That Brutal and Wondrous Teacher Called Loss

People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That's not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn't understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you're given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.

--Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty

Right on time, life has delivered another one of those lessons that rips the shield right off.

Credit to I Can Has Cheezburger?

This past summer, on the cusp of turning 39, I was honest with myself and my partner: if I didn't at least try to have a baby while I still could, I would feel deep regret. Being the loving, supportive person he is, he jumped on board, and we began what some would call a fertility journey. I would call it another fucking growth opportunity (AFGO for short).

For anyone out there with ovaries who has struggled through this process of trying to generate a living being in your body, I first want to say, "I'm sorry." I'm sorry we live in a society that still treats women's bodies like objects for sale or hire and happily assigns blame and shame when the baby-making process goes awry. So many U.S. blogs, books, and medical sources focus solely on what individual women need to do to make their bodies a cozy sanctuary for a new life. You have stress? Lower it! Never mind if you work in a soul-sucking institution or have a boss breathing down your throat. Just put on that cape and make it go away. And if you choose not to lower your stress and experience a miscarriage or complications? Well, that's your own doing.

For those of us who struggle not to blame ourselves when life takes an unexpected, difficult turn (and most women I know fit this bill), these messages of individual responsibility are at best not helpful. At worst, they enter our psyche and wreak havoc on our ability to protect and nurture the one life that is truly our own. Of course we need to take responsibility for our actions and choices. But we do not live in a vacuum. We shape and are shaped by our environment and the people in it. Interdependence and imperfection are the rule, not the exception, for our fumbling human selves.

I recently had my second early miscarriage. The day before it happened, I had an exceedingly stressful day at work. The self-criticism alarms started blaring and quickly rose in volume and intensity. Not only should I have handled the previous day differently, but I also should have treated my body better all the years leading up to this moment.

Thankfully, I have some really good feedback systems in place, which gave me some much needed perspective. First and foremost, I have a partner who witnessed my sadness without trying to fix it. Instead, he gently stroked my hair, listened, and was present. His only suggestion was that I not be so mean to myself. I am very lucky. I also have a wonderful doctor who immediately told me this kind of thing happens frequently and was not my fault. I reached out to some friends who have been through this process, too, and they offered loving words of support.

In addition to drawing on these and other external resources, I have gone inward and used the self-compassion and mindfulness skills I recommend to my clients. When I've asked the inner critic to step back, I've discovered several important things. For example, I see that the chronic stress and fatigue associated with years of climbing an unending achievement ladder were not consciously and freely chosen. I was doing the best I could with what I had in some pretty unforgiving environments. While I continue to acknowledge and seek to transform the numerous privileges I've received in this lifetime for no good reason (e.g. my skin color), I have stopped denying that I also suffer. So I can say and actually mean that this most recent loss was real, as is my grief about the years I spent trying to be somebody other than who I am. I thus have begun to believe for real that my ways of coping with that inauthenticity--such as working too hard and drinking too often for too long--were attempts to get through this life in one piece. Even if I did irreparable damage to my body, I can forgive my younger self for not being able to find a way to take better care of myself then and feel grateful that I am able do that for myself now.

Regardless of how this AFGO turns out, it has already opened me. And that is a gift, despite the heartache included in the wrapping. For all you wannabe parents out there, I wish you ease and enough space for all parts of this experience. To borrow again from Pema Chodron, “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy."

 

 

 

Making Contact

Creating a connection is mandatory.

--Ron Kurtz, Pioneer of Hakomi

I happily return from my blogging hiatus, which was in part due to my participation in a sensorimotor psychotherapy (SP)* training. A key component of this introductory training was learning how to make contact statements with clients. I found inspiring the SP message that we must make contact with what matters most to facilitate growth. Making contact--creating connections--seems exactly like what we need to do at this time to heal not only the interpersonal wounds of our lives but also the more macro-level injuries, such as the institutionalized racism and violence in the United States that the recent grand jury acquittals have so rawly exposed. The latter claim may seem like a stretch, but I hope you will stick with me as I seek to link contact statements to broader social forces.

Credit to the Boomer Health Institute

 

The pioneers of SP and authors of Trauma and the Body describe contact statements as "ways of contacting mental and emotional experience that demonstrate attunement without encouraging a thinking about action." They are short and uncomplicated (our trainer recommended they be three to six words) and help clients to become more aware of their present experience. Here are some of the contact statement examples provided by the authors:

"Seems like your body is tensing."

"Looks like a lot of emotion is coming up right now."

"Seems like these thoughts are confusing."

We deepen what we contact with such statements, which strip away wordy, abstract explanations of our experience. And with their tentative tone (e.g., using phrases like "seems like"), they highlight that the listener is the only one who can know their inner experience and create an opportunity for revision when we, the speaker, mistake one thing for another, such as contacting anger rather than grief.

Since the SP training, I've been thinking about how the use of contact statements could transform romantic and familial relationships, media interviews, and dialogues about difficult topics. Can you imagine what might happen if even for one day we stopped interrogating each other and instead sought to contact the other's experience?

I believe an important outcome of such a social experiment would be the realization that searching for causes before we understand how phenomena impact us is misguided. Too often "why" questions sound like skeptical criticism that invalidate our immediate experience. That is my rationale for recommending that struggling couples try to ban why questions from their conversations. I invite you to track your response to each of the following statements to support the assertion that why questions frequently spur defensiveness and/or withdrawal from the interaction.

"Seems like you are feeling a lot of pain."

"Why are you so upset!?"

Understanding the history and origins of problems is important. Certainly. But if our inquiries stay in the realm of analysis and critique, we do not contact the human aspects of our lived experience. We do not connect. Contact statements, in contrast, cut to the heart of things. As Jennifer DeLucy said, “It makes me sad that so many people feel they're only allowed to show their best face, while their humanity and vulnerabilities are forbidden and hidden. How else do we connect, but by commonality, by mutual understanding and truth in life's experiences? Whether it makes you smile or cringe, a truth spoken is a healing thing.”

Already my own life has been transformed by the simple instruction to make more contact statements. I have become more aware of how often I am explaining, defending, or justifying something rather than attuning to what is actually going on, within me and in others. As I watch, read, and listen to the the facts and fictions of Michael Brown and Eric Garner's deaths and the aftermath of those deaths, I am drawn to the statements that generate and sustain connection. Given poetry's ability to humanize words, I want to close with Jason McCall's "Roll Call for Michael Brown," as it contains many opportunities to make contact.

It will happen,
an honest mistake
in a hot August classroom.
Someone will blink
at the name and swear this
“Michael Brown” can’t be
that “Michael Brown.” Or someone
will be too busy with her head down
finishing syllabi to look up and see the flash
grenades and tear
gas. Someone will be running
late, his mind on the cops
that will probably ticket him
for not having a permit.
Someone won’t see why a name
is such a big deal. Someone will
read his name like the next item on a list
of groceries and move to the next student
before the first groan rumbles
through the stale Missouri air.
Someone will start to speak
his name and then cover his mouth
like a Roman priest closing Janus’s door
and praying all the violence of the world will stop
short of his porch. Someone will ask,
“Michael Brown? Is Michael Brown here?”
and we will all have to answer.

* The Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute describes sensorimotor psychotherapy as follows: "Sensorimotor Psychotherapy® (SP), founded by Dr. Pat Ogden, is a body-oriented talking therapy that integrates verbal techniques with body-centered interventions in the treatment of trauma, attachment, and developmental issues, incorporating theory and technique from psychodynamic psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, neuroscience, and theories of attachment and dissociation."

Non-attachment is *$%& hard!

Whatever the desired outcome may be, some of us feel the need to push for it, to get there as quickly as possible. But that drive for future accomplishment just builds up the habit of always striving for something other than what we have right here and now. The result is that even when we reach our goal, we’re still being driven by those habits to look for the next thing. I’m afraid even Unsurpassed Complete Perfect Enlightenment will never be sufficient if you’ve built up strong enough habits of always seeking something else.

--Brad Warner

Credit to Domino-X

Last week the midterm elections took place. I live in Wisconsin and, as those who followed the election results know, the incumbent governor won. On Wednesday I saw a kind of collective depression on Facebook from those with whom I share political beliefs. Many of us wanted change. As a mental health care provider who sees many unmet needs in the community and as someone who is deeply concerned about our environment, I certainly did. I still do. But as Warner points out, we miss what is happening right here and now if we attend only to a desired outcome. New elected officials are not going to resolve the myriad local and more global problems we are facing. So if our intention is to work for more peace and justice, winning elections are but a small piece of the labor. As Grace Lee Boggs wrote,

Our challenge, as we enter the new millennium, is to deepen the commonalities and the bonds between these tens of millions, while at the same time continuing to address the issues within our local communities by two-sided struggles that not only say 'No' to the existing power structure but also empower our constituencies to embrace the power within each of us to crease the world anew.

I do not mean to suggest that we deny feelings of disappointment, anger, and sadness. We strengthen these emotions when we attempt to suppress them. But if we latch onto them like super glue rather than process and let go of them, they will undoubtedly diminish the possibility of engaging fully with the present moment. The more we attach to negative thoughts and feelings about undesired outcomes, the more self-centered and disempowered we become.

But Warner is pointing to an additional phenomenon so common in U.S. society--the use of aggression to reach our goals. Time and again, I find myself and others using any number of strategies to force things to be the way we want them to be. This behavior not only reinforces the "if only" mind that Warner describes but also frequently generates harm. To build up our business or get more accomplished at work, for example, we may push ourselves to the point of physical exhaustion or illness. To get in shape or lose weight, we may push our bodies beyond what they can safely accomplish and so injure ourselves. In terms of psychological healing, we may force ourselves to feel the depths of long suppressed emotions and end up feeling so overwhelmed that we shut down completely. Letting go of our attachment to particular outcomes is hard. But fighting reality is harder, even if it's what we know how to do best. To borrow from Byron Katie, “When you argue with reality, you lose, but only 100% of the time.”

