I love movies.
In my undergraduate years, I may have logged more time in the student movie theater than I did attending classes. Although my schedule now doesn’t afford me the luxury of getting to the theater as much as I would like, I still try to “watch my stories” as much as I can. A good film offers an immersive experience…a chance to be absorbed in the present moment via our senses (sight and hearing especially…but then again there’s always popcorn to fill in the rest), but beyond mere escapism, the medium can offer us an opportunity to connect with our uniquely human capacity for meaning making.
The other night, I was scrolling through my Netflix queue, looking for something to watch at home, and I came across the 2014 Spanish film Living is Easy (with Eyes Closed). I had never heard of the film, but was immediately intrigued by its title—a reference to the opening verse in the Beatles’ song “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which just happens to be one of my favorite songs ever (more on that in a bit).
Anyway, I watched the film and loved it. The film, apparently something of a true story, chronicles a teacher’s journey to meet John Lennon in 1966, when he was in Spain filming the Richard Lester movie How I Won the War (notable in Beatle lore for being the period when John wrote “Strawberry Fields Forever”). The teacher, Antonio, records Beatles’ tunes off the radio and then translates them to teach his students English. He wants to ask the “Smart Beatle” to translate and clarify the meaning of some of the songs, because it’s hard for Antonio to get all the words right to teach his students.
Along Antonio’s journey, he picks up two teenagers who are hitchhiking, fleeing two separate but simultaneously unfortunate circumstances. The unlikely trio journey from Madrid to the coastal town of Almeria, where John Lennon is temporarily residing. The film is filled with picturesque views of the Spanish countryside and coast, but underneath the beauty lurks subtle and not-so-subtle reminders of the oppressive environment that existed in Spain under the rule of Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975.
You might be wondering why I’m talking about movies in a blog dedicated to a psychotherapy practice. Well, I’ll explain. Actually, I’ll let twentieth century American existential psychologist Rollo May explain instead…
In his 1991 book “The Cry for Myth,“ Rollo May notes that “a myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence” (p. 15). May emphasizes that, throughout time and across cultures, myths have served to aid humanity in formulating personal identity, connection with others, clarifying values, and providing meaning to the otherwise unexplainable.
Film is a modern means to access this mythic tradition.
When the topic of movies comes up in my sessions, I tend to steer the conversation toward connecting film with its mythical tradition. For example, we can use film narratives and film characters’ struggles as a means to externalize problems, so those issues that bring us into therapy seem less threatening. Or…maybe we can gain a new, more helpful perspective on a difficult past experience by considering it part of our “origin story”—an event that we have no control over apart from the meaning we derive from it…e.g. the murder of Batman’s parents contributing to his decision to protect the citizens of Gotham City.
I noted a lot of mythic elements in my viewing of Living Is Easy (With Eyes Closed). In one of the film’s opening scenes, Antonio teaches his class the words to “Help!”—another iconic Beatles’ tune. Antonio asks his students what the song is about, and after weathering a few non-committal answers from his disinterested pupils, he conveys to his students that the songwriter—once again…Mr. Lennon—is imploring us to help. He emphasizes the word “help” multiple times, and in doing so extends the meaning beyond a literal interpretation of the song’s lyrics.
To my mind, Antonio is suggesting we consider the song’s meaning from more than one perspective. The way he says “HELP,’ almost as an incantation, suggests fear…the terror of existence, but it can also be read as a command—not to live in fear but to offer HELP to humanity in general. The song’s seemingly simple message blooms into a mythic call for empathy and compassionate action.
Time and time again in this film, you see characters helping each other in tiny…and sometimes very significant ways, their kindness standing in stark contrast to the occasional random acts of cruelty a few peripheral characters exhibit (a thug in the town of Almeria seems to symbolize the dumb hate that fuels Fascist regimes like Franco’s). It’s almost as if the viewer is being presented with a choice—to live compassionately or live as an oppressor of others.
This emphasis on helping, to live compassionately, makes the film’s borrowing of the “Strawberry Fields Forever” lyric ironic. I’ve always found “Strawberry Fields Forever” to be a beautiful, atmospheric song, but lyrically the song is extraordinarily bleak—something of a sad, fragmented ode to nostalgia and escapism.
Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It’s getting hard to be someone
But it all works out
It doesn’t matter much to me…
The protagonist in the song (once again, is it John Lennon?) seems confused and uncertain of their identity and sense of purpose…always second-guessing themselves (“always, no sometimes, think it’s me…but it’s all wrong, that is I think I disagree”). The solace found in escaping (“let me take you down”) to Strawberry Fields might suggest permanence (the “Forever” bit), but I hear/read it as a temporary respite—a fleeting act of emotional avoidance—confirmed by the increasingly nonsensical tone of each subsequent verse.
