Yoga tends to smooth everything out. Balance the mood, the brain and perhaps the hormones. I love yoga. I prescribe it to my patients and practice it on the daily. I also get bored and cranky at times in my practice. I become forgetful to be mindful and grateful. But just even doing a standing forward fold and nothing else, or 1:2 ratio breathing tends to help me remember my skin, my breath, this current experience of aliveness. Believe it or not, I came to yoga prior to sticky mats. Can you imagine practicing a vigorous vinyasa flow without your mat? I was introduced to yoga in an aikido dojo where we were required to wear sleeveless t-shirts and balloon shorts. There were no lulu's and quite frankly no one gave a shit. We were there for the enlightenment, not the flashiness. I am reminiscing now about the good old yoga dinosaur days, at least in the US. I am reminded that the western yoga tradition is no more than 50 years, whereas this vast lineage spans more than 5,000 years. But there was a purity then in our dinosaur days that I long for. We had one style, yes, definitely co-opted and bastardized from the original, but yoga nonetheless. We had one lineage to practice and it was Iyengar. I am grateful to that earliest of trainings for it's uncompromising exactness and attention to anatomical alignment. It's like having the basic veggie stock for any soup combo. One builds on that delicious foundation, the mineral broth of life. That is what Iyengar yoga gave me. A foundation for not only incorporating other styles of yoga later on in my practice, but a hearty, breath by breath, bone by bone alignment and base for living.
“No purpose intervenes between I and You, no greed and no anticipation; and longing itself is changed as it plunges from the dream into appearance. Every means is an obstacle. Only where all means have disintegrated encounters occur.” --Martin Buber
"Excuse me, sir, would you like some hot, homemade soup and fresh bread? You don't have to get up; we'll bring it to you."
So goes my line as a co-pilot in a roving soup and supplies delivery service for a Bay Area homelessness program. I volunteer in this capacity once a month. It is hard work, but never monotonous. It is routine in our driving route, but never rote, even though I perform the same simple task each time I greet a homeless person at the back of our van. I get some bread, a few pieces of candy or fruit and ladle a hearty portion of piping hot soup into a cup and hand it off to the mostly grateful person on the street. It is the same task but never mechanical and I am never bored. My heart is fully in it.
I do this for an organization that is 'beyond grass roots.' It's a one woman show with about 50 volunteers who scaffold her vision and delivery method. I love this gig. I volunteer elsewhere both in social service sectors and environmental fields. Nothing compares to this monthly act of service.
What does all this have to running trauma groups for women and being a therapist? What does this have to do with therapy?
It has everything to do with being attuned to humanity. It has everything to do with being human. Hence it has everything to do with therapy. And being a witness to trauma.
For so many years, like others, I did not want to notice the homeless. I walked around somnambulistic and averted eye contact, rarely offered a smile or a hello. I just wanted it --the problem and hence I guess the actual people-- quite honestly, to go way, because the issue seemed so much greater than I could fix or tackle. I didn't believe I could make some sort of measurable inroad into helping. I had the privilege not to notice. I recognize this is coming from my own class and race background as a non-homeless person who has only electively been homeless in the past while living in my VW bug, or my VW camper van or in the university community garden as a student.
In the past, prior to this volunteer position, I walked around my community not fully being in my community. Because our urban settings are so steeped in pain and trauma, we hunker down, safeguard our hearts and watch suspiciously or self-protectively our purses, backpacks and phones. I watched for problems. I scanned for how I or my family could potentially be hurt or assaulted. In the meantime, I didn’t really connect with humanity on the street. It felt like too much. Too hard. Too heart wrenching.
I now make other choices. I decide to notice. I offer help and thus help myself in the process. I open my heart and really greet people. This actually helps me in my daily life. It helps me be more alive and more present. I know I can’t fix it. Of course, even though ego wants a nod toward omnipotence, that is not possible. Instead, I can be present and do my small part during my monthly shift serving hot homemade soup and fresh bread.
This selective noticing of pain and trauma is analogous to the therapeutic process. Sometimes we notice, or decide to notice and bring mindfulness to our therapeutic work and sometimes we are shut down, defended, flooded, triggered and unable to take in. And that's ok.
While out on the route, I sometimes feel like I enter briefly into the mental illness or drug addiction of the person I am serving. Because things happen so quickly at the back of our van, I temporarily feel altered, drunk, off kilter. Its as if I am so altered, I temporarily enter into the homeless person's system or into the experience of the person. I feel at times, quite honestly, stunned by this, as I was trained as a psychotherapist in a clinical sterility that required boundaries and separation. But while serving the homeless, I have an ability to have what Martin Buber so eloquently described as "an “I -Thou” experience in which I hold reverence and non-duality. The relationship is paramount in that moment. There is no separation. I feel fully alive. I believe this is what every person longs for. A relief from the suffering caused by adherence to the myth of separation.
So while serving soup, is in those instances, no separation exists, even though in reality, there is vast separation between me and the person I serve. I am, for one, not homeless. But nonetheless, when I enter into the experience, the I-Object is not in focus. In Buber’s words,
“The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being.”
In a moment, I offer care and comfort to the homeless person with soup, a blanket, a warm jacket, some socks. This is all I can do and it is always not enough. But as a simple offering, this hot homemade soup and supplies is enough. The same goes for therapy. I offer care and yet I know I cannot fix or change the person's experience. Good psychotherapy requires a similar presence and a similar letting go of outcomes. It requires that we both open to vulnerability in an I-Thou kind of way. The same occurs with serving the homeless. One temporarily attunes to the person's experience and enters a vortex of care and lovingkindness. This is empathy. This is also therapy.
