“Do those bells always ring?” I ask. It is turning six and my time is up.
My therapist looks up from his iPad and smiles, “Only this time of year you can hear them better.”
“They sound so clear,” I say.
The church isn’t far away, just a block up the street. I am embarrassed by my lack of awareness. I’ve been seeing this particular shrink for over a year and never once noticed the bells that ring timely after each session is through.
Jack is kind enough to assure me I’m not the only one who hasn’t noticed the bells. That he, himself, can’t hear them most of the year, when there are leaves on the trees. And it’s not until after the leaves have fallen, do the chimes actually resonate with him — filling the air with a hopeful tune, during a season that sometimes feels apologetically bleak. Still, it is my second winter of not noticing the beautiful-sounding bells and somehow it feels inexcusable.
A year ago, I found Jack on a database of other psychologists — a website set up like any other social media, or dating site. I’d been therapy-free for over ten years and was living, what I believed, a normalized and healthy livelihood. I saw myself as a functioning woman, who on occasion would experience short bouts of panic, when I would bite off more than I could chew. I defended these intermittent episodes as part of my eccentric personality and intensity, always pointing out that passionate creatives were not the boring type.
I held a regular job, I was in a stable relationship, I had no addiction issues, and I was managing stress through productive outlets such as exercise, making art, and communicating with my partner. I was apprehensive, as I browsed the site, still contemplating, Do I really need this type of commitment, right now? I could certainly think of all kinds of other ways to spend my time.
In Jack’s profile picture he had combed-back hair, a Czar-style beard, and a contented smile. In the sub-caption below his image, he had included Buddhism as his religious orientation.
Normally, I would’ve rolled my eyes and thought, Great, another white guy trying to be groovy, and skipped on to the next profile, to a woman with thick glasses, unruly hair, and discerning eyes , the type I had mostly been familiar with in the past, with whom I’d developed patterns of ending sessions abruptly after being told my storytelling habits were interfering with the “real work” of habit-breaking. However, it was when I got down to the first line of Jack’s bio, it struck me how much his definition of health hit home.
“I believe our mental health ‘symptoms’ are often our psyche’s way of calling us to a different way of living. Each struggle in our lives is an opportunity for self-awareness and personal growth.”
In my email I tried to explain why, after so many years, I wanted to start seeing a therapist again. It was a well-rehearsed explanation, one I had practiced and recited many times over, when convincing myself and others, that I finally had my shit together. After all, I knew myself best and I wanted him to know that even though he was an expert in his field, I was the expert of what I needed to thrive.
Reluctant to make that first appointment, I was still skeptical about the effectiveness of counseling and wasn’t convinced that some stranger could advise me on how to better live my life. Though, part of me felt like I just had to stop feeling sorry for myself, pull up my bootstraps, and get on with it.
We agreed to weekly sessions, with me guiding the process along. He would listen, while I would tell my story. This was the arrangement I initially requested, since all my previous experiences with therapists ultimately began as another case study for them, and ended with expensive and unsolicited advice I didn’t feel inspired to take. I was upfront with Jack, “I don’t take pills. I can detect psychological babel and impending diagnosis a mile away, and I am in complete acceptance of my well-formed habits.”Completely unfazed by my disclaimer, the weeks went on, with Jack becoming the sounding board and, I, the storyteller.
Sitting in his socked feet with a mug of herbal tea warming his hands, I felt like I had finally found the uncritical and attentive audience I’d been looking for. Or, should I say, agonizing over? You see, not only was I a thirty-three-year-old woman who was adamant about being the sole proprietor of her life, I was also a woman confronting the reality of being an artist.
Being an artist was not at all like what I had expected, or romanticized from an early age. Having not published anything significant by the age of thirty, I felt I had reached failure status. I had begun to believe that somewhere along the line I must have missed my calling and opportunity, and would be better off re-focusing my efforts on more practical things, like making a steady income and having health insurance. I suspected all those lawyers and accountants I knew, who moonlighted as jazz musicians, had been confronted with similar conflicts and doubts. And, I wondered if I did have it in me, to just give up and walk away, shrug it off, like it was some kind of phase.
