Karuna Counseling’s Newsletter Articles

May 17, 2012

Growing Gratitude

by Micky O’Leary, Ph.D.

Let me begin by acknowledging that Gratitude and I got off to a rocky start. As a child, gratitude often meant being reminded how lucky I was to have a loving family, a roof over my head, an education, etc. I was taught to be polite, to say “thank you” for gifts, whether I liked them or not, to express appreciation for whatever was done for me or given to me.

I remember one Saturday evening in particular. I was about 11 years old and my mother prepared chicken livers for dinner. As we gathered around the table, I expressed my dislike (perhaps, even contempt) for the main dish, to which my father replied that I should be grateful for this nutritious food and be glad that I was not one of the starving children in  (you are free to select an appropriate third world country of the 1950s). After we said Grace, he went on to inform me that I would have plenty of opportunities to learn gratitude for this delicious meal because it would be served every Saturday night from then on.

Fortunately (and for this I was truly grateful), his threat was short-lived and it was only a few weeks before we returned to more appetizing meals like meatloaf. Not surprisingly, I never did develop a liking  for chicken livers, despite my parents’ best efforts. What I do have now, some 50 years later, is a deep and loving appreciation for the childhood meals we shared in our family kitchen, my mother’s commitment to providing us wonderful home-cooked meals, and my parents’ desire that I learn to value what was given to me, even if I didn’t always like it.

Developing gratitude has been a life long journey, with an experience of it that has grown deeper over time. I am often reminded of the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi.” Its refrain is “Don’t it always seem to go that we don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone….” For many of us, gratitude grows from an awareness of what we’ve lost, or what we stand to lose. For example, how much easier is it to appreciate good health after recovering from a serious accident or illness? Or to value electricity after a lengthy power outage? Or to feel gratitude for our remaining friends and family after one of them dies?

Loss is not always a precursor to gratitude. It is possible to appreciate life’s gifts without it. For instance, think of how children squeal with glee when experiencing a winter snowfall (and the subsequent day off from school). Perhaps you can remember a trip to the beach and seeing the sunset across the water. Or you may be able to recall the excitement and anticipation of a new romance.

However, learning gratitude through loss is an opportunity to deepen our understanding and appreciation of life from a new perspective. Shakti Gawain notes that it is difficult to get in touch with our gratitude when life is hard and we are going through a difficult time. However, with patience and perspective, these “healing crises” can provide meaning and purpose in our life’s journey. For instance, the sudden loss of someone dear to us can show us how “life turns on a dime” and remind us of the fragility and beauty of each moment we have. The unexpected loss of employment can force us to re-evaluate our career goals and options, perhaps leading us to a more rewarding or fulfilling work. Or a reduced level of income may force us to alter our lifestyle, finding a way to live more simply. We can, in the most difficult of times, learn to recognize – and appreciate — our greatest gifts and assets, as well as our “growing edges” – the lessons that we are be challenged to learn. In short, we can take these painful experiences and let them soften and expand our hearts, or harden and contract them.

According to Julie Keene, minister and author, gratitude is closely connected to trust. “In order to be thankful for everyone and everything in my life, I need to trust that the Universe makes sense, that everything my soul has chosen to experience this lifetime has been for my ultimate Highest Good.” Once we are able to appreciate whatever life brings us, it is easier for us to then begin living in a place of contentment and gratitude. Our heart is able to find and dwell in a place of joy.

As I consider what I have written so far, I must admit it looks deceptively simple, a bit like “A Guide to Enlightenment in three short paragraphs.” Finding and living in a place of gratitude is not instantaneous nor without some effort. But be assured, it brings immense rewards.

Benefits of Gratitude as a Practice

There are more than a few reasons to incorporate more gratitude into our lives. Having an “attitude of gratitude” causes us to interact with others from a place of fullness. They are attracted by our energy and feel our appreciation. On the other hand, when our glass is “half empty,” we emit a negativity that tends to repel others and we experience less support.

James Eubanks, an author, columnist and astrologer, notes that it is impossible to feel worry, anger, depression, or any negative emotion in the presence of genuine gratitude:  “The practice of gratitude saves us from our painful human storyline, for it requires us to look deeper into our lives and the people around us. The surface rarely holds depth; rather, it obscures it. Gratitude enriches and deepens the colorful fabric of our lives by allowing us to see more.”

