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

July 17, 2012

The Thinking Mind

by Molly Keeton Parnell, Ph.D.

“Mind, body, and breath complete the circle of life”

This is what my yoga instructor stated last week as we were moving into Savasana, or the meditation portion of the class. This observation gave me pause for a moment and then quickly resonated as true. I was immediately aware of how much more time my mind spends actively thinking compared to the miniscule amount of time that I spend just “being” in my body and with my breath. For a moment, I was absolutely captivated by the fact that while we are equally mind, body and breath, the mind takes about 99.9% of the airtime. I suddenly had the image of a horse drawn carriage with the coach using a whip to keep the horse going. The mind is like that coach, whipping the attention back to itself over and over and over again. If the mind even begins to wander towards a moment of quiet, there’s that crack of the whip and we are again deeply entrenched in thought. On the contrary, for most of us the body only demands attention in the case of physical discomfort (and even then, the mind never stops going full speed. It may just share some of the real estate with awareness of body). And it seems that the breath almost never dominates our attention, unless there is some respiratory illness or perhaps a panic attack, where the ability to breathe is perceived to be diminished. In fact, a panic attack is a good example of the connection between mind, body, and breath because of how quickly the mind jumps in to perpetuate the sense of panic. Shortness of breath may be a cause of concern, but it only turns into a full blown anxiety attack when the mind starts putting negative labels on the feelings in the body, which causes an intensifying of bodily sensations that lead to more panicked feelings in the mind, and so forth. Just thoughts of not having enough breath leads to what feels like a physical reality of not having enough breath.

And yes, I had all of these thoughts while I was SUPPOSED to be headed into a meditative state. The irony was not lost on me. I redirected my focus to my breath, yet my mind continued to think about the way it was thinking, about the way that humans seem to be programmed, about my grocery list and messy house, and how well this thinking vs. being struggle would fit into the article that I needed to write. Sensing that my restless and hyper brain was not easily inclined to getting quiet, I opted to give way to trying to force it to happen and instead to simply notice the way that my mind seems to work. I was immediately aware of the desire to let go of thinking and the sense of panic that my mind felt at that notion – the fear of letting go. I then felt frustration that this seems to be such a difficult task, wondering if it is only difficult for me and why I haven’t mastered it at this point in my life and emotional growth. As I started to berate myself for this, I noticed what my mind had done. By beating myself up for my lack of meditation skill I was remaining active in my mind. My mind had tricked me into staying mentally focused by distracting me with the oldest trick in the book – self-criticism. While I did not have the breath-body experience that I wished for, I learned something significant about the various ways the mind manages to stay primary and also found inspiration for this article!

So, what is it that compels us to think, think, think? To think about thinking? To think about how to not think (now, there’s a no-win puzzle for you!)? What is responsible for the non-stop dialogue of the brain, the million thoughts a minute diatribe wherein I can go rapid-fire from thoughts of my to do list, to pondering my spirituality, to worrying about getting my article written quickly, to beating myself up for my habit of procrastinating, to wondering what purpose procrastination serves for me and if I’ll ever find a better way, to reflecting that perhaps I could practice self-acceptance related to procrastination and simply accept it as a part of life?

It turns out that the source of the 24-7-365, not-a-millisecond-off running monologue is the left hemisphere of the brain. You may have heard that left brain dominant people are better at math and right brain people are the artists of the world. And perhaps it is true that people are generally more dominant in one side than the other, but the reality is we all have two hemispheres that work together as a whole yet have dramatically different purposes and functions. In cases where the two halves of the brain have been surgically separated (by cutting the corpus callosum, or the structure that connects the two sides) the right and left hemispheres have been found to operate as two separate brains, each with distinct personalities. In humans with a normally functioning corpus callosum, the two hemispheres of the brain are “more appropriately viewed as two complementary halves of a whole” and “virtually every cognitive behavior we exhibit involves activity in both hemispheres – they simply do it differently” (Bolte Taylor, p. 29). However, scientists still do not fully understand the way the two halves work together. While it was long believed that the corpus callosum created communication between the two hemispheres, recent research supports the idea that the corpus callosum may actually be serving to keep the two halves divided.

The Left Hemisphere

My experience in yoga class can be well understood by knowing the dominance of the left hemisphere and its instinct to remain in the driver’s seat of the mind. The job of the left brain is to sort, organize, and analyze all incoming information. When stimuli is received through our senses (eyes, ears, etc.), the left brain categorizes and notes distinctions, or where things are different. For example, it is your left brain that is interested in better understanding the differences between your two hemispheres.  (Your right brain is in the moment, feeling peaceful, and doesn’t really care what part does what)!

The left brain is “linear and methodical” (Bolte Taylor, p. 31) and sees the details rather than the whole. The left brain manages our interactions with the world by time streaming every piece of data. It both sorts things according to the proper sequence (i.e. we put on our socks before our shoes) and organizes events in their proper place in time (i.e. past, present, and future).

The mechanism by which the left brain completes its duty of sorting, organizing and analyzing is through language. The left brain contains our language centers, which utilize words to define and categorize, or break the big picture down into data bits that are distinct and manageable. For example, Bolte Taylor points out that when out in nature, our left brain sees and labels the distinct parts of all that we see, such as stem, petal, and leaf. The left hemisphere then organizes those details back into the whole to see a flower. It “… thrives on weaving facts and details into a story” (Bolte Taylor, p. 31). It uses deductive reasoning and creates an understanding of the world in this way (i.e. if A is greater than B and B is greater than C, then A must be greater than C).

The left mind’s language centers help us to understand that letters form words and that words form sentences. It is the left hemisphere that comprehends the meanings of these words and sentences, but it can only do so in a literal way. If I say that my friend is really cool, the left brain might want to give her a blanket, whereas the right brain understands the more subtle interpretation of this phrase. We need our right hemisphere to help translate things like humor or sarcasm as well as for interpreting non-verbal communication.

Our left brains also think in ways that become patterned based on incoming sensory information. Neurological circuits are developed and then run mostly automatically. These circuits allow us to take in information efficiently without having to break what we are sensing down into the individual pieces and then reconstruct those pieces into a whole. So, when I see an object that can be easily held in the hand that contains buttons with numbers, I know it is a telephone even though there is wide variation in the way different phones look. Each time one of these neurological circuits is stimulated, it becomes more engrained and then takes less outside stimulation to run in the future. Our left hemisphere then becomes quite adept at prediction, not only predicting how objects may function (a phone will ring) but also how we will feel, react, or respond to things based on the past. Thus, our left brain may give us a story such as “I always turn in my assignments late”, which then gets replayed and strengthened every time the topic of an assignment floats through the mind.

In receiving all sensory stimuli as distinct parts, the left hemisphere also focuses on the separation between ourselves and others. This half of the brain contains the “ego center”, which defines the self as “I” and defines what we do, think, and feel as “I am”. Our constant brain chatter helps us to rehearse and memorize the details of our lives, such as our names, occupations, relationship status, values, preferences, etc. As it is the job of the left hemisphere to categorize, all data is sorted into dichotomous classes such as “good”, “bad”, “like”, or “dislike”. The left hemisphere similarly engages in constant comparison between ourselves and others, using a comparable hierarchy for “better”, “worse”, “success”, “failure”, etc. While the right brain sees connection and wholeness and holds the intuitive knowledge that we are perfect just the way we are, the “… ego mind revels in our individuality, honors our uniqueness, and strives for independence” (Bolte Taylor, p. 33). Guess who wins when it comes to our self-concept? You got it – the left hemisphere.

