10 December 2007

Relating

We all want good relationships. We desire friendships and intimate relationships where we have fun and feel seen and heard by someone else. But, while the fantasy of some ideal relationship lives on in books, television, moves, and love songs, the reality can be much less tangible, and seem, at times, impossible to find.

One of the best things we can do in aspiring for better relationships is to look at how we relate to ourselves. Most likely, in this looking we will find a wealth of information about how we relate to others. In being honest with ourselves, we also create the kind of comfort and ease with oneself that is attractive to others.

The process of accepting ourselves can take a lot of time, effort, and courage, but it is worth it. And the rewards go much deeper than relationships.

To accept oneself is to truly begin walking the road to a happier and more balanced life. Accepting yourself doesn't mean you never change, or that you are somehow "giving up". The sprout does not chastise itself for not being a tree; the stream does not lecture itself about how it should be a river. The movement of growth is a natural process of the soul, if only we can allow it to unfold.

09 November 2007

Allowing Connection

Allowing ourselves to be and feel truly connected to others is not an easy proposition. In many ways it can seem to make more sense for us to stay disconnected, to stay separate from experiencing who we are in relationship to other people. We lack the kind of faith that allows for genuine relationship. We have been hurt too may times.

The truth of the matter is that we are one large human family, all living on this planet together. We all share the pain and triumph that is being human, that is being a being with the potential for love and self-consciousness. When we are able to reach out to others through that shared experience, we call that compassion.

It is one thing to be compassionate, another to allow that compassion to be a source of connection and strength for both ourselves and others. We are each other’s best teachers. We are each other’s bridge to a better tomorrow. Love is a living experience we find when we tap into the source that is at the root of our connection to one another.

We have all been hurt, and we all have the potential for forgiveness and true connection. When we discover that true faith and safety can only be found within, we suddenly find that we are no longer as afraid of connecting to others. How do we find that faith and security? We begin with rediscovering what it is to be alive in this moment, examining assumptions and beliefs, and taking responsibility for who we are in this life. We begin by becoming aware of how we are making choices.

When we choose to connect, we are choosing life. We all have that right, the right to live in freedom without fear. But whether it is the fear of where our next meal is going to come from, or fear of a terrorist attack, it takes will to not give in. It takes an act of conscience and strength to allow ourselves to be truly alive as a person in the world.

02 November 2007

Seasons of Love

There is always something to learn from nature about relationships, and this applies especially to the cycle of the seasons. If you live in a place where the leaves turn and fall in autumn, chances are that you love this season. Even though it’s getting colder and we know that winter is on its way, there is something fall that evokes a beautiful sense of the bittersweet, which for some reason we experience as a complex combination of relaxation and excitement, a mixture of hope for and acceptance of what is to come.

This is the phase of the relationship season that is often the most difficult for couples to be comfortable with. It’s as if they can feel winter’s approach and forget to enjoy the sense of fall as it occurs in their relationship. Fall gives us the feeling that we are going to be okay—it is preparing us for winter with a subtle reminder of spring. But in relationship, this feeling can be difficult to interpret, especially for those who have never seen a relationship through winter, and have not been around relationships that have weathered many moons.

The fall of a relationship is a comfortable settling. It is not “settling”, but rather becoming comfortable in the knowledge that to be in a relationship is to be in flux, to be in movement. Every relationship has its dark days, and also times when both partners are working inwardly, when the new growth of the relationship is being created through individual and personal growth. Often, though, when we feel the subtle impression of this reality, the feeling of impending winter, we forget about spring, and think that we have lost something in the relationship. We forget that, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh quotes Saint Exupery in Gift from the Sea: "Love does not consist in gazing at each other. But in looking outward together in the same direction."

When we first fall in love, we are smitten, we are obsessed, we cannot get enough of the other person. But if we make the mistake of thinking that that state of being is love itself, that that is what it should be all of the time, and that if that state fades, that we have lost something, we are losing out on the opportunity to find what love can really give us: joy, real friendship, intimacy, and a deeper sense of life in all its meanings. And we miss out on all the springs to come.

