When Pleasure Fails

Dr. Scott Baum, in his paper “When Love Avails Not” has written about anhedonia in the person whose mistreatment at the hands of others has resulted in the death (and dearth) of love.  That is, in people who have been so badly abused that all love, all capacity for experiencing the general goodness of the world, has been drained or squeezed or ripped out of them.

“People use the word pleasure to cover a broad spectrum of feelings. We could break it down into many categories: relief, gratification, satisfaction, enjoyment, joy, fulfillment—and surely there are more. Not all these meanings are tied to goodness—for example, sadistic revenge can be gratifying, and we ignore that fact at our peril. However, I choose to use “pleasure” as I think Reich and Lowen intended—meaning the capacity to feel connected to the benevolence in the universe. Surely this is related to love….Pleasure’s opposite, anhedonia, is a complicated psychosomatic phenomenon. … One aspect of anhedonia is that the person’s capacity for love — to feel the cushioning, warming envelopment of the energetic field, which I am quite sure exists on some physical level—is destroyed. This can, of course, be a temporary state. In grief, for example, or in the aftermath of a catastrophic event, a person may lose the capacity for pleasure or hopefulness. This loss may be intermittent or persistent, but it is a transient state, and eventually the person’s underlying capabilities to experience pleasure are reinvigorated. This can happen with the passage of time or because of more direct intervention, such as psychotherapy, where this restoration of function is a directly intended outcome.”

Fortunately, most people experience anhedonia as a temporary situation, one in which the capacity for pleasure has become limited.  Focusing on the body’s language helps people to notice both their lack of enjoyment (pleasure, gratification, joy) and also the tiny light that appears as one begins to regain that capacity for feeling.  Often, there is an obstacle that lies in the way of pleasure.   For many of us, it can be our practice of avoidance.  That is, we may believe we have a need to avoid our unpleasant thoughts, memories, images…any of the mental content that generates big unpleasant feelings.   It seems paradoxical:  in order to get back our capacity for enjoyment, we need to dive right into what many people consider the opposite: our rage, our terror, our horror, our despair.

frightened child

In simple terms, when you work to shut down emotional experience in one realm, you effectively shut it down across the affective area in general.  Specifically, suppose I was terrified as a child, spent my very early childhood fearful of parental anger, and subsequent years trying my hardest to keep my parent happy, or at least avoid getting him or her angry.  In order to get out in the world and survive, for example, in order to manage school, I  had to figure out a way to function without being frozen, so I learned to numb out that fear. I  also avoided ever feeling angry, because that would trigger my angry parent.  I probably didn’t feel much in the way of sadness, either, and happiness was a very light surface skim of a feeling, mostly relief because it went with avoiding punishment.

As an adolescent, I might have found places to go where there was a bit more safety, or I might have just assumed that all places were as unsafe as my home.  As an adult, I might actually begin to look at my childhood and realize that everyone didn’t have terrifying parents, and that maybe there are lovely people in my life and I could perhaps learn to be a little trusting.  But feeling good….well, that might not actually be possible.  It might be far to frighterning to feel good….and I certainly don’t want to go into feeling that terror from childhood.  I grew up so I didn’t have to feel that, right?

credit:  http://ttactechtuesday.pbworks.com/w/page/7857889/AT%20Solutions%20for%20Writing
credit: http://ttactechtuesday.pbworks.com/w/page/7857889/AT%20Solutions%20for%20Writing

Unfortunately, that model isn’t reflective of how people actually work….If I want to feel the joy that I think is probably available to me, then I need to let my body feel that terror, that rage, that despair that are all stuck in me somewhere.  Saying yes to pleasure means I have to say yes to all of my feelings, not just the ones I think I’d like to experience.

