Welcome, and thank you for visiting Sherpa of the Mind!

Sherpas are expert mountaineers who work as guides in the Himalayas. If you ever decide to climb Mt. Everest, you will want to employ Sherpas. The work of a psychotherapist is much like that of a Sherpa. We serve as expert guides, helping travelers reach distant summits safely and efficiently. It is up to the individual client to choose the summit, but we lend our expertise in selecting routes, recognizing hazards, marking accomplishments, and pointing out the beauty of the journey itself.

This blog is a place for sharing the observations, reflections, and insights of my work. I don’t claim to have access to any special wisdom or knowledge, and nothing expressed here should be taken as professional advice or as a substitute for professional services.

Enjoy!

Jeffrey Noethe, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist
Portland, Oregon



Row Your Boat

Row, row, row your boat,

Gently down the stream.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,

Life is but a dream.

Having a two-year-old at home, I have been revisiting a vast array of children’s nursery rhymes, song, stories, and fairy tales. Most carry no real weight as vehicles of philosophy, but “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” caught me by surprise. As simple as the words may sound, each line could also be interpreted as a message about how to live life.

Here’s how I read it…

“Row, row, row your boat” = Participate and be active in your life (row). Don’t just sit there passively (row). Don’t let others call the shots (row). It’s your life (your boat).

“Gently down the stream” = But resist the urge to over-control, push, or force an agenda (row gently). Go with the flow of your life (down the stream), not against it. Be in the currents, but don’t spend all your energy fighting them.

“Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily” = Remember that how you experience your life has everything to do with perception, perspective, and interpretation. We each have our own core values, beliefs, assumptions, biases, and expectations that shape how we see the world, other people, and ourselves. We may not always realize it, but in this way, reality itself is highly personal and subjective. And with some effort, reality can also become a matter of choice. It can be miserable, even if you have it all; or it can be joyful (merry), even if you have nothing.

“Life is but a dream” = We take things so seriously, and we suffer so much, because we are committed to our struggles. We would do well to meditate on subjective reality and realize just how many of our struggles are actually illusions with no substance or solidity. The life we see is largely a fabrication of our minds (but a dream), for better or worse. The sooner we can see through these dreams, the sooner we can unravel suffering.

The Reality of Self and No-Self

I belong to a book group focused on Buddhism and psychotherapy, and one of our recurring discussions is about whether or not there is a self. Buddhist teachings often focus on the idea that there is no such thing as the self, but clinical work in Psychology tends to deal directly with the self. It can be confusing. Is there a self? Do I exist? If I do exist, what am I?

After years of going round and round with this topic, my conclusion is that both points of view are correct. There is a self, and there is not a self. I exist, and I do not exist. Both statements are true at the same time, and there is no paradox. Allow me to explain…

When Buddhist teachings say “there is no self,” I believe that they are being clever but unclear. They jump ahead without showing their work, which makes it hard for anyone else to see how they got there. If I taught math this way, by showing problems and answers without any steps in between, I wouldn’t be a very effective teacher, and my students would be rightly frustrated. The same is true for teaching Buddhism. A good teacher needs to help students move along the path to understanding.

The statement “there is no self” is elegant in its simplicity, but I believe a less concise statement would be far more useful. Based on my own forays into Buddhism, I suggest the following alternative:

ULTIMATELY, there is no FIXED OR SEPARATE self.

This statement is perhaps less elegant than “there is no self”, but it is also more clear. It means that, from the widest-possible perspective (i.e. ultimately), what we think of as the self has no existence that is concrete (i.e. fixed) or individually identifiable (i.e. separate).

Not being “fixed” means that we are dynamic and ever-changing, both physically and mentally. The person I am today is not the same as the person I was yesterday or will be tomorrow. My atoms are different, and my personality is different. Like a river, I have an identity, but that identity points to something that is never the same from one moment to the next. We can point at the self, just like we can point at the river, but we are never pointing at exactly the same thing twice. Both refer to a process more than a stable thing. The river is not static, and neither are we. When we really look at it, there is no fixed self.

Not being “separate” means that we are infinitely interconnected and interdependent with the rest of reality. Once again, this is true both physically and mentally. We may feel separate, but at a microscopic level, the physical boundary between my self and my surroundings is not so clear. Through the food we eat and the air we breathe, the cells of our bodies are renewed. Every atom comes from the world around us, and those atoms are constantly moving between us and the world.

At a mental level, we are equally permeable. Our senses take in information about the world, and that information changes us. Our personalities are built on our cumulative experiences with the world, and it is our personalities then determine how we respond to the world. The world shapes us, and we shape the world. We are infinitely interconnected, like drops of water in the ocean. When we really look at it, there is no separate self.

