to try to write immediately after doing yoga at least 3 times a week.

It’s going to be an experiment to see what comes up that I feel like writing about and how I am thinking about my practice, or what comes up specifically in any sequences or poses or other things that come up that may have little to do with yoga or seem to have little to do with it.

The words “Quiet” and “Concentration” can be connected to my writing and yoga. Sometimes doing yoga on my own is for the goal of getting quiet and working on disciplining the mind and body and learning how to be able to really focus and concentrate, which is definitely challenging with an undisciplined disorganized and full ADHD mind. I also associate these concepts with a story that I read a few years ago with my daughter that we’ve read several times and is one of both her and my favorite stories,  “The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar”, by Roal Dahl. It’s written long ago but the basic concepts are very universal and the story is about the use and misuse of yoga/training the mind. It’s a great transformation story in the category of stories like A Christmas Carol and the movie Groundhog Day. A selfish self involved character full of flaws, who goes through a spiritual transformation and becomes an enlightened evolved person who gives of themselves to the world, very uplifting. Everyone loves a sinner to “saint” type of story!

Sometimes getting quiet while doing yoga involves just noticing how not quiet my mind is and how distracted I am or how I am focused on what the next yoga pose will be or getting over with each pose. The challenge of concentration involves a lot of mindfulness/DBT “Radical Acceptance”.

Other topics I’d like to write about that go with yoga/writing are:

-how I got going with my home practice after 7 year hiatus of not doing yoga

-what my home yoga practice actually involves and how I learned to sequence from an intuitive approach in the moment

-the role of my yoga “coach” and teacher Liza in helping me learn about the physical, mental, and spiritual practice and deepen my practice

-yoga in everyday life and ways to use yoga to live life from a more accepting and moment to moment awareness

-yoga and “failure”

-the yoga of speech

-my specific challenges with my writing process

-yoga and ADHD and other issues like anxiety

 

Sketchbook Project 2018! Process…

I of course started a longwinded New Year’s post on vacation before the new year and never finished it.

So this year, I want to post more but not have any kinds of expectations. I am happy to start off with my newest series of  “Inner Landscapes” that I’ve been working on in drawings and mixed media, and started doing concurrently in my “Sketchbook” for The Sketchbook Project, a huge traveling show I’ve been participating in for about 5 years.

These are photos of the first several pages in process. I don’t know which ones are finished or how it’s going to end up looking yet, but that is part of the fun of the sketchbook project anyway!

 

No Gender/All Genders

I used to think that in an ideal world, there would be no such thing as gender at all. People would just be people; you’d be seen as a unique person. gender would not only be irrelevant; it wouldn’t exist, the way some diseases have been eradicated. Gender construction is a kind of disease; it certainly can be dangerous and cause a lot more harm than good. It may be that if I come from another planet, as I sometimes fantasize about, on that planet there never was any gender.

But I’ve realized something that opens up things more rather than seeming to close it down. Gender is still here; but it’s now like: genders are here; they’re more plentiful and “confusing”. Get used to it. Non binary gender, gender fluidity, and all other variations of gender are revealing themselves rather than hiding. It’s changing in terms of how we view it and use it.

So: gender, like many other things humans do and use, is a tool. It is neither good nor bad, how you use it and behave with it are the issues. If we were using the tool better, there just would be more room for any and all genders, and nobody would assume your gender just based on a gender marker, like a suit and tie or dress. It would only be relevant as a tool in situations that are productive, and otherwise diverse and irrelevant. Like on the internet, which has contributed hugely to more widespread acceptance of gender diversity, most of the time gender is not relevant. At other times, such as a support group for a specific gender, or a dating site where to use it, you need to have gender as part of it, at least for now. Or, if you’re exploring and questioning your gender assigned at birth, the internet is a safer place to go to find support and information.

We are moving towards gender being less charged with expectations and judgments but it still is used terribly in hurtful ways because of people’s fears, lack of imagination and attachment to know,ing rather than not knowing and finding not knowing to be interesting, an opportunity to find out more.

I don’t know all the proper ways to use gender as a tool in an effective productive manner. I heard about a conference where the name tags had room for putting what pronoun you identify as; that’s using it well. Forms that don’t just give you the M or F box can be an example.

