WHAT IS CLARITY?
When people ask me what it means to have clarity, I ask them to imagine themselves making a cup of tea. What do you need to make tea? The answers I usually get are hot water and, of course, tea leaves.
These two things are certainly necessary for making tea, but they aren’t the only requirements. They aren’t even the most important. When making tea, the first thing you need, before anything else, is a cup. You need a container in which to place the tea leaves and pour the water.
Clarity is that cup. The experiences we have and the things we do are the tea leaves and water that go into the cup. Together they can make a wonderfully tasty and nourishing tea, but it doesn’t work unless you have a cup.
Imagine what would happen if you tried to make tea without a cup. When you poured water over your tea leaves, there would be nothing to contain them, so you wouldn’t get a nice cup of tea at all. All you would get would be a mess.
Like lacking a cup, lacking clarity is no small matter. Without it we are unable to contain or give context to our actions and the things that happen in our lives. It’s why so many of us are unsure of what to do when we feel stuck or unhappy. It’s why we feel unprepared for life’s challenges and traumatic events.
When I was in medical school, I memorized a phone book’s worth of information each week, but none of it taught me anything about how to live my life. That’s why, when I received my cancer diagnosis, I was lost. I knew a lot about cancer and how it affected the body, but I had no idea how to handle the fact that I was now facing it myself. Like water being poured over tea leaves without a cup, my thoughts and feelings flowed all over the place. I was a mess — until, that is, my friend Gary came along and did for me what I couldn’t do for myself. He contained me. In that crucial moment, he served as my cup.
Without this tremendous gift that Gary gave me, I don’t believe I would have been able to heal from cancer. That lunch in the Mexican restaurant was the start of my recovery. Later on I realized I needed to be able to do for myself what Gary had done for me. Cancer was my challenge of the moment, but it wasn’t going to be the only difficulty I would face. I couldn’t go through life hoping Gary, or someone as generous and knowledgeable, would be around every time I needed clarity. I had to learn how to serve as my own container — how to create my own cup.
A potter creates a cup by knowing which parts of the clay to keep and which to discard as she forms her vessel.
In much the same way, clarity is what allows us to take from any experience the lessons we can use — those elements that help us learn, grow, and expand our consciousness.
Then we discard the rest, continually clearing our cup of all the fear, resentment, judgment, sadness, and other bits and pieces that won’t serve us moving forward. Such things only get in our way, and perhaps even harm us, when we allow them to stick around.
Clarity has its roots in a theory developed in the 1960s by British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. The basic idea behind Bion’s theory is that, in order for us to process our thoughts and feelings fully and effectively, we must first be able to contain them. This is the opposite of what most of us instinctively do with uncomfortable or unhappy feelings, which is to ignore, dismiss, or try to change or control them.
Containing means being able to gather and hold what we’re feeling, being present with it so that we consciously experience it in a nonjudgmental and empathic way. As we process it in this way, we enable it to pass through us.
Ironically it’s this containment, this act of holding, that allows us to move through our thoughts and emotions. It’s a process that both requires space and creates space.
To understand what I mean, think about cleaning house. A few years ago hoarding became a popular subject for the cable networks. A&E had a show called Hoarders, TLC had Hoarding: Buried Alive, and the Style Network featured ten seasons of Clean House. If you’ve seen any of these shows, or know someone who hoards, you know the mess hoarders live in is something that builds up over time. It might start with a few piles of newspapers on the floor, stacks of clothes that never get put away, or dishes piling up in the sink. As hoarding habits continue, a little clutter turns into crowdedness. Then the crowdedness spreads, first across one room, then across two. If a person continues on this trajectory, pretty soon their house is overrun. In an extreme hoarder’s home stacks of stuff lie everywhere, the floor is barely visible, and the hoarder has hardly any room to move. Because they haven’t cleaned things up, they can’t move around, which makes it hard to clean since there’s no room to maneuver.
We get stuck in much the same way psychologically and spiritually, or psycho-spiritually, as I call it, when we suppress or internalize our thoughts and feelings. As the saying goes, “Feelings buried alive never die.” In other words, if we don’t make a habit of containing and processing our feelings and thoughts, our internal landscape goes through the same kind of devolution as that of a hoarder’s house. Such feelings and thoughts hang around, cluttering up our consciousness. Over time, unaddressed clutter will continue to build, not only crowding out our authentic being but festering and becoming unsanitary, even downright dangerous. When the buildup reaches this level in our internal landscape, that’s when disease erupts in our bodies or our life circumstances.
Clarity, therefore, isn’t just a cup. Clarity is a clean cup. In order for our tea to be tasty, healthy, and restorative, we not only need a cup to drink from, we need that cup to be clean. Achieving clarity isn’t only about creating a container but about keeping the container decongested and free from contaminants.
