WAITING FOR A HURRICANE: ANTICIPATORY TRAUMA IS REAL

As I wait for Hurricane Dorian’s arrival and observe the “cone of uncertainty” about where it will land, I’ve been wondering if there’s such a thing as “anticipatory trauma.” So, when the going gets tough I go googling.  My research shows that anticipatory trauma is indeed real.

“One writer has said[i]some people are already experiencing the fallout [of the impact of climate change] – in the form of what’s being called pre-traumatic stress reactions.”

Coincidentally (or not), while writing this article, I  received a link to a Ted Talk by science writer Britt Wray, on how climate change affects our mental health: https://www.ted.com/talks/britt_wray_how_climate_change_affects_your_mental_health

Wray notes that that “we …need our actions and policies [regarding climate change] to reflect an understanding of how our changing environments threaten our mental, social and spiritual well-being.”  Wray says some of the psychological effects of climate change include anxiety, grief, depression, increased PTSD and existential distress.  She also includes pre-traumatic stress in the list.

As a trauma therapist, I have come to understand that the brain acts like a binary computer.  It links different experiences together as if they were the same and creates what I call “knots of association.”  For example, my brain has now linked Hurricane Dorian with Hurricane Irma and all the memories I have of that powerful storm two years ago.

I remind myself that  “This is not that”  as I untie those knots of association. In fact, in remembering that this is not that, I recall positive memories of my volunteer work in a hurricane shelter with those left homeless by Irma’s destruction.  I remember their remarkable resilience, optimism and strength. I learned that their resilience came from caring for each other, rather than isolating themselves in despondency and despair. (See my blog article “Resilience in a Hurricane Shelter” for more of what I learned:  http://bethspatterson.com/resilience/).

I have offered my “mantra” that this is not that to others experiencing anticipatory trauma.  Here are some other tips that may help as we grapple with hurricanes and other environmental disasters:

  • Practice self-compassion. It doesn’t help to judge yourself for your reactions.
  • Focus your attention on your body instead of your thoughts. For example:
    • Inhale deeply through your nose, from your diaphragm to your collar bone. Then exhale slowly through your mouth.  Imagine cool, nourishing air coming in through your nose as you inhale, and warm, stale air leaving as you exhale.
    • Place one hand on your heart center and the other on your solar plexus, Notice the rise and fall of your torso, as you feel the connection between these two chakras or energy centers.
    • When disturbing thoughts and images arise, simply notice them and return your attention to your breath and body.
  • Become an activist to bring attention to climate change or other issues that may have a negative impact on your wellbeing.
  • Volunteer your time to help those impacted by natural disasters.
  • Journal about your feelings. This helps get those swirling thoughts out of your head and so they become more workable.

Most importantly, avoid any tendency to isolate yourself.   You are not alone in feeling distress and anxiety about the “cone of uncertainty” as we await Hurricane Dorian’s arrival.

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[i]S. Colino, “Fearing the Future: Pre-Traumatic Stress Reactions,”  US News, May 24. 2017.

 

© 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

DIGITAL DISTRACTION:  HOW WE USE OUR DEVICES TO AVOID DIFFICULT EMOTIONS

Digital distraction is everywhere these days.  I have started paying attention to how I also use my devices to avoid difficult emotions. Checking my emails and surfing the internet consume more hours in my day than I’d like to admit. So, I have started looking more mindfully at my digital device habits.

How We Use Our Devices to Avoid Difficult Emotions

I have noticed that when watching the horrific news of the day, I often pick up my tablet to play a game of Solitaire.   With this mindful view, I now understand that I often play Solitaire to avoid feeling anxious and worried.

Similarly, when I’m taking public transportation, I tend to fritter away my time on my cellphone. As a result, I miss human interactions and the beautiful scenery around me.  I see how digital distraction distances us from others, and from our environment.

I have been weighing whether my digital device use truly connects me to others. Many close friends and family members prefer to “talk” via text, rather than by phone or in person. I have picked up this habit as well. I believe that much of the divisiveness, violence, confusion and lack of empathy in today’s world can be attributed to an over-reliance on social media for connection.

Digital Distraction As a Defense Against Being Hurt

Many of the clients in my therapy practice admit that they surf the internet to avoid difficult emotions, such as anger, fear or anxiety.  For example, “Donna” has a history of complex trauma, primarily due to her mother’s emotional abuse.  As a result,  Donna has used distraction as a coping mechanism throughout her life to avoid painful emotions.

Donna told me that she has long been “disconnected from life” to avoid anxiety and fear. She worries that if she connects with those in her life, they will disappoint and hurt her, like her mother did. Likewise, Donna avoids connecting with herself because when she does she is filled with negative self-judgments.

Due to her anxiety and fears, Donna often stays up until 2am or later, surfing the internet and playing computer games.  She understands that this habit allows her to avoid her fears and other difficult emotions.

How The Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan Can Help Create Healthy Relationships with Our Devices…And With Others

Donna and I have been working with the book Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers Youby Dzogchen Ponlop[i]We recently applied Ponlop Rinpoche’s Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan to Donna’s digital distraction as a way to avoid feeling her emotions at bedtime.  As a result, Donna is beginning to let go of her digital device urge, and instead, has begun reading or knitting to help her relax into sleep.