The Inner Critic and Judge

Byron Brown states:

This is the courtroom of life. And you are the one who is on trial… The judge is a part of your mind… it also lives through your body and your energy. The judge is a master of words, and yet you can feel it in your belly, your shoulders, and your jaw without any awareness of words. The judge is both pervasive and invisible. It speaks to you from commercials on TV, magazine ads and movies, as well as from the expression on your partner’s face, the dirty dishes in the sink, and the tone in your supervisor’s voice (Brown, p. 14).

The inner critic is the part of the mind that continuously and constantly evaluates, compares, judges, criticizes, blames and attacks us and others. The inner critic is always on call to condemn any of our innermost thoughts, beliefs, feelings or desires or which it disapproves. Nothing gets by the critic. It is rigid and perfectionistic, so most of our feelings, beliefs, and thoughts do not escape its judgment. The inner critic is always present but also invisible. It presents its point of view as fact rather than opinion.

The inner critic uses every piece of information ever taken in (from your caretakers, cultural group, school system, church, etc.) about how one is supposed to operate in the world. It is guided by the harsh and punishing attitudes of the environment in which we live. It compares you to yourself – your past self, your future self, the self you should be. It compares you to others, others to you, and others to others.

The inner critic excels in the ego center of the left hemisphere of the brain. The ego exists based on the concept of “I”. When we use the word “I”, we are generally referring to where we live, what we do for a living, what our relationship status is, what our hobbies include, etc. So, I might say I am a psychologist. I am a sister. I am American. I love movies. I might say that I am introverted, I am compassionate, I am a procrastinator. These things are part of my life circumstance, value system, and personality, but are they me? Are we able to say who we are without going down the list of where we came from, what we do, and what we believe ourselves to be?

According to Brown there is a way to quiet the inner critic. To begin the process of “disengaging from self-judgment…” you must begin “knowing yourself as a living soul” (Brown, p. XVII). Perhaps the best way to do this is to learn more about the right side of the brain.

 

The Right Hemisphere

While our left brains maintain dominance throughout most of our lives, it may actually be our right hemispheres that are primary. We come into this world right hemisphere dominant and remain that way until we are about two years old. Furthermore, for all humans at all stages of life, sensory information goes first to the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain), next to the right hemisphere and lastly to the left hemisphere. Information from the heart and the gut (both of which contain neurotransmitters) also goes to the right hemisphere of the brain before the left. This flow of data seems to prove that “… although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think” (Bolte Taylor, p. 19).

The right hemisphere functions like a parallel processor that takes in multiple sources of information simultaneously, comprehending at once the “big picture”. The right side contains our emotional sense of self and is responsible for relationships and emotional attachments. The right hemisphere sees the implicit meanings in things and is the part that responds to poetry, metaphor, and humor. It interprets non-verbal communication, such as tone and facial expression. The right hemisphere does not speak in words but rather in images, symbols, pictures and metaphors. If you have ever had an “A ha” moment where a light bulb of understanding suddenly illuminates, that occurs in the right hemisphere.

Our right hemispheres see the connections between things rather than the boundaries that separate. It sees how parts make up a whole. We have our right hemisphere to thank for the gift of empathy, or the ability to place ourselves in the position of another and imagine what their experience might be.

It is our right mind that gives us the ability to remember with crystal clarity certain isolated moments that have significance in our emotional lives (i.e. the first time you exchanged the words “I love you” with your partner or where you were when you heard about the September 11th attacks). The right mind takes in information in relation to other pieces of information and “… Borders between specific entities are softened, and complex mental collages can be recalled in their entirety as combinations of images, kinesthetics, and physiology” (Bolte Taylor, p. 30).

After Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuro-anatomist who had devoted her professional life to studying the brain, suffered a stroke resulting in the total (but temporary) shut down of the left hemisphere of her brain she realized that

…deep internal peace is accessible to anyone at any time. I believe the experience of Nirvana exists in the consciousness of our right hemisphere, and that at any moment, we can choose to hook into that part of the brain (p. 111).

Bolte Taylor learned that in her pre-stroke life, her personality had been dominated by the left side of the brain and by the tendency to judge and analyze. The experience of the stroke taught her that the two sides of the brain not only function in different ways with different types of perception and thought but also contain different types of interpretations for what is perceived. In short, Taylor’s experience revealed that the two hemispheres have quite different value systems and personalities. She found that the right hemisphere is “…completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world” (Bolte Taylor, p. 133) and that “…peace is only a thought away, and all we have to do to access it is silence the voice of our dominating left mind” (Bolte Taylor, p. 111).

However, “left brain is dominant, speedy, and prone to rush in with words and symbols and prefers not to relinquish tasks to its mute partner unless it really dislikes the job or is unable to do it” (Edwards, Courtesy of Courtney Armstrong). How to silence the left mind is a question that Bolte Taylor does not answer. Is it possible to completely silence the inner critic and live completely in each moment?  Is this the goal or should we simply strive for a better balance between the two halves? These are not questions that I can answer for you, but I can invite you to take better notice of the inner critic and when its voice begins to take over.

Without awareness of the way our brains are structured, the judging part remains invisible, which makes it very, very powerful. It brings to mind one of my favorite movie quotes from the movie The Usual Suspects. It goes something like this…. “What is the smartest move the Devil ever made? To make man think he didn’t exist”. I am not trying to make a religious point here but simply articulate that a force is far more powerful when we don’t even fully understand that it is present. Various forms of oppression have been weakened greatly and social systems changed just through consciousness raising, or helping those being oppressed to understand the larger system of power. When something is unseen, how can it be challenged and overcome? Just simply recognizing that the inner critic is a part of the brain rather than some omnipotent messenger of truth does a great deal to lessen its hold.

Brown points out that while we are in the habit of defining ourselves as the “I” – the one who was born in Atlanta, is bad about procrastinating, works as a psychologist and can’t figure out how to keep a clean house – who we really are is a soul. Our right brain seems to be more in contact with that soul and to recognize that as a soul we cannot be compared to any other soul and deemed better or worse. On a soul level we have worth and value that must be separated from the specific details of our lives. We must fully take in that the “uniqueness of the soul is inherent in who you are at birth; it is not achieved, not can it be destroyed, and it is not dependent on your appearance or anything you do” (Brown, p. 31).

To learn more about what life could be like with soul awareness, I invite you to watch Jill Bolte Taylor describe her experiences of living in her brain’s right hemisphere.

http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html

References:

Some of the information in this article came from a presentation by Courtney Armstrong, LPC of Chattanooga, TN. Thank you, Courtney, for helping me to better understand this exciting topic.

Other sources include:

Bolte Taylor, Jill (2009). My Stroke of Insight. New York: Plume/Penguin.

Brown, Byron (1999).  Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within. Boston: Shambala.

Edwards, Betty (1999). Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York: Penguin Books.

February 2, 2012

NEWS FLASH: Scientific Evidence Supports Being Nice To Yourself

Filed under: 2012 Articles,Claire's Articles,Mind-body-spirit Integration — karunacounseling @ 8:11 pm
Tags: ,

By
Claire N. Scott, Ph.D.

I was delighted to see a recent article in a psychology journal that offers scientific evidence that being nice to ourselves is a more skillful way of dealing with our screw-ups than being hard on ourselves.  Most of us fear that if we take the pressure off ourselves, we will screw up even worse.  Not so, says this article.  In fact, it is self-criticism actually increases the likelihood that you’ll screw up even more.  Hard to believe?  Read on.

