What I Owe My Son’s Mental Illness: Another Dangerous Opportunity

I loved being pregnant. When I carried my first born inside me he was safe and I controlled everything. I ate healthy foods, never drank alcohol or even took a Tylenol. I took naps and tried to think positive thoughts. I just knew he would grow up to be beautiful, smart, talented, motivated and full of joy for life. I would make it so, or, so I believed. That’s not exactly the way it turned out.

Instead, I have a son who suffers from a thought disorder. For me, his disease has been another dangerous opportunity filled with both exquisite pain as well as fertile ground for my own growth.

One of the most powerful insights I owe my adult son’s debilitating mental illness is an understanding of my utter powerlessness in the face of a biological deck stacked decidedly towards schizophrenia. No amount of love, positive parenting or health food could overcome his genetics. Now, no amount of discussion or professional intervention can convince him that his reality is not real. And so far, nothing I, or anyone else has done can get him to take medication or seek treatment.

Understanding the limits of my power with my son has helped me also understand the limits of my control in terms of everyone I am in relationship with. I have learned that I do have some influence, but not any real control over others. And, in order for my influence to take root there must be willingness on their part. In fact, one of the reasons I become a mental health counselor was to help those who are willing, those who want to change. Practicing therapy gives me a place to put all the frustrated impulses to help my son.

Loving my son has taught me a lot about how difficult it is to practice loving unconditionally. We often throw off the term unconditional love nonchalantly as if it is an easy thing to do. But I have found it to be very difficult. How do I love someone who is so paranoid he sometimes thinks the money I give him is cursed, or that I am trying to poison him with a cup of coffee?

How do I stay aware of the sweet soul that lives somewhere behind his vacant eyes? How do I allow myself to feel proud of him just for doing his own laundry or still taking some pride in his appearance? It is definitely not easy.

The greatest help I have found in loving him unconditionally is to radically accept his condition and the limitations it places on him and on our relationship. This doesn’t mean I like it or don’t wish it could be different, but accepting it does shift me. When I can say,” This is my son. “and can accept that fully, I can love him. This is not something I do once. It must be done again and again. Over and over I accept what is, and in that acceptance the suffering loosens a bit. It is as if the hot coal I have been holding in a tight fist is released and rolls out of my hand. Yes, there is still a burn left behind, but the damage has ended.

When I was a young mother and still believed in my invincible power to shape my children’s lives I could be very judgmental. I just knew that if someone’s kid grew up to be an addict or abusive or a criminal that it was the parents to blame. So, one of the true gifts of my son’s illness is a lessening of this kind of judgment. It is sometimes true that parents mess their kids up and cause them to be dysfunctional. It is also true that kids can also damage their parents just as profoundly and that no matter how well they are parented they will still be self-destructive or disordered.

In my counseling office and in life I have met many people who endured indescribable abuse and yet became loving and effective people. I have also met people who were loved and nurtured, given boundaries and structure, and yet grew up to live lives of despair. There are several books that have helped me understand the misplaced blame often heaped on parents. If you are struggling with a teen or adult child and blame yourself for their struggles, but also feel you were a “good enough” parent, I highly recommend the following books:

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do by Judith Rich Harris
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon
When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along by Joshua Coleman.

Of course, having a son who is mentally ill has had a profound impact on me as a counselor. My compassion for others struggling with mental illness has deepened, and I no longer feel afraid of people with thought disorders. The truth is that despite the way mentally ill people are depicted in movies and popular culture they are less likely that the guy next door to act out violently against another person. They are more likely, however, to attempt suicide, which bespeaks their own deep pain and suffering.

I owe so very much to my son’s illness, including a stronger instinct for my own survival and a fierce determination to protect my own well-being as much as possible. There was a time when I thought that if I gave up enough of myself, enough time, enough money, enough energy, enough love, enough compassion, then somehow I would make it ok for my son, somehow he would heal. But now I know that this is a long game and if I plan to continue to love and care for him, I must first love and care for myself.

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What I Owe: How I Grew Through Crisis

In the Chinese language the symbol for crisis has a dual meaning, both danger, but also critical-point, perhaps a turning point or opportunity. Indeed, crisis is often a dangerous opportunity. I have certainly found that to be true in my own life. For it is in the midst of despair, fear, loss, or a difficult transition that I am stretched and where my habitual ways of thinking and doing can come undone. It is in this undoing that growth can take place.

