WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM TREES IN WINTER

As the days grow shorter before the Winter Solstice, many of us experience increased sadness or even depression. For example, if we have experienced the loss of a loved one, we may feel intensified grief and loneliness. It can be excruciatingly painful to try to be jolly during the holidays when that’s the last thing we feel. We may even compound these difficult feelings by resisting or judging them, telling ourselves that we “should” be happy.

The process that trees go through in Winter can teach us about the natural cycle of life, not only for trees, but for human beings and all of nature. Trees are dormant in winter as a way to preserve their strength and gather nutrients so that they can bloom again in the spring. The process of dormancy is like animals’ process of hibernation: It is what keeps them alive. Everything in the tree slows down, including their energy, growth and metabolism. They drop their leaves to preserve their energy and strength. In fact, forcing a tree to evade dormancy by keeping it inside may actually harm the tree. Dormancy is part of trees’ natural cycle.

Similarly, it is natural for human beings to slow down and turn inward in winter, to conserve their energy, and allow that energy to be used for spiritual and emotional growth and renewal in the spring. Rather than resisting the natural rhythm of the winter months, we can see this time as an opportunity for profound personal and spiritual growth. In fact, the dark winter months can actually aid us in this process if we allow the darkness to envelop us like a sweet blanket of warmth, allowing us to open our hearts to our shared humanity and the natural rhythms of life.

We can also learn from our ancestors, indigenous peoples and pagan rituals that were timed to the cycle of the seasons. Winter rituals have long involved lighting candles, like the candles we light at Christmas and on Chanukah, also known as the Festival of Lights. These lights universally represent hope, as well as a sense of renewal on the Winter Solstice, which marks the shortest day of the year and the ensuing return of the sun and longer hours of light thereafter. As we tune in to the natural rhythms of Mother Earth, like our ancestors and indigenous peoples did, our bodies naturally align to the ebbs and flows of the cycles of the day and the seasons.

So, how can we be more like the trees and our ancestors in winter? Here are some suggestions:

• Nourish your bodies with hearty winter soups and stews, and warm and comforting beverages.
• If you are prone to depression or the “winter blues” due to the decrease in natural light, get a sunlight box, and get outside on sunny days.
• Take warm baths with Epsom salts and a few drops of lavender essential oil or other calming and soothing oil or bath wash.
• Walk in nature and appreciate the profoundly beautiful quiet of Mother Earth and her creatures in winter. Connect with the land and your body as part of the natural order of things.
• Accept the naturally shorter days, and appreciate what the longer nights have to offer. Hibernate by going to bed earlier. Turn off the TV and your cellphone and other devices and snuggle under warm blankets with a good book and loved ones.
• Nourish your soul. Go on a spiritual retreat, or create your own at home, by setting aside sacred time each day. Turn off all technology (yes, you can do it!), meditate, read spiritually uplifting books, journal, express yourself through writing, art or movement. Set aside a full day of retreat if you can.

As is said in The Book of Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven.” Tuning in to, rather than resisting, the natural rhythm of the day and cycle of the seasons can put us in touch with nature, which in turn can heal us and connect us to our fellow human beings, animals, trees and all of nature.

UNDERSTANDING KARMA: A KEY TO GROWTH AND HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS

I had a profound teaching from my Buddhist teacher Ponlop Rinpoche recently, given to me in just five words: “That’s their karma; not yours.” That was all Rinpoche said on the subject, and I was left to contemplate what he meant. I found that Rinpoche’s words had deep resonance not only for me personally, but also in my work as a cognitive, existential Buddhist psychotherapist.

We misunderstand the word karma in the West. Based on the traditional theistic upbringings of many of us, we think karma means fate or predestination. However, the Sanskrit word karma means action. Contemplating what Rinpoche had said, and looking deeply at the meaning of the Sanskrit term, I came to understand the true meaning of karma: We are constantly presented with causes and conditions, and we choose our actions in response to what has arisen, moment by moment. Each action we choose to take results in the arising of the next cause and condition.

When we are mindful, we can choose the most beneficial action, so that the consequence (that is, the next cause and condition) will be a positive one, and will be of benefit to ourselves and others. As humans, we of course do not always choose the most beneficial action. This could be the result of years of conditioning, habitual tendencies, or not being mindful. However, this does not mean we are doomed when we make a less than beneficial choice. After all, we are perfectly imperfect humans, and we do make mistakes.

The good news is that we constantly have the chance to course-correct, moment to moment. We may have a tendency to say “that’s just my karma.” Well, that’s just a cop out. Yes, we all have challenging and difficult situations in our lives. However, that does not mean we are doomed. We have the chance to overcome our inherited imprints and unconscious habitual tendencies.