Mark Nepo, in Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, says “…there are small pressure points of residual feelings that live in our bodies, small pockets of trauma that hold the sediment of the stories that have shaped us.  We carry these residual feelings like emotional time capsules……” and sometimes those time capsules open right up.  We try out best to shut them down, to close them up, and we do it using our bodies.  We tighten, we cut off our breathing, clench the jaw, tense the shoulders, do whatever we can to not feel. But then we miss out.  Nepo goes on to say about those emotional time capsules “… whose small doses of healing are released when we bump into life unexpectedly.  It is natural to recoil from the rupture of those potent feelings but it’s the meaning carried in them over the years that begins to heal us…” And once we have allowed those feelings, actually felt them, allowed the body to open up, expand and integrate the feelings and the meanings we make of our experience, then, THEN, pleasure can become available again.  Baxter State Park, Maine, 2010

We can start the process of feeling pleasure by tuning into sensations. Notice the warmth of your coffee cup on your hands.  Notice the way that the warmth moves into your hands and begins to move up your arms.

Thanks to Katie Huffman, of Looking at Life through Agreeable Hours
Thanks to Katie Huffman, of Looking at Life through Agreeable Hours

Notice where you are blocked, and where you are holding on tightly, so that you cannot feel.  Allow warmth and softening to enter those tight places and notice what else is present to you at this moment.  Notice any sensations of movement within your body, or desire or intention to move in some way.  Notice whatever sensations and feelings arise for you without judging or turning away from what you experience.  Let your experience happen;  let your life flow bringing whatever emotions are present for you.  Feel whatever it is and let it flow.  The path to pleasure can be circuitous, especially if you have cut off the pathways for many years.  But getting back there is so worth the effort.

Many thanks to Dr. Scott Baum, Video of Dr. Baum on bioenergetics

And to Mark Nepo  Mark’s website

Simple pleasures

 wpid-img_20150215_170132.jpg

There is not much more important than experiencing pleasure for us human-type beings.   Pleasure is a label for certain types of sensory experiences: some things we do are pleasurable.  Sometimes, things that once were pleasurable do not seem to evoke pleasure any more.  When I hear that from people, I take note.  Anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure, often accompanies depression, and sometimes is the most difficult part of depression.

Pleasure is an enormous motivator for us.  We’ll do a lot of things because the consequence is experienced as pleasurable.  These things can range from preparing and eating gourmet cuisine to climbing up rock faces.   And when pleasure as a motivator is not available, due to depression, stress, or preoccupation, then it can be difficult to do some of the things that we need or want to do.

Pleasure is a body experience.  That is, we have an experience of pleasure through our sensory systems. There is also a cognitive component, as there is for many emotionally-based experiences.  We’ll have words or images to reflect our pleasure (“Mmm, mmm, good..”).  We savor pleasure.  Pleasure requires our sustained attention, and when we cannot give our attention to our experience, we have a dearth of pleasure in our everyday life.

When people present in the office with symptoms of depression, I ask a lot about what they enjoy….have they been having any fun lately?  Lots of times people are taken by surprise by this question.  First surprise, then a sudden realization and often sadness….no, no fun lately.  In fact, often people cannot think of anything at all that would be fun.

Finding the pleasure again is essential.  When depression is the diagnosis, we look at shifting thinking, motivating activity, and regulating sleep, appetite, and attention.   Simultaneously, I ask people to start to notice where they can feel pleasure, even the most limited little bit of enjoyment, or even just relief of negative symptoms.   This is a mindfulness task, requiring attention to sensory experience in the here and now, and is a very useful marker for getting better.

Pleasure is our birthright.  We are creatures who have a wonderful and awe-inspiring capacity for pleasure….what will you enjoy today?

A Sensory Feast

Walking with Max last weekend, I realized something. All week I’d led a life with plenty of stimulation:  work, activities, books, music, and of course social media. When I went out into the early spring morning I was smacked with a cascade of sensory experiences, different, powerful and healing sensory experiences.  For some reason, my inner self was tuned to the sensorium, which is generally a good thing.  It means that my thoughts are not in ascendance but my experience is my priority.  So I could smell amazing things;  see and hear late spring buzzing, blooming, squawking and splashing all over.   My experience was of filling up a container that had been emptier than I had realized, and taking in, taking in, taking in.

