Tag Archives: Psychology

Warrior Poet

With the change of the new year, I find my work circumstances changing and that I’m more fully returned to some of the work I used to do before making changes over two years ago. I’ll put emphasis on “some” and further emphasize that some critical pieces are different (for the better).

But one thing that is back is me being in charge of people and responding to crisis situations. Again, not as dangerous to me as before (at least not yet), but like a warrior putting the arms and armor on again for the first time I am feeling some of the familiar energy and movements.

And so it seems a good time to pause and think about things I’ve learned over the past couple of years being away from this all. During that time, in conjunction with other changes in my life, I’ve reconnected with artistic and creative endeavors and likes that had been dormant (in some cases over twenty years). My military history magazine subscriptions traded for Buddhist and Poetry ones. My library has undergone a major purge and rebalancing with a lot of history books gone and literature, poetry and spirituality books added.

As I feel that old energy come back though, I do know that it too is a part of me. Indeed, it is as central a part of me as these other interests are. And so I am feeling rebalanced myself as I’m getting some of that flowing again.

It of course raises the question of if I’m going to flip back and start restocking history and military history and purging literature, poetry and spirituality. But I think the answer here is no, I’m not. Indeed, I think the answer here is  no, I can’t. And, no, I shouldn’t.

We hear about more refined times when warriors also practiced arts. Japan is most notable with samurai cultivating the Haiku with the same dedication as the sword. In our rougher, shallower, more rational time, we look on that as an anomaly, a cute inconsistency. After all, what could be more in stark contrast than someone using perhaps the most advanced sword ever made (the Katana) and a calligraphy brush.

But I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately and realizing that not only is it not a cute inconsistency, it’s a necessity. It is a critical balancing element that keeps the warrior from becoming just a soldier, from losing their humanity and becoming a killing machine.

When I look at times when I’ve gone deep into that warrior side, I’ve seen myself increasingly lose touch with the rest of the world, with the people I did this for. I see myself inhabiting a world of dark complexity that others simply cannot understand. I’ve seen and felt myself feel like the dayworld everyone else inhabits is built on ignorance and illusion that I can’t share. Innocence, once lost, can never be regained after all. I would be lying if I didn’t say that over time, you start to resent people in the dayworld for their blithe ignorance, naivete and ingratitude. In particular, you resent dayworlders second guessing or judging your actions when they have no idea what it’s like. It’s for this reason that while I may lament situations gone wrong, I will almost never criticize or judge because you don’t know what was happening when it happened. If you ever get to see NYPD Blue Season 1, Episode 21 “Guns ‘n Rosaries” you can see an excellent examination of how hard these situations are.

When I made changes two plus years ago, in fact, I told my colleagues that I needed to make a change because I’d been living so deeply in a world of fighting and negativity that it was all I could see. I was, I said, at risk of becoming one of those cops who’s been on the job too long and comes to hate the people they originally signed up to protect.

While my work has not put a gun in my hand or had one pointed at me, it has put the burden of great responsibility for people’s safety on me in dealing with those who mean harm. And in that way I share the experiences and burdens that others in more physical safety roles have. For all of us, to fight the bad people you have to understand them and think like them. And there is a contamination quality here: you don’t want to bring that darkness back to the people you’re protecting. Indeed, your goal is to hold the line and keep that darkness outside. You sacrifice your comfort and light so that others can have it.

I used to think that meant that we who did this had to accept a burden of exile from those we love and do this for, so as to not stain them. But I’ve come to realize that’s not realistic. We live in the same world and unless we who do this are willing to live alone and separated from what we love and are protecting, we have to find a way to be in the darkness, hold it, manipulate it, battle it, but also leave it behind and come back and spend time with those in the dayworld.

Indeed, if we were to cut ourselves off entirely the question would eventually arise of why bother doing it at all? Or, worse yet, why fight the darkness, why not relax and succumb and join it? It is, after all, a very thin line that separates the cop from the criminal. And if there is no benefit to be had for all that effort, why not cross over: the pay is better after all. This is how people go to the “dark side”.

