Excerpts From The Habit of Living

 As I continued to sort through the generous supply of albums, I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye and to the right. It was there, then gone. I paid little attention and went back to my labor of love. Then it was there again. This time I turned toward the movement. I saw a woman approximately fifteen feet from me. She was slender, maybe in her early thirties, and dressed in a gray business suit. Her red hair was shoulder length and curled in. She had electric blue eyes that were fixed on me, and her lips were turned up at the corners in a subtle but warm smile. Her attention was totally on me, and she seemed oblivious to the activity that surrounded us. There was no doubt in my mind that she was attracted to me. I don’t know whether it was my surprise, her forwardness, or the idea that a beautiful, conservative-looking woman could be attracted to a hippie who looked like me, but I felt quite nervous. 

I’m uncertain as to how long the next series of events took to occur. I believe it was only seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. I looked at the woman, who maintained the same seductive expression, and suddenly, my vision became foggy and tunneled. I could only see her face; all else was blurred. Even stranger, I felt as if I was looking up at her. My vision cleared a bit and I could see that the counters around me looked high, as if I were a child. I felt four or five years old with all the vulnerabilities and immaturity common to that age. My view of the woman also changed. Although she remained smiling, I felt that she somehow had the power to reject me for some inadequacy or fault that was beyond my knowledge. My mind was crammed full with all kinds of thoughts that I couldn’t clearly identify. There were so many but none at the same time. I felt connected but apart, there but gone. Was this how people with symptoms felt? It was terrible. My nervousness intensified and I thought, “I’ve got to get out of here.” I turned away from the woman, harboring intense feelings of shame and embarrassment as I moved from the record counter and in the opposite direction from her. I got to the street and felt my nervousness decrease and my perception return to normal. I was an adult again, with a million questions. 

 

                                                                          ******

 

Why is it so difficult to receive adequate psychological or psychiatric treatment? Why is it that treatment for anxiety and depression isn’t universal as it is for, let’s say, a cavity or a cut that requires stitches? The answer is actually quite simple. In medicine and dentistry, a procedure is found for a specific ailment and, with replication, the procedure becomes universal with continued success. In psychology and psychiatry, a procedure for a particular ailment is difficult to find since the ailment tends to overlap onto other disorders. So anxiety may become anxiety with depression, anxiety with panic attacks, major affective disorder with anxiety and so on. This means that a treatment for a person with one symptom may not be effective for another person with the same symptom because of differences between the two persons.

Traditionally, different schools of thought have clustered similar symptoms together, classified them into disorders, and theorized different causes for each. As a result, different treatments are employed for the same ailments. This state of affairs leaves the patient in a quandary over which doctor to see for what procedure and for what ailment.

However, suppose one looked for a common cause for all symptoms instead of assuming that diverse symptoms involve diverse causes? If a common cause was found could it mean that different symptoms might be treated with the same technique? Such a discovery would revolutionize the treatment of symptoms. It would help to remove the stigma associated with those who suffer psychological discomfort and would allow the consumer accurate information concerning available services rather than the current “hit or miss” attempt at “normalcy.”

The following chapters present just that: a single theory to explain the cause of psychological symptoms and a proposal for a standardized intervention. With motivated adherence to the procedures described, many individuals will gain relief from symptoms. Some will require the assistance of a trained technician for guidance through the procedure. Whether you agree or disagree with the basis of the theory and intervention, the proposal will provide an alternative so that you may make your own decision.

The theory that I refer to as Reflexive Attention Diversion (RAD), and the method of Attention Training, are my attempts to reduce the pain and suffering that so many individuals experience as a result of psychological symptoms. The theory and method represent nearly twenty years of thought and research that had its origin with the redheaded woman at the Bon Marché Department Store in 1968.

 

*****

  

 WHEN INTELLIGENCE MALFUNCTIONS

 

The patients mentioned in the previous chapter experienced reduced awareness as a result of decreased attention or focus directed toward the environment. At these times, each experienced less intelligence or interaction with the world. Their ability to be purposeful and intentional literally decreased. They became less accurate in their perception and comprehension of their surroundings and more reflexive or automatic in their behavior. They were less able to express themselves and actually were prevented from expression by the negative thoughts and behaviors that they experienced. For example, when Jim felt “unreal” at the Garden, when Sandy thought he had touched a woman inappropriately, when Jenny believed she would hurt herself, when Sam felt compelled to perform his rituals, and when Bob believed something “bad” was going to happen - each had lost some contact with the real world. Literally, less information was coming to them through the five senses. They all felt somewhat disoriented to time and place and were responding to events other than those that were occurring in reality. The response of each patient was to his or her own negative thoughts with no basis in reality. For instance, Bill had no logical reason to anticipate that people would find fault with him, no one had actually criticized him. Sarah had no justification to fear people; no one hurt her, so that her use of alcohol to “soothe” her fear was unwarranted. Pat would never drive off the Raritan Bridge. Fran could control her life. Billy saw demons that weren’t there in reality. Even Jerry’s belief that he would “make waves” and offend people was unfounded. Jerry is one of the nicest guys who ever walked the face of the earth. All these individuals lost the ability to see differences in situations and therefore could not make intelligent judgments. All were responding to negative thoughts that had little to no basis in reality and the world. At the times when the negative thoughts occurred, the content of the thoughts was their reality. To varying degrees, all were living their thoughts.