I offer the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan here to help you create a mindful and healthy relationship with your devices and understand the triggers that make you turn to them to avoid difficult emotions.

The first step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan is Mindful Gap.   When you feel the urge to distract yourself with your devices, simply stop, take a breath and notice the urge without taking action. Breathe and feel what’s going on in your body without judgment.

From this internal focus, expand your awareness to your environment.  This is Clear Seeing,  the second step of the Emotional Rescue Plan.  Take a look and see what your body is telling you when you have the urge to digitally distract yourself.  For example, do you feel a fluttering in your chest or tightening in your stomach when you feel anxious? Do you start fidgeting when you’re bored? Is there a pattern to mindlessly picking up a device when you feel certain emotions?

The third step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan is Letting Go.  Allow your body to relax. Breathe in compassion for yourself, and breathe out compassion for all others who feel the need to digitally distract themselves to avoid difficult emotions.

Letting go gives you the chance to choose whether or not to pick up a device at that moment.  My aspiration is to choose connection and aliveness over distraction and numbness.

 

________________________

[i]Dzogchen Ponlop (2016). Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You.  New York: Tarchin/Perigree.

(c) 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

PRACTICING COMPASSION AND EQUANIMITY IN THE AGE OF TRUMP

Practicing compassion and equanimity with difficult people in our lives can be challenging.  However doing so greatly increases our capacity to care for all beings, including ourselves.  It also helps release us from getting caught up in negative emotions.

The Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, which translates as  “sending and receiving,” is a powerful compassion practice. In practicing tonglen, we take in others’ suffering, and send them healing and compassion.  Each time you breathe in, you take in others’ pain and suffering. You take it into your heart, where it is transmuted, transformed into compassion. Then you breathe out, and send them healing and love.

Tonglenis practiced in stages:  first for ourselves, then for a loved one, then for a neutral person, then for someone we dislike, and finally for all sentient beings everywhere.  Tonglen can be done as a formal sitting practice or “on the spot”.[b]  For example, I practice tonglen on the spot when I pass a homeless person, instead of looking away.  I breathe in the suffering of that person, and send him or her healing with my out-breath.

Tonglen became a mainstay of my healing from the trauma of witnessing firsthand the horrors of 9/11. It was fairly easy for me to practice compassion for myself, those who died and their loved ones, and all others who witnessed the planes crash, whether in person or on the news. What truly healed me was practicing tonglen and developing compassion for the young hijackers who flew the planes into the World Trade Center.  I saw them as confused young men who abandoned their lovingkindness and basic goodness in the name of religious zealotry.

The transformative power of tonglen lies in directly experiencing that we are all born with basic goodness, and that our suffering, borne of clinging to a solid sense of self, obscures our basic goodness and lovingkindness as we move through life’s challenges.

Practicing equanimity is another transformative practice. It is a powerful way to let go of negativity and an “us versus them” mentality.  Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Han says that equanimity involves seeing everyone as equal:  “We shed all discrimination and prejudice, and remove all boundaries between ourselves and others.  In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides.”[c]

I have recently been practicing compassion and equanimity for Donald Trump. Bear in mind that compassion does not mean approval. Without getting into a political discussion and simply based on my observations, I do not condone Trump’s lies, inflammatory language and divisiveness.

When I find myself getting caught in negativity listening to the news, I take a breath and step back.  I’ve made it a practice to look at Trump’s eyes and practice compassion and equanimity on the spot.  I am then able to see the fear and suffering in his eyes.  Behind his tough guy façade, I see a scared little boy.  Sometimes Trump’s eyes seem eerily empty, a reflection of a person who has been called “an existence without a soul.”[d]

Observing Trump’s pained eyes, I wonder how his soul became so damaged.  As a psychotherapist, it is tempting to diagnose him.  I prefer to try to understand, based on my understanding of trauma and attachment theory, how Trump has become the person he is today.  His mother has been described as emotionally distant and frequently absent.  His father has been described as a “tyrant.”

It is thus no surprise then that Trump is so sensitive to criticism.  His bluster and boastful arrogance are likely a mask to hide his deep insecurity and fear of being seen as weak or unworthy.  As Dr. Justin Frank notes:

One of the things that you do when you’re feeling ignored and abandoned in some way is develop contempt for that part of yourself. You have the hatred of your own weakness and you then become a bully and make other people feel weak, or mock other people to make it clear that you’re the strong one and that you don’t have any needs.[e]

Fear seems to be a driving force in Trump’s life. As Zen teacher Ezra Bayda says:

 “[F]ear makes our life narrow and dark.  It is at the root of all conflict, underlying much of our sorrow.  Fear also…disconnects us from the lovingkindness that is our true nature.”[f]

Understanding Donald Trump in this way helps me practice compassion and equanimity, not only for him, but for all others who have suffered because of difficult upbringings.  May they all discover the “lovingkindness that is [their] true nature.”