So, from this broadest of all perspectives, we have no individual identity called “self” that is fixed or separate. Rather, we are all one infinitely interconnected and interdependent process, and there is no distinction between any of us on this level. There is just the one event that is existence or reality. It is everything, and we are in it. We are it. There is no identifiable self. There are no things (plural) at all, only the one big thing that is everything. There is no individuality, no independence, no separateness, no choice, and no will. There is nothing apart from the one event.

I believe that this is what Buddhist teachings are trying to say, and I agree wholeheartedly. However, I also believe that this is not the end of truth. It is “merely” the ultimate truth, the ultimate reality, the biggest of all pictures. I sometimes compare this perspective to standing on a mountain, because it takes a lot of work to get there, but the view is amazing.

On a much smaller level, we do experience ourselves as individuals with bodies and minds that are relatively stable and separate. We experience ourselves as being independent and having the ability to make our own choices. This is reality as it appears, as it seems to be, and I would argue that it is not wrong. It is simply the “apparent reality” that we all live in most of the time. Building on our previous statement, I now suggest the following addition:

Ultimately, there is no fixed or separate self, BUT APPARENTLY, THERE IS A SELF.

This sounds contradictory, but it’s not. The critical point is in the distinction between ultimate and apparent reality. Ultimate reality is what is seen from that broadest of all perspectives, as described above. It is the highest truth, and it encompasses all other truths. Nevertheless, apparent reality seems more true in daily life, and sometimes, it may be more important and useful than ultimate reality. If ultimate reality is like standing on a mountain, then apparent reality is like living in a village far below.

Apparent reality is where we get to learn, grow up, make mistakes, fall in love, suffer loss, be afraid, and feel joy. The village can be horrible, but it can also be wonderful. Ultimate reality has almost none of that. Well, I should say that it has ALL of it, which is true, but ultimate reality lacks the same intensity. We can’t fully experience the horrors and wonders of village life while standing up on the mountain. We have to allow ourselves to settle back into apparent reality and become consumed by the experiences of the self.

If you are going to do something exciting or fun, you want to experience it as a self in apparent reality. It’s just better that way. Who wants to be emotionally detached from the intense thrill of falling in love or of watching your favorite team win the big game? I might even argue that the same is true for negative experiences. They hurt like hell, but nothing shapes us or teaches us more profoundly than suffering, and it would be unfortunate to deprive ourselves of those powerful experiences.

Ultimately, apparent reality may be an illusion, but it is also where we live. It is where consciousness exists. Ultimately, we may all be one infinitely interconnected and interdependent process, but perhaps that process can only experience itself fully through our consciousness down in the village. I’ve heard a very similar idea in the context of theology, with God creating humanity as a means to experience God. Regardless of which language you use, I think this idea can help us appreciate the value of apparent reality. Perhaps it is not our task in life to escape apparent reality and discover ultimate reality. Perhaps we exist to fully experience life in the village; to think, feel, learn, suffer, and grow. Perhaps we are built to be consciousness, not to escape it.

If awareness of ultimate reality limits our experience of life’s horrors and wonders, and perhaps even violates our basic purpose in living, then you might wonder why anyone would want to pursue it. Well, to answer this question, you only have to look at someone who is lost in the suffering of apparent reality.

We may be born into apparent reality. We may even be designed to live there. But life in the village is hard, precisely because we feel so fixed and separate. We can feel isolated, alone, small, powerless, insignificant, incomplete, and very mortal. We can feel like something is missing from our lives or from within ourselves. Nevertheless, most of us cling to the idea of a fixed and separate self. We want to believe that we are solid and autonomous. We fear the non-existence of the self just like we fear death, and through our fear and clinging, we suffer.

Awareness of ultimate reality removes the sharp edge from our suffering. It helps us to understand that there is nothing missing. We are not alone, because we are not separate. We are not powerless, because we are everything. We are exactly who we should be, and we are doing fine. There is nothing to be afraid of.

In the end, I believe it is good to seek ultimate reality, because it offers peace of mind, but you shouldn’t try to live there all the time. There’s just too much amazing stuff going on down in the village! If having one eye on the mountain allows you to be less afraid, then maybe that’s a good balance for getting the most out of life. Live in the village, but at some point, take the time to climb the mountain. Then, even when you’re back in the turmoil of the village, you can remember that mountain view and let go of fear.

Ultimately, there is no fixed or separate ANYTHING, but apparently, there is… And maybe it is good, even when it hurts.

The Deconstructionists

Every once in a while, I come across an anxious or depressed client whose symptoms appear to be grounded in a particular belief system, which I will call deconstructionism. The deconstructionist sees the inherent flaws in everything and uses this awareness to reject everything as worthless. Religion, career, community, culture, relationships, politics, philosophy, morality, and even life itself… To the die-hard deconstructionist, it’s all crap. Nothing is real. Nothing matters or has purpose. There is no truth or meaning. Over time, such people come to exist in a nihilistic world, an existential and moral wasteland. It is little wonder that these people also become anxious or depressed.

