Monday, February 25, 2013

Sit. Stay.

I saw that cartoon yesterday, and in my desire to share it, I remembered how long it's been since I've posted a blog entry. The last year has brought enormous, at times overwhelming change to my life. We bought a new house and moved out of the city, I got pregnant, and three months ago we had a baby! 

I worked throughout most of my pregnancy and kept busy with projects on the house, and kept up with pregnancy-related things. I read all the books and did all the research. I bought all the stuff. I stayed active. I cared for our pets. I studied for licensure exams. I managed contractors and supervised their work on our house. I continued seeing clients, but I finally had to let the job go, as it was the aspect of my life serving me the least at that time (and it was a physical risk during pregnancy, AND they couldn't offer maternity leave). I'm extremely lucky that my hubby's income can reasonably support us in this economy. But, I can't wait to start seeing clients privately in the coming months--to build a new normal where I can do what I love, contribute more financially, and still be a mindful Mama. 

Jake. Jacob Robert Meyer. He is the best thing. The sweetest and most lovable little being. Today is his three month birthday, and I am head over heels in love with him. I'm so blessed to have the luxury of holding him, feeding him, and just drinking him in all day long (and often all night long!). 

New mamahood is a game changer and an ass-kicker. It's true that life as you know it changes when you have a kid--no more "me" time, no sleep, more stress, etc. I expected it, luckily. But my birthing experience was physically and emotionally traumatic, which I did not expect, and which complicated things. I'm working that out inside myself, and it's taking time. I think it made the first month or so with the baby much harder. I am finally getting some sleep, though, and feeling more--feeling rushes of interesting and sometimes delicious neurotransmitters and hormones that took some time to figure out. Some days I struggle, but I have enough of the good stuff to keep going. Watching my child nurse, sleep, smile and laugh really does make it all worth it.

It's ironic how much work it is, yet how much time you spend sitting as a new mom. Breastfeeding and helping baby get enough sleep take up SO much time and energy--physical and mental. I do have to remind myself to breathe, relax and stay in my body, stop resisting and just let go a million times a day--so that hasn't changed! Mindfulness is still the best coping skill I can think of, and it's so necessary on this new path.

There have been many nights where the baby nurses all night long (one time he literally nursed for 18 hours with only diaper change and fussing breaks--ouch.). The sitting can be crazymaking, not to mention painful. My body can feel so uncomfortable and antsy, at times it makes me want to cry. I have fantasized about everything other than what I was doing--I wanted to see my friends, go to a concert go get brunch, go to a movie, get drunk, get high, run, go rock climbing, swim in the ocean, travel to another country, or just leave the house and go for a walk in the snow. My body desperately wanted to MOVE or just escape. I still crave social interaction, I'm constantly hungry and thirsty, and my brain latches on to the wants like a drug. I've cried. I went through days in a fog that first month. I still catch myself wanting an escape...

Sitting--oh the sitting! The standing and rocking and swaying and jiggling and dancing too...but mostly, the SITTING... 

Sitting sometimes for hours and hours, holding this little fragile being as he cried and sucked at my sore gave my brain a lot of time to run amok, or to fixate and obsess--or to stay. To stay present, fully alive, and fully with what IS. It can still be incredibly challenging even now that he is less fussy and sleeping a little, but I can say that mothering is, overall, an ass-kicking, invaluable lesson in mindfulness for me. So I choose to stay. I come back to presence as many times as I'm able, knowing the more present I am, the more securely attached and happier he will be. A hundred times a day I get to make the choice to stay present, and it's slowly getting easier with practice.  

I have no idea what this new life means for my writing, my career, or anything else, and in some ways it doesn't matter--today I will be Mommy and be present for my child. I will sit, and I will stay.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Learn to surf--or at least swim a bit...

A few interesting synchronicities inspired today's post. Some acquaintances in an online group I belong to have been discussing their experiences of depression, anxiety, and self-doubt in relation so their struggles with mental health, relationships, and careers. Yesterday, I offered my support and therapist's perspective to one guy who's really struggling, who has been struggling for years with depression. At the time it didn't feel especially significant or relevant to my own life.

This morning, I was chatting online with a long time friend and fellow therapist about depression, anxiety, and strong emotions. We talked about how strong emotions are transitory, and that no matter what negative emotion someone is experiencing, it's sure to change, especially if the person can keep an eye on the "big picture"--as opposed to getting stuck. As we chatted, I clicked over to another page to see what other friends were up to, and one of them had posted a quote by Jon Kabat-Zinn (love him!) which says, "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf". The synchronicity occured to me and a light popped on in my mind, as I realized I have actually felt pretty stuck lately.

