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The Most Extraordinary Moments

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Everyone seems to be searching for the next peak experience in life.    The next BIG amazing, unbelievable, mind-blowing, extraordinary fill in the blank – vacation, meal, mountain to climb, you tube video, sunset, extreme sport achievement, performance, promotion, etc., etc., etc.  The culture we live in promotes this everywhere we turn.   And as humans, we tend to measure our happiness or satisfaction or achievement in our lives by our most extraordinary achievements or experiences.   We compare our top extraordinary experiences to everyone else’s.

But I would like to ask you to consider what your life might feel like if you measured happiness, satisfaction, achievement and quality on ordinary moments.  If you were truly able to be mindful and in the moment enough to let yourself pause and fully BE in front of ordinary days, ordinary activities, ordinary meals, ordinary exchanges with ordinary people and stop long enough to realize how extraordinary these moments really are.

I feel fortunate to have experienced some really extraordinary things in my life.  In 1999 I lived in Europe for a little over a year and traveled all over seeing amazing sights and experiencing incredible moments.  But when I pause and reflect on some of the most awe-inspiring experiences from that year, I tend to think about really little ordinary moments.  Riding my bike down long stretches of bike paths with the wind in my hair and the sun on my face and the cars and buses moving past me.  I remember the street performer who played celtic harp in the park near the river most Sunday evenings and the particular light of day that reflected off the water.  I remember walking home from teaching English one snowy winter night and stopping in the middle of the cobblestone road in front of a beautiful big yellow church to look up at the snowflakes falling from the sky.  Those examples were not the “top 10” extraordinary moments of that year – the ones I would write home about, or share photos of, but those were moments I felt truly plugged in – really awake and alive and in the moment.  Those were simple, beautiful, ordinary moments that have imprinted themselves deep within my memory bank because I stopped long enough to notice.

I also know that when I’m not fully present or awake in a conscious way, I feel numb and dead inside myself.  I feel a great sense of detachment and dissatisfaction with my life.  I can recognize as soon as this feeling comes over me, I need to recharge, replenish and plug in again.  I need to stop searching for the next BIG extraordinary experience and stay present to what’s right in front of me.

So I’d like to ask you to reflect on this question:

                       What if the 10 most extraordinary moments of your life were really ordinary ones?

How would that change your perspective?  Does it shift a sense of contentment to realize that the extraordinary aspects of our lives might actually be right in front of you right now?

Stay awake, stay present and be mindful.

 

The opportunities in crisis

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What is that famous quote about the Chinese character for crisis?  That it’s composed of two characters – one meaning danger and one meaning opportunity?  There’s been some debate about this, but nevertheless, the idea applies to this very personal blog post for me.

My father has lived with a diagnosis of Bipolar his entire life.  He has always remained compliant with treatment and therapy and despite his limitations or episodic upsurges in symptoms, has done his best to parent me and my older sister throughout the years.  That said, it has remained to be difficult and complicated at times for me in my relationship with him.  A few years ago, my dad was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and the progression of his decline has been sharp and rapid.  His physical and mental illness combined has at times been overwhelming to cope with.

Being a therapist, I easily recognize my own struggle.  My anticipatory feelings of loss, my sense of abandonment, my feelings of guilt, anger and sadness, yet experiencing feelings and rationalizing them are truly two different things.  I realize as the progression of his degenerative disease worsens, I grieve two losses.

I’m grieving the loss of the father I have, and I’m grieving the loss of the father I will never have.

I have a deep and profound sense of compassion when supporting my clients in their interpersonal struggle, but living it myself feels heart wrenching and gut wrenching and at times impossible to manage.  Lately, I have found myself losing touch with my relationship with my father.  I have found myself in a place of great irritation, low frustration tolerance and unfortunately, very little patience.  If I am to be in a place of full transparency here, it was rapidly worsening for me.

It peaked recently at a moment of crisis, and then came my moment of opportunity.

