Jan 12, 2017
Nov 28, 2016
Oct 22, 2015
Change is a coy maiden.
Ehem…Seriously, Pearl? You’re a modern woman… What’s with the outdated metaphor ?
Sure, change is slippery. Yada. Yada. And pursuing it like it’s hard to get is a familiar story. You know the drill:
Fix your mind on the specific outcome you wish to accomplish and don’t stop until you’ve triumphantly reached your Everest like say… “Iceman.” Brrrrr. But if you’re more like me, focus of this magnitude has never come easy.
It’s more like don’t stop until you’ve collapsed in a heap of self-loathing because your willpower has failed you yet again.
Change is a subatomic particle.
Slip off your high heels coy maidens, it’s science nerd victory dance time. Nice one, Pearl! It’s true. Much like an observing eye collapses many possibilities into one fixed outcome in the world of quantum physics, (Fellow nerds, check out this super simple explanation of wave function collapse) when we harness intentionality as the guide to our change process, we miss a thousand emergent possibilities that are already in operation within us.
This is actually good news for those of us who struggle with our culture’s strategically oriented, action plan-y form of change, which hinges on identifying habits that don’t serve us and willing ourselves into a new pattern.
There is another way to change our lives.
An ineffable, kinda quantum crazy way.
If you like the idea of a route to change that doesn’t turn you into your own harshest wrastling coach, I’ve gathered some pointers for you. First though, you may find the story of my resistance to a checklistless path to change illuminating.
I’d set my mind on it. It was to be a suuuuuper reeeeestful Summer. Over a period of months, I was wrapping up the three trainings I’d been staffing under master META teachers, sometimes up to two weekends a month. On top of this, I was juggling business tasks, getting up and running in my new office. My practice was nearly full, not to mention the rest of my life.
Even though all this go, go, go whipped me up into frenzy sometimes I, like the rest of the western world, find myself at home in action mode. If I am accomplishing something I am somebody.
But I was exhausted.
I knew it was time for a change. I was ready for the spaciousness my approaching wide, open schedule would afford. Rather than jumping right into the next thing, I decided, it was time to relax. I’d take stock of all I’d achieved. I’d integrate. Well… old habits die hard, my friends.
In setting my sites on rest, some very well oiled wheels were set in motion.
How had colleagues approached this process, I wondered. I began gathering opinions and evaluating options. I put a lot of thought into organizing my calendar. How much time should I set aside for self-care? Did I need a vacation? I scheduled… and rescheduled. Collected podcasts and a list of movies I'd watch.
I bought some new office supplies. Waited (the clock was ticking for crying out loud) for relaxation to show up. No dice. I declared the upcoming year an intentional break. Out loud. No trainings. No additional projects. I set about organizing all my META notes. Planned a party in my new office. I had it all laid out.
And somehow, each day slipped by in a blur of hyper-vigilance. It was amazing. I managed to totally stay out of my body and up in my head for weeks on end. And no amount of Yoga or quiet sitting seemed to make a lick of difference. It was an entire Summer of restless resting.
Looking back, I can see where I went wrong. I approached resting the same way I approached everything else. The “Iceman” way.
It wasn’t until just a few weeks ago when I celebrated with my first client ever, the anniversary of our four-year journey together, a bit of “Quantum” emergent change slipped in under the radar.
My client and I were sitting together criss-cross apple sauce, on the floor of my office. Between us on my tiny table, sat an also tiny chocolate pie. Yes, with candles.
I was struck by a deep reverence for her journey, all the way to my bones; I realized she is simply not the same person she was when she first came to my office. We remembered her “motorcycle” and revved ours up together, in commemoration. She’d conjured one, with my support back then, to access her strength, ever-present but hidden within the confusion of her circumstances. And when we blew out the candles, it was like... something rearranged.
Champagne and Shish-kabobs!
This was my celebration too.
And the truth I’d been chasing for months:
I’ve arrived; I’m a successful psychotherapist in private practice.
I am capable of supporting deep healing and change.
I am finished with work that saps my life energy.
I am no longer ruled by my “depression.”
