Monday, December 28, 2015


Larry is estranged from his 46 year old daughter and angry with her for the "mess she's made of her life." He feels guilty about the estrangement, yet he is stuck and unable to reach out to her. Doug at 68 years old is preoccupied with thoughts about aging and says,"The thing I want most is to have peace of mind." Yet he looks back upon his life with a lot of regret and shame. Frank is 75. Almost every morning he wakes up depressed with a vague sense of dread about the day. "When I look at my male friends and how much they have accomplished I feel diminished."
What each of these men need is more compassion towards themselves. Although the importance of self-compassion is not often emphasized in our training as psychotherapists and counselors, most of our clients need to learn to be more gentle and kinder toward themselves. For Larry, Doug and Frank the additional need at this latter stage of their lives is to be able to look back at themselves at earlier stages of their development with compassion and loving kindness.
At this stage of my lifework,probably because at 73 I am viewed as an empathic guide, I am seeing a number of patients in their 60's and 70's. From my experience it is quite common for most of us to look back at ourselves at earlier times of our lives and be judgmental and critical. At some level of consciousness we are doing a life review, seeing many mistakes and moments when we hurt others or ourselves. We forget that we were much less psychospiritually evolved then. As we review our lives it is important to find a way to be kind and compassionate towards those earlier versions of our selves.
As we talked more deeply Larry became aware that his daughter was triggering memories of what he was like in his 40's. He was addicted to marijuana and careening from one job to another. He was a "mess." At a subconscious level Larry was angry at her for reminding him of those painful times - filled with self-hatred. If he didn't have to be in her presence then he could suppress those memories. The pathway of his therapy was to revisit his 40's and become more compassionate towards his 40 year old self.
For Doug too the pathway to finding some inner peace and ending his daily self-recriminations about his multiple affairs many years ago was to revisit those times with more compassionate understanding. He came from a background of profound emotional neglect. Doug's mother was very fearful - her fearful energy permeated the atmosphere in their home - and very self-absorbed. That left him with a deep emptiness that he had tried to fill with serial extra-marital affairs,
In the 1960's Frank was actively involved in the peace protests and the counter-cultural "back to the land" movement. He chose the pathway of a simpler life, became a potter and grew most of his own food. Years of hunching over a potter's wheel had taken a toll on his body. He could no longer do the work. Over his lifetime he had earned much less money and accumulated less material goods than the rest of his male friends. Internally he felt inferior to them. As we talked more deeply Frank became aware that he was using the "measuring stick" of his banker father and the culture that he had rebelled against. Of course he felt inferior, but I continually pointed out that was the wrong "measuring stick" for his life.
For each of these men it was helpful, but insufficient, to develop an intellectual understanding of the roots of these feelings. In order for them to feel genuine compassion for themselves however, it was essential to find a way to engage their own personal higher consciousness. For all of us our Higher Self has the capacity for greater love than our ordinary ego self.
Our task as psychotherapists and counselors is to find a pathway for each of our patients to connect to their individual Higher Self as a source of deep compassion. Twenty years earlier Larry had been actively involved in a recovery program to deal with his marijuana addiction and drug usage. It was very helpful to him then. I encouraged him to go to Al-Anon meetings - his daughter was an alcoholic. In our individual meetings we talked about renewing his connection to his personal Higher Power. Slowly in small steps he developed a loving acceptance of his younger self and softened his heart toward his daughter.
Doug is a scientist who did biological research and his primary approach to the world was through objective reasoning. The notion of higher consciousness was totally alien to him. In my effort to form a bridge between the rational realm and higher consciousness I asked Doug whether he had any experiences of deep awe or deep love. He reported several experiences of extraordinary awe during nature walks and many moments of deep love for his sons and his current wife. I said to him,"As a scientist I ask you to look at these experiences as evidence of something beyond the ordinary and ask you to think of what is the source of these feelings." As an earnest person and as a reflective scientist he started to contemplate these transcendent experiences. Gradually I introduced the notion that if he was capable of very deep love towards others he could consider the possibility of directing that love from his personal higher consciousness towards himself.
As part of his involvement with the 60's and 70's counter-cultural movement Frank had explored Buddhism and had been actively engaged for many years in a daily Buddhist meditational practice. In that tradition there is a focus upon compassion and loving kindness towards all sentient beings. As a way of working with Frank's feelings of very low self-esteem I asked Frank whether he had ever directed the compassion and loving kindness toward himself. Reflecting on this question and bringing it to his daily meditation produced an awakening. Frank began as an extension of his daily practice to ask his own "Buddha nature" for more compassion towards himself.
For each of these men the epiphany of a personal pathway towards self-compassion was the initial impetus - the first step in a long journey. Each of them became actively engaged in doing this "homework" between our sessions. The psychotherapeutic work we did can be applied to clients at any stage of life.