Archive for the Psychache Category

The Unwilling Companion

Posted in Psychache on January 28, 2013 by lushangxinku

“While the man of reason and wisdom perceives only fragmentary and all the more unnerving images of it, the Fool bears it intact as an unbroken sphere: that crystal ball which for all others is empty is in his eyes filled with the density of an invisible knowledge.”

– Foucault, “Madness and Civilization” 1961


Sunset storm, taken by the author


It was early evening one day in the spring of ’03.  The ridge lines of the mountains had just begun to drag their shadows across the valley; the coming night appeared in pockets offset by the bright trees above, shimmering with minuscule hints of pale green among their boughs. At that time of day even dead leaves had shadows, and all shadows were changing.  I was looking for work, following up ads in the local paper, and this was my last run of the day.  It was a halfway house for the mentally disabled, and they needed help with flexible hours.  I hopped off the bus and landed in its shadow briefly.  My hat still recalled the warmth of the sun; my eyes, no longer squinting, took in the little building.  It couldn’t have housed more than a dozen or so people; some hybrid structure between institution and dorm.  

I went in and inquired about the position to a lady who sat me down with an application.  I was able to work nights, which was a big plus in her eyes, and weekends, which she also liked.  She mentioned a drug test apologetically, because it seemed at least at that time it was rare to find anyone in the area who wouldn’t test positive at least for weed.  The drug test wasn’t a problem for me either, and as I passed through these bureaucratic hurdles the lady seemed to ease deeper into her chair.  I knew how hard it was not only to find good help, but to find decent management who weren’t constantly poisoned by drugs or drama or both; someone focused and not distracted.  It was a job unlike anything I’d ever done before, but I’d flown off in wild directions previously and felt I could adapt to whatever this unknown job needed.  The pay was sparse for the first six months but in a college town I understood that.  

The little room was clunky with cork-boards of instructions and announcements and checklists, a humble little file and a kitchen table that served as our meeting-desk.  She asked me what special skills I may bring to the job, and I recounted the calming, diffusing effect I’d had in stressful kitchens with half-mad chefs.  It was true, and she granted that she understood.  All of my previous experience had been in cooking or carpentry, maybe landscaping; but I had references who would vouch for me.

Then a man blustered in and I heard his soft, broken speech patterns inject themselves into the room.  He was dressed plainly but very clean, and under his tousled hair were ice-blue eyes with rings in the irises.  His body seemed a little urgent, a little agitated, because of this stranger in the room.  There was a gentle frustration about him, as if he knew he wasn’t making total sense to her or me but knew also what total sense was; a man from a very distant kingdom whose language and mores we didn’t, couldn’t comprehend.  The lady muttered something that carried an air of comparative tranquility to the man and then introduced me.

He didn’t tell me his name or look me in the eye for very long at all, but pointed past me to the window.  He spoke of a storm coming; that was all I could make out of his speech.  I had no idea what his condition was, but he seemed to not be at war with it or ashamed by it.  Whatever the fellow had, he’d had it for a while and had reached some sort of subtle truce with it.  He didn’t smile, and his eyes blazed with portent.  But there was something incomparably gentle about his countenance.  I felt he was as gentle as a shy child and I took to him immediately, showing no fear, discomfort or disgust.  I thought for a second about the times in my life before that were on similar edges to distant, inaccessible lands: bad hallucinogenic journeys into my psyche, heartache so severe as to cut all ties with humanity I possibly could, or just the sheer awkwardness of trying to make a place for myself in this world.  How, at times, I’d sincerely wished I’d crossed this man’s Rubicon and relinquished my role in society to rest in arms most people could never fathom.  The worlds beyond this one and beyond those, all here at once, all tempered by perception, whose floodgates held back an oceanic, trembling awe.  With one misstep I could set foot in lands no one else could ever reach, and I knew it.  I held back most days by sheer will; some days by chance.