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[a]Please note that this article is not intended as a political statement, but rather, an essay about how to work with compassion and equanimity for all beings, including those who challenge our ability to be compassionate.  Also see my blog article “How To Be a Mindful Activist…And not lose your mind: http://bethspatterson.com/mindful-activism/

[b]Pema Chodron, (Summer 2002). “Tonglen on the Spot.” Tricycle.

[c]Thich Nhat Han (1997).  The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.  New York: Broadway Books, p. 162.

[d]Dan McAdams (June 2016).  “The Mind of Donald Trump.” The Atlantic, quoting Mark Singer, who interviewed Trump for a profile published as “Trump Solo” in The New Yorker (May 19, 1997).

[e]David Smith.  “Mommy Dearest:  A Psychiatrist Puts Trump on the Couch.” The Guardian. (September 29, 2018).

[f]Ezra Bayda (Spring 2009). “The Three Things We Fear Most.”  Tricycle.

OVERCOMING JEALOUSY THROUGH JOY: A BUDDHIST PSYCHOLOGY PERSPECTIVE

Jealousy is a difficult emotion to experience, and even more difficult to admit. Jealousy has many faces: competitiveness, envy, resentment, insecurity and fear of exclusion.  Buddhist psychology teaches that leaning into the experience of jealousy and not trying to cover it up is the key to transforming it and creating compassion and connection.

Jealousy and the belief that we are not good enough

Jealousy flows from believing that we are not good enough just as we are. For example, I have noticed that my jealousy rears up when I feel judged or insecure.  If I’m not mindful, it becomes a swirling vicious circle.  I judge myself, compare myself to others and resent them for being better than me or having more than me.  I then become competitive and go overboard to try to prove my worth. To compound the problem, I then criticize myself for feeling jealous – After all, I’m a Buddhist and I’m not supposed to feel that way!

When I experience jealousy, I often shut down and isolate myself out of a fear of being found out as not enough. Not only do I disconnect from others, I disconnect from myself and my basic goodness and vitality.

Jealousy and the suffering of self-clinging

Jealousy is considered one of the “five poisons” in Buddhism, together with anger, desire, pride and ignorance.  They are considered poisonous because they create pain and suffering, both for ourselves and others.  The foundational tenet of Buddhism is that suffering is all around us, and that the cause of suffering is our clinging to a sold sense of self.  Jealousy and the other poisons arise from this self-clinging.

The Buddhist prayer called The Four Immeasurables is a powerful way to free ourselves from the suffering of ego-clinging. It is a simple prayer accessible to all:

May all beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.

May they dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression and prejudice.

 It is important to remember that the term “all beings” includes ourselves.  Therefore, reciting The Four Immeasurables opens us to compassion for ourselves as well as others.

How to work mindfully with jealousy and transform it into sympathetic joy

Working mindfully with the tools I have learned from Buddhist psychology allows me to let go of jealousy.  When I feel jealousy arise, I first lean into the experience with my felt senses.  This allows me to stay with the direct physical and emotional experience and not get caught up in the storylines that keep jealousy in place.

By breathing in the painful sensations associated with jealousy and breathing out relaxation, I can create space around the experience and see it directly, allowing myself to relax and let go.[a]When I am able to do this, my jealousy transforms into compassion for myself and for the person who aroused my jealousy.

Each of the five poisons corresponds to one of the “five wisdoms” or antidotes. After experiencing the pain of the jealousy directly and mindfully, opening into compassion leads naturally to jealousy’s antidote, known as “sympathetic joy.” Sympathetic joy involves taking joy in the success or happiness of others. This corresponds to the third of the Four Immeasurables, where we pray that all beings experience “great happiness devoid of suffering.”

The Sanskrit term for sympathetic joy is mudita.  Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg defines mudita as “the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being.”[b]The cultivation of sympathetic joy is indeed a pleasure – It frees us from the suffering of our painful emotions.  In addition, rejoicing in others’ happiness actually creates happiness and satisfaction in ourselves.  In the words of the Buddhist master Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, “When you rejoice, you really feel like you have a richness inside. Your good heart sustains your mind.”[c]

“Appreciative joy” is another translation of mudita:

Appreciation is taking the time to notice what’s already here, what we have right now in this very moment. This capacity gives us the inner strength to work with our suffering in a skillful way, and to stay connected to each other as we do.[d]

 When we practice appreciation for others’ happiness and success, we come to appreciate ourselves.  Consequently, the belief that we are not enough slips away, and our jealousy can dissolve.  Rejoicing in others’ good fortune also opens our hearts to others as well as ourselves. Our sense of connection and basic aliveness is restored.  We are well on our way to overcoming ego-clinging and suffering, and living a life of satisfaction and joy.

 __________________________________________

[a]This corresponds to the “Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan” described by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in his book “Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You (TarcherPerigree 2016).  The three steps are:  Mindful Gap (taking a breath and feeling the emotion directly), Clear Seeing (looking at the broader picture, including triggers and habits), and Letting Go (relaxing with our senses and letting go of any residual negative energy).

[b] Sharon Salzberg (1995). Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Shambhala Publications. p. 119.

