18 May Vision and Frustration
This morning I had a dream in which I was driving but I could barely see over the dashboard and I couldn’t reach the pedals. I had taken the car out of park and I was slowly rolling backwards in a parking spot. I experienced a mild sense of terror that the car was going to hit something, but I continued to try to push the brake. I could feel the pedal, and I was pushing but it wasn’t doing anything. The dream had a slow motion feel to it- the movements weren’t frantic even though the situation felt desperate. I partially woke up before the car crashed into anything. I recall having the sense that if I could just get to the brake I could move forward even though I couldn’t see out of the car. In other words, as desperate as the situation felt, my focus was on continuing my journey- which is a bit nuts really. This is not the first time that I have had a dream like this. However, after this experience I had a strong sense of some of its underlying meaning.
A few days earlier I had a profound experience while getting a massage. For my 49th birthday my friends Jules and Martin got me a gift certificate to a massage therapist that they love. It took me a few months to schedule the appointment but I finally got it set up last week. As soon as I walked into her office I had a sense of trust in her abilities. As someone who spends a great deal of time and energy researching the power of our emotions to affect our physical bodies I have been reticent to engage in physical treatments with the understanding that this can often deal with the symptom which in turn can obscure the true cause. However, I had looked her up on her website and it was clear that she was as, or more interested, in how we hold our stress in our bodies, than the physicality of that manifestation than I am. In other words I wasn’t expecting her to fix some wayward muscle but instead to help me to access the emotional issues that were trapping themselves in that muscle.
Before we started the session we sat down and talked. When I set up the appointment I had also sent over a link to our film “All The Rage”, both because I thought that as a massage therapist she would see the value in it, but also because I knew it would bring her up to speed on some of the physical and emotional things I struggle with. She had watched the film, and clearly got it, and the connection to her work both in the universal sense and in the very present personal sense, is one of the reasons I felt a sense of trust in the process that day. I also felt it because she was simply very present and empathetic, which created a sense of calm in the space. My intention was to be equally as present with myself in order to make the most of her work. However, after a long day/week of heavy promotional work for our films I was oddly both a bit depleted as well as wired. In other words, the adrenaline creation of that work process was still very present. She pointed out that my energy was very high and I hadn’t been aware of it, but once she had commented on it I recognized the feeling.
Our film, “Working In Protest“ was recently invited to a few film festivals and I was working quite furiously all day to make contact with press people and other possible allies. For several years I have been trying to work in a more mindful manner, but I had been a little bit less successful that day. When I was younger, I often felt that if I wasn’t working with a kind of a manic energy, I wasn’t really getting anything done. At that time, and in all truthfulness it still hold true to a degree, If I wasn’t spaced out and wasted from exhaustion by the end of the day, yet still buzzing from the adrenaline, I felt like I had failed. The adrenaline created by that kind of hyperactive work focus had come to feel normal. I now see how unhealthy, and unproductive, that way of working was, and still is- but old patterns can be hard to break. I sometimes find myself being drawn towards, and falling into, that same kind of energy. This is especially true when I am in publicity and distribution mode.
I love to make art, and I love to make movies. I don’t like having to promote and distribute them. Still, I have had to do it because if I don’t, the work will not be seen. For the past 25 years my life has consisted of a pattern in which I spend some time making art, and then a much longer chunk of time spent trying to get it out into the world. The timeframe for conception to completion of the projects has continually grown, as has the difficulty in getting our films seen. It took us under a year to conceive of, shoot, and complete our first film. When festivals wouldn’t show it, we threw it in a van and spent a year or more showing it with our own projector, mostly in rock clubs. The next film took a few years to get made, but thankfully it premiered at Sundance so it was much easier to get seen and talked about. While it played at dozens of film festivals around the world, it never got any real distribution. To make a long story short each film has taken a few years longer than the last to complete, and in general they take now us over 10 years because they have been almost entirely self funded. There have been some ups in the process, but mostly it has been a wildly frustrating grind.
