Our Best Teachers (& the square foot rule)

There’s an oft-repeated story, attributed to Thich Nhat Hanh, the founder of Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat centre near Paris:

Each year, as applications for continued participation in this community were being reviewed, the question would arise as to why one particular individual would be invited to return. This man was notoriously challenging, difficult to get along with, and generally undermining to the values and teachings of the centre. Each year Thich Nhat Hanh would patiently listen to the near universal entreaties to bar this individual from membership; and each year he would approve his continued association. When pressed to explain his reasons, his answer was simple. This man provides a focus for the centre. His actions are so outrageous that he cannot help but be noticed by all. And none of you has yet learned to be in his presence without having him distract you from your own reflections and study. Only when you have learned his lesson, will we consider your request to bar him (and then we won’t need to). He is your ‘best teacher’.

The community members were merely acting out the very human response to a situation or individual that made them uncomfortable, angry, frustrated: avoidance – or at least a request that the community’s leader would ‘remove’ the challenge and restore order and peace. The belief, of course is that by excising the problem, the issue is resolved. Thich Nhat Hanh was underscoring the reality – ‘until the next time’. Better, even necessary, to cultivate a capacity to deal with these emotions within ourselves than to spend our days trying to remove the external source of them.

With Karmic predictability and relentlessness, these ‘opportunities’ enter and re-enter our personal theatre – until we get it right. (Maybe it’s time to watch Groundhog Day – yet again!) The range of response is also predictable (although somewhat specific to the individual). For me, the sequence usually starts with a rant, typically rationalized and washed through the lens of feeling betrayed or disappointed. (I’m entitled to rant because I’ve been . . . or so the opening act generally goes). Truth be told, it’s usually more about the order of things, my order of things, being disturbed (often unexpectedly). Then the parent appears – usually daddy – and his need (delusion?) that order can and must be restored – whether through civilized negotiation, gentle correction, or arbitrary mandate. This stage of course is heavily reliant on my having sufficient control of outcomes to be conciliatory, didactic, or arbitrary. Either way, the operative term is ‘control’; and its flip side, ‘helplessness’. And then we move to angst – what if. . ? If the tantrum doesn’t do it, dickering and/or pronouncement doesn’t do it. . . then what? Concern, anxiety about the future. Quite a lot to learn from one ‘teacher’!

So what’s to be done? In an earlier blog (May 9, 2011) on projection and how to address it mindfully, I’d recounted Zindel Segal’s suggested protocol: developing an awareness of the present experience – taking our attention away from the ‘trigger’ event or individual and shifting it to our own experience (what am I feeling?); identifying the way in which we’re relating to the event (attaching, avoiding, etc.); letting go of our need to make things different than they are (accepting, allowing); and finally, inviting the experience to remain, understanding that it will change, evolve – all things do and in their own fashion.

At lunch with a friend this week, we began to discuss the relationship between physical pain and levels of discomfort or, in many cases, literal suffering that result. As Shinzen Young, a widely respected meditation teacher, frames it, pain exists along one dimension of our experience; and our resistance to it (in simplistic terms, our effort to avoid it, deny it, medicate it, operate on it, etc. – in essence, the degree to which we push against it) along a second dimension. He describes the subjective experience of pain, our suffering, as the product of our ‘objective pain’ and our resistance – or the amount of the first multiplied by the amount of the second. So, as we experience greater levels of pain, our subjective experience of that pain is magnified exponentially by the level of resistance we bring into the equation as well. In the diagram, a six-fold increase in pain, accompanied by a similar increase in resistance, produces a subjective pain level, not of six, but of 36! His contention is that, a regular mindfulness practice, by bringing increased levels of clarity and acceptance to our physical experience, is able to address the dimension of resistance – in essence containing that part of the equation over which we have some control. While we can’t, in many cases, limit, reduce, and certainly not remove the pain, we can definitely impact our level of subjective suffering by lowering our resistance (increasing our acceptance).