[c]Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, “Rejoicing:  The Antidote to Jealousy”, in “Uncommon Happiness:  The Path of the Compassionate Warrior (Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2009).

[d]Mingyur Rinpoche, “You Already Have What You’re Looking For”, Lion’s Roar, March 2019 issue.

 

© 2019 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

HOW TO BE A MINDFUL ACTIVIST…AND NOT LOSE YOUR MIND

There has been an enormous rise in social activism in the last few years.  However, if we are not mindful activists, we may harden our hearts, isolate ourselves, and get swept away in the contagion of negativity, hatred and aggression all around us.  We may experience depression, anxiety or trauma observing the divisiveness, misfortunes and confusion in the world.  We may wonder if we can make a difference, and may experience hopelessness, helplessness or profound fear.

Current events can reawaken our feelings about prior struggles we have endured. Public allegations of sexual misconduct can trigger memories of abuse or harassment.  Racism or gender inequality can trigger memories of discrimination. These memories can become so intrusive that they interfere with our lives and relationships.

These turbulent times also provide an opportunity to open our hearts and develop compassion for ourselves and all other beings.  As the Dalai Lama has said:

“When people say that I have worked a lot for peace, I feel embarrassed. I feel like laughing. I don’t think I have done very much for world peace. It’s just that my practice is the peaceful path of kindness, love, compassion, and not harming others…. I am simply a follower of the Buddha, and the Buddha taught that patience is the supreme means for transcending suffering.”[i]

 According to the Buddhist teachings, patience is the antidote for anger and aggression, and as the Dalai Lama notes, it can help us overcome suffering.  One way to practice patience is what Dzogchen Ponlop, in his book Emotional Rescue,[ii]calls “Mindful Gap.” Taking a Mindful Gap allows us to slow down and pause Instead of reflexively acting angrily. When the first burst of anger’s energy arises, take a moment to breathe and feel the experience of anger in the body. Then, hold the experience, staying in the present moment. This allows us to look and see what the feelings are telling us.  By taking a Mindful Gap, we can choose the most beneficial course of action, whether it be speaking or acting compassionately, or refraining from doing anything at all.

Seeing the world in terms of “us versus them” increases suffering.  If we realize that we are all together in this boat called life, we can cultivate compassion for everyone – even those with whom we profoundly disagree.  In the words of Zen master and social activist Rev. angel Kyodo Williams:

When I sit with a sense of the human being there, I don’t actually feel hatred at all. I feel a kind of grief for their circumstance and for the society that allows injustice to happen. They’re just as caught up in it as every other person who allows this to be the social order. It’s hard to accept, and it’s a really, really deep practice, but I haven’t discovered anything else to be true and actually workable.[iii]

 Finding compassion for all being helps us realize that we all suffer. With this realization, we can approach others with a sense of curiosity and concern, rather than prejudice or aggression. Knowing we all suffer helps us feel less alone, and can alleviate anxiety, depression, anger or fear.

Balance and self-care are also keys for mindful activism. Activists may experience overwhelm, stress or burnout.  If we are not mindful, the stress of activism can cause changes in the brain, increasing cortisol and adrenaline and the fight or flight response.  This in turn can result in anxiety or trauma.  Becoming familiar with our early warning signs of undue stress is important to prevent it from escalating.  For example, when I become really forgetful, irritable and/or clumsy, I know it’s time to take a break and relax.

Here are some tips for being a mindful activist and not “lose your mind”:

  • Take care of your physical well-being, including healthy eating, getting enough sleep and exercise.
  • Reach out to fellow activists and friends to talk about your feelings.
  • Maintain a sense of humor.
  • Do something you enjoy every day, such as walking, listening to music, getting together with friends, reading a good book
  • Be mindful of your thoughts.Let go of negative thoughts and negative self-talk, like leaves floating down a stream.
  • Practice being in the present moment, moment by moment. For example, when you are washing the dishes, experience how your hands feel in the warm water, the sound of the water, the smell of the soap. When thoughts arise that take you away from the experience, simply come back to washing the dishes.
  • Take breaks from the news, social media and your devices. Turn off all devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and take that time for quiet reading, journaling or meditation.
  • Practice gratitude. Take time to appreciate the beauty of nature, others’ generosity and compassion, the song of a bird, the purr of a cat.
  • Maintain a healthy balance between alone time and time with others.
  • If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout, or increased anxiety or depression that are interfering with your daily life, seek guidance from a spiritual advisor or psychotherapist. Professional support can be helpful in alleviating your personal suffering, so you can go on being of benefit to yourselves and your world.

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References:

[i]HH The Dalai, Lama (2018).  The Bodhisattva Guide:  A Commentary on the Way of the Bodhisattva (p. 140). Boston: Shambhala Publications.

[ii]Dzogchen Ponlop (2016).  Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You.New York: Tarchin/Perigree.

[iii]Sharon Salzberg & Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, Love Everyone:  A Guide for Spiritual Activists.  Lion’s Roar, August 18, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

THE ART OF MINDFUL LISTENING

“Do your best to practice compassionate listening. Do not listen for the sole purpose of judging, criticizing or analyzing. Listen only to help the other person express himself and find some relief from suffering.”  Thich Nhat Hanh

Mindful listening is so important in times of trauma and grief, so prevalent in our world today.  Mindful listening, also called active or compassionate listening, is about connection and validation. When we feel heard, we feel loved, cared for and understood, just as we are.