All of this has taken a damn impressive amount of courage.
...simply arrived. No efforting or intention needed.
In a moment of connection and presence, the truth of the life I’d been living, but not exactly experiencing, shimmied into consciousness from a deep place of knowing within me.
And it stuck. I feel different.
A solid foundation for emergent change requires a whole different skill set than we’re used to. We need to set down our checklists and our discipline and put our trust in something ineffable. And because I know how much anxiety that creates in us do-aholics, I’ve done my very best to translate this being state into some actionable directives. If they don’t feel action-y enough for you please imagine your own exclamation marks:
Without the connected presence of my partner, my friends, my colleagues and supervisors and let’s not forget my therapist, I could have never made it through the transition from crazy over-stimulating work place that shook my confidence every day to therapy practice where it’s my job to sit and attend to some of the bravest people I’ve ever met. Others being here with me, even when I couldn’t feel them, when I didn’t believe them or like them, when I dismissed and fought them, kept the macramé owl tapestry of strategies that totally clashed with my present day interior decor, unraveling.
Of course… you will be required to…
#2: Feel Stuff
Sorry guys. Pros in my field call this “affect.” And experiencing heightened emotions with a supportive other, opens closed neural networks to transformation. This works with the positive feelings, as it did in my anniversary moment, but it also works with the difficult ones. Tolerating emotions that seem unbearable rather than skipping town, freaking out or shutting down, in the supportive presence of another, we learn parts of ourselves, which were never welcome in the past, are actually welcome now.
Iceman visioning and self-control does not reach our deeper implicit system where overwhelm, emotional disconnect, and the urgency that keeps us operating in overdrive hold court. Your executive functioning is a damn powerful tool. The trick is to enlist it to…
#3: Notice what’s happening right now.
Tear your attention away from the ten-thousand things going on out there to the subtle shifts and changes that are already happening “in here.” Basically, what I’m saying is sit back and kindly observe your own madness. I know, it sounds like torture. And the act of attending primes your brain with Acetylcholine, the learning neurotransmitter. FYI Noticing is not analyzing. Check out Dan Siegel’s Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation for more info on this. And finally, this is where I lose you….
#4: Stop trying to change.
Why do we keep counting on the brain that created the problem to solve the problem? Isn’t there a pithy saying about this? Let’s get down to the brass tacks shall we? You are working too hard. When you drive yourself to achieve, you close off access to a whole host of natural motivators right here in your brain.
Some of your most powerful brain-based pharmeceuticals spark up, when you for instance:
Connect deeply to what you really want
Let yourself get excited about something new
You feel the goodness of how far you’ve traveled along your own journey to healing.
So yeah. There it is.
My thoroughly unsatisfying checklist. Coming across this, not even 4 years ago, I kind woulda wanted to punch me in the face.
Great. I’ll just do all that.
Thanks for nothing.
I’ve been vigilently drafting this blog now for weeks. Writing and rewriting these words, over and over, obsessing, seeking some perfection I will never get to. And just now... I catch myself. I recognize it. The urgency. The push. The striving. I know enough now to pause.
To listen inside. I want something, I realize. I want so desperately for you to know…
You are not alone.
I keep trying with these words to cross the space and time between us. To connect. To get the message across. But these tools can only create a code. Because the something I want you to get lives beyond words and ideas.
So right here, I’ll slow myself down. I’ll accept this is my best attempt. This translation from the heart. I’ll trust my sharing a piece of my own journey is a gift. I’ll show you in my flawed human way, you are not alone in your healing process.
Here I am smack dab in the middle of mine...
still trying and failing
still bumping up against familiar frustrations
still reaching out and watching and feeling lost and getting support and collapsing and wanting something but not knowing what it is.
And the bringing myself back
from the ever compelling edge of “working on myself,”
to the anti-task of just being with my imperfection
will have to be enough.
Jun 25, 2015
Last month, I touched briefly on the four different attachment states we human animals move in and out of as we engage with others and the world. This month, I’d like to delve more deeply into Dismissive-Avoidance.
