Monday, October 26, 2009

The Suicide Hotline Boogie

Several years ago I got involved with suicide hotline counseling. I took a two month training course, and spent four hours a week answering a phone, knowing that utter despair might be on the other end of the line.
The training was terrifying. Two thirds of the initial class dropped out in the first month. I wasn’t dropping out of anything. I was training my character about the concept of commitment. All the volunteers had the same fear: what if we said the wrong thing and were RESPONSIBLE for a suicide?
The latter parts of our training were about role playing. We’d gather as a group and the trainer would ask someone to go first. I always offered to be first. I preferred to get my terror over with rather than sit and anticipate. The trainer and I would pretend to be on opposite ends of a phone conversation. The trainer would say “Ring Ring” and I would answer, “Suicide Hotline.” Then the trainer would act out a scenario and it was my job to respond to the situation as if it were real.
My heart started pounding, my throat went dry. The trainer would play an adolescent in crisis, or an elderly person sick, alone and without hope for the future. The trainer could be anyone at all. We didn’t know until we answered the “phone”.
In this way we got past certain inhibitions. It’s not only okay to ask if someone is thinking of doing harm to themselves. It’s mandatory.
“Are you thinking about committing suicide?”
Yes, we ask the question!
“Do you have a plan? Do you have the means to do it?”
“Have you attempted suicide before?”
If the answer to all of these questions is yes, if the caller has a history of attempts, and is holding a gun, a bottle of sleeping pills or a pack of razors, then it’s time to go into action. We try to find out the location of the caller. If the caller won’t give up this information, we have the ability to trace the call. We have a reverse phone book, addresses that yield phone numbers. We can call friends, relatives. We can call the police. We’re not helpless.
By sheer wonderful luck, this is the hotline associated with the Golden Gate Bridge. There are call boxes at regular intervals where would-be jumpers can get a direct line to a counselor. I never got a jumper. I got a lot of other things.
When the training was complete, I went as an intern to the switchboard. An experienced counselor was on hand to help out. We worked in teams. For a few sessions, the supervisor could listen on an extension to my calls. I got some calls, but they were mostly sad people wanting to hear another human voice. No serious threats.
On my third shift, it was time to go solo. There was another counselor there, but I was now officially on my own.
I was terrified when my first call came in. I picked up the phone and said the requisite, “Suicide Hotline” in a calm neutral tone. Then I waited, listening to hard breathing on the other end. After about fifteen seconds, a woman with a thick southern accent said the following:
“I have a loaded gun pointed at my head, and my finger is on the trigger.”
This is my first solo call! Okay, okay, be calm, work from the training.
“If you really wanted to die, you wouldn’t have called me.’
“Maybe I don’t want to die and maybe I do,” the caller responded. “Maybe I called to see if you could come up with a single good reason for me to keep living.”
“I can’t talk to you until you put the gun down. And I can’t give you reasons to live, you’ll have to do that for yourself.”
My supervisor had heard all this. She came and stood behind me. She took a pen and bent over to write on a piece of paper on my desk: “did you say gun?”
I shook my head yes.
The woman on the phone spoke in an acidly sarcastic manner. “You mean you’re not going to give me Jesus or Buddha or some crap like that?”
“I’m not here to promote religion,” I responded. “I’m here to listen to you.”
“Oh bullshit!” Now she was angry. “I’m going to pull the trigger!”
I braced myself for a blast. It didn’t come. There was just the sound of labored breathing from the telephone.
“Hello?” I spoke to the breath. After some seconds, the voice responded, with the same angry sarcasm.
“Yesss. What!”
“You didn’t pull the trigger.”
Then I heard a click click click.
“That’s the gun,” said the woman. “It’s not loaded. But I can load it, in a second.”
“You don’t want to do that.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you would have. I think you want to live, whether or not I give you a reason.” I was beginning to feel a little angry. I felt a sudden intense dislike of this person. I felt that she was bullshitting, that she had called just to mess wth my mind.
Again, the sound of three clicks. Mocking. I had a cigarette lighter in my pocket. I took it out, held it to the receiver and clicked it three times. My supervisor had been standing behind me. I saw her arm come over my shoulder with the pen. She wrote, “what the f…?”