17 October 2007

Letting Go of Fear

Fear blocks our ability to “just be” in the world. Working with and understanding fear and the role it plays in one’s life is almost always a part of the counseling or therapeutic process. Often, when the issues at hand become less pressing, it is discovered that underneath stress, anger, depression, etc. is fear in its many forms.

We live in a society and culture that is in many ways based on fear. We fear others, fear death, fear poverty, fear ridicule, and on and on. We take for granted that the movement of fear is leading us to safety, and thus don’t question it until it stops being useful and we really see how harmful it is. For example, when we are having relationship problems or struggling to take a test, etc. we really see that fear is making things worse, not better.

The opposite of fear is faith. Faith is a loaded word in these times, but what does it really mean when used in this context? Faith, used in this way, describes a presence within, an inner knowing that is not fear or worry based on past experiences. It is the faith that if we do what feels right to us in our heart, and don’t act from fear, our life will be as it needs to be. Faith is seeing the inherent emptiness of fear. Fear wants us to believe in it, but what does it truly know?

We all have a center that does know, that cares about others and the world around us, that will take care of us as we need to be taken care of. When we lose that we turn to fear in order to feel secure. By taking time to just be in the moment, and to recognize the flavor of fear, we see that allowing fear to rule our lives creates less, not more, safety. When we seek to love our fellow man, we discover that fear is trying to protect us from that same person. When we find the strength within that does not need to be afraid, love springs forth, and with it, a new way of being in the world.

15 October 2007

Feeling Comfortable in Your Own Skin

What does it mean to be comfortable with ourselves?  To be at ease in the world and in our relationships, able to enjoy life's beauty and endure its hardships?  These are questions many who come to counseling are asking without even knowing it.   What is it to be happy? 

Looking outside
 
We often make the mistake of thinking that outward things are going to make us happy.  Yet even as we buy "Real Simple" or turn towards political movements in an effort to live a more simple life, we are clinging to the idea that changing what is on the outside is what will make the difference. Time and time again, though, we find that the things outside of us are not what matters -- truly, it is what is going on inside that affects our daily life.

The first step in becoming more comfortable with ourselves and in our own skin is accepting things just as they are, in this very moment.  This process is about letting go of judging that everything is terrible or perfect; it is a state of mind that allows the heart to open to the world.

Acceptance
 
We can spend a lot of time trying to fix what is in our minds and hearts -- trying to be something or someone different -- but what we need is the courage to allow and accept.  Once we are able to allow what is there to just be, we find that it suddenly changes, moves, comes to life, teaches.  This dynamic, mysterious movement allows us to come to life, too.

Acceptance leads to choice, the choice of what to do with whatever reaction we find arising inside of us.  Choice leads to empowerment, and empowerment allows for relaxation.

You are flawed
 
The quest for perfection also affects our relationships.  It is very difficult to become truly close to others if we are afraid of what they will find when they get to know us.  This is why we need to find our courage.  If we are able to face our worst fears about ourselves, we become less vulnerable to and scared of the judgments of others.  When we lose this fear, we discover the ability to love and be loved.

Though it may seem to go against everything you have ever thought, it is our acceptance of our flaws that leads to emotional freedom.  This acceptance allows us to have compassion for ourselves and others, rather than self-pity and anger.  It releases us from the quest for perfection, and opens our heart so that we stop taking ourselves -- and others -- so seriously.

Take a breath

The next time you notice yourself getting upset about how you feel, take a moment to accept that feeling, just as it is.  Take a breath, and ask yourself, "What is this?"  The answer may surprise you.  And if you are having a lot of trouble with this, seek out a good therapist.  What I describe above is one of the central goals of good therapy.

19 September 2007

Being a Person in the World

Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase 'each other'
doesn't make sense any more.
~Rumi



We all take for granted that we are alive, that we are a living person in the world. But how often do we take a moment to really experience that? As you are reading this, I encourage you to feel yourself as a living being in this very moment. Notice your body, the feeling of whatever piece of furniture is supporting your body, the sounds outside. Take a moment to breathe in the experience of being alive.

In the West, we do not often question our minds. We know that our way of thinking and reacting can cause us pain, so we often try to change our thoughts. What we don't change is our relationship to our mind. We don't see how our belief in the power of our thoughts affects our ability to "just be" in this world.