He was shown out of the room by the lady as I replied to him yes, a storm may come.  He was surprised and relieved I understood him, I could see it in his eyes.  The way he befriended storms reminded me of the legendary reclusive outsider artist Darger, who wrote a huge biography about his best friend, a tornado.  The forces of nature, true, short-circuit any notion I may hold of being sane or insane.  No grid or graph could encompass them fully, just as having one or both feet in madness can’t be completely described, the way to and back just can’t be mapped.  If any attempt can be made, it could be through allegory.  The next time you see a storm, try to make it stop.  Try to scold it.  Try to use any sort of woowoo you can think of to force it to do anything.  Or just step back with respect, and love it.  Point to it and see that its unknown heart is your own; love it as you would a lifelong companion, one that is not willing to be by your side constantly but whose memory and eventual return are part of the fabric of your deepest psyche.


I left on good terms and was hired, but declined the job; I’d already been hired as a baker for a cafe.  But to this day whenever I’m faced with that foreign inaccessible land, when I turn and look towards it, one foot already through- I feel that it is closer to my heart than any shadow; that throughout my life it has been my truest companion.  Not by will, but by nature it reigns.



Enabling Truth

Posted in Psychache on May 17, 2009 by lushangxinku

“After a few steps in the darkness you will see strangers gathered around a fire; come close, and listen, for they are talking of the destiny they will mete out to your trading centers and to the hired soldiers who defend them.  They will see you, perhaps, but they will go on talking among themselves, without even lowering their voices.  This indifference strikes home; their fathers, shadowy creatures, your creatures, were but dead souls; you it was who allowed them glimpses of light, to you only did they dare speak, and you did not bother to reply to such zombies.  Their sons ignore you; a fire warms them and sheds light around them, and you have not lit it.  Now, at a respectful distance, it is you who will feel furtive, nightbound, and perished with cold.  Turn and turn about; in these shadows from whence a new dawn will break, it is you who are the zombies.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre, preface to The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, 1961