Being kind to oneself doesn’t come easily to most people.  We tend to be much better at caring for others.  History reveals evidence of humans and other species showing kindness toward one another. Our primate relatives groom one another and care for their young. Fossil evidence has shown that at least a million years ago, early humans cared for others with severe physical deformities. Those social behaviors seem rooted in our brain physiology.  It’s obvious from both psychology and physiology, that we’re intrinsically compassionate beings.  (Gilbert)

Why then the disconnect when it comes to being compassionate toward ourselves?  While we might have no trouble telling a friend who’s messed up not to beat themselves up about it, we have a surprisingly hard time turning that advice toward ourselves.  We are often harder on ourselves than we are on others.  Some people who grew up in supportive homes with understanding parents are more likely to be kind to themselves, but the majority of us are not very compassionate toward ourselves.  Self-compassion is something that actually needs to be taught to most people, especially people who tend to be self-critical,  anxious or depressed.   (Neff)

The reverse is also true, i.e., the kinder a person is to him/herself, the higher the sense of emotional well-being they have.   For example, in a study of women who were HIV positive, it was found that the women with a high degree of compassion for themselves tended to practice safe sex and disclose their HIV status to sexual partners more frequently than the women who showed little compassion for themselves.  The benefits of our being compassionate toward ourselves carry over into our self-care and regard for others.  (Leary)

People who are compassionate to themselves are also more likely to seek medical care if they need it.  The more self-critical a person is, the more unlikely they are to seek care.  In one study of elderly people, those with health problems and a healthy sense of self compassion reported similar levels of happiness and emotional well-being as those of elderly people who had NO health problems.  The researcher suggested: “It’s like self-compassion erases the emotional fallout of some of the problems associated with aging.”  (Leary)

In a study related to eating behavior, female college students were asked to eat doughnuts in what was described as a taste-test experiment.  One group of the women were “conditioned for self-compassion” by statements from the test administrators such as “Everyone eats unhealthily sometimes, and everyone in this study eats this stuff, so there’s no reason to feel  bad about it.”  Another group of women were not “conditioned” with these statements.  After the doughnut test, all the women were asked to participate in a taste test of various candies. The group of women who were “conditioned for self-compassion” ate less candy than the women who were not “conditioned for self-compassion”.  Previous studies have shown that people who are recurrent dieters do tend to overeat unhealthy foods after a “slip.”   One suggested explanation is that dieters are already feeling guilty about the first slip, and that they engage in more ‘emotional eating’ to deal with the pain of the guilt.  This study suggests that self-compassion may limit the distress that leads to later emotional eating binges.  (Leary)

Overweight individuals aren’t the only ones with something to gain from a kinder-to-self approach. A growing body of research suggests that self-compassion offers the same positive benefits of self-esteem — without the negatives.  (The negatives to self-esteem can be seen in people who appear arrogant  and in people whose self-esteem is dependent upon approval or success.)  Self-compassion is a way to develop healthy self-esteem that does not have the negative aspects that the more tenuous kinds of self-esteem can have.  Another benefit of self-compassion vs. self-esteem is that all too often a high sense of self-esteem encourages attempts to weed out all the negatives about oneself in order to become perfect.  Self-compassion is based more on a sense of wholeness, acknowledging that all of us are human and so susceptible to human error and imperfection.   (Neff)

Definition of Self-Compassion

One researcher posits that self-compassion has three main components.  One is to be understanding [toward yourself] rather than self-judgmental. “Most people’s internal dialogue is actually quite harsh,” she says. “The self-kindness part requires reframing your dialogue so that you’re kind and supportive [toward yourself].”  (Neff)

The second component involves framing your personal experience as a typical human experience.  When something goes awry — your car breaks down on the highway, say, or you get passed over for a promotion at work — a common emotional reaction is “Why me?” The sense that things aren’t going the way they should can lead to a sense of isolation, which often leads to depression and anxiety.  The opposite of that reaction is recognizing that all humans experience frustration, disappointment and rejection at some point.  You can let the suffering that being human entails comfort you in your own suffering.  And you can then let the compassion you feel for yourself spread out to all human beings who suffer in the same way you do.  Then, rather than feeling isolated in your suffering, you can actually use compassion to help you feel connected to others.  (Neff)

The third element of self-compassion involves awareness. On one hand, you must be aware of self-criticism in order to curtail it. But mindfulness also requires that you see things as they truly are, instead of exaggerating a situation or adopting a “poor-me” attitude.  A clear perspective is crucial because it will help you understand the difference between healthy self-compassion and unhealthy self-pity.  (Neff)

Research

Self-compassion is a very old Buddhist idea which has only recently begun to be looked at from a research perspective.  Kristin Neff, PhD, a professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin, is one of the researchers exploring the area. After defining self-compassion from an academic perspective, she developed a scale to measure it and many researchers have used that scale in subsequent studies.  By far most of the findings support the idea that self-compassion is linked to a number of positive mental health outcomes, including increased happiness, optimism and social connectedness. People who score high on self-compassion also tend to suffer less from anxiety, depression, rumination and fear of failure.

Dr. Neff has also developed a training program to teach people to practice self-compassion. She suggests starting on paper.  For example, say you’re upset that you made a big mistake at work. What would your most supportive friend say about the experience? Write down everything this friend might say to you, from his or her point of view. Then read the letter back to yourself — and try to take the words to heart.  To get more exercises for increasing self-compassion, you can go to You Tube and search under Kristin Neff.  She has a variety of training videos available.

Although there is more research that needs to be done, it seems clear that cultivating self-kindness is well worth the effort.  As Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., another researcher says, “If you have a kind, encouraging, supporting part to you, you’ll be OK.  If you have a bully that kicks you every time you fall over, then you’re going to struggle.”

More Good News – There’s No Bad News

What are the downsides of self-compassion? None have been found so far — and not for lack of trying.  Initially another researcher, Mark Leary, Ph.D. suspected as I did that self-compassion might be linked to self-indulgence. If you’re too nice to yourself, he theorized, you can let yourself off the hook no matter what you’ve done wrong.   To his surprise, he found just the opposite. People high in self-compassion take more responsibility for the bad things that happen to them than those who do not have high self compassion.  One reason low-compassion people might deny responsibility for bad things is that they have a mistaken sense of responsibility – they expect too much of themselves and then feel horribly bad if they’re not perfect.  People high in self-compassion, however, can admit their mistakes without all that self-flagellation.

Perhaps an amendment to the Golden Rule might be “Treat yourself as kindly as you would want others to treat you.”

***

Information in the above article was taken from the Monitor of Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association, Vol. 42, No. 7, July 2011, p. 42.  Science Watch:  “Golden Rule Redux” by Kristen Weir.

Major sources cited in the article were:

Fain, Jean, Ph.D. (2010)  The Self-Compassion Diet.

Gilbert, Paul, PhD, (2009) The Compassionate Mind.

Leary, Mary, Ph.D. (2007) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 92, No. 5).

Leary, Mark, Ph.D.(2007)  The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life.

Leary, Mark, PhD., and Adams, Claire (2007).  Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (Vol. 26, No. 10),

Kristin Neff, Ph.D. (2003).  Self and Identity (Vol. 2, No. 2–3)

Neff, Kristin, Ph.D.  Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind” (2011).

Neff, Kristin, Ph.D. (2009) Human Development  (Vol. 52, No. 4).

November 23, 2011

Personality Drive: A Holistic View

By Metta Sweet Edge, LCSW

It’s becoming increasingly well known and accepted that thoughts, feelings, and physical experiences are interrelated and deeply inform and impact one’s daily life.  For example, a single thought (“I’m running late”) almost instantaneously causes a feeling (such as fear or worry) which triggers a physiological response such as rapid pulse rate and sweaty palms.  A holistic perspective—holding head, heart, and body as equal and interconnected aspects of the human experience—can also add to a deeper discovery and understanding of one’s personality drive.

