Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Breaking the Trance of Temptation

What would you pay to be dragged around a warehouse for 15 minutes listening to an old, familiar song on a repeating loop in a slow moving cart guided by a chain hooked to a track in the floor with 14 other people in your cart, with other customer-filled carts behind you and in front of you for as far as you can see? How long would you wait in line for such a privilege? How far would you travel?

What if I told you that the whole time you'd also get to look at two dimensional cardboard cut-outs of buildings and landmarks from around the world and watch simplistic dolls mechanically “dance” to the tune that kept looping?

Getting excited yet?

A couple of years ago our entire family loaded into our Suburban and drove for 16 hours. The next morning we woke up and shelled out hard-earned money for admission to a nicely landscaped lot full of huge warehouse-like building with attractive facades. Then we eagerly waited for almost an hour to ride “It’s a Small World.”

No one complained because we were in a trance--a trance that convinced us it was all worth it. And we’re looking forward to going again, as soon as we can.

Look at the ride on Google Earth: it really does wind through a warehouse. So why is it a delightful experience instead of a drag? None of the riders really think they’re going around the world. But they’re willing to suspend their disbelief for a few minutes and buy into the trance. And there are a few key elements that help foster that process.

What if instead of winding through the dark, the lights in the ride shone brightly? What if there was no water-filled flume and you realized you were being dragged instead of floating? What if the speakers hissed with static and the soundtrack had glitches? What if the paint had worn off the landscape features and the cardboard underneath showed through? What if the attendant loading you onto the boat were smoking a cigarette and wearing worn out jeans and a Hurley tee shirt instead of a crisp sailor’s outfit?

It often takes many different elements, brought together in the right combination, to foster a trance. As we experience them all together in real time, they have a much more powerful effect.

We can identify the elements and see them for what they are—just ingredients that each make it just a little easier to buy into an illusion. As we extract them one by one from the whole and view each one separately, we can check our tendency to get swept up in and compelled by process we’re experiencing.

The other day my client, Richard, went through this process with a sexual craving that had led to a recent relapse. At the time the opportunity to get online and search for something delightfully erotic had felt so magical that he just couldn’t pass it up. The trance of temptation had a hold of him.

Once he got started, instead of delight he’d experienced a frantic sense of searching and a looming, just-around-the-corner guilt that was kept barely at bay only by the speed at which he raced through image after image. Sexual arousal mingled with anxiety and coagulated into a mess of empty but still throbbing intensity. Because he’d experienced it so often, there was an inevitability to the crash of guilt, shame, discouragement, and bruised confidence that followed in the wake of his frantic escapade through the virtual brothel.

Afterward, looking back, he picked out a few of the elements that had come together to catalyze his drop into the trance:
  • He was recovering from the flu and still felt tired and achy
  • The day before he’d missed his train stop and felt like an idiot
  • Thus he missed most of his biology class and had to borrow notes
  • He’s been bummed out to discover that his classes very interesting this semester
  • He gets impatient with professors who aren’t very good teachers
  • He’d stayed up late playing flag football with some buddies and was exhausted
  • All this homework means less time for what he wants to do
  • He bought a suspense novel he wants to read but hasn’t had time to crack it
  • He’s gotten lazy about cleaning up after himself so his place is messier than usual
  • He gets stressed out that he’s not bringing in income on the days he watches his young son
  • He still felt bad about giving in last week after doing well for almost two months
  • When temptation gets strong he feels trapped, out-of-control, and hopeless
  • He’s sick of hurting his wife and sure she’s sick of getting hurt
  • All this leaves him feeling unsettled—it’s a heartache that won’t go away
  • He feels sad about his situation and scared he might not be able to improve it
  • His wife is caught up in her new internship and paying less attention to him 
  • He wanted comfort and soothing but she hasn’t been available
  • Some images from his latest lapse kept popping back into his mind 
  • He discovered the internet had somehow been unblocked on his iPad

Any one or two of these elements wouldn’t have been enough to sweep Richard up. It would be like adding a great sound system and sailor suits to an otherwise lame ride at an amusement park. You’d still be too cognizant of the fact that you’re being dragged on a chain in a cart behind a bunch of other carts. You wouldn’t pay money or wait in line for the privilege. But all together these elements led him to that strange but familiar place where he concluded, “It’s futile to keep fighting these urges. And that path is so tantalizing. What the heck, might as well give in.”

What good does it do to separate out these elements after the fact? It helps the mind practice recognizing them for what they are. Then, in the future, when these factors start to come into play again, we will have a greater capacity to see them for what they are: just aspects of life that, whether troubling, upsetting, or mundane, are nonetheless simply a part of the rough-and-tumble life we are blessed/doomed to live. Certainly not justifications to go search for sexually arousing pictures on the internet to heighten the pleasure of masturbating.

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