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.

OVERCOMING THE NEGATIVITY BIAS: A MINDFULNESS APPROACH

As neuropsychologist and mindfulness teacher Rick Hanson says “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but like Teflon for positive ones.”[1] What Dr. Hanson describes is known as the “negativity bias.” The negativity bias is hardwired in the human brain. Early humans needed this brain bias for survival purposes. The negativity bias allowed our ancestors to learn behaviors that became hardwired in the brains of their descendants in order to avoid danger and stay alive. The negativity bias remains part of the human brain today, and impacts our wellbeing in many ways.

The Impact of the Negativity Bias in Daily Life

Research in neuroscience shows that the brain reacts more strongly to negative stimuli than positive ones. We hold on to negative memories much longer and more strongly than positive ones, like what Dr. Hanson describes as Velcro.  This hardwiring stimulates the brain’s fight, flight or freeze hyper-vigilant responses to perceived threats, and affects us physically, cognitively and emotionally.

On a physical level, hyper-vigilance affects our adrenal and cortisol systems, resulting in sleep disturbances, fatigue, shortness of breath and numerous other physical issues. Emotionally, we may experience anxiety, fear, confusion or anger. Cognitively, we may develop strong negative beliefs, such as “I don’t deserve love”, “I cannot trust others”, or “I am not safe.”

For example, if someone has experienced the sudden death of a loved one, she may react with great fear and anxiety each time she is unable to reach another loved one. If someone is judged or ridiculed at work for suggesting a novel approach to working with a challenge, he may be less inclined to offer suggestions again. And, if one grows up with an abusive parent, she may come to believe that she is unlovable and that no one can be trusted. These associations the brain makes are like tangled knots in a ball of thread that link new experiences with old negative experiences.

Overcoming the Negativity Bias through Mindfulness

The good news is that the negativity bias can be overcome through mindfulness, and the tangled knots of association can be loosened and untied. The first step is to become aware of the brain’s negativity bias and that the brain links different events and experiences together, like the 0’s and 1’s of a binary computer. This awareness helps us then determine if something we are experiencing is truly a threat to our safety or wellbeing. If it is a threat, we can take appropriate action. If it is not a threat, we can learn to let go of the impact of a perceived negative experience, seeing it for what it is.

Mindfulness can actually rewire the brain to hold on to positive experiences in a productive and healthy way – more like Velcro than Teflon. The practice of mindfulness meditation teaches us to be present, moment-to-moment, and not just live in our thoughts. The irony is that through mindfulness meditation, we become more aware of our thoughts. The difference is that we no longer need to get carried away by our thoughts, and expand a single thought into an epic novel. We learn to let thoughts go and return to the experience of the present moment.

Being mindful also makes us more aware of the negative and self-limiting thoughts that have kept us from being fully and joyfully alive. Mindfulness is not limited to sitting on a cushion and watching our breath. In fact, in addition to sitting meditation, I often “prescribe” mindful walking, mindful dish washing and mindful driving to my clients as ways to learn to be present with whatever it is they are experiencing. The key is to notice the thoughts and come back fully to whatever it is you are experiencing.

Without mindful awareness, our negative thoughts are the omnipresent background noise of our lives. Becoming aware of our negative self-talk and thoughts allows us to separate ourselves from them, to challenge and even eliminate them. Cognitive therapy, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, offers another way to do that, and works well with mindfulness practices.

The more present we are, moment-to-moment, the more we can experience the small joys of being alive.   We are more able to fully savor positive experiences and make them a part of who we are, without judgment. We come to realize that joy and presence is our birthright.

A highly effective way to rewire the brain to respond more to positive experiences is the “gratitude exercise”: Every night before you go to bed, write down five things you are grateful for that happened that day. When I assign this exercise to depressed clients, I may hear the complaint “but I have nothing to be grateful for.” I respond to this by pointing out positive things in the environment they can experience directly, such as a sunny day or a bird singing outside my office window.

The gratitude exercise and learning to be mindful in the present moment allow us to short circuit and rewire the brain’s negativity bias. We can then open our eyes and hearts to life, with all of its joys and sorrows, and fully appreciate who we are.

 

[1] R. Hanson, “Take in the Good”, www.rickhanson.net, June 2015.

 

 

© 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.

 

LETTING GO IS NOT GIVING UP


“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery.
None but ourselves can free our minds.”

–Bob Marley, Redemption Song

We resist the idea of letting go because we tend to equate it with giving up or surrendering to another’s will. When we let go and accept what we are actually feeling and listen to what another is saying, compassion and freedom can arise. In contrast, when we immediately guard or defend ourselves, we cannot hear what another is actually saying. In addition, when we reflexively defend our position, we are dissociating ourselves from our emotions and the truth.

How to Let Go

The first step in letting go is to experience our feelings in a direct, non-judgmental and honest way. The best way to do that is to take a breath and feel your bodily sensations. For example, if someone says something to me that seems judgmental or accusatory, my go-to reflexive response is to immediately defend myself and my position. When that happens, the tension between us escalates, and neither of us truly hears what the other person is saying.