Everything we enter into will end. In relationships, romantic or otherwise, I have worked out that there are only six endings. This is the existential truth of all of our lives. Every relationship we enter into will end. There are no happy Hollywood endings; there are merely endings. Deaths. Saying goodbye. I have tried to wrack my brain thinking of other mathematical equations or scenarios. But I have only found six. So, here are they are:
We perish together
You dump me
I dump you
We mutually end our relationship (rare, but possible)
How then do we live our lives fully, knowing that everything we begin will end? There is some comfort in knowing, in this universality of experience, that we need to carpe diem the shit out of our lives and our relationships. We need to love with reckless abandon, knowing we will lose it all eventually. It is incumbent on us to do so, for we recognize the preciousness of life. And the peril.
In light of our collective grief from the Ghost Ship fire, I have been steeped in our community's suffering. How do we bear the unbearable suffering of the friends and families of those young victims? This existential truth, that each relationship we begin will end, holds no solace in the face of this enormous grief. I do not offer this here as comfort, but merely to acknowledge the pain of our community.
I went to the Lake Merritt vigil three nights after the tragedy and I watched how a professional LA Times photographer snapped shots of the grieving parents and I wept. What a media mockery in the face of these parents' pain. I wanted reverence. I wanted to hold these family members' pain, but knew that I couldn't. I was disgusted by the media blitz. I tried to keep my heart open to the pain at the vigil. Mostly everyone was numb. Some were weeping. Some were wailing. It was comforting to hug strangers and to know, for that instance, we were not alone.
No existential analysis can wipe free the attachments of the human heart. We are all in mourning. Although I did not know anyone personally at the Ghost Ship, I have heard countless people in my office this past week recount stories of horror and grief.
Yes, there are only six endings. A universal truth, but not a truth that is easy to bear as we mourn the loss of these 36 vibrant, young artists, social justice activists, students and lovers.
photo credit: Donna Insalaco
Having facilitated women’s trauma groups for a while, I have noticed the effect of listening in silence as participants share their stories. The norm in group therapy is to stay silent while others talk. Our female socialization is to further stay quiet, resolute, stoic. Women are socialized to be relational, so we quickly figure out the group rules, implicit and explicit. I recognize this is culturally determined and not all women stay silent, but largely this is my observation. As a whole, humans are herd animals; we study the pack and quickly learn to adhere to group norms.
In the support groups I facilitate, often there is limited cross talk during check-ins and extended shares. We listen, we might nod, we might say ‘yea’ but mostly we remain silent. I am concerned about the effects this silence has on the body and mind. I have begun to label the effect on the body as somatic micro-traumas.
What is the effect of listening in silence? The body cannot process all that is arising in group effectively and still be present. For example, someone might share about their father, or car accident or sexual assault, and of course, we have a reaction. Our mirror neurons are firing. If we care about the person, our empathy is also firing. Our previous traumas get reactivated, re-stimulated, triggered. We might start to dissociate or space out. We might get a sudden belly ache or headache or leg cramp. The body is reacting, as it does, which is normal. We usually call these triggers. The fancy term is ‘affective dysregulation.’ When we are triggered, we are outside the ‘optimal zone of arousal’ and we fall into hypoarousal or we rev up into hyperarousal. This means we either space out or become hyper vigilant. Our bodies then hold a lot of this tension which is experienced as micro-traumas or assaults on the nervous system.
If we ‘suffer in silence’ as the pre-feminist adage goes, I think we do a disservice to the body and to our ability to be present. We also thwart our healing, further our isolation and don't let others know our reaction and the impact they have on us. This reinforces the original trauma, where it is common to not show our reaction, vulnerability and wounding.
Specifically, I have begun to support participants to notice their micro-traumas and move them through their bodies as they are occurring. How to do this?
Having been a student and teacher of yoga for a while, I have begun to incorporate yogic and somatic techniques into the beginning and end of each trauma group session. We breathe, we meditate, we do a body scan, we try the 9 Gamut in EFT, we listening to the Tibetan singing bowl for auditory attunement or we try other mind body techniques. These practices are offered as a way of gaining awareness and presence in the here and now as well as a way of clearing out what came before in our day and offering ourselves fully to the group process.
It dawned on me that in my own yoga and exercise classes and throughout my day, I have been using these techniques as a reset. I reset my mind and focus. I reset my body for better alignment. Although at times, perhaps socially unacceptable, I do it anyway and don’t worry what others may think.
In my groups, I encourage participants to incorporate these practices as their own mini resets. To release and move through their body whatever is arising. To do this even when another is sharing. This is not easy. The socialization is like a magnet pulling us back to old patterns learned in classroom settings and work meetings. We worry that we might distract the participant who is sharing from her experience and from deepening into her own awareness of what is arising. We worry we will be disruptive.
To not reset is actually a disservice to yourself and the group. To reset from these micro-traumas is to help us come back to ourselves and the group. It helps us bring more aliveness and more presence to what is happening in group. Can we toggle back and forth between our own inner experience and that of the women sharing? Can we titrate our experience better and not be flooded? Can we ease into the experience with breath? With compassion? With mindfulness? Can we create our group culture, family milieu or work place environment to normalize these mini-resets? To breathe and make sounds?
In the next blog, I will give examples of some of these techniques. Until then, just try a 1:2 ratio breath. Inhale to a count of 4 and double the exhale to a count of 8. If you don’t enjoy counting your breath, just lengthen the exhalation. Whenever we exhale for a longer count, we move our nervous system away from the fight, flight, freeze patterns of the sympathetic nervous system and toward the rest and digest, relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Try it. Enjoy the presence. Relax into the relaxation.