Mindful speech and action are the keys to developing “good karma” moment by moment. This entails pausing before immediately responding. Take a breath and ask yourself, “will what I am about to say or do be beneficial?” We often simply react, subjectively rather than objectively, based on our perceptions and projections. Taking this pause will help us look mindfully and with a discerning eye at what is really going on. This will lessen all those years of conditioning and habitual tendencies and relieve our and others’ suffering.

In contemplating Rinpoche’s words “That’s their karma; not yours” further, I realized that it is futile to get caught up in the web of anyone else’s karma. This does not mean that we are not interconnected and that we do not have concern for others’ welfare. In fact, in his new book, Karma: What it Is, What it Isn’t and Why it Matters, the late Buddhist teacher Traleg Rinpoche says “[Karma] relates directly to human nature and how we should interact with other human beings” (p. 108). Our choices need to be made mindfully, with a sense of morality, ethical conduct, responsibility and respect for our and the other person’s boundaries. We can be of support to others and act and talk in a beneficial way, modeling good behavior and aspiring that others do the same. However, in the end, we have no control over anyone else’s choices and karma.

This realization was tremendously freeing for me. I am responsible for my own choices, and not for anyone else’s choices. I can be there in a supportive way, but not get caught in the web of anyone else’s actions – good or bad. Knowing that we are free to choose our actions, and then take responsibility for the consequences of our actions, is the key to well-being and healthy relationships.

_______________
Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche (2015). Karma: What It Is, What It Isn’t, Why It Matters. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

WORKING WITH THE WISDOM OF THE BODY

Buddhist psychotherapist John Welwood says that our bodies hold our wisdom. He describes this basic tenet of both psychotherapy and Buddhism regarding how to best react to our disturbing emotions in the context of what he calls The Spectrum of Felt Energy. At the broad, spacious and stable base of the spectrum is our basic goodness, which can also be called our innate wisdom or basic aliveness.

The part of ourselves that is closest to our true and wise nature is our felt senses, in other words, what we feel in our bodies and experience with our sense faculties, as well as the raw unprocessed emotions that are directly felt in the body. Since our thoughts and conceptual emotions are not experienced directly, they are far from our basic nature and can be quite claustrophobic and unworkable. In contrast, our bodily experiences are direct and provide a sense of spaciousness, the information we need at that moment, and the ability to choose our responses freely and responsibly, with the intention of benefiting ourselves and others.

Working with and directly experiencing our feelings in the body is a highly effective way to untangle the thoughts and stories that keep us stuck and unhappy and make us act out automatically in ways that can be harmful to ourselves and others. Our story lines about the way things are, and all the “shoulds” that accompany those stories trap us in unhappiness and a lack of spontaneity and aliveness.

The body’s felt senses are not given the respect they deserve. We human beings think that our thoughts and intellect are what matters, but not what we feel in our bodies. Many of my clients tend to live in their heads and are not connected to their bodies. They get caught up in story lines that feel solid and unyielding, making them feel hopeless and helpless. When I ask them “where do you feel that in your body?” I sometimes get a blank stare in return because they are disconnected from their bodily experiences.

People who have experienced trauma and abuse often disassociate from their bodies as a coping mechanism so as not to feel their pain so deeply. They have come to believe that living in their thoughts instead of their bodies is safer than feeling what they actually feel, and they escape into their heads to escape their pain. Their felt senses often feel alien and dangerous. Indeed, if they were victims of sexual or other physical abuse, living outside their bodies felt necessary at the time of the abuse for their very survival. Even for those of us who have not withstood terrible trauma, disconnecting from the rawness of our direct feelings can feel safer. However, slowly befriending the wisdom of our body is the path to healing and growth, and frees us from the grip of our fears and self-doubts.

A great opportunity to practice using the wisdom that lies in the body is when anger arises. Anger in and of itself is not a problem. It is simply raw energy that is telling us that something does not feel right. When we are not being mindful of our anger as it arises, we may automatically react and act out, hurting others and ourselves in the process. The key is to notice the sensations of raw non-conceptual anger as they arise, at the level of our felt senses. It could be a clenching in the stomach, tightness in the chest, a rush of blood to the face.

It helps to get very familiar with the sensations you feel when anger arises so that you can identify them immediately and not react automatically. If the sensation is a clenching in the stomach, for example, explore its energy, color, temperature, shape and texture. Then, stop and observe the sensations with curiosity, and ask, from the spacious ground of your basic aliveness and wisdom, what those felt sensations are telling you. This creates the opportunity to choose how to respond in a way that will be beneficial.

