NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Are You Gazing at the Sky Through a Straw?

Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, MA, writes in her autobiographical book, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, that Buddhists have an expression that they use called "gazing at the sky through a straw." She says this expression is a metaphor for holding onto narrow, fixed beliefs and allowing these beliefs to become the whole of our existence. 

Expand Your Vision

Rather than seeing the vastness and beauty of the sky, when we gaze at the sky through a straw, we only see a very small part of the sky and yet we think we see all of it. We don't realize that we're depriving ourselves.

I enjoy reading about people's personal quests, and I'm enjoying reading about Ms. Salzberg's quest.  She writes about overcoming childhood trauma through her explorations in meditation and Buddhism. She also discusses how, at first, she clung to her particular beliefs because they helped her to feel secure, and how she had to learn to be more open and questioning about her beliefs lest they become dogma.

Compassion and Empathy
While reading this book, I've begun thinking about what it means when we become rigid in our beliefs and ways of doing things. In telling the story of her personal evolution, Ms. Salzberg provides an excellent example of why people often hold rigidly to their particular ways, and how they can feel threatened by other people's views. We see this every day in our personal encounters with people as well as in our own government where adherence to rigid beliefs has created gridlock in our Congress, and we see it internationally between countries.  We can see it in ourselves.

If you're dealing with someone who has rigid beliefs that are creating tension between you and this person, it's not enough to tell them, "Don't be so rigid" or "Chill out." It's much more helpful to take a moment, step back and try to understand what this person's particular stance means in the context of his or her life. Then, even if you don't agree, you might still feel some empathy and compassion for this person.  You can also look at your own struggles with rigidity and feel compassion for yourself.

My Uncle Joe:
While reading Faith," I thought about my Uncle Joe. My Uncle Joe passed away from a sudden heart attack at the young age of 43. But when he was alive, he was "the rock" of my father's family. Although he wasn't the oldest, he might as well have been. He was the one that everyone depended on.

As a young man, he had never been away from home until he was drafted into the Army during World War II. Both he and my father were sent to the South Pacific where, undoubtedly, they saw unspeakable atrocities. "Unspeakable" being the operative word because neither he nor my father ever spoke about the war. When Uncle Joe came back from the war, he moved back in with my grandparents and his brothers. Having experienced the war in the South Pacific, I think he felt secure coming home to the household traditions in my grandparents' home.

Uncle Joe was a very kind and generous person. If you came to visit him and you complimented him on something that he had (whether it was a set of cuff links or a new clock), he would insist that you have it.

I'll never forget the time that one of his cousins, Junior, admired a new vacuum cleaner that Uncle Joe had just bought. Actually, I think all that Junior said was, "Oh, that's nice." 

No sooner had the words left Junior's mouth than my Uncle Joe was trying to put the vacuum cleaner in Junior's hands, insisting that he have it. Junior was red-faced with embarrassment because he never meant to say that he wanted it. And there were the two of them pushing and pulling this vacuum cleaner back and forth, each one insisting that the other have it. Finally, Junior said his goodbyes to all of us very quickly and he practically ran out the door with my Uncle Joe still insisting that he wanted him to have the vacuum cleaner.

When we were younger, my cousins and I didn't know that the sumptuous Sunday dinners at my grandparents' house were provided courtesy of Uncle Joe. As children, we never thought of such things. In many ways, we took for granted the loving, nurturing, child-centered environment in my grandparents' home. It was all that we ever knew so how could we think that it could ever be different?

In many ways, we were protected as children. As hard as it may be to believe (and even I can't believe it myself when I think about it now), as children, we never knew that my grandmother was suffering with cancer. She had an indomitable spirit. 

She was always cooking and entertaining, welcoming people into her home, piling more food on their plates and filling their glasses. Sometimes, we would see her sleeping at the table and if she caught one us looking at her, she would say, "I'm just resting my eyes." When I look at old pictures of her now, I can see the dark rings under her eyes and how tired she looked, probably from the chemo. I can look back on it now and see that, had it not been for Uncle Joe helping my grandmother, our world would have been much different.

But as generous as he was, Uncle Joe also had very fixed ideas about what was right and what was wrong and how things should be done. So, for instance, during the week, he often cooked for his parents and his brothers. After he cooked, he would label each meal as either "Monday," "Tuesday," "Wednesday" and so on. It was a running joke in our family that if his brother, Al, wanted to annoy him, he would eat Tuesday's meal on Monday or eat Wednesday's meal on Tuesday.

My grandparents would tease Uncle Joe about this, but he would really get seriously upset if the meals were eaten out of order. Looking back on it now, I think that, for him, having that kind of rigid order helped him to feel secure: In a crazy world where, as a young man, you might suddenly find yourself one day in a foreign country killing other young men that you didn't even know, these simple things were things that you could count on. I think it represented stability and security to him, just like going to the same Mass every Sunday (9 AM and never 10 AM or 11 AM) or leaving for work at the post office at the same exact time every day.

He also never left the security of my grandparent's home. My grandfather died a year after my grandmother died, and my Uncle Joe died from a sudden heart a year after that. For someone who needed so much for things to remain the same, I can't help thinking that, aside from a history of heart problems among the men on my father's side of the family, my Uncle Joe also died in part because he couldn't tolerate that his world was turned upside down after my grandparents died. He was bereft without them.

I think that, for my Uncle Joe, who needed desperately for things to remain the same, he feared change. Change meant that the rug could be pulled out from underneath him at any time. He came back from the war during a time when no one really knew about post-traumatic stress disorder. They called it being "shell shocked" and there was no real treatment for it, not like there is today with the advent of EMDR and other forms of therapy that are specifically for trauma.

Fear and Clinging to Rigid Beliefs:
Reading Faith and remembering my Uncle Joe, and other people that I've known in my life, reminds me to have empathy and compassion for people who cling to their beliefs and who might be disparaging of others who hold different beliefs. When people need to cling to their beliefs and denigrate others, underneath it all, they're afraid. They might not even realize that they're afraid, but fear can be a powerful emotion. Fear can motivate us to change or it can make us run or it can freeze us in our tracks into stultifying rigidity.

If you find that you're "gazing at the sky through a straw," you might ask yourself whether fear might be keeping you from living more fully with more openness and flexibility. Trauma often causes people to feel fearful and avoidant. Trauma comes in many forms, not just the type of post-traumatic stress that we usually associate with war.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you feel stuck because of fear and insecurity, you're not alone, and you could benefit from seeing a licensed psychotherapist who has expertise in this area.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist. 

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.