We may think that it is easy to listen, but true listening from the heart requires openness, courage and vulnerability.  Mindful listening helps us stay open with another and be able to sit with the expression of intense emotions.  Mindful listening is active listening.  We do not passively sit there, but convey to the speaker that he or she is heard and understood, whether by paraphrasing, reflection or nonverbal acts, like sitting forward in your chair, maintaining eye contact, and nodding our head.  Roshi Joan Halifax beautifully expresses this as follows:

Listening means that we have stabilized our minds so completely that the person who is speaking can actually hear themselves through our stillness.It is a quality of radiant listening, of luminous listening, of vibrant listening, but it is also very still.  It is listening with attention, with openheartedness, without prejudice….We listen with our being.  We offer our whole listening body.[i]

Listening is not about giving advice, trying to fix the situation or agreeing with the speaker.  What the person who is suffering needs most is someone to compassionately bear witness to what he or she is feeling.    Mindful listening requires empathy, not sympathy.  As shame and trauma researcher and writer Brené Brown has said,

“Empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection….  Empathy entails the “ability to take the perspective of another person or recognize their perspective as their truth…. Empathy is I’m feeling with you. Sympathy [is] I’m feeling for you.[ii]

Suffering is a universal part of the human condition. However, despite the universality of suffering, we are unique individuals, and our suffering has unique qualities.  Therefore, responding “I know just how you feel” (i.e., “feeling foryou”) is unhelpful and even hurtful. If you identify so completely with another’s suffering, you no longer hear him or her as an individual.  Instead of saying “I know just how you feel,” you might instead say something like “That sounds so difficult.  Tell me more.”  Notice how different the two responses feel.

It is easy to be triggered when someone is describing an experience of abuse or loss.  Out of our own anxiety, we may say something unhelpful or damaging.  For example, I remember listening to a client tell me about her multiple miscarriages at a time in her life she was experiencing substance abuse and homelessness.  I felt my anxiety rising.  Instead of responding right away, I allowed myself to breathe and stay present with my client.  Pausing and breathing allowed me to resist the urge to say “maybe it’s a blessing” or another cliché.  At one point, my client actually said to me “…and if one more person says ‘maybe it’s a blessing” I’m going to strangle them!”  Phew – Mindful listening saved the day!

Mindful listening includes becoming aware of our habitual patterns. Noticing our habits as they arise is the key to changing them.  We all have listening habits, or “listening traps” that create barriers to compassionate listening. It is worthwhile to contemplate the listening trap questions on this linked list, and identify which ones you tend to engage in when you are not being mindful: https://www.smp.org/dynamicmedia/files/f61aa314d326aefcc87af335025a930f/TX004482_2_handout_9A_Listening_Traps.pdf[iii].

For example, when I was interning as a hospice bereavement counselor, I realized that one of my listening traps is #7 on this list:  “Do you get caught up with insignificant facts and details and miss the emotional tone of the conversation?” I became painfully aware of this when I was working with a woman whose son had recently died in a car accident.  As she was describing what had happened and the pain of her loss, I interrupted with the question “How old was your son?”  This mindless question broke our emotional connection in that moment.

We have all experienced the hurt of not being heard, and being responded to with unwanted advice, a cliché or pat response. Some examples:

  • “I know just how you feel.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “The same thing happened to me.”
  • “Well, you can always have another [child, pet, relationship – fill in the blank]
  • “At least he’s in a better place.”
  • “Maybe you should….”
  • “It could be worse.”
  • “Let me tell you about the time when….”

Responding with a cliché does not mean that the listener does not care; it simply means that the listener was not mindful in responding.  Mindful listening is like a dance, where most of your attention is focused on the speaker and moments of attention are focused on yourself to make sure you are actually listening. The following are some tips for mindful listening:

  • Notice your physical and emotional responses as you listen to another’s suffering.
  • Notice where you feel your tension or anxiety in your body:Is your heart beating faster?  Are you feeling tightness in your chest? Fluttering in your stomach?
  • Take a breath before responding.
  • Be curious.
  • Listen not only to the speaker’s words, but also his or her body language and emotional tone.
  • Remove distractions such as cellphones or paperwork that may prevent you from fully being with the other person.
  • Pay attention to any judgments that arise and set them aside.
  • Check in with yourself during the conversation and make sure you are still present and listening.

Sometimes the best response is sacred silence, meeting the other with love and understanding. The key is to be present, breathe, and through your verbal and nonverbal responses, let the speaker know her or she is heard.

 

_______________________________

[i]Joan Halifax, in P. Zaleski & P. Kaufman (1997). Gifts of the Spirit

[ii]Brené Brown (2013).  RSA Talk, The Power of Vulnerability. YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=sXSjc-pbXk4

[iii]© St. Mary’s Press.

