HOW TO BE A MINDFUL ACTIVIST…AND NOT LOSE YOUR MIND

There has been an enormous rise in social activism in the last few years.  However, if we are not mindful activists, we may harden our hearts, isolate ourselves, and get swept away in the contagion of negativity, hatred and aggression all around us.  We may experience depression, anxiety or trauma observing the divisiveness, misfortunes and confusion in the world.  We may wonder if we can make a difference, and may experience hopelessness, helplessness or profound fear.

Current events can reawaken our feelings about prior struggles we have endured. Public allegations of sexual misconduct can trigger memories of abuse or harassment.  Racism or gender inequality can trigger memories of discrimination. These memories can become so intrusive that they interfere with our lives and relationships.

These turbulent times also provide an opportunity to open our hearts and develop compassion for ourselves and all other beings.  As the Dalai Lama has said:

“When people say that I have worked a lot for peace, I feel embarrassed. I feel like laughing. I don’t think I have done very much for world peace. It’s just that my practice is the peaceful path of kindness, love, compassion, and not harming others…. I am simply a follower of the Buddha, and the Buddha taught that patience is the supreme means for transcending suffering.”[i]

 According to the Buddhist teachings, patience is the antidote for anger and aggression, and as the Dalai Lama notes, it can help us overcome suffering.  One way to practice patience is what Dzogchen Ponlop, in his book Emotional Rescue,[ii]calls “Mindful Gap.” Taking a Mindful Gap allows us to slow down and pause Instead of reflexively acting angrily. When the first burst of anger’s energy arises, take a moment to breathe and feel the experience of anger in the body. Then, hold the experience, staying in the present moment. This allows us to look and see what the feelings are telling us.  By taking a Mindful Gap, we can choose the most beneficial course of action, whether it be speaking or acting compassionately, or refraining from doing anything at all.

Seeing the world in terms of “us versus them” increases suffering.  If we realize that we are all together in this boat called life, we can cultivate compassion for everyone – even those with whom we profoundly disagree.  In the words of Zen master and social activist Rev. angel Kyodo Williams:

When I sit with a sense of the human being there, I don’t actually feel hatred at all. I feel a kind of grief for their circumstance and for the society that allows injustice to happen. They’re just as caught up in it as every other person who allows this to be the social order. It’s hard to accept, and it’s a really, really deep practice, but I haven’t discovered anything else to be true and actually workable.[iii]

 Finding compassion for all being helps us realize that we all suffer. With this realization, we can approach others with a sense of curiosity and concern, rather than prejudice or aggression. Knowing we all suffer helps us feel less alone, and can alleviate anxiety, depression, anger or fear.

Balance and self-care are also keys for mindful activism. Activists may experience overwhelm, stress or burnout.  If we are not mindful, the stress of activism can cause changes in the brain, increasing cortisol and adrenaline and the fight or flight response.  This in turn can result in anxiety or trauma.  Becoming familiar with our early warning signs of undue stress is important to prevent it from escalating.  For example, when I become really forgetful, irritable and/or clumsy, I know it’s time to take a break and relax.

Here are some tips for being a mindful activist and not “lose your mind”:

  • Take care of your physical well-being, including healthy eating, getting enough sleep and exercise.
  • Reach out to fellow activists and friends to talk about your feelings.
  • Maintain a sense of humor.
  • Do something you enjoy every day, such as walking, listening to music, getting together with friends, reading a good book
  • Be mindful of your thoughts.Let go of negative thoughts and negative self-talk, like leaves floating down a stream.
  • Practice being in the present moment, moment by moment. For example, when you are washing the dishes, experience how your hands feel in the warm water, the sound of the water, the smell of the soap. When thoughts arise that take you away from the experience, simply come back to washing the dishes.
  • Take breaks from the news, social media and your devices. Turn off all devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and take that time for quiet reading, journaling or meditation.
  • Practice gratitude. Take time to appreciate the beauty of nature, others’ generosity and compassion, the song of a bird, the purr of a cat.
  • Maintain a healthy balance between alone time and time with others.
  • If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout, or increased anxiety or depression that are interfering with your daily life, seek guidance from a spiritual advisor or psychotherapist. Professional support can be helpful in alleviating your personal suffering, so you can go on being of benefit to yourselves and your world.