Accepting reality means neither that we become passive nor that we give up altogether. I think of it as removing the logs that are jamming the river. We slow down enough to be able to see clearly what is real--including the structural violence and environmental degradation that are causing so much harm to ourselves and the Earth--and chart a path with a light touch, understanding that a matrix of conditions shapes the way our path unfolds regardless of what our ego wants to believe about the extent to which we can control an outcome.

I believe in the wisdom and power of pausing, especially when we come up against a stimulus we do not like. So in the wake of last week's elections I grow still and say aloud Jack Kornfield's words when I need to remember the value in doing so: "From moments of stillness, the most skillful way to love and serve becomes clear. By stopping to listen we connect with one another, and true community is born."

Coming Back to the Body

...the body actually holds our own enlightenment. Until we are willing to live through some of the wealth of information and emotions that have been offered to us but rejected, our awareness remains tied up and restricted.

--Reggie Ray, "Touching Enlightenment"

Lately the body has been on my mind a lot. Several of my clients are dissociated from physical sensations, a disconnect that protects them from various kinds of pain. Others have medical issues that doctors have not been able to diagnose. If the traumas and additional difficult experiences they have endured have been stored in their tissues, muscles, ligaments, tendons, blood, and bones, such physical manifestations of pain make a lot of sense. To borrow from trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk, their bodies keep the score:

bodykeepsscore

When people are chronically angry or scared, constant muscle tension ultimately leads to spasms, back pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and other forms of chronic pain. They may visit multiple specialists, undergo extensive diagnostic tests, and be prescribed multiple medications, some of which may provide temporary relief but all of which fail to address the underlying issues. Their diagnosis will come to define their reality without ever being identified as a symptom of their attempt to cope with trauma.

My own meditation and yoga practices have revealed to me just how much my body has held onto denied and rejected experience. A tense neck, shoulders hunched forward, and difficulty engaging in belly breathing reveal a long-held defensive and tense stance. That position helped me to survive numerous years in highly competitive and evaluative settings, such as the research universities where I was a student and academic. It's also taken a toll on my body and stands in stark contrast to the "state of total relaxation and safe surrender" that van der Kolk names as an important part of trauma recovery.

Throughout his new book, van der Kolk shares powerful stories of individuals who have been able to come home to themselves through their bodies. Annie, for example, was terribly abused by her father and mother as a young child. Van der Kolk writes that as a 47-year-old woman, "[s]he often coped with disagreements and confrontations by making her mind disappear. When she felt overwhelmed she'd cut her arms and breasts with a razor blade." As her therapist, van der Kolk suggested that Annie try yoga. After her second class, she wrote the following:

Yoga is about looking inward instead of outward and listening to my body, and a lot of my survival has been geared around never doing those things...After the class I came home and slept for four hours. This week I tried doing yoga at home and the words came to me 'Your body has things to say.' I said back to myself, 'I will try and listen.'

Annie slowly* came to realize that she held a lot of her pain and memories in her pelvic area. As she kept opening to her embodied experience through yoga (three times a week for about a year), Annie found she could speak more freely about the sexual abuse she experienced at the hands of her father. In a recent message to van der Kolk, she wrote,

I slowly learned to just have my feelings, without being hijacked by them. Life is more manageable: I am more attuned to my day and more present in the moment. I am more tolerant of physical touch. My husband and I are enjoying watching movies together cuddled in bed...a huge step. All this helped me finally feel intimate with my husband.

To soften and open to our bodies we need to learn how to accurately assess the safety of our environment and to trust our capacity to respond skillfully to whatever comes up, within and beyond ourselves. Why engage in this scary, vulnerable undertaking of touching enlightenment with our bodies? Because that is the path to becoming more fully alive and present, with others and ourselves. As Will Johnson asserts,

Many techniques can bring about a calming effect at the surface level of the mind, but if we’re sincere about wanting to truly awaken and become truly conscious, we really need to embrace the experience of the body as a focus of our practice and allow the deeply unconscious and unfelt sensations to start coming out of hiding. And yes, this can be a very intensive undertaking, one definitely not for the faint of heart! But what, really, is our choice? We either face our karma and release the accumulated tensions of the past, or we continue to avoid feeling the reality of the body and enshrine the tensions forever.

As Annie noted, our bodies have wisdom and knowledge to share with us if we can find the courage and support we need to listen to them. Given that I work with gender variant clients who desire to transform their bodies via medical interventions, I want to emphasize that developing more somatic awareness does not mean we cannot alter our bodies. The point here is to release the tension held in our bodies as well as the unconscious thought patterns that accompany that tension (such as Annie's belief that she needed to avoid feeling parts of her body that had been assaulted in the past) so that we can experience more ease and freedom in our daily lives.

It seems only fitting to close with a poem by yogi Danna Faulds:

It only takes a reminder to breathe,

a moment to be still, and just like that,

something in you settles, softens, makes

space for imperfection. The harsh voice

of judgment drops to a whisper and you

remember again that life isn’t a relay

race; that waking up to life is what we

were born for. As many times as you

forget, catch yourself charging forward,

that many times you can make the choice

to stop, to breathe, to be, and to walk

slowly into the mystery.

 

* As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, for Annie to do certain poses too quickly might have engendered significant panic or flashbacks to the sexual assaults. Van der Kolk emphasizes the importance of trauma survivors not beginning with too intense of bodily poses as intense physical sensations risk unleashing "the demons from the past that had been so carefully kept in check by numbing and inattention."

Aspiring to Become Hootless

Recently, I have been wanting a particular thing to happen in my life. And I mean REALLY wanting it. My mindfulness practice continuously teaches me that grasping after desires creates suffering, whereas trusting events to unfold in their own way, at their own pace, generates ease. When we can relax into our life, as it is, we feel more peace and contentment. But this practice of letting go of hoped-for results is no easy task, particularly in the outcomes-obsessed present-day United States. I therefore am consistently on the lookout for tips about approaching life with open palms (i.e. not trying to control everything!). Happily, an acupuncturist  just introduced me to a new concept: becoming hootless. Credit to icanhascheezburger.com

Hale Dwoskin describes hootlessness as follows:

Hootlessness is when you do not give a hoot whether you achieve a particular goal or not. Contrary to popular belief, you do not attain your goals when you desire them strongly enough. In fact, if you honestly examine your past experiences, you'll discover that most of the goals you've achieved are the ones that you let go of wanting--even if not by choice...When you allow yourself to release to the point where you are hootless about getting your goal, two things may happen. Either you'll find that you abandon the goal altogether and feel lighter because of it, or you'll be much more likely to achieve the goal than you were when you wanted it...The more hootless you feel, the freer you are to enjoy whatever you have in this moment without the usual fear of loss or disappointment.

What hootlessness amounts to in my book is a deep trust in our ability to handle whatever arises in our lives. In short, fear does not run the show, wholeheartedness does. This does not mean NOT having goals. It means relating to our goals in ways that allow us to be present to our lives, the people in it, and our environment. Hootlessness also allows us to approach life more flexibly instead of with a ton of rigid expectations, rules, and regulations. As Dwoskin points out, our wanting mind is often seeking approval, control, security, or separation. When we are able to name what we want and release our hopes and fears about how we are going to get there, space appears and we experience more freedom.

I appreciate Dwoskin's attention to language when we set goals. In his words,

'I allow myself to...,' 'I can...,' or, 'I open myself to...' are good ways to begin a goal in courageousness. 'I have...' is a good way to begin a goal in acceptance. 'I am...' is a good way to begin a goal in peace. These ways of starting a goal statement enable the mind to use its creativity to generate possibilities of how the goal can happen.

Here are a few of his courage-based goal statements that I find particularly useful for clients and myself:

  • * I allow myself to feel like I have all the time in the world. (This one challenges the scarcity model dominating U.S. culture.)
  • * I allow myself to have a loving relationship that supports me in my freedom and aliveness. (This one frames the setting of boundaries with others as an act of self-care.)
  • * I allow myself to love and accept (or forgive myself), no matter what. (Hooray for self-compassion!)
  • * I allow myself to be at peace, relaxed in the knowing that all is well and everything is unfolding as it's supposed to be. (Enough said.)

When I follow Dwoskin's advice by being honest with myself about past experiences, I see that desperation and attachment to outcomes were not a central feature of realizing the goals that have been deeply meaningful in my life. For example, during my second year of graduate school, I grew increasingly uncertain about pursuing a doctorate degree, largely because my department did not feel like a good fit for me and my renegade goals. I spoke with my advisor about whether or not to again apply for a fellowship I had unsuccessfully sought the previous year. It would pay for the rest of my schooling and allow me to focus more intently on my studies. She asked if I would choose to stay in the program if I received the fellowship, and I was quick to say "Yes." However, I already had a plan B in place and no longer felt I needed the fellowship to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish vocationally. Lo and behold, I approached the application process much more calmly than I had the year before and had the presence of mind to do a little research about the professors who selected the award recipients so that I better knew my audience. I felt like the essay I submitted authentically represented my academic vision and let go of the outcome. Needless to say, I got the fellowship and ultimately completed the program and my dissertation in ways that honored who I was as well as my commitments to social justice and arts-based research.

In contrast, when I decided to leave academia to pursue becoming a therapist, I did not initially have a job. Increasingly desperate to land work that would pay my bills, I accepted an offer for a position that had a good salary but that was in an organization with which I did not share several core values. Afraid of ongoing unemployment and its financial consequences, I pulled myself out of another job search in which I was a finalist to accept the offer. That second organization had felt like home during the interview process. Less than a year after I took the first job, I was fired. The job was a terrible fit for me, and I had taken several vocal stands against one of the projects the organization was pursuing on ethical grounds. Being fired was a humiliating experience, and, years later, I am still healing from the shame of it.