We westerners have an ironic relationship with Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment. On the one hand, our entire damn culture is built on the deification of independence. Let’s say I’m naïve enough to survey ye olde citizens of the grand ole US of A. Lend me your ears, readers.
Which is better?
Admit it. You didn’t even blink before answering.
Western society is thoroughly biased to value our capacity to do “it,” whatever it may be, ourselves. It cheerleads our ability to figure it out all on our own and commends our individuation. There’s no escaping our boot-strappin’, rags to riches, clinginess-shunning mythology. We manifest. We actualize. What need would we have for need? Am I right?
Isn't it confusing then that pop self-help advises we steer clear of particularly independent mates?
I’ve mentioned in the past, a useful resource, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find and Keep Love. I recommend it, all be it tentatively, as an introduction to Attachment “Styles,” for those of you concerned your attachment tendencies may be impacting your intimate relationships.
Here’s a snippet from Levine and Heller’s Q&A page describing what to look for when trying to determine: Is your potential love interest Avoidantly Attached?
Does he or she send mixed signals? Does she or he say intimate things like “when we move in together” and later act as though you don’t have a future together? Does he or she have a history of not being able to maintain a long-term relationship?
You can’t help but come away with the impression it is those people (the tenders towards self-reliance, the “arms distance” relational types among us) it’s in our best interest to identify and avoid. Here’s the thing… Anxious Preoccupied adults will just as easily exhibit many of these signs.
Any deeply insecurely attached adult will struggle with ambivilence around relationship.
You Anxious “types,” in your preoccupation with finding a mate, are just more likely to pick up a book for support. Dismissive "types" have feelings too! They've just learned to keep their insecurity hidden. Sometimes even from themselves.
I guess it’s just a bee in my bonnet, self help’s tendency to offer some kind of magic recipe: Want security? Just find a secure mate. It's a bunch of Baloney.
But I’m guessing you know as well as I do, a list to parse out is your potential mate secure? It's not going be the magic pill. And as helpful a primer on recognizing secure attachment as Attached may be, the book speaks in over-simplifications, which ultimately trivialize a wide-ranging struggle for self and relational security.
And I’m dedicated, by offering a therapy that gets to the root of these struggles, to supporting “us” and “them” via a deeper understanding of what’s at play here.
I stumbled upon poet Matthew Siegel’s tender…
[Sometimes I don’t know if I’m having a feeling]
… and I immediately recognized the Dismissive Avoidant Attachment template. It offers a nuanced portrait and invites understanding and empathy rather than fear and finger pointing. Here's the poem in full:
Sometimes I don’t know if I’m having a feeling
so I check my phone or squint at the window
with a serious look, like someone in a movie
or a mother thinking about how time passes.
Sometimes I’m not sure how to feel so I think
about a lot of things until I get an allergy attack.
I take my antihistamine with beer, thank you very much,
sleep like a cut under a band aid, wake up
on the stairs having missed the entire party.
It was a real blast, I can tell, for all the vases
are broken, the flowers twisted into crowns
for the young, drunk, and beautiful. I put one on
and salute the moon, the lone face over me
shining through the grates on the front door window.
You have seen me like this before, such a strange
version of the person you thought you knew.
Guess what, I’m strange to us both. It’s like
I’m not even me sometimes. Who am I? A question
for the Lord only to decide as She looks over
my résumé. Everything is different sometimes.
Sometimes there is no hand on my shoulder
but my room, my apartment, my body are containers
and I am thusly contained. How easy to forget
the obvious. The walls, blankets, sunlight, your love.
Beneath the presentation of self-reliance, the aloofness and dismissals, many who might fall into the designation of Avoidant Attachment are not only as capable of connection as their Anxiously Attached counterparts but desire it just as deeply.
Popular books like Attached, in their attempt to identify a problem with a straight-forward, marketable solution, though helpful to some at a surface level, perpetuate misconceptions. It serves no one to arm one insecure attachment “type” with a weapon against the other. There is no bad guy. No pariah to blame for our insecure relationships. Levine and Heller have got one thing right. Drs. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon, say it beautifully in the brilliant, A General Theory of Love:
Total self-sufficiency turns out to be a daydream… Stability means finding [someone] who regulate[s] you well and staying near them.
