Monday, September 5, 2022

Pickleball Therapy

A woman at a party was discussing the difficulty of getting to talk to a therapist through her medical insurance and by the time she jumped through far too many hoops and got one, she found him unhelpful. Then she discovered Pickleball — problem solved!


A few years back, I met some Saami people in the far north of Finland. When I asked them how they got through the long, cold, dark months of winter, they replied. “We fish.” What do you do when you’re sad? “We fish.” What do you do when you’re happy. You guessed it.


After attending a ceremony in Eastern Ghana where women come together and sing and dance for some four hours non-stop, I asked my friend Kofi if there are therapists in Ghana. He laughed. Why?


If you think about it, I imagine a grand percentage of people seeking therapy feel lonely, isolated, cut off from others, from themselves, from the world around them. Some of those feelings are simply the human condition. Don’t we all feel exiled at one moment or another?

But many are the direct result of the way our culture organizes itself. We spend long hours in artificially lit rooms with windows closed, or in cars getting to those rooms. Whether school or work, long hours sitting, long hours staring into screens. We are constantly pitted against each other, scrambling for the best grade or promotion, immersed in a culture of division with political leaders dismissing and excluding whole groups of fellow citizens based on their fantasy of which is the correct race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, body type and so on. How effective is a good therapy when we leave the therapist's office and walk out back into all of that?


Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are therapists, I know people who have benefitted from its gifts and no matter what culture we’re in— even Ghana— we all have some issues that might be worthy talking through with a trained professional. But if therapy can be useful in alleviating the symptoms of our dis-ease, what about paying some attention to the cause, include the culture that helps create our isolation side-by-side with our personal issues. As James Hillman, a highly-esteemed therapist himself, remarks in his book We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Therapy and the World Is Getting Worse:


“Every time we try to deal with our outrage over the freeway, our misery over the office and the lighting and the crappy furniture, the crime on the streets, whatever— every time we try to deal with that by going to therapy with our rage and fear, we’re depriving the political world of something. And therapy, in its crazy way, by emphasizing the inner soul and ignoring the outer soul, supports the decline of the actual world.”


So we might consider that the best healing is living well. Exercise matters and so why not pickleball as a way of not only oxygenating the brain and heart and toning the body, but also the sense of working on a craft that gets better, the joy of a disciplined practice. In company with others, a back and forth conversation with a ball instead of words. Sometimes that’s enough.


Then there’s fishing.This is just conjecture on my part, as I don’t fish. But I imagine it as an outdoor meditation, a transformation of loneliness to solitude, in company with the still or flowing waters, trees, birds, bugs and sky. Perhaps much of our feeling of alienation comes from being separate from the natural world that has housed us for countless millennia. So here we return to our ancestral home and put ourselves at the mercy of the fish, set down our will and ego always planning and controlling and steering and simply throw in the line and see if anything bites. Maybe yes, maybe no, but success is not necessarily the number you catch or the size, but the amount of solace and quiet and re-connection we feel immersed in the healing waters of the river or the lake. Step out of the stress and tension of the workaday world and hang out your sign: "Gone fishing."


Finally, singing. So much of bearing up under the sorrows of the world is simply remembering to breathe, attending, as Buddhists suggest, to the way a mindful few breaths can ground you in the moment and release you in that from your baggage the past or anxiety about the future. 

Singing takes it one step further. It is the art of the sounded breath, with the added perks of the beauty of organized sound sung in company with others. No better way to come out of exile and feel deep connection with your fellow humans than singing together, your voice blended into a sound larger than you can make yourself, made yet more complex and intricate and evocative when it breaks into parts. The harmony was yearn for is there in the harmony of the notes, free for the taking. One definition of community is a group of people that know the same songs. If your culture— family, school, neighborhood— understood the deep importance of singing (as Ghana, one out of many, does), your issues with your parents might take a back seat. 


So take your pick—pickleball, fishing, singing— or all three! If there's no pickle ball court, play paddleball in your back yard. No time or place to fish? Go walk in the park or around your neighborhood or sit under a tree without your phone and just listen and watch. Don't like singing? Try drumming or dancing. They're all cheaper, easier to work into your schedule, connect you to other people or plants or animals and there's no ticking clock that says “Time’s up" just as you’re getting into it. 

And to the therapists out there, thank you for your work. While continuing to help people as you do, consider not only thinking outside the therapy box, but stepping out of it. Try sessions where you jog with your client or talk while playing cornhole or fish or just sit outdoors by a stream. Begin and end with a song. Gather all your clients together once a month and sing, play, walk in the woods. If you’re leading a group therapy, get out of the church basement with folding chairs and bad coffee. Connect with the outer soul of the world while working on the inner. 


Let me know how it goes. 

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