Posted by: Harold Knight | 01/29/2012

“room for life to be just as it is”


preoccupation grew in him

preoccupation grew in him

Because mindfulness concerns a clear awareness of one’s inner and outer worlds. . . as they exist at any given moment, it has often been termed as . . . ‘‘pure’’ or ‘‘lucid’’ awareness [of] what is occurring, before or beyond conceptual and emotional classifications about what is or has taken place (1).

Theories of treatment for psychological disorders have changed more (some might say “evolved,” but I have my doubts) over the years than most of us laypersons understand. We all know at least vaguely of Freud and then Jung and then Rollo May, and then “I’m OK, You’re OK.” And many more. I have been in therapy of some kind (several kinds) almost continuously since 1968.

One evening that year I saw the John Huston movie, Reflections in a Golden Eye (2). I wonder why it has never become a cult classic. Huston, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Brian Keith, and Julie Harris. All recreating a Southern Gothic tale by Carson McCullers. An intensely provocative movie and, I think, disturbing even by today’s standards (3).

And then there is the mysteriously handsome young Robert Forster riding a horse naked through the woods.

The novel and movie comprise a tale of repressed homosexuality (Marlon Brando), abusiveness (Elizabeth Taylor), adultery (Taylor with Brian Keith), and voyeurism/exhibitionism (Robert Forster and the rest of them). It’s about as fraught as a story can be.

The morning after I saw it I had the first meltdown of my life. My life in important ways paralleled the Brando character—I was a gay man married about a year and unable to negotiate the life I had created for myself. The rest of the parallels will have to remain private—except to say I’ve never ridden a horse through the woods naked except in fantasy.

reflected abuse

reflected abuse

As a result of my meltdown I began therapy with a Jungian psychiatrist. I remember almost nothing of my work with him except that he could hardly disguise his discomfort at much of what I told him. He was a Jungian Dutch Reformed Christian who had apparently never heard anyone talk openly about homosexuality.

Regrettably, I was in his home as often as I was in his office. His wife had recently bought an electronic organ, and he arranged for me to give her lessons. I hardly need to comment on that annihilation of professional boundaries. My treatment took on bizarre overtones of Reflections without the sex or violence. Surely today the APA would investigate.

I have seen eight different therapists since then. I now see (because I had something of another meltdown a couple of months ago) a PhD psychologist whose method includes Mindfulness Therapy.

When I was in fifth grade, we lived thirteen blocks from our school in our Nebraska town. I walked home after school (you know: “don’t complain because I walked a mile in the snow”) most days. I walked with a friend as far as his house. One day he convinced me to come in and see the kittens his mother cat had delivered a couple weeks before. I carried one of them home in my pocket. My parents, after much discussion, allowed me to keep the kitten.

That cat became my constant companion and comfort. When I was upset—or experiencing what I found out thirty years were Temporal Lobe Epilepsy seizuresI would sit on the back stoop holding the cat and talking to him about whatever it was that was weighing on my young mind.

Thirty years later I lived alone for the first time in the only property I ever owned, a condominium in Salem, Massachusetts. I was trying to decide whether or not to have a cat. My second Jungian psychiatrist (his practice limited to TLEptics) asked me the most helpful question a therapist ever asked. “How many TU’s is a cat worth?” TU meaning “Therapy Units.”  I knew immediately a cat was worth at least as many TU’s as the doctor was. I found two young black and white feline brothers, named them Henry and Oliver, and took my therapy units home. It was one of the most compassionate actions I’ve ever taken on my own behalf.

The Mindfulness Therapy my current psychologist advocates is based in self-compassion which

provides an appealing alternative to the more familiar concept of self-esteem. . .  it provides positive self-affect and a strong sense of self-acceptance. However, these feelings are not based on performance evaluations of the self. . .  they stem from recognizing the flawed nature of the human condition, so that the self can be seen clearly and extended kindness without the need to put others down or puff the self up (4).

Back in 1968 I had no trouble “recognizing the flawed nature of the human condition.” I was unable to extend kindness to myself. Perhaps I could have benefitted from a therapy “not based on performance evaluations of the self.” Watching Marlon Brando play a character who mirrored the conflict raging in myself could hardly have done other than lead me to a temporary loss of all positive self-affect. My own inner homophobia was commensurate with Captain Penderton’s, (Brando) whose

preoccupation with the soldier grew in him like a disease. As in cancer, when the cells unaccountably rebel and begin the insidious self-multiplication that will ultimately destroy the body, so in his mind did the thoughts of the soldier grow out of all proportion to their normal sphere (5).

I have moved far from that kind of vulnerability. Each of the various types of therapy, while it seemed  more au courant than discerning in its time, has given me more insight into the workings of my mind. It is most likely arrogant to say that I already find even the practice of mindfulness limiting.  I have little interest in “conceptual and emotional classifications about what is or has taken place.” This is a strangely wonderful place to find myself.

in a long line of therapy units

in a long line of therapy units

I have recently (accidentally? I think not) stumbled upon a practice that teaches me that . . . [I] don’t recognize space in [myself]. [I] focus on the object or on what occupies [me], rather than seek to clear, connect with, and recognize inner space [6].

Writing about this discovery is likely to spoil it, to cause me to “focus on the object. . . that occupies me.” But I may be finally approaching readiness to forget reflecting on golden eyes (or anything else).

As you begin to recognize this inner space, you are able to protect that space more. Your focus is not constantly caught up in the object. You find that external situations occupy or disturb you less and less. When an external situation occupies you less, there is more room for spontaneous connection. There is more and more room for life to be just as it is. Things have to change less and less to accommodate you to make you feel secure (7).

Today I trust I’m not too old to “make room for life to be just as it is.”
(1) Chiesa, Alberto, and Peter Malinowski. “Mindfulness-Based Approaches: Are They All The Same?.” Journal Of Clinical Psychology 67.4 (2011): 404-424.
(2) Reflections in a Golden Eye. Dir. John Huston. Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Brian Keith, Julie Harris, Robert Forster. Based on the novel of the same name by Carson McCullers. Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, 1967.
(3) For a full review see: Ebert, Roger. “Reflections in a Golden Eye.” Chicago Sun Times. October 17, 1967. Web. 27 Jan. 2012.
(4) Neff, Kristin D., Kristin L. Kirkpatrick, and Stephanie S. Rude. “Self-Compassion and Adaptive Psychological Functioning.” Journal of Research in Personality 41.1 (2007): 139-154.
(5) McCullers, Carson. Reflections in a Golden Eye. Cambridge, MA: Houghton, 1941.
(6) Rinpoche, Tenzin Wangyal. Tibetan Sound Healing. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc. 2011. (7) Rinpoche, ibid.


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