I do not mean to be polyannaish about hootlessness. Sometimes we've got to do what we've got to do to get by, even if several red flags are smacking us in the face while we do so. But we oftentimes give in to our deepest fears when our wanting mind takes over. We then go about our lives in ways that create a lot of unnecessary suffering. That suffering can be a great teacher, to be sure. Being fired from that job was what my supervisor would call "another fucking growth opportunity" that helped me realize a depth of clarity about my path that I might not have attained without the experience. Going forward, however, I can approach my wants with more awareness about the ties that bind me and, to the best of my ability, release them.

Aspiring to become hootless is akin to what Pema Chodron deems experiencing hopelessness: "giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death." Embracing the uncertainty of life and inevitability of death while pursuing our goals is damn hard. But the benefits of doing so certainly outweigh the costs. The late John O'Donohue captures the fruits of becoming hootless with his beautiful poetry:

May I have the courage today

To live the life that I would love,

To postpone my dream no longer

But do at last what I came here for

And waste my heart on fear no more

 

May I live this day

 

Compassionate of heart,

Clear in work,

Gracious in awareness,

Courageous in thought,

Generous in love.

 

Ending the Self-Improvement Project

We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves--the heavy-duty fearing that we're bad and hoping that we're good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy, and the addictions of all kinds--never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.

--Pema Chödrön

For a very long time, I did not get the idea of ending the self-improvement project. I now see this blockage to understanding in the very words I just wrote. I was trying to work with an idea. In my head. I did not know how to experience a sense of sufficiency in my body and with my heart. Here lies a major stumbling block for us problem-solving/doer types who love the land of insight and abstraction. We think we can think our way into "being fully awake," and the joy of learning new concepts can trick us into believing we understand words like "touching our basic wealth" even though we haven't felt them below the neck.

Credit to The Frumious Bandersnatch

If I am really honest, I still spend many moments caught in the self-improvement cycle, otherwise known as the it's-never-*$#%@-enough syndrome. This deficiency-focused framework is such a deep habit that I can easily glide into it without awareness. Many aspects of the surrounding culture, with their continuous spinning of messages that we are indeed lacking some key ingredients, help to keep the scarcity trance intact. When in the thick of it, I do things like buy books that promise wholeness or obsessively critique my sessions with clients. I often manage to do two seemingly contradictory things at once: grasp for that some-day-I'll-be-good-enough feeling and bolster the inner critic who relishes saying things like, "Way to mess that up, Idiot." They both serve to strengthen my sense of inadequacy.

I've found that a useful way to interrupt my climb up the eternal ladder of inadequacy is to distinguish the desire to fill holes from the yearning to touch what matters most. The former sounds like this:

"I need to be different--and by "different" I mean better--than I currently am."

"I should be doing more," or, said in reverse , "I'm not doing enough."

"Why can't I figure this out!?!?"

"Get it together!" shouted to self.

In other words, the scarcity model centers on passing judgment, shaming, and blaming. In contrast, "mindful prayer," to borrow from Tara Brach, goes something like this:

"May whatever circumstances arise in my life--the great difficulties, the good fortune and joy--serve to awaken my heart and mind."

When I can remember to long for what really matters, which in my book amounts to a sense of belonging and connection, the urgency to do better, feel better, and be better eases up.  I can relax and come back into the present moment, where I have the capacity to turn my full attention (not just the intellectual kind) to that which nourishes rather than depletes me. To paraphrase Eduardo Duran, the focus shifts from curing something to bringing back harmony, where healing can happen.

In her poem "School Prayer," Diane Ackerman manages to capture in words this remembering of the "warmth and brilliance" that are our birthright:

In the name of daybreak

And the eyelids of morning

And the wayfaring moon

And the night when it departs,

 

I swear I will not dishonor

My soul with hatred,

But offer myself humbly

As a guardian of nature,

As a healer of misery,

As a messenger of wonder,

As an architect of peace.

 

In the name of the sun and its mirrors...

And the uttermost night...

And the crowning seasons

Of the firefly and the apple,

 

I will honor all life

--wherever and in whatever form

It may dwell--on Earth my home,

and in the mansions of the stars.

 

 

 


Intimate Honesty

An honorable human relationship--that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word "love"--is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.  

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

 

It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.

 

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

--Adrienne Rich

My partner and I frequently joke about my compulsion to tell the truth. I therefore was not surprised to find myself growing increasingly twitchy while reading the epilogue of Janis Spring's After the Affair, a book I have been using with couples who are attempting to recover from infidelity. In it, she wrote, "Keep in mind even if you're determined to rebuild your relationship, there's no correct response: It's not always better to confess or to conceal. You may decide to tell in order to get close again, and you may decide not to tell in order to get close again."

Now I try very hard not to go all black and white on the world. However, while reading this chapter I found my internal voice screaming, "You cannot hide an affair! You have to tell the truth to your partner!!" My intense reaction to this epilogue has gotten me quite reflective about interpersonal honesty and particularly its uses and misuses.

Credit to twenty pixels

 

Having learned the wisdom of going inward when I want to rant outward, I quickly realized the extent to which my direct experience with betrayal amped up the volume of the voice that wanted to argue with Spring's epilogue. It just plain sucks to have someone you trust deeply lie to your face only to later find out that they did so and chose not to tell you the truth. I do not think Rich was exaggerating when she claimed,

When we discover that someone we trusted can be trusted no longer, it forces us to reexamine the universe, to question the whole instinct and concept of trust. For a while, we are thrust back onto some bleak, jutting ledge, in a dark pierced by sheets of fire, swept by sheets of rain, in a world before kinship, or naming, or tenderness exist; we are brought close to formlessness.

That excruciating pain often worsens when the individuals doing the deceiving believe they were protecting you, for your own good. The message one often hears in this action is, "You don't think I can handle the truth." I, for one, would prefer to be treated like an adult, not a victim who needs to be rescued from my hurt feelings.

Spring wrote, "There's no way to predict with certainty how your partner will react, today or over time, but if your knowledge of your partner's character and personal history leads you to suspect that your secret will shatter his or her sense of self, it's probably wiser to keep the truth to yourself." I can live with this statement if the partner doing the concealing has strong evidence--beyond their subjective assessment--that the truth will actually crush their partner. After all, such justifications are frequently a projection of one's own fear onto another. The "my partner can't handle the truth" assertion can and frequently does serve as a flight from accountability, to our loved ones and ourselves. When someone sidesteps their own fear by accusing another of being too fragile or overly sensitive, that is an attempt to control the situation. It it crazy-making behavior, but it does not mean the accused is crazy. Or too weak to hear the truth.

I also would rather hear people acknowledge their self-serving intentions when using deception. These frequently include shielding themselves from a partner's anger, avoiding a confrontation with their partner's pain, and/or preventing the loss of the relationship. Honesty about our vulnerability in the face of difficult truths can spur empathy, compassion, and connection, even from the individuals experiencing betrayal. I thus view self-honesty as part of the "honorable human relationship" of which Rich spoke.

With all of that said, I've been paying a lot more attention to the way we deliver our truths, particularly as I grow more committed to living mindfully. The notion of wise speech in Buddhism has been especially useful in thinking about how to "refine the truths" I tell. The guidelines for wise speech "urge us to say only what is true, to speak in ways that promote harmony among people, to use a tone of voice that is pleasing, kind, and gentle, and to speak mindfully in order that our speech is useful and purposeful."

Wow is following these guidelines hard. It's so easy to exaggerate the truth, use biting words, harden our tone, and blurt out the first words that come to mind in the heat of a moment. What is more, reverting to an either/or framework when we are upset, hurt, or fearful can happen in the blink of an eye. In other words, we often need oodles of practice (and self-compassion for the numerous times we flub at executing wise speech) to hold and express conflicting emotions and thoughts in a single space--to be angry and loving; to speak honestly, gently, and kindly about difficult subjects.

To speak mindfully also means acknowledging that not all our thoughts and emotions need to be shared. As Carlin Flora wrote, "Constant venting of tiny stressors and criticisms can quickly hack away at the core of a relationship." Taking the time to discern what matters most can help us to discover when we are expressing truths that are actually helpful to our partners, ourselves, and the relationship.

Moreover, given our negativity bias as human beings, we often need to actively work on highlighting the positive aspects of our lives and relationships. I like the Gottmans' recommendation of cultivating a fondness and admiration system in our relationships, as it allows us to go from "scanning the environment for people's mistakes and then correcting them to scanning the environment for what one's partner is doing right and building a culture of appreciation, fondness, affection, and respect."

I still believe that revealing the truth of infidelity is more beneficial than hiding it in most cases. I also aspire to speak my truths wisely. In the eloquent words of Charlotte Kasl: "[T]here is no beauty in words that are intended to undermine, wound, shame, or harm...There is music in our words when they come from a kind heart and mind. A deep part of spiritual practice is to drop back inside and speak with intent to be clear, true, and kind."

The Importance of Acceptance in the Face of Pain

So much violence near and far has been testing my faith in humanity. With the ongoing demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, on the heels of Michael Brown's death, I am reminded of James Baldwin's potent words about his experience at the age of 19, when he was one year older than Brown on the day he was shot dead: I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one's skin caused in other people...That year in New Jersey lives in my mind as though it were the year during which, having an unsuspected predilection for it, I first contracted some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels...There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood--one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does, and will until the day I die.

Ferguson, Missouri. Credit to Getty Images.
Ferguson, Missouri. Credit to Getty Images.

This prose was published in 1955, but Baldwin was 19 years old in the early '40s. Seventy years later, that rage necessarily lives on.