But there is a logic to living only in the darkness. Indeed, our culture favors specialization in all areas such that we don’t question the wisdom of that in its own right. But specialization for warriors is particularly dangerous for the reasons I outlined. It turns us from warriors into soldiers. It turns us from humans fighting of necessity for something we love into killing machines that know nothing else. And it leads to some of the most horrible and tragic situations that involve people who fight. It leads to massacres like My Lai, the Kandahar massacre and Abu Ghraib. And more commonly, it leads to self-slaughter. There’s a reason we are facing a suicide crisis in our armed forces after eleven years of unrelenting warfare. When all you know is killing, living in the darkness, you lose your humanity.

So how do we prevent this? By cultivating warriors and not soliders. By working towards balance. By returning to the dayworld and living in it and experiencing and remembering what it is we fight for in the first place. For me, it’s holding on to those things I’ve recovered over the past couple of years while reentering some of the fight. It is also, honestly, choosing to not be right on the most front lines of the fight like I once was. Most of all it is recognizing the dangers and making an effort to maintain balance as much as possible.

Sadly, it would seem this realization of mine runs contrary to broader trends. In this post 9/11 world we are seeing more and more militarization in the interest of safety. Our police today are better equipped than soldiers were in the 1980s. Not only do we ask those looking out for our safety to specialize more and more, we’ve asked our entire society to specialize in safety. This is worrisome to me for many of the reasons I’ve outlined (and some I haven’t). That is, I think, a topic for another post.

For now, though, I think its important to close by saying I understand now the importance of the warrior poet. And the importance of cultivating that as my ideal. All the more so because of my father.

My father was a Marine who served in Viet Nam. And while I was totally estranged from him, when I fell into security work I realized that I had in some ways inherited that calling from him. Police and military service are often family callings and his family was no exception: he and his brother and several generations before them were in the military. And though I had no contact with him since I was 12, I realized that this work suited me in a way that did feel like a calling and so I felt that was something I inherited from him. It was the one and only way I felt any connection to him.

Like so many soldiers, my father was unable to cope with life beyond the uniform. And so I found out in 2002 that he had succumbed to self-slaughter in 1995. We were so estranged that I had to find out by getting his death certificate and autopsy.

After two years separated from that warrior side, I find it’s not good or realistic to suppress or cut that side out. But if I embrace parts of that and want to avoid my father’s (and so many others’) fate that comes from losing their humanity, I need the balance that comes with the warrior poet rather than the soldier.

That’s the big lesson for the new year as I embark on new endeavors.

Paresthesia

Today’s word meditation is on “paresthesia”.

This is a word you’ve needed but likely never knew you did. It’s the medical term for something we all feel at times. Specifically, it’s the term for that “pins and needles” feeling we get in our hands and feet when they’ve been numb and feeling begins to return to them.

The root of it is ancient Greek. It’s a combination of “para” which here means “abnormal” (much like we see in our term “paranormal” in fact) and “esthesia” which means feeling or sensation. Esthesia  is familiar to most of us in “anesthesia” which is means to induce “an” (no) “esthesia” (feeling).

I find this word has use not just to describe a physical phenomenon, but is also useful for a psychological one.

We are coming out of winter and starting to feel the beginnings of spring. The weather now is a battle between winter and spring. I saw this this week with the morning snow covering new shoots of grass and flowers.

And like the weather, my moods now are a battle between the depressive, lethargic, hibernating energy of winter, and the manic, exuberant, expansive energy of spring. And during this time, I find there’s a psychological paresthesia going on. Parts of me are waking up and coming out of numbness, they’re feeling again. But they’ve been cold for long enough that the initial feeling hurts. It really is a psychological pins and needles. All the more so given research that shows that some of us at least really do physically feel emotions.

Just like with the classic pins and needles, all I can do with this is wait for it to pass. For the warm-up process to finish and everything return to normal feeling.

But damn it hurts.