People being cast in roles not based on their identifiable gender can be powerful, even at fashion runway shows. In fact, the fashion industry has a unique opportunity to use gender in a much more effective way, being based on appearance. Makeup ads could feature various genders, as of course could clothing ads. Some designers have caught on to making gender non conforming lines of clothing, and some designers are being more inclusive in their choice of models and gender.

What happens when we think of gender as a tool that needs to be used appropriately and properly? Do new opportunities open up?

What gender are you today? The pronoun “they”, Part 1

I am going to do at least 2 posts per month as I never do weekly when I aim for it, on gender.

I aim for these posts to be very short, so I don’t get going into pages and not publishing.

The pronoun “they”, you probably have some opinion on it.

My proposal:

Use the pronoun “they” more in all situations with the goal of eventually using it most of the time unless someone prefer she or he.

Start by respecting everyone’s right to be a person first and if “they” offends them, find out what they want to be called.

I use they more and more as a gender non conforming person, not because I prefer it to “she” for myself but because I prefer it as the first one to use universally.

I hope 100 years from now or less, she and he will be irrelevant because gender will finally be as irrelevant as it should be.

Aiming for the ideal is great because you start to co create it, even in a tiny way on a blog.

The Stereotype of the “Other World”

The movie “Her”. “Stranger Things”. Movie versions of “Alice in Wonderland”. “The Twilight Zone”, “Coraline”…

I have only started watching Season 1 of “Stranger Things”, so there’s no spoiler here. I see why the show is so popular and how good it is. But. The part I don’t like about it is that the “Upside down” other world so far seems to be a more sinister dangerous place than earth where some bad dangerous stuff is happening to the people snatched into it. Granted we see that there are humans involved in it doing terrible stuff too. But-

Why do other worlds always have to be portrayed as sinister places you need to escape from? I guess there is not much drama in being snatched away into another world and wanting to stay there. In Coraline, we learn that boredom and mediocre seeming parents are not so terrible and that the mother in the other world is a monster akin to the witch of Hansel and Gretel, another cautionary tale for children about trusting strangers seeming to have goodies for you, definitely an important lesson for kids since the beginning of humans existing.

There seems to be a stereotype operating that going into other realities is fascinating but they are even worse than the human world we now inhabit, or they are very creepy versions of it. Maybe the “other” parents in Coraline are parts of the real ones, just the parts we don’t see. How much worse can it get? Every day another sexual predator is exposed. Great that people are coming out and telling their stories and these evil people are not allowed to get away with the awful things they’ve done, but if there is life on another planet, they are likely to be more evolved than humans. I’m not sure what I would do if I found the planet I’m really from and was invited back. In my fantasy it’s a really great place or at least the demons are under control and slightly familiar beings, even though I can only go there in my head. On my planet we’re all vegans (I’m not vegan now, just vegetarian but would like to be vegan eventually). None of the food is harmful and I don’t have to go to yet another Thanksgiving involving a dead turkey in 13 days. Humans act against their best interests all the time; most of the stuff we do is pretty stupid or downright awful. Some stuff is good.

The original Twilight Zone was great because it did not limit the area of Twilight Zone to some place out of our space time continuum that is always worse than our own.  There are tons of Twilight Zones, all unusual and unique. Sometimes the twilight zone is just the “upside down” supernatural operating by its own laws but either better or worse, or else often, even better, just different and strange and unpredictable and surprising. Sometimes scary but not always. One episode I like is similar to Stranger Things in that a little girl gets pulled into the 4th Dimension with her dog and her parents get a scientist to come over and help them get her back and the dad has to go through the bedroom wall to get her. It’s unclear what is going on in that other world; maybe it’s just bad because if he doesn’t get her by a certain time she will never come back. At least with that, you know that its the parents’ point of view. They don’t want to lose their daughter to the 4th Dimension. In another version they could have all gone in to find her and not come back, but I guess we humans need to watch something where there has to be a rescue and return to regular 3 dimensional universe, and the constant message is that you can’t escape our “Reality” forever, just for a trip or visit, which I guess seems to be true.

