Thoughts about the overlap between psychotherapy and mindfulness practice, themes I am noticing, and other related insights.

Ignoring, rejecting, or clinging to our pain only increases it. Acceptance is the path to transforming it.

This is a beautiful article from goodtherapy.org about acknowledging our pain without falling into the downward spiral of suffering.

http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/pain-versus-suffering/

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It’s not so much emotions, but reactions to emotions that make all the difference.

Emotion is a powerful experience, and a physical experience.  What our thoughts say is fear, sadness, joy, hope, regret, anxiety, love…is really a translation by our brain of the signals carried to it by the nerves that travel all over the body.  We’ll often say casually things like “I have a pit in my gut” or “My heart filled with joy” but we usually short change a true understanding of the communication of body sensation to brain.  If you spend time noticing a feeling and exploring your physical experience, you’ll become more and more aware that our emotional world is entirely made up of transmission of signals from the body to the brain by nerves.  This means that often we react to an emotional pain the same way we would to a physical pain, like touching a hot stove.  When our hand touches something hot, the nerves tell the brain there is pain and danger and to pull away.  The brain then directs the muscles to do so, in a chain of reactions so fast it feels instantaneous.  It’s only natural that we would have this reaction to our emotional sensation.  When we experience something strong, often negative emotion but sometimes positive ones too, we can instantly have a reaction to get away from it, to damp it down, drown it out, do something else.  Sometimes this urge is so powerful we can do things that in the long run cause great harm- using alcohol and drugs, spending money, gambling, or even cutting or injuring the body.  But if we start to realize that emotions are a physcial sensation informing the brain about experience, we gain more choice points for reacting to it.  We can start by noticing an urge to do something uncharacteristic, or that we “know better” than to do, and then come into the body with awareness and curiosity and feel the feeling as a localized sensation, rather than a global emotion that engulfs everything.  At first it is scary to watch emotion like this.  People say to me, “what if I break down?”  Well, maybe you’ll break down.  Cry, yell, lie on the floor in anguish.  And then it will change, and you’ll do something else, like make a cup of tea and curl up in a blanket and rest.  People say “what if I get really anxious, or panicky?”  And I say, just notice it, like a startle you get when the wind slams a door.  It will come in, spike up, peak, and recede.  When we move away from emotion, it’s like refusing to look under the bed for fear of a monster being under there.  It gets bigger and stronger in our thinking about it and in our refusal to think about it.  But if we can just sit for a moment and have the feeling, not adding to it with self criticism or fear of feeling it, and not getting away from it with actions that create more harm and more bad feeling, we might find that we can do just that.  Have the feeling.  And then do whatever comes next.

 

 

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Facing other people’s pain

It’s hard to know what to do when terrible events occur far beyond the reaches of our ability to fix them, both in terms of geography and the limits of our own power.  It’s upsetting to watch the news, but too much exposure can create a sense of overwhelm and helplessness, especially if we are already struggling with our own challenges that can leave us feeling shaky on a regular day.  At times like this, I remember the power of bearing witness to bring a presence of healing to the world.  To be in pain is one thing, to be alone in pain is another entirely.  To bear witness, bringing compassionate attention to the moment, brings an element of presence and support, no matter how far it travels.  However, for the person bearing witness, the emotions can become unbearable.  The practice of Tonglen Meditation can be of great help.  In this practice, we imagine ourselves to be as great as the sea inside, so great that even a stinging searing pain becomes like dropping a lump of coal into the great ocean.  We can then visualize breathing in pain, allowing it to transform inside the great space inside, and breathing out peace, calm, ease.  Breathing in, I am aware of breathing in pain.  Breathing out, I breath out peace.  Breathing in, I breath in confusion and anger.  Breathing out, I breath out ease of well being.  Each time the events that occurred in Connecticut cross my mind, I think of this, and take a long, easy breath, and then, go on.   Breathing in, I breath in fear.  Breathing out, I breath out calm.

 

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Vulnerability and Shame

Brene Brown gave two great talks at TED, one on vulnerability and one on shame.  She talks about vulnerability and our misconception of it as weakness, redefining it as strength, courage, and the birthplace of innovation and creativity.  Shame, she states, grows in silence and judgement like a petri dish, and withers in the presence of empathy and honesty.  Both these talks are worth watching.