Dream a big dream: Time to die

Interestingly, as I review past posts, this will be the second post about dreams recently. The other was my post “Dream a little dream” in October. And while I don’t intend to make this a dream journal, as I said in that post, dreams are important and sometimes very charged. And this morning, I had another very powerful dream. One that felt very real and left me feeling quite disoriented. So, I want to take time to capture it and perhaps some thoughts before it, like the fog surrounding me in the Forest, dissipates under the light of day.

The dream is set in the future. I am older, much older. My wife, our dog and I are all living on a space station. It’s quite large. Large enough to have a town, farms, animals. It reminds me of when I lived in Alameda. The town is smallish in feel like Alameda. The farms remind me of places in Marin and the East Bay. It also has simulated daylight and nighttime. The effect is that it feels very much like earth, but smaller, self-contained.

In the dream, I have cancer. It’s fairly advanced and it’s the day that I’ve decided to take my life. I know that I’m on the cusp of a rule I have regarding terminal and/or debilitating diseases or conditions: if you don’t think you’d be able to take your own life tomorrow, today’s the day for you to do it. Otherwise, you’ll fall into the trap of wasting away and being unable to do anything about it. I’ve always said that I don’t want to waste away and linger, but after watching what my mother went through, I became even more adamant about that. That’s why I have a living will for instance.

It’s mid-afternoon and my wife and I are driving around. I know it’s my last few hours and I’m taking in the sights and experiences. I’m actively living my last few hours. We stop at a farm and I walk around. The farm has these small animals that grow out of the ground that are food on the station. They’re small and brown and come up out of the ground fast and scatter and swarm around your feet. I have to watch my step so I don’t step on them. I also feel that they’re kind of weird and creepy.

Then we’re driving in the town. We go around a curve and I see an auto dealership on our left. The road curves around it and as you round the curve you see an attached repair garage. The building on both sides has a logo that’s an image of the owner. I think to myself how they’re going to have to change all their branding when the owner dies.

Then we’re in an office. A guy I work with right now is there at a desk and he and I and my wife are talking. He and I work together in the dream. He’s saying how it’s a good thing I’m dying today because Eisenhower, who runs the company, doesn’t have much use for sick people. I had been watching Ken Burns’ The War last night, which is about World War II, and it talked a lot about General Eisenhower and his overall command of Western Europe last night. While what the guy I work with sounds horrible by day, it didn’t in the dream, it was just a very matter of fact thing.

After that, my wife and I are still in the same office, but he’s gone and a faceless/nameless female friend of my wife is in the room somewhere. I have a vague sense that she’s my wife’s girlfriend. This person and I don’t have much connection but she and my wife do and I know that she’s there to help my wife. The hour has come and it’s time. Throughout all this, I never see my dog, but I know he’s there on the station with us. I know too that he’s old and dying and that after I’m done, my wife will be going to help him pass. I know this is a very hard day for her, but I know too that she’s incredibly strong and as OK as she can be. I have a sense that this person with her helps. That when I and our dog are gone she will be OK and won’t be alone or lonely.

When we had to send our other dog on her way this fall, when I first saw her that last time, she looked OK and I had trouble believing we had to do this. I also was blindsided by what was happening and not ready. I started to cry and said to my wife “I don’t think I’m ready for this, maybe we don’t have to do this yet”. She explained again why the vet thought it was time and I could tell our dog was having trouble breathing. After a minute or two I agreed it was time. In the dream, when my wife and I realized the hour had arrived, I had a similar wavering. I felt sadness that I was done with this life, that I had no more chances to do anything else. I said something to the effect of not being ready.

In reality, I drink a lot of Vitaminwater Zero XXX (it’s one of the red ones). In the dream, I had one in my right hand. As we’re talking, I took a drink from it. It tasted very bitter, almost toxic. I looked at the bottle and I saw a large pill or tablet floating in the bottle at the top, dissolving. I recognize it as the pill I was going to take to end my life. I look at my wife and realize that she knew I might have trouble doing what I wanted, that I might waver at the end and so she put the pill in my drink to help me. I have said that there are times in which the greatest act of love one can make is to let go and help one you love pass. It’s what I feel every time I send our kids to the other side: the crushing grief is mixed in with the fact that I’m doing what I have to, what I don’t want to, because I love them. My wife and I have similar feelings about not wanting to whither and we have both said that if we had to, we would help the other that way. As I look at my wife in the dream, I realize that she’s done just that and am filled with a sense of that overwhelming love that makes one do what she did.