I shrugged, then wrote, “B.S.”
I saw Leslie, my supervisor, nodding.
The woman with the southern accent said, “What’ve you got there, a thirty eight?”
“No,” I responded, “A Bic.”
She laughed in a witchy sounding cackle. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?”
“I know I’m smart, but that has nothing to do with what’s happening right now. Are you intending to hurt yourself, or anyone else?”
“I’m not gonna tell you, now. You’ll just have to live with not knowing.”
Click. She hung up. I sat there, half terrified and half enraged.
I pivoted my chair so that I could talk to Leslie.
“Doe she sound like this?” Leslie did a perfect imitation.
“That’s it.”
“Okay, well you just met Lynn Brogan. She calls four or five times a week, and if she gets a newbie, she does the gun routine.”
As I was letting the air out of my lungs, as my shoulders settled, the phone rang again and I nearly levitated from the chair.
“Suicide Hotline”, I said.
“You know, I have a pretty important job.” Same southern accent. It was Lynn Brogan.
I had to restrain my anger, restrain my urge to answer with sarcasm. After all, if this was how she spent her time, she was pretty unhappy. She was in a lot of pain.
“That’s good,” I said in a neutral tone. “What do you do?”
“I’m head of Research and Development.”
“With what company?”
“I can’t tell you that. It’s a VERY big company. Very important to the government. You’ll just have to take my word. I have thirty four hundred people working for me.”
The other phone line rang. Leslie moved into the next cubicle and took the call.
“Suicide Hotline,” she said.
Thus began my acquaintance with a list of characters who used the hotlilne as their primary social focus. They were hotline addicts. Kendra S. called fifty times a day until we cut her to a maximum of five. She started calling all the other Bay Area hotlines. San Francisco thirty times. Berkeley twenty five. Oakland fifteen. Each day. Her hoarse voice assaulted hapless volunteers with anger and self pity. She could not live without calling hotlines. As she got thrown off one, she migrated to another until she was calling hotlines in Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles.
One of our clients, named Gwen, had multiple chemical sensitivity and would go into a psychological meltdown if she thought she was exposed to a carpet that wasn’t detoxified or a whiff of someone else’s perfume. When she weakened and ate a piece of chocolate she entered a state of panic in which she believed her toxicity would be fatal. It wasn’t.
Bob R. had flown B-17’s during the war and couldn’t stop re-living his experiences, fifty years later.
Working the hotline was like that truism regarding war: hours of tedium punctuated by minutes of sheer panic.
Most of the time, my method worked. I kept at bay all the things with which I might lose my sense of equality with these people. Compassion can only operate on a field of equality. If I lost sight of the fact that I could BE one of these people with the tiniest slip of fate, then I was in trouble.
At one time I WAS one of these people. I could never forget that. I always felt a vulnerability, always felt as if the despair were as close as my skin. After five years, I reached the burnout point. The despair penetrated and I began to become my callers. That’s when I started leaking anger and judgment, impatience and contempt. It began to come out through the holes in my skin, through the membrane of invulnerability that I had worn in order to do this kind of work. The membrane was leaking pretty badly.
When I said to Kendra S., “For god’s sake Kendra there might be someone in real trouble trying to get through here….”
That’s when it was over.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Your breath has a shape
like a fingerprint
no two alike
in all the world.
Everything about you
is found in your breath
all your lives
and deaths,
all your thoughts.
Think of your body
as gone,
only breath remains
it has an in stop
and an out stop
and contains so much more
than air.
If we could know one another
by our breaths
if we could see the human crowd
as a throng of breaths,
nothing else,
hello jagged anxious breath
how are you
hello smooth relaxed breath
nice to see you
the human race is
a breath collective
today some will arrive
today some will depart
lungs are merely homes
like hands fill gloves
everything sacred, every dark secret
lives in the breath
and when it leaves your body
it is a system of information
like a letter full of you,
air mail, breath mail.
I would tell you more of this
if I knew any more
but this is as far as I’ve got
in learning the nature of breath.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Screw It! Or..."The I'm Sick Of Self Help Books" Self Help Book