My husband I had arranged to go out last Saturday night for a belated birthday dinner for me.  I picked a restaurant I’ve been excited to try since it opened several years ago.  All week long, I was looking forward to this special celebration for the two of us.  We arranged a sitter, I spent a lot of time getting ready, changed my outfit and shoes several times finding the exact right thing to wear.  About 30 minutes before the sitter was to arrive, I got a call from my uncle indicating my dad needed help.  Most daughters would rush to their father’s aid, but I am ashamed to admit, my first feeling was burden.  I was immediately stuck in a place of scarcity.  “My dad wasn’t always there for me, what now, we had this special evening all arranged.”

It turns out my dad was seriously ill.  I realized this when I arrived in the ER and found him nearly unresponsive.  He couldn’t speak and was very confused.  I’m not sure he even knew I was there or could recognize me.  He was fine the day before, but had a very rapid decline from a combination of a post-surgical infection and pretty severe dehydration causing a major mental status change, extreme confusion, slurred speech and a host of other issues.

It was a real wake up call.

A real opportunity to ask myself what did I want?  What if my dad was having a stroke and couldn’t speak to me anymore?  What if I had wasted a chance to have a relationship with him and now it was gone?

I spent all day Sunday at the hospital taking care of him.  Watching him like a baby for any signs of distress or decline.  It really hit me when I was changing out a cold wash cloth on his forehead.  I suddenly had a flashback of him sitting on the edge of my bed as a child rubbing the charlie horse growing pain out of my calf muscle in the middle of the night.  And while any child of a parent with significant mental illness can relate to the idea of parenting their parent, and the resentment and anger that this dynamic can create; for a moment I recognized the mutual effort of caring for the vulnerable in that comparison.

My dad has limitations.  He has a mental illness.  And yet he has tried to parent me the best he could.

I realize as he ages, my experience navigating my relationship with him will continue to be challenging and complicated, but I also see the opportunity for lots of things.  I see I could extend more compassion both towards myself and towards my father.  I see I could make an intentional decision about how I want to participate more fully in my relationship with him and I see the opportunity to be in a place of receiving the gifts that are.  

The First Pillar of Self-Care

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I spend a lot of time talking with clients about self-care.  When people come to therapy with an issue they’d like to address, typically the first line of response lies in addressing self-care.  That could mean lots of things to lots of people in lots of various circumstances, but ultimately, adding more intentionality or a heightened state of awareness to care of the self tends to make everything immediately feel a little better.  I like to use the example from the airplane;

“First assist yourself, and then you’re neighbor.”  

What good are you to anyone else if your oxygen mask isn’t on first?

Out of all the elements of self-care – sleep, hydration, nutrition, exercise, socialization and compassion, the first pillar is truly sleep.

When we are sleep deprived, everything feels harder.  Our irritability is high, our frustration tolerance is low, we become overly sensitive and we are lacking in focus and mental clarity.  May I remind you that sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture.  Anyone who has lived through severe sleep deprivation (think caring for a newborn, or med school residency, etc.) would agree.

Sometimes not getting enough sleep is outside of our control.  But in many cases, not getting enough sleep is really our own un-doing.

So why do we do it to ourselves?  Why do we perpetually not get enough sleep and then search high and low for the miracle cure – 5-hour energy drinks, venti size cappuccino, or once I even saw a printed claim at a spa that “our facials will leave you feeling like you’ve had a great nights rest.”  How about just getting a great nights rest?

There are a few things we need to know that might support better sleep hygiene:

1.  You’ll NEVER get more restorative (delta wave) sleep by sleeping in.  You can only get this by going to be earlier.

2.  In order for your body to naturally produce melatonin (the hormone that supports your natural circadian rhythm), your bedroom should be dark enough that you cannot see your hand outstretched in front of your face when the lights are out.

3.  You should try to limit screen time 1 hour before going to bed.

4.  Keep your bedroom a sanctuary for rest and relaxation – not for working on your laptop, paying bills or dealing with any stress-related issues.