 

REFLEXIVE ATTENTION DIVERSION (RAD)

 

What each patient experienced is what I call Reflexive Attention Diversion (RAD) from the environment. RAD is the same for all people with psychological symptoms. It works in the same manner and always results in symptoms. RAD is a habit or reflex, like a knee jerk or an eye blink. Its only purpose is to prevent expression toward events by reducing awareness of your surroundings. Reduced awareness eliminates spontaneous expression since events are not fully witnessed, and therefore cannot be completely experienced and responded to. 

RAD is built on the misinformation that, contained within your likes and dislikes, is some flaw or badness that, when expressed, will offend and warrant some negative consequence, generally anger from another individual. Simply put, the bad habit is a tendency to take differences of opinion personally as angry acts or as criticism.

RAD automatically prevents spontaneity and, as such, is a “bad habit” in that it opposes the natural tendency for you to maintain intelligence or full contact with the environment. The bad habit distracts you from your surroundings so that expression cannot fully occur. Instead of full awareness of the environment, you attend to negative thoughts in the form of words, pictures and attitudes, and to other symptoms. As a reflex, the bad habit is out of conscious control and quite rapid in its effect. However, there is a sequence to the habit that may be traced. 

 

                                                                    *****

 

I understood the bad habit developed by pairing expression with fear. In order to build a new habit, I could use the same pairing process to increase the patient’s intelligence. But which aspect of intelligence would I use? Logic, memory, problem-solving, there were so many aspects of intelligence to choose from that finding the right one was going to be a problem.

I knew the bad habit had a sequence. Decreased awareness was the result of reduced attention toward the environment. The decreased awareness caused discomfort. Attention was converted to out-of-control thoughts to justify the discomfort and to quell confusion. These thoughts triggered anxiety with its intensity determined by the value of the situation and the lack of knowledge of the behavior required. To reduce anxiety, expression was avoided and depression was generated since pleasure could not be produced. This led to a feeling of being trapped and controlled by a miserable existence that caused anger to be acted out, with guilt and self-criticism to follow, completing a cycle that repeated itself. I knew this sequence worked like a machine in the same way for all people. 

It seemed logical to me that if I reversed the sequence, I should be able to decide what aspect of the process took place first. The guilt and self-criticism occurred in response to unwarranted anger, which was triggered by feeling trapped and controlled by depression. Depression was generated by avoidance of expression that is used to reduce anxiety. The anxiety resulted from the out-of-control thoughts, with its intensity determined by the value placed on the situation and the lack of familiarity with the necessary behavior. The out-of-control thoughts and the decreased awareness of the environment resulted from reduced attention or focus. 

There it was. If I could prevent a patient from losing attention or focus toward the environment, symptoms could not occur since the sequence of the habit could not be triggered. But how to do it? Simply instructing Sandy and the others to be more attentive didn’t seem to work. They all said they were attentive. I needed to be specific and to decide what to pair attention with. I knew contact with the environment in the present was natural so increased attention would automatically be pleasurable. In psychology, there is a well-known and understood theory called the Pleasure Principle. This means that if an organism (in this case the human body) is presented with conditions of pleasure and pain, pleasure will be chosen every time. I believed if I paired my patient’s increased attention toward the environment with pleasure, with repetition a new reflex or habit could be formed that would cancel out the effects of the bad habit. All I needed were the tools. 

I needed to devise a way to have Sandy and my other patients train their bodies to be more attentive and focused toward the environment. If such a reflexive tendency could be attained, then awareness would be automatic and symptoms could not be generated.

The technique of Attention Training is intended to build a new habit of increased awareness by pairing attention directed toward the environment with pleasure. I believed a new habit could be built in the body with the conscious, deliberate intention of my patients. In devising a method to have my patients increase awareness, I realized I needed to be very specific in detailing the procedure. I needed to be clear so my patients could obtain the outcome we wanted as quickly as possible.

 

                                                                          *****

 

The Four Points worked well to have a person feel pleasure as the result of increased awareness. With repetition, a habit is created which seeks pleasure from increased awareness while disallowing pain from the bad habit. It seemed I could use the same process with orienting thoughts.

This problem was on my mind through 1992. By the end of the year, I thought I had it figured out. I needed to find a way to convert at least some orienting thoughts and behaviors to conscious ones. I could pair them with the pleasure of awareness and the body would generalize the pleasure and the new habit to all orienting thoughts and behaviors. But how could I do it?

 

                                                                    *****

 

So what was the significance of the eerie situation with the redheaded woman back in 1968 Was I just being a naïve twenty year old or was the experience as important as I thought it might be? If I had known better, I might have thought I suffered a psychotic break. The fact is I wasn’t frightened as much as I was confused. 