I recently read something about “earthing” and “forest bathing.”  These concepts were amusing to me at first, because they seem so, well, unnecessary.  Of course we need to touch and feel the ground under our feet.  Of course we need to spend time with trees, wildlife, decaying leaves and insect bodies, the richness of everyday life outside of the house.  But when I continued to read, it because clearer to me…many people do not have these experiences with any kind of regularity.  Could it be that people actually have to be TOLD to get outside?  That they need to purchase “earthing” products to bring them closer to the planet on which we live, from which we have sprung, both as a species and as individuals?

The product part is the ugly side of capitalism, I guess, along with excessive corporate profits, pillaging the land for “resource development” and the like.  Most people, I am guessing, actually DO have access to a bit of earth, a spot of green, a park or verge or a place where water flows spontaneously over the earth.   What we need is the will to make getting to ground a priority.   Rather than buying an earthing mat to go under your feet while you sit at your desk in front of your computer, get out of the office and walk on the ground.

Then I have to ask myself whether I have been spoiled by the abundance of natural riches here where I live?  Maybe I am assuming too much, because finding “nature” is easy for me.  (I don’t like using that term to mean whatever is outdoors, because I kind of think I’m part of nature, and you are, too).   Outdoor “nature” is just a step away.  And real woods, for forest bathing or hiking or just walking the dog, that kind of nature is within a few minutes of biking.  We also have the “nature” of blackflies, mosquitoes, ticks, and black bears, just to be clear.

So I don’t know about earthing or forest bathing.  I do know that when Max and I head out in the early morning for our adventure, both of us enjoy it.  Maybe it means even more than I realized, but I do have a good sense that my body and mind need what I get when I am out there.

Below are some shots of early June at the University of New Brunswick Woodlot, where dogs and people can bathe in the forest, the swarms of insects, and the smells of late spring.

      

Reading Anne Lamott: or books, books, and more books

anne lamott

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott, and not the book I wanted to read, either. I went to the library last week and grabbed a supply of novels, needed supplies for me during the best of times, but especially in the winter.  And I also grabbed a book by Anne, called “Grace (eventually):  Thoughts on Faith” since Bird by Bird was out. (Bird by Bird was going to kickstart my writing career.) I figured I’d read a chapter of Lamott and then a novel, a chapter of the non-fiction, and then a novel.  This was my plan.

I should probably tell you a little about my novel habit.  I am regrettably omnivorous in the reading department.  I don’t have a habit of deconstructing or analyzing the fiction I consume.  And I do consume:  rapidly and without much reflection.  This is, I have come to realize, a way to manage my anxiety.   When I look backward at my reading life, I can see that particularly difficult times in my life were punctuated by lots and lots of fiction.   There was a time in my early forties when I was diving through ten or twelve mysteries a week, a nice mix of the humorous character in a quintessential small town type along with the likes of Patricia Cornwell and Jonathan Kellerman.   I was also working (two jobs) and raising a family (three teens at that time in my life) and spent virtually every free minute wrapped up in a book.

Thanks to Evan Lawrence Bench via flickr
Thanks to Evan Lawrence Bench via flickr

Hmm….that reminds me of one of my mother’s oft-repeated complaints about me. “Leslie Ann, get your nose out of that book.  You’ve got your nose stuck in a book all the time.”  This from the woman who perfected the art of sitting tipped back in a kitchen chair with her feet tidily tucked into the oven of the oil cookstove, the warmest place in the house, while deeply immersed in books of her own.

