Friday, March 27, 2020

Indulging Neurosis is Like Going Home

First, a preliminary bit of amusement, not particularly pertinent to the rest of the posting:

An old dude, in front of me in line to get into Trader Joe’s, was wearing a full Vietnam-era military gas mask. He asked me to give more space. I told him “I’m twenty feet from you, not coughing, and you’re wearing a full military gas mask. I'm pretty sure you’re ok”.

Pandemic Neurosis

Look around you these stressful days and you won't see people's best selves. Stress exacerbates our worst traits, and gives rise to some new ones that - who knew? - were latently waiting in deep storage the whole time.

Ghostbusters 2

As I once explained, intuition is a lousy faculty to possess, because people's thin outer veneer of civility is, in nearly all cases, the very best they have to offer. Vanishingly few of us bear beneficial secrets. So one would do well to heed the Wizard of Oz' advice and not peer behind the curtain.

Ghostbusters 2's proposition, that countless tons of psychomagnotheric slime lurk below street level, wasn't just light comedy. It was also powerful psychological allegory.

Mamma's Girl

I've known a remarkably unpleasant woman since childhood. She was toxic and bitterly resentful from the very beginning, and never varied. She had a daughter who started out lovely. She was able to see her mother clearly for what she was, and resolved herself to never follow suit. But over the course of her life, as worldly abrasions took their cumulative toll, the daughter oh-so-gradually hardened and curdled - so slowly she herself didn't notice - into her mother.

The Brother

I have a friend with a ne'er-do-well brother whose life spiralled until he finally landed in a mental hospital with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. My friend naturally wondered whether the same fate awaited him. I suggested that each of us, when we break, breaks in some characteristic way influenced (if not entirely determined) by genetics, but that we should concern ourselves less with our particular potential mode of breaking and much more with avoiding breakage; with learning to properly handle stress and improve resilience. I imagine he goes through life like a bowler mortally fearing the tightly-adjoining gutters.

Incompetence is the Father of Skill

I came a step closer to understanding the truth when I wrote about the trials of learning (or relearning) to play the trombone:
It is not natural to press a narrow circle of metal against one's mouth for many hours per day. It can cut into the flesh and push back the front teeth. You must apply enormous strength, wind, and force while holding this large hunk of brass like a delicate lily at one's chops. It's hard.

One of the essentials is that you need to "plant" the mouthpiece on the lower lip. This frees up the upper lip to stay delicate and do lots of free vibrating. To anchor on the top lip is self-defeating. It squelches those all-important vibrations. The instrument becomes hard to play, and you lose your high range.

So for the past week the instrument has been hard to play, and I've lost my high range. Low and behold, I noticed that I'm anchoring on the top lip. If I were a computer, I'd reprogram and be done with it. Stop doing the bad thing, start doing the good thing, voila. But alas, we sloppy meatbags are logy on the uptake. So I've had to correct myself 10,000 times. Not the top lip, the bottom lip. Nope, that's top lip. You're doing it again. Bottom lip! Nope, that's top lip again. By hectoring myself day and night, eventually I'll learn.

But why do I do it the wrong way in the first place? It's not comfortable, and it doesn't work. How does the habit creep in? There is a clue: any musician (or anyone who's perfected a skill) can tell you that under stress, bad habits come flooding back. Put me on a big stage in front of 1000 people, and I'll have an especially juicy inclination to anchor on the top lip, kill the vibrations, and sound like crap.

Why? Because it feels like comfort. But why would an uncomfortable and ineffective method feel like "comfort"? Should't "comfort" stem from the choice that brings the happy result? Isn't that how human psychology - positive reinforcement, etc. - is supposed to work?

No. "Wrong" is comfort. "Wrong" is home. "Right" is what we do when we're dressed in our starchy best, with rigid good posture, while "wrong" is the spine-harming slouch we assume when allowed to stand "at ease". The choices that hurt and that don't work are the soil our intentions must fight and grow through to fulfill themselves. Just as the child is the father of the man, incompetence is the father of skill. And one maintains a soft spot for "dear old dad".

You Actually Can Go Home Again

Mulling over the varied evidence, above, I experienced a Eureka.

When stress pushes us into darker, sloppier, less composed and benign habits and impulses, it doesn't feel like a gutter ball. Rather, it feels like comfort. It's the safe-feeling place. It feels like home. The mamma's girl, the brother, the frustrated musicians, and the pandemic neurotics all wind up where they wind up not from getting lost, but from seeking comfort.

The fuzzy dim world behind the veil, which we call The Unconscious, isn't some alien realm. It's our core; our kernel, our ground zero.


Earlier this week, while explaining the ways I've found to coax myself into faint familiarity with unfamiliar material to help catalyze learning, I noted a peril:
If, over the course of drilling, I get the same question wrong a few different times in the same way, that wrong answer starts to supersede the in-my-ear truth. The answer I wrongly coughed up a few times starts sounding right, out of sheer familiarity.
That's how neurosis becomes our comfort place. It's not that we're inherently flawed, or drawn toward dysfunction. The cozy familiarity is created, duh, via our habitual focus. If we choose to go there, "there" comes to feel like home.

In so many ways, your body's just trying to accommodate you. It perpetually tries to return you to the familiar. So we need to take care with our habits of framing, i.e. where we persistently direct our attention! Magnetic familiarity (right or wrong, crazy or sane) is built up by attention over time.

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