It was a similar kind of lucid reckoning, which led me to Jack. Scared of everything at once, I became afraid of my changing perspective and worldview. My imagination which had always been my vehicle for escape, was now just a way of coping. And, at other times, my own worst enemy. The news, in particular, became a source of great anxiety for me, as my mind would spin directly into the worst case scenario.
I feared the world was going to shit. I feared dying young. I feared any provocations that would lead to war or violence. I feared people knowing too much about me, and in turn, judging me based off of those assumptions. I feared that I wouldn’t succeed as a writer and time would run out. I feared I would forever sit passively and never say anything, at all. And, I feared I didn’t have a story inside of me worthy enough of being told.
Even when I would dream, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had nowhere left to hide from fear. It would find me in abandoned buildings, beneath furniture, and behind trees and rocks. Exposed and vulnerable, I was sure there were but a few choices left for me:
I could meet my fears head-on. I could keep wrestling with what I’d been attempting to say for years. Or, I could be a coward and redirect my energies toward other goals.
Becoming aware is often associated with being on a path — the path to becoming an enlightened individual. Unfortunately, in the age of motivational memes and digital gurus, “being woke” has become a catchphrase (and writer’s nightmare!), and “being mindful”, an overused cliche.
Self-help and “soul work” have become trendy, and anyone who has experienced any challenges in their life, is now able to make an income as a professional speaker/blogger/life coach/influencer. All of a sudden, it was like every fearlessly-opinionated, college-educated, entitled white woman had become mindful — Oh, and the luxury of sitting around thinking about yourself! And, being mindful for a man; it was a great way to pick up chicks.
Even in department stores you could find t-shirts with perky little messages — CHOOSE KINDNESS; I HAD A DREAM, BUT NOW I’M WOKE; YOGA DOESN’T TAKE TIME, IT GIVES TIME; NOT ALL WHO WANDER ARE LOST — paired with other misappropriated illustrations of arrows, the “third eye”, Sanskrit text, and other symbolic elements that were once reserved for those with a truly sacred connection to their belief system. And heaven forbid Googling books or philosophies to answer life’s questions, unless you wanted to become a target to every psychic or self-publishing ad out there.
When truly engaged in such a personal kind of work, there is no room for rationalizations or blame. Mindfulness begins by slowing down and quieting your consciousness, so you can be aware of the present moment. When you become open to this way of seeing, there is no past or future quandaries to ball you up, there is only the acknowledgment that you may exist, and that others may, too.
You also learn to acknowledge that you are not weak for seeking out and accepting guidance, but rather a person who believes the evolution of humanity is actually propelled by this kind of mindfulness wisdom, by knowledge, and the work of individuals. As the spiritual teacher, Osho, once said, “Truth is not something outside to be discovered; it is something inside to be realized.”
Being honest with oneself is only the beginning. For the path is long, and there is plenty more to discover within. For some, this may take a lifetime. For others, much longer.
Occasionally, when sitting in the waiting room before each session with Jack, I make the faux pas of initiating eye contact with others, who have also stumbled their way to counseling. These are typically brief encounters, especially with those who have not yet gotten past that initial feeling of shame, which inevitably befalls those seeking out professional help. Because, unfortunately, in the independent American psyche, we have an ingrained stigma associated with asking for and accepting counsel. Whereas, in other cultures and societies, it is viewed quite differently.
Whether it is asking for divine intervention, honoring elders who possess knowledge and understanding beyond your own, or even requesting guidance from a higher place, there are many more places in the world where places of counsel lie at the center of communities and is a large part of a society’s logos, tradition, and belief system. In contrast, within our mainstream American culture, seeking counsel can have an institutional and solitary feel, it can be both personal and impersonal, and it can be more diagnostic than it is holistic.
In these brief encounters, while waiting for counsel, I’ve realized, we — me and my waiting room comrades — are connected in two important ways. First, we are both trying to hide what we feel is broken inside of us. And, also, that each of us is filled with a lifetimes worth of unique stories and experiences, and all we want is assistance in determining which of our stories and experiences define us, and which ones don’t. If we are truly an accumulation of all this narrative stuffed into one consciousness, then we just want to know: How do we accept and love ourselves for who we are?