I move to hug her and give her a kiss. As I’m holding her, she’s nearly bald and thin, I feel the back of her head where it joins with the neck. Perhaps she was sick herself in the dream? I tell her that I love her and thank her. I’m feeling deep love towards her and gratitude that she loves me enough to do this very difficult thing. This thing that so many people wouldn’t understand and that many would think is wrong.

My vision starts to blacken suddenly. I feel like I’m starting to swoon. I pull away and stand on my own. I remark “wow, that stuff works fast”. When I’ve sent our kids to the other side, one thing that has struck me is how quickly they fall asleep and then pass away. It’s faster and more peaceful than I thought it would be before I ever saw it. In the dream I know that’s the case with what I’ve taken. I’m dying and will be dead in a minute. My awareness of the world is withdrawing, closing in on itself.

Then I woke up. It was morning here in the Forest. Very foggy, giving the day world a dream-like feel to it.

That’s the most realistic death dream I’ve ever had. It’s the closest I’ve felt myself come to the moment of death in a dream (or reality even). The dream and the fog have left me feeling disoriented, trying to figure out not so much what the dream means but rather what I think and feel from it.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on death lately. With all the death and loss that I’ve gone through these past three years or so, this period I call the Crucible, I can’t help but have more focus on those issues. And too, with so much loss around things that formed my identity in the past, I’m having to look at questions of who I am and what am I doing, what do I want to do.

As I have been writing on this dream and thinking about it, it feels like some more pieces are coming into place. Like Dante, I feel like I’m in a dark wood and searching for the path. And like Dante, it’s a long way out of that dark wood and is taking me to places previously unimaginable. And it seems, like Dante, the path leads to metaphysical places and questions about life, love and death.

Certainly working with death and loss seems like a part of my path right now. In the past three years or so I’ve been doing a lot of reading on and listening to talks about Buddhism, particularly Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. Dealing with loss and suffering is such a core part of Buddhism that I felt there was a lot I could learn from it. In Buddhism death isn’t a negative, a thing to be fought. It’s a natural part of life and like all things in life can be made better or worse. I find the Tibetan idea of the Bardos very informative too: that just as sleep follows waking follows sleep, so death follows life follows death. So for the past three years or so, I’ve been exploring and learning about that. I’ve learned about people who work to help facilitate passages, “death doulas“. And when I read about them, I wonder if perhaps the reason for this life for me has something to do with death. That maybe I have so much loss in this life because I’m supposed to use my experiences to do something helpful?

Certainly a sense that I’ve been called to do something around death isn’t new in my life.  A long time ago, my sophomore year of college, I had a chance to try acid for the first time. At the height of the experience while Metallica’s To Live is to Die was playing, I had a vision of being taken into the underworld and bargaining with the god of death. It was an amazing vision where I sat at a table across from him under the vault of a sky that looked like a medieval illuminated manuscript. As the Cocteau Twins’ Blue Bell Knoll came on, I felt the music hit me like refreshing cool water, bringing me back up to the surface from the underworld. I stood up and felt like I had returned from a journey and been transformed, like Siegfried after bathing in the dragon’s blood. I had this sense of being marked by the experience.

And so even when I was young, I had this sense of death being something different for me. Something that I was called to be closer to than other people. And, given the amount of suicide in my life, and the fact that my father died by suicide at age 47 (I would find out nearly seven years later that both that he was dead and how he died), there’s been this additional feeling of being marked and called, almost like it’s the family business.

On a side note too, the psychologist James Hillman writes about the psychological and mythological ties between dreams and the underworld. Given how powerful dreams are for me, that feels like another tie between me and the underworld.

This is a long post to write and to read. So, if you’ve made it this far dear reader, thank you for staying with me on this path.