That maternal image was a diversion. I should be looking at my own behaviour.  I have to say that I am not entirely sure why I have taken another nose-dive into reading (and reading and reading…) but if Anne Lamott is going to be supplying some of the goodies, I’m in better hands that I might have been.   That is to say that I got totally shanghaied by her book.  Instead of my neat plan to alternate fiction and non, Anne grabbed me off the kitchen chair and plunged me into her own stories of juicy, messy, twisted life.  And coming through it, not with blue ribbons or halos, but alive.  Really, truly alive.

So what am I trying to control with my excessive reading?  Does all that reading support my own aliveness?  Or am I using it to tamp down my feelings so I (maybe) don’t know what’s going on inside me?   Given the way that I have used books and reading in my past (much like a person might abuse drink or shopping, I suspect), I may need to look closely at that.   But not until I finish this lovely stack from the public library.

I want it my way or, the REAL cure for stress

Everything in my life would be so simple if only everyone did exactly what I want them to do all the time. In fact, that’s so obvious that I can’t really believe I have never said it before.  If you people would just do things the way I want them done, then I wouldn’t have all this stress.

Why can’t you conform to MY expectations?  Why won’t you give up your own needs, desires, and wants in order to  meet mine?   If you won’t do that, then LIFE IS NOT FAIR.

And you know what that means……I’ll have to be all stressed out about life not being fair.

2015-01-24 07.57.29

It isn’t really just people, though.  I want the DOG to do what I want.  And I really, REALLY want the weather to do things the way that I prefer them.  Like I’ve really just about HAD IT with the snow. We are in the middle of yet another blizzard (can I stand to write another blizzard post?) and I want it to JUST STOP.  STOP IT!!!

And that’s where the whole house of cards breaks down.  Becomes pretty funny, actually, when the absurdity is revealed.

I can rail at the weather all I want but it isn’t going to have any effect.  The weather is what it is. I can rail about the dog, too, and I could even do something to separate myself from him or train him to behave differently, but my major complaint is shedding and neither he nor I have any control over that.

We often live in a illusory world where we believe that we should be able to control other people.  We want to control not only how they behave, but often (and more insidiously) how they think and feel.   We want them to LIKE us, or think kindly toward us, or treat us with respect.  We get stressed in our attempts to manage other people’s thoughts about us and their behaviour toward us.  We think we know what’s going on inside other people, we think we can foretell the future based on what we think THEY think, and we think that there is something we can do about it.

??????????

Yes, that’s living in illusion.   A whole whack of layers of illusion.  Imagine the fabric that is called illusion….wedding dress stuff, layers and layers of tulle-like poufyness.  Then imagine what it would be like to have your hold on reality swathed in layers and layers of illusion:  not being able to find the ground, or find what is real….yes, that would be stressful!  Sometime we believe that the solution to the stress is for the other person to just Just Shape Up.  In other words, do what I want you to do, and do it now.  Then I won’t have to be all stressed.

If we look at the weather, the absurdity becomes obvious. If only the weather would cooperate, I wouldn’t have to suffer.  Not true! Suffering is a result of believing that I shouldn’t be inconvenienced. If the weather were perfect, I’d find something else to suffer (be stressed) about.  And I can’t change the weather anyway.  There’s got to be a better answer than that!

There is a better answer, one that actually works. The truth is that our thinking is wrong on two counts.   First, our stress is not a result of other people’s behaviour (or even the weather).  The stress comes from fighting with illusion….fighting imaginary tigers, if you will.  And the second wrong-thinking part is the idea that the cure for my upset (stress) is for the other person (or dog, or the weather) to conform to my expectations.  After all, I shouldn’t be inconvenienced if I haven’t agreed to it. That is not fair.  And that’s a thought a lot of us share.

The cure for stress is to get out of illusion, including the illusions that life contains no inconvenience and that life is fair. Imagine beating your way through the layers and layers of gossamer fabric, wrapped oh so gently around you, encompassing and wrapping you and keeping you in suffering.  The hardest part is to really allow yourself to wonder if you are in illusion. This is actually an empirical question.  It is testable.  You can ask yourself the question…”What do I know?”   And sit with that. What do you really KNOW right here and now? What do I know as opposed to what do I think, believe, or feel to be true?

