I am consulting with a middle-aged female client who came to see me because she is worried sick about her drugtaking teenage daughter. This young girl started smoking weed when she was at school but sadly, she soon developed a full-blown addiction to other serious narcotics. There is a lot of good scientific evidence pointing to weed as a gateway drug to other addictive substances. My client also cares for two other children of hers and the costs for rehabilitation and other therapeutic interventions depleted the family's financial reserves. The parents struggle to keep the family safe with food on the table and a roof over their heads. The drugtaking daughter is clean for several months now and it seems she is stable but there is a growing tension between mother and daughter. My client keeps a very watchful eye over her daughter and refuses to let her have the same privileges of freedom given to the other two children. Mum and daughter fight a lot: the daughter seeking greater freedom and mum declining because there is little trust because she consistently abuse the freedom given her in the past. Trapped in fear, the mother mollycoddles her daughter, controlling everything she does, where she goes and with whom she hangs out. The mother has every reason to over-protect her daughter because the child consistently lied about her whereabouts in the past and returning to her drugtaking friends with disastrous consequences.
Would you advise somebody in the same way I did? Listen on and I'll tell you how I did it.
It is important to understand some of the basic ways our minds work to appreciate the effectiveness of this therapeutic session. Freud said that our minds are like an iceberg: the tiny part poking out of the water represents our consciousness; the bulk of our thoughts are outside our awareness, meaning that we have no cognitive awareness of the thought processes that are happening deep in the mind. Concepts like time, space and logic become foggy the deeper we go into the mind. What we find in these depths are symbolism, creative thinking, music and art, and emotions and feelings. I could have spoken to this client's conscious mind, trying to reason with her but it seemed more appropriate to help her at a subconscious level. That's where hypnosis comes in: it is a technique that bypasses the conscious mind and speaks directly to the subconscious one. Since the subconscious mind cannot understand the language of rational thinking, mathematics and logic, when addressing the subconscious we must do so using its language, namely one of symbolism, creative thinking, music and art, and emotions and feelings. Storytelling fits these requirements nicely and if we can tell the story properly, the inferences in the storyline have bearing on the world of reality and bring about a new way of thinking. We call stories like these, metaphors.
Please stop listening now if you are driving, operating heavy machinery or are otherwise presently engaged in any activity that requires your full attention.
Sit comfortably with both feet flat on the floor and your head nicely supported or you may choose to lie down. Pause this podcast until you can continue. Rest your hands comfortably in your lap or on your tummy and while doing that, bring your attention to your eyelids. They are among some of the very weakest muscles on the outer part of your body and I'm going to invite you to play a little game of make-believe. In games of pretend, faking is allowed, it is the way children play these games. Allow your eyelids to close and then imagine that they are like shutter blinds that you can draw and lock closed. Imagine that you could let your eyelids get heavy, sleepy, very tired. Give your eyelids permission to play this game, allowing them get heavier and heavier, more and more sleepy, more and more tired and notice how your eyelids start to respond. The purpose of our little game is to bring your eyelids to a point of heaviness where they become so heavy, so sleepy, so tired that they may reach a point where they just might not want to work anymore. I have played this game thousands of times before and I love playing it. When you know that your eyelids are locked closed and won't work, test them and you'll notice that the harder you try to open them, the more reluctant they become in wanting to open. This might catch you by surprise but there is nothing mystical or magical about it; it is a tiny demonstration of the power of your mind over your own body. Let this heavy, sleepy feeling seep out of your eyelids and into your eyes letting the eyeballs rest in the most comfortable way they can inside their sockets. Now let this relaxation find its way into all the muscles of your face, and into your neck and shoulders, and throughout your body, all the way down to the tips of your toes, to the tips of your fingers, and to the tip of your nose. You find yourself happy to stay in this very relaxed state until the end of this podcast, at which time, you will find yourself opening up your eyes and regaining your attentiveness to continue doing what you need to do.
