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.

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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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

 

HOW UNDERSTANDING IMPERMANENCE CAN HEAL DEPRESSION AND GRIEF

 

One of the most important tenets in Buddhism is that all phenomena are impermanent. All things and all beings are constantly changing. Nothing stays the same, and ultimately everything dies. We tend to consider this bad news. However, accepting impermanence can also be considered good news. If everything stayed the same, there would be no possibility for growth. Also, understanding that nothing stays the same can alleviate feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and overwhelm.

We all struggle to hold on to others and to things, and resist impermanence. This leads to tremendous suffering. The incorrect belief that things are “stuck” and will never change also results in great suffering.   I have observed in my years as a psychotherapist that the struggle to resist impermanence and the belief that things don’t change are universal. It is only through letting go of the resistance to change and impermanence that true healing and growth is possible.

For example, many of my clients with depression feel mired in difficult situations that they believe are permanent. It can take a lot of work for them to give up the beliefs that keep them stuck. I too am prone to depression. My Buddhist practice and study have been invaluable in helping me let go of my negative beliefs. I now know that those beliefs are just insubstantial thoughts that I no longer need to hold on to. Of course, I get thrown back into feelings of hopelessness on occasion. When that happens, I call on a friend to remind me that whatever situation is getting me down is impermanent and will change. My friend’s reminders are just what the doctor ordered at those times, and I feel a tremendous weight lifting and the restoration of hope just from hearing the words “remember that it’s impermanent.”

A big part of my psychotherapy practice is working with grief and loss. I have found that clients who have difficulty acknowledging that everyone dies have a very difficult time processing their grief. Of course, the death of a loved one or beloved pet is never easy. Although death is never easy for those left behind, always remembering impermanence helps ease the way, and despite profound sadness and grief, those who “grieve well” know that death is a natural part of life.

One of the most significant moments in my meditation practice occurred about fifteen years ago. My wonderful cat Andy was “meditating” with me at the time. I recall having a clear realization that Andy would not be with me forever. My emotions went from sadness to acceptance. I was left with a profound sense of the preciousness of life, knowing that the fact that nothing lasts is what makes life so precious. Andy, who died last summer, has ever since been my reminder of both impermanence and the preciousness of life. As the great Buddhist master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said:

                                     Life is fragile, like the dew hanging delicately on the grass,  crystal drops that will be carried away on the first morning breeze.