As we talked, I explained to her how difficult the past 18 months has been, as we have struggled to get our film out. I found myself feeling emotional and I worked to just let the emotions come forth. Partly because she clearly understood why the film is so important, it was easier to talk about just how frustrating it can be to have made something that is clearly life changing to so many people, yet be stymied by gatekeepers and negative reviews. It’s less about the hits my ego takes when people dismiss it than the fact that it makes it much harder for us to get it seen or talked about.
A few days earlier someone had commented on an “All The Rage” facebook post, questioning my personal resistance to going to see a therapist. The comment was accurate, and it didn’t bother me, but it did get me to think a bit more deeply about why I have that resistance. My mother used to always tell me that I thought that I “knew the way and light”. She would say this with frustration because it usually had to do with me arguing with her or with teachers. I never wanted to too things the way I was told to do them. I have always questioned systems and have been punished for it in both direct and indirect ways. My father was a psychologist, and I loved and respected him. However, he didn’t really do the work to figure out those things that kept him stuck in negative patterns, and I think that’s part of why I am uncomfortable in therapeutic settings. There was something about the dissonance between his professional and personal life that left me even more suspect of the therapeutic process. I think that the power differential in standard therapy sessions has always bothers me in some way as well. There’s an assumption that the therapist is the expert and the patient needs their knowledge. However, in this setting, the flow of information felt more balanced. I felt more open and able to express what I felt because, while there was a profound sense of ritual to both the process and the setting, it didn’t feel rooted in a set system. It’s hard to articulate what I am trying to express, but suffice it to say that I felt comfortable.
After a lot of great conversation I found myself being aware of being concerned about the time that we were spending talking. I quickly noticed and responded to that concern by reminding myself that it was all part of the process, and I leaned into it a little more. Before I knew it we had been sharing for half an hour. In truth it felt more like a psychotherapy session than a massage visit and recall thinking that if this is what therapy felt like I’d be much more open to going.
Even with the great conversation, when I got on the table I was restless and found it difficult to get comfortable. It was kind of like trying to get in bed after three cups of coffee. My adrenaline was still quite high so I focused on my breath. The therapist began by gently moving down my spine. After a few minutes she informed me that there was something “stuck” in the middle of my back, and that it felt like frustration. The sound of that word struck me and as she gently worked on that spot and I had a somewhat immediate and powerful emotional response. It was a slightly surreal experience because I found myself sobbing, but I also felt distant from the emotion. It was like some deeper buried frustration, connected to the present moment, but almost like a shadow rather than a present feeling. There are times when we cry that we feel the emotions moving through our bodies. This felt like distant like it was moving through an insulated pipe that went through the center of my body. The tightness in my back let go considerably. I wasn’t left with a feeling of complete relief but after a few moments I was calmer and my whole body was much more relaxed. As she continued to work I had more moments of letting go. While some of my responses felt very present, many of these reactions again felt as if they were moving through me like water through a pipe. I could sense the movement of the emotions but did not feel connected to them.
Later, as we talked, she reflected back to me that the frustration had to do with the fact that I have a sense of vision that often goes unrecognized, and even stifled, or rejected. The whole massage was quite profound but these two takeaways, frustration and a sense of vision- things that I was well aware of, yet somewhat blind to emotionally, have led to a whole series of small revelations and an expanded awareness. I thought about coming back to see her again but before we could discuss it she pointed out to me that it was now time for me to do the work. My main physical problem is that since “my back went out” in 2011 my left leg has much less muscle mass, the calf is exceedingly tight, and the big toe barely functions. She told me that her sense is that by addressing the frustration, and thinking about what the sense of vision means, I could build on the openings that we made that day. She told me to journal and commented that I might have some dreams. As you can guess, there have been a lot of dreams, and small revelations. Some of that has carried over to my relationship with my wife, and we’ve been doing a lot of work together. Both of us have been benefitting from that massage. It hasn’t been a straight path forward, and there have been some ups and downs, but with trust and a shared sense of purpose, we have made some huge leaps in unwinding the complex tangle of our lives. One of those awarenesses has to do with how even this relationship often stifles my sense of vision. As we discussed these ideas we thought about a scene that didn’t make it into the film.
