Authenticity and congruence

This a continuation of my last post, “How to be more like you,” in which I wrote about phoniness vs. authenticity. Most of us come by the inauthenticity that Fritz Perls described as phoniness quite  honestly, via the process of socialization. As children, we learn from the adult role models in our lives, and we’re often taught to be inauthentic. The template for prescribed phony behavior might be “politeness,” or religion, or social expectations about “correct  behavior” or even “correct feelings.” I’ve known people who were abused and/or  neglected by their parents who still, as adults, felt guilty about not loving them the way they “should.” Many children are taught who they are “supposed to” love, from grandpa to God. Genuine love can’t be forced.

A kiss that is anything other than an expression of affection or love or sexual passion is a phony kiss. Jane may not have even liked Aunt Sadie, but her parents taught her to give her a kiss anyway, whenever she visited. Children are often given admonitions such as: “Don’t cry! You’re a boy!” and “Don’t you get angry at me, young lady!” and “Of course you love him; he’s your grandfather!”

Some people have jobs that require them to act cheerful, no matter what they’re really feeling. Behavior arising from authentic feelings might be judged by others as impolite or inappropriate in certain situations. We’ve all been in circumstances where we felt the need to hide our true feelings; but some people go through life feeling that way every day. They have their reasons.

Con men, sociopaths and bullshitters are purposefully inauthentic. Others have learned to habitually cover up their true feelings; it’s their default mode. One of the ways I would confront a client who was putting on an act in therapy was, “You’re always on stage, aren’t you?” The look in their eyes (busted!) told me that I was on target, and that this was something they needed to know that other people could see through. People whose default mode is authenticity know themselves better than people who constantly put on an act to win approval. They are also more secure and self-accepting. I know this from personal experience, as I used to be a people pleaser, myself. My phoniness arose from feelings of insecurity.

A related concept that was important to me as a therapist was congruence. There are two kinds of congruence. One has to do with they way you come across when communicating. If someone being threatened says to his antagonist, “You don’t scare me” in a soft, tremulous voice, with body language that indicates fear, his verbal message won’t be believed. It’s incongruent with his other modes of communication. If someone says “I’M NOT ANGRY!” loudly, with fists clenched and an aggressive posture, he’s giving incongruent messages. When a person’s words are matched by her vocal tone, facial expression and body language, her message is congruent. People who are seen as charismatic are highly congruent communicators.

As a therapist with training in gestalt theory, I became very good at spotting subtle incongruities in therapy. In gestalt therapy, incongruent messages get challenged by the therapist. If a client claims (incongruently) that it really doesn’t bother her when her husband calls her stupid, the therapist might ask her to say the opposite: “It really bothers me when my husband calls me stupid!” (“But it really doesn’t bother me!” “Try saying it anyway.”) This technique is very effective in getting clients to recognize their true feelings, which often rise to the surface as the client repeats the opposite of their initial rationalized statement.

The other kind of congruence is role congruence. Do you act like a different person in your different life roles, or would family members and close friends recognize you as the same person they know, if they saw you at work? Obviously, some jobs – like a drill sergeant at a military boot camp – require you to take on a badass role that is (one hopes) incongruent with how he behaves in other situations. But under most circumstances a congruent person is recognizably the same person as a worker, a spouse, a parent and a friend. Incongruent persons are role-bound, and might be a tyrant at home and a reasonable person at work – or the other way around. Congruent people are authentically themselves in all the roles in their lives.

The intrinsic reward for being yourself – warts and all – is that when people who know you give you messages (feedback) about who you are, they’re revealing the things you need to hear, to be self-aware. I’ve written before about the paradox of identity. You can’t have self-knowledge in a social vacuum. We need other people who know us, in order to know who we “really are.” They’ll tell us, and if there’s some disagreement, it’s all grist for the mill. A consensus will emerge over time about who you are.

If you were living alone on a desert island, like Robinson Crusoe, how could you possibly know what kind of person you are. How could you know if you’re generous or stingy, witty or dull? We depend on other people in our lives to have an accurate sense of our own identity. Being authentic and congruent helps us to know who we really are, and what we might like to change about who we are.

Your “self” is either a rigid construct – “that’s just who I am!” – or a work in progress. Whatever your age.

