Growing up, my Dad would play
his favorite records each night after dinner.
This would mean that my young brain would be awash in the lyrical poem-songs of Simon and Garfunkel, Judy Collins, the Moody Blues or the Beatles (their introspective and psychedelic years, of course.) Those records disappeared in time, as did those after dinner sessions, but for me, they created a lasting imprint of the poetry of emotion on my young heart.
Today, I find that those songs haunt me- sometimes happily and always with a hint of melancholy. Over the years, I deepened my relationship with my father's music as I explored the writing behind them. When I was a teen, I discovered that Joni Mitchell had written one my Dad's favorites, "Both Sides Now." He would often remind us excitedly that this song was "what I wrote my Master's thesis on!" (My Dad majored in History so I am not sure how his professors interpreted his choice of topic- but, hey, it was the seventies.) This particular song has always been a touchstone for me- through my journey with Buddhism, in my relationships and as a therapist for the past decade of my life, I often marvel at how her words continue to capture the complex concepts of attachment, disillusionment, acceptance and transformation that I see, study and marvel at every day.
"Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air
and feather canyons everywhere, I've looked at clouds that way.
But now they only block the sun, they rain and snow on everyone.
So many things I would have done but clouds got in my way.
I've looked at clouds from both sides now,
from up and down, and still somehow
it's cloud illusions I recall.
I really don't know clouds at all.
Moons and Junes and ferris wheels, the dizzy dancing way that you feel
as every fairy tale comes real; I've looked at love that way.
But now it's just another show. You leave 'em laughing when you go
and if you care, don't let them know, don't give yourself away.
I've looked at love from both sides now,
from give and take, and still somehow
it's love's illusions that I recall.
I really don't know love at all.
Tears and fears and feeling proud, to say "I love you" right out loud,
dreams and schemes and circus crowds, I've looked at life that way.
But now old friends are acting strange, they shake their heads, they say
Something's lost but something's gained in living every day.
I've looked at life from both sides now,
from win and lose, and still somehow
it's life's illusions I recall.
I really don't know life at all."
I have recognized that my particular approach to therapy shares the view of a young Joni Mitchell. First, we enter a relationship, an idea or an endeavor with a fanciful hope, dream and vision of what it will hold for us, and who we will be or become. It is this juicy childlike vision that leads us to adventure. (Yay, innocence!) We leap, and then when we inevitably face obstacles in our path and become disillusioned, we tend to blame, disengage and be disappointed (or a host of other techniques to manage loss). This is just what we seem to do as humans, and this is the point I tend to meet clients. They have experienced a disconnect between what they thought would happen when they leapt and what actually occurred- and they have experienced it enough that it may have become a world view at this point- a protective armor they wear to prevent loss. This armor is a successful tool in the moment, and also serves to keep them very stuck in their patterns.
Joni begins to see that living life has a sort of joyful amnesia to it. We remember the fluffy cloud bits and keep leaping- until it doesn't work anymore and then what we cling to is the feeling that maybe we will never achieve that "perfect" feeling, moment, experience or relationship. Then (here's the good news) she figures out that that is the point. The more we embrace both sides- the leaping with innocent abandon and the pain of possibly failing- the more we actually are able to experience. (That is a capital E experience.)
My approach with clients is this: feel both the pain of disappointment and the vulnerable bliss of adventure. Wrap them both in the cloak of loving kindness towards ourselves, and be tenderly allowed to experience the joy and sadness that it means to be human. I am not saying it is easy- but living life becomes so much more workable when we are not shoring up against pain- but opening up and exposing ourselves to possibility. Believe it or not- this technique works in what you might think are really impossible scenarios- like the challenge of years of depression, a difficult relationship or struggles with anxiety, and even with past traumas. It just takes a lot of practice (maybe even some mindfulness meditation practice) and a willing and skillful therapist companion to help you learn to open up with confidence, bravery and precision to your world. Both sides are waiting for you.
Listen to Joni Mitchell's "Clouds: Both Sides Now" here: https://youtu.be/Pbn6a0AFfnM
Tell me what you think of this song! I would love to hear.
Written by Karen King, MS, LMHC
Karen is a practicing counselor in the Pacific Northwest
Read more about Karen at https://kingtherapy.com/karen-king-ms-lmhc