Karuna Counseling’s Newsletter Articles

February 9, 2013

Protecting and Preserving the Innocent One Within

 

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By Metta Sweet Edge, LCSW

Since I’ve been practicing therapy, no other societal event has been so present in my clients’ sessions as the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012.  For the weeks following, nearly every client came in wanting to talk about it to some extent.  I was struck by the depth and breadth of this tragedy’s reach for people.  Some expressing grief, others fear, and many exploring existential/spiritual questions.  Many diving into the details of the news reports to try to make sense of it—even while admitting that nothing they could learn would really suffice.  And others purposefully avoiding the media because it was just too painful.

Something in our collective consciousness seemed to have been breached.  A line crossed.  A “bottom” to use the language of recovery.  What happened in Newtown seemed to be for so many an assault on Innocence itself.  On a precious part of our humanity and consciousness that we all, regardless of background and creed, seem to have a tacit agreement about: that childhood innocence has inherent value and deserves protection and preserving.

As I continue to process the impact of this in my life and work, I return again and again to the Jungian concept of The Shadow—of looking to our outside world as a reflection of our inner world. While participating in dialogs and taking action to reduce these tragedies is critically needed to produce change in the outer world of our society, it is often difficult to believe that we, individually, can do anything.  If we stay with Jung’s idea, though, and participate in dialog and action to reduce the tragedy of assaulting our own Innocent One within, we would not only feel more hopeful of having impact, we but could begin to see that change reflected in the world.

 We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.

~Dalai Lama

Developing a Personal Practice

Consider that the innocent child who you once were lives within your mind and heart as a part of you.  This Innocent: this precious one who has inherent value and deserves protection and preserving.  This part of you who is full of wonder, creativity, joy, freedom, trust, and [insert one of your favorite childlike attributes here].  This part of you who also has mischievous curiosity, self-centered focus, a naïve sense of power, and [insert one of your least favorite childlike attributes here].  You don’t have to picture yourself as a child if you don’t want to (although it can be very powerful to do so), just pick the characteristics and focus there.

When you do, see how it feels to acknowledge this part of you.  A part of you that over time, external instruction, and often shame-based experience has been silenced, dismissed, or cut short from participating fully in your life.  How often do you criticize and shame yourself for being joyful, trusting, much less to focus on yourself and daring to wonder about how powerful you really are?  Imagine if you let that part of you have a say, have a life inside you?  No, not as the ultimate “decision maker,” but as a valid voice to be heard and taken into consideration instead of silenced.

Part of what pains us about the Sandy Hook tragedy is that young children’s lives were cut short.  Allow yourself to feel the sorrow and compassion for them and their loved ones and send them the energy of love and healing.  Then, imagine that energy of sorrow, compassion, love, and healing, making a circle back to you.

While feeling that, commit to valuing, protecting, and preserving the Innocent part of you each day.  And when you fail, instead of shaming yourself with cutting criticism, try the following: 1) admit that you failed, 2) feel the regret, 3) forgive yourself—remembering it’s a shame-based defense that has become habit—and then 4) choose to re-commit.  Allow the Innocent One Within to participate more with your daily life and you just might find that your life becomes more full of wonder, creativity, joy, freedom, trust, self-care, and empowerment.

And the world outside just might follow suit.

What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

~Plutarch

My Moving Meditation: A Magical Carousel Ride

Before heading into the park for my midday run, I watched President Obama announce his plans to help reduce tragedies such as Newtown in the future. Standing behind him were four children who had written letters to the President asking him to help.  Sitting in front of him were the parents of a girl named Grace who died that day in her classroom along with her classmates and teacher. The President shared that he placed Grace’s artwork in his private study in the White House.  Feelings of sadness and anger surfaced in me anew as I watched and listened, but the stirrings of hope now swirled in with the mix.

