What I Learned from Giving a TEDx Talk

I could see the audition room from the nook I had found in an effort to pull myself together. Located in a university library, the room looked like a small study space. Given my long history with such rooms, my mind said the familiarity should bring some comfort. My nervous system vehemently disagreed. I tried several tricks of the trade to calm my internal anarchy: deeply and slowly breathing with a loooooong exhale, holding a river rock in my hand to ground and center my body, huffing lavender essential oil, asking my fear brain to chill out (with lovingkindness, of course). None of these things worked. My body decided this place was engulfed in flames. The only way to help me survive was by furiously signaling that I needed to get the hell out of there. My mind, of course, refused to listen. Too many hours spent crafting, editing, and memorizing five minutes of speech meant the most stubborn part of me dug in her heels. I was staying unless or until something catastrophic happened.

The five interviewers arrived, and I walked into the audition shaky and about to pass out. In that moment, the past performances and travails I successfully navigated in this lifetime disappeared from the map. So what that I had given a commencement address in the not-so-distant past in a large stadium. Never mind that even more recently I made it through the trauma of lying naked on an operating table for a dreaded c-section. Somehow, the task of auditioning without notes disabled the parts of my brain that knew how to do something besides freak out.

 

Sure enough, while delivering my five-minute talk, I flipped my lid, to borrow from Dan Siegel. The words disappeared, completely. Erased from the white board of my mind. If I had not had some PowerPoint slides to cue me, I could not have retrieved the speech to save my life. I walked out of that library convinced that my anxiety would forever squander my dream of giving a TED talk. I simply was not cut out for this kind of performance.

Herein lies my first lesson: do not believe what your inner critic tells you.

As a recovering perfectionist and academic, I know my critical manager intimately. When she senses danger, she takes over like a boss. Despite knowing about her tendency to dominate unsafe spaces, I heeded only her voice after leaving that audition room. I believed hook, line, and sinker that I had been an unmitigated disaster. I would hear nothing from the TEDxCU committee except that my idea was not worth spreading.

I therefore felt incredulous when I received an invitation to speak at the 2018 event. After accepting the invitation, I shared the intensity of my audition nervousness with one of the interviewers. She said it was not evident to her; rather, I clearly had invested a lot of time and energy on rehearsing my speech, and that showed. Once again, my mean-spirited protector had cast only shadows. I usually imagine this critic as a bright red lobster. By forcefully pointing out the flaws she deemed in need of correction, she thought she was helping. But this old, brow-beating strategy, taught and learned at a much earlier time in life, when I encountered criticism at nearly every turn, no longer serves. The work of unlearning the harsh tales this critic effortlessly weaves is worthwhile, even if it takes a lifetime.

After recovering from the shock of appearing on the TEDxCU speaker roster, I encountered my next lesson: persistence highly correlates with triumph.

This TEDx gig reminded me of an interview with author Kate DiCamillo. DiCamillo collected nearly 400 rejection letters on her way to becoming a Newbery medalist. About persistence, she wrote,

I've been in so many writing workshops, writing classes, and to the right of me and to the left of me, there's always somebody much more talented than I am. And what I figured out is they're not willing to go through the rejection, which is enormous, and then the compromise that comes with editing your work. I decided a long time ago that I didn't have to be talented. I just had to be persistent, and that that was something that I could control — the persistence.

When I learned I would be climbing onto the TEDxCU stage, my immediate thought was, I cannot give this talk without notes. I knew in my bones that having my written speech in hand constituted the one and only way for me to me to speak to a public audience, with cameras rolling, for longer than 10 minutes.

One of the most useful practices I have as a psychotherapist is knowing how to distinguish survival resources from creative resources. As it turns out, helping others to discern one from the other tends to be easier than doing it for ourselves. Survival tools helped us to get through something. The issue with them is that we keep using these resources past the time they benefit us. We know they have become a survival resource when they make our world smaller. Creative resources, on the other hand, open up our world. They motivate us to get out of bed in the morning and wholeheartedly jump into life. Sometimes creative resources morph into survival ones, and vice versa, as life circumstances change. In my past, notes had helped me to publicly defend a dissertation, give numerous academic and professional presentations, and teach college classes. I now sensed I needed them, and my utter dependence on notes transformed them into a survival resource.

So when I approached one of the people who was guiding us through this TEDx process about using notes on the day of the event, he told me in no uncertain terms, "If you go on stage with notes, you will be the only one who does so." Although I did not particularly appreciate this feedback, it helped me to identify that my attachment to notes had moved me into the land of survival resources. Absorbing the reality that TEDxCU speakers were expected to give a memorized talk set me on a path of figuring out what creative resources could allow me to give this talk without my beloved notes.