She asked in the interview, the only South Asian woman, amidst three white people, “How I develop my multicultural lens while working with people from various backgrounds.”
I froze. My white guilt-turned dissociative haze of a brain would not work for me on cue, on command. What was the right answer? I went to my index of all the ways I had clinically helped people from the non-dominant experience, the books I read, the conferences I attended. I rattled them off. At once I knew I was both inadequate and a fake. This is not the answer I wanted to hear myself saying nor could I guess it was the answer she wanted either.
What I really wanted to say:
I sit with not knowing shit. I am at times humbled by not knowing. The gauze of racial superiority and the fortress of privilege does not allow me to see all this. Privilege wants me to not see, but instead to glare, to strain my sight past the wrongs. My privilege wants to justify, deny, minimize. But when I admit I don’t know anything, the wrongs are right by my side and even inside of me. I sit with all the wrongs.. And this is where it hurts the most for us white folks. To sit and for an instant, feel it.
I sit in the shit of not knowing anything about the other person’s experience, even if I’ve read the books and have gone to the conferences and have done a lot of unlearning, relearning, ally work, multicultural competence trainings. I still don’t know anything really. This is where my most humble self emerges if only for a wee moment. All I know is I know I don’t know, even if my ego thinks it knows. It’s just a way of comforting me out of the guilt and the pain. And the sense of separation. Sometimes, admittedly we don't want to feel that bad. Who does? I don't like the feeling of discomfort, but quite frankly, I wouldn't want to feel any other way.
I also admittedly and importantly sit in self-love, because if I do not embrace my own cultural roots -- the bad and the ugly and the sweet and the sublime --I am not doing anybody any good. I need to be self-loving in order to be the best ally I can be. In order to model self-love for others and keep my heart open.
This clearly was my only answer.
My yoga teacher asked to an obediently silent class recently, "How we all doing tonight?...Good?" with an inflection in her voice that signaled the only answer should be "Great. Fine. Ok. Hanging in there."
Often we embed statements inside our questions. Clearly, my yoga teacher was doing that; meaning the only right answer was yes, in fact, we are all doing great.
Notice the statement embedded in a question.
Here's some examples, inflection in the voice inferred by the italics.
- Do you really want to go out to eat tonight?
- Do you think I look fat in this dress? (See the entire blog dedicated to this question)
- Don’t you think you’d rather….When we hear this line, invariably the questioner is speaking about themselves and their rather. They would rather do something else.
How can I be more direct in my communication and thus more effective? How can message sent be truly the message I wanted to send? How might I be obstaclizing (made up word I use frequently) and hindering my truth from emerging? Do I tell myself a narrative that I don’t have a right to make a declarative statement? I don’t deserve to ask for what I want in statement form. Do I have to be convoluted and obtuse in proclaiming what I want? Perhaps in order to be heard, I think this is the case.
All questions worth pondering. Words, questions, statements all worthy of scrutiny and gentle architectural overhaul.
Every answer is a wrong answer. One is a caught between a rock and a hard place, damned if you do and damned if you don’t with the answer. It’s a minefield. Better to just keep your lips zipped and hazard hostility.
If you answer, “No, sweetheart, you look fabulous,” the incredulous retort will be, “No, I don’t. You’re lying.”
If you answer, "Well, it's not the most flattering line for your figure,” then the partner lets it rip with "How dare you call me fat. You are so sizest or what.”
Embedded in the question is a statement. I've talked about this before in other blog posts. It goes like this:
I kinda feel fat in this dress and I want you to validate my experience.
I feel insecure and I want you to validate that I am hot even though I don't feel hot.
I actually am fat and I'm ok with that. I don't need your validation and I don't actually want you to lie to me.
I am not sure how I feel. I just want you to be my external referent, my accepting, loving, validating mirror, even though what you might say, I will potentially cut down and argue against. Again, it's a 'no win' situation.
The question needs to be reframed into a transparent statement: “Honey, I’m feeling insecure and yucky. I recognize that no amount of reassurance is going to ease my distress, but nonetheless, I’d love you to feed back to me all the things you love about me so I can attempt, with your help, to recover my self esteem and feel better about myself.”
Ultimately it’s an inside job, but we also need some shoring up, some sprucing up and some no-holds-barred validation from those who love us.
Often over the years I've noticed toward the end of the session, clients begin to put on their sunglasses while still on the couch or before we reach the doorhandle together. This makes sense to me, as it affords the client a bit of privacy as a way of preparing to go back out into a world that is often harsh and cruel. When someone feels raw and vulnerable or has been crying, sunglasses are a shield.
Our world doesn't have the emotional refueling stations, way stations and drop off locations to feel our feelings and get support whenever we need to on a dime. Instead the onus is on us to shield our emotions and our vulnerability. I'm visualizing the old fashioned filling station in those 50's and 60's movies in which attendants would come out and fill one's tank with gas, wipe the windshield and at times offer a smile. We need these refueling stations for our hearts. We need "Got Empathy" booths set up in every town and city. Perhaps utopian, but completely necessary nonetheless. I love the community acupuncture movement in which patients receive low fee acupuncture sessions on a lazy boy recliner in a large group room. I always wanted something like this for mental health patients as well, HIPPA and confidentiality requirements not withstanding.
What would a world be like in which we could emote freely, like babies do, lungs wailing, ribcages billowing? Often we can do this in the sanctuary of therapy but then we go out into the world so scary and harsh. Hence the sunglasses come on before one gets back past the waiting room.