So why is sleep the FIRST pillar of self-care?  Because if sleep falls, everything else falls too.  When we’re tired, we don’t have energy to make good decisions around what we eat, we don’t have enough energy to exercise, we don’t have the capacity for willpower and consequently we tend to make impulsive decisions that don’t support our health overall.

Interestingly enough, driving while sleep deprived can actually mimic drunk driving and at worst, chronic sleep deprivation can have serious consequences to your health longterm.

So treat yourself to a few good nights of restorative sleep.  Go to bed a little earlier, make sure your room is dark enough for quality sleep, turn off your computer, laptop, TV or phone about an hour before you go to bed and create a sanctuary for sleep.  You might be surprised how rejuvenated you could feel.

In the wake of the Connecticut tragedy, the time to take action is now

How many more senseless tragedies like today’s school shooting in Connecticut will it take for us to stand up and make our voices heard?  All over the news, on the radio and through social media networks from here to the end of the Earth, everyone seems to be asking “why did this happen?”  and “what kind of person does such a thing?”

My job is to look for patterns, themes and make meaning and share insight.  Today’s tragedy, like all the other senseless shootings we’ve seen over the course of the last several years, is simple in my perspective and really only involves 2 major factors:

1.  Making access to mental health treatment easier

and

2.  Making guns less accessible

For decades now we have whittled down comprehensive levels of care for the mentally ill to a band-aid.  Psychiatric care used to include long-term inpatient stays, comprehensive outpatient day treatment programs and institutions for the most chronically and pervasively mentally ill.  These days, insurance benefits have been reduced to managed care limits sometimes only providing 10 – 20 outpatient therapy visits a year.  Access to these benefits requires a reasonably high level of functioning to find a therapist who participates with your insurance, navigate and afford your end of the benefit (deductibles, copays, or out of pocket fees) and schedule and show up for your treatment on a regular basis.  Behind the scenes, therapists and medical providers have to battle with managed care insurance companies to convince them that more care is needed to continue coverage for patients in serious need.

Reducing the stigma for accessing mental health treatment is a job for all of us.  Calling the gunmen who commit these heinous crimes crazy, freaks, nutcase, psycho or other derogatory names do not promote the reduction of stigma we so desperately need to make sure those who are in crisis can easily and willingly come to help without judgement.

Gun control is the other 1/2 of this equation.  This isn’t about taking away your freedom to be a responsible gun owner if you so choose.  It’s about reducing easy access to purchase weapons designed for mass murder.  The truth is, accessing treatment for mental health requires admitting you need help, navigating a system, leaping gracefully over the major stigma hurdle and remaining compliant with your treatment protocol.  But if your mental illness is reaching a fever pitch of instability and rage and you’ve lost your ability to think rationally and act with judgement and sanity and you have a credit card or cash in your pocket, you can walk into a shop and buy a gun capable of mass murder with no real comprehensive background check to slow you down and act upon your impulses without hesitation.

I realize that there are many other factors that influence tragedies like what we witnessed today in Connecticut.  But the bottom line is we are becoming complacent and irresponsibly bewildered as a nation when there ARE real issues we could be discussing to make incidents like today’s shooting less frequent and less commonplace in this country.

I invite you to take action.

Take one or two steps to support this desperately needed paradigm shift and a movement towards peace.

Click here to sign a petition to urge the government to set a date and time to have a conversation about gun policy in the United States.

Click here to connect with NAMI – the National Alliance on Mental Illness to join the advocacy efforts, support research and education or connect those in need with helpful resources.

Click here to find out a list of the candidates who took NRA money this past electoral cycle. If you live in their states or districts, call their offices and share your feelings about access to guns and NRA support.  Call 202-225-3121 to reach the U.S. Capitol operator who can transfer you.

Click here  to connect to the Psychology Today website – a comprehensive database of therapists who can provide support in your area.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”  – Mahatma Gandhi

Do you think like a victim?