 

How to be more like you

My title for this post is ironic. How could I possibly know who you are or how you should be “more yourself”?  But surely you’ve known some people who sincerely believed that the world would be a better place if other people were “more like them.” When people think this way, they are probably not  referencing the “self'” that is known to others – warts and all –  but rather an idealized, cherished self-image. I believe that all of us have a cherished self-image that doesn’t necessarily coincide with the consensus image of ourselves as others know us. When you hear someone say something about you and your reaction is “I’m not like that!”, you’ve probably identified a piece of your cherished self-image.

Attachment to this cherished self-image is especially strong in people who have tried throughout their lives to live up to others’ expectations of them – parents or extended parental entities  such as church and culture. Many of us are taught how we “should” or “shouldn’t” feel in this or that situation. This attachment can also be strong in people who have tried hard to shape themselves in reaction to “parental” expectations, i.e. “I refuse to be who my parents (or the church or the State) want me to be.” I’ve known quite a few parents whose cherished self-images kept them from seeing that they were dealing with their own children in just the same dysfunctional ways that their own parents had dealt with them. When you’ve sworn to yourself, “I’ll never do that with my children,” it’s often hard to recognize when you do.

Each of us – even those with low self-esteem – is the hero of our own personal drama, because we all live at the center of our perceived world, and none of us can be completely objective about ourselves. Our “heroic self” may wear the mask of the conquering hero or the rescuer or the wronged victim. But this heroic self is just as much an artificial construct as any image of ourselves projected onto us by others. I remember an epiphany I had as a young man. Seeing my reflection in a mirror, I thought “That’s who they think I am!”

One’s true self isn’t a thing, fixed and immutable, but is best seen as an evolutionary process, a work in progress. Buckminster Fuller put it this way: “I seem to be a verb.” Rather than trying to nail down some finished portrait of one’s self, I think that it is more helpful to have a picture in mind of who you are today, in the here-and-now of your experience and behavior. Your actions, not your thoughts, ultimately define you as the unique person you are.

A concept that was important to me as a psychotherapist was authenticity. In studying gestalt therapy in grad school, I became aware that many of my habitual behaviors were what gestalt guru Fritz Perls called “phony.” I was a people pleaser, always trying to guess what was expected of me in each situation and to behave in ways  that were attempts to please or impress the people around me. I realized that I wanted everyone to like me – even if I didn’t especially like them. But, to the extent that I was phony, if someone seemed to like me, what they liked was my act, not me.

I knew that if I was going to be a good therapist, I had to become more spontaneous and authentic – even if that meant that some people wouldn’t like me or approve of my actions. I stopped making phony excuses for myself, like saying “I really have to leave now,” when I really just wanted to leave. I stopped rehearsing for social occasions such as parties. I learned to walk into a roomful of people with an “empty mind,” primed for spontaneity. I wanted to get to know the person behind the masks that I wore. Some people may have seen me as blunt or curt, or even rude, as I worked on becoming “more myself.” I knew that not everyone liked me, and that was okay. The work that I did on myself enabled me to help therapy clients to identify and confront their own inauthentic behaviors, and to work on changing them.

Gestalt therapy is especially effective for working with people who want to discover their authentic selves. Some gestalt techniques (which I described in a prior post) serve to unmask phony roles that people play, leaving them bereft of their usual defenses, and open to sudden insights. Fritz Perls is perhaps best known for what is called the Gestalt Prayer: ” I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find one another, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.”

More about authenticity, and the related concept of congruence, in my next post.

 

Non-suicidal self-injury

I think that one of the most baffling phenomena in the repertory of human behavior, to people outside the mental health field, is self-mutilation. Most of us fear and avoid physical pain and disfigurement, and it’s hard for us to understand why anyone would intentionally hurt themselves of self-mutilate. Over the course of my career as a psychologist, I discovered that there are a variety of motivations and explanations for self-harm.

Some people harm themselves because they are in a psychotic state of mind. It may be that voices nobody else can hear tell people to hurt themselves, or that self-harm is the result of delusional beliefs. I’ve known a man who gnawed off several fingers and another who gouged out his eyes for incomprehensible reasons, while psychotic. Other people injure themselves impulsively, because their distress impairs their judgment and they don’t know what else to do; so they bang their heads against the wall, or punch through a pane of glass.