I want to be clear. Baldwin's rage is not my rage. As a white person, I have experienced myriad racial privileges rather than the overt and subtle forms of racial oppression that African American individuals and additional people of color consistently face in this country. Instead of laying claim to such rage,  I can join the cause to challenge, over the long haul, the United States's pervasive, institutionalized racism and state-sanctioned violence. I also can write about something I have experienced directly, which is the violence and suffering that result when we do not choose to "live consciously" with our rage and additional difficult emotions that arise in troubled times--feelings like grief, alarm, disgust, and shame.

As a psychotherapist, I consistently work with the depression and anxiety that arise from trying to thwart the experiencing of hard emotions. Steven Hayes eloquently describes the direct relationship between accepting pain and living fully:

Life is about pain once in a while. And, when we step in the direction of something we care about, we often risk experiencing something that we'd rather not experience--hurt, regret, sadness, loss, anger, abandonment, anxiety, fear, remorse. If we operate from the perspective that our pain is something that mustn't be had, the trap is sprung. Pain transforms in that instant and becomes a problem to be solved just like other problems that must be solved. Yet, we cannot problem solve ourselves out of our own pain. All that effort to get a foothold on our anxiety can pull us out of our lives in a flash.

In the realm of rage, working with rather than from it presents a particularly trying challenge. Although anger is like rage in that anger is a surface emotion that often rests just above fear and sadness and is often expressed to protect oneself from experiencing those more vulnerable emotions, rage is born of powerlessness. To be with powerlessness--to let ourselves feel it without immediately reacting to it--is no small feat. AND when our lives are endangered, accepting a feeling of powerlessness is not wise. The fight, flight, freeze signal sent from the limbic system persists with good reason. Sometimes we have to defend ourselves to go on living.

We humans have inherited the gift of discernment and so, with practice, can differentiate perceived threat from actual threat. However, engaging in wise discrimination becomes exceedingly difficult when our environment is filled with menacing signposts--abuse, neglect, surveillance, profiling, hostility. When we feel chronically unsafe, it is hard to take a deep breath, let alone calm ourselves enough to clearly distinguish what feels real from what is actually true. In short, militarized zones do not foster the kind of mindfulness I am promoting. Still, as Baldwin reminds us, even in the face of grave injustice we have the choice to live consciously with rage or surrender to it. Steven Wineman poignantly narrates what surrendering to rage entails:

The expression of powerless rage is like the flailing of someone who is literally drowning. The survivor, who is reenacting the moment of trauma, is caught up in a desperate struggle for psychic survival. Someone in such a state cannot possibly gauge the impact of their actions on others. And to someone who is feeling powerless, acted upon, and profoundly victimized, it is typically inconceivable that we could be posing any threat or danger to others. Yet the flailing of a drowning person poses a very real danger to anyone who approaches, and so can the expressed rage of a survivor in a traumatic state. The irony is that someone acting from an internal state of sheer powerlessness can have an enormously powerful impact on anyone in their path.

What I know about rage does not come from living as a person of color in a racist society day after day. I am only the expert of my own experience, and the rage I have experienced most intimately comes from growing up as a woman in a man's world. For many years, I did not let myself feel the soft emotions below the hardened rage. I had been instructed to show a stiff upper lip--never let 'em see you sweat--and so did not touch the powerlessness, despair, and helplessness that rose up when facing shows of coercion, violation, and contempt. I grew to be wary of men in general, primed for a demonstration of disrespect shown toward me and often falsely detecting it when my own projections were stronger than my ability to see clearly the human being before me. I then engaged in my own dehumanizing acts--particularly mean-spirited speech--that left me feeling ashamed and more powerless. Looking in before acting out, to borrow from Ruth King, was necessary to transform the chronic rage that was eating me alive into a deeper understanding of the matrix of forces shaping each moment--forces that have deep histories and go well beyond the interpersonal interactions of our daily lives. It is an ongoing process of staying open enough to learn more about these forces and unlearning my conditioned reactions to feeling powerless. It is hard. It has been worth it.

I suppose my plea for humanity is to feel the pain within us. Really feel it. And to witness the pain of ourselves and others. That is compassion. We can then reenter the stream of life and consciously respond rather than automatically react to the pain. We do this to heal ourselves and the world. We do this to understand that awakening is a viable alternative to destruction. Thich Nhat Hanh has shown me the possibilities of awakening--of arriving in presence--so I share his poetry with you:

Don't say that I will depart tomorrow—

even today I am still arriving.

 

Look deeply: every second I am arriving

to be a bud on a Spring branch,

to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,

learning to sing in my new nest,

to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,

to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

 

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,

to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death

of all that is alive.

 

I am a mayfly metamorphosing

on the surface of the river.

And I am the bird

that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

 

I am a frog swimming happily

in the clear water of a pond.

And I am the grass-snake

that silently feeds itself on the frog.

 

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

my legs as thin a bamboo sticks.

And I am the arms merchant,

selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

 

I am the twelve-year-old girl,

refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean

after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate,

my heart not yet capable

of seeing and loving.

 

I am a member of the politburo,

with plenty of power in my hands.

And I am the man who has to pay

his "debt of blood" to my people,

dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

 

My joy is like Spring, so warm

it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain is like a river of tears,

so vast it fills the four oceans.

 

Please call me by my true names,

so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,

so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

 

Please call me by my true names,

so I can wake up

and the door of my heart

could be left open,

the door of compassion.

Going Home

Describing Bowenian family systems theory, James Bitter wrote,

Bowen taught individuals or couples about triangulation* and then expected them to go back to their family-of-origin to extricate themselves emotionally from these triangular patterns. The purpose of going home again is not to confront family members, or even to establish peace and harmony, but to encourage clients to come to know others in their family as they are.

Credit to Hey Girl Social Worker

I recently returned to my childhood town for my twentieth high school reunion. Although this event did not directly involve my family-of-origin, it did involve a kind of "going home again." While I looked forward to discovering the shapes of my classmates' lives, I also entered into that space with a fair amount of trepidation. After all, high school had been a challenging time for me despite my efforts to put on a happy face much of the time. As I performed the role of a high-achieving, engaged student from a "stable family," most of my peers had no idea that I begged my parents to let me leave our huge, competitive, suburban high school or that I struggled with the significant anxiety and depression that accompany perfectionism. I worried that I would face limited and limiting perceptions about who I am, thus feeling like a two-dimensional cardboard cutout of the person I consider myself to have become during the past twenty years. I imagine I was not alone in carrying this fear into the event.

How grateful I was, then, to encounter warm hugs, smiles, and heaps of curiosity about where we each had been during the last two decades. I learned of meandering career pathways, children born and children lost, and relationships that came together and fell apart. For the most part, we weren't there to prove something to each other but, rather, to reconnect with a significant part of our life history and those who contributed to it.

I have learned the hard way that trying to reject our experience is a recipe for suffering. We derive peace and contentment from developing a coherent life story that includes its many chapters, not just the ones we like best or that feel comfortable. As May Benatar eloquently stated,

So many of us have accepted, wholesale, someone else's version of our lives. If you have been told forever that your childhood was idyllic, you might be tempted to go along and not validate some of your own memories, or even your weak suspicions that things were not always perfect...It is truly amazing how much fog, depression, confusion and anxiety begins to lift when the story one narrates starts to be one's own. It needn't be a pretty story or even a wholly accurate story -- just one's own.

The people I encountered at my twenty-year high school reunion reminded me that being the author of our own stories directly and positively correlates with our well-being. I like to joke that I genuinely took back my own narrative in a parking lot a few years back when my dad asked, "You always wanted to be a [MD] doctor, right?" I responded, "No, Dad. I always wanted to be a writer, and I AM a doctor [of the PhD kind]." I needed years to know myself as I am so that I could assume roles I freely chose, such as writer, therapist, and recovering perfectionist instead of professor, striver, and stressball. That work allowed me to enter into my high school reunion speaking as the author of my own story and so feeling less scared than I otherwise would of my peers' projections of me. To the best of my ability, I listened to others' narratives about their own becoming, without assumptions or judgments obstructing my hearing. I am thankful for feeling heard in just this way by so many people that night.

My classmates also reinforced my sense that our ability to trust our experience as it unfolds is essential to feeling freedom and joy. Letting go of limiting beliefs (e.g., my childhood was idyllic) and roles (e.g., the good girl and the high achiever) that we learned from people and contexts outside of ourselves clears the path for such trust to take root. In the poetic words of Kaveri Patel:

Someone is Dying

 

That someone is me.

 

Not a 6 month to one year prognosis from a terminal illness, but a letting go of all I have ever known.

 

I used to believe that fear would save me. Worry just enough, and maybe even sprinkle just a little extra anxiety to convince myself I can control future events.

 

I know nothing. Except for this moment. Beginner’s Mind, my mind is like an empty page. The words cannot be written, the colors cannot

 

be painted until the moment arrives.

 

And when it does, I will know who to be, what to say, what to do. I am on the right path. I wish to let go of all my preconceived notions of what will happen. The only thing I wish to hold onto is trust in this practice.

 

Good bye old mind. I do not hate you. I do not wish for you to die sooner than you must. You brought me here. I will collect ashes from your pyre, let them scatter with the wind and float on the river.

 

You will join the earth, as I am born again.

 

* For those unfamiliar with triangulation and curious about what it is, Bitter did a great job summarizing Bowen's theory: "Bowen (1976) notes that anxiety can easily develop within intimate relationships. Under stressful situations, two people may recruit a third person into the relationship to reduce the anxiety and gain stability. This is called triangulation. Although triangulation may lessen the emotional tension between the two people, the underlying conflict is not addressed and, in the long run, the situation worsens."