There is a clear and definite line that separates someone who feels chronically victimized by their life and one who feels like they are actively participating in the outcome of how their life unfolds.  I’ll call them the “victim” and the “realist” for the sake of this post.  You might have met a victim before.  They’re easy to identify by their constant complaints that things keep “happening” to them.  You’ll also hear the hallmark undertone of “why me?”  They’re also very good at describing a sense of never having enough – or what we call scarcity.  A person with a victim mentality is also dumbfounded at the repetitive nature of these negative events and honestly wonder why the cycle keeps repeating itself.

They’re not yet aware that the way they think about things and the way they participate in their life has everything to do with how it unfolds.

Now let me be very clear before I proceed:  there are real tragedies in life that have nothing to do with whether or not we are stuck in a “victim mentality.”  There are real victims of tragic and traumatic life events.  However, there are also major differences in people as to the way we make meaning out of that suffering, how we interpret, how we cope and how we recover too.

So what’s the real difference between the victim and the realist mentality?  If you wake up everyday and think your world is “happening to you” and you are waiting for your life to present you with challenges or opportunities and you don’t have much to do with it at all, you may find yourself over time leaning towards a victim mentality.  If, on the other hand, you wake up with the belief that everything you do and the way you interact with your environment creates the outcome of your life, then you will find yourself leaning towards the “realist” mentality.

A “realist” wakes up and thinks:

1.  How I interact with others creates how they respond to me.

2.  What I choose to do today will make my day unfold in one direction or another.

3.  I am, on an energetic level, fully responsible for either attracting or repelling what I want in my life.

4.  My beliefs about myself and my life have everything to do with how my life is unfolding.

So, that said, if it takes 2 hands to clap, what part is your hand clapping?

Do you wake up with the core belief that everything you do plays into how your life unfolds?

If you hear a tone of “victim mentality” in your thoughts or speech, can you begin to recognize that pattern and shift it into more ownership and accountability?

I can guarantee, if you start believing that your participation and engagement actually create the outcome in your life, you will notice a significant difference in the quality of your life.

Are you living a “Probable” or a “Possible” life?

Have you ever wondered what the difference was between the probable and the possible?  Some say the momentum of our lives builds from our past, into our present and through our future towards a 99% outcome of probability.  We will probably do this, or probably do that.  But it’s that 1% “possible” thread that leads to the most promising outcome.  It’s also where we need to look when our life isn’t working and what we need to consider when it’s time to explore other options.  Yet this 1% thread also carries with it what we perceive to be the biggest risk.

Changing the course from a probable outcome to a possible one is the most desirable, yet it’s not the easiest to achieve.  Alberto Villolodo, Ph.D., author, psychologist and medical anthropologist explains it like this:

“Let’s say you’re driving 100 miles per hour in a pickup truck with a washer and dryer in the back, and suddenly you want to make a left turn.  Even if you manage to make the turn at 100 mph, the washer and dryer will keep going forward, and you’ll probably roll the truck over and go off the road.  In order to make the turn safely, you need to slow way down.  The problem is that most of us don’t know how to slow down the truck – that is, how to cut back on our work hours or change our relationship with our children – because we’ve lost control of the momentum that propels us forward.  If we don’t jettison our baggage, then the washer and dryer, the job, the spouse, and even our health will be stripped from us.”

The key here is……..slowing……….down.

And this is where the “mindfulness” part comes into to play.  In order to be mindful – we must be awake and aware.  We must take some time to explore what that 1% possible thread of our lives could be.  What is the highest potential we could become or access or fulfill?  What does it look like if we could see it all the way through and beyond where the probable 99% of our most likely outcome will land?  Can we begin to visualize that 1% possibility and change the course of our momentum?  Can we move from what always feels safe and easy to stepping into a bigger risk or challenge?

Sometimes we’re already living a life that doesn’t feel right and we just keep doing it.  That’s the momentum part.  That’s the part that feels like it’s propelling us forward without a lot of intentionality or thought.  That’s the part that keeps us stuck in toxic relationships, nightmare jobs, addictive habits, unhealthy eating, poor sleep hygiene or bad self-care.