For the next few weeks I will be sharing some of the dangerous opportunities that have shaped who I am. I will speak about each with gratitude, because I see these experiences, which on their face, seem negative, as gifts, gifts that continue to provide great meaning and purpose. I owe them a lot.

So here goes.

What I Owe my Mother’s Death

This June 20th it will be 28 years since my mom died.

When she passed I inherited a certain amount of wealth. I wasn’t wealthy, but she left me enough so I could make choices I never would have been able to make if I had been struggling financially. So, one of the most obvious things I owe to her death, and to her success and generosity while she was living, is freedom, freedom to choose, freedom to make mistakes, freedom to find an avocation instead of just a vocation.

For example, when I went to college I took a wide variety of classes simply because I loved learning. I volunteered for organizations I cared about, traveled with my children and was able to give them an enriching childhood, filled with plays and concerts, museums, piano lessons and sports. Freedom has shaped my life. I am filled with gratitude for all of the choices I have had.

The second gift, one even more profound, was an abiding awareness of the fragility of life and of how quickly it can come to an end. This knowing has informed many of my decisions and priorities. People and moments have always been and continue to be the most important. I like beautiful things, but without people to share them with, they are meaningless.

My mother’s death also gave me an understanding of grief and the ability to be with others who are grieving, without fear. Though I understand that my experience will not always mirror another’s, going through my own protracted grieving process made me interested in books on grief, on processes for mourning and remembrance. It made me willing to be trained as a group facilitator for Winterspring, (an organization focused on helping people heal from grief and loss) and gave me the honor of witnessing the grief process of many, many people throughout the years.

Her death prompted a long period of spiritual searching and helped me become familiar with many different religions and philosophies. I have drawn strength from some, rejected others, but it was in the searching that I found acceptance of the mystery. Today, I can usually be with all that I don’t know or understand.

My mother’s death, though one of the great tragedies of my life and still painful nearly 30 years later, has been a dangerous opportunity. It has given me meaning, freedom, compassion, reverence for life and comfort with the uncomfortable reality of our mysterious existence. I am grateful.

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It’s a Shame: How to Understand and Manage It – Part 4

Shame often has a long shadow.  Even when we have worked to take responsibility and make amends, or to take a stand for ourselves and reveal our secrets in safety and acceptance, it can hang around and cause pain.

Healing and releasing our shame is a process that often takes time and patience.  In my work with clients and in my own life I have discovered several methods that help many of us through this journey. One of the most powerful is to find a way to transform shame into positive action.  For example, an abuse survivor might speak out on behalf of other victims or work towards greater justice or treatment options.  Becoming a volunteer for an organization like Dunn House, our local domestic violence shelter, or the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) might be good options.  The key is to find a way to make what we have experienced meaningful in some way by helping others, speaking our truth and working for change.

Another approach is to use our shame, guilt and grief as a catalyst for creativity.  We can forge art, music, poetry, story, dance or even a garden from it.  For me, writing has always been a way to heal and many poems I’ve written deal with secrets, with shame, with loss.  It has been transformative.  Not only do I reveal my secrets by writing and publishing them, but I create from the ashes of my shame something I find beautiful.

 Maya Angelou gives us a powerful model for how poetry can be used to throw off both personal shame and the shame imposed by a miss-guided culture.

 

Still I Rise

by: Maya Angelou

 

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

 

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

 

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops.

 

Weakened by my soulful cries.

 

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don’t you take it awful hard

‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own back yard.

 

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

 

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

 

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

 

I rise

I rise

I rise.

 

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It’s a Shame: How to Understand and Manage it – Part 3

What do we do when we feel ashamed and that shame is inspired by our authentic internal sense of morality?

The first step is to acknowledge, if possible, the error of our ways.  This means admitting our culpability.  Keeping secrets almost always makes shame grow, so finding someone you can trust and telling them can be transformative.  This is where a skilled mental health counselor, compassionate clergy or loving friend or family member comes in.  Let the cat out of the bag with a safe person.

Next, we can apologize for our behavior if appropriate.  Twelve step programs have this phase down pat.  For example AA members are encouraged to make amends to everyone they have harmed, and part of this is an apology.