"Genie," a mysterious, feral survivor of abuse from California, sees the ocean for the first time.
“Genie,” a mysterious, feral survivor of abuse from California, sees the ocean for the first time, 1970
“Genie” spent the first 13 years of her life strapped to a podie chair in a dark, locked room.  She was force-fed and beaten if she made any sound.  Her father, who orchestrated this utter isolation, shot himself upon her discovery.  Her mother did absolutely nothing to stop the abuse, or to stand up for her daughter at all.
The piercing light of late afternoon froze me as I heard about it for the first time; the Fritzl case.  Time seemed to stop in the quiet bakery as I listened to a British podcast; a remarkable tale.  A man had imprisoned his own daughter, turned her into a sex slave and had seven children by her.  Details of the dungeon and the family slowly sprawled out into the room as I stood there dumbfounded.  An immense amount of sorrow and empathy flowed from me, towards Elizabeth Fritzl and her children.  At the same time, deep down, I felt a sense of alarm, that such massive decades-long destruction could come of the instincts of men- I had already become deeply alarmed about the predatory nature of male sexuality for other reasons.
Never in my life had I come so close to the knowledge of another man’s monstrous treatment of a woman, before those long months- months of quiet listening, agony over someones situation I could not improve or change- someone trapped within blatant disregard for their well-being, their feelings, their wants and desires, their freedom.  Constantly belittled and ignored, shunted aside, and threatened.  I wanted so very badly to protect this person; to make them realize that intimacy was something more sacred than dominance; that closeness did not entail abuse; that love truly existed.  But for whatever reason, I failed to convince them of any of this.  Power, connections, and money spoke louder than any voice I’d ever had, and like the shadowplay of Fritzl’s threat of poison gas that never existed, they worked.
From what I understand, the Fritzl case was at its heart about control.  He felt his daughter was going astray, staying out late and drinking with dangerous boys.  So he felt as if the dungeon would protect her from herself, and from the many dangers in the unknown, outside world.  Genie also was a product of these malformed instincts; her father felt profoundly protective of her, wanted to shield her somehow.  The very instinct of men to protect and provide crosses over into monstrous realms of power and control quite easily.  But not until the last two years had I come to see the manifestation of such realms within my sight.  It led me to question even my own sexual desires towards a woman.  Did I simply want her for physical contact, for mutual pleasure, for a closeness rare in this world of isolation and competition?  Or did my desires lead me to a darker place of confinement and smothering exploitation?  Did I want an exclusive, monogamous relationship out of a mutual sense of partnership and trust, or because I wanted to own and control her actions somehow?  Although I knew deep down that my intentions were always straightforward, giving, and caring with her, still this small nagging occurred.  I was so totally repulsed by the Fritzls of the world I felt conflicted about wanting anything from, or with,  anyone.
Still, a door was open and my instincts helped push me through- the faint chance of true life partnership was too sweet to pass up.  And after being led through that door by hopes and dreams and a commitment to marriage, I stumbled into a dungeon of power and control where the verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse, the lies and abandonment, outshone even the crass betrayal of my ex wife many years ago that destroyed my marriage.  And, like Genie’s father saying he had to do it because she was “slow,” and Elizabeth’s father saying he had to do it because she was drinking and staying out too late with dubious company, blaming the victim ensued.  The abuse was my fault because I was insecure, and my unhappiness was an unforgivable crime, while the abuse was because I was unhealthy- I created this unhealthy situation and brought the lies and abandonment upon myself.  Right.
This experience led me to a new and strange kingdom, where love, caring and giving weren’t quite enough.  A place where I realized that enabling abuse, enabling issues of power, control, exploitation and dominance, was like helping Fritzl with the door to the dungeon, or tightening Genie’s harness to the podie chair.  The right not to be abused is a human right, regardless of gender, age, or anything else- and respecting that right has slowly become more important to me than respecting the right for abusers, exploiters, bullies and other cruel people to continue practicing their craft.  It’s strange how factions of American society actually claim that torture itself is not as much a crime as the actual acknowledgement of the truth that the government engaged in torture; likewise, the abuse, lies and abandonment I have suffered are supposedly not nearly as egregious as my acknowledgment that these things have happened.  In fact, resisting forms of domination, control and bullying is perceived as highly irrational or tiresome behavior on my part.
But now I warm myself by a fire that no one else has lit.  My ethics now have undergone their own post-colonial battle, and though they are the same material, it is now fashioned into something that bullies and users, dominants and abusers, can’t recognize, can’t fathom, can’t even approach.  Genie and Elizabeth Fritzl are there, as are all survivors of traumatic abuse, and as they emerge from their cells and dungeons and squint in the sunlight, the cycle of dehumanization is broken, and the uncontrollable, indiscernible flow of wind and air, clouds and rivers and mountains, shines with a truth that is deeper and older than the tantrums of those who think they can control or own such mysteries.  We’re all such enigmas, and whatever put downs, lies and acts of control or abandonment thrown at us really just tumble down into nothing, scraps of paper drifting into an open canyon, where a thin river waits at the bottom to soak, drift and eventually rot such nonsense away.

Shadow Gardens

Posted in Psychache on February 2, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Shadows arise from bodily forms; echoes follow upon voices.  Some play with their shadows to the point of tiring their bodies, not realizing that their bodies are the shadows.  Some raise their voices to stop the echoes, not realizing that the voice is the source of the echo.”

attributed to Bodhidharma

"Toad Pond At Full Moon" by Adolf Schudel

"Toad Pond At Full Moon" by Adolf Schudel


“Part of the Prinzhorn Collection, 1907, from a German asylum inmate diagnosed with hallucinatory insanity.”

Circular thoughts have plagued me for many years now.  I patiently receive them and whittle away like they’re pieces of wood, piles of shavings growing at my feet.  And when these thoughts become tangled with the deepest recesses of my emotional memory, it seems that they whittle me back.  I wonder, in honesty, how many people would be willing to say out loud when they are betrayed by their own minds.  I become startled when I realize to what extremes I stubbornly look at an issue or problem dead on, and when I share my thoughts openly, as I am prone to do, others become startled too.  Some become impatient or judgmental, others simply avoid me altogether.  Some find it freakish or maddening, and I find myself wishing for their goodwill or acceptance, seeking to explain that I only truly want to feel as if I understand.  But seeking to explain myself seems to make it worse.  Being a thoughtful, caring  person, an intense thinker, seems so rare that it becomes a sort of crime, a breaking of social decorum- a stating of things few want to hear.