Deconstructionists can be found in any population, since all it requires is a reason to question reality. Teenagers and young adults do this all the time, but so do other people who have their realities shaken. Imagine the doubts and questions that must accompany any great trauma, loss, or upheaval; and you will see how anyone can slip into deconstructionism under the right conditions.

What deconstructionists often fail to realize is that deconstructionism itself can also be deconstructed. It too is merely a belief system, a subjective reality, and as such, it can be dismantled. “There is no truth or meaning” becomes the one truth that many deconstructionists fail to deconstruct. If they did, they might discover an important distinction between the idea of “no truth or meaning” and “no absolute truth or meaning.”

Just because there may be no absolute (i.e. objective or universal) truth or meaning in the world, that doesn’t mean the world is devoid of all truth and meaning. It just means that truth and meaning aren’t fixed. I believe the world is overflowing with truth and meaning, but such things are subjective and very personal. In other words, we each get to choose what is true and meaningful to us.

If deconstructionists can make this leap of awareness, if they can deconstruct that last absolute truth, they might find themselves not in a world of oblivion and meaninglessness, but rather in a subjective world full of unformed potentials. To me, this is the ultimate insight and saving grace available to the deconstructionist. It is also the prize available to anyone who is willing to walk this path.

I would argue that deconstructionism is very valuable, as long as it is used as a tool for growth rather than an end in itself. As an end in itself, deconstructionism leads only to nihilism; but as a tool for growth, it has the potential to liberate us from beliefs that are absolute, rigid, ineffective, or toxic. However, due to its many potential pitfalls, the journey of deconstructionism should not be made impulsively or halfheartedly. I am reminded of a quote:

“Better never begin; once begun, better finish.” -Dan Millman, Way of the Peaceful Warrior

Going only part-way on the journey of deconstructionism is no good. You end up in a dark place. In therapy, I often use a mountain range metaphor to illustrate the nature of such journeys. If you stand on the summit of a low mountain but see a higher summit off in the distance, one that you would like to reach, you need to understand that there are no shortcuts. The only way to reach another summit is to climb down the mountain you are on, hack your way through the briars and brambles of the valley, and then work your way up to that other peak. It is hard work, and there is little joy to be found in going only part way, because the view along the way is often worse than where you started. This is what happens to deconstructionists. They come to believe that the valley is the destination, and they abandon their journey at its most critical moment, just before the path forward (and upward) is revealed.

What does the rest of the journey look like? If deconstruction tears everything down, then the second half of the journey must involve building something from the rubble. This is the beginning of reconstruction and the climb to a new summit with a new belief system. Like deconstruction, reconstruction is a hard journey with many challenges and pitfalls. Most common is the tendency to take shortcuts by quickly adopting new external beliefs. Such behavior is unfortunate but also understandable. After all, ambiguity is uncomfortable, and it is hard to figure out what YOU believe. It is hard just to figure out who YOU are. In some ways, deconstruction is the easy part, especially once you get the knack of it. Reconstruction requires a whole different set of skills, and it starts with some questions that are simple but not easy:

  • What seems real or true to you?
  • What matters or has meaning to you?

Your answers to these questions establish a basic subjective framework, a foundation, on which your personal belief system can be built. However, there is a danger here, because it is difficult to know when you’ve done enough deconstruction to avoid accidentally building the same old beliefs in a slightly different form. In other words, if your answers to these questions still reflect old biases, you will probably end up right back where you started, on top of that same old summit you were trying to escape.

I like to think of deconstructionism/reconstructionism as a transitional belief system. It is something we can adopt to help us move from a given belief system to a chosen belief system, from one summit to another summit. As such, it represents a potentially important part of individuation and maturation. However, as I have demonstrated, there are several ways that this transition can get corrupted. If we start reconstructing before we’ve done enough deconstruction, we can end up right back on our old summit. If we take shortcuts during reconstruction, we can end up on someone else’s summit. And if we never reconstruct, we can end up lost in the valley, believing in nothing.

Another one of my favorite metaphors for illustrating the process of deconstruction and reconstruction involves LEGO building blocks. If I were to put you in a room and give you a collection of pre-assembled LEGO objects to play with (a car, a house, a boat, a spaceship, etc.), you might never notice that you were actually playing with blocks. You would simply see a bunch of colorful toys. This is what happens to us as children when we are given beliefs by family, friends, and culture. We receive a collection of pre-assembled ideas, and we use those ideas without really understanding them. This is a good thing, because as young children, we are not capable of inventing an entire belief system from scratch, just as we are not capable of building our own toys.

Over time, however, it is also good for us to learn to ask questions and think for ourselves, because critical thinking can reveal the true nature of the toys/beliefs we have been given and open the doorway to deconstructionism. Some people are taught to be critical thinkers, which is like having someone show you the blocks and how they fit together. Other people develop critical thinking through trauma and adversity, which is like having your toys break and discovering the component blocks for yourself.