As the President shook the children’s hands and began signing the paperwork, I took to the sidewalk and started jogging toward the park.  The January day was gray and damp.  That seemed alright and somehow fitting to me as I put in my earbuds and set my iPod to shuffle.  I jogged along feeling grateful to be outside in the world moving free and breathing deep.  On my exhales, I released the heaviness in my chest and upon inhale, I invited the shuffled songs to guide me to thoughts and feelings that would feel right to me on my “moving meditation” that my runs have become.

Toward the end of my run, an upbeat song began playing, instantly bringing thoughts, feelings, and images of my family—especially of my three children.  The song’s beat brought the gift of a rush of gratitude and joy.  That gift, though, was quickly threatened to be revoked by pained thoughts of the families who lost their children that December Friday in Newtown.  I firmly held on to my gratitude, though, as Brene Brown teaches in her work on vulnerability and shame resilience.  I then eased into a trust that somehow my love for my children somehow honored those lost at Sandy Hook.

As I rounded a bend in that moment, my eyes scanned the corner of the park looking for the carousel that had been set up for the holiday season.  It was gone.  Clearly, the season now over, it had been taken down.   It seemed to have vanished into thin air, leaving an empty space at the foot of the hill with only an imprint in the grass.

My heart filled with the ache and loss of Newtown’s children again as I approached the empty space.  But in a spinning rush of momentum and spontaneity, I turned off the paved path and leaped onto the carousel’s flattened grass imprint.  Shaking off my self-consciousness that onlookers might consider me strange, I resolutely ran the circumference of where the carousel once stood.

While making the round, I imagined the carousel there with Newtown’s children aboard riding, laughing, and carrying on as kids do.  At the moment I reached the point of completion of the carousel’s circle, it started to rain.  Hard.  As if the gray day could not hold its tears back any longer, the sky burst open above me.

The synchronicity of that timing stunned me so much that I stopped running and looked up.  I have never particularly enjoyed getting caught in the rain, but this time I instinctually welcomed it.  I slowly opened my hands toward the sky and then, with a child-like impulse, I leaned my head back to catch the rain in my mouth—just as the lyrics to the next song playing in my ears sang of catching tears.

Stunned again in the synchronistic mystery, I felt a profound connection to Mystery and Oneness with All That Is.  My singular and symbolic experience felt beyond the bounds of me yet I also sensed my personal and particular participation provided a key ingredient.  The synchronicity of sound, imagery, and elements served as a reminder of the interconnection between our individual and interconnected experience.  A reminder of Belonging—to ourselves, each other, and to our world.

As we move forward in this world that does indeed break our hearts, I hope that we can more and more use that brokenness as an opening.  An opening to more love than our heart could have held had it stayed together in the first place.

Book Recommendations:

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

The Shadow Effect by By Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, and Debbie Ford

November 26, 2012

The Already and the Not Yet: The Paradox of Acceptance and Change

by Elizabeth Eiland, LMSW

 

We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice
how we are already found,
already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.

~Anne Lamott

 

Like many of us, I have been known to read Oprah Magazine.  Probably like many of us, I might read an article or two in a doctor’s office waiting room, and promptly forget the article’s contents as soon as I put down the magazine. When I first read this particular passage by author Anne Lamott, however, I got to thinking about the paradox she presents.  For long after my time at the waiting room, I asked myself: How is it that we find ourselves only when we start to notice that we are already found? How is it that we are, at the same time, already exactly where we are meant to be and yet still evolving? How is it that change happens when we accept that we are already—perfectly—who we are, and yet also on our way towards becoming someone new?

My own response to these questions echoes Anne Lamott’s: accepting ourselves as who we already are allows us permission to access who we are not yet but still hope to become. It is precisely when we accept where we already are that change can occur. For me, this is a critical piece of the therapy process.

Many of us might come to therapy hoping to become someone different, looking to shed a familiar burden of pain, or seeking to become free from a place we’ve been stuck for so long.  Perhaps the place that we are starting from is the absolute last fact about ourselves that we would ever want to accept; perhaps the reason we come to therapy is the thing about ourselves that we most wish we could push away.