There’s a way the self-help industry, the books, the online programs, the inspirational talks can actually work against healing. I'll vote for an informative, poetic read like Lewis, Amini and Lannon's everytime.
Now don’t get me wrong. Self-help saved my life. I ate it up during the long period of my life, which I spent needing support (like everybody else) but not yet able to reach out due to the wired in misinterpretations of my attachment templates. My voracious reading offered new insights, contextualization, the possibility maybe I wasn’t crazy. But I also compared myself to each and every success story. What was I doing wrong?
I remember a crazy, ironic conversation just after college and my move to the West Coast. I was getting an ear full from some co-workers to whom I desperately wanted to feel connected. I'd finally made that clear to them somehow and their faces scrunched up in bemused confusion. Pretty gently actually I remember they reflected their impression of me: my aloofness, my disinterest. I was invisibly heartbroken. In pictures of myself from that period, I look unapproachable even to myself. It was nobody’s job to save me. I realize now I was disconnected, out of touch even with my wants and needs...
One part of me desparate for one thing, love, connection, another part, just as desparate to hold me back, to dismiss and avoid. Connection and security were illusive because I was illusive.
If we go by appearances, we miss so much. I couldn’t know it at the time, I had blinders on, but I was on my journey. My long, slow journey to wholeness. We’re all on our journey. Even those Avoidant types.
May 18, 2015
Knowing more about your attachment system could improve your job performance. But more than that, it could change your outlook, change how you feel at work every day.
“My attachment system? You mean the Buddhist idea that I am clinging to ideas, expectations, desires, and this creates daily suffering in my work life?”
“Hmmmmm… You must mean the tangle of electrical cords I have wedged between my desk leg and the cubicle wall.”
Though I imagine further knowledge of either of these systems could be helpful. Think back to Psych 101. Think babies (parents and other infant lovers of the world, you know what I’m talking about.) Think bonding. That attachment system.
“Ohhhhhh. Sure. But what does that have to do with my life at work now?”
One thing you likely know better than anyone else. That crazy job you go to every day? It’s impossible. How about we start there? Your daily workload, if we are realistic about what one human can actually accomplish in a day, it’s three jobs worth. And there’s no end to the expectations placed upon you, which creates a perfect storm for the ongoing activation of your nervous system’s alarms. Though you may have whole hearted reasons for choosing the demanding reality of the world of your work place, or be in denial about it...
Your body is fully aware and waving orange flags at you that I’ll suggest, if you begin to heed them, could change your experience at work.
These orange flags, tell you you’ve slipped into an “insecure attachment state.” I like to think of these systems as states, not styles (as much of the popular literature titles them) because they are not static. You may be secure most of the time, but when you get assigned to work with your district’s project manager, you find yourself swimming in insecurity. Or maybe on the other hand you struggle with a lot of anxiety, it may feel like your set point… but when you are salsa dancing or refinishing your kitchen or on the beach at Manzanita, you feel solid and full of hope.
Adult Attachment Theory and current research on the structure of the Autonomic Nervous System is leading scientists to believe your attachment system is far more important to your well being in adulthood than ever before acknowledged. Your general level of security or insecurity, not just in your intimate partnerships but also in navigating the ins and outs of your daily life rests, according to attachment theory, in some part on your experiences in early childhood.
Basically…. your attachment system is coloring your whole world. Learning how to recognize when your attachment system gets activated and, rather than feeling at its mercy, how to enlist it in service of your success and fulfillment at work is a worthwhile project.
So, what the heck is this so-called, “Attachment System,” anyway? It all started with your upbringing, where the unique, relational environment you grew up in required you to develop a particular system of responses designed to maintain connection to your primary caregiver.
This habituated set of responses, is what researchers have termed, your Attachment System. We can shift in and out of any of the 4 basic states listed below.
When you are in a Secure Attachment State you experience a sense of solidness, which is more than just a presentational confidence; it’s a felt sense of well-being. Your nervous system relaxes, you feel at ease with who you are, and drawn to supporting and connecting with others.