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References:

[i]HH The Dalai, Lama (2018).  The Bodhisattva Guide:  A Commentary on the Way of the Bodhisattva (p. 140). Boston: Shambhala Publications.

[ii]Dzogchen Ponlop (2016).  Emotional Rescue:  How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy that Empowers You.New York: Tarchin/Perigree.

[iii]Sharon Salzberg & Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, Love Everyone:  A Guide for Spiritual Activists.  Lion’s Roar, August 18, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2018 Beth S. Patterson.  All rights reserved.

 

 

“NOT ENOUGH”: A BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVE ON DEPRESSION

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

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

Spiritual Perspectives

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

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

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

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

The Practice of Gratitude

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

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

 

 

 

 

© 2017 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.

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.

 LIVING WITH A PARTNER WITH DEPRESSION OR BIPOLAR DISORDER

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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.                                

                                                                            

The Importance of Self-Compassion

We throw the word “compassion” around so much that it can seem like a trite cliché.  Yet, the more I listen to my therapy clients, the more I realize that compassion — particularly self-compassion – is the key to healing ourselves and our relationships.

Compassion means “to suffer with.”  The word is generally used to describe empathy toward another.  However, I am clear that one cannot really have true compassion toward another without experiencing his or her own suffering and having kindness and empathy toward him or herself first.

The Sanskrit word maitri has been defined by Tibetan Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa as unconditional friendliness, particularly toward oneself.  Pema Chodron, a student of Trungpa’s and a master in her own right, observes:  ” I teach about maitri a lot. In fact, sometimes I think it’s the only thing I    teach. I also teach about compassion a lot, but actually compassion is a form of maitri so this unconditional friendliness to oneself, it seems to be what most of us do not have”  (www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema).

I have made this same observation in my work as a psychotherapist.  Most of my clients come in complaining of depression and low self-esteem.  They think that something “out there”–even something as beneficial as caring for others —  is going to make them “better.”  When I tell them that what will heal their depression is kindness toward themselves, some look at me as if I were speaking a foreign language – the idea of self-compassion is that alien to them!

For many, the messages they received in their families of origin have contributed to their low self-esteem and negative self-talk. Western culture’s emphasis on perfection doesn’t help.  Because of these familial and cultural messages, many believe that’s just the way it is, and their beliefs about themselves can’t be changed.

For example, a client I’ll call “John” recounted in his first session with me his regrets about the breakup of his marriage, and concluded “I’m a failure.”  In my work using the modality of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, I challenged John’s belief, asking how doing something that he now regrets means he’s a failure.  I told him that he did the best he could at that time, and encouraged him that the key to his healing will be having compassion for himself and his human imperfections and neuroses. My homework for John was to simply notice when he calls himself a failure, what triggers it, and to start to challenge that long-fixed belief.  Changing these thoughts takes time, practice and discipline because they are so habitual and deep-seated, but it certainly can be done

I can challenge and have compassion for John, because I had to do the same work myself.  As I have recounted in other articles, after a period of regular mindfulness meditation practice, I was able to not only notice my negative self-talk, but realize that was just another thought, and that I could relegate those thoughts to my mental trash heap.  In fact, I told myself that if someone could have magically heard the way I talked to myself, they would have to turn me in to the police for abuse!

The Buddhist teachings on buddhanature or basic goodness are very helpful in developing self-compassion.  Those teachings tell us that we all have buddhanature, but due to our habitual tendencies and patterns, it is obscured and we have difficulty experiencing it.  An image I have found helpful is that of the sun in a cloudy sky.  The sun is always there, even on a cloudy day, but we can’t see it.  Imagine being in a plane, and seeing the sun in a clear blue sky after rising to an altitude above the clouds.  Indeed, the sun was there the whole time.

The next time you make a mistake or do something you consider less than “perfect”, take a breath, and try not to go on automatic pilot and start beating yourself up.  Instead, have compassion for yourself and all others who suffer in that way and remember the image of the sun in a cloudy sky.  Yes, you made a mistake and you can feel regret about it, and resolve not to do it again. Remember that your thoughts about your mistakes and imperfections are just fleeting clouds, and the sun of your self-worth is there the whole time.