Antonio does not live a life of avoidance, of the escapism of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Sure…there is struggle along the way, and there appears to be something of a loneliness to his existence (“take me…all heart and lonelier than a fart”), but he possesses a secure identity and engages open-heartedly in vital, valued living that is rich in compassion (that desire to HELP that I mentioned earlier). In one of the film’s key moments, when Antonio confronts the town bully who has been terrorizing one of his teenage traveling companions, he provides this challenge:
“let me say something…really important. You can’t live in fear. Too many people live in fear in Spain. But you need to change things dammit…you need to erase fear. Life is like a dog…if it smells fear, it bites you…”
Although he is speaking of fear that permeates 1960’s Spain, he could just as easily be referring to the present day United States. We can live a “half life” compromised by fear, or we can learn accept fear, and move forward in our lives in directions that matter to us.
I’m so happy I stumbled across Antonio, as he’s stimulated a lot of reflection on my part, connecting me to some of the key elements that energize me in my work with clients.
I love engaging clients in dialogues—should they be willing to do so—that are designed to inspire meaning making and clarify values. If we don’t know what is important to us, we run the risk of pursuing false, unfulfilling goals and living a life that will leave us disengaged from others and ultimately dissatisfied (i.e. the non-Antonio existence). Additionally, much of my practice, as I’ve delineated in some of my other blog posts, is informed by Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), an empirically-proven, mindfulness-based psychotherapy that encourages the cultivation of a compassionate mind as an essential piece in promoting psychological change and well-being. When we have the courage to recognize suffering, whether our own or someone else’s, and connect with our innate capacity to HELP (once again, thanks Antonio)—to alleviate suffering through compassionate action—we access the best, most vital part of ourselves.
Hope you enjoyed the “Long and Winding Road” (another Beatles’ reference…a hat trick!) that is this blog post. If any of the content here around film and its use in psychotherapy, compassionate mind training, or…well…the Fab Four engaged you, feel free to contact me. I’m accepting new clients! Also, if you’re just looking for a good movie to watch tonight, and you don’t mind subtitles, check out Living is Easy (With Eyes Closed).
May, Rollo (1991). The Cry for Myth. New York: Norton.
Our ancestors spent a great deal of time worrying, and for good reason. Other cave neighbors might try to steal their food…or their shelter…or their mate. Other animals might try to make them lunch. To protect themselves from these threats, our ancestors’ brains were frequently dialed in to the “fight-or-flight” response—a very primitive and very essential function of our brains that is designed to keep us safe.
We still regularly access this fight-or-flight response, but the threats in modern life are waaaay different than what our ancestors faced. Sure, there’s still the potential for danger, but more often than not, our anger is triggered by the day to day, non life-threatening stressors of modern life: annoying co-workers, being stuck in traffic, disagreements with our loved ones, money troubles, etc…the list goes on and on.
And here’s the problem. Although our anger is designed to protect us, in these situations, it’s actually endangering us, because staying mired in the threat response of anger robs us of joy, makes us more susceptible to stress and chronic illness, and causes our relationships to suffer. In short, anger can deprive us from being our true, best selves.
The True Strength program, originally created by Dr. Russell Kolts, utilizes Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) to teach new ways of coping with problematic expressions of anger. CFT blends centuries-old meditative practices (mindfulness) with evolutionary psychology and modern neuroscience in ways that are easy to understand and extremely useful. Through this course, you will cultivate a deeper sense of compassion for yourself and others, replace aggression with assertiveness, and improve your relationships.
TRUE STRENGTH: A CFT Program for Taking Responsibility of Your Anger
Six Week Course Starting Wednesday May 18.
Session Times: 6:00PM – 7:30PM
This group does not accept insurance
Fees are $45/group or pay a one time fee of $240 and save $30
Call Robert at (706) 425-8900 ext 706
Chances are if you’ve been in therapy before, your therapist may have worked with you on a technique called “thought reframing.” It’s a common practice in modern psychotherapy, rooted in the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy tradition (CBT). A therapist trained in CBT will guide clients to identify, challenge, and reframe unhelpful thinking patterns and beliefs that lead to BIG, unwanted emotions (e.g. if you go to a party and think ‘no one here likes me,’ chances are you will not be brimming with confidence and, hence, won’t party at the party). A therapist trained in CBT would prompt a client who thinks “nobody likes me” to consider alternative ways of thinking about the situation—e.g. ”I was invited to the party by ____, and I had a good time talking with ____ the last time I saw her, so I’ll probably enjoy myself this time as well.” Likewise, even if you’ve never set foot in a therapist’s office before, there’s a good chance that family and friends have intuitively utilized aspects of CBT to support you…perhaps by encouraging you to consider alternate ways of looking (i.e. thinking) about a difficult situation, with the intention being to “cheer you up.”
