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.

 

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[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 control 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.

 

“NOT ENOUGH”: A BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVE ON DEPRESSION

Many of my clients complain of depression and low self-esteem. They think that something “out there,” such as a new relationship or job, is going to make them feel better about themselves. When I tell them that what will heal their depression is self-compassion and finding satisfaction in everyday life, some look at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. The ideas of self-compassion and a sense of satisfaction are that alien to them!

The most common complaint I hear from depressed clients in my psychotherapy practice can be summed up in two words: “Not enough.” A common plight of human beings is dissatisfaction, and may be expressed as “I’m not good enough”; “My partner isn’t good enough”; “My job isn’t good enough”… and the list goes on and on.

Spiritual Perspectives

From a Buddhist perspective, the poverty mentality of “not enough” is depicted as a hungry ghost, a being with a tiny mouth, skinny neck, arms and legs, and an enormous stomach. Because the hungry ghost’s mouth and neck are so small, not enough food ever reaches its huge stomach. The hungry ghost is always hungry. Because its arms and legs are so skinny, the hungry ghost is unable to hold on to anything. Nothing can satisfy the hungry ghost.

In the Tibetan Buddhist prayer of compassion embodied by Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion, human suffering is described as being a state of “constant toil and poverty.” We are rarely satisfied with who we are and what we have accomplished. As a result, humans are in perpetual motion, seeking fulfillment and satisfaction outside of ourselves, but never finding it until we realize that we are whole and complete as we are, and that external accomplishments are simply the icing on the cake.

The theme of human dissatisfaction is common to all world religions. For example, in Philippians 4:11, it is said, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have.” Timothy 6:607 teaches that “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we carry nothing out.”

As a Buddhist, I would describe godliness as Buddhanature, the wisdom and wholeness with which we are all born. The Buddhist teachings on Buddhanature are very helpful in developing self-compassion. Those teachings tell us that we all have Buddhanature, but due to our habitual tendencies and patterns, we have difficulty experiencing it. An image I have found helpful is that of the sun in a cloudy sky. The sun is always there, even on a cloudy day, but we cannot see it. Imagine being in a plane, and seeing the sun in a clear blue sky after rising above the clouds. Indeed, the sun was there the whole time, just like our Buddhanature.

The Practice of Gratitude

Practicing gratitude is a great way to develop a sense of “good enough” and satisfaction. I often suggest that depressed clients write down every day five things they are grateful for that happened that day. Some find this difficult because of what I call the “yeah buts” – a common refrain from depressed clients. They may say something to the effect of “yeah but, I don’t feel grateful about anything.” What about the fact that the sun is shining? Did you hear the beautiful song of that bird outside our window? It takes practice to observe and take time to appreciate the small joys of life, and get out of the tunnel vision of “not enough.”

Practicing gratitude can uncover and release the persistent negative self-beliefs that keep us stuck in dissatisfaction, for example, the belief that you don’t deserve love or happiness. Being mindful of our thoughts and appreciating the present moment are keys to healing depression and creating a sense of gratitude, satisfaction and appreciation in our lives.

 

 

 

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.

THE SACRED EXPERIENCE OF LISTENING AND BEING HEARD

Many of my clients come to therapy because they have not been truly heard throughout their lives. Healing begins when the client feels heard by the therapist. When clients have an experience of being heard fully and without judgment by the therapist, they can take the experience of listening and being heard into their lives and experience the sacred space between themselves and others.

Being heard goes hand-in-hand with “active listening.”   Wikipedia describes  active listening as “a special way of reflecting back what the other person has expressed to let him/her know you are listening…. Active Listening is a restatement of the other person’s communication, both the words and the accompanying feelings, i.e., nonverbal cues—tone of voice, facial expression, body posture.”

Instead of active listening, we often interrupt the speaker with our own ideas or agenda, assume we know what the speaker is going to say and tune them out, get triggered by the depth of what is being said and shut down, or get distracted by our own thoughts.

Active listening involves one’s whole being. It is not just passive silence, but a way of using body, heart and mind to truly hear what the other person is saying and to convey that he or she is being heard. This is done through means such as paraphrasing, reflecting back what you heard, asking questions, maintaining eye contact or nodding your head.