For example, I read Tim Urban's post on doing a TED talk and learned that memorizing the talk to the point of being able to recite it like "Happy Birthday" allowed speakers to focus on other things than the speech's content--like being present and engaged. As he wrote, "[T]he human brain is able to engrave things to that level if you just rehearse enough and sleep on it enough times." Now I had a concrete goal toward which I could work, which assuaged some of my anxiety. I also had a lot of work to do to realize that aspiration, which is where persistence comes in. Any time I could manage to practice the talk, I did--in the shower, during my commute to work, while cooking a meal. After my toddler went to sleep at night, I not only practiced the talk but also videotaped myself giving it as I got closer and closer to having it memorized cold. That damn talk involuntarily played in my head for days after the event it was so ingrained in my brain.

I also developed a plan B. Since my talk was all about suspending judgment, I figured that I would keep notes in my back pocket. If I went totally blank on stage, as I did in the audition, I could pull out my notes and talk about how this moment was not a failure but a growth opportunity. Embracing this alternative as a viable option caused the anxiety to drop precipitously.

Beta-blockers were another significant creative resource I sought out to persist with this goal of giving a TED talk. I am grateful to my psychopharmacology teacher from therapy school for de-stigmatizing what turned out to be an amazing aid for me. She casually mentioned that she took beta-blockers when giving a big presentation, and I tucked away this nugget of wisdom for future use. When I work with clients who are debating whether or not to take psychotropic medication, I frequently send them to mindfulness teacher Tara Brach's blog post on this topic. She brings compassion and wisdom to bear in acknowledging

...for some people, no matter how hard they try something else is needed to engender safety and bring anxiety to a manageable level...There are no absolute recipes for working with this issue of taking medications. In making choices on our path, it’s important to ask ourselves whether or not they will serve awakening and freedom. Our best answers are found by honestly looking into our intentions.

My deeper intention than completing this TED talk was to face and work through my fear of failure. The beta-blockers helped me to do that. Nevertheless, I persisted.

 

The final major lesson for me came after I gave the TEDxCU talk and began sharing it with the world: Do not take anything--and I mean anything--personally.

Intellectually, I knew this adage forward and backward. I frequently share with clients a favorite quote from a favorite chapter on not taking things personally:

Prior to giving the talk, I also explored with a therapist how to work with my fear of criticism from people in marginalized communities. I knew this talk was challenging the tendency in social justice circles to take a morally righteous stance. From testing out my ideas in various audiences, I surmised the probability was high that I might trigger a negative reaction from those I most wanted to support and least wanted to upset. When I checked in with myself, however, I felt clear about the importance of moving beyond right/wrong and good/bad dualities while challenging systemic harm. I would not diminish my truth out of fear.

Instead, I reflected long and hard on my words and invited feedback from various sources to ensure, to the degree I could, that my intentions lined up with the impact of my statements. But one cannot control another's response, which is, to again borrow from Ruiz, "a projection of their own reality." My next step was to work on accepting that others' reactions to my talk were beyond my control.

Additionally, I used a trauma therapy technique of imagining my protectors, nurturers, and wise guides were in the room with me as I gave my talk. The owls and hawks I frequently see with my child during evening walks in Colorado were flying amongst the audience, creating a safeguard between harsh critics and me. On the stage, the many courageous activists, teachers, and spiritual guides I have been lucky enough to encounter in this lifetime stood alongside me, reminding me that I was not alone. They also wisely reinforced that these ideas were not mine; they were shared ones borne of our interdependence.

Even with all this preparation, a mean-spirited online comment about my talk from a stranger on a queer parent Facebook page cut me to the quick. I could not get it out of my head. Yes, this was a virtual community of virtually unknown people, but I still had a sense that it was my community, and someone within it slammed me. What most helped me to come out of the turtle shell into which I was fast retreating was David Wong's article, "Why You're Being Kept In a Constant State of Impotent Rage." In it, he acknowledges the new frontier onto which we have entered:

...this system has a magical way of making even a hugely successful person feel helpless, because they're being attacked by nobodies who lash out because they also feel helpless. This helplessness comes from being raised to expect things from the world that it can't actually give you....if you are a public person in 2018, you will at some point be used as a punching bag by a bunch of strangers. That's the purpose you'll serve in their life, a thing they can hate without risk, and then forget about. It's part of the tradeoff of being a public person, and oh by the way, in the social media era, everyone is a public person.

In addition to placing the Facebook comment into a larger sociocultural framework and, so, depersonalizing it, this article brought me back to a central intention of doing this TEDxCU talk in the first place: to interrupt the helplessness that so many of us feel and that often spurs more violence and abuse. Ironically, the talk's central theme played out in a social media thread about the talk itself. At least the talk had some relevance, I suppose!