I start with the things that are incontrovertible.  I know that I am breathing, for example.  I can feel it.  I can stop and notice my breathing.  Yes, I am certain that I am breathing.  Am I alive in my body?   Can I feel my feet on the floor?  Press them right into the floor and feel them there?  Yes.  I am breathing and I can I feel my body, beginning with my feet. So now I know that I am alive, a living organism, having an experience.   What else can I notice?

Then coming back to the upset at hand….what do I KNOW?   What have I seen, heard, observed?   Can I separate that from what I think I know about what I have seen, heard and observed?  For example, can I notice someone’s behaviour without engaging my beliefs about it?  Without the script or storyline? Can I just see what IS without all the layers of how it Should Be or or How I Want It To Be, or How Other People Might Think About It?

It is simple.   But it isn’t easy.  When I ask myself, what do I want to happen in this situation, I can see if I want to control something (or someone) else.  When I ask, what do I really know about this?, then I can better see what my own illusions are contributing

What do I KNOW right here in this moment?  Right here and now, can I separate my moment-to-moment experience from my thoughts, beliefs, plans, memories, concepts, and ideas?  Can I see what is mine and what is someone else’s?  Can I allow other people the same opportunity to be themselves that I want to have in my own life?  And when that becomes possible, what do I notice about my own suffering, or my own stress?

Freedom from illusion isn’t freedom from pain.  But it sure can minimize the suffering.

There’s another blizzard on the way, or, wherever you go, there you are

Yes, I know that Jon Kabat-Zinn already has that title.   I keep reminding myself of the truth of his statement (which probably wasn’t original with him, either) as the next in a series of substantial winter storms moves closer and closer. But my struggle with winter isn’t just about winter.  It is about being present to reality, no matter whether I like that reality or not.

I have a belief that I only have to embrace winter a little and I’ll stop wishing it away.  And so I do embrace winter, sort of.  That is, I have developed a fascination with the light available in the winter, early morning and late afternoon light, especially when there is something developing in the weather.2015-01-24 07.56.47

I love the way that the light stretches over the land, slicing just above the horizon, lengthening shadows and distorting shapes.  I love the way that the tiny sparkles of drifting snow twist and turn in the wind, eddying and flowing and suddenly becoming sharply distinct in the sunlight of midday.

January dawn over the St John river 2015

I love the red of the sky….the pre-blizzard sky.  And I love being at home while the snow is pounding down, puttering in the kitchen, making the house smell spicy and warm, fingers wrapped around hot steaming mugs, wool socks and fleece shirts and even a warm scarf keeping me cosy in the house.

Red sky jan 15

Somehow that’s not enough, though.  That’s not enough of an embrace for me to stop thinking about how much I prefer taking the dog for his walk when I don’t have to spend 15 minutes dressing myself to go outdoors.   I can’t seem to get past a sensation of being closed in, either because of the overwhelming amount of outdoor clothing I require to stay warm (can you say “Michelin Man?”) or the overwhelmingly high snowbanks along the street and even along the sidewalks.  I understand that I ought to be grateful for plowed sidewalks and I am, I truly am.   And I am also struggling with the claustrophobic fear that winter will never, ever be over.

wpid-img_20140426_123904.jpg

Yup, those crocuses are supposed to be an image of the hope of spring.  I also know that yesterday was Imbolc, Candlemas, Feast of Saint Birgid, all of those holidays which are supposed to mean the same thing…halfway through winter!  And today is the day for ol’ Punxatawny Phil (my American roots are showing) to let us know the rodent perspective on that.  But you and I both know that today’s blizzard is more like what I should expect, not crocuses, for the next, oh, ten weeks.   Depending on how high and deep that old snow gets piled on top of my crocus bed.