To illustrate further, many of us have a core issue of feeling unacknowledged for who we are and what we have to offer. Someone we care for may say or do something that affects that deep wound. If we react from our thoughts and indirect conceptual feelings, we act out automatically with defensiveness or an attack to “protect” our wound. In contrast, using the wisdom of the body, when our friend says or does something that touches our woundedness, we can breathe into what we are feeling in our body, then ask what message the body is conveying. It may be that we feel hurt and misunderstood. Breathe into that hurt feeling, with compassion and tenderness, and then choose an appropriate response rather than react out of anger. As Welwood poignantly states (p. 86), “if I turn to face my own demons, they dissolve, revealing themselves to be my own living energy.” This living energy is the basic goodness and aliveness in all of us, beyond our storylines and negative thoughts.

Slowing down to feel what we are feeling in the body without automatically reacting takes patience, discipline and practice, but it can definitely be done. Taking a breath before reacting is a great first step, because it slows us down so we have the ability to choose rather than react. This puts us on the path of wisdom, compassion and wellbeing.

Our basic aliveness, primordial wisdom and goodness is open and spacious, allowing us to let the world in and act in a healthy and beneficial way. Feeling our feelings directly, without manipulating or judging them with our thoughts and concepts, allows us to develop greater confidence in working with whatever life confronts us with. Our confused thoughts and emotions can be transformed into the wisdom of clarity when we tap into what our bodies are telling us.

GRIEF AFTER LOSING A MOTHER

I have learned through my work as a grief counselor that losing a mother (or other primary parent) is a profound transition and benchmark in life. I often tell clients that a mother’s death is so primal and deep because we have known our mothers since before we were born. As one grieving daughter recently put it, “When the person who gave us life is removed from our energy field, there is a hole that is hard to fill.”*

I have known about the grief of losing a mother intellectually through my studies, and as a witness to my grieving clients’ pain. I now know deep in my soul, after recently losing my own mother, that nothing can really prepare us for experiencing the death of our mothers. The feeling of my mother’s assuring embrace has buoyed me through the waters, both rough and smooth, sad and joyous, of my life. I am confident that as I move through the raw and acute pain of the beginning of the grief process, I will feel that embrace more and more.

Author LeAnne Schreiber has said, “What I have learned …is that a single death can transform your life, especially if the death is that of your mother or father….It doesn’t matter whether that parent was beloved or resented, whether the relationship was close or distant, warm or cold, harmonious or hotly conflictual. It doesn’t even matter how old you are, or how old your parent was at the time of death. For most people, the death of a parent is life altering.” (retrieved from http://www.oprah.com/spirit/When-a-Parent-Dies-Dealing-with-the-Death-of-a-Parent#ixzz3gSYzgUso).

I often describe families as mobiles, swaying to find balance in the face of life’s challenges. The mother is the anchor or the ballast piece of the mobile, helping the other family members who are part of the mobile maintain a semblance of balance. When that primary figure is taken away from us, the mobile wobbles greatly as it tries to find a new balance.
Part of the grief journey involves finding that new balance, individually and together as a family. In the process of finding this new balance, all of the positive and negative aspects of the family system come to the fore. The primary parent’s death may bind the family members together more strongly than ever before. On the flip side, the neurotic and more negative aspects of the family system are also more painfully apparent. From a systems theory perspective, the purpose of the family system is to find its own balance, however dysfunctional that may be. Without discounting that some families endure serious or abusive dysfunction, generally speaking, the family is made up of perfectly imperfect human beings. That is part of the beautiful complexity of life.

After the death of a loved one, we are left with the question “who am I now?” I am already wondering how I will fill the void of phone calls with my mother when I needed a guiding hand or wanted to share with her a joyous or sad experience. Because of the geographic distance between us, our phone calls often took the place of those reassuring hugs from my mother.
Other issues may arise as we experience our grief. We may realize that there is unfinished business that needs to be resolved. If the mother’s death was unexpected or her decline or death was painful to witness, there may be traumatic elements that need to be healed as part of the grief process.

Allowing ourselves to feel our pain, seeking support and allowing others to support us, taking care of our physical health, and expressing our feelings through journaling, dance, art or other media are some of the tools that will help us as we journey through this important life transition. Gradually, as we go through this process, the acute pain will subside, and we will be left with the nurturing love of our mothers in our hearts to guide us on our path through life.

__________________________________________________
* This piece is written from the perspective of what psychiatrist D.W. Winnicott calls the “good enough mother,’ i.e., the mother who provided sufficient nurturance to create a sense of trust and safety in the growing child. It is not meant to ignore the many cases where the mother was not “good enough.” Such situations can complicate the normal grief process, requiring therapy to work through the pain of not having a mother who was good enough, in order to heal and move forward in life.