CBT is a widely accepted treatment for one simple reason—it works. But…in the spirit of CBT, which cautions against seeing the world in absolutes (i.e. always, never, all the time, etc), I would clarify that CBT works…some of the time…
When I was in school studying to be a therapist and during the early years of my practice, I learned and often incorporated elements of CBT into my work with clients. The treatment was often effective, but I noticed that amongst a certain segment of clients, it proved strikingly less so. Clients that possessed high levels of shame and self-criticism tended to intellectually get the concept of thought reframing, but their insights didn’t produce significant changes in how they were feeling. For example, a client might acknowledge being equally, if not more, qualified than other applicants when considering whether to apply for a job, but would remain mired in doubt and anxiety and still revert back to the old familiar pattern of self-criticism—so much so that maybe they wouldn’t even apply for the job they expressed an interest in in the first place.
To my mind, shame is that deeply felt sense of not measuring up—of not being ____ enough (for perhaps the most vivid description of shame I’ve ever heard, take the time to watch this Ted Talk by noted author and social theorist Brené Brown). Shame is an intense, multi-layered emotional experience (think embarrassment times a thousand) that we all feel from time to time, but some of us, particularly those with early childhood experiences that contain abuse and neglect, experience high, problematic levels of it. The rumination that often accompanies shame tends to be filled with self-criticism and, in turn, contributes to frequent reoccurrences of depression and other mental health issues. Shame…or the anticipation of feeling it…is like a vampire, draining us as we consciously (and unconsciously) avoid experiences that might otherwise bring vitality and purpose to our lives.
I was elated to come across a wealth of scientific research that backed up my initial observation regarding CBT “thought reframing” techniques not being particularly effective for individuals with high levels of shame and self-criticism. As it turns out, British psychologist Paul Gilbert has devoted much of his life’s work to this very topic, and he has developed Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), in part, in response to that gap in care for individuals who struggle with shame and self-criticism (for a review of just what compassion is, see my previous post). Although CFT incorporates elements of CBT, it differs in that CBT targets emotional suffering through reframing thinking, while CFT seeks to cultivate emotion-focused experiences that elicit the innate, self-soothing capacities we all possess. In other words, as Dr. Gilbert points out, “In order for us to be reassured by a thought (say) ‘I am lovable’ this thought needs to link with the emotional experience of ‘being lovable’” (citation here)
If you tend to be someone who struggles with shame and/or self-criticism, the felt sense of “being lovable” may be unfamiliar, even scary territory. In my practice, I utilize Gilbert’s CFT techniques in conjunction with other treatment modalities that also emphasize compassion (the work of Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff in particular…more on their good work here and here). All of these treatments blend centuries-old meditative practices (the “old wisdom” I mentioned in the title) with evolutionary psychology and modern neuroscience. My hope for all my clients who struggle with shame-related issues (frankly, I don’t know anyone, myself included, who doesn’t) is to reach a point where one recognizes they are lovable and can offer compassion for themselves and others. Unlike self-esteem, which is contingent on us doing “stuff” (i.e. determining our worth through our accomplishments), self-compassion emphasizes that we have inherent worth…just because we exist. It’s our birthright.
In the weeks to come, I’ll be sharing more about the cultivating a “compassionate mind” on this blog. If you are interested in learning more about the healing potential of compassion, and cultivating a deeper sense of it for yourself and others, please call me at (706) 425-8900 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Modern science is steadily corroborating what many spiritual traditions have known for centuries. Compassion—the recognition of human suffering coupled with the courage to do something to alleviate it—is associated with greater levels of life satisfaction, happiness, resiliency, improved immune system functioning…possibly even increasing lifespan. There’s even actual science that backs up the timeworn cliché “it’s better to give than receive” (click here for a great article highlighting recent research into the mind and body benefits of compassion).
My practice is informed by many of these exciting developments in the field of compassion studies, and one of the things I always stress to clients is that we are all hardwired for compassion—it’s innate (e.g. think about how a parent responds to an infant’s cry…that response doesn’t happen without compassion). We are already compassionate beings, but just like going to the gym, we can train our hearts and minds to make our capacity for compassion stronger.