The muck stuck in the bottom of our cups consists of our biases and prejudices. It’s our limiting beliefs and our many distractions. It’s repressed emotions and unprocessed experiences (bad or good) that stick with us, drain our energy, and get in our way. We need a way to process and make sense of the things that happen in our lives — all the experiences we have, the thoughts we think, the emotions we feel — so this muck doesn’t stick around and build up until it overwhelms us. Like cleaning house, this is an ongoing process. The longer we go without taking action, the more work there’s going to be when we finally start, and the more likely it is we’ll unearth something truly nasty that’s been growing unseen in the darkness.
Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
What a Lack of Clarity Looks Like in Everyday Life
To envision how a lack of clarity could be showing up in your everyday life, think about a couple in the midst of an argument. For them to come to a mutual understanding and proceed in a way that’s best for the relationship rather than for either individual, the conversation needs a context. There needs to be agreement that the other has a valid perspective and deserves to be heard. The couple can then usually work toward a positive resolution.
However, you’ve doubtless not only witnessed or even been a part of disagreements that lack context and observed how quickly they can go off the rails. Voices grow louder as the two sides struggle to make themselves heard and understood. Instead of listening closely, the parties talk over one another, interrupting to try (usually unsuccessfully) to make their points.
In such a situation, both are more interested in proving who’s right than in coming to a mutual understanding. Because they can’t agree on what “right” is, they get stuck on repeat instead of moving forward. The language becomes harsher, more judgmental, more emotionally charged. The conversation quickly devolves into an uncontained mess, leading to anger, frustration, and hurt feelings, with no mutually satisfactory resolution in sight.
Does any of this sound familiar?
How about this one? I once saw an acquaintance’s toddler, who was learning to walk, waddle unaware straight into a glass door. The little boy fell to the floor and immediately burst into tears. He wasn’t injured, but he experienced a mixture of fear, confusion, and upset that his young mind didn’t yet know how to process. Alerted to the situation by her child’s cries, his mother hurried over to him. But instead of reaching out to comfort him, she immediately started yelling, “Oh my God, oh my God, what’s happened to you?” Glancing around the room, she spied her husband, and began chiding. “Why did you leave this door closed? Why weren’t you watching him? What’s wrong with you!” The husband, feeling blamed and wounded, yelled back. That poor little boy, reacting to his parents’ uncontained emotions, howled even louder.
Instead of reacting from a state of distress or looking for someone to blame, the mother could have contained her feelings. She could have calmly walked over and picked up her child, hugged him, wiped away his tears, and gently assured him that everything was going to be okay. Once the child had been sufficiently soothed, so that he calmed down, she might then have tapped the glass to help her son understand what had happened to him. She could have shown him how to walk past or around the glass so he wouldn’t repeat his accident. In this way she could have contained his feelings and contextualized his experience, allowing him to return to emotional equilibrium and modeling how to one day do this for himself. Our parents, and especially our mothers, are our primary teachers in the art of emotional containment, but if they haven’t mastered it for themselves their children may never learn it.
A lack of clarity doesn’t just show up in our lives as negative experiences and difficult relationships. It can also mean the difference between life and death, as was brought home to me not long ago when I was in my car heading home on a packed Los Angeles freeway. A motorcycle zigzagged by me, threading through the crawling traffic. “Please slow down,” I said out loud as I saw him come within inches of a car’s bumper. Moments later, I watched in horror as another car changed lanes just ahead of him. Because the motorcyclist was moving too fast to get out of the way, he plowed right into the car. As his motorcycle crashed to the ground, I watched his body sail through the air.
I immediately pulled over and rushed to the man’s side. When I got there, a woman who had been closer to the accident was already with him. This guy couldn’t even move, and yet he was asking her about his motorcycle. “If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about your motorcycle right now,” she told him. “You’re in horrible shape.”
The man’s eyes widened in fear when he heard this, so I decided I had better step in. Afraid he would go into shock if someone didn’t contain him, I knelt down by his side, held his hand, and looked him in the eye as I said, “I’m a doctor and you’ve been in an accident. An ambulance is on its way. The good news is the worst is over now and you’re going to heal.”
When I said this, I could see the man practically melt with relief. I had his attention. To keep him present and in a state of relative calm, I kept talking. “I want to ask you some questions. I want to call someone for you. Who can I call?”
“My sister,” he answered. “Her name is . . .”
I wrote her name down on my hand.
“Great, you’re doing great. Now, do you have any allergies?”
“Do you take any medications?”
“Yes,” and he listed a few. I wrote those on my hand as well.