But I’ve always been of the impression that the rejected, marginalized, maligned and misunderstood of the world have always vastly outnumbered the people that cause these abysmal difficulties in the first place.  I find myself more accepting over the years of the strange things people do to themselves and each other.  For if I can find myself time and time again exiled for the fixated patterns of my thoughts, for the serious tone of my reflections, for the care in which I consider my interactions with the world, I can see clearly that whatever I am being exiled from grows less and less desirable.  Over time, a critical mass of exiles has developed.  And if they become in tune with this fact, they can take comfort that so many people are isolated and left out, shunned and excluded, they form a powerful ring around the excluders; though once facing in, now facing out with their backs turned.  If one contemplates the sheer number of people who see, hear, or feel things labeled as unreal, unhealthy, or freakish, the realization comes that this is actually the majority of people who have ever lived.

The general rule I hear applied to the foggy middle ground between insanity and normalcy seems to be that there is a line drawn, and once people pose a harm to others, or their own minds disrupt their lives irrecovably, they have crossed that line.  My thoughts, daydreams, searing emotions and aches from within the psyche have admittedly disrupted my life to a significant degree, and though I may feel I have not harmed others through it, one may find some who disagree.  But when faced with the notion of burying them, medicating them out of existence, or simply hiding them like some embarassing blemish- I consistently choose none of the above.  Holding true to my own intuition, my own shadows, is the only dignified, graceful response I can muster.  In the end I must live with either being truly freakish, or disingenuously normal.  I find it easier to live with the former.  So let the insanities within us be the more colorful blossoms in our gardens- their radiant glow giving each garden its own unique spectrum of colors and scents.  And those who find the colors too garish or the scents too overpowering, let them pass through to other gardens.  Only those who can sit in tranquility and savor what is there, should stay.  And until such people come along, the gate will remain open, the spirits inside unchained.

A Ghost of Pure Action

Posted in Psychache on January 27, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Night after night, along the procession of years, it had hovered here above the valley, darting down to become a bat, a leopard, a moth for a few minutes or hours, returning to rest immobile in the center of the space enclosed by the cliffs.  When the monastery had been built, it had taken to frquenting the rooms, where it had observed for the first time the meaningless gestures of human life.”

The Circular Valley, Paul Bowles

"Peasant accusing a landlord at a people's court during the land reforms" -Marc Riboud

“Peasant accusing a landlord at a people’s court during the land reforms” -Marc Riboud

“Estimates suggest that 1 million or more landlords may have been killed during this phase of the revolution.”

This morning as I sat, the night’s work done, I wondered what perception would mean beyond this human form.  Beyond the senses I have, the body I inhabit.  What true disembodiment would approach, and where it would take me.  The quote, from a favorite short story of mine about such a spirit, I always found especially compelling because it was only complex, baffling and often contradictory humanity which struck the spirit as meaningless.

I taste a sense of this meaninglessness when I think of competition, and all that it entails; comparisions, rivalry, class struggle, interpersonal conflict based on assumptions of superiority or undue power.  Although I have heard many arguments about how competition brings out the best in us, it seems from my perspective that many employ its devices to the extreme.  And this is very sad.  The mass murder of the elite after the Chinese Revolution serves as a sober reminder of this tendency to enforce one’s will over another; to attempt a parody of karma, fueled by a sense of competition turned on its head- the supposed winners of the contest of materialism forcibily brought down by its former, supposedly lower support.  Yet I see in the extended finger of the peasant not a new statement of equanimity but a very very old statement of competition.  I would even venture to say that competition is the most pervasive, yet most meaningless of human endeavor.  For in the end although the old landlords were smashed, Red Cadres soon moved in to take their places.  The revolution was not free from the plagues of egotistic rivalry, merely the contruction of new labels, new hierarchies.

Sometimes, staring into the early morning darkness, I wonder if the senses themselves lead us to conflict with others, or if it is something deeper.  But something, if I practice care, that may not be uprooted by a mere clash of pride or identity.