A fundamental piece of compassion is developing an awareness of interdependence—the sense that as a species we are all connected. I came to a deeper understanding of this practice when attending a foundation course for Emory University’s Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) program recently. Dr. Geshe Lobsang Negi, a former Buddhist monk who is the founder of the program (and founder of the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Atlanta) led the training. CBCT was created at Emory University in 2005 in response to an alarming increase in depression and suicide amongst the university’s undergraduate population. The implementation of CBCT has been instrumental in promoting wellbeing amongst the student population at Emory, and CBCT researchers are extending their focus in a variety of settings to studying the beneficial aspects of compassion practice on human health. For more info on the CBCT program, click here:
Here’s an approach that Dr. Negi teaches for gaining a deeper sense of interdependence. Take a moment and consider a talent you have. It can be anything…maybe something as seemingly simple as cooking a pot of spaghetti…or some exceptional feat of derring-do like tightrope walking—doesn’t matter…just something you have gained a sufficient level of competency with and also something that brings you a sense of satisfaction and/or purpose. Then, reflect on ALL the individuals who had a role, either directly or indirectly, in making that talent a part of your life.
Actually, before you do, I’ll share an example from my own life to illustrate this concept…
I love to play the drums. I’ve played since I was about 14 years old. When I reflect on the idea of interdependence—the idea that we cannot thrive in life without the support of others—in relation to this love of playing the drums, it becomes so apparent to me just how many people have supported me in helping me cultivate this talent.
At the age of 14, some friends and I wanted to start our own band. We even had a name for the band. BLATANT DISREGARD. With a name like that, we figured we were well on our way to rock and roll stardom!
There were only a few barriers (somewhat significant barriers mind you) to making Blatant Disregard a reality. For starters, most of us had no actual musical ability. I mean zero talent. Also, only one of us I think actually owned an instrument! I think because my dad had been a drummer, and there was still an old pair of drum sticks that had been lying around the house, I appointment myself as the band’s would-be percussionist. I approached my dad with my idea of taking up the drums, and he was very open to the idea (I think one motivation for him, beyond supporting his son, was to have a drum set in the house that he could play as well). He agreed to help with the purchase of a drum set, with the caveat being that I would take some lessons.
The lessons led to another person who was instrumental in developing my talent. Willy. I have to admit…I never actually got his last name. Willy was my drum teacher. If you are at all familiar with “the look” of 80s rock-n-roll, particularly the hard rock or heavy metal genres, you’ll be able to get an approximate visualization of Willy’s fashion sensibility—e.g. BIG, frizzy hair, ripped, acid washed jeans, tank tops, moon boots (white Reebok hi-tops). I remember he drove a gold corvette with a compact disc that hung from the rear view mirror. Willy had style for miles.
I only took lessons for a short time, just enough to learn the rudimentary basics of playing, but I still am very grateful to Willy for what he taught me. In addition to being musically talented, he was patient and also very enthusiastic—attributes that, to my mind, are essential for a good teacher. I still have fond recollections of stumbling through songs like the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”—songs I don’t think I had even heard at that point in my life—with a pick up band of similarly-skilled students (Willy taught every instrument at the music store where I took lessons). Willy would serve as our little pick-up band’s lead vocalist and keyboard player, conducting the band and throwing himself rapturously into the performance as if he was on stage at Madison Square Garden.
There have been so many others, like Willy or my dad, who have played vital roles in supporting my love of playing drums. Some I’ve known closely…some I’ve never met. Countless bandmates (sadly, Blatant Disregard’s career was short lived) shared their talents, each inspiring me in their own way and playing a role in shaping my own musical sensibilities. I also have to be thankful for exceedingly tolerant family members, friends, and neighbors—all the individuals who have put up with hearing the same tune played over and over (and over ad infinitum) as I developed my skills. Less directly, music store clerks or fellow musicians selling the instruments I’ve purchased and, by extension, the designers and manufacturers of said instruments, have all been essential to my musical development. And just think? Someone had to own the stores where I purchased the instruments, and city planners, developers, architects, and construction crews all had to devote time and energy to the building of those stores. Oh, and what about the individuals responsible for producing the materials that built those stores? As well as the trucks that transported those materials? Not to mention the roads that the trucks drove on? See how this goes? Once you start “down the rabbit hole” in this examination of interdependence, it’s hard to find an endpoint…
Isolation and a distinctly felt sense of otherness (feeling alone and apart from the group) correlate with high levels of anxiety, depression, and other poor health outcomes. Compassion offers a way out. When we start to closely examine the contributions others have made on our lives—particularly aspects of our lives that our dear to us—the illusion of separateness (and the pain which accompanies it) subsides. We feel less alone and energized to enrich our own lives by, in part, a deeply felt appreciation of others. If you are interested in learning skills to develop your sense of compassion, both for yourself and others, then contact me, Robert Lomax, at email@example.com or call (706) 425-8900.