I noticed that I had been judging myself for (among other things) not doing any writing for some time--and that it's my negative self-talk which had been stopping me from writing. I would either avoid writing to avoid the anxiety of self-doubt, or I would start writing and then doubt myself into erasing it. When I had that insight, I started relating more to those other members of my online group, most of whom are artists/musicians/writers--and honestly I felt a little lucky and relieved that I had decided years ago not to try to make a living with my writing. But I also realized that no matter our profession or our lifestyle, and regardless of our relative levels of success, all of us at some point have some doubt or negative self-talk that can get us stuck or feel overwhelming. Creative endeavors seem to require the ability to be "in the zone" or to "go with the flow"-- in other words, to be truly engaged with what one is doing. As soon as we struggle against our experience, it's easy to get stuck.

I realized that a part of me had started to worry that "I may never feel creative or motivated again"--and when I heard my internal voice saying that, I literally chuckled at myself out loud at how out of proportion my thoughts and emotions had become to the reality of my situation. To apply the Kabat-Zinn quote, it was clear that I had at some point stopped "surfing" (and really even stopped "swimming"), and begun struggling against the "waves" of my self-judgment--and against the other life stressors I've had lately. I was finally able to relax a bit and let myself move toward "the shore"--which for me was seeing the big picture, and reminding myself of the many ways in which I'm actually free to relate to what's up in my life. My brain felt like it had a little veil of fog lifted off of it, and I felt ready to share my thoughts (rewarding myself with a delicious homemade mocha in return for putting down the first sentence). 

The waves/surfing metaphor could go on and on, but I'm sure you get the point. It's hard sometimes to remember (or take seriously when you are feeling something really intense), but in reality, the brain is physically unable to maintain a permanent state of anything--bad or good. I'm not saying that conditions like depression, anxiety, or mental illness aren't real, that they don't suck, or that they aren't at times long-lasting. But if you really pay attention, even if you feel depressed you will still have ups and downs around your own unique baseline. Even people with crippling schizophrenia have moments of lucidity and relative calm. It can offer some comfort or balance, when you catch yourself feeling negative, to focus on the fact that no matter how you feel in this moment, it is going to change--and likely much more quickly-- if you can find a way to accept it instead of struggling. I think the important thing is allowing the feelings to come, to flow, and then allowing them to go.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Owning your Self to become more fully human

Before any positive transformation can happen--be it in our culture, community, family, love partnership, or inside our own brain and heart--we must first accept ourselves as we are, and then begin to discover our innate Self. This takes work, and it can be a lifetime project. Luckily, each moment is new and offers a fresh opportunity for Self discovery and hence, movement toward wholeness.

By "Self-discovery" and acceptance, I am not referring to individual likes and dislikes, or learning to like your body, or whether you are happy with your hair, skin, or level of intelligence. What I am referring to is Self with a capital S, also known as the "big" Self (vs. small self, or "ego").  It describes our innate nature when we are not conflicted or operating from our defenses. Richard Schwartz, PhD who has written extensively on the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model found eight traits ("8 C's") that represent this holistic Self. These traits are the ones vital to functional living.

The 8 C's are calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage, and connectedness. Take a moment to contemplate these traits. What are you like when you're in touch with them? What are you like when you lose sight of them in yourself? Are there any of them that you don't believe you have at all? (Trick question--because you have them all, if you're willing to discover them.)

Ok, I'm going to get theoretical for a minute. Have you heard of Martin Buber, the philosopher who came up with the idea of the I-Thou relationship?  He thought that we as individuals ("I") are the center of our own worlds, but that we can generate true appreciation and respect for the entire reality of another person (seeing them as a "Thou"). Unfortunately, most of us have a hard time even conceiving of the "entire reality" of another person. We spend most of our time in relationships being frustrated because we are trying to change or control the other to fit our expectations, all the while unconscious that we are merely projecting our own reality onto them. Projection means we reject or deny a part of ourselves that we are unable to accept, and view that part as "other"--and that creates a distorted mirror through which we see ourselves and the world.  By projecting any part of our own self, including our feelings, experiences, or desires, we make another person an "it" (meaning we can only see them as an extension of ourselves--the parts we can't yet own) instead of seeing them as a "Thou" (meaning our own Self is differentiated and can experience ourselves and others as whole separate beings).