We continued talking until the ambulance arrived. By that time, not only did I have all the information the paramedics needed, the man was calm and contained. He was no longer breathing heavily or fixated on his motorcycle. His eyes were no longer darting all over the place. Despite his injuries, he was able to engage, answer questions, and understand what was happening, which is the best state to be in to participate in your own healing.
The situation could have played out very differently. It could have been a chaotic, confusing, and frightening experience for that motorcyclist. But it wasn’t, and this can make a crucial difference. Research has shown that if you walk into a traumatic situation and do what I did, you actually increase the person’s chances of surviving.
In every situation we encounter, from relationships to parenting, traumatic events and beyond, clarity is what we need in order to process the situation, give it meaning, and ultimately heal emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Without clarity, life can quickly get out of hand and stay that way.
What Clarity Looks Like in Everyday Life
Having clarity means having the psycho-spiritual space we need to process and make sense of everything that happens in our lives — all the experiences we have, all the thoughts we think, all the emotions we experience. But it is so much more.
In the beginning, creating clarity may be mostly about cleaning your internal house. You may be starting out with a lot of repressed feelings and unresolved traumas or issues you need to deal with in order to clean your cup. But once it’s clean and you have a process in place to help you keep it clean, you will be able to create clarity on a regular basis, which is when things change.
With clarity on your side, you’ll find yourself more prepared for whatever life may throw at you. You’ll better enjoy the ups and more easily handle the downs. You’ll be more resilient, and more powerful, and better able to steer your life in the direction you want it to go.
When we stop blaming and judging ourselves and others, stop internalizing negative feelings and experiences, a great burden is lifted. With clarity comes a positive shift in our self-image and self-esteem. The immediate result is an expanding sense of freedom.
In this frame of mind we naturally make choices that benefit us, so that our lives start to work again. Because we’re thinking of and treating ourselves differently, other people react differently to us. New opportunities arise and troubled relationships either improve or resolve in an organic way, making room for new friends, business associates, or romantic partners.
At the same time, clarity provides a powerful confidence boost. “Not enough” and “I can’t” aren’t obstacles any longer, so that we begin taking risks and doing things we never thought ourselves capable of or gave ourselves permission to try. Clarity provides both the joy and the courage required to live with absolutely no regrets.
I saw this shift happen with Brian, an actor who came to me because he was losing his hair. It began with his facial hair, then his eyebrows, and finally the hair atop his head. Alopecia is a difficult experience for anyone, but it was especially troubling for someone like Brian who made his living as an actor. It wasn’t just his self-esteem on the line, it was his ability to earn a living and support his family.
Various medications can treat the symptoms Brian was experiencing, but for true healing to take place we had to look beyond the prescription pad. (For the record, I’m not against many conventional methods or medications for treating disorders and disease. I just believe they are often woefully inadequate, treating the symptoms but leaving the root cause of a condition unaddressed.)
We began Brian’s treatment with a conversation. As I talked with him, I discovered the hair loss that had caused him to seek my help wasn’t his only symptom. He was also suffering from severe anxiety and insomnia. This suggested to me that he felt profoundly disempowered for some reason. I knew from our discussion that his marriage was quite healthy, so I asked if there had perhaps been a time in the past when he’d felt weak or powerless. As soon as I posed the question, his eyes grew wide and filled with tears. A specific incident came immediately to mind, and he began telling me about something that had happened at work.
Brian had been cast in a film that required his character to do a shower scene. Prior to going on set, he made it clear to the director that he wouldn’t be removing his towel for the scene. To his relief, the director agreed to shoot around the towel until, that is, they were on set. Just as the cameras were about to start rolling, the director pointed to the towel and said gruffly, “Lose it.” When Brian reminded him of their conversation, the director ignored what the actor was saying and grew increasingly impatient. Finally he yelled in front of everyone on set, “Come on, lose the damn towel! Don’t be such a prude. You’re holding up the entire production!”
Since everyone was staring at him, Brian’s resolve faltered. In a moment of utter frustration and humiliation, he tossed the towel aside and went ahead with the scene. As he recounted the incident, he said he could still feel the shame of that moment as acutely as if it had only just happened. Although he was angry with himself for compromising his principles and allowing this man to bully him in front of everyone, the fact was that he felt helpless. What could he have done? Walk off set, losing money and burning professional bridges in the process? He’d needed that job, which meant the director had all the power.
From this point Brian found himself having trouble asserting himself in professional situations. As this happened more and more, his symptoms grew worse and worse. He hadn’t made the connection before, but once he did he could see clearly that he couldn’t continue to allow these kinds of situations to happen.
Brian’s treatment centered on helping him reconnect with his inner assertiveness. To assist him with this, I handed him a special gold coin that I had received from my mentor Gary when I thought I was going to die from cancer. It was a gold South African Krugerrand and giving it to me had been Gary’s way of helping me remember, as he put it, that “love is that gold you keep inside you.”