Active listening is a mutual act between the listener and speaker. We listen not only to the words, but also to body language, inflection, tone and other modes of expression. For example, if a friend is telling a story about a great experience visiting family, but her facial expression seems sad, there may be something that is not being expressed in words.

The best instruction I have received for active listening is two words: “Be curious.” Using the example above, the listener might ask “your face looks sad to me when you just told me about your family visit. Is there anything you are sad about?” It takes practice to not assume that you know what is going on and to not judge what you have heard. Asking questions in this way allows both speaker and listener to go deeper and develop closeness and intimacy.

Something sacred happens through active listening and being heard. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber called this the “I and Thou” experience. A sacred space is created between two people when they truly listen and are heard. According to Buber, the ultimate sacred space is that between a person and God. In Buddhism, this can be the experience of our inherent Buddha Nature – the primordial wisdom and purity that exists in all of us at all times, but which we forget as we go through life and start to build defenses against being spontaneously present with ourselves and others.

Only by understanding that we are all in the same boat we call human life can we listen and be heard, with empathy and openness. Instead, we often view those with whom we relate as totally separate from us. We do so to protect ourselves from being seen, or to satisfy some agenda. Buber calls such an interaction “I and It” rather than I and Thou.

The experience of I and Thou can only be sustained when we are fully open and mindful, noticing when we shut down and protect ourselves or when we stop listening to another. Seeing when we shut down can be instructive. It can show us where we are stuck in not wanting to be close and intimate with others. By understanding the triggers that cause us to shut down and protect ourselves, we can develop compassion for ourselves and others and be fully being present with others, without an agenda or guardedness.

I have always found it interesting that the words “heard” and “heart” are so similar. Our wounded hearts can be healed by the mutual experience of listening with our whole body, heart and mind and being heard. We can then experience the sacred space of I and Thou between us.  As Zen Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax has said:

Listening means that we have stabilized our minds so completely thatthe 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.[1]

 

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[1] Joan Halifax, in Gifts of the Spirit, by Philip Zaleski & Paul Kaufman (1997).

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC. All rights reserved.

THE INSIDIOUS FORCE OF MISOGYNY

 

Misogyny is an insidious and often subtle force that brings many women to therapy. The demeaning of women in the workplace, gender inequality at home, rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and other emotional and physical abuses against women result in symptoms ranging from depression and anxiety to PTSD.

Many of the women in my psychotherapy practice have experienced a significant increase in their symptoms due to the misogyny pervading our society since the election of Donald Trump.   Indeed, it has been widely reported that there has been a significant increase in existing, new and returning clients seeking help with post-election anxiety. As the Seattle Times recently reported (3/25/17) ,as many as 80 percent of potential new therapy clients are seeking help for post-election distress.

What makes misogyny so insidious is the unconscious acceptance — by women as well as men — of behaviors that demean women. For example, if a woman is attending a business meeting with male coworkers, she is more likely to be asked to take notes or fetch the coffee than one of her male colleagues. Even if the woman feels this is wrong, she may feel powerless to do anything but acquiesce. She may even offer these “traditionally female” services out of her own unconscious conditioning. Compounding matters, women simply are not used to saying no or being assertive with male peers.

Women who are ambitious and successful are often seen as unlikeable “bitches.” Hillary Clinton recently said, in her interview with journalist Nicholas Kristof at the Women of the World Summit, “Certainly, misogyny played a role [in my loss of the presidency]. That just has to be admitted.” In his summary of the interview, Kristof wrote:

“[Clinton] noted the abundant social science research that when men are   ambitious and successful, they may be perceived as more likable. In contrast, for women in traditionally male fields, it’s a trade-off: The more successful or ambitious a woman is, the less likable she becomes (that’s also true of how women perceive women). It’s not so much that people consciously oppose powerful women; it’s an unconscious bias.” (New York Times, 4/9/17).