The teachings of the Enneagram (please refer to the first and second articles on the Enneagram for more information) include distinctions between what are called the “Triads” or “Centers”: Feeling (heart), Thinking (head), Instinctual (gut/physical).  The personality drives fall into each of these as follows:

Heart/Feeling Triad:

  • 2 (Helper/Be Loved)
  • 3 (Achiever/Performer)
  • 4 (Individualist/Be Special)

Head/Thinking Triad:

  • 5 (Thinker/Researcher)
  • 6 (Loyal Skeptic/ Safety/Security)
  • 7 (Enthusiast/Adventurer)

Gut/Instinctual Triad

  • 8 (Challenger/Self-Reliant)
  • 9 (Peacemaker)
  • 1 (Reformer/Be Right)

The three personality drives in each triad/center have a shared “root” emotion/issue that each drive responds to and defends against either by over expression (2s, 5s, 8s), under expression (4s, 7s, 1s), or denied existence (3s, 6s, 9s).



For the Feeling triad (2s, 3s, and 4s): their power lies in ability to feel emotions (2 feel too much of only positive emotions, 4 feel too little positive emotion, and 3s deny their authentic emotions all together).  The root issue of the Feeling triad is shame and hostility:

Root: SHAME and HOSTILITY

  • 2s deny hostility and act as an idealized person to compensate for the shame
  • 3s deny shame and then try to fill the gap by being what they achieve
  • 4s try to fix the shame by shoving hostility down deep never finding it

For the Thinking and Doing triad (5s, 6s, and 7s): their power lies in ability to think and take action (5s think too much and therefore act too little, 7s act too much and think too little, and 6s deny their thoughts and actions value all together).  The root issue of the Thinking and Doing triad is anxiety and dread:

Root: ANXIETY and DREAD

  • 5s dread/are afraid of the world and overwhelmed by people, go inside their heads to knowledge/thoughts (source of all power to 5s) so can be free of the anxiety and dread.
  • 6s don’t trust their own thinking and doing, so they look outside themselves to the world to handle the anxiety and dread for them so they won’t have to deal with it, to make safe from the anxiety/dread
  • 7s run away from the anxiety/dread to lose self in the excitement and adventure of the world

For the Instinctual/Physical triad (8s, 9s, and 1s): their power lies in ability to instinctually, from the gut, take impulsive action (8s are overcome with aggressive “animal” instinct to quickly and blindingly, 1s repress their animal instinct, and 9s deny their gut’s very existence).  The root issue of the Instinctual triad is aggression and resentment:

Root: AGRESSION and RESENTMENT

  • 8s express aggression and say “deal with it”
  • 9s deny aggression and resentment not wanting to rock the boat
  • 1s sublimate aggression into idealism and perfection.  Try to make aggression sublime (not just repressing it, shoving it down and having it come up as righteousness and doing the right thing)
Knowing your personality drive’s place within the triads can be very helpful in discovering not only the root issue that needs healing, but also where the key to your power lies for optimal personal growth.

Resources

There are many resources on the Enneagram, but the ones I work with most are from Riso & Hudson’s Enneagram Institute (www.enneagraminstitute.com) and The Wisdom of the Enneagram, Daniels & Price’s The Essential Enneagram, and Concept Synergy’s Harnessing Your Personality Drive Through Exploring the Enneagram as well as PPV Enneagram: Forging the New Self.

June 28, 2011

Book review: The Mindful Way Through Anxiety: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life, by Susan M. Orsillo, Ph.D., and Lizabeth Roemer, Ph.D.

Filed under: 2011 Articles,Anxiety,Lisa's Articles,Mind-body-spirit Integration — karunacounseling @ 2:37 pm
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Mindful Way Through Anxiety
A book review by Lisa Anyan Smith

We live in a stressful world.  Anxiety is a part of the human condition.

Many people complain of feelings of anxiousness, ranging from occasional mild worrying to full-blown anxiety disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Social Phobia, or a specific Phobia.

Although anxiety is a normal human emotion, we find feelings of anxiety unpleasant and typically try to avoid experiencing them.  Attempts to avoid  anxious feelings may include overeating, drinking alcohol, watching TV, taking prescription medications, or staying away from situations or people that may trigger anxiety. In their new book, “The Mindful Way Through Anxiety: Break Free from Chronic Worry and Reclaim Your Life,” Orsillo and Roemer propose that avoiding anxiety or attempting to control it does not ease pain and suffering.  Rather, avoidance brings its own costs.  The authors suggest that to break free from anxiety, instead of avoiding anxious feelings, we practice coping strategies that allow us to turn toward and pay close attention to anxiety.  Turning toward something that we would usually avoid and taking a fresh look at habitual responses are crucial components of mindfulness.

Before exploring how mindfulness can help us break free from the grip of anxiety, let’s look at an example of what anxiety is.

Jody recently moved to New York City from Alabama to start a new job.  Heading into a corporate meeting, she notices that most of her coworkers are already seated and chatting with one another.  She takes a chair between two groups already engaged in conversation and begins shuffling through her papers.  She feels her anxiety rising.  Some of the thoughts that go through her mind include, “I don’t fit in here,” “My clothes are all wrong,” and “They must think I’m an idiot.”  She feels her face flushing, palms sweating, and pulse quickening.  Thinking of the friends she left behind at her former job, she feels a wave of sadness and regret.  She despairs as she thinks about the years ahead of her, just knowing that she will always feel alone.  For the duration of the meeting, she keeps her eyes downcast, contributing nothing to the discussion.

As this story illustrates, components of anxiety include thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and behaviors.  Evolutionarily, humans are hardwired to feel fear.  Fear is actually a helpful warning that alerts us to potentially dangerous situations.  When we perceive a threat, the fight-or-flight response kicks in to ready us to combat or escape from harm.  The physical symptoms we experience when this response occurs (increased heart rate, rapid breathing, adrenaline rush, etc.) are merely side effects of the body getting ready to fight or flee.

Compared to fear, anxiety is a more subtle but chronic state.  Whereas fear is an automatic response to a threat we perceive as immediate, anxiety includes thinking about or imagining some possible threat we may come up against in the future.

Orsillo and Roemer’s research indicates that our struggle with fear and anxiety does not come from any actual harm caused by the physical sensations of these emotions.  Rather, it arises from our reactions to these emotions and the thoughts, sensations, and images that accompany them.  Criticizing ourselves for feeling fear or anxiety is what hurts us, not the fear and anxiety themselves.  This is where the turning inward is helpful.  Mindfulness can help us replace self-criticism with compassion.

Simply put, mindfulness is a specific way of paying attention.  It involves “purposefully expanding your attention to take in both what you are experiencing inside – your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations – and what is happening around you.” (p. 81)  The key concepts of mindfulness include 1) Noticing – becoming fully aware of the thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and images that you experience, as well as the details of your environment; 2) Curiosity – approaching experiences with openness; and 3) Self-Compassion – acknowledging that the reactions we have are part of being human, accepting what cannot be controlled, and treating yourself with kindness and care.

The authors provide a series of exercises progressing from a 5 minute breath exercise through a number of informal and formal techniques to practice mindfulness.  Readers are also encouraged to download audio recordings from the book’s website to listen to while practicing or to record their own scripts.

Shane trembled as she waited her turn to stand behind the podium and deliver her speech.  She had agreed months ago to make a presentation before her colleagues at the real estate convention, even though she was terrified of public speaking.  As the previous speaker was concluding his remarks, Shane felt her stomach churn.  Her neck felt tight and sore, she felt the blood rushing to her face as she blushed, and she began sweating profusely.  “Why, oh why did I ever agree to this?” she thought.  She recalled the incident in high school when she had forgotten her lines in the school play, and now she relived those old feelings of embarrassment.  “It will be just like in high school!”  “These people will think I’m so stupid.”  “No one will ever refer any business to me again, ever!”