In the Reichian bodywork and breath work workshops I have trained in, participants experience the full range of emotional release, should the need arise. From specific breathing exercises, held emotions are released. Vulnerability is a precious gift, tantamount to the deepest form of healing. A 'let it rip' freedom is the norm in these Reichian workshops. The client is supported to allow the full arc of feelings to rise and then pass away. This is not for everyone. For many, the inhibition is understandable. However, if we see babies wail, why can't adult babies do the same?
I am sad and disappointed in a world that unquestionably requires sunglasses. I am not condemning the client; I am condemning our society. It is not a problem residing in the client. It is a problem in a restrictive society with a narrow range of acceptable behaviors. A society disabled by decorum and proper conduct.
On my daughter's 17th birthday, I gave her a few small gifts and then, at the breakfast table, I gave her the biggest gift I could ever give. I gave her back her pancreas. I wrote her a letter and said:
"It is neither grand nor expensive, but it is probably the best gift I could give you. For over nine years, I have nagged, cajoled, begged, pleaded with you about your diabetes management. On this day, your 17th birthday, one year away from legal adulthood, I do something different. Today is the day I give you back your diabetes. You are 17 years old now and I have to trust you have the reins. I do trust you have the reins and can manage your diabetes on your own."
I wish I could tell you I stuck to my guns and never pulled rank on her pancreas again. This would be false. It's been a gradual decrease toward a full-on, screeching halt in helicoptering. Moms of kids with chronic medical conditions will get what I'm saying right now. We wrote the book on helicopter parenting because we had to -- or so we told ourselves.
When my daughter and I went to Accepted Students Day at her newly chosen college, we met with Accessibility Services and got trainings on how to transition to college successfully with a disability or chronic illness. Us parents were getting trainings on how to transition too. I have to say it wasn't easy. The director of the Accessibility Services was looking right at me when she said, "Parents, you need to let..." I fogged out at this point. All parents need to let their children go. Those of us who have been in and out of the hospital with our kids, have a particular form of letting go to do. It's called 'worry sick' letting go. It's called the hypervigilant, 'when am I going to get the phone call' letting go, it's 'remembering all the times of terror' letting go. It actually isn't letting go at all. Let's be honest. I still carry hordes of food in my car, low blood sugar supplies in my bag and pack like I am toting a toddler. When my child-- my woman-child -- doesn't even carry her low blood sugar supplies, let alone her insulin, I get sick to my stomach. Chronic illness is sometimes harder on the parent than the kid. We get sick fast too. We need lots of self care, yoga, breathing, gardening, hiking. Lots of support to get us through or else we die young.
I am writing this blog for myself as a reminder, a cheat sheet, a manifesto. Let go. Let go. Let go. I am also writing for other parents of kids with special needs. Don't you hate that catch all term --special needs? Nonetheless, I'm writing to say that I am committed to letting my child find her way, even when I fail over and over again to loosen or release the reins. Middle of the night blood sugar checks for all those years of childhood are quite a habit to break. Trusting that my daughter has her diabetes down, even when she doesn't, is the real lesson.
My good friend said to me, "Laine, you need to let her have a medical emergency here in the Bay Area, where you are close, so that she learns before she goes back east to college." Yes, learn lessons the hard way. The school of hard knocks. Blah blah blah. But when you are dealing with a life or death thing or a perceived life threatening thing, then the 'learn it the hard way' pedagogy doesn't really cut it. Get it right the first time, there are no redo's for some kids. Or are there? We parents need to take ourselves off the edge of the cliff. It doesn't help our kids. They need calm and measured parents for the long haul. Remember the adage, "just trust you child." This served us well for potty training and eating solids. Let's assume there is transferable skill for chronic medical condition management in teenagers and young adults.
So, I give you back your pancreas, daughter of mine. Enjoy it. Partially functioning and partially not, it is your pancreas. And it's your wild and amazing ride.
Flickr CC Cred: Erin Stevenson O'Connor
Often I nudge clients to put a period at the end of their metaphoric sentence instead of a semicolon. Let me explain. Often we don't want to fully end things. We don't want to truly finish up. Especially with relationships. We want to kinda leave the door sorta half open. Hence, the semicolon. Notice the ways in which you semicolon your life and is that working for you? Does it serve you?
What would semicolon-ing look like as opposed to perioding? (I recognize I am taking liberties here with the English language which is a popular trend -- to make a verb out of any wayward noun).
Here are some semicolon clues:
Do you say you'll come back but never do?
Are you afraid to tell the truth and deal with the ending?
Do you hope something will change, even though it hasn't and you are really done and don't have any more energy to go back into the relationship? You have done all you can.
Are you afraid what's underneath the truth? Underneath and behind the void?
Was completion never modeled for you in your family? How to complete in earnest? How to end with integrity? A job, a relationship, therapy.
How have you dealt with death in the past? Because to really place a metaphoric period at the end of your sentence, you are saying to yourself, the person and the world, you have the strength and courage to face the ending. You can deal with death of the relationship and the existential awareness of the impermanence of all life.
To Semicolon, definition: To be done but act like you aren't. To hope and wish and pray that you aren't done. To be the recipient of someone else's 'doneness' and be in denial and therefore not move on. To hope they will come back.
To Period, definition: To complete. To finish up. To say to yourself that you are done. To move on. To grieve and say good bye.
cc photo cred: Tom Magliery
The other day my neighbor started to launch into an issue with me early in the morning: "So, Laine, did you get my email and what did you think about..." Hand on car door, bag and coffee in the other, clearly I was rushing to get out the door to work. Part of me wanted to say, "Can't you see now is not a good time to talk." Another part wanted to rush to judgment, "What a narcissist!" But what I really wanted was something else.