 

Returning to Intention

Some of us are like Lotus, we can only grow in the mud. Extraordinary things happen when your world is tested. We may yearn for calm but yet we resist. To find your kind of extraordinary, recognize the opportunity, and take a moment to be still. Let your heart flower and grow. If it makes you feel alive, despite the challenges, keep it close for this IS your story. Live like the Lotus--pure in intention, rising above adversity, extraordinary, beautiful, and divine.

--Rita Said

Credit to The Cosmic Collage

 

As an academic who poured my attention into challenging injustices when and where they arose, I was fond of disregarding intentions. "Almost no one wakes up in the morning wanting to stomp on other people's heads," I would declare. "As the saying goes, the path to hell was paved with good intentions. I care about impact. Show me how your good intentions lead to justice and equity, rather than oppression and domination."

Although I still believe that we often evade taking responsibility for the contributions we made to harmful outcomes by using the "good intention" justification, mindfulness practices have deepened my understanding of how important clear-seeing intentions are for helping positive actions to unfold. More specifically, the realization that we need to pause and listen inwardly to become conscious of what our intentions actually are has been a game changer, bringing more aliveness and wide-awakeness to my daily life.

If we take a moment to be still and turn inward to understand our intentions , we may very well find they include a desire to be in control, an avoidance of pain and fear, and/or the receipt of approval. These intentions come from our ego self and warrant compassion, as they are trying to get us to where we THINK we ought to go and to protect us from PERCEIVED danger or harm. However they are, at the end of the day, "my will, not my heart's will."* As Tara Brach so beautifully articulates, listening inwardly with heaps of kindness is like moisturizer for the heart. We come back to what matters most to us, which is where pure intentions reside.

Since illustrations often work best to bring these kinds of insights to life, here is one:

Having committed myself to radical self-care, I frequently come up against old judgments. "That's so selfish!" one voice screams. Another chastises,"Way to buy into capitalist hedonism, escapism, and hyper-individualism, you self-centered piece of crap!" Man, can the voices inside our head be mean and take the wind carrying us toward a rest break, a nap, a sitting meditation, a slow flow yoga class, or--can I even say the words!--a massage right out of our sails. Becoming aware of the judgments that take me down the rabbit hole of despair is the first step toward finding my kind of extraordinary, and that awareness is no small thing. It comes with practice and the intention to be kind to myself. Only once I have actually hit pause on the self-criticism button do I experience enough stillness to listen to what matters most.

In that quietness, I know in my heart that my intention is not to prove something or to win a prize. My intention also is not to navel gaze. Here is what it IS: I wish for ease or peace, not only for myself but also for others. Additionally, I aspire to discern the goodness within and all around me so that my attitude is one of sufficiency and gratitude, with the wonderful side effect of seeing that my attention does not so easily turn toward what is lacking. These intentions make me feel alive AND contribute to a pathway that includes fighting for social justice without turning on others or myself.

To live like the lotus seems more like a wise intention than a  "good" one. I will keep it close as this IS my story, and I want to live it remembering, "The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing."

* Tara Brach uses this language in several of her dharma talks. Three in particular informed this blog post: Compass of the Heart, Listening with an Awake Heart, and Nourishing a Liberating Intention.

Enough Room for It All

I recently had the privilege of working with a yoga therapist on some alignment issues, and what do you know? The intense striving and time spent in my head during a long life chapter have taken a significant toll on this body o mine. This skillful teacher helped me to develop a mantra for the path forward, as I learn to breathe more from my belly and open up my constricted chest: "I have room enough for it all; I let go of control." I have room enough for it all. I remember being drawn into both/and theories while in college. They transformed the absolute, black-and-white truths of my childhood into a wondrous grey space of paradoxes and possibilities. "I am large, I contain multitudes," Walt Whitman insisted. For years I confined this more postmodern reality to the intellectual realm, not realizing that a both/and philosophy could apply to the conflicting emotions and physical sensations within. But then I realized I could love someone and be angry at them at the same time--that I could stay connected to another while feeling a difficult emotion toward them. Such a simple thing, really, yet so easy to miss the radical potential of saying, "And this, too," when an either/or framework has set in and flourished, without our conscious consent. Only when my heart was broken did I find my way into Pema Chodron's words:

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

What a revelation to realize I did not have to get rid of the fear and sadness; in fact, the more I resisted their presence, the more I strengthened their control over my daily life. And how terrifying to honor the fear since I firmly believed being afraid was something to conquer, not something to relate to with kindness. Fear-based thinking also drove much of my so-called success. If I let go of control, I questioned (though not with much awareness), who will get things done? Who will protect me from harm?

I have found the neuroscience that explains my revved up nervous system in evolutionary terms to be extremely helpful. We all have this iguana brain that takes us into fight, flee, or freeze mode from time to time (and more regularly than that for many of us). I can relax into the fear a little more knowing it's shared by everyone else on this planet. I am not alone. And. AND! There is so much evolutionary promise in attending to and befriending the fear since these actions reestablish our capacity for empathy, connection, and creativity. What is more, fear's presence, when I allow myself to become aware of it without judgment, can offer useful information--data, if you will--that leads to greater understanding of the world and myself. Then the fear does not flood the landscape, and I can let there be room for the coming together and the falling apart.

As for understanding how my body simultaneously can be rooted downward and expanded upward, I'm slowly and surely feeling my way there. Poets like Rilke help me to re-member,

If we surrendered to earth's intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Surrender. What a difficult word. It requires trust in ourselves and the surrounding world. So many of us have learned that the universe is not a friendly place but, rather, one filled with enemies and warfare. But what if we, like Einstein, decided the universe is an hospitable place? According to him, such a stance would result in using "our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives." When I slow down enough to listen to my own motives, I sense that my intention to understand is stronger than my desire to control, and surrender naturally begins to take place. Understanding, after all, requires opening up, not closing down and off.

So I like my mantra. And I like the instructions to repeat it with my hands on my belly, aware of my inhaling and exhaling breath. When the words become embodied in this way, I am reminded how miraculous and precious life really is. In Kute Blackson's terms, "Every breath you take involves an interaction and communication of trillions of cells. There are universes dancing inside you." There really is room enough for it all.

 "I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

"For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.
"If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.
"But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives."
"God does not play dice with the universe,"

- See more at: http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=797#sthash.IWsHNhI2.dpuf

 "I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

"For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.
"If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.
"But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives."
"God does not play dice with the universe,"

- See more at: http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=797#sthash.IWsHNhI2.dpuf

 "I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

"For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.
"If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.
"But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives."
"God does not play dice with the universe,"

- See more at: http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=797#sthash.IWsHNhI2.dpuf

 

 

Connecting busy-ness to laziness

Yesterday I did what I usually do when my mind is humming and an undercurrent of dis-ease is clouding the landscape. I went for a walk and listened to a Tara Brach talk. Her newest one had not yet been posted so I chose an oldie, "Vulnerability, Intimacy, and Spiritual Awakening," that I intuitively sensed might calm the storm within. I'm so glad that I did, as the alarm bell for which I longed sounded during this talk. It came in the form of a Tibetan belief: busy-ness is the most extreme form of laziness. Those words stopped me in my tracks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz_Yz0EAG78

In three days I will begin, in earnest, a full-time psychotherapy practice after a year of juggling my practice with a part-time job. My conditioned response is to keep riding the high-speed train of the past 12 months. What I know how to do best is attack my task list with gusto and hit the ground running with as much manic energy as I can assemble.

Thankfully I have some supports in place that regularly ask me to pause and reflect on my intentions and actions. Two of my fellow pilgrimage-goers, Marcelle and Grey, reminded me just this morning that my busy-ness is covering over significant fear and grief. Those emotions, in turn, are hovering over that which underlies everything in this living and dying world--our vulnerability.

This morning's gathering brought to life Brene Brown's wisdom that shame thrives in a petri dish of silence, judgment, and secrecy whereas it dissipates in the presence of empathy, or "me too." In the midst of two other souls working hard to realize their creative visions, I found the courage to touch the brakes and remember the questions that matter most: What is happening? Can I be with it?

Upon making this inquiry, I understood that my current journey involves creating anew not from a blank canvas but from ruins. I am drawn to the model of transition that highlights how major transformation begins with loss. The loss within me that has been wanting to be named and given loving (not critical!) attention is that this career is not my first one. I spent much blood, sweat, and tears--not to mention nine years--becoming an academic who had just begun to feel confident in her work. I also chose to walk away from that carefully sculpted career. On this new path of becoming a healer, I am once again unsteady and full of the self-doubt that new beginnings engender.

Earlier today I was able to reconnect with that tender point in time when I was a graduate student who did not speak during her first semester of classes and constantly second-guessed her ability to be a contributing, welcomed member of an academic community. I also remembered that I did not stay in that place but grew, and even flourished, until that particular season of life ended, as they all do, with my conscious and encouraging assent. By slowing down, I came back to this wish: May we grant ourselves the space and time needed to let go of dying dreams so that new beginnings can unfold at their own pace.

With recognition of that vocational loss, enough space opened for another one to emerge. This more vulnerable wreckage wants air, too, so that it does not bloom on the petri dish of shame. Yet this particular loss is terrifying to share publicly, especially for those of us engaged in healing work, as it has the power to tear apart our sense of efficacy and value and, for me anyway, can instantly assume the spectre of the ultimate failure. Even as I write now, my chest is constricted in fear, and my stomach is wildly generating knots. That, after all, is why it's so important to name these remains and work with them--their power wilts in the face of "me too." Can I be with this? I think so.

A short time after beginning my private practice one of my clients committed suicide. I had no idea this highly pre-meditated end was on the horizon, and it brought me to my knees. To borrow from poet Danna Faulds, the suicide ripped off the doors of my heart and veiled my vision with despair. And what do you know? In the face of this violent finale, I got very busy.