Conversation turned to dealing with challenging people (teachers, as it were), and it occurred to me that a very similar model had application. Our Plum Village populace, courtesy of their ‘dictatorial’ leader, was not able to address their resident ‘pain’. He was there for the duration – suck it up, buttercup! What they were most certainly able to do was to limit the level of reactivity (resistance) to this man. The resultant distraction (i.e., suffering, in Shinzen Young’s model) was able to be contained, hopefully sufficient to allow them to carry on with their own lives without having this man continuing to be the ‘tail that wagged their dogs’. Similarly, if I examine my personal response to ‘teachers’, my anger (the initial tantrum), my efforts to restore ‘equilibrium’ (my equilibrium) / control / order, and ultimately my anxiety over where things will head from here, all represent resistance in various guises to accepting what is, to sitting with an individual over whose decisions I have (and probably shouldn’t have) much say, much as I’d like to. A pain, perhaps. My choice as to whether I want a 6 or a 36!

Diagnosis: Unusual; Prescription: Meditation

A pleasant, earnest, and persistent young man telephoned last week intent on ‘helping’ us with a problem that we were about to encounter with the Windows operating system that populates our various computers. His message was clear: he had been instructed by Microsoft to contact us and assist us with the removal of a viral program, origin suspected to be Thailand. While he (helpfully) remained on the phone, we were to go directly to our computer (do not pass ‘Go’; and certainly do not collect the usual $200 swag – that evidently would be his job!), log on to the website he would designate, and presto, we would have dodged another digital bullet. Fortunately, my wife received the call, together with all its urgent instructions – and accordingly informed our obliging young caller that her experience with Microsoft (and it is ample) was that contact is not typically made by telephone. She thanked him for his time (more or less) and ended the call. A few days later, she had occasion to take her computer in for servicing, discovering in conversation with the technician that we were not alone in receiving this uninvited assist. Another less cautious customer had reportedly followed the directives; only to find that, in doing so, he himself installed corrupted code – which then cost him a few hundred dollars to have removed, evidently with the now ‘necessary’ intervention of said helpful and anonymous caller.

I was reminded of the above scenario as I read, with some interest, Ian Brown’s weekend editorial about the soon to be published DSM-V (see our ‘Of Interest’ website, for the full text – of Ian’s article, not the DSM!). The lingo may be a bit unfamiliar to some – the DSM’s are the manuals utilized in making diagnoses of mental disorders, syndromes, etc. Evolving thru’ three previous editions in the past 60 years, the DSM-IV, its current incarnation, is an imposing checklist cataloguing criteria for everything from depression to dementia, psychosis to personality disorders, anxiety to Asperger’s. Ian chooses to highlight the contentiousness that has pretty much preceded the release of each successive edition; largely driven by what some see as a rather arbitrary and scientifically ‘unsupported’ inclusion (and exclusion) of ‘conditions’ that might be better viewed as ‘extremes of normal behaviour’. (PMS, in; homosexuality, out.) He also raises the concern that, with every good (or maybe not so good) diagnosis, comes the need to develop ways of treating said condition. His contention is that, since this is primarily a medical/psychiatric volume (although the ‘protected privilege’ of pronouncing diagnosis is extended to psychologists in Ontario), ‘treatment’ has increasingly come to mean ‘medication’. In short, not to be too inclined to see a suspicious character behind every tree – that would be frankly paranoid, the editorial considers the possibility that the DSM’s have gradually become something of a self-perpetuating marriage between psychiatry (‘we invent the pathology’) and the drug companies (‘we invent the cure’). Hence, my little resonance with the scenario in the first paragraph: first I’ll help you inject a problem into your computer; then I’ll ride in to the rescue (for my $300 fee!). Hmmm, seems a bit circular (and scary).