UNCOVERING THE POWER OF VULNERABILITY: A MINDFULNESS APPROACH

Most of us think of vulnerability as weakness. However, the word vulnerability simply means able to be open. By being open, we can clearly see ourselves and that world around us.  This panoramic view gives us the ability and power to grow, heal and be fully engaged in our lives.

We often think that if we are open and vulnerable, we will be attacked.  This is something most of us learn early on in life.  We come into the world as open and vulnerable babies, unconditionally loving ourselves and the world around us.  Then life gets in the way. We feel judged, misunderstood, rejected or abandoned, and little by little that open innocence begins to close. We close a portion of our hearts. We lose our spontaneity, basic aliveness and self-expression out of fear.

The first step of opening to our basic aliveness is becoming aware of the fears and self-beliefs that close our hearts. For me, mindfulness meditation was the key for unlocking my heart.

Through slowing down in meditation, and taking the time to get to know myself, I discovered my fear of being judged as unlovable. I became acutely aware that I had closed myself from my basic aliveness out of fear.  Slowing down and breathing into my heart in meditation, I had a direct experience of what felt like ice melting around my heart.  I experienced profound sadness and grief for the loss of the open heart and vulnerability I had as a baby and young child.  Over time, I was able to let go of the fears that held me back, experience compassion for myself and allow myself to be and be loved, just as I am.

So, I offer this guided meditation to you:

  • Sit in a comfortable position, either on a meditation cushion or in a chair with your feet on the floor. Make sure you are sitting upright in a relaxed fashion so your breath can freely move.
  • Bring attention to your breath – cool nourishing breaths in, and long slow breaths out, letting go of stress and tension with each outbreath.Allow yourself to slow down.  When thoughts come up, simply notice them and return your attention to your breath.
  • As you begin to slow down and relax, bring your attention to your heart center. Bring one hand to your heart. Breathe into your heart, noticing the hand touching your heart to rise with each inhale and relax with each exhale.
  • Continuing to breathe in this way, experience the sensations around your heart. In order to become familiar with and connect with your heart, ask:  If it had a color, what color would it be?  Similarly, if it had a size, shape, texture or temperature, what would that be.
  • Now, continuing to focus your attention on your heart, notice your emotions. Fear or sadness may arise.  Breathe into the emotional experience and allow your emotions to be just as they are, without getting lost in thoughts, judgments or stories.
  • End your meditation practice with the aspiration that you grow and heal, and in your growth and healing, may you be of benefit to yourself and all others.

It is my aspiration that this practice will help you understand with compassion the fears that have closed your heart, so that you can grow, heal and open with the power of vulnerability to yourself and your life.

 

 

© 2018.  Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OVERCOMING THE DEFENSIVE EGO: FINDING GROUND IN GROUNDLESSNESS

Buddhism teaches that the cause of of our suffering is clinging to what we believe to be our “self” or “ego.” When we feel unsafe or uncertain, our habitual defenses arise, and we tend to cling even more defensively to our ego in an attempt to gain ground in groundlessness. But there is good news: Through mindfulness practice, we come to understand that there is no such thing as a solid “I”, and we can relax our urge to control what is not controllable.

From the Buddhist perspective, nothing exists independently. Therefore, try as we might, there is nothing we can point to that is “I.” Through meditation and contemplative investigation, we come to understand that our identities are not solid, independent or permanent. Who we are, as well as the world around us, is ever-changing, dependent on what arises moment by moment. Understanding and experiencing egolessness is the key to our freedom and emotional health.

In her book The Places that Scare You[a], the American Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron describes the ego’s attempt to gain ground in groundlessness as follows:

“We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not knowing is part of the adventure, and it’s also what makes us afraid.”

Understanding that nothing truly exists independently or permanently leads inextricably to understanding that everything is groundless. We can either deal with the basic groundlessness of all phenomena in a healthy way, allowing ourselves to feel our suffering and lean into our fears, or by hanging on for dear life to a sold sense of “I”, which I call the defensive ego. The development of a healthy ego is necessary to mediate life’s changes and be grounded in groundlessness.

Both psychotherapy and Buddhism strive to create a safe place to develop grounding in groundlessness and ambiguity. As Buddhist psychotherapist Mark Epstein has said, meditation practice [as well as psychotherapy] promotes “change and development within the ego, rather than beyond it”. Epstein posits that a healthy ego is essential, stating that meditation seeks to produce “an ego no longer obsessed with its own solidity.”[b]

Similarly, in Freud’s construct of the id, ego and superego, the ego is the executive function of consciousness, mediating between the impulsive drives of the id and the judgmental and self-critical superego. Therefore, one of the primary goals of therapy is to help clients develop a healthy ego, and guide them to overcome their habitual defenses and unhealthy clinging to a solid sense of self out of a fear of groundlessness.

 Many of my psychotherapy clients have “perfected” deeply ingrained defenses that they use to, in Pema Chodron’s words, “control the uncontrollable.” It is my job to help my clients discover the fears and negative beliefs that have created their dysfunctional habitual tendencies, and with time and practice, let them go.