When I am mindful and take a step back before automatically reacting, I can hear both what the other person is asking, and what I am feeling in response. In his book Emotional Rescue: How to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You , Dzogchen Ponlop calls this taking a “mindful gap.” Taking a pause rather than immediately reacting allows me to hold the present moment, feel the energy in my body, and look directly at my experience, without creating extraneous thoughts or story lines.

Using the example of someone saying something to me that seems judgmental or accusatory, when I take a mindful step back and observe my bodily sensations, I may feel a tightness in my heart. I breathe into that tightness and find that what I am feeling is hurt and sadness. Then I can get perspective and can choose to respond in a responsible way, hearing the need the other person is expressing rather than my hurt feelings. This does not mean that I give up feeling hurt, but rather, take responsibility for it in a compassionate way. I can then let it go and respond in an empathic and responsible way.

From Emotional Slavery to Emotional Liberation

This process is described by Marshall Rosenberg in his seminal book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life : “We take responsibility for our feelings, rather than blame other people, by acknowledging our own needs, desires, expectations, values and thoughts.” This is the key to compassionate communication and healing our relationships, with ourselves and all others.

The result of taking responsibility in this way is what Rosenberg calls “emotional liberation.” Freedom occurs when we experience and take responsibility for our feelings, understand what another needs and what we need, and make requests that are in accord with our needs. As Bob Marley notes in Redemption Song, when we own our feelings, we can free ourselves from “mental slavery” and let go.

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References:

Bob Marley, Redemption Song. © 1980. Kobalt Music Pub. America o/b/o Fifty-Six Hope Road Music Pub. Ltd. and Blackwell Fuller Music Pub. Ltd.

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. https://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Rescue-Emotions-Transform-Confusion/

M. Rosenberg. (2015). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. 3rd edition. Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.https://www.amazon.com/Nonviolent-Communication-Language-Life-Changing-Relationships/

(c) 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved

GRATITUDE: THE ANTIDOTE TO DISSATISFACTION

A theme common to all of my clients is that they are “not good enough”, or that their relationships or other circumstances are “not good enough.” This is a consistent theme, with variations on that theme, depending on the stories my clients tell themselves. As a Buddhist psychotherapist, I understand that this sense of dissatisfaction is the universal cause of suffering in what is called the “human realm” of existence. I also understand that the experience of gratitude is the antidote that allows us to let go of our common dissatisfaction.

In Buddhist cosmology, the human realm is one of the six realms of cyclic existence into which beings are reborn until they reach enlightenment. Being born in the human realm is both the bad news and the good news. The bad news is that one reborn as a human experiences the suffering of the human realm. The good news is that humans are the only beings who can learn the lessons of suffering, thereby overcoming suffering and attaining enlightenment, getting off the cyclic wheel of existence, called samsara.

The human realm is also called the “desire realm.” We desire what we don’t have, cling to the things we like, and try to get rid of the things we don’t like. This constant desire and yearning is the primary cause of our suffering. Here are some steps to ease the suffering caused by believing that who you or what you have is “not good enough”:

• Take at least five minutes each day to sit quietly, focusing in a relaxed way on your breath. Notice your thoughts without following them. You can imagine that your thoughts are like leaves, floating down a stream.

• As you do this on a consistent basis, you will more easily recognize your self-limiting beliefs, what I call the “yeah but’s” or “if only’s” we all have.

• Do not judge your “yeah but’s” and “if only’s”. Instead, notice them as the insubstantial thoughts they are. Allow some space around those “yeah but’s” and “if only’s”, and simply notice, without judging or clinging, how those beliefs of not good enough have kept you stuck and dissatisfied.

• Little by little, let your self-limiting beliefs go, like old friends you have outgrown. Gently tell them thank you and goodbye. This will take time and discipline, so be patient as you work on letting go of these habitual beliefs.

• Take time each day for gratitude. Before you go to bed each night, write down five things you are grateful for that you experienced that day. Many of my clients say “yeah but, it’s hard to feel gratitude for anything when my life is so crummy.” So here are some steps for allowing gratitude and appreciation into your life:

• Start your gratitude exercise by appreciating the life around you: the blue sky, warm sun, sound of a bird, the trees and flowers blooming in spring. Then expand your gratitude to people and animals in your life.

• In addition to the gratitude exercise, write down the things you appreciate about yourself, and especially note the things you did that day that brought you a sense of satisfaction. You may notice the self-doubts creep in. Simply notice them and let them go, like those leaves floating down the stream.

• As you do these gratitude and appreciation exercises, continue to breathe, especially in the area around your heart. You may find at first that your heart space feels tight and constricted. Allow your breath to loosen that tightness around your heart, letting in a sense of lightness and openness. This will further help you experience gratitude and appreciation.

It is important to exercise your gratitude and appreciation “muscles” on a consistent basis. Those thoughts of “not good enough” and “yeah but” or “if only” will undoubtedly creep back in. By doing these exercises daily, your negative and self-limiting beliefs will gradually lose their power, and will be replaced by the sense of satisfaction you deserve. In a sense, enlightenment is nothing more than lightening up, and appreciating what you have, moment by moment. That is your birthright, and the path out of suffering.

© 2016 Beth S. Patterson. www.bethspatterson.com . All rights reserved.

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 Buddhist, cognitive and existential 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 deeply 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.

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