Yet others learn from experience that cutting, or otherwise hurting, themselves provides immediate relief from overwhelming emotional pain; and it becomes a habit. The brain often responds to pain by releasing endorphins, whose molecules resemble morphine. (I recently learned that one reason some people enjoy eating really hot peppers is that the pain gives them an endorphin high.) This substitution of physical pain for emotional pain is hard for many of us to understand, but it reliably meets a need for some people. It can be viewed as a kind of masochism, with the distinction that it’s not done for pleasure, but rather for relief from pain.

What I would say to a client when I learned that they were self-mutilating was something like, “I believe that if you knew better ways to cope with your emotional distress, you’d use them, instead of hurting yourself. So let’s work on finding better ways.” Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is a pathological behavior for many people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, and its elimination is one of the first goals of the most effective treatment available for people with that diagnosis – Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

DBT is the creation of Dr. Marsha Linehan. She designed it to help people who feel like they’re living in Hell, as a way out. Each patient in a DBT program is assigned an individual therapist, and is required to attend skills training groups twice a week. Two of the skills modules that are geared to the elimination of  NSSIs – or parasuicidal behaviors – are distress tolerance and emotion regulation. Borderline traits and symptoms are characterized by emotional imbalance. In learning to tolerate distress and regulate emotions, the clients learn how to achieve emotional balance. They no longer have to rely on the endorphin rush they get from cutting or burning themselves, once they’ve found better ways to cope with emotional distress.

The most extreme instance of self-mutilation I ever encountered in my career, not involving psychosis, was a long-considered and carefully executed self-castration. I speculate that the man’s motivation was related to either or both fear of a strong sex drive and/or disturbing sexual fantasies and urges. A fundamentalist Christian, he believed himself to be tempted by demonic “powers and principalities,” in a battle over his soul. He was quite intelligent and had a rationale for his agenda.

When he’d asked a surgeon to castrate him, he’d been told that no doctor could ethically accommodate his request, as there was no medical reason for the surgery. So he studied books on surgery until he felt confident that he could operate on himself. He decided to castrate himself in two  separate surgeries, coached his wife to serve as his surgical assistant, and set up a surgical suite in their home. The first surgery went off without a hitch. I never would have encountered the man if he hadn’t botched the second surgery. When he and his wife couldn’t stop the bleeding after he’d severed his remaining testicle, they had to call 911.

The local hospital contacted me to evaluate him. He was medically stable and ready for discharge, but his doctor wanted me to make a recommendation regarding any possible suicide risk. The man showed no signs of either depression or psychosis. He was pleasant and cooperative, explaining his rationale for castrating himself and answering all of my questions. He seemed somewhat embarrassed by having been found out, but seemed to have no other regrets about his actions. He persuasively denied any suicidal thinking, and he didn’t meet the criteria for involuntary psychiatric commitment. So I recommended that he be discharged. I gave him my card and told him that I was available if he wanted to follow up, but he never contacted me.

As an adult, I’ve never referred to mentally ill people as “crazy” – only behaviors. This was an example of how a legally sane person can do a carefully-considered, but crazy, thing.

Exposure Therapy

Most everybody knows what you’re supposed to do if you’re thrown by a horse. If you want to keep on riding, you get back up on horseback right away, to overcome your fear of being thrown again. The only way to get over your fear of drowning, if you swim in the deep end of the swimming pool, is to leave the shallow end and swim in water over your head.

The clinical term for this principle in psychology is exposure. Exposure is the antidote to avoidance, our very human tendency to reduce anxiety by avoiding activities and situations that tend to trigger anxiety. Avoidance is like a drug that immediately and reliably reduces anxiety or fear. For example, Tom is attracted to his high school classmate Jane, and wants to ask her out. He’s told himself that today’s the day he’ll get up his nerve and approach her, but he avoids doing it as the day goes by. As the end of the school day nears, he gets more and more anxious. But the moment he decides to postpone it until tomorrow, his anxiety dissipates. Avoiding and postponing work in the short-term, but serve to entrench our anxieties and fears in the long-term. Avoidance is one of the defense mechanisms  identified by Freud.

According to Dr. Marsha Linehan,  whose Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder has been empirically shown to be highly effective,, exposure is a necessary component of all effective cognitive behavior therapies. Two of the skills training modules in DBT, emotion regulation and distress tolerance, help to prepare clients for exposure to things they typically avoid.