Imagine for a moment, that you are taking a picnic with some of your friends and family. You pack a picnic hamper filled with delicious things to eat and drink and you find a lovely spot of green grass in the dappled shade of the old Willow tree down by the river bank. There, you spread out your picnic blanket, and pack all the goodies from your picnic hamper and you cue up a playlist of some of your favourite music as you begin to enjoy your outing. The perennial river is wide and strong and you can hear the water swirling and churning as it flows by. Not too far downstream is a waterfall and you hear the thunderous roar as the river pours over the precipice and plummets down onto the rocks below, sending up billowing clouds of water vapour.
Your picnic is jolly and everyone is in a good mood. People chat amongst themselves, punctuated by laughter and cheers. You fill your glass, smile at everyone and as the host, you check that everybody is well looked after, glasses filled and plates stacked with delectable things to eat.
Just then, you notice a stranger approaching from afar and you watch as she gets closer and closer but she's not interested in disrupting your picnic, she has her eye set on a point on the riverbank a few yards downstream from where you are. She, there on the muddied bank, slips off her shoes, tucks her dress into her underwear and slowly starts to wade out into the river. You are shocked by her behaviour because the river current is strong and one false move can see her wash down the river, over the lip of the waterfall, and to her certain death on the rocks below. You flick your attention back to your guests who have also noticed this woman. An ominous hush has settled over your picnic and the only sound you hear is your music which no longer seems appropriate. One of your guests turns it off and all of you silently watch the woman. It's a perilous journey as she, shoes in hand, waves her arms about trying not to lose her balance. She steps from one loose and mossy rock to the next. The further apart she goes, the less chance she has of swimming back to safety before the river sweeps her over the waterfall. The tension is excruciating.
You happen to have a rope with you and tie one end around the trunk of the Willow tree and the other securely around your waist. At least you are anchored and safe. You then wade out into the river to intercept the woman as she crosses. You shout above the river's roar as soon as you catch up to her, "What the hell are you thinking about? Can you not see the peril that you are in? What crazy purpose do you have in mind to put yourself in such danger? If you slip and fall, the river will carry you over the waterfall and you will die!" Without giving her a chance to reply, you pick her up like a sack of potatoes and carry her back to the safety of the riverbank. With adrenaline pumping, you give her further advice, "Thanks to me, here you are safe and sound. Don't be so foolish again. What you were trying to do will lead to certain death. It is best that you stay on this side of the river."
She looks at you through resolute eyes, twinged with a little annoyance, "My crossing of the river seems crazy to you and I know it is perilous but it is something I have to do. I need to get to the other side of the river."
"Well, why didn't you tell me that!" Peeved but still safely anchored to the tree, you pick her up and wade across the river again to deposit her on the far bank. "There now, I got you safely across the river, to the place you said you needed to be. I bid you farewell."
She looks back at you with the same look she had before. "I know I need to reach this bank and I thank you for your concern about my safety but you don't realise that it is not the destination that matters but the journey itself. Being here on the bank is meaningless without having fought my way across the river of life. Something important is missing being here without effort and risk."
You look at her and somewhere in your heart you realise that you have made a terrible mistake. You projected all your fear upon her and because of it you imposed your will instead of trying to understand what she needs. With heart and mind split, you feel a little foolish. You can intellectualise her need to cross the river alone but you couldn't forgive yourself if you ignored her plight and she plummeted to her death. That would be irreconcilable. Sheepishly, you wade her back across the river and set her down on the bank where she started. You return to your picnic but the mood there has changed. Everyone is perplexed and sombre.
We all cross the river of life at some point, some of us cross it more than once. Each river crossing symbolises an enormous personal challenge, situations that test what we are made of. We don't always succeed but that wouldn't matter in Eastern beliefs because we would reincarnate again and again, giving us ample chance to get it right. Even enlightened beings, masters like the Buddha and Christ, don't carry people across the river. It is said that the Buddha has the capacity to take a hollow grass straw, place it in a devotees' nostril and suck out the sooty black cloud of karma. What do you think will happen to you if the Buddha removed all your karma? Without it, you will be instantly enlightened. Christ says that he can wipe away the sins of the world. So the big question is: why do these incredible beings not do so? Why don't they use their superpowers to make a difference to all of us who struggle so much? Enlightened masters don't carry us across the river because they know we don't get wisdom from the easy things in life. Wisdom is hard to find. There isn't a shop on this planet that sells wisdom. No amount of money can buy it. The only place wisdom exists is in the tough experiences we must endure in life. By carrying this poor woman across the river, you are doing something that neither the Buddha nor the Christ would do. She knows that she must cross the river alone to gain her wisdom. Any person that you try to help while trapped in your own fear of the consequences of their journey, is like carrying the woman across the river. Taking ownership of the person's problem and micromanaging what he or she does, might allay your fears, it could appease your conscience but it but it will do nothing to help the other person. You cannot learn to ride a bicycle if your tutor doesn't let go the saddle.