I want everyone to check for readiness. We'd love if others had the ability to check for readiness, so we don't have to cut them off with, "Hey, now's not the best time. I'm hard pressed for time so can we talk tomorrow?" Instead we crave for others to check if we are available to receive their communication. We desire for others ask if it's a good time to talk about a particular subject. We then get to fully say "sure" and put our listening caps on. The interaction is then 100% yes for both parties. Short of that, we are not present, we're resentful or tuned out.
Checking for readiness is a skill I learned in NVC. I love to teach couples and kids this technique.
A simple formula:
Time + Content in a ? Format
It looks like this: "Hey, Laine, I'd love to talk with you about the .... (Content) tonight at 6pm (Time). Would this work for you?
I need some feedback about that proposal (Content) I sent you. Would you be available to talk with me about it now (Time)?
I am still really upset about that fight (Content) we had last night. Can we talk about it again tonight (Time, although not quite specific) when we get back from work?
I'm in the middle of making dinner. I'd prefer if you (to your 6 year old) would check with me first to see if I am available to play Lego's with you right now.
It is such a relief to know that message sent can be message received. That you on the other end --the recipient -- are available to engage with me at a certain time over a certain issue, because I checked in with you before hand and gave you a heads up as to the content. I checked for readiness. You responded with either a yes or a no. But at least I didn't plow ahead and deliver my content without knowing your availability. It's like delivering a truck load of compost (manure) without a garden to put it in. It's more like unloading shit on a platter, because the person on the other end doesn't want it. It's not compost to help the garden grow. It's unwanted shit.
Choice. I want choice when I receive communication from you.
And I need your 100% presence in order for me to deliver the communication.
Check for readiness.
A great deal of what I offer in these blog posts, I suggest to clients in session. A lot of these techniques I apply in my daily life. As a great teacher once said, "how we do one thing is how we do everything." I attempt to do the things I teach. I don't always make the mark. I fail and forgive myself over and over again. If I don't try nonetheless to do the stuff I suggest, my authenticity and transparency as a healer and a human would hit the dirt.
So here's my current suggestion:
At the very least try neutrality. When we can't be kind or nice, try being neutral. We don't have to be buttery and warm. We can be authentically neutral. I tell my daughters, when snark is sneaking into the household, just be neutral. Deliver your words in a neutral tone. You could still be mad or upset, but try neutrality in tone and manner and see what it gets you.
We pendulum swing either toward nicey nice or super snarky. We then feel crappy about ourselves in either delivery. One is saccharine sweet, inauthentic and obligatory and the other is down right mean. We could slide into neutral, like a car, shifting into a stance of pure delivery of content and not much else. Barebones neutrality. Sometimes, this is the path of least resistance and takes the least amount of emotional energy. It also takes skill and mindfulness to remember that neutrality is an option. We want to snark because snarkiness makes us feel powerful, superior, self-righteous and accusatory. On the flip side, we want to be nice and avoid conflict, even if nice is not what we feel.
Try neutral. Neutral words, neutral tone. As David Burns says, check your ego at the door and try something new. This approach can still be authentic and convey your thoughts and has high probability of getting your message across. Try reflecting back with observables --pure, unadulterated observations --meaning what you heard someone say or do, not your interpretation of their behavior. Try neutrality when all else fails.
I was driving the other day and found myself being mansplained. A term made popular by Rebecca Solnit, in her book, Men Explain Things to Me, but certainly not originated by her.
Mansplaining, wiki def: a [combo] of the words man and explaining, defined as "to explain something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing." Lily Rothman of The Atlantic defines it as "explaining without regard to the fact that the explainee knows more than the explainer, often done by a man to a woman," and Rebecca Solnit ascribes the phenomenon to a combination of "overconfidence and cluelessness" that some men display.
So back to my story. I was in the wrong lane. I turned to the parallel car to ask if I could cut in while at a red light. The guy in the car was not willing to graciously grant me entrance without first explaining the error in my driving ways. I thanked him for his wisdom but then decided I wouldn't take him up on his willingness to let me into the queue now that I was fully reprimanded. One ego butting heads with another, I suppose. I went to the back of the car line but somehow came up to this guy again.
As someone who at times wants to get the last word in, I then womansplained (my own made up word, or so I thought, but Urban Dictionary beat me to the punch. More on womansplaining in a future blog). I told him it was sexist to mansplain to a woman about her driving behavior and he promptly delivered the final classic line of "Go to hell, bitch." Ah, just another day in the Bay. I took the high road at this point, zipped my lips and let my mansplaining fellow traveller have the final final.
Not even my finest NVC (Nonviolent Communication) could have prepared me for a smooth sailing tête-à-tête that day. That guy was in his unconscious patterning and so was I. When threatened, do onto others, was my limbic brain's response. His reaction was classic yet subtle male dominant socialization and subtext. Tell the woman what she did wrong as if we do not have a mind of our own to figure out the error of our ways. Or worse, we actually do have a mind but need a man to translate our mish mash of neural synapses for us.
What can we harvest from this 'not quite worth the blog space' interaction? Stop topping a guy with my seemingly superior intellect and ego? Ha. Help men to be super choose-y with their mansplaining free passes? Only use my womansplaining when there is visible points to score? Meaning -- only outwardly analyze the situation when I can guarantee a bullseye? What are the points to score anyway and who's counting? What's a bullseye here? It would need to be, as we say, a teachable moment. Message sent has to be message received. I have to be able to get my point across. If not, I get a 'go to hell, bitch' or worse, "fuck you, bitch" which does nothing to advance my agenda or the agenda of many a woman who has been mansplained throughout the annals of time.