Exposure therapy can be effective in treating Generalized Anxiety  Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and phobias – irrational fears. It involves habituation to the feared stimulus/situation. Imagining exposure to successive approximations of the stimulus/situation (imaginal exposure) and teaching heightened awareness of physiological responses such as heartrate and muscle tension (interoceptive exposure) can be accomplished in the therapist’s office. Exposure to the actual stimulus/situation “out in the world” (in vivo exposure) is often the third step of exposure therapy. Being aware of the thoughts, emotions, and physiological responses involved prepares the client for in vivo exposure. Gradually working your way from the shallow end of the pool to the deep end involves exposure to “successive approximations” of the thing most feared. Jumping – or being thrown – into the deep end is an example of “flooding.”

The therapeutic method known as systematic desensitization was pioneered by South African psychologist Joseph Wolpe. After doing a behavior analysis of thoughts, feelings and physiological responses involved in a phobic reaction, he did relaxation training until the client felt some degree of control over his typical responses. Then he worked with the client to develop a hierarchy of fears, from the least fear-inducing to the most fear-inducing thoughts/experiences. Using this hierarchy, he would work with the client on relaxing as they went through successive approximations, leading up to the thing most feared.

Here’s an example of how I might use this method with a client who had never flown in an airplane, due to her phobia about flying. (Because flying is statistically much safer than driving, fear of flying is considered  an irrational fear, or phobia.) Having assessed Louise’s typical thoughts, feelings, and physiological responses/anxiety symptoms, and having trained her to relax, I might start a session with a relaxation induction, leading to a guided fantasy based on her hierarchy of fears. Louise has been instructed to close her eyes, to raise her right index finger whenever she felt an increase of anxiety, and to lower it when the anxiety decreased.

“You’re in your apartment and you’re packing for your flight . . . . Now you have your bags packed and you’re waiting for a taxi to the airport . . . . And now you’re at the airport and you hear the boarding call . . . . Now you’ve stashed your carry-on and are seated, buckling your seatbelt, etc.” Whenever Louise would raise her finger, I’d switch from the guided fantasy to the relaxation induction: “And as you breathe slowly and deeply, you can feel your muscles relaxing, and your anxiety is replaced by a calm feeling . . . . ” When the finger went down, I’d pick up where I left off on the guided fantasy.

Over time, Louise learns that she has increased control over her response to fearful thoughts, getting gradually closer and closer to the thing she fears most. Once she can imagine herself staying in control as the airplane takes to the skies, we might go on to in vivo exposure therapy, which might involve me accompanying her – at least at first. Some private practice therapists specializing in the treatment of phobias might even accompany his client on his first flight, coaching and encouraging him.

People with severe OCD often engage in compulsive rituals to reduce their anxiety. Exposure therapy can help them to learn that they don’t have to rely on these rituals to reduce their anxiety. People with anxiety disorders can use the principles of successive approximation to gradually desensitize themselves to stimuli/situations that used to trigger anxiety. Exposure therapy can similarly help people with PTSD to control physiological arousal in response to stimuli/situations that used to trigger fear. But in order to overcome an irrational fear, you have to eventually face it.

Esalen and the human potential movement

In previous posts I’ve written about humanistic psychology, which has been called the Third Force in modern psychology, after Freudian psychodynamic psychology and Behaviorism. The founders – including Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Rollo May – seeing that psychology was primarily focused on psychopathology, wanted it to also focus on psychological health and personal growth. Esalen Institute, an isolated  retreat on the Pacific coast near Big Sur, California, is considered by many to be the birthplace of humanistic psychology. I’ve wanted to visit Esalen, a retreat center for growth and learning, since my graduate education in a humanistic psychology program. I’ve just returned home from a writing retreat at Esalen, and it felt like a weekend on holy ground.

Esalen Institute was founded by Michael Murphy and Richard Price in 1963. The land on which Esalen is located was owned  by Michael’s family for generations, and the two of them had a vision of a center for holistic learning. The place is called Esalen because for thousands of years the area was the home of the indigenous Esselen people. Accordingly, Esalen is considered sacred land, and is treated with reverence by residents and visitors. It’s isolated, far from any town, and doesn’t have cell phone service or television. There are hot springs down by the rocky shore, and everyone knows that clothing is optional at the baths. When I soaked, naked, in a pool, looking out at the Pacific sunset, I had the sense of participating in an ancient cleansing ritual.

