In an interview where he described our addiction to cell phones and texting, Comedian Louis C.K. talked about our common goal to stay hyper-busy, always trying to pseudo-connect in order to stay away from what he describes as our common malady: an experience he aptly describes as the "forever empty."
I was born in 1947, the year poet W.H. Auden coined the phrase, "Age of Anxiety." Louis C.K. and Auden both describe precisely how the first thirty-five years of my life felt: forever empty, forever anxious. Strong emphasis on "forever."
To say that I worried as a child would be an understatement. I've dealt with that same worry as an adult, although the subject matter has changed a thousand times. Mark Twain said it best: "I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened."
Anxiety disorders work that way.
My mother divorced when I was an infant and quickly chose a second husband who was neither faithful to her nor safe for me. She was lost and confused. He was lost and dangerous. Any biological propensity I may have had for anxiety was multiplied by a growing sense of vigilance concerning family dysfunction.
Only years later did it begin to dawn on me why I was always haunted by a sense of dread, and always felt alone. Into my teen years, my questions were always the same: "Why is everything always so dark and frightening? How do I get through this day?"
After years of this gnawing fear and emptiness, I did what many do. I chose to enter psychotherapy in my early twenties with the hope of bringing an end to the endlessness of it all. Not long after, in an attempt to seal the deal, I entered graduate school to become a psychotherapist myself. (Like many, I lived under the cultural delusion that knowledge would finally solve my pain.)
Along the way, some things changed.
I released anger. I processed fear. I understood more of what had transpired for me as a child. I found some relief.
And along the way, nothing changed.
There remained an underlying experience of negative certainty. There continued to be, throughout each day, intense incredulity about the suffering that seemed to consume so many of us.
Eventually, I found myself working as a clinician with incarcerated women who had been labeled "mentally ill" (most of whom were serving life sentences for murder). Unexpectedly, I began to find my private despair matched by theirs. Though our life circumstances were radically different, as I came to know the stories of these deeply wounded and tender souls, I found myself having one thing in common with their lives, "the meaninglessness of it all." It's as if we were reading the same message from the same book. "So this is life on planet earth: Day to day suffering without hope of change; always concluding at the same endpoint; alone in pain, alone in pain, once again alone in pain."
Oddly, I felt a change beginning that would only make sense years in the future. I began to see that within a sense of shared absence we can, sometimes, experience shared presence.
I began working at a small college and, based on the suggestion of longtime mentor Allan Hunter, started a regular meditation practice. "Kent, there is always more going on than meets the eye. Sit with your hands open and learn to wait. Breathe. Life will open."
Something actually did shift. For several years it was as though my life did open, just a bit. Eventually I quit my job at the college and spent half a year studying with Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast at a hermitage on the coast of Maine. I counseled terminally ill cancer patients. I lived and worked for almost five years at the Catholic Worker in Los Angeles, finding hidden radiance in the vulnerability, depth, and dignity of the homeless women, men, and children I came to know. In the face of so much suffering, light seemed possible. The opening continued.
But my personal life intervened. As a central relationship in my life continued to fall apart, my life once again closed down. Eventual attempts at intimacy didn't go well. I increasingly felt like a failure at love.
Over the next few years I returned to "forever empty." What I had hoped was behind me was, with too much familiarity, all around. During this time I also began experiencing chronic pain on the right side of my head. It started one night and regardless of what I did, it wouldn't go away.
I felt increasingly stuck inside myself. I couldn't find a way out.
Knowing of my interest in meditation, a friend introduced me to Robert Aitken, a kind and wise Zen roshi. His approach to Zen was in the tradition that welcomes “kensho,” an experience of enlightenment that often emerges in a sudden burst of insight. Hoping against hope, I returned to a practice of regular meditation with the possibility of changing my life (and stopping the pain).
Not surprisingly, within a few months my new practice simply mirrored my experience of life itself. Sitting alone in silence, I was merely reconfirming my well-worn experience of absence rather than revealing a shift in consciousness. I practiced off and on, but nothing changed.
How could anything change when emptiness, nothingness, and pain were so obviously the underlying truth of everything?
I kept getting up each morning, but with little hope for my future.
Over the next decade, two gifts gradually and inexplicably emerged in my life, surprisingly cross-joined. (Looking back, I must have asked for them. In asking, I had no clue what I actually needed.)
Aware that prominent psychologists and university laboratories had compelling evidence that the foundations for much adult psychological distress can be found within our earliest experiences in life, I began an in-depth study of developmental psychology and infant research. While studying psychoanalysis at the Masterson Institute, I found myself drawn to the work of Donald W. Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst from the middle of the 20th Century. Through his work as a pediatrician as well as child and adult analyst, Winnicott named the central emotional requirement for emotional health throughout life.
In coining the phrase, holding environment, Winnicott gave voice to every infant's core need: personal access to a primary relationship (one or several) that recognizes the child's absolute dependence and offers sensitive and committed caregiving. Winnicott was unequivocal in his belief that at the heart of this first relationship is the fact that each child requires consistent, predictable, and soothing presence, especially during times of distress. A few years into this new understanding of a holding environment, I studied briefly with infant researcher Daniel Stern. His term for this same core emotional requirement: being-with. To be-with is to experience, what Stern and his colleagues call a moment of meeting.
Moments of meeting. Moments of trust.