I also had occasion a few weeks back to catch the end of an interview between Steve Paikin (The Agenda) and an octogenarian, Don Weitz who is a self-described ‘psychiatric survivor’ and ‘anti-psychiatry activist’. (The podcast is viewable at: http://www.tvo.org/cfmx/tvoorg/theagenda/index.cfm?page_id=7&bpn=109191&ts=2011-06-28%2020:00:00.0 ). Weitz, an arrival in Canada some 50 years ago as a student in U of T‘s graduate psychology program, became progressively disenchanted with the whole concept of mental illness, partly a reaction to treatment interventions observed during a stint working at CAM-H (formerly Queen St. Mental Health Centre) as a psychologist; and partly responsive to his own earlier experiences on the ‘other side of the window’ as a patient in late adolescence. He has been a vocal critic of all things psychiatric ever since.

As a practitioner, two observations. As a culture, we seem to be getting ‘sicker’, judging from the upsurge in numbers of certain categories of identified dysfunction (depression, attention deficit, anxiety, to name a few). A statistic cited in Brown’s column (NIH survey) notes that presently nearly half of American adults satisfy the criteria for at least one DSM mental illness! I’ve often wondered just what these sorts of reported trends actually reflect. Are there more depressed people in 2011 than in, say, 1990? Are little boys becoming progressively less manageable, more chaotic? My own (perhaps overly optimistic) suspicion is that this increased ‘mental malaise’ may in part be artifactual; that the ‘statistical evidence’ is in part predicated on two sources of somewhat suspect data (not the accuracy of the numbers, but the interpretation thereof): more prescriptions written for conditions typically seen as psychiatric (depression, anxiety); and more lost time work absences, reported as having a ‘psychiatric / psychological origin’. This trend, if my view has any credence at all, is disturbing in and of itself, in that it reflects as much an increased readiness to diagnose a condition – but quite possibly not an actual increase in the base rate of the condition(s) itself. More disturbing still is the reactivity that it seems to engender against taxonomic systems such as the DSM (as typified by Ian Brown’s column), and treatment of psychiatric disorder in general (as portrayed in the Weitz interview). The equivalent of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Certainly there are villains that will attempt to corrupt your computer. And certainly there may be a tendency in some quarters to pathologize eccentric, atypical, unpopular, or extreme behaviours. But it does not mean that we should stop answering the phone or throw out the computer. Nor is taxonomy the problem. What’s that hopelessly overused cliché: guns don’t shoot people; people shoot people. The tools are not the problem. Their application might be.

Oh yeah, the second observation. Restoring my faith on a regular basis is the appearance of clients in my practice, adamant that they wish to implement alternative strategies in addition to and on some occasions in place of medication in management of their presenting symptoms. The capacity for regular mindfulness practice, linked with other cognitive interventions, to sustain gains in a host of areas (anxiety, chronic pain, depression, anger/impulse control) is testament that perhaps we’re not going (straight) to Hell in a psychiatric hand basket. And that we, as a culture are not the uncritical, unquestioning collection of buffoons that the alarmists might suggest.


Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other
(Tao Te Ching, 2)

Natural events are cyclical, always changing from one extreme toward an opposite. . .That is the way of nature: to relax what is tense, to fill what is empty, to reduce what is overflowing. . . The wise person follows this natural order of events (and) by remaining disinterested (in outcome) becomes potent and successful.
(Tao of Leadership, 77)

One year ago this week, I attended a memorial service in Lawrence, Kansas for my friend and principal mentor, John Heider, the author of the second of these two quotes – and it put me in mind of endings and how we deal with them, what they represent to us. For the past two decades, I had, more or less annually, joined at least one of John’s trainings as he taught group process, body work, gestalt technique, and meditation. Our final group was held in October 2008, (barely a year and a half before John’s death in May, 2010), prompting me, at the time, to reflect on this bittersweet event:

Without fear of exaggeration, it is this man’s guidance and gentle suggestion, teachings and wisdom, provision of opportunity to explore the truly difficult, conflicted and challenging issues that plague us all, insights, encouragement to cultivate a contemplative and meditative practice, that has sculpted the spiritual framework that has occupied for me mid-life to ‘young’ old age. And this is his last group. This year’s trip is tinged with the sadness and uncertainty that must always accompany a transition, indeed a closing – especially one that will be hard pressed to find equal; and certainly never be replaced.