Paradoxically, it is precisely in the midst of this desolation where the seeds of change lay already planted.  Spiritual teacher Anthony DeMello shares a personal example of his desired changes coming into fruition though acceptance:

I was neurotic for years. I was anxious and depressed and selfish. Everyone kept telling me to change. I resented them and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but simply couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. Then one day someone said to me, Don’t change. I love you just as you are. Those words were music to my ears: Don’t change, Don’t change. Don’t change. . .I relaxed. I came alive. And suddenly, I changed!

However profound his transformation, it is my guess that DeMello’s experience of acceptance and change wasn’t as sudden as his story might suggest. For most of us, this process might be messy, scary, long, uncomfortable, or even (temporarily) painful. But the promise of change makes this journey possible.  We have to bravely face the already in order to get to the not yet!

The First Step

Contrary to this cartoon from The New Yorker, the first step is not to change who you are, but to notice who you already are.  This cartoon pokes fun at the idea that somehow we must change who we are at our core in order to better ourselves; rather, our core selves already offer the capacity for healing and growth.  If we desire transformation, change paradoxically happens when we notice who we already are, and, as monastic nun Macrina Wiederkehr said, “accept the truth about ourselves – no matter how beautiful it is!”

Mental health professionals and spiritual leaders alike suggest the tool of mindfulness as the first step towards acceptance.

One example of a therapeutic modality that asserts this paradox between acceptance and change, and responds with mindfulness, is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).  DBT begins with the assumption that two seemingly opposite things can both be true (in fact, this is the root of the word dialectic).  DBT’s central dialectic, then, is that people can both desire acceptance as they are and, at the same time, desire change.  Anne Lamott, Anthony DeMello, and many of us might find DBT’s basic assumptions to be familiar.

Some snapshots from my practice might further illustrate this paradox.  The 60-year old man, recently diagnosed with Early Stage Alzheimer’s disease, learns how to live with his memory loss by making changes to his daily routine. Accepting his disease allowed him to make the accommodations that transformed his life.  An 11-year old girl mourning the loss of her best friend, greets her grief with curiosity and acceptance, and over time learns to live in joy instead of fear (not to mention winning the school spelling bee). A 36-year old woman accepts that her relationship is not where she wants it to be, and gives herself permission to make the necessary changes.  In each of these snapshots, it is precisely when these folks notice where they are – scared for the future, grieving a loss, or unhappy in relationship – that their transformation can begin.

Mindfulness, then, can bring us to acceptance of ourselves as we already are: truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously ourselves.

Already, We Belong


Poet Mary Oliver affirms that the place where we already are is exactly where we need to be.  She tells us in her poem Wild Geese,

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

Here she asserts that we do not have to do or be anything different than we already are. Later in the poem, even all of nature affirms that we belong – just as we are, already.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

_________________________________________________

Contact Information:

Elizabeth M. Eiland, LMSW

elizabethe@karunacounseling.com

404.215.0577

________________________________________________

Works Cited:

Anne Lamott for Oprah Magazine, November 2009. “Becoming the Person You Were Meant To Be.”  <http://www.oprah.com/spirit/How-To-Find-Out-Who-You-Really-Are-by-Anne-Lamott/1&gt;

Anthony DeMello, Song of the Bird (1982). New York: Doubleday.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994). New York: Hyperion.

October 8, 2012

Letting Go

Filed under: 2012 Articles,Grief & Loss,Lisa's Articles,Relationships & Intimacy — karunacounseling @ 2:16 pm
by Lisa Anyan Smith, Ph.D.

“If you love something, set it free.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours.  If it doesn’t, it never was.”  This quote, widely attributed to Richard Bach of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” fame, conveys the meaning of a proverb that appears in many cultures and languages.  I remember the quote being reproduced on the inspirational posters of my youth.  It was soon parodied by cynics:  “If you love something, set it free.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours.  If it doesn’t, hunt it down and kill it.”