 

 

 

USING EMDR TO UNCOVER AND HEAL SHAME AND EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR

Shame is one of the most difficult feelings for humans to acknowledge and express.  It becomes a vicious circle:  We feel shame about an event or action in our lives, and then feel shame about our shame.  Shame causes self-doubt, depression and deep suffering and prevents us from living freely, fully and authentically.  Our shame causes us to monitor what we say and do, out of fear of saying or doing the “wrong thing.”

As a humanistic, existential and Buddhist psychotherapist, my primary goal is to help my clients uncover the truth about the cause of their suffering so that they can live full and satisfying lives. Through my work with a client I will call “Bill”, I have discovered the power of EMDR[i] as a tool in this process.

Bill came to see me complaining that he was not able to experience joy or passion in his life, and felt that nothing he was doing had any meaning.  This is an apt description of existential despair. Bill had not suffered any recent crises that would account for his angst, and on the surface, his life looked quite successful:  Bill is a brilliant scientist, in a good marriage and has a high paying job.  He is athletic and is an avid cyclist and skier.  However, Bill was unable to experience any joy, passion or satisfaction from his accomplishments and activities, saying that he had a “nagging feeling that something is missing.”

Bill and I spent many sessions trying to identify the source of his existential despair.  He described growing up in a small mid-western town.  His parents divorced when he was 16 years old, and he and his brother lived with his father.  Bill has been estranged from his mother for over 20 years.  He described his mother as having an “alternate lifestyle” as a Lesbian and artist.  It was clear to me that he was doing what we therapists call “splitting” – seeing his father as all good, and his mother as all bad.  However, my attempts to go there with him were futile.

Bill tended to describe painful experiences, like the recent death of a friend and his parents’ divorce, intellectually, factually and with little emotion. My attempts to go deeper would be met with the response “I don’t know”.  After several months together, Bill acknowledged a deep fear of expressing his emotions, saying, “what if I express myself and no one accepts it?”  Attempts to explore his fear more deeply were met at that point with more “I don’t knows” and intellectualizing.  I observed how difficult it was for Bill to directly experience his body sensations and emotions.  He acknowledged that he has always relied on his intellect as a way to cope.

In addition to Bill’s fear of rejection if he expresses himself, he came to realize his deeply held belief that “If I were a good enough person, my life would have more meaning and joy.”  We explored what this meant to him, and I asked Bill what unfinished business he might need to complete, and what he would need to accomplish if he had a terminal diagnosis – the big existential question.  It was clear to me that his estrangement from his mother was the elephant in the room, but Bill was unable or unwilling to go there at that point in our therapeutic relationship.  I believed then that EMDR (see footnote 1) would help forward Bill’s journey of self-discovery. Bill agreed to give it a try.

Our first task in preparing Bill for EMDR was to get him to feel safe feeling his body sensations and emotions, and our next task was to identify a target for our EMDR work.  He identified the target as his fear of being emotional, and described the incident representing the worst part of this issue as being rejected by a girl in elementary school after he gave her a gift.  The negative belief he took from that experience was “I will get hurt if I express my feelings”, and the positive belief he wanted to have instead was “I am safe to express myself.”  Bill was able to complete the work on this target in one session.  However, we both came away with the feeling that there was something more.  I encouraged Bill to note any insights and new memories that might arise during the week before I saw him again.

Bill came in the following week saying that after our EMDR session, he started experiencing profound shame about his parents’ divorce and his feelings about his mother’s lifestyle.  We discussed how painful shame is, and I validated his difficulty in acknowledging it.

My experience as a therapist, and as a former client in therapy, has taught me how unbearable the experience of shame can be.  We will do almost anything to avoid it – risky behaviors, blaming others, acting out in any number of ways.  Shame unacknowledged can lead to deep depression as a result of internalizing the negative messages we received earlier in life.  In acting out his shame, Bill made his mother the “bad guy” and was unable to take pleasure in his life, a form of self-punishment.  He had internalized his family rules “don’t air our dirty laundry” and “don’t express your feelings” to such an extent that he was living an inauthentic life, leading to his existential despair.  Bill’s fear of feeling the full panoply of life’s emotions resulted in his dissatisfaction and belief that his life lacked meaning.

Bill’s nascent awareness of his shame placed him in what Naranjo (1993, pp. 52, 63) has called “a limbo where the surface games of the personality have been dropped and self-awareness has not [yet] taken its place.  Shame… [is] not [a] pure experience[] of reality, but the outcome of attitudes in which we stand against that reality, denying or resisting it, fearing to perceive it….Shame  [is a] mind-created curtain that we interpose between ourselves and the world.” [ii] This curtain of shame prevents us, like Bill, from fully and directly experiencing life and all of its riches, whether painful or pleasurable.