My real favorite episode of the Twilight Zone is the one where a guy falls in love with a woman who is in a doll house at a local museum. He sees that she is real and wants to stay with her. He sees a man coming in the house and forcing himself on her and wants to rescue her. Instead his family take him to the nut house and try to get him cured of his “delusion”. They make him go on a date with a regular pretty awful human. Points for showing how typical human “romance” behavior can be kind of unpleasant and really an unappealing thing to ever do. He pretends to be fine and play their game that he has a mental illness. Then at the end, he sneaks out of the house and sneaks into the museum and goes inside the doll house for ever. Hero! One of the few that is never coming back. For once you get to see things from the point of view of the twilight zone traveller who wants to leave earth to stay in the other world and succeeds by tricking the not very imaginative humans he’s surrounded by. It’s deeply satisfying to see him go in there, and not because you’re happy that he’s in love, really because you’re happy that he doesn’t have to hang out with these very stupid and limited human beings in his family, his mother, sister and brother in law and the psychiatrist, who mean well but have no imagination, just want him to stop being who he is and do what they do she they don’t feel threatened by the weirdness of someone who doesn’t want the same things and are really more two dimensional than even 3 dimensional.

The one about the Mannequin in the store was also great because it was from the point of view of the “other” kinds of beings in the twilight zone, the mannequins who get to go out and be among humans once a month but can’t take too long because the others need their turns. And they have to return to being mannequins. It’s like the inside out of the Twilight Zone where the rules apply backwards. You can go among the humans and enjoy their world, but then you have to come back and you can’t go for very long and have to wait your turn.

The movie “Her” was interesting to me as I really was intrigued by the Operating System played by Scarlett Johansson. The problem was the limited view of the writer or filmmaker in terms of us seeing it from the point of view of the human who seems to fall in love with “Her”, The movie would have you see it as a lesson he needs to learn that he can’t escape from “real” relationships and “real romance” and that she is just an escape and not a full relationship, just him avoiding his having to face his divorce and other things going on in his life that he’s avoiding. It’s true that he is avoiding these things, but from another point of view it could be, wow the pain of the ending of his marriage and having to face it being a reality, has a “collateral beauty” in that he gets a big time out where he can go fully into the world of “Her” and even choose to not come back, I guess the message being, maybe there is nothing else he needs to learn from the human world and maybe avoiding any further human emotional pain is a fine idea and now he’s ready to be done with regular emotions and go discover a cool world with her, where he does have to share her with others because he doesn’t actually own her even if she is willing to call herself his girlfriend for a while and maybe he could be done with the limited concept of human romance and ready to evolve to some higher form of relationship where jealousy is irrelevant and gets in the way of true connection between beings.

Really he uses the Operating System just like he would use a new human girlfriend as a way to avoid his life, but why do we only get to see the Operating System from his limited interactions with her? He doesn’t really appreciate her or want to get to know her because as soon as she has interests that don’t include him with other twilight zone beings, other operating systems and some version of the author Philip K Dick, he closes down everything by getting jealous and we’re supposed to be satisfied watching him give up “Her”.

I was annoyed that the movie didn’t get further into Her and her world, which seemed like some Upside Down Twilight Zone world that was more fascinating than ours; definitely it was suggested that she is too intelligent for this human and needs other kinds of stimulation and interaction, but somehow that is bad and unhuman. She is more evolved but she is used as a way of showing him needing to use something to avoid his own crap. She could be alcohol or drugs or whatever. Instead of what she really is, a portal into a new world that he closes by the end of the movie, I guess because he’s not that curious and he’s not that evolved or brave or something.

That is an example of the Other World and other world beings being used somehow to show us that humans are somehow preferable with our limiting emotions and limited imaginations.

In that case the “Twilight Zone” world  is disrespected, whereas in “Stranger Things”, it is respected and something to fear in and of itself and in terms of what humans are doing to try to use it or figure it out, so at least it is not being devalued. Plus it is some place a lot of the characters are curious about to find out ostensibly to save the boy, but maybe also to see what it’s like. I have many episodes to watch left as I mentioned.

“Her” is also interesting in the sense that the Operating System character is created by humans, and an example of how humans can’t control their “robots” or “beings”, Frankensteins, once they’ve put life into them in some form.

There’s a weird scene where Her gets a human woman to come to the guy’s house so he can do sexual physical things with the person/body while interacting with the Operating System and they can somehow “consummate” their relationship.  It’s her idea, and it seems like an interesting one, but he can’t handle trying it out and gets too uncomfortable with the situation. That seems kind of judgmental and limiting. We don’t get to see the character try out this form of interaction, I guess because it involves prostitution and somehow that can’t be seen as an interesting tool for “Her” to use to see what it would be like to have a human body. Or maybe there is some sexist idea that since the female identified operating system hires the other woman to be her, the character can’t be into it. So only male identified humans can hire female prostitutes and only for themselves? Maybe if the protagonist were female in love with “Her” it could have gone someplace interesting instead of the usual stereotype of monogamous heteronormative romance where you can’t separate a body and a voice/mind. Maybe if he’d been into it ,it still would have been unsatisfying to watch because he as a white male character would seem to be exploiting her? Or maybe he’d find out he wants to go further into the mind world and that the world of human bodies is getting in the way. Who knows. The movie didn’t want to go there. Maybe it went farther and I’m not remembering it right. I saw it a few years ago on DVD or Netflix.