But, apologizing is not enough.  Often, repairing the damage we have done is required.  In that case taking responsibility for our actions and doing our best to prevent future harm helps reduce feelings of shame while also possibly repairing the relationship.  A commitment to avoiding the behavior in the future is an essential part of this formula, as is accepting any consequences as gracefully as possible.

Finally, work to forgive yourself and let go.

Check back next week for ideas about self-compassion and forgiveness.

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It’s a Shame: How to Understand and Manage It – Part 2

Shame can be a powerful emotion.  We often feel it in our body and act it out in our behavior and speech.  When we feel ashamed, embarrassed, humiliated, self-conscious, or shy, these are all forms of shame.  The pit of our stomach may get tense, fluttery or painful, our face may flush. We may have an intense urge to hide, run away, shrink or disappear when confronted with a situation or even a thought that brings on shame.  Our voice can become shaky or quiet and we lose self-confidence.

Many researchers describe shame as the public sibling of guilt.  They suggest that shame is what happens to us when we are exposed in some way and then rejected, or fear we will be rejected because of our exposure.  Sometimes our shame is warranted because the aspect of ourselves that has been exposed is indeed outside our own values.  In other words, we have done or said something that does not conform to our own internal morality.  But often, we feel shame when it doesn’t really fit the facts.

There are two different formulas for dealing with shame.  One is designed to manage shame that is not justified. The other works well when we are out of sync with our own internal monitor and need to change our behavior and make amends.

When Shame is Not Justified

Shame is justified when it is clear we will be rejected by people we care about or value, if our behavior or some personal characteristic of ours is made public. In that case, we may want to follow the urges of shame and keep those things private if at all possible.

But what do we do when we are plagued by shame even when the threat of rejection is slight or when our shame comes from values and beliefs we have long rejected?  How do we combat shame when the voice of a parent or other authority becomes our internal dialogue, and when a wiser part of us disagrees with this condemnation?  Here are some ideas that can help:

Not only does the body take cues from the brain when it comes to emotions, it works the other way around too.  One of the most effective antidotes to unjustified shame is to let your body lead the way, by doing the opposite of what you feel like doing.  For example, if you feel like hiding, make yourself more visible.  If you feel like shrinking into the carpet, stand or sit up straight, lift your head and look people in the eye, speak clearly and steadily.  This sends the message to your brain that you are ok and that your shame is unjustified.   It allows you to reclaim some power.

Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist, has described several physical poses that increase self-confidence and fight shame, including one she calls “the wonder woman pose” which involves standing with your feet planted firmly, chest out and  your hands on your hips. This pose provides a strong signal to the brain that you can do it, that you are powerful and in control, and have nothing to be ashamed of.  Read more about Amy and her research by clicking here.

Another effective way to combat dysfunctional shame includes making public the behavior, thoughts or personal characteristics that cause us shame. This should be done only with people who you trust and are unlikely to reject you. A great example of this are gay pride parades.  At these events a whole group of people demonstrate that who they are is nothing to be ashamed of. They combat any internal sense of shame they may have garnered from society, family or religion by publicly claiming who they are in the midst of supportive friends and family. This kind of approach is most effective when we can repeat the action of safe disclosure over and over.

To learn how to manage shame when it is justified join me next week.

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It’s a Shame: How to Understand and Manage It

Imagine sitting on the ground in a cave. Leftover meat has been cleared away after an evening meal, and beside you a fire burns brightly. Outside, the wind howls and a fierce rain pelts the trees. You feel satisfied, safe and warm. But, you know that your choices and behavior in the next moments will determine if you can stay inside this comfortable space or be forced outside to fend for yourself in the night. What you do and say, how you say it and even the expressions on your face, may determine your fate. If you make the wrong moves your very life could be over.

This was the dilemma faced by our ancestors. Conforming to social norms meant staying next to the fire. Behaving outside those norms could get you thrown out…literally. In an article for the Smithsonian Magazine (May, 2012) Megan Gambino quotes anthropologist Christopher Boehm, author of a book called Moral Origins. She says, “Boehm speculates that human morality emerged along with big game hunting. When hunter-gatherers formed groups, he explains, survival essentially boiled down to one key tenet—cooperate, or die.” And, shame, was one of the keys to enforcing this morality. Then, shame could help us stay safe, help us survive.