Today, with the passing of time and the invaluable support of colleagues and friends, I have great compassion for the busyness-laziness that was born of trauma. I went into survival mode, largely functioning from the fight, flight, freeze part of my reptilian brain until I sensed enough space to remember that I could remain safe when staying with my experience. In other words, I arrived at a place of not needing to engage in a high-speed chase away from what initially felt like an oxygen-free zone of pain.

All of this is to say that sometimes the grief and fear are too much. We need time to be lazy and regather our shattered selves. My own aspiration is not to stay in a zone of busy-ness until I find myself gasping for air in a stagnant pool of exhaustion and misery. As a professor and survivor of suicide, I came close to inhabiting that place.

So I will close with gratitude for the beings and natural spaces that brought me back to the land of the living where the wind once again touches my skin and reminds me that this too shall pass, whatever this is. I also am thankful for writers and teachers like Ram Dass who shared in a letter to the grieving parents of a deceased child, "Our rational minds can never understand what has happened, but our hearts--if we can keep them open to God [or the interconnectedness of all things]--will find their own intuitive way." May we therefore allow our hearts to open and believe in our capacity to let pain "burn its purifying way to completion," when  we can once again rest in stillness and love.

 

Queering Couples Therapy

Mel Freitag and Amber Sowards getting Married! Credit to Amber Sowards of the Wisconsin State Journal. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb's recent ruling of Wisconsin's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional has inspired me to write about the direction in which I would like to see my own field of "marriage and family therapy" go.

Too often I find myself saying to LGBTQ clients, "So if you can ignore the gender-normative and heteronormative aspects of this resource on strengthening relationships, it could be useful to you." For clients who are in polyamorous or open relationships, most of the couples therapy literature all but screams out, "You do not belong here!" or worse. But heterosexual, monogamous couples also lose out by the narrow depictions of sexuality and gender that are so common in this field and our society more generally. The case studies presented in couples therapy texts, for example, frequently refer to "husbands" and "wives," presuming that the individuals participating in marriages and other relationship formations define ourselves in these historically loaded terms. For many of us committed to gender equality, however, "wife" sounds more like a bad word than a role we freely choose to assume.

My point is that the sexual and gender binary frameworks that we use as shortcuts to describe human difference usually do more to limit than strengthen relational ties. For instance, statements about how (all) men prefer sex and activities to talking whereas (all) women feel that talking brings them closer to their partners do more to reinforce cultural stereotypes and dominant gender norms than to address what is actually going on between people in the present moment. As Kenji Yoshino beautifully articulated in Covering,

...the mainstream is a myth. With respect to any particular identity, the word 'mainstream' makes sense, as in the statement that straights are more mainstream than gays. Used generically, however, the word lacks meaning. Because human beings hold many identities, the mainstream is a shifting coalition, and none of us is entirely within it. As queer theorists have recognized, it is not normal to be completely normal. All of us struggle for self-expression; we all have covered selves.

Happily resources exist that ask us to inquire into the limiting beliefs and roles--including gendered and sexual ones--that get us into hot water in our relationships. One book that I've found to be particularly useful is David Richo's How to Be an Adult in Relationships. Although not explicitly queer, Richo's book draws on mindfulness principles and practices to challenge normative frameworks ("ego wishes and attachments," in his words) that thwart intimacy. As he writes,

Mindfulness is inherent in human nature. We were built to pay attention to reality. Indeed, paying attention is a survival technique. Over the years, though, we learn to escape and take refuge in illusory sanctuaries built by an ego frightened of reality. We notice that it is easier to believe what will make us feel better, and we feel entitled to expect that others will be what we need them to be. These are man-made chains that look like links to happiness. But...We do not have to put our dukes up. We do not have to become the pawns of our fixations or our fixed conceptions of reality. We do not have to find a pigeonhole...We can simply let things unfold, attending to reality as it is and staying through it as we are.

Richo's work provides avenues for waking up in our relationships, not digging our heels in to repeat patterns from our families and cultures, which often include rigid conceptions of gender, sexuality, and marriage. In its call for accepting our "here-and-now predicament," Richo's model also holds space for the address of oppression and domination. Thus we can still attend to the harms sustained by virtue of being a member of a marginalized social group within his mindfulness approach. But we do so with an intent of restoring dignity to each other and ourselves rather than retaliating and punishing others.

Mindfulness resources like Richo's offer a useful alternative to gender-normative, heteronormative, and monogamy-centric relational therapies that currently dominate the field of couples therapy. In fact, the focus on "paying attention and letting go" in his book serves as a reminder to be wary of "queer" or "LGBTQ" relational models that ultimately recreate the very exclusion they sought to contest via "fixed conceptions of reality." The challenge remains to use queer as a verb, not as a noun, so that we keep on uncovering the natural wholeness that is our birthright. To borrow from Rumi,“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” 

 

Letting Go of the Controls

One of the most useful stories I've heard from Tara Brach centers on pilot Chuck Yeager losing control of his plane. As she wrote,

In his book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe describes how, in the 1950s, a few highly trained pilots were attempting to fly at altitudes higher than had ever been achieved. The first pilots to face this challenge responded by frantically trying to stabilize their planes when they went out of control. They would apply correction after correction, yet, because they were way out of the earth’s atmosphere, the rules of thermodynamics no longer applied, so the planes just went crazy. The more furiously they manipulated the controls, the wilder the rides became. Screaming helplessly to ground control, “What do I do next?!” the pilots would plunge to their deaths.

 

This tragic drama occurred several times until one of the pilots, Chuck Yeager, inadvertently struck upon a solution. When his plane began to tumble, Yeager was thrown violently around in the cockpit and knocked out. Unconsciously, he plummeted toward Earth. Seven miles later, the plane re-entered the planet’s denser atmosphere, where standard navigation strategies could be implemented. He steadied the craft and landed. In doing so, he had discovered the only life-saving response that was possible in this desperate situation: don’t do anything. Take your hands off the controls.

 

It’s the exact same way with us. As Wolfe wrote, “It’s the only solution that you had. You take your hands off the controls.”
Most of the people I meet have areas of our lives that we wish were different--unsatisfactory jobs, health problems, unhappy childhoods, addictions of various kinds, and difficult relationships, to name a few. Until we have practiced taking our hands off the controls in these situations, and so experienced the freedom of living presence that Brach describes, the idea of letting go may seem counter-intuitive if not downright idiotic. After all, we're controlling the situation to bring us a sense of safety and security. To admit we are standing on shaky ground brings up all sorts of scary truths. To control others, the environment, and ourselves is to deflect attention away from our vulnerability as living and dying beings.

Chopper expressing his discontent at being in the car.

The Controller is most palpable in my current life in the arena of my adored cat, Chopper. He's been my sidekick for close to 10 years and diagnosed with cancer for 2 of those. He has valiantly endured numerous unpleasant interventions and countless car trips to the veterinarian, which, as the photo above reveals, are not his preferred activity. But the tumors keep returning, again and again. We are at a juncture, Chopper and I, where the treatments no longer seem to be working and he is giving me numerous behavioral cues that he does not want to keep getting pricked with needles and swallow pills that make him feel lousy. To listen to those signals means I need to let go of the controls and, ultimately, to Chopper.

As I've written previously, animals matter intensely to many U.S. pet owners these days, and I am among them. This cat has accompanied me through moves across the country, relationship beginnings and endings, career changes, and other life transitions, and he has always--and I mean always--greeted me with unconditional love and acceptance. His relatively young age and uncomplicated, endess supply of love makes letting go of him more agonizing; the fact that he cannot tell me in English how he feels about his situation spurs a lot of doubt about my decision-making on his behalf. To stop fighting to save him from his cancer is maddeningly sad and terrifying, as the unknown future may hold physical suffering and deterioration from which I want to protect him and, honestly, do not want to witness. I therefore am grateful for Brach's gentle reminders that staying present to our own and others' lives, even when they include seemingly unendurable pain, opens us to the vastness of love.

In her book True Refuge, Brach tells another story that allowed me to see more clearly the possibilities engendered by presence on journeys of illness and loss. In this narrative, Pam's husband Jerry was dying from lymphoma after a three-year battle against it. Pam was doing everything in her power to keep him alive, and Brach gave her permission to let go of the controls:

"It  sounds like you've been trying really hard to take good care of Jerry...and it's been very busy," she said to Pam. "You've already done so much...but the time for all that kind of activity is over. At this point, you don't have to make anything happen, you don't need to do anything...Just be with him. Let him know your love through the fullness of your presence...In those most difficult moments...you might pause and recognize what you are feeling--the fear or anger or grief--and then inwardly whisper the phrase 'I consent'...All you can do is have the intention to pause, the intention to feel what is going on and 'let be.'"

Pam listened to Brach's advice and called her a month later to let her know that Jerry had died. She also relayed,

"Over those last few weeks I had to keep letting go of all my ideas of how his dying should be and what else I should be doing, and just remind myself to say 'I consent.' At first I was mechanically repeating the words, but after a few days I felt as if my heart  actually started consenting...When all of me was truly consenting to the fear and pain, I knew how to take care of him. I sensed when to whisper words of encouragement or just listen, ways to reassure him with touch...how to sing to him, be quiet with him. How to be with him."

This beautiful story unveils the power and strength of saying yes to our experiences and being with whatever arises. I now understand that if I pay attention to Chopper--really pay attention--I will know what to do, without needing to control the situation. In other words, I can trust the actions that emerged from the intention to be with him through whatever arises. Pam's story also gives me an aspiration for the time I have left not only with my beloved cat but also the other living beings gracing my life. As she said about her final days with Jerry, "In the silence I could see past a sense of 'him' and 'me.' It became clear that we were a field of loving--total openness, warmth, light. He's gone, but that field of loving is always with me. My heart knows that I came home...truly I came home to love."

