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


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.
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