Of late I listen to an audiobook: Paramahansa Yogananda on the Bhagavad Gita, as explained by his disciple, Swami Kriyananda. The Gita is one of the great scriptures of enlightenment, a conversation between Krishna the God of Love and Arjuna the universal devotee, right at the moment when Arjuna beholds a civil war in which he is supposed to fight.
“Brother against brother, cousin against cousin, how can I fight in this terrible battle?” Arjuna asks, his heart breaking. Krishna has an answer, and Yes, Arjuna is supposed to fight. This life is a play of shadows, rebirth is a certainty, consciousness is evolving, at one level, we must live out our dharma.
I’m not sure I totally agree with Krishna’s answer. One scripture or another is always in hand, and I always debate with it in my head. I am on a journey and I don’t have answers, I have questions, and boy oh boy, do I have a lot of opinions. Just because some holy person centuries ago wrote something doesn’t mean I have to buy it. Used car salesmen, the lot of them. Prophets, scribes, proselytizers, and disciples, all selling their brand of God. As if God could be a brand. Or defined by any one person, one path, or one book.
My husband Sabin finally forbade me to read the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying at bedtime, because it riled me up. I’d try to draw him into a debate and then sleep restlessly, arguing in my dreams. But I don’t think we’re supposed to take any gospel literally. It’s my opinion that we’re supposed to struggle with the words of God, all of us like Jacob wrestling the Angel of God. Finally, a blessing is bestowed.
Another of the great scriptures that has a longtime spot on my nightstand is The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. I like Patanjali’s work because it’s methodical. He gives a practical curriculum for advancing in consciousness. I want to get there from here–don’t ask me where ‘here’ and ‘there’ are, what progress consists of, or how it is measured. I’ll send a postcard when I’ve arrived. Meantime, there are these paths. Ahimsa, nonviolence, is one of the crucial ones.
For the last few years I’ve undertaken ahimsa in my language. Specifically, refraining from the violence of dishonesty. Honesty comes easily to me, but sometimes too bluntly. I tend not to tell lies. But I can tell truths with a sharp edge. So the deeper, more textured layers of this issue fascinate me, eg, the small dishonesties that pass for social courtesy. Because kindness matters, too. Kindness is the crux.
How do I tell a scrupulous truth without hurting someone’s feelings? For example, how do I refrain from saying that a haircut or dress is flattering, when it’s butt ugly? How do I negotiate my simultaneous responsibilities to the truth and to kindness?
Which put me in a sticky situation recently, when I visited with someone who I knew had googled me. This person asked me what I did, as if it were unknown. Well, the spouse had googled me. Marriage being what it is, I assume the spouse had shared information about me.
There is a crude but effective invisible hit counter on my website. It gives useful stats about visitors to my site: how many page loads, what state or country. Usually the information is pretty anonymous. I can tell that someone using Verizon internet in New York state was on my site, for example. It’s great fun to see hits from distant countries.
Sometimes a large company or institution names their ISP network after themselves, so the name of that institution or company appears. For a while, my middle daughter had my website set as her default Safari page on her macbook. I knew when she took her computer to school and played on it, because a user on her school’s network would pop up on my counter.
The day before the visit with my new acquaintance, who is a lovely person, my counter showed the name of the company where the spouse works. Now, this isn’t a small company; it took me a while to figure out who at that company might have been interested in me. But it’s not that hard. I went to the company’s website and took a look at the page on their employees. One of the names matched a name on a list of people I’d been given, some of whom I’d also googled.
So, out of truthfulness and kindness, what am I supposed to do when someone pretends they know nothing about me, but there’s an indication that they’ve googled me?
In this instance, surprised, I opted to play dumb. I said that I was an author. And then eventually the conversation came around to spouses, and since I’d taken that first step into the shadows, I asked what the spouse did. As if I didn’t know. It was distressing to be in this position, holding hidden information like a steaming potato. I felt like a liar. That’s not who I want to be.
But if I admit to googling, do I seem like a stalker? If I admit to googling and the other person doesn’t, do I position them as dishonest, which is unkind? If I mention that I know that they’ve been on my website, is that a violation of privacy, another unkindness?
What are the rules of kindness and honesty in the world of immediate information via google and statcounters? What would Krishna or Jacob’s Angel have to say about the virtual world?