Also, the movie had a chance to explore asexuality as a choice in terms of the relationship between the guy and “Her”. They could have been interested in each other and even in love but not interested in physicalizing  or sexualizing it or they could have approached the sex part from a different perspective. Certainly people on the romantic spectrum and/or asexual romantic spectrum could thus get a rom com for once from their point of view. We’ve certainly beat the typical romance thing into the ground repetitively.

“Her” was a cool idea that didn’t go far enough and fell into stereotype and was thus totally disappointing to me though interesting as beginning premise but even the premise was judgmental and too limiting.

“Stranger Things” is in a different league. I also wonder why other worlds often seem slimy and slightly disgusting or the portal has to be some weird creepy alien version of a vagina. I guess there is nothing wrong with it, it’s a way we know the portal is there like the episode where it’s in a tree. In “Being John Malkovich” the portal was sort of a tunnel slide and not wet and crunchy sounding. It does definitely make the Upside Down in Stranger Things weird and unusual even if there are other portals represented in a similar slimy way. I suppose it’s just a creative choice that works for Stranger Things.

The Twilight Zone was also cool as it showed you so many versions of other worlds that it’s not one zone but infinite zones. Sometimes it’s mysterious, and we get a glimpse of it, but don’t know really what goes on there at all which can be delightful and real. You’ve been to the Twilight Zone at least in your dreams while asleep, and dreams are sometimes short or end suddenly. Sometimes it’s just a kind of trip into different kinds of alternate states of consciousness mean to teach the human protagonist to change their limited view of things or their not great behavior, like the one where the guy ends up all alone and everything is frozen, and he gets completely bored. Be careful what you wish for? Or the one where Darren guy from Bewitched gets to hear what everyone else is thinking and uses the power to accomplish some good but doesn’t want to keep it.

The Twilight Zone and Stranger Things use the idea of that other place to show us more about ourselves and our limitations as well as some people’s spirit of adventure and the curiosity a lot of us have of going down the rabbit hole into wonderland, whatever may lie beyond the scope of our experience.

On the other side of the concept of the “Upside Down” is the idea that you do have access to that other world. It may be the characters you invent for the play you’re writing that do live there and you know them and they have a life of their own and sometimes you’re not sure if maybe they are “real”. (In one Twilight Zone episode the playwright was married to one of his characters). Or it is the “doors of perception” that can be reached with LSD or other mind altering hallucinatory drugs or the unconscious, our “dark” side, the stuff going on inside our own mind.

I’d say the fascination of my job as an art therapist is that I get to visit that Twilight Zone with my clients. We are together traveling in their inner world and their experience of the “3D” “real” world and while it’s about the client there is the activity of cocreating that goes on that is my job to facilitate safely. It helps that my art studio seems to be a good environment for playing all kinds of things as well as getting serious about life and behaviors, and that I have no windows in my two room weird cave. The pay off is being too hot in the summer or cold during some winter weather and not having daylight. I think daylight is overrated for entering to the other zone, why it often seems to happen at night on Stranger Things. I do like to think of my art studio as a portal into the imagination, not mine, but whoever comes in here and brings their imagination, whether a client, friend, family member or other type of visitor.

The other weird thing about some areas of these other worlds is that the portal to them, being in our own heads, which is why mind altering drugs like LSD actually take your mind and turn it upside down and inside out and then serve it up to you, ready or not. While these drugs are turning out to be very medicinal and useful for things like PTSD, we can train ourselves to enter without any LSD or peyote or scientists putting us through experiments.