Humanistic psychology has also been called the human potential movement. The only required course in my psychology Masters program was “Human Growth and Potential” – known by the students as “Gro and Po.” Although most of my coursework involved psychotherapy and psychological testing, I could understand why Gro and Po was required. Psychology had to be about more than psychopathology and the remediation of symptoms. Indeed, our equivalent of an “Abnormal Psychology” course was “Unconventional Modes of Experience,” lest there be any stigma regarding “abnormal.”

While psychanalytic theory and Behaviorism were dogmatic and monolithic, humanistic psychology was more like a tree, with many roots and branches. It was holistic in its orientation to the study of human behavior, focusing on mind and body as a unity, and exploring the factors that enhance creativity and enable self-actualization. It was holistic in studying both Eastern and Western philosophies and practices, recognizing the benefits of things such as yoga and Buddhist meditation, long before they became popular. Existentialism and phenomenology also influenced the human potential movement.

From the beginning of the movement, Esalen has been its Mecca. Fritz Perls did a five year residency in the late sixties, leading gestalt therapy seminars. Other eminent persons who influenced the development of humanistic psychology and had Esalen residencies were Gregory Bateson, Joseph Campbell, Ida Rolf, Virginia Satir, Rollo May, and Alan Watts. Today people go there to study massage and body work, wellness and alternative medicine, psychotherapy, meditation, and a variety of other subjects. I went there to work on being a better writer, and came home with my spiritual batteries re-charged.

A lot of what was new and esoteric back in the sixties and seventies has gone mainstream. Among the extra-curricular classes available to students in the psychology graduate program at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) were massage, hatha yoga, zen meditation, clowning, tai kwan do, and vegetarian cooking. The program was allied with the Philosophy Department, and there were opportunities to study existentialism and phenomenology. In my therapy courses, I learned about psychoanalytic theory, behavior modification, client-centered therapy, gestalt therapy, transactional analysis, sex therapy, and trance work. Once I was a working psychotherapist, my therapeutic orientation was existential, and I was very eclectic in terms of therapeutic style and techniques. I consider myself very fortunate to have attended the West Georgia College psychology Masters program.

Contemporary concepts like emotional intelligence and positive psychology couldn’t have emerged from Freudian psychodynamic theory or Behaviorism. The humanistic psychology movement created a new paradigm for human growth and potential as a legitimate area of study within the science of psychology. I think that the regard for Freud’s contribution to psychology and psychotherapy will diminish over time, relative to the contributions of humanistic pioneers like Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson.

The concept of emotional intelligence suggests that there are other kinds of intelligence than cognitive intelligence. Accurate empathy and compassion are important factors in human relating, and are deserving of scientific study by students of human behavior. I had initial objections to the whole notion of positive psychology, thinking, “psychology is neither positive nor negative.” But then I came to realize that it’s an outgrowth of the impulses that inspired humanistic psychology. The study of psychological wellness and peak performance, of thriving, of human creativity and the process of self-actualizing, is a legitimate pursuit within the field. Psychodynamic theory and Behaviorism will always have their place in psychology, but they need to be viewed in the context of the psychology of growth and human transformation.

The Story of Jumping Mouse, Part 2

For those who may have read Part 1 of this Native American teaching story shortly after I first posted it, you might want to check out the end, as I subsequently added a paragraph. Here’s the conclusion:

On the afternoon of his second day crossing the prairie, much to his  surprise, Jumping Mouse came upon another mouse. It was an old mouse, who was drinking from a stream, and was just as surprised as he. After they’d introduced themselves, he learned that this mouse was from his tribe. They got to talking and the old mouse explained that long ago he, too, had set out on a vision quest; but he’d given up. “I almost got grabbed by an eagle, and I’m too scared to go on, or to go back. There’s all the food and water I need right here, and there are plenty of bushes I can hide under. Look, if you go on you’re likely to end up in an eagle’s belly. Why don’t you just stay here with me, where it’s safe.” Jumping Mouse replied, “Thank you, uncle, but I can’t stay. I have to find the Center of the World, so I’ll just have to take my chances out on the prairie.”

The next day he said goodbye to the old mouse at first light, and went on his way. At mid-morning he came upon the biggest animal he’d ever seen. It was lying on the ground, eyes closed, and its breathing was labored. Jumping Mouse approached the ailing beast, which opened one jaundiced eye. “I’m Jumping Mouse, and I’m on a vision quest. Who are you?” “I’m Buffalo Spirit, and I’m sick unto death. The only cure for what ails me is. . . . the eye of a mouse.” Jumping Mouse didn’t want for this magnificent creature to die, and reasoned that he could get along with just one eye. He told the buffalo that he could have one of his eyes, and by magic the eye flew out of his head and lodged in the buffalo’s heart, curing him.