We sit around the group circle, ‘old style’ – pillows on the floor (no mean trick for a group with an average age of somewhere in the low 60’s). All bound by a few simple rules: tell one’s truth (or as much of it as feels safe); remain present; and above all, ‘trust the process’. This last bit, cryptic and succinct as it may seem, to my mind is the essence of personal and ultimately spiritual growth. It presumes a community that may be relied upon to place each other’s respective interests in a non-judgmental, supportive, receptive, and respectful light. It presumes a set of expectations that does not include ‘getting answers’ – only being granted a full opportunity to ask one’s questions, a forum to be fully heard (not judged, corrected, or advised). And it presumes that speaking aloud one’s dilemmas and enthusiasms, regrets and successes, witnessed in such a community, will advance and clarify, will provide direction, and, most importantly, be listened to – a rare occurrence in today’s world where many speak and few hear. Neither is talk the only medium. Equally important is the silence. If I may appropriate: ‘Be still and know . . ; be still; be’ is something of a maxim easily adopted by this group.

As expected, the sub-text, the ‘elephant in the room’ of this final group is a sense of loss, dislocation, anxiety around ‘where to from here’ – as we say our goodbyes to a group of friends, to a community that has, without exaggeration, been the touchstone, the anchor, the home that this incredibly diverse group of sometime strangers has come to rely upon for all of the above gifts. Equally evident, and somewhat less expectedly is a profound sense of gratitude for having had the opportunity to live in this community – however, briefly.

I believe my personal ‘work’ has ever orbited around endings – as it may for many of us – or perhaps more properly transitions, even evolutions. In this regard, I had occasion to look back at some writing I’d done in the mid-1990’s, at that time centering on frustrations associated with our local bicycle club. A few of us had invested heavily in interest, energy, and time to consolidate and promote the growth of a group of ‘hobbyists’ (hardly!) in a sport paradoxically populated by individualists – despite the superficial identification of a team structure. Adding members, structuring regular group rides that would conform to (supportive) ‘guidelines’ that wouldn’t see loose cannons charging off the front or lame ducks falling off the back, ride schedules, club jerseys, sponsorship – you name it – all became central focuses; and in turn, confirmations of ‘success’. The awareness finding its way into print fifteen years ago was much less about the effort imbued to make something work; and much more about the, at first subtle disappointments forming around something when it starts to stop working. At the time, coming to recognize – and accept – the natural course of things, in John’s language.

Were I a student being graded in a more conventional context, I would likely be scored an ‘NI’ (needs improvement) or, at best, perhaps an ‘S’ (satisfactory). I’m still evidently a work in progress. As if to highlight my forward movement (or lack thereof), this week too saw an email arrive in the in-box from a colleague in our group practice announcing that, after ten-years of affiliation with our collective, it was time for her to establish an independent, unique, and separate identity. The (at least for me) instinctive response to yet another ending was immediate: disappointment, anxiety (over filling the void), a dab of doubt (something I/we did?) – and even a little anger, sense of betrayal (where’s all that loyalty and gratitude when you need it?). Out of sight, but hopefully around the corner, were the celebration of the new venture and the capacity to actually read the words that thanked us for a great decade and a positive association. Still a little stuck in the ending, the ‘what was’; and a little hesitant to embrace what will be – the new beginnings.

Mindfulness practice, with its emphasis on balance, equanimity, acceptance of ‘the full catastrophe’ (the ‘natural course’ of change and impermanence), letting go, and developing an awareness around the paired distractions of avoidance (in this case, of change) and attachment (in this instance, to what was) seems the ideal tonic with which to deal with endings. Quoting John once again, the point of any practice is to ‘shed the light of consciousness on an issue, a concern, a decision’; not to solve the problem or provide an answer in a conventional sense, but to sit in the presence of the question. Evidently, some of our ‘aging’ group from Lawrence still has this work to do. The consensus was to carry on meeting, ‘leaderless’. Perhaps it’s time to embrace a new beginning, letting John go. And ‘trust the process’ that each ending (as Lau-tzu suggests in the opening quote, 2500 years ago) holds within it a beginning.