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.

 

STAYING SANE IN AN INSANE WORLD

The world around us may seem chaotic and downright insane these days. Here are some tips for remaining sane amidst the world’s seeming insanity:

Impose news and media “blackouts.” It is so easy to get caught up in the frenzy of the ever-changing news these days. Imposing limits on watching television and looking at and interacting with social media is of critical importance.

Limit news watching to one hour a day. The 24/7 news media like CNN work by sucking you in. Resist the temptation to be glued to your television or digital news media, and limit watching to one hour a day.

Be aware of triggers and trauma. The insanity of the world around us can make us feel unsafe and distrustful. In fact, many of my clients have been reporting an increase in anxiety and reactivation of old traumas, due to the pervasive news of sexual assaults, deceptive practices, gun violence, racism, war…and the list goes on. It is important to understand these triggers and develop self-compassion around them. Professional support can help us heal and develop a sense of safety and trust.

Spend time with friends and family. When we are feeling stressed out, anxious or depressed, it is so easy to isolate ourselves. Be sure to make time for the people in your life who nurture and support you.

Be mindful of negative thoughts. Negative thoughts of anger, fear, hopelessness and despair can proliferate automatically when the world around us seems chaotic. If we are not mindful about our thoughts, they can become epic novels! If you have a mindfulness meditation practice, make sure to practice and stay vigilant about discursive thoughts. If you do not have a mindfulness practice, there are many apps, such as HeadSpace that can be helpful.

Practice self-care. Stress is exhausting, both emotionally and physically. Get a massage, take a walk in nature, cuddle with your pets and loved ones. This is particularly important for those of us in the caring professions. Do all you can to not take on the traumas and stress of clients or patients. Maintain healthy boundaries. Be mindful not to take on others’ stress or trauma by maintaining healthy boundaries. Get support from others if you are experiencing secondary trauma or overwhelm.

Practice staying in the present moment, moment to moment. Being in the present moment is like an oasis in the desert. Mindfulness isn’t limited to sitting on a cushion. Our time “on the cushion”, so to speak, prepares us for out daily lives “off the cushion.” For example, if you are washing the dishes, be present with that: Notice how your hands feel in the soapy water. Feel the sensations of your sponge wiping the plates. When thoughts arise, simply return your attention to washing the dishes. This can be done with any daily activity, such as driving.

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.

_________
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

COMPASSION: A REMEDY FOR TURBULENT TIMES

The world today is full of turbulence and uncertainty. We wake up to bad news every day. News of mass shootings, terrorist strikes, political dysfunction, natural disasters and other woes dominate the news and social media. On top of that, of course, are the personal struggles, losses and challenges of daily life. Compassion is the remedy for staying open and kind in turbulent times.

In these difficult times, it can be challenging to maintain open-heartedness and kindness toward ourselves and others. We may feel that we are being tossed by the stormy waves of chaos. We may experience anxiety or trauma hearing about all of the misfortunes and confusion in the world. These times can reawaken our feelings about prior struggles we have endured, whether personally or societally. For example, terrorist bombings can bring up our feelings after the attacks on 9/11, as if it were yesterday.

When we are experiencing inner turmoil, it can be easy to harden our hearts, isolate ourselves, and get swept away in the contagion of negativity, hatred, aggression all around us. However, these turbulent times also provide an opportunity to open our hearts and develop compassion for ourselves and all other beings. In Buddhist terminology, this is the path of the Bodhisattva, those who strive to benefit all beings. Compassion is the key that opens our hearts with kindness toward ourselves and all others.

THE THREE-STEP EMOTIONAL RESCUE PLAN

If we are not mindful, we may automatically react to hatred with more hatred. I had a chance to notice and work with this reflexive impulse recently. A transgender acquaintance told me that she was brutally attacked by two men for how she looks and dresses. I noticed that my automatic urge was to say “what idiots!” Instead I used the “Three-Step Emotional Rescue Plan” described by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, in his new book Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You.