If I am correctly reading the implications of all the self improvement books, here’s the paradox: I desperately need to change. At the same time, I desperately need to accept myself exactly as I am.
I woke up this morning, and I still had the same problems I had yesterday. I might be a compulsive eater, or a pill popper, or a seeker of awful relationships, or a gambler, or any number of things that I wish I weren’t. I’m desperate to change myself, to become a better person, more reliable, competent, responsible, creative, positive. I want to enjoy life, not suffer through it!
Where did this come from, this “ideal self”, this expectation that my life is going to be superb, transcendent, vigorous, fulfilling, that my dreams will come true if I’m REALLY persistent, that my wounds will be healed? Who gave me that idea? Oprah? Dr. Phil? A book? Television?

Where did this ‘self improvement’ model emerge and take over my life? This urge to get better and better, whatever that means, has become another addiction, and it’s making me even crazier. I can’t turn around without another book telling me what’s wrong with myself and how I should change it. At the same time, the guru is telling me to love myself as I am, that I can’t change until I’ve really given myself unconditional love. Is it any wonder that I feel crazy?

If I were to give myself unconditional love, I might turn into a puddle of ice cream that will slowly drip into the carpet until there’s nothing left of me but a sweet-smelling spot.
It’s said that changing one’ s self is the hardest job of all. No, there’s one job that’s harder: Loving yourself. I know it sounds hokey as hell, "loving yourself is hard" but it is! There are so many fears about letting go and just ‘being’, so many fears about not living up to some nutty competitive idea of how I should look, where I should live, what I should drive, what I should own. How am I supposed to love a creature this imperfect, this flawed and grotesque? How do I love a person who’s THIS BAD?

It would be irresponsible to love myself. That just wouldn’t do. I’d go soft. I’d sink into illusion and denial. I’d stop working on myself. I’d lose the benefit of fifteen years of therapy.

The Judgment Pressure Cooker

How many ways do I feel judged when I step out of my house to go to work? How much armor do I have to strap on to face the world? Everything is about appearance: there’s my weight, my clothes, my car, the whiteness of my teeth, whether or not I have hair. Is my skin unlined? Is my neck getting a wattle? Should I wear high collars and turtlenecks to hide it? Should I wear stripes to look thinner? How about a corset, a girdle, a tight belt, to hide the expanding waistline?

Aging is a disaster to be fended off as long as possible, by all means. That doctor on Oprah who tells you your so-called “REAL” age helped me do the calculation. I added up factors like my blood pressure, diet, number of remaining teeth and it turned out I was a hundred ten. I was already dead.
How much money do I make? If I’m not making enough money, I’m told that I must change the way I think so that I will “attract the right energies”.

What kind of job do I have? Am I a professional or just a working shlub?

What’s my house or apartment look like? Does it advertise success or is it a dump? Again, I’m not “attracting the right energies”. I feel very guilty about that. If I think and visualize correctly and stop sabotaging myself the “universe” will deposit everything I want, k’zam! right into my pocket. I know what it is: it’s my wallet. My wallet is not organized, it’s sending a signal to the universe that my thoughts about money are chaotic. Wow, I’m self-sabotaging, missing all these clues.

How long is it, two years, now, since I straightened out my wallet? Since I started visualizing all the things I want and chasing away negative thoughts? My mind became a well trained soldier in banishing doubts and hang-ups. It stayed in line, it repeated over and over again, “I can do anything I want I can do anything I want.” I followed the directions in the movie and the book, “The Secret Of All Secrets”, I was disciplined! I visualized my bank statement, an exact number, sixty five thousand two hundred eighteen dollars and thirty five cents. It’s a modest number because the bank is not the smartest place to keep money. I also visualized a safe full of gold ingots, saw myself riding the latest recumbent bicycle and using an eight thousand dollar camera. I have a fake check for three million dollars taped to my fridge. Hours and hours every day I did this visualization.

I had one teeny little lingering doubt about this program. Maybe that’s why it didn’t succeed. That doubt kept whispering in my ear, “Isn’t there something rather graceless about grabbing the universe by the throat and compelling it to give you everything you want?”