When you are in an Anxious Preoccupied Attachment State you are focused on others at the expense of yourself. You may try to please others or over obligate yourself without any awareness of your own limits and end up feeling resentful and frustrated.
When you are in a Dismissive Avoidant Attachment State, other’s perspectives feel irrelevant or unworthy of consideration and co-workers themselves may feel like a nuisance. Although you may superficially prefer to work independently, your lack of trusted allies in the office is a source of internal stress.
When you are in a Fearful Avoidant State you feel a confusing push pull between your need for support, which is necessary to maintain equilibrium and a strong resistance to and mistrust of connection. If you have slipped into a Fearful Avoidant Attachment State, you may worry constantly about how others perceive you and struggle with self- doubt.
So what can you do if you recognize yourself in one of these Insecure Attachment State Descriptions? How can you support yourself to shift back into security?
You can start by noticing and asking yourself a very important question:
What is happening right now?
What’s happening in my body?
Your body is trying to take care of you. And sometimes it gets confused. By paying close attention to the energetic subtleties of your experience, You can gather data about what works for you at work and make adjustments to your environment accordingly.
What’s really happening around me?
Those buzzing sensations in your extremities and the flutters in your chest, the warm rush of blood to your face… These all have something to tell you. Fight, flight and freeze messages engage resources we need to act when we are in danger. Most of the time, I’m going to guess, you are not actually in danger at work. Is what your body is telling you useful or is it off track? Intentionally practicing reality checks helps our survival system down shift.
Next ask yourself:
Where is real support?
What do I need right now?
Once you recognize your attachment system has been triggered and you become familiar with what that feels like in your body, you can begin to listen in a little deeper. True self-connection is an experience of confidence, clarity and a feeling of rightness. So if you are confused or arguing with yourself you haven’t gotten there yet. Deep listening takes time.
Where can I get what I need?
Sometimes we drop in and learn, what we need is some self-care. Have a list of the tried and true methods that work for you. Yet, as difficult as it may be to act upon, often the real antidote for the feelings of insecurity that trouble us is to reach out and connect. Is there one person at your worksite who you could risk reaching out to? Try it. See what happens.
So… can we forget about nepotism, my hard working friends? Real job security is born of a different kind of connection.
Connection to ourselves and our deeper experience. And to those around us who support us well.
Now there’s a recipe for success I can get behind. Who’s with me?
Apr 2, 2015
Maybe you've seen this video in a Psychology 101 class? I saw it for the first time at a brain wise instruction training, during my years as a Special Education Teacher. The facilitator stopped the video after the game and requested we raise our hands when we agreed she’d called out the correct number of passes.
“How many counted 12?” I was so sure I’d counted right. “13?” I watched my colleagues raising their hands as I waited. Wrong. “14?” Wrong. Wrong. I thought smugly. “How many counted 15 passes?” I raised my hand with confidence. Yup. I was thinking to myself, as she continued to shout out numbers for the poor slobs, who counted 16, 17, 18, I was somebody. Sure I was a little frazzled with scrambling to keep us with my paperwork. And teach. And consult with teachers. And orient parents to a confounding system.
I could “selectively attend.” And this they told us and we told our kids over and over was a skill required for success. I was going to be ok.
When the whole gorilla thing was revealed, I was quietly, inconspicuously incredulous. The facilitator shared matter of factly that successful students do not see the gorilla. Yada yada. Selective attention was an essential skill for completing the academic tasks set forth by their teachers… Yeah. Yeah. Of course kids needed these skills.
We spent workshop after workshop focused on Executive Functioning. Let’s get to the special talents of the gorilla seers. Right? I mean there were 20 of them in the workshop with us. Folks who’d seen the gorilla. But that was the last we saw or heard of the gorilla and the gorilla seers…. Well, they were just pulled along like the rest of us in non-gorilla seeing activities designed to support less gorilla seeing.
Are we all appreciating the absurdity of this scenario? The good students don't see a gorilla walking into the room?