Cultivating gratitude has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others. In a recent experiment at the University of Kentucky, students who turned in an essay were either praised for it or given harsh criticism. Then each student was allowed to play a computer game with the person who gave them the evaluation. The winner could administer a blast of white noise to the loser. Those who had received criticism about their essay retaliated against their opponent by giving an especially loud blast – much louder than those given by students receiving positive feedback.

However, an interesting exception occurred among students who had been instructed to write their essays about gratitude. Even if their feedback was negative, they didn’t feel compelled to blast their opponents at a higher volume. The researchers viewed the results as an indication that gratitude also reduces aggressive behavior.

 

Suggestions for Practice

Gratitude grows best when it is cultivated. John Kralik, a California attorney and judge, has written about his experience of gratitude in a touching book, A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life. He had reached a point in his life when he felt as if he had lost almost everything that mattered to him. His business was failing, his second marriage was ending, his living conditions were undesirable and he felt distance between himself and his two older children. He was angry and despairing and out of shape. On New Year’s Day he was struck by the thought that his life could be better if he could find a way to focus on the things he had, rather than those he had lost. He made a commitment to himself to write 365 thank you notes over the next year. The resulting story is an endearing and encouraging account of the personal changes he experienced in that process.

Another way to begin a practice of gratitude is with what Robert Emmons of the University of California calls “gratitude lite.” It involves keeping a journal listing five things for which you feel grateful. The list is brief – only one sentence per item – and is done only once a week. The research he did with Michael McCullough of the University of Miami showed that after two months, there were significant changes among the journal keepers, compared with a control group. They felt more optimistic and happier. They reported fewer physical problems and spent more time working out.

One suggestion for bringing more gratitude into your life is planning a “gratitude visit.” Psychologist Martin Seligman recommends writing a 300 word letter to someone who changed your life for the better. Be specific about what the person did and how it affected you. Then deliver it in person without telling the person in advance what the visit is about. When you get there, read the whole letter slowly and out loud to the other person. According to Seligman, if you do this, within a month you will feel happier.

Other possibilities include keeping a gratitude calendar which emphasizes different blessings in each month; performing a service or volunteering to help someone; saying “thank you” often and with sincerity.

One especially lovely practice is the “Hugging Meditation” described by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:

  1. Hug someone three times, breathing in and out with awareness;
  2. On the first breath in and out, both of you think about how, at sometime, you don’t know when, you will no longer be here;
  3. The second time, focus on how, at sometime, the other person will no longer be here;
  4. The third time, truly take in that you are both here now, together in this precious moment.

Finally, if you should find your gratitude aptitude getting especially challenged, remember what Buddha wrote:

“Let us rise up and be thankful,
for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little,
and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick,
and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die;
so, let us all be thankful.”

Suggested Reading

Kralik, John.  A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life. New York: Hyperion, 2011.

Hay, Louise L.  Gratitude: A Way of Life. New York: Hay House, 1996.

Ryan, M.J.  Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life. San Francisco: Conari Press, 1999.

August 25, 2011

Addiction and the Craving for Wholeness

Filed under: 2011 Articles,Addiction & Recovery,Melissa's Articles — karunacounseling @ 6:08 pm
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By Melissa Kulick, Ph.D., RYT

And You? When will you begin that long journey into Yourself?
– Rumi

Happiness is your nature. It is not wrong to desire it.
What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside.
– Sri Ramana Maharshi

When children grow up with experiences of trauma or deprivation, it is not uncommon for them to feel an inner emptiness. Confronted with what may be overwhelming negative emotions (sadness, hurt, fear, unworthiness,) and never having had the opportunity to learn healthy “self-soothing,” these individuals adapt by finding or developing more unhealthy coping strategies, including various form of addiction. They learn to search, reach and cling outside themselves to anything that seems to offer some immediate release from their pain.

The word “addiction” comes from the Latin addictus (pp of addictio), meaning an awarding, giving over, devoting or surrendering to. In addiction, we give over to the object of our addiction our power and ability to know we are okay, enough, whole. We actually, unknowingly, surrender our identity.

That being said, it can be argued that we are all addicted in some way. We all have things we can, consciously or not, cling to in order to tell ourselves we are okay in a given moment. We can be addicted to substances (drugs, alcohol, food,) activities (work, shopping, gambling, sex, exercise,) relationships and persons, receiving praise or attention, controlling others, and even to beliefs about ourselves and other internal thought processes (denial, interpreting situations as saying/confirming something negative/shameful about us – as unworthy or stupid.) Yes, we can be addicted to negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves, even addicted to an identity as an addict – as a way of experiencing a known, predictable, solid identity and not having  to confront the fear, confusion, groundlessness of not knowing, and the responsibility that comes with accepting our choicefulness.