 

Honoring Resistance During Times of Change

In a few short weeks, I will begin working full-time in my private psychotherapy practice. Up to this point, I have always worked for someone else. Thus the idea of being entirely self-employed spurs oodles of terror. My fear-based thinking goes something like this: What if new clients don't appear? How will I pay the bills? I've already changed careers so if this one doesn't work, I'm doomed to failure. Who do you think you are!? To turn my attention toward the exhilarating  aspects of this transition more than the distressing ones, I pickuntitleded up Nancy Levin's Jump and Your Life Will Appear: An Inch-by-Inch Guide to Making a Major Change. I am grateful I did. Her honesty while disclosing her own story combined with the pearls of wisdom shared throughout the book helped me to interrupt the unrelenting self-doubt track playing in my own mind. Levin's book also guided me back to the aspirations that got me here in the first place--to be true to myself and live a wholehearted life. I particularly loved her chapter on honoring our resistance.

Levin offered the following criteria for distinguishing resistance from legitimate warnings that we are about to make an ill-advised decision:

If you feel defensive about making a change, if you're making excuses for why you can't make the change, or if you feel defeated before you even begin, you are probably experiencing resistance. If you want the change but feel you can't let go of what you already have, you are probably experiencing resistance. If you're trying to convince yourself that your current life isn't so bad, you're experiencing resistance.

Resistance has certainly been in my house as of late, and I happily heeded Levin's advice to make friends with that resistance--to open to it with curiosity--rather than reject or do battle with it. Of course our impulse is to do anything but let the resistance be there, but I know from experience that the more we resist our experience the more we strengthen it. As Levin wrote, "Resistance is like a beach ball. When you push it underwater, it pops back up to the surface even stronger."

When I've been able to meet the resistance with kindness, I see layers of fear laid bare, many of which were established long before I set out on this latest venture. Sure enough, at the core of my internal bogeymen is an old belief that whatever I do, I'm not good enough and never will be. Thankfully, I know I am more than my thoughts. Each time I identify this pernicious one about my inherent insufficiency, it has a little less power over me and a little more space opens up. It's a gradual process of change, to be sure, but I did not integrate that nasty belief into my being over night. The initial thought of inadequacy had to be repeated over and over and over (and so on and so forth) before it became a belief. I therefore can accept that unlearning it is not going to be like removing tear-away pants and start to shed this habit of diminishing myself, layer by layer.

I can also remember that this voice of self-doubt initially arose in a misguided attempt to keep me safe. By telling myself I needed to and could do more than I was already doing in all areas of my life, I was trying to safeguard my vulnerability from external criticism and judgment. When I can actually absorb that this deficit-based belief emerged to protect me, I easily soften and open to my experience, even when that experience is something as dissatisfying as resistance.

What is more, during the times when the resistance will not pipe down, even after I've attended to and befriended it to the best of my ability, I can remind myself, as Levin reminded me, that I don't have to surrender to its demands. As Levin said about her own process of working with resistance, "I [came to] recognize that the sensations of fight or flight were just the past knocking, and I didn't have to answer that knock."

I appreciated that the chapter on resistance closed with a little text box about offering self-forgiveness. If we take our wholeness to be a birthright, pardoning ourselves for contributing to our fragmentation via our tireless minds makes a lot of sense. So I leave you with Levin's wise instruction on forgiving ourselves for resisting what is good for us:

Forgive yourself for staying in a situation that doesn't serve you. Forgive yourself for resisting your birthright to pleasure, joy, and love, and commit to opening your heart and your life to that birthright. You have a whole new future ahead of you!

 

 

Distinguishing Wise Discrimination from Aversive Judgment*

In my line of work, particularly with couples, the old adage, "Would you rather be right, or happy?" comes to mind a lot. When large differences exist, as is frequently the case between partnered individuals, digging in our heels and claiming rightness (or the other person's idiocy) becomes oh-so-easy when we feel like our perspectives or even our selfhood are being threatened. That to me is the key: we jump into right/wrong, good/bad stances when we feel afraid. Fear is a natural emotion that arises when we feel unsafe. To fight, flee, or freeze makes perfect sense if our lives are really on the line, such as in instances of violence, abuse, and neglect. However, individuals in intimate relationships frequently resort to this "reptilian brain" reaction when our experience of threat feels real but is not actually true.

The classic pursuer-distance dynamic captures such emotional reactivity. One person starts to see danger signs flashing in the midst of conflict and so begins to retreat (i.e. flee) from the scene. The other person becomes emotionally flooded with a fear of abandonment and chases after the other, raising her voice and refusing to let the interaction come to a halt (i.e. fighting). The fleeing partner, now feeling like a hunted animal trapped in a corner, threatens to leave the house or the relationship and/or explodes in rage. When all is said and done, both people feel ashamed, spent, and remorseful. Sound familiar?

Psychiatrist Dan Siegel helps us to understand the evolutionary history of our emotional reactivity via his brain hand model. He also offers an alternative to going reptilian: pausing long enough to identify the fear and not immediately react to it. When we can calm our nervous systems enough to recognize we are actually safe, such as through deep breathing exercises, we can reengage the more recently developed part of our brain that has the capacity to empathize, cooperate, problem-solve, and be creative.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vESKrzvgA40

In contrast, when we react to fear by making others or ourselves bad or wrong, we're using aversive judgment, or what Tara Brach calls "an aggressive force that separates." The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines aversive as "tending to avoid or causing avoidance of a noxious or punishing stimulus." When we use aversive judgment, we make others and ourselves (when the judgment is directed inwards) noxious and punishing entities. In other words, we reinforce a perception of the world as an inherently dangerous place where enemies lurk around every corner. In such a world, war and the establishment of hierarchies composed of "better" and "worse" people become the answer to conflict.

Tara Brach reminds us that this us/them, superior/inferior mentality is also an evolutionary artifact. When we lived in small groups, the framing of outsiders as threats to our survival could and did strengthen internal group cohesion. With our twenty-first century brains, however, we have the evolutionary potential to recognize our interconnectedness and feel compassion for the suffering of others and ourselves. We therefore can practice working with, not against, our fears and so choose not to violate others' or our own dignity when we feel endangered. We can remain whole.

Not reacting to our fears does not mean we tolerate harm to others and ourselves. This is where wise discrimination comes in. We can acknowledge that those who cause suffering are themselves suffering and decide the best course of action is to direct our attention elsewhere or leave the relationship. Standing up for ourselves and acknowledging another's struggles are not mutually exclusive phenomena. Nevertheless, how we take stands matters a lot if we are committed to stopping the war. If we decide to make another bad or wrong for their actions, we're back in the land of aversive judgment. A nonviolent approach, in contrast, asks us to investigate our own unmet needs in the relationship and communicate our desire to honor our own value rather than violate it for the sake of staying in relationship with someone who mistreats us.

At the end of the day, being right versus happy does not quite capture the stakes of social interactions. I would rather deepen my understanding of the human condition so as to be able to recognize quickly that when we harden, whether by becoming self-righteous or emotionally disengaged, we are trying to protect ourselves. Until we can detect and make visible the soft underbelly beneath the daggers and shields, we will not forge authentic connections and a sense of belonging, both of which, in my experience anyway, are the sources of our greatest contentment. To borrow from Brene Brown, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

* This post draws heavily from Tara Brach's wonderful talk "Part I: Evolving Toward Unconditional Love."

Reflecting on Rosa Clemente at the White Privilege Conference

I recently had the opportunity to hear Rosa Clemente speak at the White Privilege Conference. I admittedly have been reluctant to attend this conference in the past, finding myself more drawn to participate in grassroots gatherings like the YWCA Madison's Racial Justice Summit. Although I resolutely support white privilege being acknowledged, understood, and dismantled, I have worried that such spaces can inadvertently recenter white people and white issues and even create new institutions for white people to profit from white supremacy. Paul Gorski does an eloquent job of explaining what can happen when only white people gather to address white privilege and how such dialogues often overlook important economic considerations asked by critical race theorists:

During these dialogues we more or less took turns pouring the contents of our [white privilege] knapsacks onto the floor before encouraging each other to “own” whatever came out, taking responsibility for racism. Rarely did we get around to talking about what it meant to be an anti-racist or for racial justice. Rarely did we use those dialogues to grow ourselves into more powerful change agents. This, I think, persists as a problem in white caucusing and other forms of race dialogues today: too much conversation about how hard it is to be a white person taking responsibility for white privilege; way too much thinking that the dialogue, itself, is the anti-racism rather than what prepares us for the anti-racism...Critical race theorists centralize the fundamental questions too often left unasked in conversations about white privilege: What, exactly, does power mean in a capitalistic society? Why, in a capitalistic society, do people and institutions exert power and privilege? What are they after?

The skepticism with which I entered the White Privilege Conference quickly dissipated when Clemente took the stage. Such straight-shooting truth-telling I rarely hear. But like she said, "When we don't name it, we internalize it."

Rosa Clemente. Credit to: (1)ne Drop

In telling her story of growing up in the South Bronx, she named her own privilege of moving to a different, more affluent neighborhood while still in the K-12 school system. This transition, she insisted, was her ticket to college. She had no doubt her co

usins should be standing alongside her at the university door. Because they were denied the opportunities she received, however, they remained on the same block wh

ere she grew up, struggling with poverty. As she said, "We are not all Trayvon because our privileges make us all not Trayvon."

Clemente likely did not endear herself to many audience members when she called President Obama the Deporter in Chief or insist that his presidency was necessary to move the U.S. Empire forward. Seeking audience approval, however, was not her aim. In her address, I heard a call for an "internal revolution of the self" that results in consistency of action. In other words, living an integrated life requires us to do what w

e say we are going to do. In the context of racial justice, being for it often means white people need to fall back and listen, with humility, to those for whom racism is a lived reality, not just a social construct.

She also distinguished doing racial justice work with love from not hurting anybody's feelings. Quoting Frederick Douglass, Clemente said,

The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle...If there is no struggle there is no progress...Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.

