Staring Contest

staring contest“Let’s take a moment to settle in.”

I relax into the sagging seat of my therapist’s couch, palms on my thighs, eyes closed. Dr. Jane talks me through a brief relaxation exercise, encouraging me to let go of whatever I brought into the room and commit to just being here, in my body, on the couch. I try.

“When you’re ready, open your eyes.”

I open them.

“Welcome,” she says.

My therapist and I are practicing CIMBS: the Complex Integration of Multiple Brain Systems. It sounds like something Spock explains to Kirk before exploring a Class M planet, but actually it’s just a staring contest, except nobody wins. It’s my first time.

“We are both here to pay attention to you,” Dr. Jane says.

This is harder than it sounds. For starters, I am gazing into the hazel to green eyes of my therapist. Her left eye is slightly smaller than the right. I stare only at the left eye. I switch eyes and switch again, hyper-aware of the way both of my eyes look at only one of her eyes. Am I doing it wrong? I think. I laugh because I am probably doing it wrong.

“What’s happening?” she asks.

I’m struck by the simian nature of her face: I’m judging you, I don’t say. I search silently for the adjective form of “neanderthal,” and tell her that I keep switching which of her eyes I’m staring at. I can’t stop giggling. I am smiling like an idiot and staring at Dr. Jane, paying attention to her, and to the act of paying attention to her, when I’m supposed to be paying attention to me.

“I’m just . . . watching you,” I say. “I guess I’m doing it wrong.”

“Welcome, wanting to be perfect,” she says.

Welcome, indeed, old friend.

Wanting to be perfect isn’t exactly why I came. The reason might have something to do with needing to be seen. There’s been a lot of physical and emotional turmoil in my life recently, and sometimes I feel lost, or invisible. Dr. Jane understands. CIMBS, she thought, might help.

My best friend did not think it would help. When I told her about CIMBS, she responded with a drawn-out whaaaaaat? cracked with belly laughter. “For real,” I said. I joked that I could practice with my cats. “Fuck that! Employ your cats,” she said, describing something akin to Lucy’s lemonade-style therapy stall in the Peanuts comics. Replace Lucy with Frank, my twenty-pound cat. For an exorbitant hourly fee, Frank would gaze vacantly into the eyes of paying customers. She wasn’t too far off the mark, I admitted, but I insisted that CIMBS was useful. Why CIMBS is useful remains mysterious to me.

“Can you feel your feelings?” Dr. Jane asked before explaining CIMBS.

What a terrifically stupid question, I thought at the time. I answered noncommittally that sure, I could feel them, I guessed, as much as anyone felt things. I mean, I didn’t intentionally not feel them. Now I was questioning, though. Could I actually not feel them?

All our lives, according to Dr. Jane, other people are telling us how to feel, starting when we are infants. As infants, we spend a fair amount of time gazing into our parents’ eyes. We peer up them without expectation, judgment, or agenda. But parents peer back at their infants differently. Sure, some of the time parents look at their children in sheer wonder. Pretty often, though, parents are evaluating their children and communicating expectations of ability and propriety. Children learn, then, that their feelings are valid or invalid. They learn that socially acceptable feelings are good and that anger and grief must be justified and should be dealt with privately and quickly. As they grow up, they learn to compartmentalize the way they feel. They intellectualize, but they might not feel. They learn to compare their feelings to those of others, and to find their own feelings less worthwhile. They – we – apologize for our feelings, only discussing emotions in terms of how we’ve overcome them. Soon, we may lose the ability to connect the work of our minds with our real, physical bodies that move through the world. In other words, we may lose touch with how to physically feel what we know, intellectually and emotionally, that we feel. According to Dr. Jane, CIMBS could help me rediscover this connection, and it would be valuable.

I wasn’t sure that not feeling my feelings was the problem, but I was willing to play along. I’m a really good therapy patient.


“I feel anxious,” I say. It is our second CIMBS session.

“Where do you feel it?” Dr. Jane’s gaze holds mine by a tight, invisible thread.

“I don’t know. I guess my torso . . . I feel immobilized.”


“I can’t move my arms.”

“Welcome, sense of discomfort,” she says.

I am not used to welcoming a sense of discomfort. Normally, I resolve discomfort as quickly as possible. Dr. Jane is asking me intentionally not to dismiss the feeling, and I see her point. I may feel like I can’t move my arms, but it turns out I can move them. “I can move my arms, though,” I say.