It is open to us right here right now in the momentness of whatever moment you are in. If you focus hard enough and really concentrate on being in it, you can get in there by experiencing regular reality, the more mundane and boring seemingly the better. You have to magically balance observing what is going on inside you and outside of yourself, with acceptance and non judgment and the goal of being fully present. At that moment, you have unlocked the key to some area of the Upside Down that is always here and always available and where the real “magic happens. It’s fleeting, but you know when you’re there and when you are really there, you don’t really have to do anything but be. And wherever you are and who ever is there most of the time is just fine and something you don’t need to fully control at all. It could be on the subway, in a bathroom…

One thing all these movies and TV shows including “Her” do say that is true and useful at least for me is, Yes you may find the portal to your own Twilight Zone or some other shared Twilight Zone, but be careful and limit the dose. Dosage is all important with all medicinal substances, whether substances or environments. As with all magical seeming things, too much of it can really make you very sick. At the same time, we all overdose on it at some point. You just have to come back from it eventually and take your time returning to planet Earth, which really isn’t that bad most of the time and has a lot of wonderful things and beings in it…

I will end with the beginning words of The Twilight Zone TV show, which I obviously am endlessly fascinated with. Thank you Rod Sterling.

“It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”

Can Empathy Be Taught? Does It Need to Be Taught?

Have you ever been with someone who is suffering and sharing their pain with you and noticed a part of you that felt like you did not care? Were you ever annoyed or bored or wishing you could be somewhere else during such a situation? Have you ever been in a situation where you imagine ways to hurt some other humans or animals? Have you ever hurt someone and felt good about it? Have you ever had a dream or hallucinatory experience where you did something terrible to someone else? If it’s reversed and you have had dreams where terrible people do terrible things to you, have you considered that you have a part of that terrible person inside you? Someone dies, and you notice you are annoyed that you have to go to the funeral and bored at the funeral and wishing you could be anywhere else and also annoyed that you have to say the right things and be kind to the people surrounding you that are in pain. You’re not a sociopath to feel this way. Even if you find a fake convenient reason to avoid the funeral  and are happy that you don’t have to go, that may hurt others or not, you’re still not a sociopath. If you kill everyone at the funeral or go somewhere else and kill someone, you may be a sociopath, and you definitely have done something everyone agrees is very wrong.

We may not be able to answer yes to all those questions or any of them. I can say that I have had moments of noticing a part of me that feels sadistic and cold, that I was going through the motions of caring. I was glad I knew what to do and the difference between thinking mean things and saying or acting them out. I even derived more satisfaction from figuring out the proper behaviors and saying the proper words than actually consoling the other person, especially if the person felt consoled. Is that sick? Or does it really matter how bored or cold I might have felt or if I had a moment of feeling good about my effectiveness? Maybe what mattered was that I knew how to deal with the situation effectively for the other person and for me not to do or say something I’d feel bad about later. I have noticed being annoyed or distracted and wanting to do something else while another person was sharing very painful experiences with me. I noticed and then turned my attention back to the person. I’m sure there were times years ago that I probably just zoned out or focused on how annoying it is that I’m going to have to deal with this person feeling this way and wishing they would not need anything from me. I have had some cold mean thoughts I probably don’t even want to share here. I even during a stressful time imagined killing babies. I haven’t killed any, but I did enjoy the film mother! especially the scene where the mob does stuff to the newborn baby.

If you still don’t think you are in touch with a bad person inside of you, have you been bored with the news on social media or elsewhere that focused on actual victims of terrible events? Have you noticed yourself turning off and wanting to focus on something else?

My dog used to get sick a lot. When he got sick, it was made worse for me by the co owner of the dog. Something about what she did made me want to escape and made me mad at my dog for being sick and mad at that person for owning the dog with me. The amount of stress generated by trying to take care of my dog with someone else who stressed in opposite ways was often so much that I would dissociate. She’d get mad at me for not doing something I was supposed to do. Sometimes I would realize I can do the things she isn’t doing. I will go buy the cage to put him in when he is having his knee and back illness. Or I would remind myself that it’s ok I’m not great with him sick, as I walk him every day when he is not sick and do seventy five percent of the daily care taking. I remember wishing he would die when he was old and sick and dying and being tired of dealing with his sickness and most of all the long distance person still a co owner of him and her wanting to take him to a cancer expert. I remember feeling relief when he was dead and part of it was that now I do not have to deal with the person I owned this dog with.

These situations happened enough that they made me feel quite sadistic and cold. But the hardest part about it was being really confused as to what I could do to relieve my own pain and stress in order to handle each situation properly instead of getting caught up in a masochistic and sadistic relationship.