Orsillo and Roemer would say that Shane is experiencing “muddy” emotions.  This occurs when we bring in memories of past events – and conjecture about future possibilities – into the current moment.  If Shane were to take a moment to be mindful of the immediate challenge, she would realize that she is muddying her current anxiety by worrying about “what if” rather than focusing on “what is.”

The authors write in a style that is easy to follow and offer many vignettes to provide examples.  They also address the questions that many readers may be asking:

But isn’t mindfulness a Buddhist principle?  Is it a new age fad? What if I have different spiritual beliefs?  

The term mindfulness indeed originated with Buddhism, but the idea has recently been included in research and therapeutic settings.  In fact, mindfulness practice has been shown to decrease anxiety, insomnia, stress, risk of coronary heart disease, substance use, chronic pain, and fibromyalgia, and increase attention, sexual functioning, quality of life, and immune system functioning.  The book does not focus on the religious aspect of mindfulness.

How can I find the time to practice mindfulness?

While research suggests that more practice is associated with greater benefit, the authors offer a variety of techniques including exercises that only take 5 minutes a day.  They also point out activities that you can do mindfully, such as eating, walking, washing dishes, folding laundry, petting your dog, cooking, listening to music, or hugging a friend.

How can mindfulness help with anxiety? 

By this time you may be thinking, “Gee, thanks, but no thanks.  I’m already acutely aware of my anxiety.  Why on earth would I want to focus on it more?”  Yes, it is seemingly counterintuitive, but mindfulness can actually help us notice what we are experiencing and make choices about how we want to respond, rather than automatically reacting in ways that hold us back from fully engaging in our lives.  Let’s look at one more example that illustrates the value of mindfulness:

Sam was on a third date with Chris.  He had been single for a long time and knew that he wanted to develop an intimate relationship.  He was quite fond of Chris, and was getting signals that the feeling was mutual.  As the talk turned more personal, he felt his pulse quicken, his chest tighten, and his mouth get dry.  He felt the urge to change the subject so he wouldn’t risk feeling vulnerable and getting hurt.  He watched Chris for cues, and thought he saw a frown of displeasure when Sam talked about a low point in his life.   What Sam really wanted to do was excuse himself, pretend to go to the bathroom, and run like hell out the back door of the restaurant.  However, he really wanted to build a connection with Chris, so he chose to remain in the situation.

Often the things that really matter to us, like loving people, forming emotional connections, taking on challenging tasks, or caring for those in pain and suffering, bring with them emotional pain.  In these cases, living a fulfilling life means that we notice the pain and allow it, rather than trying to make it go away.  Mindfulness can help us to embrace our entire range of emotional experiences, making it easier to make these choices and enrich our lives.

 

Additional Reading:
Boyce, Barry (Ed.). The Mindfulness Revolution. Shambhala Publications,  Inc., 2011.
Germer, Christopher. The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions. Guilford Press,  2009.
Matheny, Kenneth B. & Riordan, Richard J. Stress and Strategies for Lifestyle Management. Georgia State University Press, 1992.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Bantam Books, 1992.
Siegel, Ronald. The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practice for Everyday Problems. Guilford Press, 2010.

July 8, 2010

Practicing Yoga Off the Mat

by Dr. Melissa Kulick, Ph.D., RYT

While the physical practices of yoga have enjoyed increased popularity in the west over the past several decades, yoga is, in fact, an ancient philosophy and spiritual approach to being.  The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means “to yoke,” and is often translated as “union.”  Yoga is an interfaith practice, meaning it does not require the practitioner to hold any particular spiritual or religious belief — or any at all.  It simply encourages us to adopt a certain way of being with ourselves, both on and off the mat.

When we practice yoga on the mat we are looking for that place in each asana (pose) where we find our “edge.”  The edge is any physical, mental, or emotional experience that is challenging to us without being overwhelming; a place of effort and engagement but not strain.  It is the challenges we encounter that allow us to stretch and grow.

Finding our edge in a given moment or situation allows us to feel safe and remain open — to be present exactly where we are — as we encounter life’s challenges.  For someone faced with a huge task that leaves them feeling stuck in avoidance and procrastination, finding their edge may mean breaking the task down into small, manageable pieces, or allowing them to set time limits for themselves on each work session.  For someone confronting an addiction, it might be asking a trusted friend to accompany them to a first twelve-step meeting.  Staying mindful of our edge in a given moment is crucial in creating an optimal working environment in psychotherapy — where the safety exists that allows for deep transformational work to occur at pace where one stretches and grows without feeling overwhelmed.

On the mat, it is said that we are not ‘practicing yoga’ if we are attempting to force a pose – to push our body beyond our edge. If we are experiencing pain (as opposed to the sensations of a tight muscle experiencing a stretch, or feeling a pose in a joint) or if we are not able to maintain steady breath in our posture, then we are likely forcing our bodies beyond a state of wellness and balance.

Learning – encouraging and training ourselves – to recognize when in our lives we are attempting to force something to happen, is a valuable tool. A great deal of tension and unhappiness is caused when we try to control outcomes (by some form of ‘scheme’ or manipulation) or ignore obstacles and resistances that are telling us that the direction in which we are trying to move is not in our best or highest interest. Yoga teaches us to turn to and within ourselves, and become better attention-payers to the messages available to us – to our breath and body, and to the more obvious and subtler voices of our intuition.

Mindfulness is a central component in the practice of yoga, often referred to as developing the witness mind.  The witness mind simply observes the thoughts that fill and move through our head, as well as the sensations in, and movements of, our bodies.   As witness, we are taking note of — compassionately.  What we are not doing is judging or comparing, though we may well notice that the thoughts running through our mind in that moment are doing just that (e.g., “She’s so much more flexible than me.  I stink at this.”)  You might also notice that your thoughts have jumped right out of the current moment, for instance to what you are going to eat for dinner that night.  When our witness mind observes that we have engaged in judgment or left the present moment, it simply names the experience “judging” or “not present” and returns to focus on the pose and on the breath — with compassion and without judging where we’d just been.

The physical practice of yoga on the mat can literally be ‘practice’ for living that same way of relating to ourselves off the mat.  After experiencing our witness mind on the mat, we may find ourselves having difficulty completing a task at work and notice we have begun to berate ourselves inside our head. Once we have noticed and acknowledged the thought, we can simply take a breath and let it go, returning to the task at hand. Or we may be engaged in a conversation with a good friend who is telling us about some fabulous trip she has planned, and we hear some petty or jealous thought line begin.  Again, once we are aware of the thoughts, we can choose to simply acknowledge their presence and let them go, without further indulging them or putting ourselves down for having them.

When we practice yoga on the mat we experience poses, and our bodies in poses, differently from day to day.  I have heard it said that we bring a different body to the mat every day.  Yoga teaches us to be unattached to — and not defined by — the body we brought to the mat yesterday or might bring tomorrow. “Beginner’s mind” is a term often used to refer to this coming to the mat without any assumptions, needs or expectations of what we will encounter or experience there. We use our witness mind or our beginner’s mind in the course of our daily lives when we similarly notice the stream of thoughts running through our heads and the movements and sensations of the body, and choose not to identify with, buy into or react to them.  We are not our thoughts, any more than we are the bodies we bring to the yoga mat or elsewhere.