So, we come by our feelings of shame naturally. It is hardwired into the human brain. Because of this, most of us are acutely aware of the morals and morays of our culture, and feel ashamed when we violate them, or sometimes even when we think about violating them. This can be healthy and productive when it serves to connect us with our family and friends and helps keep us safe and supported. But shame can also be painful and dysfunctional when it hampers our creativity, ability to stand up for ourselves, or diverge from cultural norms that are outside our own values and self-knowledge.

And, shame is not an equal opportunity emotion. It appears more frequently and with more ferocity in women and in those who have survived sexual abuse and trauma. In its untamed form it can contribute to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD and suicide. So, how can we know when shame fits the facts of our situation, when it doesn’t, and what to do when shame has taken over?

Join me next week to learn how to relieve shameful feelings that are unproductive and take action when shame is guiding us towards honoring our own values and beliefs.

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The Healing Power of Nature

A few weeks ago, I was experiencing a great deal of sadness. (Yes, even therapists deal with loss and grief.) It was a dark time and I was struggling to maintain my equilibrium and energy for the work and people I love. So when the opportunity to go on a hike with my husband materialized it was the last thing I felt like doing. The intense urge I had was to curl up under the covers and binge watch some irreverent comedy, not climb Grizzly Peak.

But, another wiser part of me knew that to shed my despair I must practice opposite action to my urge. Opposite action in this case meant throwing off the covers, finding my hiking boots and backpack and saying, “Yes.” And, it turned out to be the perfect remedy.

The first part of the trek was muddy and slippery and full of fallen trees from the last big storm that ripped through our area in November. Some of the fallen trees had been chain-sawed apart making a passage for us, but in other places we had to clamor over logs or find our way around, creating another trail in the process. During this part of the day, I thought about how like life this seemed to me, so many obstacles to overcome, so much unexpected chaos and destruction. And yet, all around me in the midst of it, beauty. All around me life springing from the decay.

After the first few miles of walking, I felt my shoulders release into a pleasant ease and I was able to be more in the moment. The angst of the prior few weeks, the recycling of what was said and not said, the profound sense of loss, though still present, faded into the background.

The second part of the hike took us through lush old growth forest, and then eventually near the top of the mountain, into the open where flat rocks stretched out around us and trees burned by a fire a few years ago stood stark and black against the blue, blue sky. Beneath them hundreds of young trees, branches tipped with new growth flourished.

We ate our lunch at the edge of the precipice looking out across the Rogue Valley and south to Mt. Ashland and Mt. Shasta.  To the north we saw Agate Lake and the mountains hiding Crater and Diamond lakes in their mighty folds. It was spectacular. It was perspective.

After lunch, I lay back on the rocks and let the sun seep in and felt healing sink into me with the heat.

That day was a turning point, and though my sadness is not gone, it is tempered. It exists again along-side all the beauty and gratitude in my life. Not one or the other, not pain or peace,  but both.

You don’t have to hike to the top of a mountain to enjoy the healing power of nature. It can be found at the local park, in your own back yard or at the bird feeder hanging outside an apartment window.

I once had a client who shared with me how the return of hummingbirds each year filled her with joy and how she learned inner stillness by standing outside with enough quietude so they would come and drink in her presence. Through watching these tiny birds she learned mindfulness. She learned to stop in the midst of her busy life and be fully herself and fully aware and fully at peace all at the same time.

So, yes, nature can heal. All we must do is open ourselves to the possibilities. Here are some suggestions for how you might encounter the wonder and resilience of nature and take in its goodness, while maybe, just maybe, discovering those same things are a part of you.

•Plant something. Watching a seed germinate and become can be inspiring. I am always amazed that a tiny amaranth seed can turn into a giant plant with voluptuous red plumes or that a sunflower seed can transform into a monster that towers over the roof-tops. This can remind us of the miracle of life and that we are a part of this.

•Get out into the sun for 10-15 minutes a day. Vitamin D is essential for health and many of us are deficient. A little sun goes a long way, so don’t over-do it. Just a few minutes a day may help ease depression and other ills.

•Go for a walk. Even if you just go around the block, get out and move. While you are walking notice as many details of nature as you can. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? This time of year so many things are blooming. Stop and smell the Spirea.

•Buy or borrow a book on birds or plants. I recently picked up a book at a yard sale on identifying Western trees and plan to keep it in the car so I can learn the names and habits of the many trees I see every day.