Bill asked to do another EMDR session around this issue.  The negative belief he has carried about his shame was “I am insignificant” and the positive belief he wanted to have instead is “I matter.”  The emotions that he felt were grief, despair and shame.  Through the EMDR process, Bill discovered that he has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to avoid his feelings and be “perfect”, and that he projected his shame on his mother and others who he perceived as not good enough.  He also felt tremendous guilt about the way he treated his mother.  After processing the disturbing feelings, Bill discovered that truest positive belief for him was “I forgive myself.”  This was a deeply moving session for both of us.

Bill came in to our next session saying that he felt that our work was complete for the time being.  He said that he had blamed his mother for everything, in his black and white thinking, and was in the process of writing a letter to her to acknowledge this and hopefully begin a relationship with her.  Bill said he had a tremendous sense of relief about this, and he felt more appreciation for his life. I encouraged Bill to use “I forgive myself” as his mantra when he felt the tendency to retreat behind his curtain of shame. Bill knows that he is on the path to continued healing, and, with his newly gained tools, is not afraid or ashamed to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

[i] EMDR is a scientifically proven therapeutic protocol for overcoming trauma and other life difficulties.  EMDR utilizes “bilateral stimulation”, i.e., sensory stimulation alternately on both sides of the spinal cord to release traumatic material from the brain in a way that makes it workable. Trauma that is locked in the brain leads to the “fight, flight or freeze” response. EMDR helps release traumatic images, transforming them into memories that no longer have a deleterious hold on the individual.   In addition to this physiological response to trauma, the traumatized individual also develops negative beliefs about him or herself (such as “I do not deserve love, “I was at fault,” etc). EMDR allows the individual to replace negative cognitions about him or herself with positive ones (such as “I deserve love”, “I did the best I could”, etc.).  EMDR also works on a somatic level, with the therapist guiding the client to feel the traumatic images and negative beliefs in the body, thus further facilitating the transformation of the images into non-intrusive memories, and also transforming the negative beliefs into positive, useful ones. Therapists need to be trained to practice EMDR, and follow a standardized protocol in EMDR work with clients. (The foregoing is a brief summary of EMDR, and is not intended to be a full explanation of the process.)

[ii] Naranjo, C. (1995).  Gestalt Therapy:  The Attitude and Practice of an A-theoretical Experientialism.  Gateways/IDHHB Publishing:  Nevada City, CA.

Using Mindfulness Meditation to Tame Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts — those pesky thoughts that can spiral from a simple thought into a full-blown novel — can interfere with our work life, as well as our life in all other areas, interrupting our sleep, intruding in our relationships and in enjoying our lives in the moment. We give so much power to our thoughts. Learning to let them go and not attach importance to them can be tremendously liberating. This is especially so with thoughts that are self-critical.

The first step in dealing with those intrusive thoughts is to be aware of them. Mindfulness meditation can be extremely helpful in dealing with our thoughts. Here are some basic instructions:

• Sit comfortably in a chair or on a cushion, making sure your back is straight yet relaxed, so that your breath can flow freely. If you are sitting in a chair, uncross your legs, feeling both feet on the floor. Unclench your jaw muscles, by resting the tip of your tongue directly in back of your teeth. Have your hands rest comfortably on each thigh, palms down.

• Breathe — notice your in-breath: the rise of your abdomen and chest, the feel of the cool air coming in through your nostrils. Then notice your out-breath — warm air coming out your nostrils, letting go of stress, the fall of your abdomen and chest. Notice the pause before the next in-breath.

• Continue breathing in this fashion. As thoughts arise, simply label them “thinking” and come back to the breath. If you find yourself caught in a story or discursive thinking, simply notice that, without judgment, let it go and come back to the breath.

Practice this for a few minutes each day, slowly increasing the time of each session. The key is to do this every day.  It may be helpful to have an experienced meditation instructor guide you through this practice.

Another technique that I often use with my clients is called “the container”:

• Visualize a container or box with a lid or other top, something you can evoke simply.

• When thoughts arise that are getting in your way, consciously say to yourself, “I do not need these thoughts right now”, and put them in your container, and close the lid or top.