Another ego defense is “spiritual bypassing”, or the misuse of spiritual practice to avoid dealing with difficult feelings and issues. Developing a healthy ego is the middle way between the two extremes of solidifying the ego or attempting to forego it altogether.

Because of our emotional histories and developmental wounding, living in ambiguity and groundlessness can be fraught with difficulties, and lead to defense mechanisms that prevent us from living fully. For example, some of us may see things in black and white terms, because ambiguity creates a sense of fear or anxiety. Those with disordered eating tend to control their food intake as the only way they know to control the uncontrollable. Others may seek to numb themselves with drugs or alcohol or tend to use spiritual bypassing to not feel the sufferings of life.  We may also tend toward perfectionism, rather than experience the ambiguity of imperfection.

Another defensive posture of ego is to hold on to the stories of blame or shame we tell ourselves about our lives. As a psychotherapist, I have heard the refrain “but that’s just the way I am” so often. We sometimes cling for dear life to our stories, closing ourselves to a more vibrant life and connection to ourselves and others. The process of therapy, as well as meditation, helps us loosen our grip on our stories and our solid sense of self.

Paradoxically, telling our stories in therapy is a way to loosen their grip. As Mark Epstein says, “The point of telling one’s story in therapy is to be released from the hold it has over you, to set yourself free, not to reinforce the way it defines you. If there is one thing I have learned from my years as a Buddhist therapist, it is that we need not be limited by our stories. We are much more mysterious than they are.”[c]

All of these defense mechanisms arise out of a fear of vulnerability and being open to all that life has to offer. Our emotional wounds often prevent us from seeing the complex nature of the people and events in our lives. Possibilities for growth and renewal can only arise when we are able to rest in the unknown space of groundlessness, let ourselves feel our suffering and let go of our sense of a solid “I”. If we can take a breath and rest in that space, we see that life is truly spacious, vibrant, alive and full of possibility.

The experience of selflessness with the grounding of a healthy ego opens us from the claustrophobia of self-centeredness into the spaciousness of possibility and connection. When we let go of obsessively clinging to a solid “I”, we open to an understanding that we all experience joy, sorrow, fear, anger and all of the vicissitudes of life. We transform the complaint “why me?” into an understanding of “yes, everyone.”   In that space of openness, we can let go of fear and increase our capacity for connection and love.

 

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[a] Chodron, P. (2002). The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. (Boulder: Shambhala Publications.

[b] Epstein, M. (1988). “ The Deconstruction of the Self: Ego and “Egolessness in Buddhist Insight Meditation. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 61-69.

[c] Epstein, M. “If the Buddha Were Called to Jury Duty.” Tricycle Magazine. (Winter 2017).

 

 

 

© 2018 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.

 

TRANSFORMING RESENTMENT ON THE SPOT

Resentment is a negative and toxic emotional response.  It arises when we feel that we are being treated unfairly.   Resentment can feel like anger, hatred or self-righteous indignation. If we bring mindfulness and curiosity to the situation, we can actually change how we react when we feel this way, and can transform our resentment to compassion, for ourselves and others.

Recognizing Resentment as a Habitual Defensive Pattern

It is difficult to change reactions that have become deeply entrenched in our emotional lives. For example, many of my clients have told me that their mothers were highly judgmental or critical of them. As a result, they developed defensive habitual response as a way to protect themselves against feeling hurt, ashamed or disappointed.  These defensive automatic responses then play out throughout our lives whenever we feel judged or criticized.

A knee-jerk automatic reaction of self-righteous indignation to feeling judged, criticized or mistreated is something many of us are all too familiar with. Kaumyo Lowe-Charde, co-abbot of Dharma Rain Zen Center,  notes:

[When we see things in right or wrong terms], we can simply notice how comforting and reassuring it is when we believe we are on the right side of those lines.  And, if  we persist in noticing, we may discover that the need to draw lines to create a right and wrong side, is rooted in fear.  If, in a given instant,  we can open up and allow ourselves to feel this fear, it will morph into something else— perhaps grief, compassion or remorse. And when that happens, we increase our capacity for choice.”

As Kaumyo Lowe-Charde says, our need to be right is rooted in fear. We are often afraid of opening ourselves to feeling hurt or disappointed, and hold on for dear life to our automatic defensive emotional responses. We develop tunnel vision, a narrowing of our perspective and ability to choose, which disconnects us from our basic aliveness. Our need to be right also disconnects us from the compassion and self-compassion that are our birthright.

Using the Three-Step Emotional Rescue Plan to Transform Resentment

In his book Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Heals You, Dzogchen Ponlop describes a “three-step plan” for working with difficult emotions. The first step is to take a breath and feel what you are experiencing emotionally without reacting. Ponlop Rinpoche calls this “Mindful Gap.” You may feel your resentment and self-righteous indignation as a tightening in your chest, for example. Just allow yourself to breathe into that feeling.

Taking this gap before reacting naturally leads to the next step, “Clear Seeing.” You can then broaden your perspective and feel the hurt, sadness, confusion or shame under the defensive response of resentment, and start to notice the habits that have kept you stuck. Clearly seeing in this way allows you to let go of the resentment, which is the third step, “Letting Go.”

