COPING WITH GRIEF AFTER LOSING YOUR JOB

 

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

  1. Remember to have compassion for yourself.

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

  1. Develop skills to banish negative thoughts.

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

  1. Take some healthy alone time.

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

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

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

  1. Express yourself.

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

  1. Evaluate and call on your support systems.

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

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

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

 

 

           

 

 

           

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Experiencing Physical Pain

I have practiced working with chronic pain for many years, using my mindfulness meditation practice as an aid. However, nothing prepared me for the experience the acute pain I recently endured.

I tried to relax around the pain, experience the physical pain directly without adding thoughts about it that lead to suffering, etc. – all the things that I tell my therapy clients and mindfulness meditation students. However, while in the throes of the most intense and excruciating moments of the pain, it was almost impossible to remember to breathe and relax. The following tips are intended as a reminder for myself , and an offer to others, when experiencing acute physical pain:

• Breathe and visualize creating space around the pain. Imagine soothing water or an elixir bathing the area in love and light.
• Listen to soothing music. Music can be so healing. Allow yourself to enjoy its beauty.
• Have someone rub your back, hold your hand, simply be a caring presence. It is so easy to isolate ourselves when we are in pain of any kind. Remember to reach out for support.
• Take a bubble bath, get a massage. Be kind to yourself.
• Listen to the song of a single bird. Notice the beauty of a single flower. Focusing on one thing helps calm the swirling emotions that accompany pain.
• Banish negative self-talk. This pain is not your fault or bad karma!

• Know that everyone experiences pain, and use this opportunity to develop compassion for yourself and others.
Of course, follow your doctor’s advice. When you are experiencing unusual pain, it is important to speak with your health care providers. Emotional and spiritual care are complements to physical care. As I have learned, pain is global – physical, emotional, social and spiritual. It is therefore important to support ourselves in all of these domains when experiencing physical pain.

NAVIGATING A LOVED ONE’S ANGER

It has been a long, hard day. You rush home to make dinner for yourself and your partner. He/she comes home grumpy after a frustrating day at work, throwing his/her briefcase down with a thump, sighing and ordering you to make a drink. You quickly oblige, knowing that his/her anger could quickly escalate. You rush back into the kitchen to get dinner ready and on the table. Your partner sits down with yet another sigh. You try to make small talk, which is ignored. Immediately, the dinner is criticized as too cold, and you are criticized as a lousy cook. You defend your cooking and yourself, and your partner’s anger escalates. Soon you are both engaging in a screaming match.

Sound familiar? How can you navigate your partner’s anger in a more productive way? Here are some tips:

• As soon as you notice that your partner is unhappy or frustrated, center yourself. Slow down and breathe.

• Remind yourself not to take his/her anger personally.

• Practice “tonglen on the spot.” Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist compassion practice in which you breathe in pain and suffering and breathe out peace, love and compassion. First do some tonglen for yourself: Breathe in your hurt feelings and the suffering you feel, focusing on where you feel it in your body. Then, breathe out peace and light into that hurt. You can then practice tonglen for your partner – breathe in his/her pain and suffering and breathe out love and compassion for him/her. This can take a very short time, and is very effective in slowing down the force of anger and increasing compassion for yourself and all others.

Our first reaction when we are hurt is to react and defend ourselves. This is a habitual pattern that may take some time and mindfulness to break. When I asked my Buddhist teacher the best way to deal with this unproductive habit, his one word response was “Disengage.” The tips described above can be very helpful in learning to disengage from another’s anger and not react.

I am also reminded of the 70s saying “What you resist persists.” One way to experience this notion is to push one of your hands push against the other one. Notice how this increases the force of energy in both hands. Now, instead of pushing against the moving hand, go with the direction of that hand. Notice how the force dissipates when there is nothing pushing against it. Another analogy I find helpful is navigating a skid: Going in the direction of the skid is what works. If you go against it, you’ll be in trouble.

Similarly, like in the scenario presented at the beginning of this article, if you defend against anger by pushing against it, the force of that anger will increase. Find a way to let your partner’s anger be rather than resisting it. Breathing and knowing that it’s not about you will help. Saying “I’m sorry you had a hard day” may be one way to do it. If that doesn’t work and your partner can’t control his/her anger, you may have to leave the room until he/she settles down. Continue to remember that your loved one is hurting and doesn’t know how to handle it at that moment. When things quiet down, the two of you can work together to come to an agreement as to how to handle anger in your relationship in the future.

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 MINDFULNESS-BASED PSYCHOTHERAPY AND MINDFULNESS MEDITATION TO OVERCOME TRAUMA

As a psychotherapist specializing in trauma and grief, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 gave me the opportunity to contemplate anew working with trauma — including my own. I was an eyewitness in New York City to the horrors of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that beautiful September day. All of the media attention about the 9/11 anniversary could have reactivated serious traumatic reactions if I were not mindful of my thoughts and body sensations. I was aware that seeing footage of the collapse of the towers and revisiting other events of that day made my heart race and my hands tingle. I was also aware that my thoughts were careening back to the events of that tragic day and my feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Staying mindful of the present moment helped me work with my thoughts and feelings. Focusing on my breath rather than my thoughts, I was able to breathe into my body sensations and emotions of fear and anxiety, and breathe out calm, healing and compassion for myself and all others experiencing those feelings.