MAKING FRIENDS WITH PAIN AND OVERCOMING SUFFERING

You may have read the title of this article and thought to yourself, “Why would I want to make friends with pain? I’ll do anything to avoid it!” Paradoxically, it is only through acknowledging and going through the pain of our suffering that we can then work with it, overcome it, and achieve happiness. As the Dalai Lama has said,

We have to relate the Four Noble Truths to our own experience as individual human beings. It is a fact – a natural fact of life – that each one of us has an innate desire to seek happiness and to overcome suffering. (The Dalai Lama)[i]

The Four Noble Truths that the Buddha taught provide a universal framework for the practice of Buddhism. This small book can be viewed in the context of this basic teaching of the Buddha after he gained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in India.

The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. Until we find a way out of our own unhappiness through our individual path toward healing and growth and our spiritual practice, we are stuck in the endless cycle of samsara. Like a hamster on a wheel, humans tend to do the same things over and over, and wonder why we’re not getting anywhere and staying miserable.

The Second Noble Truth describes the cause of our suffering, that is, our attachment to our thoughts, our possessions, our negative beliefs and emotions, and above all, our clinging to a solid sense of self.  It is difficult to let go of these attachments. They become habitual patterns. We mindlessly perpetuate these patterns, wondering why things never change. Both psychotherapy and Buddhism provide tools in this regard to help us mindfully disengage from our negative habits and tendencies.

The Third Noble Truth teaches that our suffering can actually cease through our letting go of our belief in a solid self and coming to understand on an experiential level that all phenomena are empty of a solid self and are impermanent, always changing if we stop long enough to notice. This is so difficult for us humans. It is so hard to let go of our habitual tendencies and our thoughts. Enlightenment, “lightening up,” is possible, however, through practicing on our path with patience, discipline, diligence and above all, compassion and gentleness.

The Fourth Noble Truth describes the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. The yearning to let go of the habits that cause our suffering is universal. Sometimes, we use unhealthy means in our attempt to escape suffering. We find, however, that there is no escape from doing the work if we want to heal. We have to lean into our pain and go through the suffering to get to the other side.

Only through leaning into and experiencing our pain can we transform our suffering and develop compassion, true understanding, healing and growth.

 

[i]Dalai Lama, H.H. (1997). The Four Noble Truths. London: Thorsens.

HEALING SHAME THROUGH MINDFULNESS

 

The experience of shame can be unbearable. In fact, in her March 2015 TED talk on public humiliation, Monica Lewinsky noted that research has found that feelings of shame can be more intense than feelings of happiness and even anger. Shame unacknowledged can lead to deep depression, isolation, substance abuse and suicidal ideation. It is truly a toxic emotion.  We all make mistakes, but there is huge difference between the message “I made a mistake” and “I am bad or unworthy because of my mistakes.”

Shame is closely connected to fear – the fear that we will be severely punished and rejected because of our flaws. When we experience shame, we often isolate ourselves, believing ourselves to be unlovable damaged goods. Shame and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown has observed:

Shame is about the fear of disconnection. When we experience shame, we are steeped in the fear of being ridiculed, diminished or seen as flawed. We are afraid we’ve exposed a part of us that jeopardizes our connection and our worthiness of acceptance.[i]

When we are in the throes of the intense feelings of shame, we tend to forget that we all make mistakes, and that we all experience shame at times. This knowledge can help us develop compassion for ourselves and others, and helps us remember that none of us are perfect. As Brene Brown has noted, “Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.”[ii] Staying silent and isolated will only increase the feelings of shame and disconnection. It may take some discipline to get out of your self-imposed exile, but do it. Having even just one trusted empathic friend, family member or therapist with whom you can speak about your feelings of shame will go a long way to easing those feelings.

The experience of shame can be alleviated through mindfulness and awareness. The first step is to acknowledge it when it arises. Our body sensations are the best signal of what we are actually experiencing, including the feeling of shame. Through practice and discipline, we can actually let go of shame as soon as we feel it in our bodies, and before it blossoms into negative thoughts about ourselves.

Shame and fear are often felt in the pit of the stomach, or solar plexus, as a tight ache or fluttery sensation. Breathe into those feelings and explore them. Use your breath to explore the sensations, including their texture, temperature, color, movement, shape and size, so that you become so familiar with them that you recognize and pay attention to them as soon as they arise.  As thoughts of unworthiness or fear of disconnection or rejection arise, simply come back to your breath and to the body sensations associated with your feelings, and allow the thoughts to dissolve. Keep coming back to your breath and body.

