Living Life Well
Principles of my practice
By Jim Shere
Mr. Knight, Mr. Kenneth E. Knight — known by his initials, “K.E.K.,” to everyone over at Analy High in Sebastopol (including that kid Jerry Garcia) — was more than our band teacher; he was the Music Man who instructed us farm boys and girls in much more than simply making music. He was a stern, firm man who had played cornet in John Philip Sousa’s marching band. He well understood the purpose of discipline: how to listen, and how to be present to play our part. He often said, “A band bands together — that’s why it’s called a band.”
“Watch my hands,” he frequently called out from his podium, slapping his baton against the music stand inches from my face in the front row. “Show up when it’s your turn, punch your entrances, show me you’re ready to be here.” And, most of all, he constantly reminded us to practice: “Practice right up to the performance, and make performance your practice.” I learned then that practice is not preparation for an eventual perfection, it is perpetual perfection in the present — for perfection itself is an ongoing process.
I call what I do in my cabin my private practice, where we sit, talk, and listen attentively. We become present. Back when I passed the examinations to become a psychotherapist, I decided I would answer only to the people who came to talk with me, rather than to the distractions of an agency’s requirements. It’s a very private practice, with a sign on the door saying “Please do not disturb, we are in session” — an admonition everyone seems to respect. Being present, I have learned, requires more than simply being an observer in the audience — it requires taking part in the performance.
Many years ago, I learned there is a place just my shape and size in this world, and that I belong in that place; without my being there, this world would be incomplete. Once, during a drive in the hills above Glen Ellen, I stopped and leaned against my car to enjoy the view. I wondered if I could see the entire landscape not as a collection of things but as a whole. I began by looking at a single tree. It took a while to know I could see the entire tree, after which I began adding in the bushes nearby, one by one, and then the hills beyond, and then the clouds above. Soon I was convinced I could see the entire scene, but there was still something missing: myself. Then I closed my eyes, and immediately felt included in the landscape.
An affirmation I have used since then is: “This is me, doing this.” This is me as the husband of my wife, as the father of my children, as the counselor in my cabin, as a member of the community, and as the writer writing these words you are reading; all these and more are present when I am truly here, doing whatever I am doing while being who I am. I remember myself this way many times each day, standing in line at the grocery, navigating the country roads, or reaching out to someone else in conversation. Otherwise I would be lost in what I do, and not be present.
There are those of you who know this is a special column, the hundredth in a series called “Living Life Well.” Over the years I have written about many of the principles of my practice, personal and professional. In the very first column, back in 2012, I wrote, “Farmers will tell us that every successful garden has a compost pile in some discreet corner, somewhere behind the potting shed, where yesterday’s garbage is patiently turned to be converted into fertilizing loam in order to encourage new growth. These things we think of as problems also need such turning for us to find their usefulness. Otherwise they will — and do — simply rot.”
When someone comes to my cabin to talk with me, I know they bring with them something that troubles them. Their need to talk about it tells me there is a readiness to heal, but healing is a special sort of verb: a gerund, a verb masquerading as a noun, often taken as an accomplishment rather than an endeavor. It’s true that a resolution is typically sought out at first, to have the burden of the problem quickly lifted — but what we believe are the obstacles in our way are better understood as the gateways to our path. To be troubled, to be stirred deeply, is to find ourselves brought into that dark, numinous part of the self that Jung called the “Shadow” — which must be met, and will not be appeased.
I once looked for something or someone to blame for the things I didn’t want to happen, and a teacher asked me, “What caused that? And then, what caused that?” over and over, until I began to understand the futility of finding an ultimate fault. There is always something beneath the surface to be explored, and something else beneath the surface of that, in an infinite recursion that leads us down the rabbit hole of cause and effect. The teleological approach to reality looks instead for the purpose of things, beyond fault and toward contentment, while the reductive etiological approach ignores what makes life meaningful. As a fellow recently told me, “I used to believe I had made mistakes in life. Now I know they were not mistakes — they were discoveries.”
Among the principles of my practice there is recognition of the fundamental need to connect and bring people together — and of the need to connect with something larger sensed within, but which remains unspoken and unknown until we begin talking with one another. During this past year of enforced isolation, our appetite for connection around us and within us has become a hunger, not just for one another but for what we can gain by knowing one another, and for what we can find together. We need companionship, to have someone with whom to discuss what we feel and learn what we do not know we know. We need to band together
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist practicing in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and a poet. You can email him at [email protected] and explore his website at jimshere.com