For those of you out there who absolutely believe you cannot realize an important dream, I hope you will dig beneath the self-doubt, turn away from the internal and external naysayers, and look around to see if untapped resources within and around you can bring that vision to life. Since I love an inspiring quote, here is one from Maya Angelou, "My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring still."

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0_6b-AJdWU&t=603s[/embed]

 

 

 

 

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Wisdom in the Vet's Bathroom  

A lot of crazy stuff is happening out there right now. While I contemplated this post, a critical voice erupted in my head that sounded something like, "Are you really going to write about your dead cat when the world has so much unaddressed injustice and violence?" Thankfully I snapped to my senses. That is precisely what I am going to do because, at the end of the day, what matters most in this life is making and sustaining connections to this living and dying world. Chopper (aka Choppy and Chopperpants) taught me how to do that and so much more. So this post is a tribute to him--one of my greatest teachers--with photos to boot.

Acceptance

Chopper came to me with no whiskers in the summer of 2004. He and his litter mates had been abandoned by a stream soon after birth and most of his siblings drowned. His living sister chewed off his whiskers during this time so he only had short stubbles on his face when I adopted him from a local rescue organization. Unsurprisingly, this early trauma made Chopper pretty needy. I rarely could sit down without him wanting to be on my lap. Initially I would get frustrated by his insatiable desire for affection and frequent talking, which I interpreted as, "I'm here! Love me!! I'm here!!! Love me!!!!" I found it difficult to accomplish things, like typing papers for graduate school, with him standing on the keyboard.

 

On My Lap and All Zipped Up

 

Over time, however, I came to see him and myself more clearly. When I stopped doing and gave him my full attention, he did not need so much. With a little maneuvering, he could get the touch he craved, and I could still complete the tasks at hand. Perhaps more importantly, he helped me to pause more and observe myself. Frequently, I was caught up in worried thoughts. His furry self (my partner said he was the softest cat in the world) brought me back to the present moment. He reminded me to rest and receive the comfort of his noisy, unremitting purr. When I stopped trying to be somewhere else with someone else, grace came in the form of Chopper, as well as acceptance of and gratitude for what I have in this life, right now.

The Ability to Receive Love

With my former, incessant craving to be and do better, I focused much of my attention on the external world. I should be working harder, loving better, giving more, all to get some desperately sought-after approval and recognition from others. Chopper was not having any of this self-defeating performance. I could be in the foulest mood, and he still gave me the look in the above photo. I often half-joked with my partner that he could never gaze at me the way Chopper did. Try as I might to push him away, like I did with everyone else who got close to me, he just kept coming back with those big green eyes and pawed at my face until I rubbed his chin. He wouldn't even bite my hand unless it was disguised by a blanket. That fierce and gentle love again instigated a pause. Maybe I could lower the fortress I had built to protect myself from rejection and heartache and at least let Chopperpants in. He wouldn't hurt me. And he didn't. With his patient determination (and, admittedly, significant therapy), I learned I was worthy of love and that vulnerability opens the door to intimacy, understanding, and so many other good things.

 

A Typical Pose

 

The Capacity to Stay

Almost three years ago, I found a lump near Chopper's jaw. A biopsy revealed he had Hodgkin's-like lymphoma. The third time a tumor appeared, my vet said he should go to an oncologist. The oncologist tried one kind of chemotherapy. When that stopped working after a couple of months, he tried another, more aggressive (and expensive!) form that required 16 treatments. Chopper hated the car rides across town to the clinic, but he was his perky, kind self once there. Apparently he was the only cat who didn't hiss at and try to bite the veterinary staff during the blood draws.

He lost his whiskers for the second time in his life. When I grabbed my car keys, he would hide. But he endured the treatment to its completion, and we all hoped he would have at least a year of remission. No such luck. Three months later, I was back in the oncologist's office after finding another tumor. The doc said he didn't want to give up yet. We tried a third kind of chemotherapy that I could give him at home. I arranged for him to get the necessary blood work done at a nearby veterinary office, as he began to howl and throw up when we arrived at the oncologist's office. Propelling such anxiety for short spells of remission stopped making sense.

 

Chopper Not Loving Being in the Car for a Cross-Country Move (June 2011)

 

When another tumor reappeared this past May, I called off the chemo and weaned him off the steroids he had been taking. He stopped being afraid of my car keys and resumed being his playful, cheerful, talkative self. He would serenely sit on my lap while the lovely Carrie Donahue put acupuncture needles in his back, and he did not balk at me shoving supplements down his throat twice a day.

Then he began having trouble breathing. We started the steroids again. Another tumor appeared and quickly enveloped his throat and chest. The tumor eventually became infected and made his breathing extremely labored. On January 7, 2015, Carrie came over to our house and euthanized my beloved cat who was, at that point, gasping for air. He died peacefully in my arms, and I am forever grateful to Carrie and thankful I had the resources to let him go in this way, before he could no longer breathe.