In energy work, the solar plexus is the location of the third chakra, the source of our will and self-power, and is yellow in color. The following is a visualization I spontaneously created, using the energy of the third chakra,  to heal my own feelings of shame. It has benefited me greatly, and I share it with you with the aspiration that it is of benefit to you as well.

  1. Breathe into your solar plexus, which we sometimes call the pit of our stomach. Feel the achy tightness or other body sensations that arise.
  2. Imagine yellow light in the area of your solar plexus as you feel the body sensations. Explore those sensations with your breath.
  3. Let the yellow light grow and brighten, and start to glow like the sun, loosening the tight feelings with its warmth. As you do so, memories of childhood shame may arise. Allow yourself to feel them as well as current feelings of shame with compassion, as if you were holding that young child within you.
  4. As you experience this self-compassion, imagine others in your life also holding you in compassion and love, and allow the yellow light to grow and glow. Extend gratitude to yourself and others holding you in compassion and love.
  5. Allow the yellow light to transform into a beautiful golden halo that surrounds you and those who are there supporting you. Let the golden halo protect you. As you experience the sensations of this healing golden light, let your fears and shame dissolve, knowing that you are human, perfect in your imperfection, and that you are safe and loved. Breathe into those feelings of safety and love.
  6. As you continue to experience the warm protective glow, remember that we are all flawed, and that we all sometimes experience shame and fear when we make mistakes. Expand the golden light with your breath and extend it outward to all beings who are caught in the web of shame and fear. Extend the compassion you are developing for yourself to all other beings who are with you on this journey that we call being human.

 

[i] Brene Brown (2008). I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t). New York: Gotham Books, p. 20.

[ii] From Oprah Winfrey interview with Brene Brown, posted on huffingtonpost.com on August 26, 2013.

COPING WITH GRIEF AFTER LOSING YOUR JOB

 

Many of us think that grief should be reserved for the death of a loved one. However, grief can be experienced after any life transition, and one of the biggest life changes is the loss of a job. Here are some tips for coping with job loss.

  1. Remember to have compassion for yourself.

Feelings of shame often arise after losing a job. Shame is one of the most poisonous emotions humans experience. It can lead to self-punishment, which can come in the form of berating yourself for not doing a better job or for making a mistake that led to the job loss. Self-punishment may also play out in negative behaviors like substance abuse or promiscuity. Take time to understand that we all make mistakes, and that no one is perfect – including you. Self-compassion is so important in all aspects of your life. Be gentle and kind with yourself. Take the time to nurture yourself in body and mind. Do things that bring you peace and comfort, such as reading a good novel, getting a massage or taking a warm bath. Do them with the intention of caring for yourself with kindness and compassion, and breathe that into your heart.

  1. Develop skills to banish negative thoughts.

Thoughts of shame, blame, regret and doubt are inevitable after losing a job. The key is to not let those thoughts develop a life of their own. Mindfulness meditation techniques can be particularly helpful at this time. Learn to notice those negative thoughts as soon as they arise. Instead of following a thought, breathe into the feelings in your body that accompany the thought. It might be tightness in your chest or stomach, a clenching of your jaw or some other body sensation. Allow your breath to loosen those physical sensations. When the thoughts come up again, simply breathe into the accompanying body sensations. You may want to enlist the aid of a mindfulness meditation instructor or friend who practices mindfulness if this is a new technique for you.

  1. Take some healthy alone time.

The shame and other negative emotions that accompany losing a job may lead you to want to isolate yourself and avoid social interactions. It is fine to take some time to recover from the shock of losing your job. At the same time, it is important to use that time in a healthy way. Avoid the urge to overindulge in food or alcohol. Exercise can be extremely beneficial to help you combat depression, and the best form of exercise I have found is walking. Feel each footstep as it hits the ground, and when you notice yourself getting lost in negative thoughts, return to feeling your feet hit the ground. Treat yourself to a massage or other activities that help you feel better.

  1. Take some time each day to do something positive.

When we lose a job, we may feel hopeless or even worthless. Do something each day that reminds you of your worth. It may be something as simple as helping an elderly person cross the street, saying hello and smiling to people on the street or giving someone directions. You can offer to help your neighbors walk their dog, or volunteer your time for a cause you believe in. Being of service to others, even in the simplest of ways, will remind you that you are worthy and have something to offer.

  1. Express yourself.

It is so important to get the swirling emotions of grief out of your body in a way that is beneficial. Keeping all that stuff inside will only lead to depression and dis-ease. Keeping a journal is a great way to express yourself, and can help you not only get out all those messy emotions, but also may help you clarify what is now important to you and your next steps on your career path, or if applicable, your path to retirement.   If writing is not easy for you, there are other forms of expression that can also be beneficial, such as drawing or painting, dancing, singing or playing music or simply moving. The important thing is to move that energy outward.