Something else you can do is to visualize your energy going from your head — where all those intrusive thoughts are buzzing around — to your feet. Put both feet firmly on the ground, feeling the floor or ground beneath you, and bring your energy to your feet. This is very grounding as well as a good way to release those pesky thoughts.

It is amazing how much time we spend in our heads, and are not present with whatever it is we are doing or feeling. This is a “curse” of being a thinking human being. With our fast paced world, we are often multi-tasking, on our iPhone, iPad and MacBook all at the same time!. Take a break from your devices.

Another very effective way to slow down those intrusive thoughts is what I call “driving meditation”. The goal of this exercise is to drive when you are driving. Here are the steps:

• When you get in your car, turn off your cellphone and all other devices, including the radio.

• Have the intention to be present with your driving.

• Notice how it feels to put the key in the ignition, then listen to the sound and feel the vibrations as you turn on the car.

• Feel the tires on the road as you drive. When your mind wanders, notice that without judgment, and come back to being present driving, feeling the tires, seeing the road and the flow of the traffic, listening to your car engine and the other cars around you.

• When you get to a stop sign, actually STOP and take a breath, noticing where you are, both inside and out, and then proceed. As my Buddhist teacher says, “Don’t do a California Roll through the stop sign!”

We all have an inner-critic — that voice inside our heads that judges and criticizes ourselves. These mindfulness techniques are so helpful in freeing ourselves from these self-negative thoughts. After meditating for a while, I actually gave that critic a name that was different from my real name, as well as a different voice than my actual voice. After a year or so of meditating, a friend asked me how it helped me. After pondering her question, I answered, “Wow! I no longer mentally beat myself up, and that’s a miracle!”

Using Anger Mindfully

Many of us, especially those on the spiritual path, tend to look at anger as an entirely negative emotion.  However, anger used mindfully can be extremely positive, powerful and ultimately healing.  Anger is simply energy, and we always have a choice as to what to do with it. Dzogchen Ponlop, in his recent book Rebel Buddha (2010) aptly states:

We usually think of anger … as negative.  Ordinarily, our impulse would be either to cut through it and get rid of it or to transform its intense energy into good qualities like clarity and patience….[T]he  direct experience of our unprocessed, raw emotions can generate a direct experience of wakefulness. These emotions are powerful agents in bringing about our freedom, if we can work with them properly (p. 144).

So, what do we do that that energy?  We are often afraid to feel its raw power, and fear that expressing it will make us seem less than the kind compassionate people we are.  However, using anger mindfully will actually awaken our compassion, starting with compassionate lovingkindness toward ourselves.

In fact, many people who are compassionate toward others do not treat themselves with the same degree of compassion, and are self-critical and often depressed.  It has been said that depression is “anger turned inward.”  One of the major goals in treating depression in psychotherapy and in grief counseling is to help clients feel safe to express their anger, and turn the energy of anger outward.  “Ex-pressing” anger literally means pushing it out, so that it becomes workable and is not a toxic agent against oneself.

Anger in its pure form, without the “additives” of concept and labeling it as a bad thing, is simply energy.  The key is to harness that energy through the use of mindfulness.  Mindfulness enables us to recognize the anger without simply reacting — either spitting it out against another or turning it against ourselves.  By looking at it without reacting, we have the ability to choose to use our anger productively.

The following are some suggestions for using anger mindfully:

  • Notice how anger manifests in your body — is it a burning sensation in your heart?  A cold tight clenching in the pit of your stomach?  A flush of heat in your face or hands?  Become as familiar as you can with your own unique physical “early warning signs” of anger so you can catch its energy without reacting.
  • As soon as you notice the physical sensation of anger, stop and breathe.  Allow the energy of anger to wake you up to what is actually happening at that moment.
  • Give yourself permission to feel hurt, abandoned, scared, frustrated or sad with a sense of compassion for yourself.  Breathe in light, peace and compassion, and breathe out the dark, heavy sensations of anger without judgment, accepting it just as it is.
  • If you notice the anger turning inward against yourself, continue to breathe it out more forcefully.  Use your body to keep the energy of the anger outward — shake it off your hands into the air, stomp it into the ground with your feet  — whatever it takes not to turn that energy against yourself.
  • Be curious.  Ask yourself:  “What is this feeling?  What is it telling me?”
  • Trust your body to tell you the appropriate course of action.  Is there something you need to say to someone who has hurt you, in a way that will forward your own healing and contribute to the growth of the other person and your relationship with him or her?  Is it something you can simply let be, making sure not to turn the anger inward?