All addictions arise from the same place within us and all share a common effect. All addictions are (conscious or unconscious) reactive attempts to temporarily reduce, eliminate, or avoid facing and moving through our pain. The result, however, is that they all block in us our ability to open to receiving that which we are, at heart, truly seeking: knowing that we are enough and loved  for who we are in any given moment; that we are already whole just as we are.

Well-known spiritual teacher Ram Dass describes the experience addictive behaviors afford as a “short rush” allowing us a “taste of heaven” and “home” but not allowing us to remain because we didn’t get there in a right, real way. There is a yearning to come home, but we continually find ourselves thrown out by the negative self-thoughts and feelings we were trying to avoid in the first place, now seemingly reinforced by our ‘bad’ behavior. In our attempt to fill the whole, we feel it only growing.  [For Ram Dass’ full commentary on Attachment and Addiction, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3ixRqOauq4.]

Healing is Making Whole

Eminent Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, in a letter to Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson, described the alcoholic’s craving for alcohol as “the equivalent . . . of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness.” Continued attempts to satisfy the thirst through addictive behaviors, however, render it ultimately unquenchable. As a common AA saying goes, “For an alcoholic, one drink is too many and a thousand is never enough.” In other writings, Jung stated that it is our darkness, our “shadow” aspects that we are compelled to disown, that have the capacity to be our greatest teachers and tools for growth. He wrote that our felt brokenness results from an alienation from who we are. We heal by embracing, not dividing. Healing is making whole.

If the addict’s perceived self is an empty or fragmented self, how does one create a sense of self based in wholeness and fullness?

My teacher, Swami Jaya Devi Bhagavati, was once asked by a student struggling to understand and reconcile the co-existence of God and war, whether God was absent in war. Swami Jaya Devi’s response was that God was present, but that the awareness of God was absent. Another twelve-step saying is that an addict is “not a bad person getting good, but a sick person getting well.” Addicts are not bad or evil people absent good, they have simply lost or lack awareness of their true goodness, leading them to wage the internal war of addiction.

Learning to practice simple awareness – without reactivity – is therefore a vitally important tool in addressing addiction. We need to learn to sit and be and allow a feeling or sensation without jumping to interpretation that something is (or I am) wrong, bad and/or needs to be changed. Awareness, itself, allows for transformation. We give power to a feeling by resisting it. We have already transformed our relationship to it and its power over us by not reacting to it. It no longer needs to be removed in order for us to be whole and okay.

Most people are familiar with the expression, “Whatever we resist, persists.” It is also and perhaps even more accurate to say that it is not so much that we resist things because they are painful, but that they are painful because we resist them. We can transform our experience of, and relationship to, pain. Simple breath meditation – sitting with our eyes closed and following our breath in and out, bringing our attention back to our breath when we become aware our mind has wandered (because it will) – is one way to begin training ourselves in awareness and focus without judgment. Anything that happens inside of us is okay – anything we think and everything we feel. Nothing we think or feel is evidence of our not being enough. And nothing we have done diminishes our wholeness.

The teachings and practices of yoga can be powerful resources on our journey to wholeness and ‘enoughness.’ Yoga literally means “union” and “wholeness of being.” It is designed to “yoke” the practitioner to her or his deepest Self. Yoga is an “eight-limbed path” toward our highest consciousness, toward true contentment and happiness. One of these limbs, pratyahara, most directly addresses addiction. Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses, a turning inward. When we practice pratyahara we stop chasing our external sense experiences and focus our attention inside ourselves, directing our energy internally. We practice coming back to center, to our heart. We come home in a way that allows us to stay.

The physical practices of yoga, the asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathwork), are also valuable in cultivating our experience of wholeness. To “practice yoga while you’re practicing yoga” can be a great challenge. It means to be fully present in our body and breath, neither judging nor forcing ourselves beyond what is true and right for our body in that moment. We are given the opportunity to practice awareness and acceptance and ‘enoughness’ on the mat, then bring this experience off the mat and apply it in our everyday lives.