The cynical version of this quote illustrates (however crudely) the difficulty that many of us have with letting go.  Letting go of unhealthy relationships, of anger, of jealousy, of addictions, of coping mechanisms that no longer serve us well, can be difficult to accomplish.  Why is it so difficult for some of us to “just let it go”?  What can we do to ease the process of letting go?

Letting go can be a challenge because we, as human beings, are creatures of habit.  There is some comfort in the familiar.  Shedding old, destructive patterns or behaviors can leave us feeling as vulnerable as a small child throwing away a tattered and filthy blanket.  Although logically we may reason that we are better off without it, emotionally we can be left feeling bare.  Yet letting go is a process that we all must face at one time or another.  We must let go of the old in order to invite in the new.  Like the child who must say goodbye to the beloved blanket, we must bid farewell to what is holding us back developmentally.  Letting go is growth.  Letting go is akin to rock climbing, in which you must let go of a toehold in order to reach the next height. Reaching, striving – we must let go in order to find our next step.

Yes, you say, I understand that I must let go.  But how?  The following steps can assist you on your journey toward letting go.

Embrace the shadow:

We all possess a dark side, the part of us that we often prefer to remain hidden from the world.  Karl Jung referred to that portion of us that we fail to see or know as the “shadow.” That which we refuse to examine does not disappear; on the contrary it takes on a greater power until it erupts in a harmful way.  For example, repressed anger can result in displaced aggression.  Robert Johnson, in Owning Your Own Shadow, posits that “to refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness; this is later expressed as a black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents” (p. 26).  Through self-examination we can cultivate awareness of the shadow, and through ritual or creativity we can discharge the shadow energy in a healthy manner.

Awareness of the grip that we have on unwelcome thoughts, feelings, or relationships – and the grip that they have on us – is crucial to the process of learning to let them go.  For example, we all experience anger at some time or another.  Holding on to anger can negatively impact our general sense of happiness, relationships with others, and physical health.  Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, likens anger to a howling baby, suffering and crying.  He encourages us to be mindful of the anger, to cradle and embrace the baby. Once we have accepted the anger and acknowledged it as our own, we can work with it. We can realize compassion for the target of our anger and feel better.

Let go of having to control:

Taoism is a manner of living in harmony with Tao, the Way of the Universe.  Lao-tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, urges us to see the value in being humble.  If action seems called for, he asks us to consider nonaction. If we feel that grasping will help us acquire what we need or want, he counsels us to let go and be patient.

A cornerstone of many successful 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, involves letting go of control.  The Serenity Prayer urges those seeking relief to be granted “…the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  This idea can also be expressed in the notion of surrendering to win.  A friend of mine likens letting go to dropping the rope in a tug-of-war contest.  When competitors on both sides are pulling equally on the rope, a stalemate ensues.  When one side drops the rope, movement occurs immediately.  While the side that drops the rope may not “win,” the action still leads to change.

Grieve your losses

Take the time to honor the process of letting go and moving on. It may be helpful to recognize the stages of grieving identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Keep in mind that there is no timetable for grief and that your process will be different from others’. Kubler-Ross herself acknowledged that the stages do not necessarily occur in chronological order. It is common to cycle back through the stages before finally landing upon acceptance. Be patient with yourself.  Have compassion for your journey.  Walk, talk, draw, paint, or find other ways to tap into your thoughts and memories.  Allow painful memories to enter your consciousness – with support if needed.  I am reminded of the mantra in the beloved children’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury:  “Can’t go around it, can’t go under it…. Gotta go through it!”

Forgive

In trying to let go of a grudge toward another person, think about apologizing and asking for forgiveness.  Letting go of your past involves allowing yourself to be vulnerable.  Or, it may be forgiveness of yourself that will set you on the path toward letting go. Be honest with yourself and others. If you have made mistakes, admit them. Forgiveness can be freeing. Forgiveness, at least in terms of interpersonal dynamics, appears to have benefits for both individual health and relationships. Research suggests that forgiveness  “may free the wounded person from a prison of hurt and vengeful emotion, yielding both emotional and physical benefits, including reduced stress, less negative emotion, fewer cardiovascular problems, and improved immune system performance.” (Witvliet, et al.)