And as I reflect back I’m struck, it’s a crazy apt metaphor for not only my entire career as an educator but for the experience of every special education student I ever taught. The gorilla in the middle of the room was never attended to. My student's brilliant strategies (all diagnosable by our special education system and habituated because that’s how brains are designed to work, people, duh) were seen as obstacles to the important (um, arbitrary) task of pass counting.
Adaptations students consciously or unconsciously assumed to manage the sensitivity of their own physiology or to thrive in their families of origin or to survive traumas they may not even remember were deemed irrelevant under the auspices of education.
The acting out, the spacing out, the falling apart, the perseveration, the anxiety, the lack of impulse control, the defiance, the disorganization: Gorillas we best not make any meaning of.
On to pass counting everyone.
Which brings to mind two attention related “conditions” that have been showing up in my practice lately. See if you recognize yourself:
Meet the terminally “Crazy Person” driven beyond her capacity to achieve. She hates to admit it but she kind of thrives on the intensity her hyper-focus creates. No… it’s exhausting. “Completing the task is my world,” she obsessed. Matching her unattainable ideal, the rest of her life becomes a blur in the background.
The “Space Cadet” can’t focus to save his life. He’s scattered, zoned out, his teachers all diagnosed him with ADD. Informally at least. “I’m full of ideas but follow through, that’s another story,” he seems to parrot. A required task is just one of 10,000 places to rest his attention. He’s overwhelmed, lost in time and his body? What body? Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like he has one. So here’s the thing.
These states are not pathological. They are grounded in adaptive physiological mechanisms designed to support our survival.
Yes. Yes they are uncomfortable and you’re ready for something that feels better. I’m just out here to cheerlead for recognizing, even celebrating the embedded strength. Cupcakes Anyone?!?
So the skills. What are they?
Fellows in "Crazy"… We’ve got U.S. Grade A Certified Directed Focus on our side. Sound the trumpets. Award ceremony and celebration dinner for everyone!
"Space Cadets"… A round of applause for Mind Wandering. Ehem. Yeah. When was the last time you got recognized at the company picnic for your expert mind wandering skills?
Our culture? We like Crazy. Those of us who run around, checking tasks off our to-do lists, full of consternated concentration, absorbed in our single minded pursuits of predetermined goals… Hell yes.
We look good. Society supports us. And I want to say it out loud it’s an unnamed privilege, this capacity to jump through the hoops of our Western Institutional bias towards executive functioning. Can I get a capital CEO in the house? “Crazy People” are our productivity-focused culture’s darlings. We know how to git shit done. And yet it’s pretty hard with all this positive reinforcement to get off the gerbil wheel, I've noticed.... Meanwhile, how are our “Space Cadets” fairing?
Our genius eccentrics, our artists, our empaths, our synesthetes? We are getting diagnosed with disorders, struggling to figure out what the point of it all is, working it to get through school or find work somebody'll pay us for.
We’re out on the edges looking in watching a world skewed to dismiss us. Or pity us. Or tokenize us. Or coopt our sensibilties to pay the stakeholders. If we’re going to make it, we have to make our own way. But more and more research is pointing to the importance of the brain’s default network, a system of interconnected brain regions that lights up when the mind is at rest.
Many scientists are hypothesizing some of our uniquely human traits, our creativity, our self-reflection and perspective taking, maybe based here. *See a couple references to interesting articles on this material below.
And here’s the other thing. Did you notice I said states not types. Types are fixed and defining. States come and go. They are spectral. They are not “terminal.”
You are not disordered. You are complicated.
These states are not black or white. You can step back from what you think you know and pay attention to what’s true at a deeper, subtle level. Most of us need support for this. Humans were designed to be in connection. You’re all different for crying out loud.
And and it's possible to separate inspiration from urgency, longing from collapse, disembodiment from wistfulness. You can choose competence and leave out haranguing, keep passion and let histrionics go. It takes patience to experience yourself fully. And kindness, don't forget kindness. It requires focusing your attention and opening to discovery.
From here our range of choices is wide. Sure, we can count passes if we need to but we can wonder too... when a guy in a gorilla suit shows up and nobody sees him, does he make a sound?