As Stephen Levine (1987) eloquently says, “the investigation of anger…leads us directly to the love beneath, to our underlying nature. When we bring anger into the area where we can respond to it, where we can investigate it, where we can embrace it, it emerges into the light of our wholeness….Then anger is no longer a hindrance, but a profound teacher.”

References

Dzogchen Ponlop (2010).   Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom.  Boston:     Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Stephen Levine (1987).  Healing into Life and Death.  New York:  Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

© 2011.  Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC.  All rights reserved.

Mind the Gap: Living in the Space Between Loss and Healing

One of the most difficult phases in any life transition is the space of the unknown between a loss or change, and healing or new beginning.  All life changes, even positive ones, entail a sense of loss or grief.  For example, there is a sense of loss in giving up addictive behaviors like cigarette smoking, despite the fact that the change is a positive one.  Even the change of getting a better job or promotion entails loss — you might be giving up security, relationships and the comfort of the known in making such a change.  The most difficult changes involve the death of a loved one or death of a relationship.

Our lives are always in transition.  Every breath we take involves a transition, from inhaling to exhaling, to the gap or space before the next inhalation.     After the end of a phase in our lives, we have a tendency to jump into something (or someone) new, because that space of the unknown can be so uncomfortable.  William Bridges (1980) calls this space the “neutral zone.” As Bridges explains (p. 112), “one of the difficulties of being in transition in the modern world is that we have lost our appreciation for this gap in the continuity of existence.  For us, emptiness represents only the absence of something.  So, when the something is as important as relatedness and purpose and reality, we try to find ways of replacing those missing elements as quickly as possible.”

Resting in the space of the neutral zone — feeling the pain of our loss, exploring our options, getting to know ourselves on a deeper level — is the key to transformation and growth.   How can we sit in that space of the unknown that feels anything but neutral, without giving in to the impulse to do something?  The first step is to be rather than do, which sounds much easier than it is, until we develop some friendliness toward ourselves and our anxiety.  Notice the impulse, and instead of acting on it, explore it with curiosity:  Where do you feel it in your body?  What is it telling you?  Breathe into it and let it be without having to change it in any way.

Mindfulness meditation, especially mindful breathing, is very helpful in learning how to be in the gap or neutral zone:  Feel the cool air entering your nostrils on the in-breath.  Pause and then feel the warm air leaving your nostrils on the out-breath.  Notice in particular how the out-breath dissolves and experience the space before your next in-breath.

Journaling can also be helpful in navigating the neutral zone.  Journaling helps us get those swirling emotions out of our bodies and head in a way that is workable and spacious.  We can gain some perspective on the stages of our journey — a major function of the neutral zone, and get to appreciate that time as a time for renewal.

Finding a regular time and place to be alone is also helpful in the neutral zone.  The period after a loss is a natural time to turn inward. This time of year, the barren stillness of winter, is also a natural time to turn inward.  Experience the loss of summer’s richness and the loss of the autumn leaves.  Know the gap before spring comes again as a time for renewal.  Without death, there can be no rebirth.

The Christian mystics call this gap and time of turning inward the “dark night of the soul.” It is a time to allow ourselves to feel the pain and despair that is a universal part of the human condition in the face of loss and change.  We may feel bereft and spiritually arid, and it is necessary to feel those feelings in order to transform them.  Despair can be seen as the manure from which spiritual growth and personal transformation arise.  As Michael Washburn so beautifully says in the aptly titled article The Paradox of Finding One’s Way by Losing It (1996), “It is only in the depths of despair that genuine spiritual life is found.  It is a paradox that we sometimes have to lose our way in order to find our true self.  We sometimes have to die to the world and to our worldly self before we can discover that our deepest and truest self was within us all the time.”

REFERENCES

Bridges, W. (1980). Transitions:  Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Cambridge, MA:  Perseus Books.

Washburn, M. (1996).  The Paradox of Finding One’s Way by Losing It:  The Dark Night of the Soul and the Emergence of Faith.  In Sacred Sorrows, Nelson, J.E and Nelson, A., eds. New York:  G. Putnam’s Sons.