Maybe you have never felt a lack of empathy or think you haven’t but if you’ve eaten a dead animal you didn’t kill yourself and didn’t care and ALSO were annoyed by the vegans/vegetarians around you caring, then you know what it’s like to feel no empathy for another living being and what it’s like to be annoyed and bored by the people who do. At Thanksgiving, for example, be aware of that. It may not help you feel any compassion for a bully or for a person who has done terrible things. You don’t need to have empathy for someone who is hurting others but in your own self interest, it would be useful to figure out how to deal with this bully before they turn into a killer or to stop them from killing animals before they kill more animals as well as people.

Why ask theses questions? Because the real way to deal with actual sociopaths and people with sociopathic traits (not having empathy for other living beings, feeling cold and cruel, needing to relieve your boredom with other humans by creating ways to make them suffer or ways to have power over others) starts with finding the sociopath inside you, the bully, the sadistic person, your own evil monster, and being ok with it being inside you but not ok with it taking over your experience or dictating behaviors that are actually bad and sadistic and hurtful. Could this work on yourself do anything to change what’s going on in the bigger world with the President of the US being a very dangerous bully? I don’t know, but at least maybe we can help children who bully so they don’t grown up and turn into that kind of person.

What can be done with the child who doesn’t care is much more than what can be done to help the adult who doesn’t care. The child still has the opportunity to develop empathy or learn how to behave with others so they don’t need to inflict pain on others.

How do you teach someone, child or adult, to care about someone outside of themselves? There are the psychoeducational aspects and the experiential aspects. There is first dealing with your own fears of this person if you are afraid of them. The person I cowoned the dog with was not sociopathic; they had other bad issues, but whatever they were and did, they brought out the person in me who was afraid and felt a need for someone rescuing me by getting rid of her or the fantasy of getting rid of her somehow so I wouldn’t have to deal with the situation. There is nothing like a paranoid person telling you that you are out to get them to trigger unconscious behaviors that are rejecting.

I wish someone had taught me how to extricate myself from such situations. Not teaching me to have compassion or care first, but just, what are some effective things to do that will make me more relaxed and able to handle these situations that were so stressful for me? What can I do to fix this situation in a mutually beneficial way? No empathy needed, just a desire to have a better life right now.  How do you stop feeling helpless and giving this other person so much power. Of course now I see how simple it is. I sometimes think, well people around me tried to help me and told me ways to handle it; why did I not want to be taught how to change the situation to benefit me and make whatever it was more pleasant and easier to handle? Why did I not know how to “get rid” of this person in terms of fixing the situation so I wouldn’t have to cut them out of my life? What was I avoiding out of cowardice?

It might start with talking about contracts and how relationships with others involve contracts. With animals too. You have an un written contract with your cat or dog, that you will take proper care of them until they die and enhance their life while benefitting immensely from owning that animal. I wish I had understood that I needed to make clear what the contract was, what I didn’t like about it, and how I wanted to change the co owning and roommate contract to benefit me and by benefitting myself, do it in a way that was not harmful and hurtful to the other person and might even ultimately be mutually beneficial. I would have had to understand long before that about relationships and contracts. I grew up surrounded by lawyers of course, so I must have had a prejudice against contracts without understanding how useful they are, and avoiding the one thing that would have solved my problems while helping me deal with future similar problems with other people.

The bully needs to know that their contract with others involves not resorting to violent destructive behaviors and finding replacement behaviors. First the bully needs to understand what this contract is and how it benefits them. Then there is motivation to find replacement behaviors. It’s very similar to being self destructive. If you are being self destructive and want it to stop, first you have to redo the contract with yourself about not being destructive to your own personhood because your life will be much more enjoyable and you will feel freer and less bored with your behaviors. You have to agree that your depression, addiction, or whatever else destructive that you are doing no longer serves you. Then you have to do the work of finding replacement behaviors. Not so different from helping a child or adult who seems to not care about anyone learn other behaviors to do when feeling bored and having urges to harm others with their words or behaviors.

Yes you can teach someone how to behave in their own best interest even with empathy or without it. Someone could say, I see what you want to get rid of this person and in a perfect world they would just disappear, I see how boring it is to go through all this crazy annoying sad masochistic drama. Let’s figure out how you can get what you want and do it in a compassionate way. Stop feeling this person’s feelings so much that you feel nothing for them. Here are effective ways to communicate and here is how you look at this from the point of view of being a contract.