It is a continuous practice for me to try to be present to what IS.  Winter happens to be WHAT IS right now.  I watch myself attend and appreciate and then also watch my thinking slip away into fantasies of summer.  Can I be kind to myself around my inattention?  Can I just notice my thinking….oh, that’s what my thoughts are doing….and bring myself back to here, to now, to Winter 2015?  Can I be present with my own claustrophobia and watch that feeling begin, grow, and then lose traction, as feelings always do?

In someone else’s words, “Don’t wish it away.  Don’t think of it like it’s forever.”  Neither one of those thoughts is helpful.  Both are ways to avoid what is happening here and now. (In case you were wondering, those are lines from an Elton John song that was popular in the 1980s…yes, that long ago….see this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6KYAVn8ons)

Welcome, Blizzard.  Welcome, Life.

Coming of the solstice

Solstice is nearly upon us and none too soon for me.  The short days bear heavily down on me, maybe more particularly because we’ve not seen the sun here for over a week.  I am inclined, as those long-ago ancestors, to wrap up in warm woolies, drink hot toddies by the (imaginary) fire, cuddle up with books and family and good food, and just wait it out.
Christmas tree in snow CPNY2002There is probably more for me here, though.  Why do I turn away from the darkness, resist the cold?  It is something different from my biological need for warmth….I live in a civilized place, after all, with central heating and electric lights.  I am unlikely to die from exposure.  But I still resist and turn inward, avoiding…what?  what would I come in contact with should I just let myself experience that darkness?  Why not play a little with it: look into the dark, sit with it, wait and see what is happening, and then, only then, turn back to the light if need be.  I know, my body and my mind both know, that the sun will return, the light will come again, and that the darkness is a time of rest, renewal and regrowth….I just have to be willing to accept those gifts along with the darkness and the cold.

What does fall evoke in you?

wpid-img_20141018_075337.jpg

This week has had warm, humid and sometimes rainy weather as a result of a late season hurricane out there in the Atlantic. That means diffuse light, brightly coloured leaves glossy and wet, and today, a gray morning of fog (mourning?). Grass is still green, leaves are drifting over lawns, and the tang of wood smoke would not be a surprise. Yet fall still feels gentle, moving in quietly but with purpose. There is some sense of movement in fall, though I know that the movement is toward winter.  But I notice in myself that I also feel movement, a shift toward maybe incubating something, a new project, new ideas, or maybe (more subtly) just a change in point of view.  Below are some views from my morning with Max.

 

2014-10-18 07.49.10 2014-10-18 08.05.50 2014-10-18 08.06.30 2014-10-18 08.43.22

Popsicle Days

Here is a picture of my new “therapeutic” intervention.

Popsicle money

 

Yes, it is popsicle money.   I have been carrying popsicle money around with me all summer.  I have spent some hours on the bike path, either on the bike or running (or walking) and carrying my popsicle money with me, just in case I was in a place that had popsicles when I wanted a popsicle.

You may need to know that popsicles are not a regular thing with me.  In fact, they are pretty far off my usual list of foods to eat, and they certainly don’t instill any health benefits.   However, there is an opportunity for pleasure and even fun with those icy treats on a hot day when I have been exercising.  And so my quest for the pleasurable popsicle.

I tried to get one and had to settle for something similar one hot weekend day three miles into a four mile run.   Whatever that concoction of water, sugar and flavour was, it hit the spot.   It was thoroughly enjoyable and I made the very most of it.

wpid-img_20140713_163657.jpg

So I am sharing this idea, and in the therapy office, I have put out a tiny bowl full of change for popsicles, along with a sign to encourage people to plan to have some fun, plan for pleasure….plan for a popsicle.  Be prepared because you don’t know when the opportunity might arise to indulge and really, deeply enjoy.
Happy summer!  Happy popsicle days!