Mirror Work

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mirror Moth
It's cold and quiet in the world right now—at least for those of us living in winterland.  Outside, the second snow of the season has started to fall, though we don't expect much of it.  We're not far enough north for that. 

In the quiet today, I remember that I said I would tell you my views on addiction.  And it's a cold, staying-in day.  It's a good day for talking.  But why talk about that here, on this blog?  Well, because addiction is part of the human experience, it's something nearly all of us struggle with in one form or another, and, with this blog's focus being on matters specific to being sentient, I thought it would be appropriate.  That, and all those damned New Year's resolutions everyone's been on about lately.  I'll bite—I'll put in my two cents.  Some might find it helpful to engage in this dialogue, but many will believe such a discussion is not for them—they've never been addicted to anything in their lives.  If this is you, then you're either deluding yourself, or you're some kind of saint the likes of which have scarcely been seen in this world, past or present.

But then, why should you listen to me?  I'm nobody, after all—not a doctor, psychologist, or teacher.  I have, however, had some experience with addiction and attempts to overcome bad habits, which I'd like to share.  First, the obvious.  Did you know that I quit an 11 year smoking habit 4 ½ years ago?  I did.  It was hard—one  of the hardest things I've ever done.  I didn't use the patch or any other “smoking aid,” but I made it through anyway.  It doesn't define me, it's just something I did, another struggle I had to overcome in my life, one of many, just like you.  I learned a lot, though, about the nature of addiction.  One of the biggest lessons was that, after the cigarettes were out of the way, I found that addiction didn't end there—that it's more than just the dependency on some drug, but that it can take any form, and once you “conquer” one, you start to see a whole lot of others that you never knew you had.

I'm going to take a stab at a definition here.  I'm going to tell you what I believe addiction is.  In my experience, addiction is the habitual employment of an action (often irrelevant to the given situation) or substance (drugs, food, things) to make oneself feel in control.  Addiction, by definition, by nature, is never an actual solution.  An actual solution would solve the real problem, an addiction merely makes us feel better without making any positive changes to our life.  We use these substitutions all the time.  This is, for all intents and purposes, classic psychology.  It's so basic, in fact, that nearly every human being that I've ever met has been, currently is, or will be, addicted to something—even if that something is a defense mechanism.  Getting over your habit of taking your bad day out on the people around you, for example, is no easier and essentially no different than your uncle getting over his addiction to Jack Daniels or your dad's addiction to the potato chips that are clogging his arteries.  Well, that is, once your alcoholic uncle's doctor has helped him get past the physical addiction (nothing to take lightly).

Let me stress that having an addiction does not necessarily imply substance abuse.  You've heard of people having a gambling addiction, an addiction to food, an addiction to spending money.  These are all legitimate forms of addiction, having no less a hold on the person than heroine on your typical junky.   The thing is, this is what we do.  We reach for something to make us feel in control, to make us feel right, whenever we start to feel out of control.  It's natural and nearly essential.  The only problem is how we go about regaining that control, whether we're reaching for an addiction or trying for a real solution.

Along the way I've learned that, for us sentients, a sustained feeling of being out of control leads directly to mental instability (call it “having issues” or full blown “insanity,” the difference is just a matter of degrees).  I'm being quite literal here—feel free to look it up.  We must maintain some sense of control over our lives, our moments, for us to continue to make good decisions and walk around with the rest of the free sentients (as opposed to being locked up with the criminals or the lunatics).  That's what your addiction is—it's your substitute for being in control.  Whether it be smoking, over-eating, or habitually buying a little “extra something” to make yourself feel better, it's a way of avoiding having the guts to gain real, honest control over your life.

So, let's say you made a New Year's resolution to change some bad habit—to lose some weight, to stop drinking so much caffeine, to quit rearranging your living room every other week and driving everyone in your house crazy (because all this control you're exerting is really making everyone else feel out of control).  I'm here to tell you that no amount of “will” (if by “will” you mean “stubbornness”) is going to change your habit for more than a few weeks.  Your only hope, friends and sentients, is to start to recognize when you feel out of control, and why.  It is to start working through those control issues you're having in search of real solutions.  Your boss barked at you four times that day and you're feeling stressed and you could really use a drink.  Fine, unless you always reach for the bottle in such situations, in which case maybe it's time to look for a real solution.  Try talking to your boss about it or looking for another job or doing what you need to finally start working for yourself.  I don't know.  It's not my life.  But I know that you'd need a real solution, not another band-aid, not another “something” to make yourself “feel better”.

When I quit smoking and then quit avoiding conflict and then quit lying about my feelings to make the other person feel better, the process was always the same.  I had to recognize why I was doing it.  I had to understand I couldn't change the habit, couldn't deny myself the false sense of control, until I faced the fact that I was feeling out of control in the first place.  Psychology 101—and most of us will never take the first step in conquering it.  You want to change your life?  This is the first step.  And no, it is not the easiest, because we've been running from these realizations for nearly as long as we've  been alive.  I'm still learning what makes me feel out of control and where my methods of feeling in control have been failing me—just covering over the real problems.