I had long thought the glazed look in the eyes of my friends and others had something to do with feeling nervous, but my experience went way beyond a glazed look. I actually saw the world as if I were small, a child of maybe five or six. But it was more than just my vision. I knew that it was an illusion. I felt young. I felt immature, dependent, as if I were doing something wrong without knowing what. I felt I would be rejected. I felt like a “bad boy.”

Over the years, I knew the illusion had to do with the redheaded woman and how she looked at me. She was seductive, there was no question in my mind about it and I found her attractive. So I knew there was a sexual, or at least intimate aspect to the interaction. I also realized the event happened very quickly. Actually, I was surprised to see the woman at all. I was completely taken off guard. If I had some prior knowledge that such an event might occur, as, for instance, in a situation where men and women socialize, my intelligence would be able to accommodate such an interaction. As it was, there was no time for my intelligence to adjust to the situation at hand. Similar situations, such as surprisingly losing your balance or at the last moment catching an object that was thrown at you without your knowledge, are dominated by reflexive actions since intelligence had not had the opportunity to problem-solve the situation and act.

However, it wasn’t until I had developed Reflexive Attention Diversion that I understood what happened at the Bon Marché in 1968. The bad habit isn’t a bad habit at all, at least not until criticism is paired with expression to the point that all expression triggers symptoms. 

We all grow up with a sensitivity to offending and to be offended. If you can remember your youth, you can remember tending to take items a bit too personally. As children, we all have offended people with tactless expression when we were only intending to state an opinion. I’m sure you all have felt guilt and fear over becoming angry with a parent or even wishing her dead. Can you remember the severe guilt and fear you experienced as a result? A child’s thinking is magical. Children believe their thoughts can become reality.

This is because our intelligence has not yet matured. As children, the major characteristics of intelligence have not developed to capacity. We cannot see differences between situations well and, therefore, cannot respond to those differences appropriately.

In my twenty-year-old, Catholic, Italian-American mind, the ability to perceive, understand, and tolerate expression from others was developing, with appropriate responses to follow. However, as a young man with the background I experienced, a seductive encounter took on a very high value. In addition, with the event as a surprise, I was at a loss as to how to behave.

The result of this condition was that I lost intelligence or contact with the environment. It was lost to such a degree and so quickly that the only perception of the world left to me was out of the eyes of the habit at the specific time when it was incorporated into my body as a reflex. Since the habit is usually learned in childhood, I viewed the world as a five or six year old, at the specific time and age when the bad habit was retained by my body as a result of repetition. Most interesting, not only did I view the world as a five-year old child but I experienced the emotions of a five-year old doing something wrong. I felt immature, inadequate, confused, insecure, and nervous and I expected to be rejected. In essence, I actually was a five or six-year old child.

I have met four or five people who have experienced similar events. Most people experience the return to the habit in a less dramatic fashion. For example, you may be with your peers at work, standing and talking, and you may feel stiff, immature, less capable and less worthy than the others, with nothing to say. Let’s say you’re in a social situation where you may be more yourself and you’re talking to someone you find attractive. The value you put on the situation pulls you inside your head a bit and, even though the person is your equal, you feel somehow incompetent and vulnerable, feeling any word you express is sure to be wrong and offensive. You feel and act like a child potentially offending an adult.

The information from the event with the redheaded woman revealed some important information. It indicated that once the habit is learned and incorporated into the body as a reflex, it doesn’t really change. If it would, then I would have perceived the environment as an older child or even a young adult. The information that the reflex doesn’t change is logical since the body learns a reflex to provide a function efficiently and there would be no reason for it to alter. Nor could it since it is out of conscious control. It is true the reflex could change somewhat as a result of chance behaviors being added to it, but the changes wouldn’t be so significant as to cause a difference to the habit as a whole. It would basically remain the same.

The bad habit hasn’t changed much since it was incorporated into the body. We’re dealing with the same habit that was learned as a child. However, we’re not trying to dismantle or replace the bad habit. Actually, Attention Training pays little to no attention to the bad habit. The entire effort of Attention Training is to develop a new habit independent of the bad one. How long you have had the bad habit influencing your expression has no effect on learning the new one except for the resistance encountered toward the Four Points during the first few weeks. Since the new habit is learned independently of the bad one and based on the Pleasure Principle, it may be learned quite quickly.

The most important information I received from the experience with the redheaded woman is there is something more to psychology than I had learned in school. The experience pushed me to try to find techniques that could counter the attention loss that seemed to result in the nervousness I felt at the Bon Marché. The suffering that people like Sandy, Bill, Sarah, Fran and the others experienced further motivated me to try different avenues from the conventional ones many of my people had used with no lasting results. My people taught me what to look for by their symptoms and the experiences they went through with other doctors.

Attention Training has helped many people. It’s the only technique I use. The technique is obvious, to the point and effective.

The only criticism I have received concerning Attention Training is that it is too simple. For that, I apologize.