 

Brothers, Since Foster Care

 

Why am I recounting the details of this sad tale? Because I had no idea I could witness such suffering without fleeing the scene (which is my favorite definition of compassion) until I experienced Chopper's prolonged struggle with cancer. I frequently wanted to bury my head in the sand and avoid the painful parts of his illness, but I didn't. I sat with him. I loved the shit out of him. I let him go. I never want to go through this process again with a pet or human being, but now I know that I can. And that makes all the difference. May you rest in peace, sweet Chopper.

to live in this world

you must be able to do three things to love what is mortal; to hold it

against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go

--Mary Oliver

Mr. Green Eyes and Pink Nose

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."

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."

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.

 

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."

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.

Going on a Pilgrimage

Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free "travel packages" sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage--"a transformative journey to a sacred center" full of hardships, darkness, and peril.  

In the tradition of pilgrimage, those hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost--challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge. If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks. Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now--in every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts.

 

But before we come to that center, full of light, we must travel in the dark. Darkness is not the whole of the story--every pilgrimage has passages of loveliness and joy--but it is the part of the story most often left untold.

 

Parker Palmer. Credit to Narayan Mahon and the UCObserver.

That Parker Palmer sure does have some wonderful wisdom up his sleeve. I appreciate that he does not treat arriving at a sense of self as an easy matter, achieved by following a simple script. As the above quote makes clear, "hardships, darkness, and peril" are an essential part of awakening to our "sacred center."

I often hear people associate talk therapy with ineffective turns toward hardships: "Those bad things that happened are behind me, and that's where they should stay." I also frequently hear fear mingled in with a disdain for traveling through the shadows: "If I venture into the darkness, I'll be swallowed by it, never to emerge again." I hear wisdom in these statements, too. Our minds can be powerful juggernauts, taking us into winding labyrinths that contain terrifying monsters and excruciating shame. We need to make sure we have ample resources to go on pilgrimages and, when we feel depleted, be gentle with ourselves for deciding to staying in places where safety abides.

In the realm of healing, what strikes me as important about perceptions of safety is that we understand them to be real and (AND !) not necessarily true. In other words, we can honor our experience of feeling safe while also recognizing that illusions likely cling to that sense of safety. Our perceptions are not the whole story. We are more than our feelings, thoughts, bodily sensations, and the seemingly inviolable stories we create about all these phenomena, which, as it turns out, are fleeting. Not impermanent.

The illusions we carry about safety and other aspects of our lives usually emerge from earlier attempts at self-protection so we can embark on our pilgrimages with a light touch and plenty of kindness. Fists clench to regain safety when we feel danger. Therefore judgment does not need to accompany our search for the light.

Parker and other wise teachers remind me that I have to go inward to find the sacred center. Others can provide guidance and solace, but they cannot awaken me. They cannot rescue me from the darkness if I am to understand--and understand deeply--that the sacred center is always with and within me. Additionally, we cannot will clarity into being. We often have to get lost and take those falls that Parker mentioned before we open our palms to the sky and surrender to the reality that much of this life is beyond our control.

The beauty of surrender, of letting go, is that we can more readily come back to the present moment and actually inhabit it. Additionally, an open palm provides more space than a clenched fist for insights to emerge. For example, we may come to understand through our pilgrimages that our stories of deficiency actually involve the playing of roles, projected by others and learned over time. With that knowledge, we can unlearn old roles and, in the space generated from that unlearning, focus our attention on living in ways that are not so limited or limiting. We may also come to know that vulnerability--moments of fear, loneliness, and sadness--generated our willingness to play those roles. So we can forgive ourselves and, finally relax with ourselves, understanding that the sacred center really is here. Now.

An Exercise for Growing Empathy

I try to practice what I preach; I’m not always that good at it but I really do try. The other night, I was getting hard-hearted, closed-minded, and fundamentalist about somebody else, and I remembered this expression that you can never hate somebody if you stand in their shoes. I was angry at him because he was holding such a rigid view. In that instant I was able to put myself in his shoes and I realized, “I’m just as riled up, and self-righteous and closed-minded about this as he is. We’re in exactly the same place!” And I saw that the more I held on to my view, the more polarized we would become, and the more we’d be just mirror images of one another—two people with closed minds and hard hearts who both think they’re right, screaming at each other. It changed for me when I saw it from his side, and I was able to see my own aggression and ridiculousness.

--Pema Chodron, Practicing Peace in Times of War

I find Chodron's words compelling and also somewhat daunting. After all, the path from recognizing hard-heartedness and closed-mindedness to practicing perspective-taking is often messy and challenging. Additionally, members of marginalized social groups and others in one-down positions often perceive that those who dominate preach about stepping in another's shoes but, when it comes time to do so, project their own experience onto that "other," thereby engaging in a kind of false empathy that maintains repressive power.* What, then, does "standing in someone else's shoes" in ways that contribute to peace and equity look, sound, and feel like? What does authentic perspective-taking mean in concrete terms?