Buffalo Spirit thanked Jumping Mouse for saving his life, and asked if there was anything he could do in return. “I have to cross the prairie to get to the Center of the World, but I’m scared all the time of getting eaten by an eagle.” “Well, I’m a prairie animal and I can’t protect you all the way, but I can walk all the way to the foothills by sunset, and there’s more cover for you once you’re in the hills. You’ll have to scamper to keep up with me; but as long as you stay beneath me, you’ll be safe from any eagles.” So the two of them set out for the mountains. Jumping Mouse was worried at first that the buffalo might step on him by mistake, but he soon learned that the giant beast was very sure-footed. They reached the foothills at dusk, thanked one another, and went their separate ways.

Now Jumping Mouse knew first-hand what mountains are, and he was excited. It took most of two days, mostly uphill, for him to reach the mountain pass. He felt sure that he’d find what he sought on the other side of the mountains.  But just short of the pass, he began to hear a mournful howling. When he got there he saw a wolf –  a creature that he’d normally run from. But this wolf looked pitiful and quite harmless. He seemed to be confused. “Hello cousin, my name’s Jumping Mouse, and I’m on a vision quest.”  “I’m. . .I’m. . . I used to know who I am, but I seem to have forgotten my nature.”  “I’m pretty sure you’re a wolf.” The wolf stood up and comprehension returned to his eyes. “You’re right, I’m a wolf.” He howled again, but this time it wasn’t a mournful sound. “My name is Wolf Spirit, and I. . . I. . . what did you say I was?” Jumping Mouse told him again, and once again he acted like a proud, strong wolf. But, again, his memory failed him, and he just looked sad and confused.

Jumping Mouse thought, Uh oh! He has a different kind of illness than Buffalo Spirit, but if he doesn’t know his nature, he’ll starve to death. I can’t let that happen. He said to the wolf, “It seems that there’s strong magic in the weak eyes of a mouse. If you need my other eye to get your memory back, you can have it.” And by magic his other eye flew out of his head and into the wolf’s heart, healing him. Now Jumping Mouse was scared. He was blind in the presence of a hungry wolf. “Please don’t eat me!”

Wolf Spirit reassured him. “Of course I won’t eat you; I owe you my life! How can I help you on your vision quest?” “Well, I’m blind now. Can you guide me to the Center of the World, and protect me from the eagles?”  “I’ll serve as your eyes and take you there. And don’t worry – eagles don’t mess with me!”  The next morning the two of them set out together and started downhill, with the wolf giving instructions. Jumping Mouse couldn’t see it, but Wolf Spirit described a beautiful circular valley, ringed by mountains. In the center of the valley was a round lake. By noon they’d reached the edge of the lake. “I don’t like leaving you here, alone and blind, but I have to rejoin my pack. You can find nuts and berry bushes with your sense of smell, and you can stay hidden from eagles most of the time.” Wolf Spirit thanked Jumping Mouse again and took his leave.

Jumping Mouse was at the Center of the World, but he was  blind! For most of the afternoon, he stayed hidden as he foraged, but as the day wore on, he became very thirsty. He would be visible from the air as he drank, so he knew he’d have to be quick. He ran from the shade of the bushes and slaked his thirst at the rim of the lake. But as he drank, he heard the beating of wings overhead, louder and louder. Just as he turned to run, he felt the eagle’s talons grab him, and he felt himself being lifted higher and higher into the air. He was terrified, knowing he was about to be eaten! And then some very strange things happened.

In a flash, his vision returned – only it was sharper than it had ever been! And the pain abruptly disappeared! It almost seemed that the beating wings were his own – that he was flying! Studying the lake with his new-found eyes, he saw someone he knew. Prince of Waters sat on a lily pad beneath him. Jumping Mouse wanted to talk to the shaman who’d re-named him, and with that thought he descended, landing on the shore near his teacher. “Prince of Waters, I’m so glad to see you! The strangest thing just happened! See, I was blind and an eagle grabbed me! And then suddenly I could see again – only better! And it felt like I was flying! What’s happening to me?”

