Philosopher Alan Watts once said, “When you get the message, hang up the phone.” Watts was talking specifically about psychedelic drugs when he made this statement. His point was that these drugs don’t seem so bad, until they do. And when that happens, it’s time to shut it down.
What’s ironic about the quote above is that Alan Watts died at the age of 58 due to to alcoholism. This goes to show that not all drugs give us the same loud and clear message, which makes it difficult to know when to hang up the phone.
BUT if we listen more carefully, we might be able to hear the whispers. So let’s take a look at how the process often unfolds.
A major reason why people use drugs is because they work–at least for a while that is. Administer the substance however you choose, and usually within a relatively short time-frame, you at least feel different. And in most cases, you feel better for awhile. It’s nice if things would just remain that way, but that’s not how it works. As the high wears off, the desired effects become more difficult to attain, and undesirable effects become easier to attain.
There comes a point when our relationship with these chemical pleasures needs to be reconsidered in order to attain better health and wellbeing. Some users may have felt as euphoric as they are ever going to feel. Then, on top of that, a Mike Tyson hay-maker full of responsibility hits you square in the face. Damn, that punch can hurt, especially when you realize your favorite coping mechanism is no longer tenable.
Sometimes people need a full on rock bottom experience in order to realize they need to make some life changes, such as homelessness, jail time, an overdose experience, etc. However, the vast majority of individuals ebb and flow. They may have moments where they say, “I really need to quit doing this, or life may not turn out so well.” But once the effects of the hangover subside, they’re back to it.
After several of these cycles, one may begin to feel confused and anxious. If this is how you feel, your confusion and anxiety are appropriate. It likely means that you want more out of life, but you have yet to properly address that most important endeavor. I don’t mean to get too morbid, but this is where the “deathbed technique” can be really beneficial. Imagine you will soon die, and you are spending your last moments reflecting on the quality of your life. How do you want to look back? Did you step up, make some changes, and work towards health, wellbeing, and fulfillment? Or not? The responsibility is yours.
That stated, I don’t mean to over-emphasize individual responsibility here. I agree that severe addiction often fits a disease model, and these cases should be addressed within this framework. Depending on the level of severity, some people may require a combination of replacement therapy, pharmaceutical interventions, inpatient treatment, and daily group meetings (AA/NA). Undoubtedly, the concepts of control and responsibility have significantly less relevance in these cases. My intention is not to undermine this reality, but rather, call attention to the situations where responsibility is a therapeutically useful tool.
Ideally, we just wouldn’t use drugs (yes, alcohol is a drug too). But the truth is that most of us are going to use substances at some point. Some people may be able to easily moderate, while others of us will struggle. For the latter group, the drug isn’t going to seem so bad, until it does. Then, things get real, and the big questions in life will start demanding more attention. Maybe it wasn’t quite clear before because, well, drugs can fool us. But now it might be time to address the problem and make changes. Yes, it will feel uncomfortable, but only for a while. Not forever. Embrace this challenge and get help if you need it. Your life is worth it.
Backstory: I have pages of writing– most of which I am unlikely to show anyone. I suppose that’s called journaling, and I’d highly recommend it. Well as I was reading through my old stuff (it’s really fascinating to track your ideas over time), I stumbled across a poem I wrote about a tree in my parent’s backyard that was hit by a microburst. Even though this happened when I was in high school, the image of this tree, of all things, carved out it’s own unique place in my memory. So years later, in the fall of 2013 to be exact, I felt the urge to write a poem for a little personal inspiration. Anyway, I thought it might be worth digging out of the archives (admittedly, with a few revisions) and sharing with others. So, here it goes. Enjoy.
The tree withstood the storm
yet appearance indicated otherwise
severed across the center
half of what it used to be
deep beneath the dirt
beyond the surface of the earth
its roots remained wise
relentlessly pumping nutrients
or any foreseeable direction
life would not be deterred
indeed the tree was broken
but it was also strong
like a sloth
possessed the illusion of stillness
its beauty need not return
for it was already there
the force of renewal
tested by a tempest
with an instinct to endure
the why lives in silence
just ask the tree
the tree that withstood the storm.
