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January 31, 2019

How an Unorthodox Psychotherapy Taught Me That I was Okay

Author’s Note: this is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Not Buddhism. Not Psychology. 


In my youth, I despised school. I was late to reading, quiet and shy, and that meant only one thing in the eyes of my teachers. That I was daft.

So they put me in remedial classes, made to read picture books, because I was not yet reading the dreadful chapter books of my peers.

Numbers always felt somewhat dead to me, and this could only mean that I was dumb (although today I delight in listening to those of such a mind that the maths or sciences not only speak to them, but sing sonnets of depth and alchemy. These sorts I have crossed paths with only rarely, I am afraid to say, but what a wonder it is to meet someone who sees numbers the way I see letters and people).

In hindsight – which often happens to carry a good deal of insight – it was the lifelessness I saw in those numbers that put me off, just as it was the boredom in those early books that deterred me. And just as, of those children we so often today diagnose with a deficit of attention, all that was needed was finding something to spark my interest. The first book, then, that I picked up and truly enjoyed was an old thing called Beowulf. Then I found Shakespeare, with whom I delighted more in the comedies than the tragedies (we do so love our dramas, in story and in life. And yet those stories that at first seem dramatic, but lo and behold, we find to be quite mundane; these speak ever so more to me).

The European existentials came next. And, finally, while dabbling in a just a touch of contemporary fiction – because, and I know some will hate me for it, but the words of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, for instance, just never did it for me – I found that I was not daft or dumb at all; I was bored.

Bored out of my mind, in fact (which might be a fairer definition of attention deficit disorder than most). And, really, of course I was bored! The system of education I was used to, that so many of us are, was designed just to this end. To create those that might enter society, be a part of something, the greater good perhaps, but never their own person. I was – and still am, if I am to be perfectly honest – disillusioned with much of academia. Either way, I was not learning much, so I eventually left it behind.  

At around the age of fifteen, I got it in my head that I wanted to be a chef. And what better place to learn, while also getting something of a romanticised life from the books I read – but more importantly the writers of those works I so envied – than Paris? There was no better place, in my head and at that age. So I packed up and went to study at a little cooking school, where, again if I am to be frank, I spent more time sitting in cafe corners pretending to be my literary idols than I did focus on what makes a beautiful peppercorn reduction.

Of course, having a diploma in the culinary arts, and no diploma from an American high school, would make attending American university something of an endeavor.

And yet, had I not made such decisions, I doubt if I would have made my way to this office I sit today.

The Man and the Motorbike

One ought not attempt such a feat as helping another, without first having learnt to help themselves.

Some time after my psychoanalysis training, I was still very desperate to be heard, to have someone listen (although I may not have known as much yet).

Through a friend of a friend, I found a man who said he worked with the traumas that followed us Jews from generation to generation. I was somewhat intrigued, as he had never actually finished his graduate studies in the field of psychology.

He left the very same school I had attended, frustrated with the faculty’s inability to allow such emotions as anger (one of those pure emotions we find so frightening. it has been said that, if one were to look underneath anger, they would inevitably find the truer emotion of sadness. This is not incorrect, and yet I amend such a statement. Anger oft overshadows sadness, yes, whilst sadness, likewise, oft hides anger. Both are pure emotions, both as valid as the other, both too often shamed for being anything other than happy. Anger, however, carries the weight and fear of violence, and so it is often a scary place to inhabit).

What I thought might be another psychology of delving deep within – a beautifully romantic kind of therapy, chalk-full of dream analysis, metaphors, and lovely little “ah-ha!” moments, is in fact usually just that; a romanticised mirror-image of what really helps. But would it not be sweet, if all we had to do was lay our trust in this saviour, this figure what had figured it all out, and would guide us to our Elysian Fields of love and light – turned out to be quite a mundane relationship indeed (Oh, but also the most wonderful therapy I had yet to experience).

At some point in my sessions with this older fellow, I chose to direct the conversation to the photographs lining his walls. All helmets and motorbikes and very steep angles between man and asphalt (one might call what I was doing here a kind of deflecting of the issue. A resistance to do any therapeutic work. We as clients come up with any number of ways to try and keep the discussion from being about ourselves. A skillful therapist is not afraid of such rejection, because they know a secret. The secret is that there is no such thing as a successful deflection in therapy. There are only missed chances).

Why yes of course, he told me, he grew up building and racing motorbikes. In his youth, he raced for Honda in Japan, but stopped riding professionally as too many of his close friends were dying on the track. He still raced for himself, he told me, going to the track a few times a week just for fun.

I made the mistake of letting slip that I had always wanted to learn how to ride, but never did (another romantic dream of mine, Brando on his bike, that sort of thing). And so, this began a new era of our therapeutic relationship together.

It started with learning first how to ride the machines. This we did on an old service road on early weekend mornings, with one of his daily commuters; a gorgeous old Triumph cafe. It was here I heard him say things such as, “you control the bike, not the other way around.”

He was wonderful at these one-liners that seemed to carry about as much weight as the machines themselves. Eventually, I would procure my own first motorbike. It was a behemoth of a thing, but as he told me, “You’ll be sorry if you get something that feels safe now.” He was right.

And it would begin a love affair between myself and motorbikes that would span continents and decades. But, as with most such affairs, it would begin rather painfully.

Of course, what I bought turned out to be a lemon. I was impulsive.

But you see, this would enter into the next phase of our work together.

My mistake of spending what little money I had on a bike that now needed a good deal of maintenance, purely out of what felt like stupid negligence – as he had offered to look at any bike I found, but his not returning a phone call led to my making a brash decision – began the part of all this that really changed my life.

I wanted to get rid of the thing just as soon as I had procured it. I wanted to call it a loss, and just do something else. I mean, why on earth had I thought I could succeed at something so simple as buying a good bike? Better to give up on a lost cause. Better not to try at all. This was my story.

”Why?” he asked bluntly. He was oh so good at switching between being able to listen deeply, to empathise, and just bluntly asking things in a sort of deviously pragmatic way.

Why give up on something just because I felt I had made a mistake? We all make mistakes. The trick, he would show me, is learning to be okay with that, and maybe learning – at least in the case of bolts and wiring – how to work on it.

Once again, I was faced with those numbers and equations I did not want to solve. The problems I was so afraid of changing.

I wanted to see this machine as the romantic image it was, I wanted to ride it in the trial master jacket I had bought second-hand, I wanted the wind through my then-still full head of hair. I did not want the practicality of making such a monstrosity run. I just wanted it to run.

But oh, how understanding a thing breeds love of a thing. There is an old saying that goes something like, before I knew the tao, it was just the tao, when I learnt the tao, it became more than the tao, and when I understood the tao, it was just the tao.

For me, learning to understand this machine meant something more than I felt ready to comprehend. Moreover, it meant trying to be something I did not feel I could reach the heights of. My attention wanted instead to go to the anxiety of the ordeal, rather than to the mundanity of simply fixing the damn thing.

But this old soul of a therapist was clever. He knew no one had been there to show me that I could take responsibility for a mistake, and that I could change it into something glorious. He knew there had been no father to teach me that my mistake was not a reflection of my being, not a cause of my inaptitude, but rather just another lesson in growing up.

And so we spent hours together in his shop, and I slowly learnt, with every small success or mishap, that a machine could be nearly always fixed. And what is a machine but a conglomeration of moving pieces, always changing, wearing down and needing replacing.

If that is not a beautiful metaphor for the system of events that make up our life, I do not know what is. Sometimes we might put aside the romantic for a touch of the practical. One is not better or worse than the other, my dears. Instead, these two lovers will dance to the end of time, if you let them.


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