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Listening to Your Symptoms Is Listening to Your Soul

I retired earlier this year, and I imagine this might be a symptom common to contemporary retirement. Still, I’ve begun noticing that I’m spending an inordinate amount of time diddling around on the computer, going down one rabbit hole after another, under the dopamine-dripping influence of internet algorithms that are on to me and designed to keep me glued to the screen.

It’s possible I’m doing this to avoid feeling what may be underneath this behavior, which I sense is a combination of anxiety, aimlessness, and a sense of loss around what I’ve left behind and what I’m supposed to do next, where I’m supposed to find the meaning, purpose, identity and drive that were ably fulfilled by having a career I loved.

And there’s another symptom, which I think may also be related to the decision to retire, as it began roughly around the same time as the conversation with myself about retirement: a physical tic in which my right foot repeatedly twitches upward as if suddenly being taken off a gas pedal. Assuming this is related to retirement, and I’m not just looking for meaning where there isn’t any, what a fitting symptom. I’m decelerating.

It reminds me of an experience I had years ago while driving home after teaching a college class I no longer wanted to teach but kept doing because I convinced myself I couldn’t afford not to. I began noticing a twitch in my neck, and over the course of the hour-long drive, it became more and more pronounced until it was a constant, painful tic accompanied by a roaring headache.

Eventually, I pulled over to the side of the road and brought my full attention to it: A sharp up-and-down motion of my head as if furiously nodding “yes” to something. “Yes!” I yelled inside my car and exaggerated the tic. “Yes,” I yelled louder, bucking my head up and down. “Say yes to your life. Say yes and move on.”

By the time I pulled back onto the highway, the symptoms had completely subsided, and the headache was not far behind, though my neck ached for two days afterward. I never returned to that class.

I haven’t reached that tipping point with the video trolling yet. Still, now that I’ve pulled over in order to pay attention to it, I notice a distinct pattern to my semi-catatonic stints at the computer: I’m watching only two kinds of videos. One is movie clips of bullies getting their comeuppance, and the other is predators having the tables turned on them by their prey—getting bitten, gored, and even killed during a chase. What these two scenarios have in common is underdogs overcoming.

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Like dreams, symptoms (whether in the psyche or the body) offer us information of which we’re often unconscious, and they’re one of the languages the soul uses to get through to us. In dreams, the information comes in the form of symbols. In the body and psyche, it comes as symptoms. But etymologically, symbols and symptoms both mean exactly the same thing: signs. And one of the more useful questions we can ask about the symptoms that show up in our lives—physical or behavioral—is” What are the signs of?” “What are they trying to tell me?”

The psychologist Arnold Mindell, founder of process-oriented psychology, said in an interview years ago that “symptoms are dreams trying to come true.” Furthermore, he added, the medicine is inherent in the symptoms. If we ask them what remedies they need—not just for the sake of curing our maladies, but healing our lives—they’ll tell us.

Unfortunately, by following the great modern commandment of sickness—get well—we often end up trying to eradicate (or deny) symptoms before finding out what dreams might be trying to come true, killing the messengers before they have a chance to deliver their messages.

So you might ask what dream is trying to come true through the body or the behavior. In fact, give your symptom a voice and let it fill in the blank: “My dream is that you would X.”

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When I gave voice to my recent preoccupation with underdog videos, it said, “My dream is that you would remember you are powerful.” It also reminded me that feeling powerless and ineffectual in the aftermath of retirement—or letting go of any kind of familiarity—is natural and normal. It’s a feature, not a bug. And, understandably, I’d seek the solace of videos depicting the upending of a downturn, of underdogs becoming top dogs. This speaks to me not only presently but has always spoken to me. Having been bullied as a kid, I’ve always been gratified seeing bullies get theirs in any arena, however unlikely. It’s a kind of restorative justice and downright therapeutic.

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But having recently retired from a primary source of power and agency in my life—and determined not to immediately fill that vacuum with work just for work’s sake—I’m not surprised that I feel some under-doggedness and find myself reaching for consolation if not hope. A job, after all, is one of the standard yardsticks by which I measure myself (and others) out in the world, and it’s not surprising that I’d feel lacking without one, though what’s lacking may be more in the system that measures my value by what I achieve and produce.

Nonetheless, I’ve been hard on myself lately, feeling powerless and aimless. After hearing me berate myself for my binging behavior, being impatient with myself for wasting time, and being critical of myself for feeling feckless, a friend recently remarked that I seem to be bullying myselfwhich sent a shock of awareness through me. I’ve become the bully and predator, harsh and unkind to myself.

But now that I see this, it puts in a new light my recent fascination with these video clips and the gross tonnage of time I’m devoting to them. It’s not merely aimless and dissipative behavior but purposeful behavior. My soul is attempting to convey something about itself vital to my forward momentum.

It’s also a wakeup call. This is not the kind of post-retirement life I had in mind, not how I want to spend my precious and ever-diminishing time on Earth. And unless I manage to wring some insight out of this behavior, get to the bottom of it, and redirect it toward more affirmative actions, then it’s just a terrible waste of time.

I’m allowing myself to be continually distracted—the word means to be pulled apart—from actually feeling what I feel at this crucial and formative turning point in my life.

I also want to catch this binging behavior while it’s still manageable before it turns into an outright addiction. After all, wakeup calls—the two times four approach to consciousness-raising—are simply calls that, from neglect, have become desperate to get our attention. They don’t generally start that way. They start as gentle taps on the shoulder and whispers in the ear but escalate to shoving and shouting the longer we ignore them.

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I once heard someone say our souls will speak as softly as possible but as loudly as they have to.

Mindfulness practitioners tell us that the antidote to boredom, for instance, isn’t necessarily a to-do list. It’s sitting with boredom (or any emotional state). Rather than going with the desperate, unthinking drive of it, they say, the urge to fill up the hole by any and all means available, instead sit at the edge of it and ponder its dimensions, its “hole-iness.” Notice that emptiness is not at all nothingness. There’s a lot of there there—light, space, potential.

Take it on as a contemplation, they advise, a vision quest right there in your own office or living room, one that’s not about distraction but investigation, not about destruction (end the boredom or anxiety) but creation (write it down, dance it up, draw it out, sing the blues, sink a well and draw up creative juices).

Similarly, parents are often counseled that when their children come to them complaining of boredom, they should avoid rushing to help them simply fill the time. Rather, they should stop what they’re doing and focus on the child for five minutes, using the time just to connect, chat, and snuggle; at this point, most kids will probably get the refueling they need and be on their merry way. (Or you can inspire them even quicker by offering to enlist them in housework or yardwork to ameliorate their anguish.)

We’re no different. Don’t rush to fill up the empty spaces that might suddenly lurch into view when you let go of any long-term familiarity (like a career) and the behavioral symptoms that might spring up in those vacuums. Instead, give them your attention. Pull your bored or anxious self into your lap for some quality time. Health may largely be the art of listening. The word pathology, after all, means “the logic of pain,” and it’s important to listen for its logic.

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