When we take a moment to become aware of the fact that we are a living being, we allow ourselves some breathing room. This type of awareness facilitates an experience that cannot be found in thoughts or beliefs. In order to change and find happiness, we need action, something different, a new way of relating to ourselves and others.

By taking this time for ourselves, we help all of humanity. By being compassionate with ourselves, we develop the ability to love and delight in our fellow creature.

18 September 2007

Fall

 What is it about a crisp autumn day that makes a person feel both happy and a little sad all at the same time? Fall evokes the most interesting of emotions, and brings a certain type of peace or contentment that is unique to the season. It is a time for letting go of the old to make way for the new, a time of change and color. A time of possibility.

Watching the leaves change reminds me of the process of change, the difference between letting go and new growth. Fall is a time for shedding old ways, and making the changes you've been waiting for. What keeps us from making changes? From dropping our leaves?

Change has to come at the right time and can be both a sudden and gradual process. We may have sudden realizations that take time to develop and become reality. We need patience with ourselves, and to allow time for our hearts and minds to breathe and find their own rhythm. When we allow ourselves this much needed inner space, whole worlds of possibility open up. We see what is, what has been, and what could be, and we find the whole thing frightening, exciting, and beautiful. And we are ready for it.

14 August 2007

Solving Problems

It is difficult to be faced with the complexity and tragedy of this world and not want to "fix it." Often though, it seems that conversations about the state of things inevitably dissolve into deeper and deeper circles of hopelessness and fatigue that end with an agreement by all that the world is crazy, nuts, etc.

I feel that part of this mentality comes from a lack of interest in taking a fresh perspective, in looking at a situation and being imaginative about what could be different, how it came to be, and what our individual parts to play may be. We have a certain version of our world shoved down our throats everyday. And, in a way, it is comfortable that way. Do we have the courage to allow ourselves a new way of thinking? There is freedom there, truly.

Looking at the Perseid meteor shower last night, in a place outside of the city where one can actually see the immensity of the universe that surrounds us, I was struck by the feelings of possibility and mystery that such an experience evokes. It is a sign of our times that the view of our universe is veiled by city lights.

We live under our blue dome and believe much too easily in what others tell us about our own experience. Freedom is possible when we let go of what we think we know, and allow wonder to become a part of our life again.

26 June 2007

Only Human

I had an interesting conversation today, a potential client commenting on how she enjoyed reading my blog because it indicated that I'm human and that I'm willing to show it, even though I'm supposed to be the expert human, a "therapist."

Therapists are incredibly human, especially good ones. Because to be a good counselor, you have to be very interested in what it is to be human, and enjoy being with other humans. It is that interest and attentiveness that makes counseling work, not a kind of expertise or perfection of qualities.

That can be a trap for people working in mental health, because it seems like you are supposed to be an expert, to know exactly what's going with the person or couple sitting across from you.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said something to the effect that when he meets a person, he always tries to recognize that they are a fellow traveler, someone who is suffering and seeking happiness, just as he is. When he sees a person in this way, they immediately feel like an old friend.

This is the art that the counselor can offer, that witnessing of humanness, a willingness to be by your side in frightening places, a philosophy of kindness and compassion. In this space, the true light within each one of us can begin to shine and light the way.

18 June 2007

Worldly possessions

Riding the bus home from my office today, I was struck by the beauty of a sunny day after so much gray, the spontaneity of summer, everyone out walking and breathing and (sometimes) smiling. And I noticed as I was contemplating and observing these things, that into my mind continuously float media images, thoughts about politics and the sorry state of things, etc. We truly carry the world with us, regardless of where we may be.

Recently, I was on a vacation where I stayed someplace high above most human habitation. I felt my mind clear, and even thinking about the complexities of the world seemed irrelevant. It was incredibly freeing--a true vacation.

Now, I'm not advocating abandoning this world--we couldn't if we wanted to. But it is something to contemplate, how much we let the version of the world we have running in our minds influence the one we see outside, and how much of that we allow to spill into our relationships, our work, and our experiences of each another.