I don’t have firm answers but perhaps I have a bit more of a clue on where I should be doing work: around life, love and death. Perhaps in my way I’ve been called, while I live, to serve both love and death. Perhaps the claims of Lilith and the god of death, in their way support each other. I still am figuring out what I do with my warrior side, what I do with my creative side. But maybe I’ve got a bit more direction after this. Nothing makes you think about life as much as death, that’s for sure.

As always, I guess, it remains to be seen what comes next. What I do know is that I have a better feeling today for what it will be to die. I feel a bit more ready for it. The Tibetans encourage practice for dying in your dreams. It would seem I took one of those lessons to heart.

A closing postscript to this post: while writing this, I learned from the Wikipedia article that James Hillman died this past October. He was an influential figure for me in college and part of my recovered interests these past three years. I am sorry he has passed, though he had a good life. And it is interesting that I should learn of this when writing about my own death dream.

Joyful Explorations

Changing gears a bit.

I haven’t really mentioned what I’m focusing on in terms of interests and things that make me happy these days.

I picked up some stuff in that vein today, so it seems like a good opportunity to share it more broadly.

When I was in college, I was interested in the verbal arts, specifically poetry and drama (I was an unofficial drama minor in college). I had interests in, but didn’t get to dig into, English modernist and early Chinese poetry. I am very happy to say I’m bringing those interests back to the fore. Specifically, Ezra Pound, Kenneth Rexroth, Li Po, Tu Fu, and Wang Wei.

I was a comparative religion major in college as well. And I’ve been returning to that as well, doing reading again in comparative mythology as well as Buddhism (with a bit of Taoism thrown in). I’ve also been doing reading again in depth psychology like James Hillman and others like him.

Back then, I always talked about how art, philosophy, psychology, mythology and religion (I would say spirituality now) all springs from and coalesces around the same big questions. They are all really about making sense of what it is to be alive and what you’re going to do with the life you’ve got.

I’m happy to be returning to these. Having lived a normal life for a number of years in the working world, perhaps now I’ve got the experience that enables me to better approach these topics and questions than if I’d just stayed in the ivory tower.

Moods

Moods are powerful things.

Kierkegaard once remarked on how looking at brain matter through a microscope tells you nothing about consciousness.

While I rather deplore where he landed with all that, the fact is that the observation was, and remains, astute. We just don’t have really any more of an understanding of what it is that makes the human experience of consciousness now than we did then.

And, indeed, for all the supposed “advancements” of science, in some ways our clinical approach makes our experience worse rather than better. For, while we may be more accurate to no longer suppose that demons or other spirits are to blame, the loss of that explanation removes a point of view of externality regarding moods.

And, in so doing, puts a burden of self-healing on everyone.

“Oh, you’re just in a bad mood, pull yourself out of it”

Were that it were that simple. Were that moods were truly internal and responsive to command and control.

One of my interests is in manic-depressive illness (MDI) because, to a degree, I suffer a mild case of it. More prone to depression than mania and mania episodes are what we call “hypomanic” meaning they’re very light. Put it this way, I’ve never yet gone on a shopping spree that puts me in danger of bankruptcy: instead, I buy 3 books I probably don’t need. But, the swings are there and I feel them, like today.

And, any review of the history of those who suffer MDI shows that these “moods” will not heel or obey. Sufferers use a variety of methaphors and similes to explain it, and there’s nearly always an element of externality.

Me being me, my favorite is Churchill’s “black dog” metaphor. For me, I’ve viewed it as rather a demonic spirit, looking like a Quasit from the old AD&D monster manual with long claws that it can drive into my skull at the worst of times.

I suppose I should be glad that, over time, I’ve come to recognize what it is and how it behaves. I know when I have to accept the Fates’ decree that I have to grit my teeth, feel the agony pass slowly with hours seeming like days and wait for it to pass, in time.

I am glad to know that it will pass. But, the time is painful nonetheless. And so, there are moments like right now when I lament the fact that moods do not act the way we’re told they’re supposed to, when I wish that I could simply decide I feel better and have it be so.

But, then, as Nietzsche said so famously : that which does not destroy you makes you stronger. And, I am so very, very strong now.