One way to begin cultivating such empathy is to consider the extent to which our perceived reality actually represents a projection of our internal world. Cheri Huber offers a helpful definition of projection:

"Projection" is the notion that everything mirrors who we are. We always see ourselves when we look out at the world and other people. It is not possible to see something that is not a part of ourselves.

Her last statement serves as a radical truth if we take it to heart, as perceptions of an us versus them world quickly fall apart when we accept that we can only recognize in others what also resides within. It is not possible to see something that is not part of ourselves.

Even if we do recognize the extent to which our perceptions are projections, we still are left to transform them into a greater understanding of others, the world, and ourselves. Enter the clearing exercise, which is particularly useful for resolving conflict.** When we are at odds with someone, we can "clear the mirror" by following these instructions:

  1. 1. Name what bothers you.***
  2. 2. Identify how you engage in the behavior that bothers you, too.
  3. 3. Brainstorm how that behavior works for you.
  4. 4. Brainstorm how it doesn't work for you.
  5. 5. Ask the other person what you need around this thing that bothers you.

What I love most about this exercise is how it asks us to remain in an "I" position until the very end, when we have become clearer about what is actually going on and have acknowledged that we are intimately familiar with what "you" do. Also useful is the exercise's attention to the workability of behaviors and habits. In other words, the clearing exercise requires us to depart from a rigid, dichotomous right/wrong framework and engage in more flexible ways of thinking. The actions that harm others and ourselves are often misguided attempts at protection, and this exercise helps us to uncover that truth. For example, if what bothers us is our counterpart's insistence on being right, steps two through four help us to see that "being right" often amounts to grasping for stability and security when we feel afraid of uncertainty or overwhelmed by the changing nature of this living and dying world. Thus by the time we arrive at step five, we are more apt to ask the other person for increased openness and vulnerability rather than demand that they stop being self-righteous. We also are more likely to make our request in a soft manner that is easier to hear than an accusatory, blaming demand. Step five thus presents an opportunity to model the openness and vulnerability we desire from the other person.

Practices like the clearing exercise foster our evolutionary potential for connection, understanding and love. But don't just take my word for it. Try it with your loved ones and, eventually, your "enemies."

There is nothing like a haiku to get to the heart of the matter, so I'll close with Eric Micha'el Leventhal's:

Each person you meet is an aspect of yourself, clamoring for love.

* I am borrowing this idea of "false empathy" from Garrett Albert Duncan who eloquently described how false empathy plays out in his article on critical race theory and qualitative research.

** Myron Eshowsky taught me this exercise.

*** This step may require a little digging. For example, upset about a roommate/partner repeatedly leaving their dirty dishes in the sink may actually emerge from any number of unmet needs, including but not limited to notions of fairness, respect, parity, mutuality, or accountability.

Going Wild

You will do foolish things,

but do them with enthusiasm.

--Colette

Two weeks ago, I got hitched. I wrote about showing up and letting others see me, imperfections and all, in my last post. My wedding day delivered quite an unexpected opportunity to put these words into practice.

Credit to Joe Dillig

A dreamy outdoor ceremony kicked off the day and involved heart-warming shows of love and support for my partner, our relationship, and me. Because the rain and wind would not quit, we exchanged our vows under a tent that provided an ineffable intimacy.

Thereafter, when the dance floor started hopping, I was way into it. First, I got to rock out to the song I performed in my sixth-grade talent show, Aerosmith and RUN-DMC's "Walk this Way," with a wonderful friend from my Peace Corps days. I also struck out to find my adorable and adored friend who can do the worm. She has pulled off this feat on numerous occasions with amazing precision and grace, and I had requested in advance that she perform her best dance-floor deed on my big day.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4B_UYYPb-Gk

The fact that she is in her early 40s is important to the story because her awesome undulations momentarily contributed to a comparison that was not at all useful: If she can do the worm, I, a 38-year-old woman, can still do the splits. Never mind that I last actualized this exploit several years ago, experienced a fair amount of stress and limited sleep in recent days, and, perhaps most importantly, spent much of the day shivering in the cold. By golly, I was going to do the splits on the dance floor, AND I was going to make sure I made my move in front of the camera. So I tracked down our lovely photographer, and Sharon cheerfully prepared herself for my performance. I went down. Nothing felt good about the movement, but I got up without too much ado. Looking crestfallen, Sharon informed me that she had not captured the Kodak moment.

My chance to practice what I preach had arrived! I could pause. I could listen inwardly and hear my pissed off body say, "Don't you ever do that to me again!" I could heed that voice and resume dancing in a way that honored my body's current state. The show would go on and be just as satisfying without that particular snapshot.