In retrospect, what could I have said using NVC vernacular? Observation. Feeling. Need. Request. Here's the NVC template response back at the dude:
"When you tell me specifically 'you shouldn't have gotten in that lane, blah blah' (Observation), I feel dismayed and hurt (Feeling) as my needs for support and solidarity in our womanist struggle for self determination, freedom of thought, speech and access to the world were not met (Needs). Would you be willing to read Rebecca Solnit's book and let me know how it made you feel and what you gleaned from it such that you could curb your mansplaining ways by 50%?" (Request).
Somehow NVC doesn't always cut it and "Fuck you bitch" to my fantasy retort, "Fuck you asshole." seems to nail it. Violence begets more violence. And so the world turns.
Flickr CC pic cred: Jason Carlin
Harm Reduction Visualization:
Self- Empathy for the Misusing, Abusing, Habituated and Addicted
Empathy for the Rest of Us / All of Us
Find a comfortable seat with tall spine, belly and chest relaxed. Lying down supine is ok too as long as you can stay alert.
I invite you to close your eyes or gaze downward.
Take three deep breaths, allow a sound or a sigh to emerge with each exhalation.
Now visualize your drug, substance, food of choice. This could be sugar, caffeine, weed, alcohol, coke, speed, K, E, nitrous, prescription pain killers, opiates, chips, mac 'n cheese, cake, chocolate, anything.
If you don’t have a drug of choice, visualize a process addiction: gambling, sex, shopping, surfing the internet, Amazon, eBay, Netflix binges, talking on the phone, making lists. If nothing comes to mind, call to mind a friend or family member addicted and do this exercise as if you were them.
First, identify how and why this addiction works for you? How does it help? How does it serve you? Honor the underlying need in this. Next, identify how this substance does not serve you, how it hinders and stifles your development as human being and possibly hurts others around you.
In what ways does it work? In what ways does it not work?
Call up your substance of choice or your process addiction. Notice what you are feeling in your body. What’s happening with the craving? What’s happening as you plan your use? Procure your substance or buy some food or set up your computer for a binge. Notice the sensations in your body? Your mouth? Are you salivating? What’s happening to your heartbeat? Your temperature? Bring your substance close to you but don’t take it in and don’t do it. Notice the smells, sights, sounds, tune into your body. Are you aching to get this substance into your body? Stay with that a moment longer.
Now in this instance, for what ever reason, this substance has been taken away from you. You cannot swallow, inject, inhale, consume, watch, shop. You never can do this again. Notice what you are feeling. Notice the thoughts, the sensations in your body. What is it like to never get to do the thing you crave, that offers temporarily relief and temporarily rebalances you to homeostasis?
Now wait, I lied. You actually can take this substance in. It’s in front of you once again and available to you. See this opportunity, smell it, open to it. Notice your feelings, thoughts, and sensations in your body now that you will be able to take in that substance or process again.
Now, take your drug of choice, your substance into your body. Do the thing that you crave to do that will make you feel better. Notice the relief, the remorse, the guilt, shame, any disparate or desperate feelings or any feelings of euphoria and ease. Notice the thoughts. Notice the sensations in your body. Take a deep breath into this familiar feeling while on your drug of choice. Know that in some ways you are home and in some ways you are very far from home.
Now, for a moment, for the purpose of this exercise, create a harm reduction plan for yourself. Visualize what you would do to modify, moderate or change your relationship to your preferred substance. Do you switch out another, less harmful substance for you? Do you cut back or substitute a positive behavior? Do you choose abstinence? All of these are legitimate choices. Notice the thoughts, feelings, sensations in your body. Regardless of what you choose to do with your preferred substance after this visualization is complete, I trust that you are learning something about your relationship to the substance and your relationship to yourself.
In a moment, I am going to bring you back from this exercise, but before I do, I want to encourage you to love your substance, love your drug and the positive things it has given you and how it has served you in the past. This may seem paradoxical, as you also see how it has harmed you and how you have subsequently harmed yourself. But for now, love the drug. Love yourself taking the drug. Can you simultaneously hold self love, self compassion for your essence while at the same time consume this drug? This is tricky, I realize. Remind yourself that you are just trying to do the best with what you've got. You are trying to do the best you can. You are trying to keep your levels just right, to intervene on your biochemical bath with this substance and bring yourself back to balance, back to homeostasis. You are not wrong or bad, you are merely seeking balance and relief from pain -- physical, emotional, psychological. What human being on this planet is not? And what human being on this planet is not addicted? Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama says he's addicted to black tea. That's why I subtitled this post, Empathy for the Rest of Us / Empathy for All of Us. We are all addicted and a bit out of balance.
So, take a deep, long, slow inhalation, bring in fresh oxygen and new energy and then with the exhalation now, release any stale carbon dioxide and stale energy. Three more deep cleansing breaths. And when you are ready, in your own pace and time, bring yourself back to this place, this room -- this room of the heart -- and allow your eyes to open, allowing light, color, shape and form to come in slowly.
Because we live in a capitalist consumerist society, we are prone to buy lots of stuff for our children if we have the means. We are raising a generation of children who do not know how to calm themselves down, how to self-regulate and self-soothe because they have too much stuff. Our modern children are not going to have the experience of having to amuse themselves without a screen or a new gimmicky toy. The message that "I need something outside of myself in order to play," is harmful and tragic because it takes play outside of children's hands and out of their imaginations.