So this is what I want to say to you, person trying to take control of your life.  Don't you dare hop on another diet, don't deny yourself that little shopping trip, don't tell yourself you'll speak up this time, you will (you assure yourself), right after you've gained some courage by avoiding the topic for a week or two, only to find yourself back in the same boat, having changed nothing and feeling none-the-wiser.  Why don't New Year's resolutions work?  Because, most of the time, you're dedicating yourself to eradicating a symptom while never addressing the cause.  Work on your head.  It's the most fascinating place you've ever been, and I guarantee you don't know yourself as well as you think.  Become more responsible for who you are and what you do.  Once you start the process of sorting out your mental issues (we all have them; if you have a mind, you have mental issues), realizing where they come from, and taking responsibility for your actions, then you will be able to tackle the addictions, the bad habits, and all the varying degrees of pseudo-control that you employ.

It takes time and it takes honesty.  That is the path to control.  Do the deep work—the hard looking-at-yourself-in-the-mirror work.  Without that, nothing else will make any difference in the world.  You can't fake this.  It's just you and you, kid.  And, if you're feeling like you need to make some lasting changes in your life, it's probably high time you got on better terms with you.

Life in the Multiverse

Monday, January 3, 2011

Here we are, on the very first days of 2011.  How is it finding you?  Do you feel any different?  It's kind of like a birthday, the start of a new year - you think you'll feel older, somehow, maybe wiser or stronger or mysteriously "new," but you usually don't.  This year, however, seems to be delivering a marked "something different."  Standing on this edge, I find myself thinking deeper, feeling freer, embracing harder.  Everything feels like a possibility, like hope.  And yet, the ghosts hover ever closer.

I decided to give Notes from a Sentient a face lift for the new year - something to better reflect this new frame of mind.  Do you like it?  I'm satisfied with my choice.  It's brighter, more colorful and dynamic, and it has my tree.  Yes, that one, over there - the one without any leaves, like a thing standing between worlds, between the living and dead, between the real and the imaginary, and do we really know on which side we reside?  It's a question worth pondering.  I do it all the time.  

There are lots of things I wanted to talk to you about.  With the constant babble of New Year's resolutions flying around, I thought I might talk about addiction and breaking bad habits (from my own personal perspective, since that's all any of us really has), but that's another post.  This one will have to be about writing - not the how but the why.  Why writing instead of habit-breaking, as would be so much more apropos for this time of year? Because that's where my head is at.  Sorry for the abrupt change in subject and the misplaced preposition, but that's just how it is tonight.  It's all I can do.

I was driving and thinking earlier, pondering my story, the one I've been working on, off and on, for too long now - the one that just won't shut up, never goes away, but never seems any easier to write, for all of that.  My son's head was stuck in his new manga book and a long, dark highway stretched out before me, the radio muttering just loud enough to know what song was playing, but low enough to become background noise to my thoughts.  I went away, snagged again by that other realm. (It's so close to this one, it's almost an overlay - like a nearly imperceptible caul.)

This novel won't let me be.  I've tried writing other things when I get exasperated and feel stuck with the plot, but I can't seem to get into anything else.  I think this is my Big Story - not Big in a NY Times Best Seller List kind of way, but Big in a this will gnaw at you until it's written, until it's done, kind of way.  What's funny is that it's not even the most personal story I intend to write.  That story is down the road a bit (the irony of this statement is something most of you will never get).  But this one is telling me to write, poking and prodding and whispering incessantly.  

I believe most people are like that tree (yes, that one up there), existing between worlds.  We are alive, but we're dying even as we live, will be dead some day, and weren't alive (does that mean we were dead, or simply did not exist?) before we were born.  We can be conscious, yet our mind, our attention, can be in two places (or more) at once.  We could be driving a car, for example, down a dark strip of highway while simultaneously seeing and experiencing somewhere else, another world, one that could be a memory but is more likely a figment of our quite considerable imaginations.  And this imaginative place where ideas and dreams and stories and paintings and songs come from is also a place divided, existing in and from different realms.  Our imaginations, our stories, seem to be part past experience, part anticipated future, part hopes and fears, and part the out-of-nowhere-from-nothingness that gives rise to those thoughts and ideas which we can't explain.  Not comfortably, at least.  

I think this is a piece of the puzzle, one of the core reasons why we create, why, if we are writers, we write.  (Of course, if you're a painter or an architect or a musician, you create in those way - I think it all comes to the same.)  Because these worlds, all of these realities we exist in, must be paid homage to, must be expressed.

Do you ever feel that way?  As if some fictional character, some moment in your mind, some feeling or glimmer of insight, is going to push against the confines of your being until it finally gets out?  Some people say, "I felt like I would just burst if I didn't get it all out!"  

It is like that, isn't it?  Like a living entity trying to be hatched or freed.  We, their surrogates or their creators (the jury is still out on that one), we don't have any choice, do we?  

Mmm... (as one thought leads to another) but we do, don't we?    We have a choice.  We can ignore the imagination, the other realms that are speaking to us.  We can pretend we don't hear the voices, don't see the vision.  But we know what that means.  It means the death of the soul.  Art is self preservation.  It is the soul's struggle for survival - the only sustenance there is, the only chance.  The only difference between we, the creative people of the world, and those that don't seek a creative outlet, is that we understand this one simple fact.  Art is life.  Anything else is suicide.  Or voluntary zombieism - and when it comes down to that, is there really any difference?