Once more I find myself wanting to be free from this very identity, free as Bowles’ ghostly protagonist, able to see experience from all sides.  but I know of a way already to do this, without becoming a spirit without a home.  Funny as it sounds, a sense of duty itself frees me from my material identity.  A sense of what ought to be done.  But only when I actualize this sense without realizing its presence.  Light years beyond mere competiton and grasping, I hope to remain in tune with this special way to get past my own status- to blur the crosshairs of my own targets.  What is left can only be known when the initial conditions are forced to heed simple duty, and to shed these old armors of competition and self-importance.  As long as I feel pitted against a certain person, or class, there will be no way to get past myself; which, from what I understand, is the only way out of labyrinthine competition, and the division between me and others that no spirit could understand.



Distant Peace

Posted in Psychache on January 20, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Peace is not luck.”

-Ikkyu, Japanese monk 1394- 1482 CE

"Cage of Death In a Lonely Pass" by Crawford, 1929

"Cage of Death In a Lonely Pass" by Crawford, 1929

“If one could peer through the bars of this cage there would be seen a little rubbish on the floor which once was a man caught thieving in the Lataband Pass from Afghanistan into Bokhara.  He was placed in this iron cage to starve.”

Being placed into this dangling cage long, long ago, I imagine that the man may have been feeling one of three main conclusions: remorse for what he had done, remorse for being caught, or angst at his own innocence.  It may have taken several weeks for him to have finally acheived his total rest.  And I wonder, looking at the vastness surrounding him, if he saw through this new panopticon of final vision some larger pattern in which he found himself.  Perhaps solace or peace finally came to him as the body and mind truly adjusted to the shock of what was happening, and looking out over the vast, barren, frozen mountains maybe he saw his life as merely a small part in this greater, quiet wilderness.

I wonder if I, through my actions, attitudes or hopes, have designed a spiritual cage of a similar place or function.  A cage of self-reference- a cage safe, selfish, distant, and doomed.  A private spinning earth of sorts, only catching glimpses of what may be seen from his perspective, millions and millions of cages.  These virtual cages may crystallize through long periods of doubt, hurt or anger towards whatever lay outside the cage, awash in a sea of them- individual people failing to connect with themselves, with one another, through their own familiar iron bars.  And though such an inner fortress may seem beneficial, its bars often sing of the free, spontaneous and open echoing winds from the tundra.

If we are so conditioned, our view must be turned outward and among, to eventually reclaim the notion that no bars can hold us, especially the psychological ones.  Maybe my cage will eventually lose its sense of grounded power if I can maintain the courage and the skill to see through and work through emotions and tendencies that divide and distance myself from others, or leave them coming away from the experience with a voyeuristic rush of sweeping judgments as far as how the cage came to be.  The ability to spot these strange purgatories coming alive in the here and now would help me keep my individual cage from clanging chaotically with others’.  Millions of shelters, dangerous and isolating, hiding things from a sky that knows no better and could not care less.  Turning to dust as what is hidden deep inside the cage slowly evaporates, and no one realizes that the bars are not really there.  For once peace is finally found, and no torture or sense of profound loss can be found, the day comes that we know we are free from blame and such things can be dismantled by sheer will.  How can we truly connect or co-create when prisons of our own are constructed so well?

The Campsite Principle

Posted in Psychache on January 16, 2009 by lushangxinku

“Be not a friend of the world.  Look upon the world as a bubble, look upon it as a mirage.”

The Dhammapada, 8:170

"Pacific Horned Owl" by Karl E. Karalus

"Pacific Horned Owl" by Karl E. Karalus

There is a variation on the Hippocratic Oath (First of all, do no harm) that I have been thinking about lately.  I’ve heard it called the campsite rule, or the campsite principle.  The idea is that responsible, compassionate, aware campers always leave a site better than they found it.  This concept is extended to friendships and relationships.  If you must part ways with a friend or lover, leave them in better shape than you found them.  For invariably they will touch others’ lives.

I was talking with someone about this and he told me about one campsite experience he had that gave me pause.  He was out west, with friends who shared his principles about leaving the site they had found in better shape when they left the next morning.  But over the course of the night, there was a scorpion infestation.  They got everywhere, and in everything- the pockets of backpacks, the shadowed corners of tents, nooks and crannies in hats and jackets.  It took hours to prepare to leave, and although no one was stung, the whole experience was nervewracking and traumatic.  They still took care to leave the campsite better than they had found it.  But there is a lesson here.