Even our spirituality is dominated by this drive for success. It’s sunk right into our hides as if a shotgun has blasted pellets of it to exactly the right depth. It’s impossible to extract. It’s so completely American, this self improvement mania,this urge to raise our station in life. This drive to succeed.

What’s sad about the way our social system is organized is the utter lack of compassion we have towards one another. The non-succeeders are treated as though they have a disease. They’re marginalized.
I’m not doing really great right now, I feel as though I’ve been pushed to the periphery of things until I barely take part in the workings of American culture. {sic} It’s too complex! There is so much paperwork, so many rules, I’m sinking under the weight of mere self maintenance.

It’s TOUGH to go out the front door and take on the world, day by day. Look at the junk that’s endlessly thrown in our faces.

I have an announcement to make: If you are here, you’re a survivor. You’re immensely heroic. To be a participant in the process of the Earth Plane in any form whatsoever is an act of supreme courage and achievement. Let’s put it in perspective, please. This is no cheap ticket, this life. This is Earth. Or, as I prefer to pronounce it, with a deep Brooklyn accent, Oyt. Dat’s where we are, Oyt. Dis ain’t no picnic, dis Oyt. Dis is a hell of a mess and a tough woild. Okay, okay. I’ll just stick with Oyt but blow the accent.

Oyt is a special place. It’s a material manifestation of God’s imagination. It’s a place where learning is done. To own a body, a human body, is a very extraordinary fate. The body is going to suffer many processes, and, eventually, it will decay and die. If you examine that reality with an unflinching gaze, you begin to realize that it takes some guts to continue, day by day. Give yourself some credit.

The alternative, to NOT exist in a body, means one of two things: you are either a ghost, without the courage to incarnate, or you are a Master, who is finished incarnating. In the middle, right here, is life in a body. On Oyt.

Your life, the experience you are having, however difficult or painful, is a gift without parallel.

Sometimes I make lists. One of my favorite lists consists of ways to be stupid. You know, “Ten Of The Stupidest Things People Do”, something like that. At the top of the list always seems to be the same thing: To regard this world as the only world there is.

I know, I know, it’s very scientific and brave to eschew spiritual possibilities. To be rid of crutches. I know many fine people who proclaim that this is the only world that can be proven, therefore, it’s the only world they accept as real.

How unimaginatively sad. I require no proof at all. I need only examine the facts as they exist, to make a leap of faith and surmise that there MUST be a mighty plethora of worlds, dimensions, alternatives and ways to experience being conscious. Just because I don ‘t know what they are, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Therefore, I consider it to be unbearably stupid to deny that something great and mysterious is occurring, simultaneous with my little life and its problems. There are other worlds, and we’d better recognize the possibility that we survive death, in some form and take responsibility for our thoughts and actions. Because there are consequences; we are held accountable.

That doesn’t mean we have to get crazy and turn ourselves into perfect little angels. Not at all. It just means we need to see things with an open mind.

Meanwhile I’m getting blasted with this message that there’s something wrong with me but if I truly live in the “moment” there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me. Where is this moment? Oops, it’s gone. Here’s another one, grab hold…nope,
gone. Another one, gone…gone….

I understand that NOT living in the moment is to live in the past or the future, both of which are places in the mind, noisy places full of desire, plans, regrets, a tangled bedsheet from a sleepless night of the soul, mind mind mind mind.
Shut up, mind! Let the heart speak!

Can someone tell me what this wonderful “moment” is? Mr. Tolle? Deepak? I thought not. You counsel me to “be” in it but can’t tell me what it’s like. Here’s what I’ve observed.

First there is breathing. I’m breathing, in and out. My heart is beating, my blood is flowing, my skin registers the air temperature. And I wonder how I’m going to pay rent next month whoops! Lost the moment.

Let’s try again. Breathing check. Heartbeat check. Blood flows check. Air temperature check. Uhh. Sounds. There are sounds coming to my ears. Wind blowing through leaves? Ah lovely. I Probably wasted my time sweeping the patio…whoops!