Maybe there’s an equation here?  Habitual behavior + repetition =  the momentum that keeps us stuck in a probable outcome.

If we don’t stop and develop some insight and intention, and take the time to visualize and nurture our highest potential – we may very well miss the most important thread of all – the thread of our optimal possibility.

Nature – there’s not an app for that.

Much has been written about nature deprivation for children of this generation. Less is discussed about its importance for adults. If you’ve spent time hiking in the outdoors, kayaking on a river or even sitting in a park you know that being surrounded by the elements renews you. But why? And why is it vitally important to seek it out and make time for it?

You might think that with all the infinite possibilities of the Internet at your fingertips and endless apps for your phone that your mind could never be limited by technology. That anything you could possibly think of could be within your grasp through a computer or any other accessible screen. That things you never thought of before are also there for you to discover through the endless portal of the online world.

This is almost true.

An experience of being in nature provides us with 2 things that technology cannot – an opportunity to have a sensorial experience and a sense of total freedom in your mind.

We are constantly bombarded with messages from our environment that prompt us to think. Billboards, signage promoting sales or must have last-minute special deals, magazine covers, TV and radio advertisements, political signs, road signs, stop signs, rules and warnings everywhere you turn. Or my personal favorite the new trend in having a person (sometimes dressed up like the statue of liberty or some giant humiliating mascot) waving a sign on a post in the hopes of distracting another passerby to pull in for a $12 oil change or to sell their gold.

In nature, there is a distinct and noticeable absence of these distractions and therefore your mind is, for the moment, free to formulate thoughts on its own. To have a thought, or NOT to have a thought – nature affords you room to choose.

In nature, you are free to also allow space between your thoughts.

While your mind is having an open and free experience in nature, you are simultaneously also picking up information through your senses. Sights, sounds, smells and sensations on your skin can promote a feeling of hitting “reset” on your body. Things that occur in nature while you’re out there exploring can be awe-inspiring and support a sense of mystery that cannot come from a technological experience where you push a button and something happens. If you’re paying attention when you’re surrounded by nature, you’ll find yourself wondering. What is that sound, how did that happen, what happens next, where did that come from and maybe most significant the wonder that comes from the experience of something beautiful.

If you haven’t made time for nature in a while and think it doesn’t really matter – think again.

Maybe it’s time to “reset” your system, support your senses and set your mind free.

The real key to a successful (home) debate

If you were one of the 50 million people who watched the presidential debates last night, you may have heard a difference of opinion on lots of topics from taxes to the economy to healthcare.  As a therapist, we sometimes listen with what we call a “third ear.”  What I heard sparked me to consider blogging about issues related to conflict resolution.  Now we may never get Romney and Obama to see eye to eye, but there are concrete strategies we can implement to make your own home debates run a little smoother!

First off, you must learn to subscribe to the idea that the goal of getting through sticky conflictual disagreements is NOT to declare a winner, but to deepen our understanding of our partners perspective and hopefully learn more about ourselves as well.  I work with a lot of couples in my private practice who sometimes enter couples therapy with the hidden hope that at the end I’ll grab one of them by the fist and punch it up towards the sky and proclaim “WINNER!”  So far, that’s never happened.

Second, we must begin to recognize that the key to reducing potential escalation in a disagreement is reflective listening and validation.  You may find yourself in a place of thinking that your partner is out of their mind, but again, you don’t have to agree with what they’re saying as much as you need to reflect that you hear what’s being said and validate or empathize with their position.  This step is harder than it sounds, particularly in the heat of an adrenaline crushing, cortisol pumping disagreement.

But when you feel heard and seen, it’s like magic.

Suddenly you find yourself decompressing and calming down.  You feel like even though this partner may not see it the same way I do, they heard me and they validate I have a right to think or feel the way I’m thinking and feeling.

Ultimately, we want to practice conflict resolution with mutual respect.  We don’t want to get hooked into a defensive volley where it ends in a full-out train wreck or a stalemate or where one party or another ends up fleeing the scene in distress.