The Breath

One of the primary things that set yoga apart from other forms of physical exercise is its focus on breath awareness.  Movements are linked with inhalation and exhalation, and the release of exhalation is often used to help us more deeply open into a pose.

The breath is a most powerful tool for helping us stay in the present moment.  My guru (yoga is historically an oral tradition passed from guru to chela, or student to teacher) teaches that, “If you can control your breath, you can control your mind. If you can control your mind, you can control your life.” By practicing breath awareness both on and off the mat, we gain the ability to practice another yogic tool, hesitation.  It is hesitation that allows us the moment to choose non-reactivity, non-judgment and compassion.

When you bring awareness to the breath, it becomes prana. Prana is life force energy.  There are many practices in yoga, called pranayama, which means “control of the life force”, that allow us to effect the flow of pranic energy within us.

One great way we can take our yoga practice off the mat is by practicing pranayama, or breathwork, wherever we need it.  Here are some basic techniques you can try when needed:

Ida Breath and Pingala Breath

Our nasal flow can have a lot to do with our energy.  There are three main energy channels that run along our spine.  The sushumna is the central channel and correlates with our spine.  The ida is the path of the left nostril.  Its energy is associated with the moon, and is gentle, cooling, and inward.  The pingala is the energy of the right nostril.  It is associated with the sun, and is more, fiery, outward, and strong.  Our typical breath is such that one nostril is dominant for a little less than two hours at a time, and then it is switched to the other side.

Ida Breath

Because the ida channel is gentle, cool and soothing, this breath can be used in situations where we are feeling anxious, overheated, or needing to calm or steady the mind.  It is also helpful for insomnia.

Technique:

Sit in a comfortable position with the spine upright and long.  Using the right hand, keeping the palm flat and fingers together, raise it up and use the thumb to block the right nostril.  Take long, deep breaths through the left nostril only.  You may want to begin with practicing this for 3 minutes and build up to 11 minutes.  If you start to feel your energy getting out of balance, you can restore balance with a right nostril breath.

Pingala Breath

Because the pingala channel is powerful, hot and dynamic, this breath can be used when we need to stimulate or increase our physical or mental energy.

Technique:

Sit in a comfortable position with the spine upright and long.  Using the left hand, keeping the palm flat and fingers together, raise it up and use the thumb to block the left nostril.  Take long, deep breaths through the right nostril only.  You may want to begin with practicing this for 3 minutes and build up to 11 minutes.  If you start to feel your energy getting out of balance, you can restore balance with a left nostril breath.

Ujayii Breath

Translated as the “victorious breath,” the ujayii breath is a breath commonly encouraged of practitioners to maintain throughout their asana practices. Also referred to as “the ocean-sounding breath” for the sound created in its practice, this breath is considered the most effective yogic breath for reducing stress and anxiety.  The sound, itself, can be incredibly soothing.

Technique:

The breath is like sighing with your mouth closed. Begin by inhaling through your mouth making a sighing sound and, while still inhaling, close your mouth. See if you can still hear the sound. You’re essentially drawing breath across the back of your throat, over the glottis. As you exhale, begin again with your mouth open making a sighing sound, then continue the breath as you close your mouth. Once you feel comfortable with it and can hear the sound on both the inhale and exhale continue the breath with your mouth closed only. This breath can be done as a regular practice for a set amount of time (e.g., 3 or 11 minutes) or can be done at any time during your day when you are feeling a need to bring greater calmness to your being.

Karma Yoga

Here’s one final note on another fabulous way to practice yoga off the mat.  As mentioned earlier, yoga is a thousands-year-old philosophy of being.  One path of yoga, karma yoga (karma literally translates as “action”) focuses on the performance of seva, selfless service, as a path to enlightenment and liberation.  Even if enlightenment and liberation are not what you are after, I honestly know of no better way to pull myself out of a crappy mood than step outside myself and give to/help/serve someone else. To quote a swami I know, it’ll help you “get over your cheap self.”  You can do this in a large way by volunteering your time to feed or serve the poor or ill, but you can also do this by making the effort to hold the door for the person coming out of the store as you’re going in, or by making a point of smiling, making eye contact with, and saying hello to people you pass on the street — without being attached to the response.  It costs us nothing.  And since, as another yogic teaching tells us, “energy follows thought,” holding that openness of thought and heart toward others will create an open flow of energy within our own being.

On or off the mat, you need to be nothing but the truth of who you are in this – and every –  moment.

Namaste.

Recommended Reading

Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Farhi

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope

In addition to her psychotherapy practice, Melissa, who is a certified teacher of Classical Yoga and Kali Natha Yoga, is also developing yoga sets specifically designed to address various mental health issues.

January 1, 2010

Forgive to Live

forgiveness

By Micky O’Leary, PhD

Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.
~Lily Tomlin

A man convicted of several random murders was recently executed. The media coverage around this event was extensive. Among the reports were interviews with survivors of the victims.

One survivor was planning to be present at the execution – his way of seeing that the man who killed his loved one suffered in some measure for his deed. However, another survivor stated that he did not plan to attend and, in fact, was not interested in the details of the execution. He said he had forgiven the murderer and felt no hatred or animosity toward him.

I have heard stories like this before. Each time, I tried to put myself in the place of the survivors. Would I, could I, offer the same level of generosity that the second person showed? Or might I be like the first person, looking for some retribution to satisfy my hurt, anger, and overwhelming loss?

While few of us (thankfully) experience the pain associated with the murder of a loved one, none of us escapes this life without at times feeling hurt or betrayed in our relationships with others. What gives some of us the ability to forget these hurts and go on with our lives? And what keeps some of us in bondage to the injury we have experienced and the grievance we have created?

To forgive is to set a person free and discover that the prisoner was you.
~Louis Smedes

Forgiveness means different things to many people. I have often heard quoted the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” example from The Bible. Others have expressed their feelings about hurt and betrayal as “Don’t get mad; get even.” In a culture that uses weapons to settle the score, forgiveness is often equated with weakness. Dr. Fred Luskin, a well known researcher in the field of forgiveness, notes matter-of-factly that “Forgiveness is a tough sell.”

Indeed, forgiveness can be a tough sell if we see it as a gift we give the person who offended us. Framed in that light, forgiveness may seem like an insult (to ourselves) on top of injury.

But what if we could see forgiveness as a gift we give ourselves? For example, have you ever found yourself reliving and rehashing an injustice you have suffered? As you play the scene again and again in your mind, your anger and resentment continues – and often grows. You feed the memory by giving it “air time” on your own personal station and, in the process, create a grievance story which takes time and attention to keep alive. In other words, we take the memory of our injury – and the person who injured us – and let them live “rent free” in our head and heart.

Everyone gets hurt. It’s one price of living. What is the point of prolonging the hurt? Yet that is what we do when we make the choice to hold on to a grudge. And as we relive and revive the hurt, we also re-inflict the physical and emotional stress that we initially felt.

Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Researchers studying forgiveness have found that people who are able to let go of resentments and thoughts of revenge (Remember the earlier example of the man who had forgiven the murderer?) benefit in numerous ways. Among the many ways are reduced stress levels, less depression, less anger and hostility, a reduction in chronic pain, more satisfying relationships, and improved emotional and psychological well being.

The fact is: Stress hurts. It takes its toll on our bodies as well as our general enjoyment of life. And there are few things as stressful as continuing to experience and focus on the bad things that have happened to us in our lives.

If you know the process of healing from a physical wound, you can understand the experience of healing from an emotional one. In both cases, the hurt is not forgotten, but it ceases to interfere with our daily life. The power that it once held over our thoughts and feelings recedes and we are free to focus on the present moment.