Super nerds like me may want to check out:
The Dark Matter of the Human Brain ~a discussion of research exploring the glia cells in the brain.
Rest Is Not idleness ~ an exploration of discoveries related to the default brain network and their implications for education.
Gorillas Agree: The Human Frontal Cortex is Nothing Special ~ a look at some theorys of brain function that espouse interconnectedness as the distinctly human x-factor.
Jan 23, 2015
Mark Epstein is one of my heroes and an early inspiration for my choosing to move towards the field of psychotherapy. If you are not familiar with him or his work, he is a psychiatrist in private practice, with his eye on how Buddhist Psychology and Practice interface with and support the world of helping people live the lives they wish to lead. My introduction to Buddhism was a life-saver in my personal healing process.
I remember vividly the moment I realized, all my negative thinking, if I related to it differently, could have much less to do with the reality I moved through day to day.
I was walking, one Fall morning, enjoying the colors and the briskness in the air, when without my awareness, a deluge of thought garbage had absorbed my perfectly lovely day. I was cycling in a disembodied whirlwind of resistance to my experience. My analytic mind kicked in to try to figure this out. Comparing and finding fault. I must need to be different it seemed to tell me. And I was outa there. I’d taken off, my bags packed for anywhere but the gorgeous Fall day of my present moment reality. This whole experience fed on itself. There must be something wrong with me. Deep shame set in.
Those of you who have spent some time committed to an attentional practice, know how sometimes a new way of perceiving your surroundings will just show up in the midst of your day and surprise you. A moment like this (insight is the Buddhists’ name for them) came upon me this day. I woke up suddenly to my mind’s trap. For the brain nerds among you, something enabled me to turn on my cortical mind and I was struck by the incongruity of my internal experience to the reality of my surroundings. It was a beautiful day. I love Fall. Something was amiss.
I’d learned a bit about paying attention, about recognizing these thought trains that take us to hell. My meditation practice had increased my ability to let them pass through the station. And maybe because the day was so glorious, rather than hopping on and heading for my usual destination, I was able to wake up and notice my real life surroundings.
A question showed up where certainty used to live.
Shifting out of submission mode and into a sense of possibility is a whole body felt sense. And it feels good. Curiosity ya’ll? It’s medicine. This was the beginning of my own long journey back home. To my body and its wealth of resources. To my place in this connected reality.
I read all of Mark Epstein’s books. They spoke to a deep place in me that needed some talking to. They were orienting. So, when I heard he was going to be in town talking about his new book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, it was like (your favorite band) was coming to town. Nerdy, I know.
He was soft-spoken, humble in the way truly wise people are wise. And at the talk, Epstein shared, a tender tale, a parable really, exploring the consequences of living life in our heads that I want to share. I’m taking liberties as I imagine a first person re-telling will best do it justice.
I was on retreat, immersed in a rather troublesome weekend of navigating the dark recesses of my mind, when a strange realization arose:
I was obsessively craving, of all things, toast.
Sometimes when I meditate, I can get into that lovely elated la la land state, the state I’m imagining Buddha hung out after he “obtained” enlightenment, the place where boundaries melt away and I’m floating careless and sun-drenched with a cooler packed on the lazy river of life. Not this weekend. Throughout our time on retreat, Monks (monks!) cooked us healthy, delicious vegetarian food. They cleaned our dishes. They swept up the hall after our meals. What more could I want, right?
Well, bread of course. Toasted. With butter. For days, as I rather perfunctorily consumed my meals, I focused on what was missing. (I am expert at this by the way!)
So Day 10 comes around, our last day of retreat and what do they have for us? Well, bread wouldn't you know! Loaves of it, freshly baked in ovens right on the grounds. Sure, they were gluten free but I wasn’t complaining. “Look at me, accepting what I have. Nice job, Pearl!” I congratulated myself. By this time, my mind had settled a bit. I’d been practicing mindful eating as an antidote to my obsession. I noticed I was deeply attentive to the smells in the air, to the shuffle of my cohorts’ feet, the shimmying of the birch trees in the breeze. I was feeling good.