Before I started working with Jack, I believed I was doing my own mental health work by cathartically writing about my experiences and disguising them as fiction. I was completely unable to tell a story, without hiding in some way. This was before I had accessed the ability to pause or put my insights into coherent forms of self-expression. This was before I understood that my inner-truth should be the place I was tapping into, and that it would be the most relevant writing I would ever do. This was before I recognized that writing only feels and becomes impossible, when you are constantly in motion, and when you believe that everything has already been said; every story told.
It wasn’t until I started vocalizing my story honestly, did I begin to see the world in which we live, not simply as a place made up of brutal truths always working against us; but as a world made up of over 7 billion other individuals, also trying to figure out why they are here. That we are all, every single one of us, seeking validation and some sense of solidarity, as we reckon with our time and purpose on this planet.
The work I have done in the past isn’t all a loss. The unfinished manuscripts I’ve scrapped, won’t completely go to waste. If anything, they are the start of other stories, stories I am finally brave enough to tell.
In 2014, I wrote a short piece about spending time in a city clinic titled, “We All Come From a Long Way Off.” It was picked up by a small, online publication called, The Milo Review, which disbanded not long after its release, making my cynicism of digital media grow ever stronger. It seemed like everyone on the internet had the same dream of being a writer, and if you couldn’t be a writer than the next thing to become was an editor, publisher, vlogger, or your own brand.
Every form of publishing seemed to be headed in a similar direction. Generations of writers who spent years toiling just to see their work in hard copy, were becoming founts of the past. Now, anyone could put their stream of consciousness out to the public instantaneously, after supper. And they did, to the extent where you could scroll through pages upon pages of blog posts without finding anything of substance to read. I was both fascinated by this new outlet of expression and concerned by where it might lead.
It was a changing world and I was pretty certain my soul would suffer if I bought into. It felt superficial and wrong. I had wanted to be a writer ever since I could remember and was invested in life as an artist, even if it meant blazing my own path, not emulating or following others, not being “liked” or “followed”, and speaking my truth, that may not necessarily align with the truth of others.
Between the “How To’s” and the fake news, the propaganda and the lists of useless facts, the celebrity updates and the beauty tips, of course, I wondered who was going to actually weed through all that information, and care enough about a story they stumbled upon about a city clinic where they perform abortions and provide healthcare to immigrants? Like the characters in my story — the nobodies — no one seemed to be itching to read the work of a nobody.
The immediate gratification of an audience validating your worth and intellect, whether you receive praise or criticism, is addicting. And not having to labor at your craft, or wait out the rejection letters, allows you less agony. But that’s when you remember that being an artist is just as much about sitting with yourself (and your sometimes mad ideas) and craft, as it is translating your visions into a work of expressive art. And ‘yes’ sometimes it is agonizing and painful, but on the spectrum of all the other emotions, sensations, and realizations you can experience in a moment, or a series of moments, the agony and pain in the process shouldn’t be the only thing fueling you as an artist.
I have always believed that to be a writer you have to, first, have something to say. And, second, you have to be able to tell a decent story. Over the years, I have been instinctively drawn to unacknowledged people and populations, because their stories can be so incredibly powerful and heart-wrenching, and can reach you in a very real and humanistic way. The unsung heroes and the ones who sacrifice more than will ever be given credit for. The ones who will pass on and be forgotten.
It makes me sad to think about all the unwritten stories we lose each day, because we don’t take the time or make the effort to be quiet enough to listen to others. How much could we learn about ourselves and our relationships with others, if we spent more time listening and less time being afraid of the quiet and the different? How much more could we say as writers, if we were to free ourselves from the stringent labels, and the industry, and the economic constraints, and look at life again as a nobody?
And I would bet, when it comes down to it, a mindful nobody has a lot more to say, than a somebody who takes every opportunity to speak and make themselves heard.