Instead of immediately afflicting more hate, I took the first step of the three-step plan, “mindful gap”, and breathed in my bodily and emotional response. Stepping back in this way, I was able to take the second step, what Rinpoche calls “clear seeing”, to get a more panoramic view of the situation. In doing so, what I said instead is “those poor ignorant men, who are so frightened by people who don’t look like them.” This pacified my negativity, and allowed me to “let go” (the third step of the emotional rescue plan), with a sense of compassion for my acquaintance, for these men, and for all of us who sometimes act wrongly out of passion, aggression or ignorance.

COMPASSION FOR SELF AND OTHER

Self-compassion does not mean resignation or self-pity. Rather, it means allowing yourself time to feel your pain and difficult emotions without judgment. Notice when you are under the sway of negative self-talk, negative thoughts or intrusive memories. It is helpful to think of these negative thoughts and memories as leaves floating down the stream. Despite their seeming power, thoughts and memories are fleeting and ephemeral, and have no true substance.

The word compassion literally means “suffering with.” Self-compassion is the first necessary ingredient for extending your compassion to others, with the understanding that pain and suffering and the wish for peace are universal. You cannot really extend compassion and “suffer with” another without self-compassion.

This concept was beautifully described by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami in his book Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage:

One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone.
They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds.
Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence
without a cry of grief,… no acceptance without a passage
through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.

I would like to offer some practical suggestions for maintaining compassion in difficult times:

• Take a break from the media. It can be tempting to watch the news all day and obsess about the woes in the world on Facebook and other social media.

• Take breaks from your devices. Staying glued to them day and night can increase stress and prevent us from being in the present moment.

• Turn off the television and all digital devices at least 30 minutes before bed. Instead, read a good book, cuddle with your pets, talk with your partner or take a warm, soothing bath or shower.

• Do something that you enjoy fully every day. Take the time to relish and appreciate those moments as they are occurring. Make the wish that all others have moments like these.

• Take time to smile and laugh. Exercising our smile muscles naturally relaxes us and creates feelings of positivity and optimism. It is said that laughter is the best medicine, and indeed it is. Moreover, a sense of humor creates perspective and more spaciousness.

• Practice self-care. It is important in stressful times to take care of your physical health. Although it may sound obvious, make sure to get plenty of rest, eat healthily, drink water and herbal tea, cut down on caffeine and alcohol.

• Create a good balance between caring for yourself and caring for others. Devoting all of our time and energy to the well-being of others without taking care of ourselves can result in what is called “compassion fatigue.”

• Maintain a healthy balance between alone time and time with others. It is important to take time for yourself, to meditate, journal, exercise, take a quiet walk or read. At the same time, be vigilant not to isolate yourself. Spending time with friends, family and your spiritual community are as important as alone time.

• If you have a spiritual practice, maintain it. This will help you open your heart to yourself and others.

• Notice the tendency to judge others. For example, when passing a homeless person on the street, notice any tendency to cast judgment. Instead, extend compassion to that person, knowing that he or she is suffering.

• One of the best and most healing ways to practice compassion is to extend it to those we see as aggressors and perpetrators. For example, as an eyewitness to the horrors of 9/11 in New York, part of my healing was to extend compassion to the nineteen terrorists who flew the planes into the World Trade Center. I remembered that they were young and confused and acted out of ignorant passion. This truly helped me heal.

• Feel gratitude. Despite all the ugliness in the world, there is much to be grateful for: friends and family, the beauty of nature, appreciation of others’ generosity and compassion, the song of a bird, the purr of a cat.

• If you are experiencing secondary trauma from witnessing or hearing about the horrors in the world, or if you are experiencing compassion fatigue or increased anxiety or depression that are interfering with your daily life, seek guidance from a spiritual advisor or psychotherapist. The world today can be overwhelming, and professional support can be helpful in alleviating your personal suffering.

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.

Haruki Murakami, (2014). Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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.

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.

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* 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.