Unresolved trauma — whether from abuse, witnessing or being a victim of violence, grieving a sudden or painful death, being in a car accident, or a myriad of other difficult events — can affect every aspect of a person’s life: physically, socially, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually. For example, intrusive thoughts and images can impact a person’s sleep, eating and overall health. The body’s flight, fight or freeze response to unresolved trauma can impact a person’s social and emotional life. Trauma is usually accompanied by negative beliefs such as “I am not safe”, I do not deserve love”, “The world is a terrifying place”, “God cannot help me”, “I deserved to be hurt.,” which affect the traumatized person’s sense of self, world view and spirituality.

Mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based psychotherapy can be powerful tools in healing trauma. Mindfulness meditation helps free people from the seeming power and “truth” of their thoughts, helping them stay in the present, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. In addition, many people dealing with depression, anxiety or trauma are not connected to their bodies. They literally live in their heads. This is a coping mechanism to escape the pain of their feelings — it may have served them in the past, but is no longer serving them. Mindfulness meditation helps a person focus on the present moment and notice where thoughts and emotions are felt in the body. This experience can help the traumatized person feel grounded. The simple act of feeling one’s feet on the floor, feeling the support of the floor and Mother Earth, is especially effective in letting go of racing thoughts about the past and future and being grounded in the present. This grounding helps clients feel safe in the present,

Mindfulness practices keep us in contact with things as they really are, helping us let go of the seeming power and solidity of our thoughts. Dealing with the past in the present moment creates spaciousness and workability around swirling and claustrophobic thoughts and feelings. Thus, mindfulness based psychotherapy allows traumatized clients to re-experience the traumas of the past while being in touch with their present thoughts, feelings and body sensations. The experience of the present moment actually provides a sense of safety and distance from past horrors. We are able to experience as a witness the thoughts, feelings and emotions associated with the past without being stuck in them, simply letting the experiences come and go. This witnessing ability is extremely powerful, allowing us to see that we are not our thoughts or our past experiences.

Physiologically speaking, working with the present body sensations, emotions and feelings associated with the past actually releases traumatic material that is literally stuck in the amygdala, or “reptile brain.” This stuckness affects our adrenal system and other body systems as well as our brains, resulting in the automatic flight, fight or freeze response Mindfulness practices facilitate the release of traumatic images from the brain, making them less intrusive. In turn, the individual can choose more healthy responses than fight, flight or freeze, let go of negative thoughts about him or herself, and actually replace those thoughts with positive thoughts.

As one client grieving the traumatic death of her husband noted, “I still miss him, and still have images of him being in the ICU on life support, but those images no longer intrusive and disturbing. They are now just memories, and the negative beliefs about myself and the world are gone. I know that my husband’s death was not my fault and I am OK.”

Psychotherapy and the Middle Way

When I hear the clients in my psychotherapy and grief counseling practice talk in black and white terms, or view their options in terms of extremes, I am reminded of the Buddhist concept of the Middle Way. When the Buddha was asked how one should meditate, he responded “not too tight, not too loose.” He analogized this to a string instrument, like a lute: If the strings of the lute are too tight, they will break, and if the strings of the lute are too loose, they won’t play.

So it is as we live our lives and navigate its changes. Ideally, we strive to find a middle way where the “strings” of our life can resonate. However, due to anxiety, we may get wound up to the breaking point, where there is no give and take, no spaciousness to allow things to be. On the other hand, we may be so downtrodden with depression that our “strings” are too loose — we just don’t have the emotional energy to tighten them enough to play.

The Middle Way can be likened to living in the space of ambiguity — which is truly the condition of life. Because of our emotional histories, living in ambiguity can be fraught with difficulties. In our anxiety, we frantically fill the spaces in our lives with doing, rather than being. Yet, possibilities for growth and renewal can only arise if we are able to rest in that unknown space. If we can take a breath and rest in that space, called “the gap” in Buddhism, we see that it truly is spacious, vibrant, alive and full of possibility.

Similarly, our emotional wounds sometimes prevent us from seeing the complex nature of the people in our lives, including ourselves. At its extreme, we see them as all good or all bad, known as “splitting.” In fact, sometimes the same person is seen as all good one minute, all bad the next. A goal for people in therapy with this type of issue is to be able to see the shades of gray — people, including the client, are neither all good nor all bad. Many people with this tendency are perfectionists, with resultant depression, eating disorders, self-injury and other issues. For these clients, having a safe experience that it is OK not to be perfect (and that perfection is in fact impossible for human beings) leads to self-compassion, and compassion for others. Their emotional “strings” can then be loosened enough to let themselves — and others — be, allowing for the possibility of joy, satisfaction and intimacy in their lives.

The Middle Way approach is also helpful in my work as a grief counselor. People who are struggling with their grief sometimes ask me “when will I feel better, and when will I ‘get over it’”? Some go the “too loose” extreme, numbing the pain of grief with drugs or alcohol, or jumping into a new relationship. Others go to the “too tight” extreme, idealizing and idolizing their deceased loved ones, or holding on tightly to their pain for fear that letting go will mean forgetting their loved ones. Finding that Middle Way, where the bereaved can safely feel and express their pain and go through their own personal journey of grief, without having a map, but the compass of the grief counselor, is a key component to growing and healing in grief.

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.