The constant barrage of bad news about the mistreatment of women in our society has caused significant re-traumatization in clients with a history of sexual abuse.   Events like the surfacing of the video of Trump with Billy Bush bragging about grabbing women’s genitals and the disclosures of Trump’s history as a sexual predator are triggers for anxiety and trauma. News of the culture of sexism at Fox News and elsewhere has re-triggered women who, like Hillary Clinton, have faced painful challenges in traditionally male fields.

One of the most disturbing aspects of misogyny is its unconscious acceptance by women, as Hillary Clinton noted. In fact, when I worked as a corporate attorney and executive, women were more apt to call me a “bitch” than men were (although sexism by my male peers certainly existed).

Women’s unconscious bias also spills over into heterosexual marriages. As a broad generalization, women tend to look to their husbands as the decision makers and tend to take on traditional roles of homemaking. In addition, women are generally expected to make less money than men (which is borne out by statistics of income inequality). This expected income inequality may also lead to marital conflicts, including resentment by women who earn more than their husbands, and self-esteem issues by men whose wives are the chief breadwinners in the family. While these gender-based norms and attitudes are changing, my clients report that they still pose significant challenges in their marriages.

The good news is that the recent presidential election and upsurge of reports of misogyny and sexual harassment by men in powerful positions has raised awareness of sexual oppression. As a child of the anti-war and feminist movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I am optimistic that the resistance and consciousness raising that have begun will continue and will reap positive results, as it did in ending the Viet Nam War, Nixon’s resignation and more equality for women in the ‘70s. The Women’s Marches the day after the inauguration in January augured a renewed sense of solidarity and confidence that we can all make a difference.

This renewed awareness of misogyny, sexism and inequality has already reaped positive results. Male clients have reported more understanding of and sensitivity regarding the challenges their female partners and colleagues face, and are willing to be more open and vulnerable with them. Women are less willing to ignore sexist behaviors and are speaking up more and more.

In addition, the onslaught of news in the media of sexual inequality and assaults provides an opportunity for women to look at their own assumptions and prejudices regarding men. As James Gordon, a psychiatrist and founder of the Center for Mind Body Medicine, wrote in The Guardian (2/9/17), Donald Trump represents the archetypal fool or trickster, who holds a mirror up to our own foibles and failings. Gordon aptly states:

“[The fool] performs a vital social function, forcing us to examine our own preconceptions, especially our inflated ideas about our own virtue. Trump was telling all of us – women and minorities, progressives, pillars of the establishment, as well as his supporters – that we were just like him.”

Ultimately, the fool is not there to taunt us, but to teach us to look at our conscious and unconscious preconceptions and prejudices. As Gordon concludes:

“The joker who is now our president has served an important function, waking us up to what we’ve not yet admitted in ourselves or accomplished in our country. He is, without realizing it, challenging us to grow in self-awareness, to act in ways that respect and fulfill what is best in ourselves and our democracy.”

The time is ripe for awakening and the dawn of an enlightened society. Instead of shunning and demonizing the Trumps in our lives, it is time to look at them with compassion for their ignorance and self-destructive aggression and arrogance. And, it is time to look at ourselves and work to promote understanding, healing and equality for all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved

NAVIGATING LIFE TRANSITIONS

Supporting clients as they go through major life transitions has been a significant part of my psychotherapy practice. I am now going through several major life transitions of my own. This challenging time has given me the opportunity to contemplate where I’ve been in my life and what may lie ahead, and to use the tools I’ve learned for navigating major upheavals in life.

I have been noticing my intense emotions as I go through the challenges of getting ready to leave our home of ten years, anticipating a move to a new city, and redefining my livelihood as I make this move. What I notice clearly is that this is a grief process (using my grief counselor and psychotherapist lens), and that it is a challenge to the ego and the process of letting go and trusting, rather than trying to control the outcome (using my mindfulness and Buddhist practitioner lens).

Buddhist teachings emphasize that change and impermanence are always happening, moment to moment. However, knowing this intellectually does not help us avoid painful and confusing emotions. In fact, working with those emotions is necessary for navigating life’s changes in a healthy way.

 

The Three-Step Emotional Rescue Plan

Dzogchen Ponlop, in his book Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Heals You, offers a helpful and effective “3-Step Emotional Rescue Plan” for working with and navigating difficult emotions.