Then a new opportunity was offered. Along with my colleagues Bert Powell and Glen Cooper, I was invited to become an attachment researcher under the guidance of Jude Cassidy from the University of Maryland. Based upon the theory and research of her mentors, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, Jude guided and supported our work with high-risk parents and young children. The outcome of that collaboration, known as the Circle of Security, and is now being utilized with parents and children around the globe.
Winnicott, Bowlby, Ainsworth, Stern, and Cassidy have brought clarity regarding the basic emotional needs at the heart of every person on our planet. They have also made clear the cost to each of us when these needs aren't adequately met.
For the first time, the internal chaos of my life (Winnicott called it primitive agony) began to make some sense. For the first time an underlying structure, a deeper coherence within the nature of life, began to emerge into view. The experience of holding is somewhere on a continuum for each of us. Yet, in subjective perception we either have access to a holding environment or we do not. To the degree that we have access to a holding environment, we feel safe and secure. To the degree that we do not have access to this holding, we increasingly experience life as difficult unto impossible.
As I deepened in my study (and corresponding psychotherapy) I realized that I did not have a history that included adequate holding. Attempts had been made by my parents, but these were two people with little clue how to offer soothing presence. These were two people still lost in misguided attempts to find their own holding. From an early age I had "developed [in] a muddle."
While delving into developmental psychology and research, I changed meditation teachers, briefly studying with Thich Nhat Hanh. His focus on simple breathing (". . . peace is every breath") and kindness within a daily practice were remarkably beneficial. Having such limited access to someone living in France was less helpful. It is with Thich Nhat Hanh that I took sacred vows.
Then, unexpectedly, I was offered an opportunity to study with Joko Beck, a no-nonsense Zen roshi in her late sixties, teaching in San Diego. She graciously invited those of us who lived at a distance to call weekly and discuss our meditation practice in direct relationship to the struggles happening in our everyday lives. This was the consistent guidance I recognized as necessary.
By this time, I had been dealing with the chronic pain in my head for more than a decade, and we discussed this often. Joko was unflinching in her suggestion that I allow the pain to be exactly as it was, with no strategies to get rid of it. She kept suggesting that I "simply hold" the pain while simultaneously experiencing it.
(Suffice it to say that Joko had never heard of either Donald Winnicott or Daniel Stern. And, while this terminology is now more common in Zen meditation circles, it was virtually unheard of 30 years ago.)
I practiced holding and being-with my pain for several years. The pressure to be rid of it or to change it did shift. Over time, on many days, the intensity level gradually moved from an 8 or 9 to a more manageable 3 or 4 on a pain scale of 1-10. The pain did not disappear, but something was different. The world I was trying to make sense of was different.
I was now married and the father of a young child. Intimacy began to make sense. Nothing else mattered half as much.
Life was beginning to shift.
Through the decades, I have patched together my learning from developmental research and my daily mediation practice, focusing my professional life on two clinical populations:
1. Homeless/street dependent teen parents and adults
2. Those of us who appear to be "normal." (People who seem to be relatively content and successful, but who, once we look beneath the surface, often reveal feelings of dread and loneliness.)
While life circumstances are profoundly different for each of these groups (this can not be overstated), I have continued to find that we all carry a remarkably similar intensity when it comes to internal struggle. I know very few people, once you listen deep into their lives, who do not experience a stunning level of hidden, personal pain - often on a daily basis.
The human condition remains the human condition, regardless of who we are.
No one escapes suffering.
I've come to the following understanding of our shared human predicament:
1. Every heart will inevitably be wounded by an absence it cannot comprehend.
2. No heart can forget the presence it was born to know.
Presence and its shadow opposite, absence, are always center stage.
To the degree that we know presence (along a vast continuum), we are at home in our lives. To the degree that absence defines our experience (along a vast continuum), we suffer.
The homeless street kid, the diligent university student, and the celebrated professional all live within the same condition: trust is the lived experience of presence and suffering is the lived experience of absence.
We can be in pain with presence and do well (enough).
Pain without presence is hell.
What is, is.
What is, without holding, remains stuck.
What is, with holding, rests and transforms.
This, of course, is where things start to get dicey.
Presence = being-with
Absence = being-without
Holding environment is to primitive agony as presence is to absence.
Because many of us are wounded at precisely the point of experiencing being-without where being-with might have been, ours is an experience of daily, hourly, moment to moment struggle. This ongoing struggle is what comes from not being able to trust in simple presence.
Absence is the unshared aloneness of being-without. It is far more common than we would imagine. Unfortunately, repeated experiences of absence accumulate.
Absence happens. We all know that. But when it keeps happening and we have no way to comprehend or even acknowledge it, we build a life that in a wide variety of ways is designed to pretend the absence isn't even here.
When Louis C.K. says " . . . underneath everything in your life there's that thing, that empty, forever empty. The knowledge that . . . you're alone," he is speaking for so many of us. His words speak directly to that ever-present absence, the one big pile of shit that just never seems to go away.
In words recently spoken by a client: "It's all so fucking lonely and it's all so fucking terrifying."
Absence happens. For all of us. For some it can be severe in ways that are obvious. For others, it can be equally severe in ways that most others would never notice.
I do not exaggerate when I say that the internal hell (self-loathing, harsh expectations, certainty about being alone) of many students I have worked with at the university level is often equal to, if not more extreme, than the agony of the homeless teens I've come to know through the years.
I am not making this up.
In the face of so much that feels impossible and overwhelming, current neuroscience is now able to offer a clue to both understanding and working with our internal uncertainty.
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