Dzogchen Ponlop describes Letting Go as a “sigh of relief”:

“Letting Go turns out to be the opposite of rejecting your emotions.  It’s actually the beginning of welcoming them into your life just as they are – original, fresh energy….There’s a burst of intensity when everything is wide open and full of possibility.”( p. 77).

Being curious about and exploring our deeply entrenched habitual reactions helps us get familiar with them. As Ponlop Rinpoche notes (p. 75),

“Before you can kiss [your painful emotions] goodbye…you have to get to know them – to face their sharp edges and intense energies.

When we allow ourselves to get intimately familiar with the energy of resentment, we can, with practice, step by step, transform resentment on the spot into the healing power of self-awareness and compassion for ourselves and others.

 

 

 

 

 

© Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC. All rights reserved.

 

 

RESILIENCE IN A HURRICANE SHELTER

 As a new Red Cross Disaster Mental Health volunteer, I had no idea what to expect in my first visit to a hurricane shelter. Would the Hurricane Irma evacuees be freaked out? Would they be unable to cope? Would they feel helpless or hopeless? What I saw was actually the opposite. I learned the true meaning of resilience in the face of disaster in that hurricane shelter.

The shelter residents I visited, some of whom were homeless even before the storm, and others who had no idea if they would have a home to return to, displayed optimism and strength despite their circumstances. I have been contemplating what made them so resilient. I learned that their resiliency came from caring for each other, rather than isolating themselves in despondency and despair. In addition, many of the evacuees called on their religious or spiritual strengths, and were able to create meaning from their traumatic experiences. These are all keys to resilience in the midst of difficult life transitions.

Keys to Resilience

Columbia University psychology professor and resilience researcher George Bonnano has described what he calls “multiple and sometimes unexpected pathways to resilience”[i] in the face of profound grief and trauma. I witnessed a myriad of these pathways to resilience among those in the hurricane shelter: the ability to find meaning and purpose in life in difficult circumstances; compassion and care for others; the belief that we can learn and grow from all life experiences, both positive and negative; the ability to call on our spiritual beliefs and strengths in challenging times; and the ability to maintain a sense of humor.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, describes meaning making as a key to survival in his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning.[ii] Frankl concluded that those who survived the Holocaust and thrived thereafter had found meaning in their circumstances. They chose to call on their spiritual strengths, love and compassion with the knowledge that every moment of living, even in suffering, can have meaning. Frankl’s fellow Auschwitz prisoners who banded together to help and protect each other were more likely to survive than those who gave in to hopelessness and despair.

Resilience in a Hurricane Shelter

The Red Cross hurricane shelter I visited in Miami was vast, and seemed impersonal at first glance. However, many of the hundreds of evacuees housed there transformed their cots into mini-homes that expressed their diverse personalities. Some came to the shelter alone; others came as multi-generational families. It didn’t matter if they were rich or poor, Black, White or Latino. They created a community and bonds based on their shared experience.

I saw individuals bond and create what seemed like small village communities within the larger community of the shelter. I witnessed deep listening to each other. When we open ourselves to hearing others’ life stories and beliefs, we develop deeper respect and empathy and an appreciation of our shared sorrows and joys. This in turn gives us further strength and resilience.

I have seen time and again in my work as a psychotherapist the healing power of compassion for others. In fact, I have often prescribed volunteering to depressed clients as a way to ease their tunnel vision and self-focus. When we allow room for others in our hearts, we gain a broader perspective about our own problems. We feel less alone as we share our humanity.

The compassion displayed by the hurricane evacuees, in the midst of trauma and life-changing uncertainty, was truly inspiring. For example, I saw a young woman befriend and support a frail older woman, feeding her and advocating for her medical care. I saw a group of seemingly hardened Key West men talking together about their life experiences – both shared and disparate — from a place of true empathy and caring.

Many of the evacuees told me of their strong faith and inner resolve, and how it helped them at this deeply challenging time. In my work as a grief counselor and psychotherapist, I have heard similar expressions of spiritual strength in the face of adversity As a result, my therapeutic approach is strength rather than pathology based. I see my work as helping clients realize their inherent and innate strength and goodness.

A number of evacuees wanted to tell me their life stories, some of which were heartbreaking to hear. As a therapist with a specialty in narrative therapy, I know that people create meaning by telling their life stories, as a way to reinforce that their lives have had, and continue to have, meaning.

The amount of laughter I heard in the hurricane shelter was a refreshing surprise. I was reminded of the many hospice team meetings I have attended, hearing reports of imminent death, grief and family challenges interspersed with many moments of levity. A sense of humor brings a sense of perspective, and takes us out of the tunnel vision of hopelessness and despair. Many of the men and women in the hurricane shelter wanted to tell me jokes and funny life stories. It was an honor to share their joy in the midst of sorrow, and it was an honor to be reminded in such a poignant way of our shared humanity and resilience.

 

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[i] Bonnano, G. (2004). Loss, Trauma and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive after Extremely Aversive Events? American Psychologist, Vol. 59, pp. 20-28.

[ii] Frankl, V. (1946, 2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.