I leapt into the splits with even greater fervor the second time. As I landed, I knew in the farthest reaches of my being that I was done, not only for the night but also for some seeming eternal period of hell. I sort of blacked out for a few minutes after landing on the floor with a horrifying bounce but vaguely remember hobbling to a bag that had pain medication in it and finding my way to a chair on the edge of the dance floor. I tried to be brave and gracious as various loved ones offered me healing words, ice, and, in some cases, drunken, unsolicited advice. Like Cheryl Strayed when she lost her hiking boot on the Pacific Crest Trail, I kept imagining I was the butt of a practical joke. The throbbing pain would cease and desist, and I would resume my merriment. As she wrote, "But no one laughed. No one would. The universe, I'd learned, was never, ever kidding. It would take whatever it wanted, and it would never give it back." My hamstring was toast. No amount of wishing I could redo my foolish act would miraculously heal my broken body.

Once again, I confronted an opportunity to walk my talk and show myself some compassion. I could replace the inner judge, who had begun to chatter intensely and rapidly about how stupid and ridiculous I was, with lovingkindness blessings like, "May your leg heal quickly. May you feel at ease." I could recognize I made a mistake and repeat to myself the Brene Brown quote I intentionally placed front and center on my website: "Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we're all in this together."

The critic grew louder. I sat in the chair, the blood now drained from my face, still trying to be brave and gracious as the songs I selected for the DJ played on and people continued to rock out within reach of my stationary post. I did not want anyone to suffer with me, but I sure longed to be out there in the heart of it all. When Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" came on, I could no longer could keep the tears in check. My partner and I had crooned to this song on a road trip early in our relationship. When I picked the tune, I envisioned us dancing to it, close and slow, on our big day.  As tears streamed down my face, the internal voice of gloom and doom grew louder: "You not only screwed this up for yourself, you big fat idiot, but you also are ruining the party for the people keeping you company on the sideline."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaA3YZ6QdJU

Happily, my wise aunt appeared on the scene and told me to sock my pride. She is fond of the saying, "My mind is making promises my body can't keep," because she has made some of those promises herself. Her understanding provided a saving grace. A friend found my partner, who was in the other room conversing with cousins he rarely sees, and reported that I needed him. When he arrived, I told him I wanted to go to the emergency room; what I managed to accomplish on the dance floor was no joke.

At this point, my out-of-town father left the reception to get the rented van, located five blocks away at his hotel, so he could drive me to the hospital. My partner's former roommate carried me up and out of the building to wait for the van. Unbeknownst to me, my sister had taken a cab to the 24-hour Walgreens to purchase crutches and appeared with them in hand. My inner critic went hog wild in the face of all this grace. I started apologizing profusely to everyone around me, begging them to go back to the party. "Abandon the wounded bride; leave her to self-made pity party!" I almost shouted (I turn to third-person voice when I am being particularly hard on myself).

To make a long story short, my dad got lost after taking a wrong turn out of the hotel parking lot. The wait for him grew more and more unbearable until my partner and I decided to take a cab by ourselves to the ER--a sort of symbolic separation from our families of origin, although I certainly did not see the irony of our departure at that time. Thankfully, the ER was pretty much empty. The various health providers I ran into appreciated the story about why I had appeared on the scene all gussied up and someone put a warm blanket over me. I almost passed out from relief. I got the prescription-strength drugs I was after and reassurance that although I likely tore my hamstring, the tendon had not appeared to rip away from the bone.

We got back in a cab and headed to the bed and breakfast where my aunts had paid for a beautiful photo(8)room for our wedding night. The room was located at the top of a winding set of stairs. I surrendered my hope of arriving there. "Let's just go home," I sighed to my partner. We were going to do no such thing he informed me gently. He gingerly hoisted me over his shoulder and carried my whimpering self to our sought-after destination. This feminist never imagined being carried across a threshold on my wedding night. Alas, the universe had other plans for me.

Although in the days that followed, the judge took up her fair share of minutes and hours, I came back to the practices I consistently recommend to my clients. I allowed myself to view my injury as a loss without comparing myself to all the people in the world who have it so much worse than me. Because I named the injury a loss, I could grieve it and move on. Whenever I mustered the presence of mind to do so, I also allowed rather than rejected my moment-to-moment experience, acknowledging, processing, and letting go of the numerous feelings and thoughts that arose. I remembered Tara Brach's phrase, "Where your attention goes, energy flows," and focused my attention on the gratitude I felt for the people who came to my aid without resentment or expectation, only love. I reframed the event as an impassioned moment of glee--a misdirected one, to be sure, but not a tell-tale sign that I sucked as a human being, daughter, sister, friend, and partner. I reread one of my favorite Danna Fauld's poems, "Allow":

There is no controlling life.

