Following on from my Bah-humbug post, I may as well confess that the ‘joys’ of the festive season got on top of me so much (or rather, I allowed them to) that I ended up going to see a doctor, thinking that something dreadful must be wrong with me, seeing as I was the only ‘drol in the drinkwater’ ** and everyone else seemed to be having such a ball. He was very professional, asked a lot of questions, and eventually diagnosed me with stress. With all due respect, this wasn’t particularly helpful since that was the reason I was there in the first place, and also since when he posed the simple question, ‘How are your stress levels at the moment?’, my reply was ‘Through the *&%$*^& roof’ (to quote my dear friend Nicole).
Nonetheless, during his line of questioning, specifically about my history, I told him that I had had a pretty nasty and traumatic experience when I was in my teens, and that it had crossed my mind that perhaps this was rearing its ugly head (even though I was pretty confident that I had long since processed the whole thing and moved on). His advice was clear cut: Do Not Think About That Stuff. Ever. And he used the analogy of a drawer (actually pulling his drawer out from his desk to demonstrate, in case I didn’t quite get the analogy) that you can pack all this ‘stuff’ into and then firmly, decisively, push it shut again. You know that the ‘stuff’ is in there, but God help me, you do not look at it again. Just in case I hadn’t cottoned on to his theory, he then used the analogy of having a beloved dog that dies. He said that yes, you will be sad that the dog has died, but that you make a point of not thinking about the dead dog because you know it will make you sad.
At the time, I remember feeling something almost physical, like a switch that went in my head, where I realised that him and I have clearly different approaches, live on different planets and have totally different world views. I took it all in, gave him the benefit of the doubt and didn’t express my disagreement with him, but I definitely was thinking ‘hmmm, he clearly has some Stuff that he is too terrified to even look at’, whilst thinking about what Freud called the “return of the repressed” – the result of ignoring the shadow side of our personalities. I majored in psychology at university and admittedly only learnt enough to make me dangerous when it comes to having opinions in the field, however I do believe that by simply refusing to deal with, or acknowledge, any issues or traumas or whatever it may be, you run the risk of setting yourself up for trouble and discontentment further down the line, when these unresolved issues come bubbling to the surface. But that’s just me.
So, it was with great interest that I read an article in Yoga Journal a few days ago, touching on exactly this subject.
Mark Epstein is an author and psychiatrist in New York and has been a student of Buddhist meditation for 25 years. He describes himself as a ‘therapist influenced by the wisdom of the East’ and he recently wrote an article in Yoga Journal titled ‘Sitting with Depression’. The tagline is ‘Depressed people think they know themselves, but maybe they only know depression.’ This was enough to make me read on since the Black Dog (as Winston Churchill called his own depression) has hounded a few of my nearest and dearest in recent times, however as I read on I was intrigued to find that he, in a much more palatable manner, seemed to echo what my doctor was trying to say. It also brought to mind a quote by Mark Twain that I have always loved: ‘Drag your thoughts away from your troubles…by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.’
He talks about the merits of attempting to disentangle oneself from one’s problems, rather than going more deeply into them, and he expresses his confidence that ‘there is another direction in which to move in such situations: away from the problems and into the unknown. If we stay with the fear this often induces, we have a special opportunity to see our own egos at work, defending against the unknown while hiding out in the very problems we claim to want freedom from. Buddhism is very clear about how important it is to move in such a direction.’
It has been extremely thought-provoking for me to hear two clearly well-read and qualified therapists saying more or less the same thing within a two week period, and flies in the face of everything that I have thought for a long time. It’s not that I am a navel-gazer who gets enjoyment from obsessing about myself and my Problems (who doesn’t have them? Problems, that is, not navels), it’s just that I have always felt that it may be healthier to face up to them and deal with them directly and not pretend that they don’t exist. Now, I am revising my opinion. And as with everything in yoga, thinking that it’s surely all about balance.
It’s funny, ever since all our house guests have left and I have my home and my children to myself again, my stress levels have plummeted and I am more content and ‘chilled’ than I’ve been in a while, so there probably was no need to have gone to see that doctor in the first place. That said, I’m really glad that I did as it has given me a whole new perspective on how to go about working with oneself and any issues that one may be carrying. To end with one of those dreadfully tacky quotes (which I secretly quite like): ‘Don’t look backwards. That’s not the way you’re going’.
For anyone who is interested in the full article (which is really worth a read), you can find it at http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/137.
** Afrikaans idiom meaning ‘the dung in the drinking water/town well’.