So what do you do now? You can't go back to your picnic as if nothing had happened. The mood has changed and the conversation dried up. It'd be impossible for you to sit on your blanket with your back turned to a woman trying to cross the river. Interventions based on personal fear are inappropriate but inaction is just as bad. It seems heartless and callous to pretend as though nothing was happening. So what are you expected to do now? If you dare not intervene because that would dilutes her wisdom, is there anything else that you could do? Is there any way that you could offer help that would preserve or even enhance her wisdom? We need to turn to the wise masters to find answers. What would Buddha, Christ or The Prophet Mohammed do under the circumstances? I think Jesus gave us a clue when he says, "Ask and you shall receive." This describes a twofold process: the first is knowing what to ask for and asking for it; and the other is being receptive to receiving what you ask for. If Jesus is so clever, why doesn't he simply anticipate what you need and give it to you seconds before you knew you needed it? Well, if it worked that way, we would never have a chance of gaining wisdom. Failure is an important part of any learning process. We come up with an idea, formulate a plan, test it out, observe its failings and then we go back to the drawing board to come out with a revised plan. This iterative process is vital to learning and we all do it.
Since you are well anchored to the tree, why not wade out to accompany the woman crossing the river? This time, you may wish to extend your hand out to her and say, "Just ask me and I shall help you. Here is my hand. Take hold of it at any time you wish. I promise to hold onto you only with as much force as you hold onto me. As soon as you let go, I too shall let go. Only if you ask me to test the rocks in front of you, I shall do so. I will tell you which ones offer you a solid perch but it is up to you to decide which to use across the river of life." You have now given the woman personal responsibility and accountability for her choices and actions yet you're not being distant, disengaged or unwilling to help, nor are you controlling, forceful and bullying. I am very grateful for the advice my spiritual teachers gave me. None of them tried to live my life for me nor did they ever tell me what to do yet they were there each time I sought their help. Having walked the path in front of me, they hastened my spiritual progress. All the wisdom is my wisdom. I securely hold onto all the value I gained having crossed the river alone.
There is only one thing to remember: not all help is helpful.
I have a friend who, many years ago, went through quite a bleak time. He tried suicide twice before and failed. His despondency grew and grew. He lived in one of my guest cottages for a while and, one morning, I got a call — he needed me urgently. He had tried again by injecting a cocktail of insecticides and household products into the vein in his arm. It hadn't worked the way he'd hoped and collapsed on the kitchen floor. He'd been there for hours and was gravely ill. "Please help me Tom, I want to die. Can you stay with me and let me die? Please don't call for help. Just stay here with me." I knew how depressed he'd become and how incapable he was of recovering. Everything inside me shouted that I should call for immediate medical help because I could see that he was nearly dead. It was so very hard to walk across this river with him with only my hand outstretched. I wasn't yet safely tied to the tree and quickly popped out to phone his medical practitioner. I was worried that, if my friend died, and I did nothing to prevent it, I would be held liable — manslaughter, perhaps. The doctor said that the patient had the right to refuse medical treatment and that I could honour his wishes not to receive medical attention. So I sat with my friend and held him. Hours passed but he didn't die. Later that afternoon he looked up at me and said, "I'm ready to go to hospital."
Can you help another across the river of life without letting your fear and perceptions get in the way? It's an enormous challenge. It was for me back then. It was for the woman who worried so much about her daughter's safety. Perhaps it has been or will be a challenge for you one day too. Set aside your personal stuff, meet the other person in the neutral space of love and compassionately walk with him or her.