  1. Evaluate and call on your support systems.

One of the most difficult things for me after losing my job many years ago as an attorney in the entertainment business was the loss of people I always believed would be there to support me, especially my colleagues in my corporation. It felt like they were staying away from me because they believed that the loss of my job might be contagious! This is what we in the grief field call a “secondary loss.” That is, the loss of my colleagues, and the lack of support from them was an offshoot of the loss of my job. I was given the opportunity to evaluate who was really there for me and, and to develop a greater appreciation for those who stepped forward to support me on my new path, and to actually allow myself to be vulnerable enough to let them to be of support to me. In retrospect, I now know that this process helped me develop as a compassionate human being in my personal and spiritual life, as well as in my professional life.

  1. Use this time to reflect on what is important to you.

Undoubtedly, people trying to be supportive have told you that losing your job can be a “blessing in disguise.” When you first lose your job, it feels like a blow and not a blessing. While you may not see your job loss as a blessing, it is nonetheless a great opportunity to take the time to reflect on, and perhaps re-evaluate, your passions, priorities and values. For example, when I was laid off from my corporate job as an entertainment lawyer, it felt like a death blow. I no longer knew who I was, because I had so strongly identified myself as my job. When I got over the shock of losing my job, it became apparent to me that I was being given the opportunity to find a new career path that more suited my spiritual path and my personal development. The loss of my corporate job and following the steps described above allowed me to fulfill my dream to become a psychotherapist and grief counselor and to express who I really am.

 

 

           

 

 

           

 

 

 

GRIEF CAN BE MESSY

 

A common complaint of my grief therapy clients is that they don ‘t think they are “grieving right.” I assure them that’s there’s no “right” way to grieve, and that, in fact, grief can be downright messy.

Just from a superficial point of view, the face of a grieving person can be pretty darn messy – bloodshot eyes, runny, red nose, puffy eyelids, red nose and other outward appearances that we might want to hide. Grief can also throw other physical aspects out of whack. Individuals who are grieving may either not sleep well or get too much sleep. Eating patterns can get interrupted as well, and it’s not uncommon for a bereaved person to either lose or gain too much weight.

The emotional side of grief is equally messy and can also be unpredictable. Emotional outbursts can seemingly come out of nowhere. I remember many times after a significant loss sitting in my car at a red light and screaming or pounding on my steering wheel. At times like those, I’m tempted to say to the driver next to me: “Don’t worry. I’m not crazy. I’m just grieving.”

People who pride themselves as being patient and calm can find themselves being angry, irritable, intolerant and impatient in their grief. I reassure clients who are concerned about this that these are normal grief reactions. At the same time, however, I am vigilant as a clinician to make sure these clients are not depressed. There is a major difference between normal grief and depression. Whereas grief, though difficult is usually “normal”, depression is not, and needs additional care.

A pitfall for some grieving clients is that they believe grief should follow an orderly fashion, and may point to the five stages of grief described by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, i.e., denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Dr. Kubler-Ross never intended for these stages to be linear and predictable, but rather, touchstones in the grief process. We cycle in and out of these stages in a sequence that is neither predictable nor orderly, but rather, can be downright messy. However, if a griever believes these stages to be linear, after experiencing some initial denial, he or she may think “OK, I’m done with that stage. I’ll check it off my list and go on to the anger stage.” They may point to Kubler-Ross’s model as proof that they aren’t grieving “correctly.”

There are many ways to work in a healthy and healing way with the mess that is grief. Because grief’s myriad expressions and emotions are unpredictable, grief can be stressful and exhausting. Therefore, the first step in healing grief is to take care of your physical being, making sure to get enough sleep, eat healthily and get exercise.

Telling the story of your loss can also be immensely helpful, as a way to make meaning of the loss. This will help with the feelings of confusion, helplessness, hopelessness and despair that can accompany grief. In addition, telling the story can help the bereaved maintain an emotional connection to his or her deceased loved one. Telling the story can be done by talking to others, journaling, writing a letter to your loved one, painting, or by any other form of expression. Expression helps to literally push out all of the swirling, messy feelings in a way that makes them workable.

Reaching out for support is also extremely important in working with the mess of grief. Calling on friends, family or one’s spiritual community and calling on one’s inner strengths and resources are all very beneficial in preventing isolation and depression.

Working with the messiness of grief can be like tending an unruly garden. Gently pulling the weeds, giving the dirt nutrients and carefully tending to the growing plants allows them to bloom. Similarly, giving our grief tender loving care can allow the mess of grief to transform into healing and growth.