“That’s right,” Jane replies, raising both hands as though weighted on balance by an imaginary scale. “And you hold both.”

I am starting to see what she means. I feel immobilized, so I sort of am; at the same time, the paralysis I feel is entirely made up. There’s nothing wrong with my arms. Her point is that I don’t have to choose between these feelings. They’re both true. They’re equally valid, and equally worth my attention.

“You’re uncomfortable,” she says.

“Yes.” But a sense of well-being is beginning to spread through me. I smile, and hesitate . . . “I feel like I’m good at this.”

Her quick reply: “Welcome, sense of accomplishment.”

It goes like this for thirty minutes, and then we both congratulate me for my effort, and I leave, feeling curiously well.


Key to CIMBS, Dr. Jane explained before the first session, is a refusal to evaluate yourself. That means no judging your thoughts or emotions. This is hard. In my experience, it’s easier not to judge yourself in the context of meditation – just you and your mental continuum, maybe some incense. What’s to judge? It’s more difficult not to evaluate during CIMBS, when someone is looking back at you and asking you to reveal your inner thoughts. In CIMBS, as the patient reveals her thoughts, it’s the therapist’s job to return the patient’s gaze with equanimity and acceptance, modeling, as it were, the lack of self-censorship that the patient is meant to exercise toward herself. If the patient can get in touch with the physical sensation of her feelings, the feelings can “flow,” and the patient won’t be oppressed or confused by them.

Cynical, snarky me thinks that CIMBS is the grownup’s version of sitting cross-legged while the librarian reads aloud: Will you be my mother? Cynical, snarky me is defensive about it. For the record, I have a mother. No, for the record, I have a terrific mother.

A quick study of trends in psychotherapy reveals no shortage of theories about mothers, nor of treatment methods that might seem useless or bizarre. Freudian analysts listened wordlessly to their analysands in the hopes of sussing out conflicts that the patients might resolve alone if only the conflicts weren’t locked away in a subconscious interior. A friend of mine goes to a healing center where she lies on a floor, eyes closed, directing emotional outbursts to a projection of her mother. My friend hopes to find the courage to forgive herself for unforgivable errors. She hopes to feel her feelings, and by doing so, heal them. I imagine an analyst making meaning of my dreams, and my friend lying on a mat, blindfolded, and shouting, and I suppose that what I am doing in my therapist’s office is not so strange. CIMBS does seem to work.


The third time Dr. Jane and I do CIMBS, something in me opens up. I close my eyes, settle in. She invites me to start eye contact when I’m ready. I do.

“Welcome,” she says. “We’re both here to pay attention to you. Do you want us to pay attention to you?”

“Yes.” I’m surprised to hear myself admit this.

If the first time practicing CIMBS was awkward and the second time strange, the third time is familiar. I settle quickly into my physical body. As in meditation, I begin to feel an integration of my physical and mental selves. Dr. Jane asks me, as she always does, what I’m feeling.

“I feel . . . a sense of well-being,” I say. “It feels like balance . . . and relief. I feel relief!”

“And where do you feel it?” she asks.

Balance seems to reside in my shoulders, and in my neck. I am sitting tall. At the same time, relief sweeps downward like falling water, churning pleasantly back up toward my heart. I am calm, and happy. I am sitting in a room, staring at Dr. Jane, and I have manufactured this experience, which doesn’t make it any less real.

Dr. Jane is very happy for me. “Welcome, balance,” she says. “Welcome, relief.”

The timer dings. We wrap the session, and I agree to try and refresh the feelings of balance and relief every ten minutes for the next five hours because I can, and because it will feel good, and it will reinforce neural pathways that benefit me, and by extension, others.

Leaving her office, I reflect: in three sessions of CIMBS, I’ve gotten in touch with a physical awareness of my emotions, and I’ve learned that I can create the feelings I want. This, it seems, is exceedingly valuable. If I can generate the feelings I want, then I can practice. I can get better at it. Eventually, I can reduce the stress I feel, the disconnectedness, the lost feeling. I can see myself. How subtle and simple, the act of looking with the intention to see. What a relief it is simply to be seen.


Every morning, I see the young mother commuting downtown on the D Line. Her daughter is just a few months new, but it seems mom is already going back to work. Compressed air sighs from the bus as the driver lowers the platform to accommodate the two of them, their stroller, their backpack and purse. Someone stands up, and the mother sits down. We commuters witness and watch.