Damn, this moment shit is hard. I get only so far and then start thinking of other things and wheee, I’m whisked away into speculation, worry, schemes. All games of the mind. So, what does it take?

Superhuman concentration. To be in the “now” requires superhuman concentration.


I’m really fucked.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Conversation With God

Lord, my whole life has been a conversation with you. It has been a pleading, praying, thanking, questioning, frustrating conversation. Though I am not answered in words, you answer me in every experience that occurs. There is no issue about my faith, about whether or not I accept your existence. It is not conditioned by what happens to me in my life. I don’t need good things and miracles to have faith. All I need do is look around at the world and I see an abundance of evidence. Without you and the great wind of your love, there would be, simply, Nothing. Instead, we have a great passionate world, a universe full of drama and strife, of burning stars, of miracles and mysteries. One thing I can see, Lord, is that you have made a universe that is not boring.
I thirst for truth, but truth is not an easy thing to grasp. I don’t want to be this way, the way I am: addicted, afflicted, incomplete, emptied out, wounded and afraid. I don’t want to be this way. But I am. These conditions go along with being human. Being alive and made of this material stuff is to be lost in a jungle, where spirit hides behind things and yet is out in the open for those with clear sight. My sight is not clear. It is obscured by my needs for so many things. I need comfort and enjoyment and every desire leads to a battleground, a wrestling with a thousand demons. I need truth, but I fear truth. I hold it at arm’s length lest it turn out to be monster with sharp teeth, about to rip my personality to shreds and throw me down into madness. I am afraid that I can’t handle things the way they are.

I am like a fairy tale creature following a trail of crumbs through the forest. Somewhere in this darkness there is a home in a clearing, a warm place to feed and rest and abide. I wait for the appearance of that abiding place, though it may not appear until after I die. If that is what is decreed, that I wander through the years of my life in a constant search for truth that is never satisfied, so be it.
My faith does not diminish. Nor does my fear. Faith and fear seem strange bedfellows. Both seem constant to my condition. Both conceal the same transcendant animal, hidden amid the trees and vines. Both counsel me to leave hope at the entrance to the forest, and proceed in spite of the hopelessness of the cause.

Such is a true conversation with you, God.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Twenty One Varieties of Stupidity

Twenty One Varieties of Stupidity

1. Thinking this is the only world that is.
2. Thinking you’re the most important person in this, the only world.
3. Thinking you are the same thing as your body.
4. Letting someone else think for you because it’s easy.
5. Hoping someone or something outside yourself will make you happy.
6. Punishing someone or something when your’re not happy.
7. Making your children live the life you didn’t.
8. Solving problems with force instead of intelligence and wisdom
9. All attempts to make permanent that which is not.
10. Mistaking symbols for reality.
11. Mistaking moods for permanent states of being.
12. Any activity that requires the wearing of large visored hats.
13. Embracing an ideology to dispel fear and doubt as to the nature of reality.

Subsets of the first varieties of stupidity

1. Failing to make the attempt to discover reality.
2. Not seeing through the shallowness of one’s attempts to discover reality.
3. Not anticipating the fragility of the body.
4. Philosophical puniness.
5. Greed for complex means of escape.
6. All complex means of escape.
7. Avoidance of change, lack of inner agility.
8. Mistaking merit badges for actual merit.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ordinary Consciousness

There is no ordinary consciousness.
There is something we do every day,
get in our cars, go to work,
get food, pay the credit cards,
raise our families.
Billions of people
do it, thinking it is ordinary.
That is consciousness,
and nothing about consciousness
is ever ordinary.
Sometimes I long for visions
of sudden grace,
in the middle of the ordinary day,
oh how I wish I could be taken
to a visionary understanding, right now,
and know what is real, what it’s all about.
I should be careful what I wish for.
If I were to be taken to that magic land
I would also be held accountable
for my mistakes. Paradise
has a price for admission.
Paradise is Truth; in Paradise
there is no lingering trail of lies and crimes.
In Paradise, all bills have been paid.
I am grateful for ordinary consciousness;
I'm still behind on some of my accounts,
and consciousness knows exactly what I owe,
and to whom.
That is not so ordinary after all.

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