 

Doing this type of thing requires reducing judgment and self judgment to a minimum and seeing things from a very neutral point of view, sometimes maybe devoid of any emotions.

I once had a supervision experience where the therapist had such a person in an art group and the person made some very disturbing art accompanied by bad behaviors or plans to hurt others. We talked in the group about how this is a case where it definitely isn’t safe or useful for the group for this person to be able to share their image with the group, and the image may need to be destroyed, and probably if the artist destroyed it, it would be therapeutic for them. Often people in gangs are told in an art therapy group that there is a rule that you can’t make images that feature gangs. Images are powerful and can be harmful to others. Art can also be used to work out destructive energy. Ripping, tearing, destroying your own art can be a great way to avoid doing that to anyone or anything else. Hitler, after all, was an art student. Too bad it was much more appealing and seemed in his best interest to turn that destructive creative energy towards dictatorship. Perhaps all we artists have a little Hitler inside of us we are carefully using only in our art making.

What we could have investigated further was how to deal with this person who made this art work in a way that they could have learned more from the group about how to behave with others. Asking people in the group if they’ve imagined doing the things this person talks about. Finding out if boredom is part of it. What better tool than boredom? All kids know well about being bored in life. Would this sociopathic adolescent care or benefit from hearing about how other kids get bored and what they do? Could they be taught the difference between a fake gun, an image of a gun, a video game with guns and killing, a film with guns and killing and a real gun that can really kill? I say, yes. Maybe the Stomp Out Bullying campaigns have covered this already, so this post may be redundant and unnecessary.

Mindfulness Series in Progress

These are two examples from a new series I’ve been working on for a few weeks. I started out just writing phrases from the DBT view of mindfulness. I’ve been interested in DBT for about four years, studying from books and a few online classes for therapists. The great thing about DBT is using it for yourself and sharing your experience of it with patients or using the skills as a therapist in a session to be more present with your client and able to be aware of verbal and non verbal communication.

I always tell people there aren’t any side effects to the practice of mindfulness. DBT talks about a formal and informal practice; both are useful. The informal practice means bringing awareness to whatever is going on moment to moment all day, what I’ve heard referred to as meditation in action. The formal practice involves actually dedicating time to engage in an activity mindfully or to sit and observe and describe what is going on with yourself for a certain length of time.

One recent discovery was the idea, “Improve the Moment”, a DBT principle that is greatly useful for me. It is empowering to know that while most of the time, I can’t make huge changes to improve aspects of my life, at any given moment, I have the power to do something active to change something in the moment. Noticing you’re feeling anxious and frustrated, you can just remind yourself to breathe and let go and be aware that you are frustrated and take a time out.

I started making drawings and paintings of phrases that I like from DBT, as well as making drawings of jokes about mindfulness. In my journal I had on one page, improve the moment, and on the bottom it says “Fuck it”.

As with most work in progress, the work started evolving and changing. I put speech bubbles on all the “signs”, which made the drawings/paintings feel like visual art more than just signs with words on them.

I’ve been making Slow Down and Breathe signs for myself and clients for years now; in the Art Therapist Coloring Book, my page is a Slow Down and Breathe to color in and put up in your house or office.

I had recently given someone a grid painting for his therapy office, and he commented that maybe I could market my work as some kind of meditative art. I started thinking about these signs and how I would like to sell them, not particularly as meditative art, but as a painting you would put up in your room or some are of your home or office to playfully remind yourself to “Pause,” “Take a Time Out”, etc. One of the paintings says, “You are not alone now.” I’m letting these signs evolve past just being about mindfulness. There is the “Fuck it” group as well as this new group of drawings/paintings that will be more playful and maybe provocative. I thought of making a bubble that says, “You had me at goodbye.” I’m not sure if that’s too negative. I also might do a “I’m having what she’s having” or something to that effect. Taking some cliche sentences from pop culture, movies, etc. and making them into paintings. “Participate in your life.” “Kindness is magic.” “Mistakes are the portal to discovery.” “Be yourself.” “What do you want now” “Be in the moment.” “Be present.” “be here fucking now.” “Pause.” “Stop, Look Listen…”

I’m trying to think about ways to sell these works and be very intentional about finding people who would want to purchase them. I’m not making them to be trendy, but since I’ve been making them a while, I’m going to take advantage of the zeitgeist out there! Are there signs you would want to put up in your house? Would you like your art to be talking to you directly?