Clemente juxtaposed these powerful words alongside an appeal for relearning history--of un

derstanding that our history is not one just of oppression but also of groups of people resisting that oppression "every step of the way." To paraphrase her, knowing that part of our legacy can make us less afraid and help us to fall in love with the struggle for freedom.

This year's conference took place in Dane County, Wisconsin, where more than 74% of black children are poor compared to 5.5% of white children. I am grateful that Clemente took the audience and herself to task for transforming those abominable numbers and reminding us that our nation's children are at stake. As she said about her own daughter, "Hell no, this system is not going to destroy her."

Unfinished Conversations

As of late, unfinished conversations abound in my life. I have had clients seeking peace and forgiveness via dialogues with departed family members as well as those who are alive but inaccessible for any number of reasons. I also have been reckoning with my own unfinished conversations, particularly with someone who died at their own hand. With gratitude, then, I came upon Robert Lesoine and Marilynne Chophel's Unfinished Conversation: Healing from Suicide and Loss. For those of us feeling adrift from an unexpected loss or any relationship that raises a storm of emotions once we give it attention, this book provides amazing resources. In it, Lesoine allows us to witness his grieving process following the suicide of his best friend. He illustrates the panoply of emotions that spiral in and out of his immediate experience--sadness, outrage, fear, regret, guilt, loneliness, and abandonment to name a few--as well as his gradual move toward curiosity, acceptance, and letting go. Lesoine's written dialogues with Larry facilitate this journey and, as he notes, rekindle a connection with his deceased friend.

His co-author Chophel, a trauma specialist and longtime therapist, contributes additional tools for healing throughout the book. For example, the following "Getting Real Journal Exercises" focuses on working with remorse:

Getting real with yourself means noticing--with courageous honesty--your actions and feelings, even difficult feelings such as guilt and genuine remorse. Write a dialoge in which you express your regrets and see what the response of your loved one might be. Write a scenario in your journal in which you and your loved one both take responsibility, make amends, and experience deeper understanding and reconnection with each other.

I was moved by the authors' creation of space for whatever arose for Lesoine and their insistence that grief does not come in right and wrong forms. I also appreciated that the book followed Lesoine for over a year, giving me a window into how my own grief might shapeshift across time, if I allow it to do so. I found his continuous opening toward Larry and himself particularly beautiful. Toward the end of the book, for example, Lesoine desires to let go of his suffering by forgiving Larry and himself. As he writes,

Eventually, I come to recognize that to truly heal, I also need to directly ask for Larry's forgiveness. Larry, my friend, for all the ways I may have caused you pain through my judgment, outrage, hurt, and confusion, for all the ways I acted or failed to act, I ask for your forgiveness. For all the ways I pushed you out of my heart and made you wrong and bad, for all the ways I judged and was critical of you, I ask you now to forgive me. Please my brother, forgive me.

 

And I need to forgive myself as well, for all of the shame, self-judgment, and reactive anger; for the ways I have abandoned and not cared for myself; and for the relentless critical self-talk and guilt that have plagued me since Larry's death. In order to truly heal, I have to be willing to let all that go and welcome myself back into my own heart, as if welcoming home a guest who has been away for too long. I need to say, 'I forgive you,' to myself.

Upon reading this book, I found my own heart releasing its grip on the pain of the last few months and embracing the words of poet Rabindranath Tagore, which Lesoine includes in the epilogue:

Peace, my heart, let the time for

the parting be sweet.

Let it not be a death but completeness.

Let love melt into memory and pain

into songs.

Let the flight through the sky end

in the folding of the wings over the

nest.

Let the last touch of your hands be

gentle like the flower of the night.

Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a

moment, and say your last words in

silence.

I bow to you and hold up my lamp

to light you on your way.

Elementary Kindness

What I want is so simple I almost can't say it: elementary kindness.

--Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

Lately I have heard many stories of dismissal and rejection. What frequently makes these recounted experiences all the more heartbreaking is the source of the denunciation--a family member, partner, friend, or other loved one. Given that our brains are like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones, we need to focus on and savor the positive experiences in our lives to counteract the harm caused by such forsaking messages.*

Happily, elementary kindness abounds if we pause long enough to notice and absorb it on a daily basis. Moreover, and particularly as adults, we can choose to actively seek out people who readily honor their own and our inherent value and worth. Even when acceptance, appreciation, and generosity are in short supply within our immediate households and communities, we can remind ourselves of their existence by finding them elsewhere.

The Internet, for example, has an abundant supply of reminders about the intrinsic goodness of human beings. I recently came across a compilation of photos that went viral and included this letter from a father to his son:

Credit to Viralnova

"I've known you were gay since you were six. I've loved you since you were born." In these 16 words, I hear so much elementary kindness: I love you as you are. I want you to be your authentic self. We belong to each other. You are safe with me. You matter.

That same compilation contained the following photo and caption:

Credit to Viralnova

I just wish I knew how the young man shown above experienced this show of solidarity. This image reminds me that we do not need to upend institutions to challenge discrimination and injustice. We oftentimes do need a sense of humor and a willingness to believe that small acts of kindness--rooted in an intention to honor everyone's dignity--can ripple outward in unimaginable ways.

Each day has 86,400 seconds. That is a lot of moments to refocus our energy on giving and receiving the kind of elementary kindness that makes us want to get out of bed in the morning, and make the world a little safer for the expression of our authentic selves.

 

* I'm borrowing from neuropsychologist Rick Hanson here and highly recommend the many resources available on his website.

Letting Go of Addiction

Recently I gave up coffee. I was a serious coffee drinker, having developed an addiction to it as a graduate student that I actively nurtured for over a decade. The idea of not having a giant cup of joe (well, several cups in reality) upon getting out of bed in the morning seemed both cruel and ludicrous. Why, then, did I quit this amazing source of liquid caffeine? The primary catalyst was a wake-up call from my partner on the heels of a major loss. An unwavering appeal from an acupuncturist to quit all forms of coffee soon thereafter sealed the deal. Sometimes we need those outside ourselves to hold up a mirror before we can clearly see what is reflected back at us.

I had been plugging along, jittery as hell, through graduate school, a three-year stint as an academic, more graduate school, and, finally, my beloved new career as a psychotherapist. Through much of that time, being on a caffeine-enhanced edge had its benefits. I could not sit still very long--or sleep very well--and so worked a ton and pushed my body to its limits. Accordingly, I accomplished a lot and consistently received the external validation that I used to crave even more than the caffeine. Plus coffee went hand in hand with the beer I also started to drink in graduate school. The alcohol facilitated winding down at the end of the day, after so much coffee consumption, and eased my anxiety about the many tasks left undone, particularly when I was a tenure-track professor. It also muted a deeper, more insidious sense of inherent deficiency.

As I've written previously, a lot of healing can and has come from self-acceptance and the understanding that imperfections actually serve to connect our vulnerable human selves. I mean, who wants to hug perfection? You might mess it up! Moving toward lovingkindness and away from self-judgment greatly decreased my desire to numb out with a beer or two.

Unfortunately, changing our beliefs does not necessarily eliminate the anxiety coursing through our bodies. I come from a family chock full of anxious types. A backward look, through more than one generation, bolstered my decision to quit coffee because in the various cases of alcohol and drug abuse, obsessive compulsive behaviors, perfectionism, rigidity, and stubbornness that I found, I could see the legacy I inherited. As epigenetics has revealed, stress and trauma can affect the gene pool for three to four generations. All of this is to say that an historical glance at my family system supported a decision to halt the incessant self-blame for my anxiety--I was predisposed to this shit after all!--and call on the power I actually had to alleviate my own suffering.

The fact of the matter is that coffee contributed to a sped-up, fearful, hardened self that I no longer wanted to inhabit. More pointedly,  I experienced a fair amount of emotional reactivity while using coffee to weather my long days, which was brought home to me in the face of an unexpected death that profoundly shook my personal and professional worlds. I am grateful that my partner risked expressing concern about my coping strategies during this time of intense grief and raw vulnerability. That care challenged a misguided sense of resilience I had been carrying around: "I will push through this pain." Letting go is different than fighting or giving up, and this tragedy flipped my palms up in a gesture of surrender--to the inevitable sorrow accompanying loss, uncertainty of life, and impermanence of being.

Once I allowed myself to hear the love behind the request to stop inhaling coffee, I could see the remnants of a divided life that I still embodied. Despite the energy and time I had poured into undoing the conditions and habits that fed a deep fear of failure, I had not yet attuned to the embodied aspects of my daily reality. The abovementioned difficult loss presented an opportunity to be more open and honest with myself about the parts of my life that were not working all that well.

I have long aspired to be present to this life and the lives of others, and I can do that more readily when I feel calm, grounded in my body, and well-rested. I may not be able to accomplish as much or create a spurt of short-lived energy to get through something without the false refuge of a 20-ounce coffee, but I can tell you this:

My fears feel less overwhelming. Breathing comes easier. I sleep more readily and restfully. My yearning for an alcoholic beverage at the end of the day has dramatically dwindled. The regulation of my emotions--particularly when I confront something upsetting--requires significantly less effort. I am in greater touch with what is happening in my body and therefore can respond more appropriately to sensations like exhaustion, hunger, and pain.

Weaning myself off coffee over several weeks with the help of half-caff and decaffeinated beans seemed to diminish but not completely eliminate the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal. Nevertheless, we human beings are amazingly adaptable when we allow rather than resist our experience. Not battling the fatigue, headaches, and flu-like signs of withdrawal helped them to move through and out of my system in a couple of weeks.

Perhaps some day I will be able to have an occasional cup of coffee and savor it. For now, I can accept that my particular family legacy and high doses of caffeine are not a great pair and, so, gently and patiently let go of that over which I have control--my addiction to coffee.