Mindful Gap

The first step of the Emotional Rescue Plan is called “Mindful Gap.” In this step, we zoom in to fully experience what we are feeling. As I experience the emotional ups and downs of my current transition process, I first zoom in on what I am experiencing in my body. It might be a tight clenching in my chest or stomach, or a fluttery feeling around my heart. I can then identify the emotion associated with that direct felt sense. That emotion is often fear. I then hold the feeling and breathe into it, giving it some space and letting go of the thoughts that are needlessly intensifying the experience of fear.

Clear Seeing

This leads directly to the second step of the Three Step Plan: “Clear Seeing.” In this step, we zoom out to get a panoramic view of what we are experiencing. In my current groundless state of uncertainty, when I zoom out, I see that my fear relates to not knowing what is coming next for me, as well as a sense of helplessness in knowing that I cannot control the vicissitudes of my current situation. Zooming out to clearly see the whole picture helps me let go of feelings of isolation, knowing that we all, at one time or another, experience the roller coaster of life transitions. Knowing this, I can have greater compassion for myself and less resistance to experiencing the intense emotions that accompany transitions in life.

I also realize that I am experiencing sadness and grief as I navigate my transition process, and let go of many of the trappings of my old life. I remember, based on my knowledge and experience of the grief process, that all transitions and changes entail grief, even those transitions and changes that are positive. We need to say goodbye before we can say hello again.

Letting Go

Saying goodbye to an old way of being is an example of the third step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan, “Letting Go.” In order to move into the next chapter of my life, I need to let go of some of the trappings and self-identification of the current chapter of my life. Letting go is also a process of accepting what is. In my case, this includes accepting that I have no control over many aspects of relocating and redefining my career.

A Road Map for Navigating Transitions

William Bridges, in his seminal book Transitions:  Making Sense of Life’s Changes, talks about the transition process as a three step process: an ending, the neutral zone and a new beginning.

Endings

Our society does not respect and acknowledge endings the way that many other cultures do. Other than funerals and retirement parties, we have few rituals for acknowledging endings. We are told to “get over it” and not to “cry over spilt milk.”   Bereavement leave is often just a few days, and the bereaved must then put on a happy face and return to work. Our death defying medical culture values cure over comfort and dignified end of life care. The attitudes of our Western society do not encourage us to give ourselves the needed time to experience the fullness of the endings in our lives.

Bridges says that it is important to experience endings in order to fully move on to the next chapter in our lives. He states “the new growth cannot take root on ground still covered with the old habits, attitudes and outlooks because endings are the clearing process.” This clearing process allows us to relax into the neutral zone, the bardo space between the ending and new beginning, with a sense of spacious curiosity rather than anxiety and fear.

The Neutral Zone

It is a common human urge to avoid anxiety and fear by jumping from ending to new beginning. The “neutral zone” is the groundless space of not knowing, and is the most important phase of the process of navigating major life transitions.  Fully experiencing the endings in our life and grieving with appreciation what we are leaving behind can make the neutral zone a fertile time for self-inquiry. “For many people, the breakdown of the ‘old enchantment’ and the old-self image uncovers a hitherto unsuspected awareness,” says Bridges.

The “great emptiness of the neutral zone” provides us with an opportunity to examine our values and discover what is truly important to us now. Although most of us don’t have the opportunity to go on a solo vision quest, as do many American Indians, we can create a personal vision quest, taking time to be alone in silent retreat. Using time alone to meditate, journal or pray allows us to turn away from the outer world, turning inward to contemplate and ultimately discover what we want the next chapter of our life to be.

The New Beginning

Bridges describes the gap between the old life and the new as a process of disintegration and reintegration. Through this process we are renewed. Through renewing ourselves, with patience, equanimity and grace, we can discover what we want to create in the next chapter of our lives, our new beginning, with a sense of satisfaction and peace of mind.

 

References:

Dzogchen Ponlop. (2016). Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion Into Energy That Empowers You. New York: Tarchen/Perigee.

W, Bridges, (2004). Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC. www.bethspatterson.com. All rights reserved.