We can never predict, know, or control another person if  we see them as Thou, and that is scary for many people.  We tend to want to "know" our partner fully, but even the desire to "know" everything is a grasping--a need for control, which ironically keeps us from being able to really experience (or truly love) the person. This is where power struggles in relationships happen--in the subconscious struggle for each partner's Self to differentiate from the Other and become whole. It happens in every relationship, and the trick is to get curious about the other person's unique Self while starting to get real about and take back our projections. Harville Hendrix, PhD (excellent author and couples therapist) would say that "real love" can't happen until we've faced these inevitable conflicts and power struggles, owned our projections, and come through into an I-Thou relationship--which involves a healthy sense of Self.

The Self is a process...not a static thing. It can help to look at it that an activity instead of a thing. It is only discovered through contact with the world (see also figure/ground and organism-in-environment if you're really into theory), and by having an I-Thou relationship with others. It recalls the idea of dialectical relationships again--the Self always tries to organize itself, while at the same time it's organized by its environment (which includes our relationships). When we operate from our defense mechanisms or relate mostly to our projections, we can't fully experience our Self, or fully experience anything else, and the dialectic becomes dysfunctional and distorted. With dysfunction, we lack clear internal awareness of our own needs, wants, and desires--we project them onto others. We also lack self-responsiveness (making good experiences and good contact for ourselves). When healthy, free-flowing contact (and thus, full human experience) is blocked and/or distorted by our defenses or projections, erroneous conclusions about oneself, other people, and the world are made and acted upon.

Organisms always strive for wholeness and function, from the cellular level on up.  Humans are organisms, and I believe we have an innate wholeness (made of the 8 C's) that we can get in touch with--by first owning our projections, and then by learning to have basic trust in the true nature of other humans. Therefore, in a sense, when our thinking and behavior is dysfunctional, we aren't being fully human. When a cycle of experience (or the I-Thou relationship) is interrupted and there is "unfinished business", the development of the Self stagnates or regresses, and we can't see anything except what we project out. This means we can't differentiate and grow, and we tend to behave in ways that would keep those around us from differentiating and growing, too. We stay small and fragmented, our relationships with others cannot be authentic, and we continue to feel empty or dissatisfied. Unfortunately, this seems to be the basis for most human relationships at this point in history, which has for some time ingrained a cycle of dysfunctional individuals, groups, communities, and governments that cannot relate in healthy ways to each other, situations, or environments.

I see the place to begin changing all of that as inside ourselves. Many people can benefit from working through this process in counseling, or through mindfulness practices (preferably together!). I see the therapy relationship and mindfulness practice on many levels--one of those being the level of social activism. The ultimate aims of Gestalt therapy (which has pretty radical roots and continues to be a relevant theory about how to relate to others) are to assist the client in discovering or restoring his/her own natural ability to self-regulate as an organism, to teach people to have successful and fulfilling contact with others (environmental others), and to teach others how to accept and take responsibility for disowned aspects of oneself (internal others--or projections). In simpler terms, I aim to help my clients become more fully human, which I believe automatically radiates outwardly to have relational, environmental, and ultimately, political impacts. I thoroughly enjoy watching the lovely transformation that happens in individuals, couples, and families who are willing to do this work...which means sometimes putting myself out of business. I wish for a future society made up of so many healthy "Selves" that there is eventually no need for psychotherapy.

*P.S.--A multicultural perspective/aside: I realize that it is a privilege in this society that I am able to sit in a warm, comfortable environment sipping coffee and blogging about "owning projections" and living mindfully. It can come across as preachy and oversimplified, and I acknowledge that for many individuals, material circumstances and crises realistically trump any of this.  It's interesting though-- having worked with families from so many diverse cultural and economic populations, it's amazing that individuals coming here from countries with comparatively little material wealth or luxury, and even from crisis-ridden environments, seem to be inherently more in touch with the 8 C's of the Self...I'd love to hear thoughts on this.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Learn To Think With Your Heart

You may have heard by now that neuroscientists have been discovering exciting new information about the heart that shows it is way more complex than we'd ever imagined. Yep... "neurocardiology" is an actual field! The “heart-brain” concept was introduced by Dr. J. Andrew Amour in the early 1990s, and out of his work has come some amazing, cutting edge research and data.

Scientists have found that, as opposed to simply pumping blood through your body, the heart actually directs and helps balance other systems in the body so that they can function harmoniously. The heart actually has its own nervous system built in, which is how it has come to be referred to as the "heart brain". Studies show at least 40,000 neurons in the heart, which is roughly how many are found in various subcortical centers of the brain.

As strange as it may sound, it seems that the heart can actually learn and remember information, and even has the ability to respond intuitively--before our brain does. Heart "coherence" (the heart's rhythm varying steadily over a 10 second cycle) has been linked to function in other systems, including the immune system.