For me this gold coin had come to symbolize the golden decision I had made not to accept my doctor’s invasive treatment plan but to trust I could find a better way to heal. After sharing its significance in my life, I asked Brian to wrap his hand around the coin and visualize the center of his soul, which housed his sacred right to self-determination. He was so moved by the experience that he asked if he could keep the coin for a while as he made some changes in his life.
One Sunday about six months later, I was at a café feeding lunch to my young daughter, Hannah, when I felt someone touch my shoulder. I turned around to see Brian beaming at me. “Dr. Sadeghi, I just did something I think will make you proud,” he announced. Then he told me about the short film he’d just finished shooting in which he not only starred, but also made his directorial debut. This time he was calling the shots, thereby asserting himself in a truly positive and empowering way. Being in charge had allowed him to take back his power from the many directors who had walked all over him in the past.
As Brian told me about making the film, I could feel the change in him. I could see it too. Not only was he more present and confident, but much of his hair had grown back and thickened.
Following our conversation, he gave my gold coin back to me. “Thank you for lending this to me,” he said, “but I don’t think I’ll be needing it anymore.”
Brian had come to me thinking he needed help with his thinning hair, whereas what he really needed was help finding clarity by addressing the sense of powerlessness that had intruded upon his professional life. Once he did so, he was able to move his career forward, not to mention feeling better and more fulfilled in every aspect of his life. His body then responded by resuming normal hair growth because, in ways you will come to understand during the course of this book, our biography dictates our biology.
Clarity is the difference between being unable to assert yourself and having a healthy self-image. It’s what stands between having a combative relationship with your significant other or a supportive relationship. It’s what allows you to go from being the kind of parent who loses it in tricky situations to someone who’s capable of soothing, guiding, and modeling positive behavior. It can even be the difference between life and death.
Clarity, in other words, is pivotal.
All this may sound like a bit of magic right now, but I assure you that clarity can make this kind of radical difference in your life. I can also assure you that it’s within the grasp of every single person on the planet. If you give it a chance, you’ll see for yourself.
By the end of this process, you will not only know how to create clarity but also how to maintain it over the long term. What we all need moving forward is a clean, unadulterated space inside us — an unbiased, uncluttered context in which to process all the information, emotions, relationships, and events that are still to happen in our lives. We also need to know how to maintain this space by practicing good psycho-spiritual hygiene.
Once you know how to do this, there will be nothing standing in your way as you consciously choose the life you wish to lead. You will no longer stumble over the distractions, prejudices, beliefs, and stored‑up energy that most of us have to manage every day before we can begin to deal with new situations or make new decisions.
Having clarity doesn’t mean having all the answers all the time. Instead it means having a kind of internal GPS so you always know how to figure out what to do and where to go, no matter what you’re facing. It means having the psycho-spiritual space you need to process and make sense of every experience that happens in your life, so you know what to take from it and what to leave behind. In this way all of your experiences become an opportunity to learn, grow, and expand your world.
“Man longs for certainty, but that he cannot have. We cannot know, and should not try to know, the future of human society. No man has any right to assert: We will come through, or even: A favorable outcome is probable. Probability is irrelevant to history; there exist no measurable factors determining what our fate shall be. We can only know what is possible.
“But if we cannot have certainty we can at least have clarity, the redeeming clarity of the world view of man in nature, years or decades before the sciences give it their indirect confirmation. However, to accept this, man must have been purged of his prejudices such as being in an extreme degree pro or anti science or religion and be prepared for fresh hard thinking, open to the new everywhere. He must use his imagination, blunted as it has been at the deeper levels by technology and industrialism. Moreover, he must accept this fact:
Clarity carries no guarantee of any kind, of survival, of success. Clarity is an aesthetic, not a utilitarian value.
“What, then, does the world view imply for man’s conception of himself, his feelings, his thoughts, and his actions? This above all: morphic man knows that every life-enhancing impulse in himself is an expression of the organic tendency toward coordination, itself an expression of the universal morphic tendency. This awareness runs through many levels of his mind.
“At one level man experiences freedom of choice; he feels himself to be a free agent seeking order and harmony. But at a deeper level, aware of more, he knows himself to be less than free, the instrument of forces greater than himself. There is no contradiction here. The old antithesis of free will and necessity vanishes in the hierarchical view of man. The ‘higher’ levels of the mind express more specialized factors, the ‘lower’ more general. At one level he experiences freedom of choice, but when he becomes aware of the deepest level of all, he loses free will and experiences the bliss of enjoying and serving a pervasive unity. For joy is simply vitality without discord.”
— Lancelot Law Whyte, The Universe of Experience: A Worldview beyond Science and Religion