Regardless of how we gain awareness, once we realize that our toys/beliefs can be taken apart, we discover a deeper reality. Instead of a car, a house, a boat, and a spaceship; we start to see the blocks. Instead of rigid beliefs, we start to see the experiences and influences that led to those beliefs. With persistence, we can learn how to disassemble all of our toys/beliefs, leaving nothing but a pile of rubble. For the dedicated deconstructionist, this is ultimate goal and stopping point; but as I have shown, there is another perspective. Where the deconstructionist sees only chaos and rubble, the reconstructionist sees a room full of blocks, and blocks can be used to build almost anything.

It doesn’t matter if what we build can be taken apart. That’s fine. What matters is that we get to build things for ourselves. We get to assemble, disassemble, and reassemble. We get to experiment. We get to figure out what we like and what works for us individually. One person’s creations are not worthless just because someone else could deconstruct them or build something different. That’s actually the beauty of it all. We each get to build, and nobody gets to claim that their creation is the right one, although many people will certainly try.

The journey of the deconstructionist doesn’t have to end in nihilism, anxiety, and depression. It can continue forward and upward along the path of the reconstructionist and into the infinite possibilities of a subjective world, a world of blocks.

A Story About Stories

Stories are powerful. At their most basic, stories are simply ideas or collections of ideas, and they can be as big as an epic novel or as small as a single thought, like “life is hard” or “I am fat.” There are stories we take in through books, movies, TV, advertising, other people, and our own experiences. There are also stories we tell ourselves in the form of self-talk, beliefs, values, assumptions, biases, superstitions, fears, and expectations. Finally, there are stories we tell others through our own words and actions.

All three types of stories are important, because they shape the very world we live in. The stories we take in and tell ourselves shape how we see ourselves, other people, life, relationships, and the world around us (i.e. our perceptions). Meanwhile, the stories we tell others can have a profound effect on their perceptions. If we accept the idea that perceptions shape reality (see Believing is Seeing), then there is a lot of power in the stories that we encounter, and we would be wise to take them seriously by choosing our stories carefully and taking responsibility for their effects.

It is rare that a single story has the power to radically reshape our perceptions, especially once we reach adulthood. We are exposed to thousands of stories every day, and most of them have only slight impacts on us. It stands to reason that a lifetime of experiences don’t go out the window just because of one little story. However, with repetition and/or intensity, stories really do start to have an effect. [Other relevant factors include the age and receptivity of the audience; as well as the relevance of the story.]

For example, a single deodorant commercial may seem insignificant, but if you see enough commercials over a long enough time, you may actually start to worry that you smell bad. Advertising really works, and it works because of the power of stories and repetition.

Intensity can also increase the power of a story, even with only a single exposure. If you see enough news stories about car accidents, the repetition may eventually lead you to see cars as dangerous, but if you are actually involved in a bad car accident, that one exposure might be enough to dramatically change your perceptions.

Of course, stories have varying degrees of intensity. Watching a single scary movie can keep you up at night, even if you are never in real danger, and watching a lot of scary movies (or reading a lot of scary books) can trigger fears that last a lifetime. Eventually, whether through repetition or intensity or a combination of the two, stories can get under our skin and take root in our psyches, where we repeat them to ourselves over and over.

Now, let’s not forget the positive side of all this. Having the power to shape the world through stories is an amazing gift. If you like the way a story makes you think and feel, you can make those ideas more real for you by exposing yourself to other stories with the same ideas. You can also repeat those stories to yourself, as well as share them with others. We are all doing this all the time anyway, so we might as well learn to be more intentional about it. Being intentional also allows us to be more responsible for the effects our stories have on others.

Most of us are unaware of the true power that stories hold. We let them flow over us and through us, shaping our perceptions and defining our reality. Ideally, perhaps this would be fine, but with so many stories coming from questionable or manipulative sources (corporations, consumer culture, etc.), it seems dangerous to not have any filters in place, like antivirus software on a computer. If we aren’t careful in such an environment, we may inadvertently promote suffering by allowing harmful stories to become part of our internal dialogue and by sharing harmful stories with others.

Personally, I believe that we each have a responsibility, both to ourselves and others, to be aware of (1) the power of stories and (2) our own power to choose those stories, both the ones we let in and the ones we put out. This awareness allows us to harness the power of stories and create better lives for ourselves and a better world for all of us (see Stepping Through Illusions).

I don’t always remember, but I try to ask myself, “What am I really seeing and hearing? What is the story here? How are my internal stories affecting my perceptions? And what stories am I telling others through my words and actions?” This story about stories is one of my stories. I repeat it to myself often, and I share it with clients and friends, in the hope that it will reduce suffering.