However, one of the reasons that forgiveness can be a “tough sell” is that some of us may confuse it with forgetting what happened, condoning what happened, or reconciling with the person who hurt us. None of those things is necessary for us to forgive. What is necessary is that we make the choice to release ourselves from the emotional tether that keeps us feeling connected to the past.

When you hold resentment toward another,
you are bound to that
person or condition
by an emotional link that is stronger than steel.

Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.
~Catherine Ponder

While forgiveness takes time (and a commitment to personal freedom), it also requires that we be able to step outside our own experience to see the ways in which we may be contributing to keeping our own pain alive. For instance, if we are hurt and angry because a situation did not turn out as we had expected/hoped (e.g., our partner decides to end our relationship), we keep the pain alive when we tell ourselves that our life is not turning out the way it should. In other words, we are angry because we cannot control what has happened. We have an “unenforceable” rule about the way we want others to behave or the way we think life must look.

Losing a partner, like many other experiences in life, is usually painful. But blaming that person for our unhappiness also means that we are giving them control of our happiness. If I attribute my unhappiness to another person, then I am simultaneously giving them the key to my own well being.

Equally important as forgiving others is the ability to forgive ourselves. As we grow in acceptance of life’s disappointments, imperfections and losses, we learn that we also make mistakes. We realize that we are not perfect. We understand that sometimes we make bad decisions. Being human means that sometimes we fail and cause other people harm.

As I mentioned before, forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves. When we choose to let go of our anger and resentment toward ourselves or another, we are also choosing the peace that comes with being free of those negative feelings. We are choosing to take back our personal power, assume responsibility for our own feelings, promote self healing and be the hero of our story instead of the victim. We are choosing to construct the story of our grievance in such a way that we can acknowledge the pain without getting stuck in it, recognize that life gives us both positive and negative experiences, and know that we can hope for the good and forgive the bad.

We are choosing to release our past in order to heal our present.

You will know that forgiveness has begun
when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.

~Louis Smedes

feather forgiveness

January 4, 2009

Compassion and the Open Heart

compassion-caring1

 By Micky O’Leary, Ph.D.

 “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” 
~The Dalai Lama

People come to therapy for a host of reasons, but the thread that unites them is the overwhelming desire to feel happier. After all, who among us does not want her or his life to be more peaceful, joyful, and rewarding? So we seek help, hoping to find a way to heal from the experiences and relationships that have alienated us from ourselves and others.

It is human nature to want to avoid pain. And it is a fact that none of us can.  Yet it is this very pain that can lead us to our higher selves. As we experience our own losses, hurts, disappointments in this life, we are acquiring the essential elements for a loving, compassionate relationship with ourselves and others — if we choose it.

Most of us know others whose lives have been inordinately difficult. Regardless of the challenges we have faced, there are those whose journeys seem far more painful. For some people their pain becomes hardened and surrounds them like armor. They grow bitter or cynical and self-protective, hoping to guard themselves against further pain. Ironically, their self-protection only serves to hurt them more as they become isolated from the love and support that could ease their burden. However, there are those who seem to absorb their pain like a sponge, and their heart grows fuller and softer in the process. They learn that their pain can be an opening that allows them to move beyond their own experience to connect with the hearts of others. They grow in compassion.

 

 Compassion is Ecumenical

Compassion is the basis of all major religions. It is the essence of  “The Golden Rule” and figures prominently in spiritual teachings across the ages. According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, compassion “is a profound human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering.” A person acting with compassion will not only feel a shared sense of suffering with others, but will attempt to do something to help that person feel better.

Karuna is the Sanskrit word for compassion. If you look closely at our online home page, you will see that it describes the aspiration “to find a way to be truly helpful to oneself and others.” That definition is particularly significant because it emphasizes the need for compassion toward ourselves, as well as others.

Compassion for ourselves begins with understanding our humanness. Pema Chodron, in her book Start Where You Are: a Guide to Compassionate Living, writes that compassionate action begins with loving kindness for oneself, which then leads us to loving kindness for others.

 “As the barriers come down around our own hearts, we are less afraid of other people. We are more able to hear what is being said, see what is in front of our eyes, and work in accord with what happens rather than struggle with it….the way to act compassionately, is to exchange oneself for other. When you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, then you know what is needed, and what would speak to the heart.” 

I am often struck by the way some people talk so disrespectfully about themselves. They think nothing of referring to themselves as “silly,” or “stupid,” or “an idiot.” Often surprised when I point it out to them, they will acknowledge that they frequently say such things because they feel the need to reprimand themselves for their behavior. However, they will also agree that this pejorative self talk does little to change their behaviors and much to reinforce their feelings of inadequacy. 

That kind of insensitive behavior, whether intentionally hurtful or automatic and unconsidered, does nothing to evoke a sense of peace, joy and/or happiness in that person’s life. Moreover, similar thoughts and behaviors directed at others, again whether there is intent to hurt or not, add to our unhappiness, even though we may experience a sense of satisfaction in the moment.

 

“Selective Compassion”

Most of us feel compassion in some situations. We find it easy to care deeply for a friend or loved one who has suffered a difficult loss or is undergoing a painful illness. Often the first thought in such cases is how to help that person. We may also feel compassionate toward those who have suffered a major disaster and volunteer time and money to assist them.

It is far more difficult to feel kindness and compassion toward the co-worker who gossips about us, the driver who abruptly cuts in front of us, or the politician whose platform directly opposes our own beliefs and values. In these instances we may feel judgmental and critical, and justified in doing so. But true compassion is not selective. It does not distinguish between those who deserve it and those who do not. When we decide that one group deserves compassion while another group does not, then our compassion is flawed.

Nor is compassion a sign of weakness. It is not a passive acceptance of abuse nor does it mean that we will gladly accept whatever anyone wants to do to us. Instead, it is described by Sharon Salzberg as: 

“the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal. To develop this mind state of compassion …is to learn to live, as the Buddha put it, with sympathy for all living beings, without exception.”

 

Compassion and Happiness

Compassion is one of the few things that can bring immediate and long term happiness to our lives. If we want our world to be a happier, more peaceful place to be, then compassion is one of the quickest routes. In struggling with choices and decisions in our lives, it often seems as if there are too many variables to make sense of. How can we know what is best for us? I find that many questions resolve themselves if I can ask myself what is the most compassionate action I can take in a particular situation? What can I do that will create the greatest sense of happiness and well-being in my life and the lives of those around me? Moreover, the most compassionate action I can take for myself is usually the most compassionate action toward others, as well.

In addition to the spiritual and emotional benefits of compassion, there are physical benefits. Some scientific studies have shown that people who practice it produce 100 percent more DHEA, a hormone that counteracts the aging process, and 23 percent less cortisol, the “stress hormone.”

Compassion is called a practice because it requires our ongoing attention and dedication. And there is no shortage of opportunities to incorporate it into our lives. We can begin by increasing our awareness of it, thinking about it in our interactions with others, and reflecting on it at the end of the day. In this way, it becomes a part of our daily lives.

 

How to Practice Compassion

The Dalai Lama offers the following practice as a simple way to increase loving kindness and compassion in the world:

1. Spend 5 minutes at the beginning of each day remembering we all want the same things (to be happy and be loved) and we are all connected to one another.                                                               

2. Spend 5 minutes — breathing in – cherishing yourself; and, breathing out – cherishing others. If you think about people you have difficulty cherishing, extend your cherishing to them anyway.

3. During the day extend that attitude to everyone you meet. Practice cherishing the simplest person (clerks, attendants, etc., as well as the “important” people in your life; cherish the people you love and the people you dislike).