So what can you do next time you find yourself entering a home debate of your own?

Slow down your emotional reactivity, practice really trying to hear what’s being said (even if you don’t agree!), empathize and validate your partners perspective (even if you don’t agree – do you see a pattern here?) and recognize declaring a winner is not the end goal.

 

The most satisfying time zone

I once heard a theory that there are 6 different time zones we can live in.  2 in the past, 2 in the present and 2 in the future.

The 2 in the past are either 1. The good old days – things were so much better then and a longing to return to times past or 2. My past was terrible, traumatic or agonizing and that explains why I function the way I do today.  The 2 in the present are 1. A mindful, calm, centered place where we feel engaged with what’s in front of us and we are present to the now or 2.  An anxious, hedonistic, addictive and impulsive driven place where immediate gratification to alleviate the suffering is the name of the game.  The 2 in the future are 1. Things will be better when this happens or when I get to this house/job/place/vacation, this stage or this relationship – I’ll be happy then or 2. I’m afraid of what tomorrow brings and therefore I feel stuck making decisions or so fearful and anxious that something wicked this way comes.

Culturally, we live collectively in these time zones.  Think of places in the world where you’ve traveled – South America, Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia, Africa and even different regions of the U.S. – these probably conjure up concrete thoughts of one of these 6 time zones for each place you’ve ever traveled.  Where you live and the culture around you will most likely support one of these time zones of functioning.  Now think of your own life apart from where you’ve been or where you live.

How do you tend to make decisions?

What influences the way you perceive the satisfaction with your life or your happiness?  And what gets in the way?

Are you holding on to a past story that is keeping you stuck in the suffering?

Or are you paralyzed by a fear of the future?

Or are you desperately searching for ways to avoid being uncomfortable in the now – a way to escape, check out or try to immediately gratify something that would benefit from more attention, more mindfulness and a pause in the action?

We will find a deep sense of satisfaction with our life if we can pay closer attention to staying in the moment and present to what’s in front of us and not allow ourselves to get too wrapped up in yesterdays hurt or tomorrows fears.

Because we might actually be “powerful beyond measure”

For my first blog entry on amindfultherapist, I thought it would be appropriate to address beginnings.  Is there something you’ve intended to do for a while now?  Or something you’ve been thinking about starting?  Anything from going back to school to tackling something new at work – sometimes we stop ourselves from having a successful start to something out of fear.  Not the obvious fear of failing, but the hidden one of actually succeeding.  Marianne Williamson put it best in her famous quote on this matter:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

– Marianne Williamson

Sometimes what slows us down the most is the external noise from others – both real and perceived.  We recoil from starting something big because other people actually speak their own fears on the subject.  These fears from others are also both based in fear of failure and success. Other people sometimes have reason to get nervous about something for us.  But the thing to remember is sometimes they are afraid we will achieve.  Those around us are most comfortable when they have our role figured out and if we go changing it, that might put them in a less familiar place.  People can become uncomfortable with the idea that we will begin a process of transformation or a change that will take us away from who they think we are.

But in order to continue to evole and grow and change, the noise from the outside world, or from our inside world, cannot slow us down.

So how do we handle our own resistance?  Sometimes it’s helpful to stop and notice what’s coming up for us around procrastinating a beginning.  Take a moment to suspend those thoughts and ask yourself are they realistic?  Or necessary?  Or helpful?  Or are they based in my own fear or distortion or the fears, real or imagined, from others around us?  If they are, can we begin a process to re-frame the way we think about a new beginning?  Can we summon up the courage to start a process?  Can we see that sometimes half of getting it done is getting it started?  Can we also recognize that the time will go on before us and that in 2 weeks, 2 months or 2 years we could still be thinking about doing this, or we could be DOING it?

I hope this first blog entry on beginnings will inspire you to step into action and belief that you might actually be “powerful beyond measure” and start evaluating what’s getting in your way and get started!

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