So, a healthy, coherent heart-brain connection can help us be more emotionally healthy, but also leads to balanced thinking and increased physical health. The HeartMath Institute in Boulder, Colorado is on the front lines of this research. They are one organization who have come up with easy and innovative ways to harness your heart's inherent intelligence to live a more balanced life. What they describe are basically evidence-based mindfulness practices that look a lot like scientific sounding meditation practices. If you have ever wondered whether meditation is actually useful for anything other than spiritual enlightenment...well, here you go!

I don't think it matters what you call it, or what psychological perspective you come from. Just sit still, focus your breath in your heart area, and visualize a peaceful memory you have...or imagine breathing loving energy out to someone or something you love...and it is guaranteed to eventually calm you down. HeartMath suggests inbreaths and outbreaths of 5 seconds, while you imagine your breath going in and out through your heart. This can be really helpful.

The main thing about this is that the science shows the longer you're able to keep yourself in that calm state, the more coherent your heart and brain are able to stay in the long term. It means practicing "coherence" (or, in other words, meditation) actually trains your heart-brain (and brain brain) to change from less functionl habits of stress and reactivity to resilient, functional habits of calm and balance. It means that we are able to physically change our own brain structure, and thereby, our ways of thinking and feeling...all by ourselves! How cool is that? I realize that someday this knowledge could put me and other counseling professionals out of business... but really, it's amazing how we can heal ourselves if we want to, and I'm willing to put myself out of business in the interest of healthier communities made by balanced people.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Compassion and Clear Seeing

The first teaching in my counseling training that began the snowball of internal change for me is from my meditation class. My instructor had such a graceful, gentle presence, but also a forcefulness about her. She has a way of speaking softly, yet so precisely, that it cut right through my defenses, and something inside me perked up to receive her message. 

That is how, six years ago, I got serious about mindfulness, began exploring spiritually, and set about healing myself so that I could more effectively help my clients. For seven years before that point, I had moved between various social service jobs that burned me out emotionally and drained me of my (then pretty unconscious) healing and positive energies. 

I was "helping people" in college and through my twenties, to be sure. I allowed my ego the pleasures of self-righteousness and pride on a daily basis, and built most of my life around social service and political activism. I was a fiery revolutionary. The substance use, anxiety attacks, and emotional dysregulation that I also lived with, however, did not help me to meet the lofty dreams I had for myself.

That teacher who so skillfully helped me open up to a new world of thought and feeling ended up being my clinical supervisor for my internship, and I will be forever grateful for her guidance--but more importantly for her compassion and clear seeing--which, as she described during that meditation class, were "like two wings of a bird". On the one side, we must have gentleness and sympathy for other beings. But we must balance ourselves with mindfulness--unconditional attentive presence to our true experience, so that we can see reality. Balancing these qualities allows us to act skillfully on our own behalf as well as for others. 

This idea of balancing compassion and clear seeing has become the foundation of my worldview as well as the core of my professional theoretical orientation. It's encouraging to me that "mindfulness" has increasingly become a buzzword in our culture and in the counseling profession. I would love to see authentic mindfulness practices gain popular momentum, because I know what power and transformation flow from them. Research seems to be showing that cognitive and mindfulness practices are as effective as drugs for coping with various psychological disorders and imbalanced emotional states. 

In most developmental models of psychology and spirituality, each stage transcends the former, while necessarily including and building upon it. To me, this sounds like dialectics, which my previous political philosophies were founded on. Which sort of resolves for me the confusion as to how my spiritual and sociopolitical perspectives could be synthesized. So there you have it.

I started this blog in a way that felt random a few days ago... but now, seeing more clearly, I realize that at my core is a very clear intention--to participate in and help generate a movement rooted in dialectical engaged mindfulness (yep, pretty sure I just made that up!) In other words, I'm into a revolution of the heart and mind that leads to skillful collective action toward building healthier communities and institutions. So, the existential crisis and cognitive dissonance I talked about in my first blog? Maybe with all this "mindfulness" talk floating about, we're on our way to the next stage.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Thoughts on existential crisis...

Existential crisis, you say? 

At some point in life, as our mortality becomes real to us, we might question whether life has any meaning or purpose. Many of us feel scared of this possible lack of meaning in a universe that makes us feel so small. We get to feeling like our little personal lives are so important, with all our interpersonal conflicts, likes and dislikes, daily responsibilities...and then once in a while we have to it even worth the effort? What's the point? Why should I try to do or be better when we all just die anyway?