4. Continue this practice no matter what happens or what anyone does to you.

These thoughts are very simple, inspiring and helpful. The practice of cherishing can be taken very deep if done wordlessly; allowing yourself to feel the love and appreciation that already exists in your heart. As this practice becomes a part of your life, it can become a way of life.

Or, as the Dalai Lama also said, “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

 

Recommending Reading

Chodron, Pema. Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living. Boston and London: Shambala Publications, 1994. 

The Dalai Lama. An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life.  Nicholas Vreeland, Ed.) New York: Back Bay Books, 2002.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

November 9, 2008

YEAR-END REFLECTION QUESTIONS

Filed under: 2008 Articles,Claire's Articles,Mind-body-spirit Integration — karunacounseling @ 5:37 pm
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by Claire N. Scott, Ph.D.

As we come to the end of the year, it is a good opportunity to take time out to reflect on the year just past, remembering all the things it held for us. The following questions are offered as a way to facilitate that reflection — and perhaps stimulate your thinking to ask yourself questions of your own.

As with any psychological exercise, I would add this caution. If you find yourself feeling unduly overwhelmed or distressed by your answers to any of these questions, it might be helpful to talk about your thoughts and feelings with a friend or family member who can give you support. If you feel you need to talk with a professional, there are several options available to you: you are welcome to contact one of the therapists at Karuna (404) 321-4307; or you may prefer to talk with a clergy person; or your personal physician; or you could contact your local county mental health center.

With that caution having been said, I hope you’ll find this exercise beneficial and even have some fun with it — maybe stir up some good memories, get things into a different perspective, and perhaps learn some interesting things about yourself in the process.

What was my greatest accomplishment(s) this year?

What was the biggest disappointment of the year?

What was the highlight of the year — what gave me the greatest joy this year?

What was the most frustrating situation of the year?

What was the best surprise?

What was the biggest relief?

What was my worst blunder?

What are the moments I wouldn’t want to have missed?

What, if anything, do I wish I had done differently?

Who was the most interesting new person in my life?

What was the most difficult thing I had to do this year?

What was my worst experience?

What was the most unusual experience of the year?

What person/book/experience/movie, etc. had a big impact on me? Why?

What was the area of greatest growth for me?

What area(s) need the most growth/development in the future?

What am I most thankful for?

Who were the people who were most important to me this year?

What was a kindness extended to me that meant a lot to me?

What was a kindness I extended to someone else that meant a lot to me?

What do I want to invite into my life in the upcoming year?

(Try this exercise instead of New Year’s Resolutions. The answers to this question can be used to create a graphic representation of what you want to invite into your life during the upcoming year , e.g., a collage of pictures, a drawing, a list of key words — which can then be displayed somewhere you would see it occasionally to remind yourself what it is you **really** want.)

August 13, 2008

Allowing Animals into our Awareness

by Metta Sweet Johnson, LCSW, MAT

Imagine for a moment this Earth without animals.  Forests, oceans and rivers, sky, plains and caves, empty of all the creatures that inhabit them.  No songs of birds, nor chirping crickets, nor barks of dogs, nor trumpeting elephants.  No laughter at their antics, nor respecting their power, nor interest in their unique view and interaction with the world.  No Animal Planet programming.  No zoos, safaris, or museum sections educating us about them.

How does it feel to imagine a world like that?

Even if you’re not an animal lover, you’d probably not prefer a planet without them.  In addition to providing a unique addition to the experience of life, animals have much to teach us about the human experience.  Looking to nature is often a great place to start when trying to achieve some kind of personal healing or growth.  Noticing particular animal attributes can be a fun and deeply moving way to add to your wisdom and experience.

You may have noticed on www.karunacounseling.com that each Karuna therapist has a symbol—some of them animals—associated with their philosophy on therapy.  Mine is the frog.  I draw inspiration and guidance from the energy of frog in my approach to therapy:

Frog reminds us that life is a process of changing and evolving.
Of swimming through the watery currents of life and making our way to shore.
Of starting out as gray swimming tadpoles and forming into colorful leaping frogs.
Frog’s rapport with rain and water reminds many of cleansing and healing as well.

To me, therapy echoes these aspects–
providing the possibility of change that can cleanse and heal. 

There are many ways to determine which animals you may have a strong connection with and/or that may be helpful to you at a given time.  Here a few:

  1. Strong Connections:  Did you connect strongly to certain stuffed animals as a child?  Did you dream of one day working with animals? Are you drawn to art depicting certain animals?  Books and films? 
     
  2. Feedback from Others:  Has anyone ever told you that you have remind them of a particular animal?  That bear-like hug, that eagle-eye, that owl wisdom?
     
  3. Sightings/Experiences:  Have you come across animals in your daily routine—that hawk you noticed sitting atop a light pole across the street while you ate lunch?  That owl that you know inhabits a tree a in your yard and hoots at night?  The deer that crossed your path?  Have you ever been attacked by or bitten by an animal?
     
  4. Stories:  Is there a story in your family of origin and/or family of choice about a special pet or a sighting/experience of a wild animal that is told over and over again?
     
  5. Fears/Joys:  What animals most frighten you?  Which bring you to the most joy?  Paying attention to strong reactions on both the “dark” and “light” sides can give you clues to look further.
     
  6. Dreams:  Do you dream about a certain animal more often than others?  Do the dreams you have with a certain animal seem particularly powerful, meaningful of vivid to you?
     
  7. Cards:  There are decks of cards that can be used to help you.  The Native American “Medicine Cards” book and deck by Sams & Carson is especially well done.

The Native American tradition has deep respect and reverence for what they call “animal medicine.” What they mean by medicine is “anything that improves one’s connection to the Great Mystery and to all of life,  …includ[ing] the healing of mind, body, and of spirit, [and]…also anything that brings personal power, strength, and understanding.”  Since psychotherapy is a healing process with the intent to also empower, integrating animal medicine can be insightful, inspiring, and transformative.

Here’s an example: 

I was driving to the mountains using the same route I’ve driven for years.  On this long valley road on the way up the mountains, I spotted a turtle crossing the road.  I stopped the car to move her to the side.  This was the first time I’ve encountered a turtle on these roads and so the experience stood out to me.  Over the weekend, I wondered how the turtle was and if she had safely arrived at her destination.  On the way home down that same road, there she was again!  She was off to the side this time, so I didn’t have to stop.  I did stop, though, later that night to flip through my animal books to look up the symbolism of turtle—Mother Earth. I was deeply moved by the insight and guidance it provided for me at that time in my life around issues surrounding maternal experience.   It led to further personal healing and exploration and was a delightful addition to my process around this issue.

Here are some other animals and their “key note” energy:

Ant = Industrious, Order, Discipline
Armadillo = Personal Protection, Discrimination, and Empathy
Fox = Camouflage, shape shifting, invisibility
Mouse = Attention to Detail
Snake = Rebirth, Resurrection, Initiation, Wisdom
Spider = Creativity and the Weaving of Fate
Squirrel = Activity and Preparedness
Tiger = Passion, Power, Devotion, and Sensuality

Gratefully, we do live in a vibrant, alive world with a wide variety of amazing and interesting animals.  If you choose to allow their presence to interact with and support you on your life journey, you may find that your life becomes more amazing and interesting as well!  And, in turn, your gratitude and appreciation for animals helps support them on their journey here also.

You can draw from many resources to explore further what your particular “animal medicine” might be. One website: http://www.starstuffs.com/animal_totems/index.htm contains a wide range of animals, including questions at the end of each animals’ section that you might ask yourself about why the animal came to you – such as giraffe asks “are you becoming complacent and losing track of your goals?”.   Also, here are a couple of great books:

Animal Speak by Ted Andrews
Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams & David Carson

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