When I was in grad-school, I had a group therapy instructor who was from Taiwan. The course content was interesting in of itself, but what made the class even more fascinating was my instructor’s unique cultural perspective. I specifically remember her talking about how she had never heard of someone being concerned about “sounding stupid” until she moved to the United States in her early 20’s. For the first few decades of her life, it had never dawned on her to worry about how she sounded when she talked, nor did it occur to her that others ever did so either.
The whole idea of sounding stupid simply wasn’t a part of her cultural upbringing, and when she first heard it being expressed in the U.S., she thought there was some sort of break down in translation. But there wasn’t. The words could be translated literally, which baffled her. How terrible, she thought, to worry about whether you are sounding stupid, smart, or somewhere in between. Her approach was to say what’s on her mind, be willing to make mistakes, and be thankful for the interaction.
As an American, I was all sorts of twisted. I couldn’t believe that the fear of sounding stupid was a cultural construct. It seemed like it was a natural part of the human condition. Nope, not the case. It was a cultural message that I had picked up and internalized, and for the first time, I realized that if I happened to be born in a different part of the world, this fear may have never crossed my mind.
It’s probably been 7 years or so since I took that course, but I still think about that particular lecture from time to time. To this day, I really appreciate my instructor’s refreshing perspective about saying what’s on your mind and being willing to make mistakes, but in the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, I want to narrow the focus to that last piece of advice—be thankful for the interaction. In fact, I think this might be the remedy to the “sounding stupid” phenomenon.
It seems quite obvious to me that the fear of sounding stupid stems from performance anxiety, social comparison, and excessive self-criticism. No wonder why anxiety disorders are on the rise and people feel more isolated than ever before. But we can work through this. We just have to figure out a way to think about human interaction differently, which is where gratitude comes into play.
Consider this. Instead of being so concerned about how we sound, what if gratitude was on the forefront of our minds when interacting with others? To lead with a sense of thanks would fundamentally alter our social experiences. It would take the edge off and reduce our need to sound smart, be liked, or to make the perfect impression. It would help us listen more and free up mental energy so that we are more likely to say what we want, how we want.
All we got to do is be thankful for the interaction! Okay, maybe I’m oversimplifying this. Then again, maybe not. Some may wonder what there is to be thankful for. Here are some ideas: to hear someone else’s perspective, curiosity, the opportunity to express yourself, to learn about someone else, the sharing of minds, another human being taking interest in you, etc. The list could go on and on.
So, here’s an experiment to try. The next time you interact with someone, approach the conversation with a sense of gratitude, and pay attention to what happens. Does the pressure fall away? Do you feel less constrained? Or maybe nothing at all? Regardless, give it a shot. Just for fun. If it works, we might be on to something.
I’ve been reflecting recently on the concept of hope and its value to humanity. Interestingly “hope” can take on different definitions depending on the human, so it is important for me to first be clear about what I mean.
By hope, I mean a genuine acknowledgement that growth is possible in some form or fashion, regardless of circumstance. Repeated acknowledgements of this kind can evolve into a hopeful attitude, but in my view, hope is not some sort of absolutist, rigid belief or specific claim about what the future holds. Rather, it is leaning into the possibility of progress and embracing the concepts of perseverance and resilience in the face of challenges.
My primary intention here is to offer a version of hope that is both rational and practical. All too often, we dull out the meaning in what otherwise can be useful, or even profound, ideas because perhaps they become too abstract, convoluted, or trivialized. Once this confusion of meaning takes place, our mental health can begin to falter.
We simply cannot allow this phenomenon to happen to hope. Of course, hope alone doesn’t solve anything. It must be coupled with action in order to make a real difference. However, I still believe hope is an independent and necessary psychological ingredient to overcoming setbacks and restoring clarity of mind.
The fact is we are meaning-making creatures, so I argue that without hope (or a comparable term), our meaning-making systems are at risk of irreparable damage when significantly threatened. Because it is an inherent condition of life that we will face such threats—crises will happen, people will die, communities will struggle— ideas such as hope are necessary to both preserve our mental stability and to sustain human progress, particularly when the most challenging situations arise.
We must be tactful about how we apply hope to our lives, though. I am not advocating for blind hope or any sort of dreamy worldview that denies reality. Clearly, there are times when hope should be redirected because acceptance towards an inevitable outcome is the healthier alternative. Yet the inevitability of an unfortunate outcome does not mean that all hope is defeated.
