Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and Fame: Suicide, Genius, and Hidden Pain

Fame is no laughing matter. Fame is hard. That is what my research discovered, and that is why we often see such despair in the demise of certain celebrities, like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

While many people purportedly crave fame, they have no idea what is in store for them. The saying, “It is lonely at the top” came out of the truth of real loneliness experienced by those who rise to fame’s highest glory. What my research found profoundly eroded in the well-being of the lives of the famous was: a lack of trust in old friends and new ones; a sense of depersonalization in what is described as an “entitization” of their personhood; lack of privacy, as in no personal privacy in public spaces (loss of the healthy experience of anonymity); impact of celebrity’s fame on family members; and, ability to navigate post-fame life without feeling like a has-been (learning how to tolerate the craving of what-once-was). A by-product of figuring out how to ride fame, and tame its rough and tumultuous course, is using fame as currency to make the human experience, well, more humane for other people. If the the celebrity’s focus can be held on this helping of “other,” which many celebrities have done, a transcendence of personal consumption and experiential avoidance in order to serve “other,” there may be a chance to survive fame, which in the end can be a difficult thing to do.

Like the children left behind wondering why, fans may similarly experience parasocial reactions after the suicide of a beloved celebrity, feeling abandoned by someone who actually felt like family. Celebrity allure pulls us into its orbit, and we, as customers to this fare, as sitting ducks, as sponges who soak in the notion of hero, of role model, of alter ego, become voyeurs to lives we could never hope to live, but experience in vitro through the petri dish of celebrity culture. Celebrities become bubble gum for our minds, so we can chew on something outside of our own personal struggles for a much needed psychic break. Celebrity Worship and Parasocial Interaction research point to the extent we overly identify with famous people.

So many of the celebrities we come to know, the Spades and Bourdains, are geniuses really, living out their own brilliance right before our eyes, capturing our hearts, and mesmerizing us by the cascading comet that is their lives. Comets burn out because they are so combustive in their vital trajectory. People who are sensitive enough to change the world through a handbag or an authentic conversation about food and culture, need the rest of us to understand more broadly the landscape of such an expansive mind. The Center for Disease Control guidelines that suggest asking loved ones and friends if they are depressed, asking if they think about suicide, if they have a plan, and if they contemplate carrying it out, are important steps to take and should comprise a teaching moment right now for each of us. If there is any doubt, do not leave the person and take him or her to a hospital emergency room. Getting through the current moment of darkness becomes the task at hand.

There are long-term interventions to ward off, and work with, the mindset that may lead to despair and hopelessness in depression and anxiety, and various other states of mental anguish, and while certain approaches are helpful to some people, the same treatments can be counterproductive and in fact dangerous to others. It is critical, though, to be under the care of a doctor if there is any thought of suicide, and consider medication case-by-case based on unique, personal, and individual differences. New, research-based non-pharmaceutical interventions being lauded for lack of negative side effects, and reportedly contributing to resilience and well-being, include: the cultivation of gratitude and self-compassion; mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation techniques for frustration tolerance and affect control; and, talk therapy which highlights humanistic-existential approaches, such as: unconditional regard; self-responsibility; experiential empathy; cognitive testing; awe; and, encouraging innate potential through self-actualizing behaviors.

Treating the whole person, holistically, provides a necessary container for the existential shocks, developmental hurdles, and unexpected turns we cannot possibly foresee around the curves of life. Famous people exemplify what the rest of us are going through; and, while we hear about celebrity suicides, there are tens of thousands that transpire without mention on our media devices. So many people, famous and otherwise, dwell in hidden pain.

At this time of rapid rise in suicide rates, up 30 percent since 1999, and deep pockets of inequity and loss of meaning, may we choose to reach out beyond the existential despair of a particular moment, and create community, cultivate human connections, say no to loneliness and isolation and say yes to the courage to be, the courage to wait out the pain.

“Did you really want to die?”
 “No one commits suicide because they want to die.”
 “Then why do they do it?”
 “Because they want to stop the pain.” 
 ― Tiffanie DeBartolo, How to Kill a Rock Star

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, PLEASE call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255).

Rockwell, D. & Giles, D. (2009). Being a Celebrity: A Phenomenology of Fame. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology. 40 (2): 178–210.


Sunday TM

During the week, my mind gloms up with thoughts that cling to each other, like plaque clusters. They are stored here and there in seemingly chaotic fashion, as daily and weekly obligations are made and fulfilled. These mental plaque clusters, though remaining unaware consciously, create imbalance and a weightiness in the unconscious.

During TM, and the flow of the mantra, those clusters slough off of each other and, bit by bit, simply drift down into a shallow layer at the bottom of my breath. There is so much space, because the clusters have been dissolved. There is so much time, because there is no war warding off awareness.

There are only the chirping birds.


No Talking, No Reading, No Writing, No Media: How 7 Days of Silence Can Change Everything

I just finished my first seven-day silent retreat. That means I didn't speak for seven days. Can you imagine? Not a word. It was difficult, for sure, but I was not alone. There were over 40 other people there, too, spending the week in complete silence.

The retreat was at the pristinely beautiful Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado. The seven days consisted mostly of mindfulness meditation practice sitting for periods of time on cushions on the floor (or in a chair), interspersed with mindful walking inside the meditation hall or outside with clear views of the Rocky Mountains, relaxing and stress-reducing body scans, and gentle yoga. The retreat was led by Jim Colosi and Janet Solyntjes, both Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teachers, and mindfulness practitioners for decades, exemplars of a certain calm radiance that only longtime meditators have, and were able to relay through descriptive and illustrative teaching styles how to cut ourselves a break: mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Over the week, we learned to become more gentle with ourselves, and far less harsh in our inner monologues. When you are on a long retreat, you have plenty of time to see just how self-flagellating and confused that inner voice can be.