Sometimes there is no way to follow the campsite principle.  Sometimes the campsites will be toxic regardless of what one does or doesn’t do.  It would’ve been silly for these campers to blame themselves for the local scorpion population.  So why do we, as friends and lovers, do this to ourselves when the campsite rule just isn’t happening?  When we do our best, try our hardest to truly be beneficial, and things still warp and shift into an unhealthy place?

Partially this is due to the love felt for the place, or person- a sense of devotion and care, even when having to pull scorpions from our socks.  But much suffering can be caused when we assume responsibility for things totally beyond our control.

There are some days I honestly admit, I don’t want to rest anywhere, with anyone.  Too many times having the site vanish before my eyes- too many times brushing scorpions off while trying to get some good things done.  Too many times being convinced that I must’ve done or said something to call the scorpions there.

And in my present state, the psychache I feel is a complex tangle of wanting to improve the site no matter what, feeling responsible for the scorpions present, and convincing myself that I was the toxic element, that I am actually worse than the scorpions themselves.  This is not constant, but hits me suddenly in a form almost like a panic attack, psychological pain triggered by goodness knows what, and a delusional, nightmarish feeling like I have not done enough, I am not doing enough.

Then the feeling fades, and I return to walking my path.  Not knowing when I will be weary enough, or ready enough, to try to set up camp again.  In the meantime, my thoughts still sometimes return to that place I could not benefit, the place that would’ve been so lovely without all the scorpions.  But I should not rest at a place just because there are no scorpions, nor should I run from a place with just one or two.  Love, care, benevolence- these are the most gutteral motives, the ones further down within me, down in my belly. 

They lead me to this still morning of silent meditation and hot tea, and a nap grabbed by this nocturnal creature.  No attacks of psychache rattling my bones, no clout given to scorpions.  Given over to a tired body from hours of manual labor, it’s time to drift away from tormented illusions, and dream among these phantom scorpions.

Celestial Perspective

Posted in Psychache on January 15, 2009 by lushangxinku

“If you could seek the unseen you would find

Love’s home, which is not reason or the mind,

And love’s intoxication tumbles down

The world’s designs for glory and renown-

If you could penetrate their passing show

And see the world’s wild atoms, you would know

That reason’s eyes will never glimpse one spark

Of shining love to mitigate the dark.

Love leads whoever starts along our Way;

The noblest bow to love and must obey-

But you, unwilling both to love and tread

The pilgrim’s path, you might as well be dead!

The lover chafes, impatient to depart,

And longs to sacrifice his life and his heart.”

The Conference of the Birds, Farid ud-Din Attar

"Monk by the Sea" by Caspar David Friedrich, 1808-1810

"Monk by the Sea" by Caspar David Friedrich, 1808-1810

There is a curious fusion to be found within Sufic poetry, one of mysticism and intense, romantic love.  I recognize love as an elemental, vast force, as the sky depicted in this painting.  It dwarfs individual cravings and desires, much like the monk is dwarfed, rendered as a tiny figure at the bottom.  The massive pain and longing grants unreasonable, irrational hope, and overawed by limerence, the luminescence of existing near this ominous power can burn like staring into the sun.  I could throw a lot of “why” questions at this…but Farid is right, reason need not apply at the gates of such a realm.  So what makes such love divine or mystical in nature?  Mainly it seems this way because of the scorched-earth treatment the small, petty, petulant self receives.  Once overtaken by this fire, the ego can never truly recover.  And although the trembling is fierce and the bandages may injure sharply when torn off, I can’t say that this is a bad thing.  The sky and ocean that this painter saw were things beyond the monk, things that dwarfed the monk- leading to a place of celestial perspective, a humility and fragility rarely seen in the pomposity and domineering competitive arrogance that humans tend to embrace.

Maybe this level of love is crazy, dangerous, ill-advised.  Maybe the monk’s very identity can be lost in his wide appreciation of the sky and sea.  Maybe recovery from such agony can never truly be found.  But for the people I have truly loved in this way, and the people incapable of allowing themselves to journey down this garden path, taking in every detail along the way, I must respond that these crazy lovers are the lucky ones.  And, smiling, recognizing when such madness comes around again, may an open sky always illuminate their Way.