There are also specific practices in yoga that can help move us toward wholeness. Our bodies are energy bodies, with thousands of energy paths running through it. There are seven main energy centers in our physical body, beginning at the base of our spine and moving up to the crown of our head. The second of these energy centers, or chakras, is located low in our abdomen. Correlated with the sex/reproductive organs in our body, the second chakra is also associated with creativity and the element of water. When in balance, we experience ourselves ‘in the flow.’ When out of balance, we have a tendency toward avoiding, controlling or ignoring our feelings. At its extreme, this imbalance leads to self-denial, self-rejection and self-deprivation. When we are blocked in this way, when this flow of receptivity is dammed, we are unable to connect with that which would truly satisfy us. Our ability to enjoy any activity is in direct proportion to how present and open we are to it in the moment.

The second chakra is considered the seat of duality (separation), unworthiness and of addiction. Its name, Svadisthana, means “sweetness” or “one’s own place or base.” Addicts’ external searching is a longing for the elusive sweetness of feeling/ knowing they are finally ‘home sweet home.’ Yoga practices that balance second chakra energy (e.g., Seated Spinal Flex) help bring us home.

“I Am Enough” Meditation
Find a comfortable seated position, lengthen your spine and gently close your eyes. Begin taking full, satisfying breaths, focusing your attention on the sensations of your inhalation and exhalation. After several breaths, bring your focus to the second chakra, low in the abdomen just a few inches above your pubic bone. Imagine you could feel the energy of the breath coming in and out of your second chakra. Allow yourself to feel the flow of that energy. Begin a silent mantra of “I am, therefore I am enough” on each inhale, and “I am, therefore I am enough” on each exhale. Continue this breath for 3-11 minutes. When you feel ready to complete the meditation, bring your attention to the center of the chest, called our spiritual heart. Breathe in and out of your spiritual heart three times repeating, “I am, therefore I am enough.” Know that you are enough, you are home and you can stay. When you are ready, slowly begin to open your eyes.


Addiction – the experience of craving in this way and looking for the ‘quick fix’ in whatever form it takes – is a signal that we are out of balance. One of the ways to approach addiction, therefore, is to seek the experience of balance, rather than reactively seeking the quick (and actually unbalancing) fix. An important element in addressing any addiction, not just food addictions, is to balance our blood sugar. When our blood sugar is out of balance, it typically triggers the feeling of craving and a state of reactivity; the quick fix becomes very hard, if not impossible, to resist. Our ability to be choiceful and response-able is greatly compromised. The best way to balance our blood sugar is to eat three full, satisfying meals at least 3-4 hours apart, with no between-meal snacking. If you feel a strong need for sweet, sugary treat, the best time to have it is as a lunchtime dessert, when it is least likely to have as strong an impact on your blood sugar. Snacking prevents our blood sugar from stabilizing by keeping it in constant movement.

Know that it is absolutely normal to grieve the loss of your addiction; it is like losing your best and most trusted friend. Know, too, that every addict struggles with being present in their bodies, in their lives and in the world. Recovery is a process of developing awareness and acceptance of all that you are, without judgment and reactivity. With this awareness, you begin to confront the truths your addictive behaviors were ‘protecting’ you from, and in so doing you reveal to yourself the truth that you already are, and have always been, whole and enough.

 

“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.”
~ Carl Jung

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
~ Rumi

”Real healing can begin only when we finally learn to be present in the places where we have been absent.”
~John Welwood

 

 

November 10, 2007

Emotional Eating During The Holiday Season

By Andrea Schrage, MA, LAPC,CMT and Molly Keeton, Ph.D.

The holidays are an emotional time and often a time of overeating. As family and friends come together, food is often the focus of celebrations. Below are some tips to think about during holiday dining. Allowing yourself to enjoy food during the holiday season is a great option when it is a conscious choice.

Ask yourself if you are hungry.

Take a breath before reaching for food.

Ask yourself how you feel in that moment.

Imagine tasting the food in front of you and decide

if it is really what you want.

When allowing yourself to indulge, plan some limits ahead of time.

Drink plenty of water.

Don’t skip meals to make up for too many sweets.

Be compassionate with yourself and your choices.

Eat regular meals and healthy snacks to avoid being over-hungry.

Prepare a list of alternatives to eating.

Make healthier versions of favorite recipes.

Make room for emotional support.

Read this list before going to events.

Remember that most often finding a balance in life is a healthy goal to obtain.

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