Try corralling a lightning bolt,

containing a tornado. Dam a

stream and it will create a new

channel. Resist, and the tide

will sweep you off your feet.

Allow, and grace will carry

you to higher ground. The only

safety lies in letting it all in--

The wild and the weak; fear,

fantasies, failures and success.

When loss rips off the doors of

the heart, or sadness veils your

vision with despair, practice

becomes simply bearing the truth.

In the choice to let go of your

known way of being, the whole

world is revealed to your new eyes.

photo-4Turning loving attention toward my experience remains an ever challenging practice. This particular episode continues to represent what one of my mentors calls (and don't read on if swearing offends you) "another fucking growth opportunity." But I am growing. I keep thinking about the many moments during my wedding day when I felt connection, beautifully defined by Brene Brown as "the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment." I am healing, not just my body but also my spirit. Sufficiency is my reality, and I wake up each day aspiring to strengthen my belief in that radically transformative truth.

Credit to SV Heart Photography

We Belong

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

--Brene Brown

While creating a song list for a certain upcoming celebration, I remembered Pat Benatar's "We Belong." Now the song lyrics do not depict a particularly reciprocal or mutually beneficial relationship. But the song's title. Now that is something I can get behind.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxZInIyOBXk

This blog post will be short, as today is the actual day of my wedding. I write this morning both because I cannot sleep and because being surrounded by dear friends and family from near and far gives Brown's words more weight than ever. Despite my roller coaster emotions during the last few days, I feel so much gratitude for this life I have. I also understand more deeply the importance of daring greatly during the time we have on this earth. As Brown wrote,

Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It's about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It's even a little dangerous at times. And, without question, putting ourselves out there means there's a far greater risk of feeling hurt. But as I look back on my own life and what Daring Greatly has meant to me, I can honestly say that nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as believing that I'm standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen.

May I have the courage today to show up and let myself be seen, imperfections and all, so that I can experience not only the love all around me but also the sense of true belonging of which Brown speaks.

Since people keep telling me I can do as I wish on this day, I might as well close with some Rumi!

Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.

They're in each other all along.

On the relationship between gratitude and joy

In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown introduced the concept of foreboding joy:

In a culture of deep scarcity--of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough--joy can feel like a setup...We're always waiting for the other shoe to drop...Some of us...scramble to the bleakest, worst-case scenario when joy rears its vulnerable head, while others never even see joy, preferring to stay in an unmoving state of perpetual disappointment...Both of these ends of the continuum tell the same story: Softening into the joyful moments of our lives requires vulnerability...We're trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. We don't want to be blindsided by hurt. We don't want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment....When we spend our  lives (knowingly or unknowingly) pushing away vulnerability, we can't hold space open for the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure of joy.

Alas, we once again have come up against the reality that our controlling self, which is trying its hardest to protect us, prevents us from experiencing joy more fully. In the case of foreboding joy, Brown offers a lovely solution: gratitude. In her words:

For those welcoming the experience, the shudder of vulnerability that accompanies joy is an invitation to practice gratitude, to acknowledge how truly grateful we are for the person, the beauty, the connection, or simply the moment before us...Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it's scary. Yes, it's vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen--and they do happen--we are stronger.

A brief video appearing on Upworthy powerfully shows the human experience of increasing happiness via gratitude. I highly recommend taking the time to watch this 7-minute video since words cannot do justice to the sight and sound of the "experiment" featured in it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHv6vTKD6lg

That said, one story in Daring Greatly brings to life this connection between joy and gratitude:

A man in his early sixties told me, "I used to think the best way to go through life was to expect the worst. That way, if it happened, you were prepared, and if it didn't happen, you were pleasantly surprised. Then I was in a car accident and my wife was killed. Needless to say, expecting the worst didn't prepare me well at all. And worse, I still grieve for all of those wonderful moments we shared and that I didn't fully enjoy. My commitment to her is to fully enjoy every moment now. I just wish she was here, now that I know how to do that."

Another powerful way into both recognizing the inherent vulnerability of being human and feeling gratitude for our lives is a Hawaiian healing practice called ho'oponopono, which I learned from Tara Brach. Although seemingly simple, this practice invites us to believe some thoughts we may very well resist. More specifically, it asks us to acknowledge and show compassion toward our pain and fear. It also asks us to view ourselves as worthy of being cherished. The practice involves saying to ourselves the following phrases:

I'm sorry.

I love you.

Thank you.