•While you are at it, join a bird watching club  or become a master gardener.

•Draw, paint or write about what you see in nature. Read nature poetry.

•Bring nature inside by picking or buying a bouquet of flowers. Even the midst of winter seems a little brighter to me when I have a vase full of merry flowers on the table.

•Camp out and sleep under the stars. Marvel at the beauty and mystery of the universe.

•Go for a hike.

•Swim in a river, lake or stream.

•Make compost. Turning kitchen waste, leaves and manure into a rich, life-giving substance can be a powerful metaphor for allowing our own wounds to be the substance of growth and blossoming.

•Take your kids to a playground. Let them play in the dirt. Take them on a “nature walk” and help them discover plants, bugs, worms, birds, trees, wind and water. Ask them how they think it is all connected.

•Notice clouds.

Since my Grizzly Peak hike I have been reminding myself to look deeply and listen intently and to get outside more. Yesterday I weeded, spread compost and planted flowers, and sat for a time and just watched a hawk circle and dive.

My Help is in the Mountain
By Nancy Wood

My help is in the mountain
Where I take myself to heal
The earthly wounds
That people give to me.
I find a rock with sun on it
And a stream where the water runs gentle
And the trees which one by one give me company.
So must I stay for a long time
Until I have grown from the rock
And the stream is running through me
And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.
Then I know that nothing touches me
Nor makes me run away.
My help is in the mountain
That I take away with me.

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Sleep Tight: Making Your Bed, Body and Mind Ready for Rest

There is almost nothing that can make us more vulnerable than lack of sleep. When we are sleep deprived our ability to cope with emotions, solve problems and act effectively is drastically reduced. Everything seems more difficult. On the other hand, when we are sleeping well and feel rested we are happier and more satisfied with our lives, relationships and work.

In spite of this, many of us experience poor sleep regularly (up to 75% of us according to one study) and most of us don’t know what to do about it. Here are ideas for improving sleep and getting the rest you need to be at your best.

Body

Setting ourselves up for success when it comes to sleep, all starts with the body. If you are full of tension and have consumed a lot of caffeine or alcohol, or if you work on stressful projects right up until bed with no time to wind down, you are setting the stage for sleep difficulties. Instead, follow these guidelines to improve the chances of falling asleep and staying asleep.

• Limit caffeine use. For many of us a cup of coffee or two in the morning will not affect sleep. But caffeine has a long half-life, meaning it takes between eight to fourteen hours to clear our system. So, if getting to sleep is a problem, consider cutting back your daily consumption of caffeine. Eliminate caffeinated food and drink after about 2PM. Look for hidden sources of caffeine in soda, chocolate, tea, energy drinks and some pain relievers and weight loss products.
• Many of us drink alcohol to relax and it can make us feel sleepy initially. But alcohol also interrupts the sleep cycle and can cause mid-night wakefulness. Limit or eliminate alcohol two to three hours before bed.
• Are you tense? It is very difficult to get to sleep when we are wound tight. Use progressive relaxation (the slow tensing and releasing of muscle groups), box breathing, gentle yoga or stretching, or a soothing massage from a bed partner to relax the body.
• If you snore or wake up tired, even after a seemingly “good” night’s rest, consider a sleep study to rule out sleep apnea or other physical issues that may be impacting sleep quality. Consult your physician.

Bed

The sleep environment is very important. We have all heard of people who can sleep anywhere under any circumstances. But for most of us an environment conducive to sleep is a must. Here are some tips to make your sleep environment better.

• Make sure the room is dark and cool. Both temperature and light affect our ability to sleep. It is particularly important for the head and face to be cool, as this sends a message to the brain to begin shutting down for the night. A cold mask or ice pack around the eyes can help and will also work to reset the nervous system if you wake up and have trouble getting back to sleep. Be sure to protect your skin from direct contact with the ice pack.