Once I was in another country-- actually it is classified by the UN as one of the least developed countries (which is term I detest and which deserves a blog post in and of itself)-- but nonetheless, I saw children playing with gum wrappers fashioned as boats in a flotilla pushed by sticks and fingers down a muddy trickle of a stream. Delighted in play these kids were. This is not to glorify poverty or poor countries. It's just to say that kids can find anything to play with if they are not over-stimulated or traumatized.
Kids in America seem to need more and more in order to stay engaged for more than five minutes. That "more" are toys and marketing gimmicks. Juliet Schor designed a study that looked at how much media a child consumed. In her book, Born to Buy, she discovered a strong correlation between excessive media exposure and high degrees of depression and anxiety in children. Many kids have too many toys but are starving for human interaction. Look around your child's room and clear out at least half of their stuff. A cluttered room is a cluttered mind and an anxious child.
Did you ever have days where as a kid, you gazed dreamily out the car window or stared up at the ceiling lying on the bed as an adolescent or hung out in a meadow and stared at blades of grass or clouds or both? This is what kids need. They need down time, non-screen time. This is where imagination and creativity bubble up to the surface and kids start to make things and do things with their bodies that are simple and beautiful. They dance, they twirl, they find a scarf or a string or a stick. Our job as parents is to help them tolerate boredom and disappointment. Let them have nothing to do. Let them tell you they are bored. Then we know that our job as parents is going well --when our children have nothing to do.
I love learning new things. I'm an aquarian, and I love change, nuance, and difference. I crave learning stuff and find learning, in and of itself, pleasurable. Learning for learning's sake. I also love to learn new techniques and orientations in the field of psychotherapy and mental health, as well as other holistic health fields. So, now, after 25 years of working in the field, I have a potpourri of techniques and trainings under my belt.
I used to maintain the mind body split. Keep my psychotherapy to talk therapy only. Psychodynamic talk therapy. This was my original training and my original fall back. But while doing so, I was cutting off a part of me and hence not bringing all of myself and all of my skill set to the room while working with clients. As a healer, I find yoga therapy and breathwork, even meditation and prayer, to be just as potent as all the fancy footwork of a good psychotherapeutic intervention.
I am not willing to interpret another's experience as much these days. I find it much more fruitful to be in the here and now with the client as the experience arises. Often, we uncover sensations in the body or insights into the past, present, or future via what is happening right here and right now. It could be something between us, interpersonal. It could be something inside, intrapsychic. It could be contacting some part of us previously unknown to us. Why does all this stuff matter anyway? Why does it matter that I have a kink in my neck, that my lower back is screaming, or that I have an emerging headache? What comes to mind for me here is that most of these psychosomatic complaints are the harbinger of some deeper awareness, and usually this awareness is psychological, trauma-based, or interpersonal. This insight comes from the client, not from me, so we can credibly attribute it to their experience. This insight is deeply intimate to their experience, whereas often times, an interpretation by a therapist can be quite distancing. This is not say that interpretations can’t, at certain times, be accurate or potent, and it’s not to say that I haven’t used them, because I do. Avoiding interpretation is part of moving away from “power over” and moving toward “power with.” “Power with” assumes that I have insights into my own experience, and you have insights into your own experience. When we trust your insights completely, you’re the one who’s driving, and also holding the map.
I value that therapy is not one-stop shopping. Different techniques benefit different people. I wear so many hats because the most powerful techniques need to be available to my clients, not just one size fits all therapy, which does not tend to privilege the insights of the client and might tend to be an old-fashioned, “power over” model of psychotherapy.
Flickr CC photo cred: Bob Jagendorf
Group therapy is an important tool in healing from trauma. It's not the only tool. In a perfect world, one would not need group therapy. Or group therapy would not even exist. The village or community would help the person heal through song and dance, ritual and love. But then again, in a perfect world, there would be no trauma, right?
So, group therapy serves to support the patient in knowing that they are not alone. They are not crazy. They are validated in their experience and comforted through their rage and fear. Shame, guilt and self doubt are the by-products of trauma. Group therapy is the antidote. It's not the only path, sure, but it can be a potent modality when one is ready to embark on collective healing in the group context.
I remember when Ellen Bass, co-author of The Courage to Heal, started her first group in Santa Cruz for women survivors of incest in the early 80's. I had a dear friend who attended and later assisted in Ellen's groups. I remember thinking that this was strange -- opening up to strangers about something so shameful, so horrific. How could women find the courage to do so, I wondered? Why on earth would they? This was the nature of conversation around sexual trauma back then. I, as a product of my times, was misguided. We have come a long way. We proclaim our truths to each other and we toss around slogans like "we are only as sick as our secrets." We embrace community and attachment theory and intersectionality. We step into a room of strangers and learn slowly how to trust again. This is a miracle. This is why group therapy matters.
Flickr CC photo credit: Vincepal
Ahimsa. Sanskrit for Non-Harming. Gandhi popularized the term and we hear it bantered about in yoga classes, but it is a deep and profound practice.
To be alive is essentially to harm. We all do something we regret or realize later, "that was not my best move." We step on ants, kill spiders out of fear or we yell or exhibit road rage. At times we are not in right speech with our community. Some of us eat animals. Some are vegetarian and vegan. Yet harming is indiscriminate. We all harm. It sweeps us all up in its dragnet--the Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and Christians, the vegetarians and the omnivores. We harm because we take up space on this planet with limited resources. We harm because we are human. So once we level this playing field -- that we all harm -- then we can ask ourselves, "How can I harm less?" "How can I slow down, watch my speech, check my road rage and not judge myself in the meantime?" "And how can I forgive myself when I have harmed?" "In observing my mind, can I be a little less violent toward myself -- my thoughts, feelings and actions?" "Can I not judge myself for crying or judge someone else's tears?"