Going back to the definition I provided, the foundation of hope is the “acknowledgement that growth is possible.” So what does this look like in the midst of human misery? How do we find growth in tragedy? A couple of things come to mind. One, the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is forever present, so the opportunity to learn and approach life with curiosity will always be there for the taking, no matter what. And two, “who do I want to be during times of struggle?”– one of the deepest questions a human being can ponder– can be put to the test during hardship. This perspective has enormous utility, as it puts significant control back in our hands and provides direction when we would otherwise be lost.
In other words, hope reframes experience. It creates a psychological fork in the road, where growth is a constant option. It also serves as a real world tool that can be applied to real life situations. If hope isn’t in your mental toolbox yet, I highly encourage you to consider it. No dogma, no leaps. Just a rational, practical ingredient to healthy living.
What is your mind’s default setting? Are you typically in the past, present, or future? Pay attention to this, and it won’t take long for you to uncover some clues.
In my counseling practice, I ask these questions all the time, and I cant recall a single client whose default setting is the present. Shoot, I’ll tell you straight up that I’ve been doing mindfulness meditation (a present-based psychological exercise) for 10 years, and my default setting STILL fluctuates between past and future.
In my observations, I have realized this: too much future tends to be associated with anxiety and worry; and too much past tends to be associated with depression and sadness (although this can vary depending on the situation). Through meditation, I have become much better at not attaching to these mind states. But outside of making a conscious intention to be in the present, my brain tends to automatically run back to the past and future all too easily, and I have a feeling I’m not the only one.
This makes we wonder, is a sustainable here and now mentality even possible? Can the present become our default setting? I’m not exactly sure, but I lean towards the negative on this issue.
My reasoning has to do with our neurological hard-wiring. Planning for the future and learning from past mistakes were essential components of our evolutionary history. In large part, the human ability to contemplate the past and future allowed our species to thrive, so it makes sense that a strong memory and imagination led to a past/future default setting. Given the innate nature of these brain capacities, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to permanently switch our default setting as a species, nor do I think we’d really want to if it meant getting wiped out by other more physically dominant predators before you and I ever had a chance to exist.
Now, there are some people who claim to have an exceptional ability to keep their minds rooted in the present, but in all the cases I have studied, these individuals spend years in meditation and/or prayer, are isolated from society, and tend to opt out of facing the challenges of everyday people. To most of us, this lifestyle is unrealistic and utterly impractical for obvious reasons.
But this definitely doesn’t mean we can’t incorporate the here and now mentality in our lives on a more frequent basis. I contend that this is totally possible and well worth the effort. Although our minds will inevitably wander back to its default state– because that’s what minds do– there are some practical ways to access the present moment and break up the seemingly endless pattern of the past/future setting.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, has spent decades studying psychological flow, which in basic terms means being “in the zone.” Think about when you are truly engaged at work, in conversation, playing a sport, or doing a hobby of some sort. When the conditions are right, you are able to access a highly focused state where you are completely absorbed by the present task at hand. Specifically, when a given activity has the right balance between one’s skills, level of challenge, and intrinsic reward (pursuing something for its own sake), a here and now mentality can take place. So to better access this flow state, become aware of the impact these conditions have on your moment to moment experience.
Another strategy is to ask yourself more present-based questions. For example, what am I feeling? Where am I at? What am I doing? What’s something in my immediate environment that I haven’t really noticed before? How can I make things a little bit better in my life right now? Orienting yourself to the present in this way will help you access a source of valuable information that would have passed you by otherwise, and it’s extremely effective at breaking up one’s tendency to dwell in the past and future.
As I mentioned before, mindfulness meditation is an excellent way to improve your ability to be in the here and now. The process is as follows: sit up straight in a chair; pay attention to the natural flow of your breath; and when your mind wanders away, just bring your attention back to the breath with an attitude of openness and non-judgement. Now this may feel like a giant waste of time, but that is just the chatter of the past/future default setting. With time, it will be easier to let go of thoughts that have historically kept you stuck, and you will be more available to attend to the present.
Finally, if nothing I’ve suggested here works, just pour yourself a drink.
In all seriousness, my best advice is to be patient with any here and now strategy you try. Pursuing instant gratification will only lead you astray in this journey and, eventually, more distant from the present than ever before. Remember, little by little becomes a lot.