• Try noise.  Many people find that a fan, white noise machine or relaxing music helps filter out sound from beyond the bedroom and lulls us to sleep.  A fan has the added benefit of keeping you cool.
• Recent research has revealed that our exposure to light, particularly blue light emitted by computers, cell phones and televisions can interrupt circadian rhythms and the production of melatonin (the naturally occurring hormone that promotes sleep). Exposure also seems to be connected to many illnesses including diabetes and cancer. So what can we do? Use dim red night lights instead of blue or white. Avoid bright screens two to three hours before bed. Get lots of sun or bright light exposure during the day. This will help you be more alert and improve mood, as well as increase chances for a productive sleep experience at night.
• Clean sheets can work wonders. Many people report they sleep better after they change the sheets. Try it.
• Don’t work or argue in bed. Keep the bed for sleep and sex only. Setting up negative associations with the place where we are meant to relax, unwind and experience pleasure can interfere with sleep.

Mind

Worry often causes difficulty when it comes to falling asleep or returning to sleep once we have awakened. It can be tortuous to lay in bed recycling all the things you wish were different in your life, our regret, failures and fears for the future. Most of us know that this rumination is fruitless. It is rare that a flash of insight or a problem will be solved during these sessions of anxiety. What can been done to silence the busy brain that won’t seem to let us rest? Here are some things to try.
• Learn to meditate. Many forms of meditation teach us to focus on the breath. When our mind is following the breath in and out it cannot be caught up with worry. When your mind wanders, as it will, just very gently bring yourself back to the breath.
• Do math in your head. Count backwards from 100 by 3 or 7. This technique keeps your mind occupied and allows worry thoughts to dissipate.
• Another similar strategy is to remember a pleasant movie from start to finish or revisit a happy day in your life and try to remember every detail.
• Use a “brain drain”. Keep a journal by your bed and write down everything you are concerned about. This lets your unconscious know that it does not need to hold onto these thoughts.
• Use a “God box”. Write down your worries and give them over to a Higher Power by placing them in a box or mailing them to the Universe in a book or other receptacle.
• Listen to a guided mediation.
• Read a calming or boring book until you can relax into sleep.

For more information read Good Night: The Sleep Doctor’s 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health by Michael Breus, Ph.D. Or visit his website.

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How I Became Radical: The Power of Acceptance

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Carl Rogers

My initial encounter with radical acceptance took place when I lay down for the first time on a yoga mat. Our teacher, Mari Gayatri, taught mindfulness yoga. She instructed us to follow our breath in and out and to embrace with equanimity anything that arose within us. She told us to internally name the thoughts, feelings and sensations that came and went. She said, to watch thoughts blow across the landscape of the mind, like clouds in a windy sky, and not grab hold or follow them.

I have to admit, that at first all this didn’t make that much sense to me. My mind was so busy, my gut so taunt with worry and fear, that following her instructions, even for a few moments, seemed impossible. This was a time in my life when things were falling apart for me and the ones I loved, and I blamed myself.

In the midst of trauma and loss, I scanned my mind constantly for some solution, some hope, some angle. I struggled and clawed at the reality of the situation and clung to the illusion that I could solve problems for those I loved. So how, I wondered, could I focus on my breath or allow thoughts to arise and fall away, when it seemed so important to hold on fiercely to every shred of internal dialogue, in case, in case, a rescue plan was to be hatched from one of these fragments.

But in spite of my confusion, I kept going back to Mari’s class, and over the weeks and months, began to get it. There would be moments on the mat when I could watch anxiety rise in my chest and watch it fade in intensity and then rise again more powerfully and then fade again. There were moments when I could follow my breath for a few inhalations and exhalations, find I’d gone away in my mind to ponder some dilemma, then notice that, and gently bring myself back. I began to loosen my grip a bit, began to let go of the delusion that I could somehow arrange things so they would turn out the way I thought they should.

This was the beginning of my radicalization, of making radical acceptance a central aspect of my life. Eventually, I learned to bring what I had experienced on the yoga mat into my daily existence. I learned to pause in the midst of things to take what Tara Brach, in her book Radical Acceptance calls, “the sacred pause”.

Brach describes pause this way, “A pause is a suspension of activity, a time of temporary disengagement when we are no longer moving toward a goal…We may take a pause from our ongoing responsibilities by sitting down to meditate. We may pause in the midst of meditation to let go of thoughts and reawaken our attention to the breath. We may pause by stepping out of daily life to go on retreat or to spend time in nature….We may pause in conversation, letting go of what we’re about to say, in order to genuinely listen and be with the other person. We may pause when we feel suddenly moved or delighted or saddened, allowing the feelings to play through our heart…You might try it now: Stop reading and sit there, doing, ‘no thing,’ and simply notice what you are experiencing.”