This thinking can strike us at any time in life. It can feel random, but it is likely to come during important developmental growth spurts. It can also be sparked by such life transitions as births, deaths, marriage, midlife crisis, divorce,  or loss of employment. It can also come when a life-threatening experience happens to us or to a loved one.

Some people tend to avoid considering their mortality. Some aren't really bothered when they have such thoughts, and some have initial anxiety but come to accept their mortality with little worry. Some people can look at their life and feel a sense of pride, comfort, or self-actualization (they've done enough things they feel are meaningful). But for some folks, it can be overwhelming, and they can become plagued by anxiety, fear, and feelings of depression.

Psychology buffs will recognize that this type of anxiety, panic, or crisis is one result of cognitive dissonance--originally defined as the feelings of discomfort caused by having two seemingly conflicting ideas at the same time. This theory says we tend to change our beliefs, actions, and attitudes to reduce our internal conflict.

As we grow up, our brains cause us to question the world around us, and seek understandings that make sense and feel safe. We act how we think we "should" based on our knowledge and experience. As we age and mature, it often becomes clear how much we don't know, and how much in this big world makes no rational sense. Many people feel uncomfortable with or scared by paradoxes or the unknown, and they behave in various ways to avoid that discomfort. All kinds of irrational beliefs about ourselves and the world spring up from that fear--from trying to survive a life of unknowns.

When we feel fear or discomfort of any kind, we tend to look for ways to feel better--and sometimes we think and behave in unhealthy or imbalanced ways because our fear triggers our defense mechanisms. We're human, and wired for survival, after all. Our brains have the blessing (and the curse) of being able to quickly find ways out of situations that feel scary or threatening.

Some of us emotionally shut down or become avoidant. We can become overly absorbed in work, exercise, family, television and electronic media, and some resort to substance use, comfort eating, and other addictions...anything to temporarily relieve our mental and emotional pressure. Other folks  become aggressive or passive/aggressive, grasping for a sense of control. We might try to make ourselves feel better by blaming others, or by justifying our own negative behavior--projecting our suffering and anger onto our "enemies", or onto bad situations that we see as out of our own control. By doing so, we avoid having to take responsibility for our feelings. It's so easy to avoid our own discomfort by focusing on everyone and everything else but ourselves!

Here's a thought. Next time you find yourself annoyed by someone who seems to be acting like a jerk (for instance, road raging or yelling at a stranger for bumping into them), instead of letting it upset you, you could try an experiment: Get curious. Ask yourself "What is this person afraid of right now?". It takes a little guts and a little self control to stop and do this. But in doing so, you might find a little space to notice that "that jerk" is only using their defense mechanisms--they're doing the only thing their brain knows to do in that moment to survive. They are probably caught up in their own dramas or crises and not coping very well. Bringing awareness to this may remind you that we ALL behave badly sometimes, and that by letting someone else's behavior or negative energy upset us, we're only spinning our own wheel of we may as well not sweat it.

According to good ol' WikiPedia, an existential crisis may arise in the first place for a number of reasons, including but not limited to:

  • The sense of being alone and isolated in the world

  • A new-found grasp or appreciation of one's mortality

  • Believing that one's life has no purpose or external meaning

  • Awareness of one's freedom and the consequences of accepting or rejecting that freedom

  • An extremely pleasurable or hurtful experience that leaves one seeking meaning

  • So maybe, if we can realize that we're all in the same boat, and that (either consciously or unconsciously) we're all just doing what our brains have learned to do to make it through this world, we can choose to give ourselves and each other a break. It's quite possible that your partner, family member,friend, neighbor, boss, or that jerky stranger--is dealing with their own stuff, just like you probably are or have at some point, and probably will again.

    Forgiveness and compassion are two of the most important coping skills (and arguably the two most important traits in healthy communities). Practicing these two behaviors will help you deal with YOUR stuff, while helping you cope with other people (especially difficult ones) and THEIR stuff. Now, I'm not condoning anyone's abusive behavior or implying that anyone should be a doormat...I'm just saying that forgiveness and compassion for ourselves and others leaves room for growth and hope for change. We obviously should not stay in any situation that is ACTUALLY threatening!

    As far as how to cope with existential crisis itself? That's up to you. Existentialism says you get to define your own life's meaning, and that you must choose to resolve "the crisis of existence". If that helps you get to where you'd like to be, great. Or, consider learning how to feel more balanced in yourself, learning to be more emotionally present with the people you care about, and choosing to do your part (whatever that is) to lessen the suffering of yourself and other beings in the world. From this moment, you get to define your own meaning and purpose, and choose how you want to react, feel, and behave in the world. And guess what? Starting where you are right now in this moment, today, is good enough.
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