The day after that visit, I had a business meeting with a married couple who told me straight out, up-front, no BS that they’d googled me, been on my website, and watched the video clip. It was a great relief. It made me like and trust them. It seemed to me that the universe had sent me this latter experience as a foil to the prior one, to illustrate for me the way that I was supposed to follow. The Universe works that way, with care and great intelligence, for seekers and strugglers.
From now on, I’ll confess straightaway to my nefarious googling and statcounter information. Hopefully I’ll be able to do it with courtesy and tact. That’s my growing point.
My neighbor upstairs, Lucy Holmes, has written an interesting book called “The Internal Triangle: New Theories of Female Development.” Lucy’s a smart lady and the book crackles with life and intelligence. It’s well-written and absorbing. She’s also set herself an ambitious goal: to use Freud’s drive theory to explain female development. The back cover explains that she’s the first woman to attempt this in over sixty years. I haven’t read a lot of Freud, but didn’t he theorize that women long to have penises, and that’s why women are all so messed up?
This despite the archetypal message of the blind prophet Tiresias, who spent seven years as a woman. He tells the gods unequivocally that a woman experiences greater sexual pleasure.
For me, the most arresting part of the book was the exquisite attention to transference and counter-transference as Holmes relates anecdotes about women patients from her many years as an analyst. Some of her patients idealized her, some hated her, many did both, some wanted to kill her, some wanted to have sex with her. In response, Holmes worries, is tormented and feels inadequate. She wants to help them. Does she?
It threw me back into my years as a hands-on healer, and my years in therapy. When you lay hands on people’s bodies with love and the intention to heal, miracles happen. So does powerful transference. And wicked strong countertransference. A practicing healer has to be on her edge, standing with her toes touching the line every second. I made some big mistakes in my practice when I wandered off that edge.
And because we are all human, mistakes, blunders, errors, and inadequacies happen. A decade of my personal psychotherapy imploded in heartache when I divorced my first husband. My therapist was also my husband’s therapist, and our marital therapist, and it was all too fuzzy and intertwined. And when the negotiations between my ex and me grew contentious, I wrote a letter to the therapist saying it wasn’t right for me that my therapist was counseling someone with whom I might go to court. It was something I had to do to stand up for myself. She didn’t write back but she must have agreed, because she terminated her work with him. Of course, he blamed me. A lot of hurt and pain here, for everyone.
Which brings me to qualms about conventional talk psychotherapy. Does it really work? Can it? Therapists are all too frail and prone to err, even with the best of intentions. And, of course, therapists make their living through people showing up regularly, once or twice or three times a week. They have an investment, acknowledged or not, in their patients’ ongoing mental unhealth. Too many patients feed their therapists’ investment, falling into what Caroline Myss so aptly calls ‘woundology,’ cherishing their suffering. They don’t move on. They start every conversation with, “My therapist says….” Don’t we all know people like that?
And my most serious criticism of psychotherapy is that, largely, it doesn’t turn people into better human beings. Here is a the beginning of an imaginary, all too likely, session:
Therapist: “So, you’re an ax murderer, you lure innocent people into the woods where you chop them into little pieces. How do you feel about that?”
Accountability is anathema to psychotherapy. What modern psychotherapy has contributed to the zeitgeist, the way it is largely practiced, is the demolition of judgment and accountability. What psychotherapy should do is teach people how to hold their feelings without acting on them, and without shattering. If human beings can feel a range of emotions from -10 to +10, and can perform actions on a decency scale from -10 to +10, (-10 is genocide, +10 is risking or giving your own life to save someone else’s), then psychotherapy should help people feel and contain their feelings on the full scale, but limit their actions to, say, -2 to +10. But that’s not what’s happened. People who feel below -2 and over +3 are put on medications. And censoring actions is considered bad form.
We’ve become a culture, thanks partly to modern psychotherapy, that confuses prejudice with judgment. The pendulum has swung that far as we try to dismantle millennia of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation. Discrimination is a great evil that I hope to see largely dissolved in my lifetime–though I probably won’t.
And judgment is still imperative. There are reasons why so many of the great, ancient, spiritual texts say, “Thou shalt not.” We need to be able to say, “That action is not okay!” The higher octave of discrimination is discernment, the wisdom to separate the chaff from the grain. Despite the moral relativism of psychotherapy, there is still chaff, and it differs qualitatively from grain.