12 June 2007

Happiness

The 4 Noble Truths of the Buddha begin with “Life is Suffering.” In the west, we don’t really buy that, though we do seek pleasure an awful lot for people who don’t suffer. But let’s just say that we acknowledge that we suffer, what then? Eating? Shopping? Sex? Gambling? The list goes on.

One of the resources available for working with our suffering in an effective way is the much misunderstood practice of “therapy”. Through movies and Freud and the lurking shadows of how we as a society have historically treated the mentally ill, the role of “therapist” has become somehow a symbol for the past and its struggles, rather than for new possibilities and growth.

In my practice, I seek to work with people so that we can become happier in their lives and communities. Period. I do this by listening, giving feedback and tools, listening, drawing their attention to the moment, listening, and, listening. The gift of therapy truly goes both ways. Having it be your job to engage with others in a way that is both real and helpful is a wonderful experience. It is my hope that as we move through the issues we are having about mental health in the public arena, that some re-thinking of what it is for all of us, and the tools we have to work with it, will be engaged.

06 June 2007

Mental Health of the Community

In the news lately there are many articles about funding for mental health services, for vets, for the public, etc. But shouldn't "mental health services" really be more holistic than that? Created not just for serving the "mentally ill" (however we are choosing to categorize that in this moment), but for truly serving the mental health of each community?

Can you imagine every state and city with a specific agency dedicated to assessing the mental health of the community? I want to do that! We could assess stress levels by looking at crime rates, job losses, traffic, accidents, etc. And then there is the issue of children and their access to the outdoors, exercise, the arts, etc. Whoops, did I say "the arts"?

For those of you who aren't Portlanders, our city schools are in a sad state of affairs when it comes to the arts. Because of budget cutting--and a portion of the population that seems to think that because it's not using the schools, it shouldn't have to fund them--Portland schools have suffered incredibly in the last several years. Gone are marching bands, art classes, and other vocational and creative outlets for students. Isn't this a mental health concern? Perhaps it is time for those concerned with mental health to take a wider view of things, to see that our entire community produces our mental health. And that to separate people into ill and well separates us rather than leading us towards healing.

What is the mental health of your community? Can you make it better? As a cardboard sign I saw downtown the other day said, "Smile, it feels good."

05 June 2007

Sick days

A study published in the UK today indicates that mental health is the second largest reason for employee absences. Second largest! It is interesting that instead of inquiring into the societal implications of such a finding, there is an immediate emphasis on encouraging individuals to seek treatment.

Seeking treatment is, of course, incredibly important. Even a short course of focused therapy can help immensely in dealing with stress and acute symptoms. But in the same style as the American conversations since the Virginia Tech incident, there is an omnipresent insistence on focusing on "sick individuals" rather than the context in which they live.

So where does one begin to confront the reality of this world, this context?

By taking time for what seems futile: beauty, love, truth.
By striving to be the best person we are able to be.
By being kind.
By recognizing our privileges and our punishments, but neither punishing ourselves or others for them.

We are responsible for this world, we are responsible to each other, and most of all we are responsible to ourselves.

22 May 2007

Moscow shootings

It's confirmed, he was a he. At least all of these incidents are opening up some debate, though it's unfortunate that we seem to be unable to get beyond a black and white view of mental health and illness.

http://www.forbes.com/feeds/ap/2007/05/22/ap3748606.html

The end of May

Spring in Portland is a funny time, rain one day, bright sun and blue sky the next. We residents ache so much for summer that Spring is really just a tease. But, the roses are coming out and that means that summer can't be too far away.

We tend to associate Spring as a "happy" time, flowers and the like. But it is also a volatile time, a teasing time, and, for some, an instigator of a rise in mental anguish. Here in Oregon, because of a constant decrease in the funding of mental health services, people suffering from chronic mental illness are treated when they become a danger, on an emergency basis. We have lost our way, no longer seeking health, and instead just treating disease.

Below my office window, I can hear a lumbering bus emit fumes that are killing our environment, and commuters honk at one another in the rush to get home. Yet above them silently dance the fresh green leaves of Spring. The interplay of these two realities is the dance of being human. We can't forget, amidst the message that we are inundated with everyday, that we always have the potential to take the higher road and get a better view.
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