In the scene above I talk to Dr Sarno and try to convince him that his ideas will catch on sooner than later. In his response he references both frustration and acceptance. He appears resigned to the fact that his vision will be ignored, and somewhat beaten down from facing resistance for so long to the very simple idea that the mind and the body are interrelated. That resignation, carrying that frustration, clearly involved carrying a weight, or a load. Looking back, I can also see how that energy made it more difficult for us to continue on our journey to make a film about his work.
Whenever we think, or speak, we communicate with words, but also with energy. I believe that this energy has as much, or more, powerful effect than the words that we use. For skeptical people the idea that the energy connected to our thoughts and words carries more weight than the words themselves might seem to be ridiculous, or unverifiable “woo”. Currently we have no way to objectively measure that energy. Still, as I have learned to be more present, I have also become much more aware of how powerfully other people’s energy and intention is communicated without words- especially my wife’s. Further, as I have travelled with the film I have had dozens of experiences wherein people approach me after the film and I can feel that something they were repressing has come unstuck from deep repression, but that it’s a kind of frustrated energy hanging around in their chest. In general I ask them if they feel it, and invariably they do. My acknowledgement of it makes it present to them. They knew it was there but didn’t have the words to describe or explain it. Often times there’s an emotional release. sometimes there’s simply an acknowledgment and awareness that they need to go be with that feeling.
I believe that Dr Sarno had a profound sense of vision. He could see things that others did not. Almost all of his colleagues dismissed his awareness of how powerfully people’s emotions, and their stories, affected them. Early in his career at NYU he was held in high esteem by his colleagues. However, when the bio-technial model of medicine began to drown out any discussion of emotions he was pushed to the edges. Eventually, he had almost no students who worked with him, and he quietly ran a very successful practice that grew by word of mouth rather than physician referrals. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for him to have a clear answer to a problem that plagued so many people, yet no one would listen to him. In some sense though I can. I have a strong sense of vision in regards to my own work, and for my entire career I have butted up against gatekeepers who have not embraced it. It can be quite frustrating, and it was that frustration that slammed me to the floor in 2011, sparking a return to working on our film about Dr Sarno.
One of the reasons that I took on more present role in the film had to do with feeling very conscious of honoring Dr. Sarno and his legacy, and in some ways honoring his sense of himself. Whenever we make a documentary with, and about, someone there’s a space in which it is our responsibility to be as honest as possible, but also to respect the needs of our subjects. In some sense, we took a long pause on the film from 2006-2011 because Dr. Sarno wasn’t a great subject, or “character“, in that he had no desire to present a naked version of himself. Great “characters” in documentaries are ones who have almost no filter; whatever they feel tumbles out. That makes the job of storytelling a whole lot easier. While the scene above seen was powerful and important, the frustration that weighed on him, also seemed to weigh on story. It was also too similar to another scene in the film in which he laughingly told me I could try to get our film made, but he wasn’t holding his breath. He didn’t appear to want to grapple with his frustrations on camera, so I decided to grapple with mine instead. We came to see that one way of finishing the movie was for me to be will to be emotionally naked on camera.
I’m not a natural character either. I don’t like having my picture taken, and I don’t like how I sound. It took a lot of practice to become comfortable enough to include myself. I’m a work in progress as an “actor”, and as a person, but I am doing the work. One of the things that people fail to get when trying to figure out just what Dr. Sarno was saying, is that for most people, healing involves a good deal of work. Sometimes that work is direct; things like journaling, or mindfulness practice to become aware of how we physically respond to emotional stressors. Sometimes though, the work is more esoteric. It might involve learning to be good to one’s self. That’s a hard thing to understand, and at first it might not make much sense. For me, being good to myself involves honoring my vision.
When someone wants to be a photographer, a filmmaker, a musician, or an artist there’s a constant and profound pressure to conform to some idea of what works- to follow a formula- or copy a sound- or make pictures that people will buy. My sense of making work doesn’t really fit in with many of those ideas. I’ve never been drawn towards making work in order to sell it. I make it because I need to. For me, “healing” has a lot to do with honoring that need to make work in ways that may not work for everyone. However, I have come to see that I can’t make work for everyone. I have to make it for me, and then it truly is for everyone.