It takes courage (or intelligence) to have the willingness to directly face the stuff of our lives in an unbiased, non-discriminatory way, dealing with things as they are, rather than how we want them to be, and thus discover, in the wake of this allowing or acceptance, that we are less stressed, more physically resilient, healthier, somehow happier, and all around more appreciative of the chance to be alive in the fist place. We forget that part, the preciousness of life. And a silent mindfulness retreat can remind us of that.

The week consisted of: sitting practice, mindful walking, yoga, body scans, contemplation, teacher led talks, healthy and delicious meals, hours of restful sleep, and a big, open Colorado sky. The seven days of silence were marked by: no TV or radio, no music, no social media, no phones, no computers, no reading, no writing; eating in the dining room together in respectful silence.

Walking in nature, practicing meditation, learning how to gently touch on thoughts and let them go -- noticing that there are certain thoughts that grab you, thoughts that overwhelm, thoughts that leave you feeling loving and joyous, thoughts of anger, and even rage, and thoughts that move you to cry; during mindfulness exercises we get to observe all of the thoughts and feelings that we quite regularly experience, but with a more circumspect view.

In this environment, I learned some new ways of looking at old ideas. One is that, for our own good, it might be more productive to stop desperately wanting, or striving after some thoughts and feelings and vehemently not wanting, or rejecting others. In order to lessen our own suffering, unhappiness, angst, stress and paralyzing confusion it seems to be more effective to look at reality as it actually is. We keep tricking ourselves into believing that we can control what life throws our way, or for that matter, what thought is going to come up in our mind. Most of the time, however, in either case we don't have much choice. Realizing the truth of this ultimate lack of control is hard to accept, but important.

In a way, perhaps we need to mature into adulthood, learning how to play the hand we are dealt in each moment, with gentleness and large doses of self-compassion. Once this kind of personal bravery is chosen -- the courage to face things directly (with choiceless awareness) rather than how we wished it were -- we have a fresh opportunity to experience life more fully, more meaningfully, and with more confidence. While sitting on my meditation cushion, I realized that it made more sense to stop resisting things as they are and create, instead, a bigger space on the "acceptable" side of my ledger, yielding to the truth of what is right before my eyes rather than fighting the losing battle of forcing and manipulating things to be different. The "I, me, mine" emphasis does us no good, I saw so clearly in the content of my thoughts, and holds me back from becoming my most mindful and caring self.

The retreat has ended, and I am speaking again now, and writing, and typing, and checking my phone, and the Internet, back in the everyday world. And, just like those sand mandalas, the magnificent works of art that Buddhist monks painstakingly construct and then destroy, made more precious by their inherent fleetingness, our retreat group has spread now, dispersed like that sand, with new experiences in front of each of us. Yet, I think that I will never forget the past seven days, and, if my hunch is right, I am changed in some pretty fundamental and lasting ways.

Sitting with oneself in such a caring "container" allows people to get in deeper touch with themselves, cultivating a warm friendship (self-affiliation rather than self-aggression), becoming kinder, gentler, and wiser. Physiologically speaking, wisdom is rooted in prefrontal cortex activation of the brain. And mindful meditation and other stress reduction practices have been shown to enhance this response, while reducing the fight-or-flight stimulation of the cortisol pumping amygdala, with its potential to make us sick, reduce vitality and longevity, and leave us emotionally shaken.

We've got to confront our stress or, in the end, it will win out.

There is so much discursiveness kicked up in our minds, like the dust around Charlie Brown's friend, Pig-Pen. If we want to be happy, we've got to settle that dust down. Interestingly, when we are able to sit with our minds in a more spacious way, the mind tends to settle quite well on its own. Last week's retreat provided the time and space to calm down and gain insight. It was like an experience of gentle "mind exfoliation," sloughing off old, unneeded cells in much the same way our skin naturally does. Wouldn't it be beneficial, now and then, to exfoliate our minds, too? Exfoliate and then moisturize. That is the inner beauty regime a multi-day silent retreat can offer. I recommend it to anyone wanting a reboot, in need of renewal, and open to relaxing into an exploration of the only life we've got.

Along with Jon Kabat-Zinn's classics -- Full Catastrophe Living, and Wherever You Go, There You Are -- the other book on the reading list was Natural Wakefulness, Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With, by Gaylon Ferguson. I pulled these phrases from his book as my personal Cliff Notes for the retreat, to act as a reminder of what I learned there. May they help maintain clarity and take the place of future confusion.

Mindfulness Meditation

First there is inborn, natural alertness.
Panicky, racy thoughts set in.
Willingness to experience this.
Bravery is found in the mindfulness practice,
Strengthening courage: our ability to stay with ourselves, and our experience, even when it is uncomfortable.
Choiceless awareness
Welcomes whatever arises.
Allowing whatever comes to mind to come, and whatever goes to go.
It includes everything.

It is surprisingly rejuvenating to cultivate periods of silence in our lives. It is a gift we can give ourselves. Whether on longer retreats or in short daily practices, sitting in silence is nurturing for the body and mind, and the whole of our being. "The answers you seek never come when the mind is busy, they come when the mind is still..." Our innate intelligence and skillful means are found in this quiet stillness.

From The Huffington Post, November 20, 2015