Prince of Waters replied, “When we first met, I saw that you were curious and brave. When you rose to my challenge, I gave you a new name. Now I know that you are also tenacious and have a generous  spirit. You have passed many tests on your vision quest, so it is again time for a new name. You are no longer Jumping Mouse. Your new name is Eagle.”

 

When I tell this story to children, I preface it by explaining that in pre-literate cultures, storytelling is how the tribal culture (customs, values, etc.) is passed on from generation to generation. Then, after the story, I usually ask what it taught. The children usually get that it depicts curiosity, valor, tenacity and generosity as virtues. Sometimes one or more of them grasps the central metaphor of the story, without being told: In order to see with the vision of an eagle, you first have to stop looking at the world through the eyes of a mouse.

The happiest man in the world

I collect stories and used storytelling as a therapeutic technique throughout my career. Stories can be transformative and can trigger insights. Here are my re-tellings of two of my favorite teaching stories:

John was a very sad man. He suffered from what the Germans call Weltschmerz (world pain). The pain of the world weighed heavily upon him. He had a loving family and friends, and made a good living, but nothing gave him satisfaction. He was so depressed, he often thought about ending his life. But then one day he met a kindly old man, who asked him why he looked so sad. John poured his heart out, ending his account by expressing his hopelessness that he could ever find lasting happiness. The old man smiled at him and said, “I know what you can do to cure your sadness. You  need to track down the happiest man in the world and ask him for his shirt. When you put it on, you will know happiness.” “But how will I find him?” John asked. The old man replied, “If I were you, I’d travel to Istanbul and follow my nose wherever it takes me, then ask around. If he’s anywhere near, people will know, and they’ll tell you what they know. Seek him with your whole heart, and you’ll find him.”

John immediately quit his job and sold all of his worldly possessions, other than what he could wear, or carry on his back. He thought he had enough money to bankroll his quest, and booked passage to Turkey on a tramp steamer. When he got to Istanbul, he took a train east, but soon got off, sensing that he had to go the rest of the way on foot. Most people he asked knew nothing of the happiest man in the world, but others smiled, pointed to the east, and wished him well. A few claimed to have seen him, themselves, and gave John their blessings.

After a while John lost track of which day of the week it was, or which country he was in. He was meeting all kinds of people, and learning to make himself understood in new languages. He walked dirt roads through beautiful valleys and walked up and down mountain paths, avoiding cities. But he went on, because he knew he was getting closer to the itinerant man he sought. Now people were telling him things like, “I saw him go through town just last month” and “Two weeks ago he was in my home village, on the other side of these mountains.”

Bandits stole all of his money, and John came to rely on the kindness of strangers as he went on. His clothes were ragged and he had holes in his shoes. Strangers were not always kind, and he didn’t get to eat every day. When people didn’t take him in for the night, he had to sleep wherever he could find shelter. It seemed like the happiest man in the world was always just one or two days ahead of him.

One day John entered a village – he didn’t even know where it was – hungry, weary and raggedy. In the village square he inquired if anyone knew the whereabouts of the happiest man in the world. One of the villagers said, “Oh, he was just here!” When John’s face fell, the man pointed down the road and said, “If you go about two kilometers in that direction, you’ll find him under a big tree off to the right, in sight of the road.” John grew excited and pushed on, despite his exhaustion.

Sure enough, two kilometers down the road he spied a ring of colorfully dressed people surrounding a huge tree, dancing and singing. He ran and joined the circle. There, under the tree, danced a laughing man, who had to be the happiest man in the world. All of his few worldly possessions lay beside him on the grass. And then John noticed that he was shirtless, and realized that the happiest man in the world didn’t own a shirt! And with that knowledge, John knew happiness.

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Here’s another (very short) story about material things and happiness: A zen monk lived in a simple hut on a mountainside. He owned only the essential things he needed to sustain independent life – straw bedding, a blanket, cooking and eating utensils, a few tools, and a change of clothing. One day he went down to the nearby village in the valley. When he returned late at night, he discovered that thieves had stolen all of his meagre possessions. But he laughed, seeing that the thieves had left the moon in his window.

Joni Mitchell (my favorite female poet/troubadour) recorded her song, based on this story – “Moon at the Window.”  You might also want to check out “I Got Plenty o’ Nuthin'” on the soundtrack of George Gershwin’s classic American opera, Porgy and Bess.