When I work with clients, I recommend saying these words even when we do not yet believe them because they begin to rewire the brain's neural pathways. In other words, we begin to interrupt the scarcity and fear driving foreboding joy with the compassion, love, and gratitude that feed sympathetic joy. For those of us who have deep circuits of negativity and fear, creating alternative pathways can be a slow, long process. The good news is that our frustration about unlearning the core beliefs that do not serve us well (e.g., "I am undeserving"; "I am inadequate"; "I am a terrible person") provides yet another opportunity to practice ho'oponopono! Compassion, dignity, and gratitude are within us and so accessible whenever we have the presence to turn toward them. Moreover, turning toward them strengthens the aspiration and actuality of healing ourselves.

Manifesting Peace*

Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.

In the movie The Interpreter, a fictional ethnic group, the Ku, who live in a fictional country, Matobo, engage in a thought-provoking practice. As protagonist Silvia Broome says,

The Ku believe that the only way to end grief is to save a life. If someone is murdered, a year of mourning ends with a ritual that we call the Drowning Man Trial. There's an all-night party beside a river. At dawn, the killer is put in a boat. He's taken out on the water, and he's dropped. He's bound so that he can't swim. The family of the dead then has to make a choice. They can let him drown or they can swim out and save him. The Ku believe that if the family lets the killer drown, they'll have justice but spend the rest of their lives in mourning. But if they save him, if they admit that life isn't always just...that very act can take away their sorrow.

Silvia also utters the statement opening this post about vengeance being a lazy form of grief. Regardless of whether the above description comes from someone's imagination or a "real" practice (after all, they are both human constructions), I find her words about revenge and the Drowning Man Trial to be instructive. They suggest that we tie ourselves up in knots, and sometimes cause great harm to others, when we become mired in thoughts about how we have been wronged.

Domination, oppression, and injustice are prevalent and very real, particularly for the most vulnerable individuals and communities. Like many others, I would like our world and society to devote more energy to cultivating dignity, compassion, and empathy so that we may create more peace and less war, within ourselves and between people. But how do we do this?

Tara Brach often says, "Where our attention goes, our energy flows." If our attention goes to avenging injustices, our energy will flow toward strategic planning and violence. If our attention goes to alleviating the suffering caused by injustices, our energy will flow toward understanding the matter more fully and clearly before choosing our response. After all, reaching for a weapon, whether physical or verbal, suggests we do not have other tools at our disposal to restore a sense of well-being and peace.

But this "peace work" is so much harder than abstract language suggests. When we feel wronged, we want our lives restored to "rightness." And that is the rub. Oftentimes, without recognizing what has happened, we insert a lot of expectations into the restorative process that are rooted in a moral philosophy of rightdoing and wrongdoing. Unfortunately, this good/bad view of the world automatically deletes a lot of context and history that could assist us in gaining more clarity about the various forces contributing to the situation. Those forces need our attention if we aspire to restore a sense of wholeness, of integrity, with our response. What is more, this narrow view takes us away from the present moment and into our stories of how life "should" be. In contrast is "living without an agenda":

Could our minds and our hearts be big enough just to hang out in that space where we're not entirely certain about who's right and who's wrong? Could we have no agenda when we walk into a room with another person, not know what to say, not make the person wrong or right? Could we see, hear, feel other people as they really are? It is powerful to practice this way, because we'll find ourselves continually rushing around to try to feel secure again--to make ourselves or them right or wrong. But true communication can happen only in that open space.**

As usual, my own personal experience has drawn me to this topic of manifesting peace. Back in June, I wrote about my upcoming wedding. Since that time, I have come face to face with old family wounds and realized just how much sorrow I have been carrying around. I most certainly have turned to vengeance--in the form of lashing out with harsh words--when the grief has felt too overwhelming or shameful, and particularly when a lot of external stressors are present. Inspired by Old School, I have been only half-joking about carrying a horse tranquilizer gun at the wedding so I can take action if the going gets too tough.

But I have found that when I allow myself the time and space to dig below the anger, frustration, and judgments, the vulnerable sorrow at the root of things becomes a conduit for connecting with family members and the human experience more broadly. As uncomfortable as it is, I have been attending to and befriending my grief. As a result, I am better understanding the intergenerational nature of my family wars as well as the conditions that foster a sense of separation and brokenness. That understanding, combined with my aspiration to pay "wholehearted, intelligent attention,"**  has allowed me to begin to grow peace within and with individual family members. In conversations, that peace-making has involved attentive, non-defensive listening and generated validation of our own and the other's experience as well as compassion for the suffering that is present, regardless of whose suffering is there. Slowly but surely, I am arriving at the expansive freedom beneath the mourning, to which the Drowning Man Trial speaks. When I am able to stay present and arrive at that open space of "true communication," I encounter the love and tenderness that were there all along.

Pema Chodron gets the final word on how, in our daily lives, we can turn toward and foster peace-making:

When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart? The next time you get a chance, experiment with this.**

* This piece draws heavily on Tara Brach's September 11, 2013 talk "Peace Work."

** These quotes come from Pema Chodron and appear in The Pocket Pema Chodron.