Learning to pause, like adopting the stance of radical acceptance takes practice and it can be tough to wrap our heads around what accepting things just as they are really means. It often helps to start with what it doesn’t mean.

Radical acceptance does not mean we like what is happening. In fact, what is happening may be incredibly painful. But, when we can accept what exists rather than struggling against it we experience less suffering. Suffering it is said, is the naturally occurring pain of life, in the grip of non-acceptance.

Radical acceptance does not mean apathy. As Carl Rogers (the father of humanistic psychology) so aptly put it, accepting ourselves, including all the circumstances in and around us, really does open the door to the possibility of change. Once we have let go of rumination about the past, the woulda, coulda, shoulda’s, and released the anxious planning and plotting about the future, we are free to truly embrace the present moment, which is the only moment we have any real control over. It is in each of these present moments that the catalyst for change lives and breathes and has meaning.

Radical acceptance does not give us permission to act on the difficult emotions and urges that exist in all of us. On the contrary, acceptance and the ability to be with ourselves in whatever state we are in with compassion and tenderness, is one of the gifts of practicing radical acceptance.

Radical acceptance is not something you do once. It is a practice. It is something we never truly master. We humans like control. We like to think we know. We like to believe we can purge ourselves of “negative emotions” and become fully healed and happy. But this is not the human condition. Radical acceptance helps us live with this reality and find peace and even meaning from the difficulties both inside ourselves and in the world at large.

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt – marvelous error! –
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Antonio Machado
Translated by Robert Bly

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Your Brain on Love

As far as the brain is concerned, the first throws of love are no different than the high that comes from heroin. In fact, when we fall for someone our brain goes into overdrive producing adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, powerful naturally occurring brain chemicals that put us in an altered state.

Dopamine creates a sense of euphoria and invincibility, and dulls pain. Adrenaline makes our heart pound when the beloved is near; while oxytocin (also known as the “cuddle drug”) bonds us with the one we love and makes us crave their touch, their smell and being near them. When we have sex, oxytocin floods the brain creating a deeper bond. Serotonin just fills us full of joy at everything about our new love.

During the first months of a love relationship the brain and body are washed in this delicious cocktail. It is the height of passion, the inspiration for love songs and poetry. It is one of the most awesome powers on earth. But, it also has its dark side. There are two significant dangers when we are in this state.

The first problem occurs when dopamine is at its most dominant in the first six to twelve months of a love relationship. At this time, we ignore, or more likely don’t even see our beloved faults. Red flag behaviors are often accepted and forgiven. Dopamine makes us blind.

The other major drawback to the dopamine rush is that some of us become addicted to it. We have all known people who just can’t seem to sustain a relationship past the two-three year mark, the time when the chemical balance in the in-love brain often shifts from dopamine dominate to ocytocin dominate. Or, if they are able to hang on in the relationship, they may tell themselves they’ve fallen out of love and begin to blame their partner, head to counseling, or try to reclaim those ecstatic feelings in affairs.

What these folks don’t know is that the transition from crazy in love to a more subdued but substantial love is the natural way of things. If we think about it, it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The first period is about bonding with mate. It’s a time when we only have eyes or time for each other. But, the next stage is designed to support and nurture the offspring that are the result of the first. It wouldn’t work very well for parents to be so into each other that they neglected their children.

It can be tough to accept that the euphoric state is temporary. We long for the high, for the sense of merging with the beloved, of losing ourselves in bliss. We think there is something wrong when this rapture fades into a steady comfort and profound sweetness. But if we believe that, we are wrong. A mature love sustains us when life gets hard, which it will. It is a love of choice, rather than of forces that seem beyond our control. It is a love that makes room for other love, of children, of friends, of meaningful work, or spiritual calling. It is a love that can survive illness, aging and separation.

So, enjoy the love you are experiencing, no matter what stage you are in, and if you are in the initial stages, take time for it to mellow and your head to clear before you commit yourself.

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  • About The Author

    Lois Schlegel

    Lois Schlegel, MFA, MS, mental health therapist at Life in Bloom Counseling in Medford and Ashland, has 20 years of experience providing services to individuals and families. She has taught parent education and life skills classes to adults and ... Full Profile
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