Posted in Transformation through awareness

Self Care

What does self care really mean?  Getting to the gym, “taking time for yourself,” eating right?  When I talk with people, both therapists and clients, they’re either doing these things or they seem too difficult to make time for.  Recently, I’ve started to think about self care differently, as holding in mind the things that we so often go to other people for, and providing them for ourselves.  If you want to be understood, with gentle attention, can you turn inward to your thoughts and feelings and just notice them, name them and allow for them to be there?   If you need TLC, can you create that for yourself with good food, a blanket and a movie, or a yoga class or a hot bath?   If you need soothing, can you go inside to the part of you that needs soothing, and say the words you long to hear?   The external actions look a bit like classic self care activities, but being conscious in the experience, of the need, the direct response, and the outcome, allows us to connect with the healing power of our own mindful awareness.  Our mind and our thinking have real-time impacts on our physiology.  For example, think of apple pie.  Does your mouth water?  Even though there’s no apple pie, the body responds as-if.  If you can go inside yourself to the intense feeling of the moment, and hold it gently in your awareness, listen to what it is that part of you needs in that moment, and gently provide it, you may find real comfort and relief, not only from the immediate feeling, but also from the frustration that comes with hoping another can do this for you, when that is not always available.

Posted in Transformation through awareness

One of my favorite metaphors for therapy!

What therapy really is all about.

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Nuts and bolts of trauma therapy.

People often ask what is different about trauma therapy vs. other types of therapy, such as insight therapy.  My basic thoughts on this are that in trauma therapy we are constantly mindful of doing things opposite of the way trauma works.  Here’s a little compare-contrast table I think of when talking with clients or consultees about what we want to keep in mind so that therapy effective and safe-enough (when working with healing edges there is always a degree of discomfort- otherwise we wouldn’t be doing what we need to do!).  This is just a start, I’ll keep adding to it.

Trauma                                                 Trauma Therapy

too much too fast                                    little bits- “the slower we go the faster we get there”

no choices no control                              taking time to decide what to address and how- the client has full say

power over/over-powered                       power sharing- each person has boundaries, rights and opinions of value

voiceless, wordless                                   slowly placing words on feelings and bringing voice into memory

no preparation no warnings                     decide together what’s needed for the job and when will be safe to start

overriding danger signals                          honoring all parts inside that may feel mixed or scared about the work

 

 

Posted in Trauma Therapy

Mental Floss

In sessions people often find great comfort, soothing, and a sense of grounding in taking even one mindful breath.  A mindful breath simply means that in a stance of “just noticing,” we watch with soft attention and awareness the movement of the breath through a full in breath to the top and a full out-breath to the bottom, maybe even noticing a quiet moment before the next in-breath when everything is still.  This doesn’t require a particularly long breath or full breath, just an awareness of what isthere as we tune into it.  The next thing people say is “I wish I could remember to do that on my own!”  While I don’t teach a mindfulness program in therapy because that can create an opportunity to feel like one is not doing one’s homework like a good student (Yuck!) I do invite as many opportunities for “just noticing” as feel helpful.  As zen master Thich Nhat Hanh says, soon this becomes like brushing the teeth.  We get so accustomed to keeping our teeth clean that it feels uncomfortable when we don’t.  The more we get used to refreshing ourselves with an awareness of our breath, we get used to that good feeling and will naturally start to crave it.  This is also a useful tool in handling strong feelings, but that is a taller order!  It’s helpful to start easy, just with the breath.  I heard once, and believe to be true, that each time we take a breath in full awareness, we heal a little bit.

Posted in Transformation through awareness

Happiness is for everyone

We can fall into a way of thinking about happiness that somehow our own happiness will take away from others, that it is somehow selfish to be happy, or wrong to be happy when others are suffering.  Talking about this in the office the other day, noticing the fall sunlight filtering into the room, I noticed a similarity between sunshine and happiness.  It shines equally over the earth, and just because one flower is absorbing sunshine, there is no less for the flower next to it.  No flower thinks “I don’t deserve sunshine” or “If I take in the sun’s energy I am bad or greedy” or “how dare I get all this sunlight when the flower next to me is dying.”  Of course, these thoughts and feelings are complicated and may at times have served a useful purpose, for example if someone would be berated in their home for shining too bright.  But when the circumstance has changed, see if it’s ok to open to a little of the sunshine.

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Everything changes….

Often we resist change, fearful of the unknown, unsure what it will be like if there is something new.  Yet change is everywhere, and touches everything.  This time of year it is easy to see.  Leaves change color and fall off trees and the light comes later in the morning and leaves earlier in the evening.  When we’re sunk in a painful feeling, it’s hard to remember, but emotions have a life cycle and are affected by the same laws of change as all of nature.  Though we resist change, in this way it can be a great gift.  Stuck in a difficult interaction with someone recently, I finally decided to just give in to the feeling of anger that had been coming up repeatedly.  Aware of the anger instead of afraid of it, I could notice that it was telling me something important, and I could listen to it and make choices on my own behalf, rather than be ruled by it.  It’s scary to let go and just allow a powerful emotion to exist, but then with the laws of the universe being about change, why would this bad feeling I have be the only thing on earth that lasts forever?  Everything changes…living things come into being, age, and die.  Land moves together, makes mountain ranges, splits apart.  When we can know this and become more comfortable with it, we can take great comfort in it when we are in pain.

Posted in Transformation through awareness