 LIVING WITH A PARTNER WITH DEPRESSION OR BIPOLAR DISORDER

 

The recent suicide of Robin Williams awakened many of us to the toll depression or bipolar disorder takes not only on the afflicted person, but also on those of us who love and live with the person with a mood disorder. As the tragedy of Robin Williams illustrates, there is no such thing as being “just” depressed. Depression and other mood disorders are serious illnesses, and mental illness should be treated as seriously as physical illness. Partners of mentally ill loved ones are often thrust into the role of caregiver, and self-care is paramount.

Here are some tips for caring of yourself while caring for someone with depression, bipolar disorder or other mood disorders.

1. Set healthy boundaries. It is tempting to forget your own needs when living with someone with a mood disorder. Remember that you need to take care of yourself. If you do not, you will become resentful and may suffer burn out and your own depression.

2. Do not isolate yourself. A person with a mood disorder is likely to isolate him or herself. This is a primary symptom of the disorder. It is also often a result of the shame or guilt the depressed person feels. Make sure to maintain your friendships, work life and the activities that give you satisfaction.

3. Learn about the disorder. This will help you understand your partner and give you tools for caring about yourself while caring for your loved one. If he or she suffers from bipolar disorder, learn not to say “he is bipolar.” He or she is not their illness, but someone with an illness. Learning about the disorder will also help you to….

4. Don’t take it personally. A symptom of many mood disorders is irritability and uncontrolled anger. Do not take it personally, as hard as that may seem when your loved one is lashing out and directing his or her anger toward you. Do not argue or defend yourself at those times – it is like trying to be rational with a baby having a temper tantrum. Arguing and expressing your anger at these times will only escalate the situation. If the anger is overly hurtful, disengage, and walk away, as unemotionally as you can, while not suppressing your own feelings. You can say “I know you are hurting right now, but you are also hurting me. We’ll talk after you feel a little better.”

5. Determine if the anger is abusive, and weigh honestly whether to stay or leave. Only you know if the personal attacks are overly abusive and if they outweigh the love and good in the relationship. If you are in danger physically or emotionally, it will likely be best for you to leave the relationship. Abuse is never acceptable. Determine if the angry outbursts and behaviors are simply that or if they cross the line into abuse. If it is only occasional emotional attacks, that may be acceptable, but only you can judge how much it is affecting you and your life.

6. Take care of your own feelings and health. It is important to preserve your own health, both physical and mental, when you are living with a person with mental illness. You need to express your feelings, or you will become depressed yourself. Allow yourself a good cry, take a walk, hit a pillow or stamp your feet to get the feelings out. It is best not to do this in front of your loved one, as this may result in further guilt, shame and depression for him or her. Talk to a trusted friend. Get professional counseling for yourself. Get a massage. Exercise. Stay connected to your spiritual community.

7. Do not try to “cure” or “fix” your loved one. He or she may hope, whether consciously or unconsciously, that you will be a savior/rescuer and cure the illness. Remember that this is not your role or job. Remind your loved one of this gently and firmly, and suggest professional help. This is a big piece in setting a healthy boundary. Do not nag about that, as tempting as that may be.  Make suggestions once, avoiding the word” should.” He or she will hear you, and may just not be ready to take the necessary steps toward healing. Remember that only your loved one can choose to get the help he or she needs, and forcing him or her into therapy or into taking other steps will backfire if he or she is not ready to commit to the process.

8. Do not feel guilty about your loved one’s depression or other mood disorder. Remember that you are not responsible for it. Offer support, understanding and love, and again, don’t take it personally.

9. Do not make excuses for your loved one. Unfortunately, the negative symptoms of a mood disorder, such as undue anger, irritability and self-isolation, often spill over into other areas of your loved one’s and can affect your relationships with others. Let your loved one know that you will not make dishonest excuses, while assuring him or her that you will not divulge confidential information. If we all start saying “We would love to see you, but my partner is dealing with depression and is unable to go out tonight” we will begin to take away the stigma associated with mental illness. We have no problem excusing ourselves when we have a cold – why should it be any different with symptoms of a mental illness?

10. Be willing to engage in activities without your loved one. This goes hand in hand with not isolating yourself. If your loved one’s illness prevents him or her from keeping a social commitment, go yourself, especially if it is a commitment with a friend or community that nurtures you.

11. Have compassion for yourself, and acknowledge the good you are doing. Living with someone with a mental illness is a difficult challenge. Know that staying with your loved one and acting in the best interest of both yourself and your partner are acts of courage and compassion. Remember that you cannot have compassion for another unless you have compassion first and foremost for yourself.