The infant peers up at her mother, who gazes back at the tiny new being that is half the mother and half someone else and all her own person, too. They burble and coo. In the infantile language of unconditional love, perhaps the parent is as soothed as the child. The whole bus is charmed.

Soon, though, the girl begins to cry. Perhaps she needs to be fed, or changed, or to go back to sleep. We commuters sip coffee; we could all use more sleep. As the girl’s doll face grows misshapen and red, her mouth a widening refusal to be comforted, the mother nevertheless attempts it. She brushes loose yellow hair from her own face as it changes, her anxiety visible and growing as she tries and fails to control her tiny yet dominant child. The commuters grow restless. The mother mouths apologies, which are returned with generous or pitying looks that say it’s nothing; she looks back to the child; bouncing her knees gently, she pleads, shhhhh!

Lesson one: don’t feel loudly in public. The baby is too young to understand, but soon enough, her sense of propriety will be established. Soon, the child will understand that feelings are a matter of should – that there is a way one should feel in a given context. In general, the way children should feel is whatever will not disturb the adults around them. Soon, and for the rest of her life, the child will know: on a bus, one should not cry.

I see you, I think silently at the mother and child.

The human brain is largely a mystery. The brain’s eighty billion neurons form trillions of connections with which to ferry and form the electrochemical impulses called thoughts. Well-being is just an idea, then, just a name for the pleasant arrangement of chemistry. In real life terms, perhaps well-being is never so well as in those early moments, before anyone says bad or good girl, when all the world is charmed.

I see the smartly dressed woman on my left putting on makeup for ten minutes and the man across from her, who is falling asleep. We are a kind of community, for an hour every morning, on our Smart phones, looking stressed, looking tired, looking anywhere but at each other. Compressed air sighs from the bus as the doors open and I step out amid the busy pigeons, the crows that walk and hop. I see a cop writing a ticket, and a homeless man whose nose is running into his mustache. I see the day approaching and myself moving through it, clear-eyed and calm.


  • Amaris says:

    Have you heard of Marina Abramović’s performance piece “The Artist Is Present” at MoMA? Every day between March 14 and May 31 2010, Marina sat in MoMa. Visitors were encouraged to sit silently across from the artist for a duration of their choosing, becoming participants in the artwork. Looking into her eyes, many started crying.

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks for responding, Amaris. That video is exactly what happens during CIMBS, minus the red gown, hand holding, and applause. I’ve never cried, but I have talked about how an earlier me — the me of my 20s — certainly would have. According to Dr. Jane, most people really intensely dislike CIMBS, which is understandable. I think that to face another person in this manner, you have to be willing to face yourself. There was a time in my life when to be presented with my own raw emotion would have sent me running in the opposite direction. I’m glad to be able to handle it now.

      Abramović’s work is amazing. I’ve seen the documentary “The Artist is Present,” but I’d love to see her in person.

  • Loved this piece, especially the ending. And this spoke to me:

    “We are a kind of community, for an hour every morning, on our Smart phones, looking stressed, looking tired, looking anywhere but at each other.”

    It made me think about how I sometimes feel more alone in a crowd than when I’m by myself.

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks for responding, Asa. I feel alone in crowds when I’m conscious of the lack of connection I share with others. At the outset of a yoga class once, a teacher made us turn the mats toward the center and make eye contact with others; while we stared, the teacher talked about the power of community and how we were part of each other’s community. I’ve seen every bus ride differently since.

  • Jaime R. Wood says:

    There’s something kind of holy about public transportation, the great equalizer. We’re all just trying to get somewhere else. No one’s more special or great than the next person. It seems fitting to end this piece on various types of therapy with a scene on the bus. I love this!

    • Nicole says:

      Thank you, Jaime! I’m also interested in public transportation as a touchstone of reality. A friend of a friend recently took the bus and had nothing but complaints about the state of the city near the bus stops: she lamented the “riffraff,” as it were, essentially being allowed to exist. Then she finished her day and went back to her comparative mansion in Issaquah. It struck me how quietly sinister physical separation can be – how it leads us to dehumanize each other. Maybe the bus is the new church. To be sure, all are welcome in its vinyl sanctuary.

  • Melina says:

    Damn, Nicole. This is so necessary and beautiful.

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