Ahimsa is a way of life. An edict. Both a call to action and a call to stillness. By stillness we mean non-action. Not taking action might be the action of choice in certain circumstances. We learn that ahimsa is not just about non-harming in our actions, as popularized by Gandhi in his acts of peaceful civil disobedience, but as Gandhiji reminds us throughout his life, ahimsa is practiced with our every breath, thought, and deed. Ahimsa refers to nonviolence in thought, word and action toward ourselves and others and essentially toward all sentient beings. Ahimsa is a code of conduct which speaks to the concept of oneness and interconnectivity. As interconnected beings, if one suffers, we all suffer. If I harm another, I am also harmed. This oneness is the underlying tenet of ahimsa. It requires us to open our hearts and truly be compassionate toward ourselves and others.
I was at a retreat recently and the facilitator asked our group to define cultural humility. I thought a while in meditation and I came up with the following:
Oneness combined with I Know Nothing About You.
Let me explain. I was thinking about that famous Pat Parker poem, For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend, from the late 70's. In this poem, Parker writes, "The first thing you do is to forget that I'm black. Second, you must never forget that I'm black."
Cultural humility requires that we assume nothing about the other person based on his or her physiognomy -- their appearance. We must not assume based on their social class or gender orientation, their religious status or spiritual proclivities. What we see is not what we know. I tell my kids, "Do not assume what is in someone's underwear." Meaning, do not assume how someone organizes themselves around gender and do not adhere to the gender binary. Do not assume someone is black, or not black or is mixed with whatever. We do not know until someone tells us.
Cultural humility also requires a knowledge of where one stands on the hierarchical ladder of power and privilege. Where am I based on race, class, gender orientation, ability, language, access to resources etc? From this knowledge base, given the institutionalized structures in America, what am I to do with my power and privilege or lack thereof? How can I become more conscious of how and where I wield my privilege and when my power is usurped by others?
Firmly rooted in the stance of "I know nothing about you," we are invited to hold a simultaneous sense of reverence for all life and therefore a unified affirmation of oneness which encircles our commonality. This isn't easy. It takes practice and humility-- cultural humility.
"This is a human being having a human experience" my NVC teacher Inbal Kashtan would say. Or she would say, "This is a human being in pain. This is a human being who is suffering." Who among us has not suffered? Who among us has not been in pain? Ahh, the universality of the human experience. The oneness.
Oneness is a spiritual principle that posits "from the many, one" or as the great Sri Bhagwan Ramana Maharishi, invites:
Interviewer: "How are we to treat others?"
Ramana Maharshi: "There are no others."
From this non-dual approach, rooted in Vedanta, one of the oldest Indian philosophies, comes this prayer of oneness from one of the great sages. Can you imagine? There are no others? If you are truly my brother or my sister, then how can I possibly harm you. I can't "otherize" you. If I harm you, I harm myself and everyone else in this giant ripple effect. From this perspective of "There are no others," I begin to practice cultural humility. Yet, I assume nothing about you at the same time. From this stance, perhaps a bit more peace can emerge on a daily basis.
Let there be such oneness between us, that when one cries, the other tastes salt.
Flickr CC photo credit: Sundaram Ramaswamy
As a mental health care professional, I have found over the years that psychotherapy clients come to me in my private practice wanting some deep healing. Often they come scared, confused and imbalanced. They are in need of a profound psychological cleanse as well as an internal reset. They often need an external guide, teacher, mentor who can bring them back to themselves and restore them to center. They need a navigational system, somewhat a kin to a GPS, that gently guides them on their unique path through the myriad storms, traumas, disappointments and hurts along life’s curvy road. They ask me to be that navigational system, to point out road blocks—blocks in their cognitive and affective world views. They ask for advise. They ask for a mother to guide them. They need someone who is attuned —with empathy, patience and love.
However, they also come with not only deep psychosocial wounds, imbalances and stressors, they come to my office with moderate to severe imbalances nutritionally. They are often eating foods that are denatured and nutrient deficient.. Chicken or egg, I ask them and myself, “do we fix your thoughts first, or do we fix the imbalance in the body as resultant from chronically poor nutrition, sleep hygiene and inadequate exercise? As I am one who believes in “change your thoughts and you will surely change your life,” I have erred on that side of the “chicken –egg” paradigm. In other words, fix your thoughts first, then hopefully your diet, and other self-loving, self-compassionate practices will spill forth naturally into your life. However, this is not always the case, in fact, it is rarely the case. I have found that over the years, one's toxic thoughts are born in a toxic stew. This toxic stew is brewed in a toxic body that was fed overly processed, nutritive depleted food. Hence the thoughts about oneself, the general world view, the thoughts about family, friends, career, spirituality were negative. And this negativity was spurred on by the negativity in the body on a cellular level. Often clients could not heal until they addressed their bodies AND their minds. And that meant a nutritional overhaul. As well as a new GPS.
This nutritional overhaul can be a gentle process. No food zombies or crack the whip strictness here. Just start eating whole foods in their original package -- meaning, without a package. Nothing processed and as many colors as possible, sans the food dye. "Nutrient dense" is the term. Stuff like avocados, kale, pastured eggs, flax seeds. See what feels good in the body. As Michael Pollan says, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Let your tastebuds and your tummy be your GPS. Trust yourself and enjoy your life.