Move forward to let go of the past

It has been said that time heals all wounds. Trust that letting go will occur if you open yourself to that possibility.  Look outside of yourself. Move outside of your comfort zone. Volunteering to help others in your community will aid in moving forward. Do something different! Taking a class at the local community college, learning a new language, or starting a new hobby will focus your attention on the present and assist in letting go of the past.

Isn’t that what we wanted all along

Freedom like a stone

Maybe we were wrong

But I can say goodbye

Now that the passion’s died

Still it comes so slow

The letting go 

Melissa Etheridge, “The Letting Go”

References and Suggested Reading:

Borysenko, Joan, Inner Peace for Busy Women: Balancing Work, Family, and Your Inner Life (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2003).

 

Hoff, Benjamin, The Tao of Pooh (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1983).

 

Johnson, Robert, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche (New York: Harper Collins, 1991).

 

Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth, On Death and Dying (London: Routledge, 1969).

 

Lao-tzu, Tao Te Ching (translation by Stephen Mitchell) New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

 

Thich Nhat Hahn, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001).

 

Witvliet, C.V.O., Ludwig, T. E., & Vander Laan, K. L. (2001). Granting forgiveness of harboring grudges: Implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychological Science, 12, 117

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.

December 16, 2007

Holidays and Grief

By Micky O’Leary, Ph.D

You may have noticed it’s the holiday season. (I saw Christmas lights fighting for Halloween shelf space in late September and my neighborhood convenience store is now selling “candy cane cappuccino.”) Whatever your personal beliefs, it’s more or less impossible to ignore the television commercials, shopping promotions, Hallmark specials, outdoor decorations, wrapping paper, and many other obvious reminders which bombard us daily from October through the end of the year.

This can be an exciting, although stressful, time of year. Most of us have been brought up to believe that the holiday season is “magical,” a time when families get closer, hearts get lighter, and good will abounds.

For many people, the holidays are an especially wonderful time. But for just as many, the holidays are exhausting, expensive, disappointing, and/or downright depressing. This is especially true for those who are experiencing a particular sadness or loss in their lives. In a time when connection and abundance are being depicted all around, it’s especially hard to be without the people or things that are important to us.

Few people go through life without experiencing major loss(es), and those losses can seem especially painful during the holidays. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the absence of family, illness, losing a job, the ending of a relationship, financial setbacks, or any number of other difficult life events, grieving often intensifies when we’re faced with the huge discrepancy between our own experience and what appears to be the experience of the majority. Memories of happier times and friends and family who seem excited by the festivities may only increase our sense of being isolated and out of step.

If the holidays are hard for you, be assured that you are not alone. Many people do not feel like celebrating and wish they could somehow be transported from October to mid-January. If you are in that group, or just a little less than thrilled with the traditional holiday festivities, your feelings are understandable. This is an especially useful time to focus on ways to take care of yourself and reduce unnecessary stress.

One way to do this is by adjusting your expectations – of yourself, as well as others. Adopt a nurturing and self-accepting attitude toward yourself. Try not to feel guilty or self-critical because you feel sad or lonely. Seek support from family and friends. If they are a source of your stress, make sure you have some “down time” to rest and regroup. You may even consider volunteering some time to those who are in need – helping others is often the best way to help yourself feel better.

If this is your first holiday season since the death of a loved one, be especially gentle with yourself. Recognize the painful nature of “firsts” and treat yourself kindly. You may choose to keep traditional holiday activities or you may decide you want to break with tradition and do something entirely different. There is no right or wrong in choosing the best way to cope with a very painful time.

Whatever your loss has been, know that grieving takes time and that it is our nature to heal and grow. Just as we do what is necessary for our bodies to heal physically, we can make the choices that will allow us to heal emotionally. Regardless of where we are in our lives, this time of year offers opportunities for us to learn more about our emotional needs and how to meet them.

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