On becoming a therapist!

I last wrote on this blog in 2011, when I decided to jump ship from my academic life, return to Madison, Wisconsin, and enroll in Edgewood College's Marriage and Family Therapy Program. A few days ago, I graduated from that program and had the honor of giving a commencement address. Since I explained the transformation of my professional life in that five-minute speech, I figured one way to revive this blog and explain its name change--from "On (un)becoming an academic" to "On beginning anew"--would be to share the words I spoke on Sunday:

Today is a great day for gratitude! As Gregg Krech instructs, "To live a life of gratitude is to open our eyes to the countless ways in which we are supported by the world around us."

So thanks to all of you for being here, and a special thank you to Dean Campbell, the Graduate Council, and the Marriage and Family Therapy faculty for giving me this opportunity to speak with you. I also want to thank my peers in the MFT Program, my Edgewood Colleagues, my parents, and my partner for all of your love, support, and encouragement and for making the special effort to be here today. I am truly grateful.  

I just came from a mindfulness retreat on equanimity so it seemed appropriate to gear my talk toward this lofty, if abstract, aspiration. Some describe equanimity as a vibrant and powerful connection with what is--not with what we think should be, what we long for, or what used to be--but connecting with what is, right in this very moment, in this very place. Said differently, equanimity is the ability to be near all things.*

I'm guessing that most of my fellow graduates would NOT describe the last few months as full of the spacious stillness of mind and heart that characterize equanimity. At least I imagine those closest to me would say I resembled one of those robo hamsters, spinning on a wheel at the speed of light, more than a calm Buddha-like figure, mindfully experiencing the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of my daily life. 


But I thought equanimity remained a useful theme for today because underneath all the busyness, my time at Edgewood has served as a kind of homecoming. After committing myself to slowing down enough to listen inwardly, I decided to steer my life off the academic tenure track and toward the path of a healer. Having begun to come home to the life that's right here, I am more willing and able to lean into the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows of this lifetime, which is what I understand equanimity to be all about. 

While thinking about what I wanted to say today, I flashed back to my 2008 faculty orientation. At that time, a university leader encouraged us to race toward the future. By racing and competing, we could make the university great. Then as now, I had just come from a mindfulness retreat that emphasized the power of the present--rather than the future--to generate joy, lovingkindness, compassion, and, you guessed it, equanimity. In fact, the teacher of that retreat** said when we are perpetually preoccupied with what comes next, we are not able to embrace our own lives, genuinely connect with others, or make wise decisions about the future--our own future as well as that of generations yet to come. Needless to say, 2008 was a confusing year for me. 

Now, in 2013, I am grateful to have Edgewood's Dominican tradition directly in front of me AND as a guide for the future. The Dominican mission asks us to forge meaningful relationships, engage in open-minded reflection, and participate in compassionate action. I've found these goals easier to realize when I've stopped running long enough to step off the hamster wheel and pay attention, both to my inner and outer worlds. 

As of today, at least, I try to practice a motto different than “Race toward the future.” In keeping with the animal theme, it’s a message that appeared on a bone-shaped dog tag and read, “Sit, stay, heal.” (That’s heal with an “A” in case you thought I was talking about the heel that means to act in a disciplined fashion, which does not mesh all that well with my other favorite bumper sticker slogan: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”) In seriousness though, I like to imagine what this world might be like if a whole slew of us disregarded the many messages we receive in this society to run, escape, and go numb and, instead, we sat. We stayed. And we healed. 

I cannot think of a better way to highlight the possibilities that arise when we connect with our experience in the present than by closing with the poignant words of Mark Nepo

We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are  when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved,  and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed,  and beneath every sadness is the fear that there will not be enough time.  Our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world  but to unglove ourselves  so that the doorknob feels cold  and the car handle feels wet  and the kiss goodbye feels like the lips of another being,  soft and unrepeatable. 

Congratulations class of 2013 and thank you again!

* Thanks to Cheri Maples for this definition of equanimity. I heard it at the mindfulness retreat taught by her and Sharon Salzberg in Madison, Wisconsin, in May 2013.
** Tara Brach was the teacher of that 2008 retreat.