 

 

 

 

THE GIFT OF THE PRESENT MOMENT IN THE THERAPY SESSION

 

Therapy is not all about talking about the past, as many incorrectly assume. Rather, the psychotherapist’s goal is to work with the client in the here and now, while both therapist and client observe how past experiences inform the present moment. Psychotherapy works best when the past is being re-experienced in the present, in a safe and non-judgmental space. It is not about just talking about the past, but feeling the accompanying body sensations and emotions as fully as possible, and experiencing the energy and dynamics of the relationship between the therapist and client. As the client-therapist relationship grows, and the client is able to trust the therapist to maintain a safe environment, the client can re-experience the past more fully, and can then learn from and heal past wounds and transform the present.

For example, a client I will call “Joan” came to see me after the death of her father. Joan’s grief process was complicated by the difficult relationship she had with her father. It soon became apparent that Joan had a hard time in relationships with others, including me, as a result of her father’s domineering and controlling personality and her resulting lack of trust in herself and others.  Joan’s lack of a sense of safety and trust was apparent in our sessions together and in the dynamics of our relationship. Joan constantly questioned my motives and often threatened to quit therapy. She would get inordinately angry when she felt I was not listening to her, and resisted seeing her father as anything but perfect.

I knew from my own work that fear of judgment and abandonment are also core issues for me, as they are for many people. As a result, it was difficult for me to stay present with Joan, especially when she threatened to leave or criticized me. I often felt like I was walking on eggshells with Joan, afraid to say or do something that would set her off. I found myself becoming defensive, and tended to retreat into intellectual theories, trying to sound smart and look good. When I was able to slow down, take a breath, simply observe my experience and not react, I was able to choose a more authentic and skillful approach to my work with Joan.

I knew that staying with Joan’s experience of pain and confusion, and being a calm, compassionate and consistent presence in the face of her anger and threats, were the keys to helping Joan heal.   This was a long and exhausting process for both of us. Joan finally came to realize that I wasn’t going to abandon her, no matter how much she fought to keep me at a distance. As Joan gradually felt safe opening up to me, she was able to acknowledge that her father was not perfect, and that he did not provide her with a sense of safety and security in the world.  Like me, Joan tended to retreat into intellectualizing and analyzing, asking me “why” I thought her father was that way, and “why” she reacted the way she did. Joan would revert to over-intellectualizing and anger when her pain and vulnerability felt too raw and scary for her.

Giving Joan intellectual answers to her “why questions” was not what she needed. Instead, I continued to work on my ability to stay present and open with Joan, and we worked together on enhancing Joan’s ability to stay present and open with me. I encouraged Joan to notice when her anxiety with me increased and what triggers led to her urge to lash out. We focused on what she felt in her body: where the anxiety manifested physically, and what her body was telling her when she became anxious.

Staying in the body is a great way to directly experience the here and now. We Westerners tend to believe that our thoughts and mental processes are of more value than our bodies, but our bodies are far more useful in helping us access the truth. Joan eventually was able to get out of her head and into her body. She learned that she experienced tightness in her stomach when she became anxious. I asked her to fully experience that sensation by describing its shape, color, texture, temperature and other features. When Joan had a clear experience of that, I asked Joan what the sensations in her stomach were telling her. She saw that the message from her body was “run away, fight back. If you let yourself open up and be vulnerable, you’ll be attacked. You’re not safe.”

Joan’s increased ability to stay present in her body provided a number of important tools for her. She was able to tap into that feeling more quickly, and with a sense of curiosity instead of immediately striking back in a vain attempt to avoid her pain, anxiety and fear. The more quickly Joan could feel that sensation, the more she was able to choose whether she really needed to fight back, or to breathe into the sensations and allow herself to open up. As Joan started to open up, her awareness became more panoramic. She was able to slow down and experience the ebb and flow of energy between her and those she interacts with, and was more able to read others’ body language as well as her own in order to more ably attend to what was needed in that very instant.  Working together in the here and now of the therapy session, Joan and I have co-created a workable and authentic relationship.

One of the many gifts of therapy is what I learn from my clients, and my work with Joan made me realize that I must remain vigilant in staying open despite my fear of being judged or left. I became aware that when I felt Joan was about to attack me or denigrate what I would say, I felt a quickening my heart pound. I learned to breathe into that feeling and was more able to be present with Joan. As I became more authentic and vulnerable with Joan, she felt safe to be authentic and vulnerable with me. We can now appreciate each other and our shared humanity more fully, despite our pain and confusion at times.

Joan still has a long way to go to heal her shame and fear. The more Joan is able to stay with me in the present moment, the more she is able to do so in all of her personal and professional relationships. Joan is learning to slow down and open her heart to others without fear, and to be open to all that is available to her in the present moment.