I sliced a warm piece from a crusty loaf just pulled from the oven. Though it was already warm, I really wanted it toasted, as it had been in my imagination. So I gentled it into the toaster and browned it to perfection. Then I sat down to enjoy it. I took the first bite. Savored the flavors and as the teaching suggests. I chewed one whole bite, swallowed and paused to appreciate its deliciousness before taking the next. I began thinking about some of the talks from the retreat and how meaningful they were to me. I reflected back on the moment before bed the first night. I’d been so worried about how 10 days would go and look at me now. Pretty. Darn. On it. If I could have, I totally would have high fived myself. I was heading home that day. It would be important for me to make plans for my transition back to reality. Man, I reflected, I'd had some rough re-entry experiences! It’s crazy how different the world is in here than out there. It will be a good idea to avoid the highways on the drive home. I’d heard stories of folks driving after retreat and getting into accidents. People just don’t pay attention. I would choose to do it differently. No need to jump into the crazy pace right away…
And when I looked down… my toast was gone!
“Who stole my toast!?!”
When Mark offered up this punch line, I fell in love. I frickin’ love this story. LOVE. I love it for the way it captures the innocence of our shared human experience. The confusion. The disappointment. The childlike outrage at the unfairness of life. And yet it also leaves us delighted and surprised.
For me, the story offers up the gentleness we are all going to have to cultivate for ourselves if we are ever going to travel the long, hard road to reality. There’s a reason we live in an alternate reality, whether it’s the somewhat innocuous meanderings of the unsuspecting, planning mind or the penetrating negativity of depression. A good, good reason. And so no matter how much toast you have eaten while you were away, it is good to be kind and to gently hope for a different experience.
It can feel daunting when we wake up somewhere along the way in our lives, ready to be here, like a kind of battle with the thousand ways we have learned to leave the present moment. In these difficult moments, we must try to remember at the time we learned them they were essential. Which brings us back to the trauma of everyday life. Robert Stolorow, another psychoanalyst and philosopher whose ideas have changed the way I see the world, says in addition to the truly shocking, life altering interpersonal violence and disastrous events, the DSM-V deems traumatizing, trauma (a word I’d love a replacement for, it’s so pathologizing) can occur in a much broader context.
He says our emotional pain must find a “relational home,” if it is going to resolve. This term he’s coined: relational home, it captures an essential human experience. Unresolved emotional pain equals trauma. How many of us could say we haven't been traumatized by this definition? As little ones we needed a home for our pain, struggle and confusion. A secure container where we were helped to understand what was happening to us, was not just something that would have been nice, it was a requirement if we were going to learn that being at home in our families, in our bodies, in our world was a good idea.
We can learn that coming home, that being right here in the home of our bodies, is not only safe but a powerful resource. Like on that fall day so many years ago… that perspective shift moment, when some new learning had begun for me.
The pain of these dark places we take ourselves, is not pathology.* It is the residue of a heroic attempt to escape a home that didn't offer us the reflection and holding we needed. It is the innocence, the confusion of that child we once were, not knowing better because we were never taught: Connection is the salve for our emotional wounds. It is the signal to connect to our environment, to others, to ourselves.
Oct 31, 2014
How many times have you wished for a do-over? Wished you had some kind of time machine (who remembers the flux capacitor?!?) that could take you back to some horrendously flubbed or just plain horrendous life experience for a re-do? You replay the scene in your imagination again and again and it’s always the same result. How would your life be different if somehow you could step back into that moment right before whatever it was went down and like magic… the someone you needed was there, you said the right thing, the missing something that should’ve happened, happened or maybe you could just see the situation for what it really was through your current eyes.
I spent a good portion of 13 years in classrooms as a Special Educator for PPS scanning for impending disaster. On alert for the reprimand I was certain was moments away. I literally felt threatened at work everyday. I was constantly self-evaluating, plagued by perfectionism and thoroughly believed I was incompetent and ineffectual. There were long periods when if I'm honest with myself... I hated my job. The belief, the absolute truth of the matter: there was something wrong with me. I couldn’t shake it.
In comes the time machine…
Only a few years later, I moonlight as a substitute teacher. All the stories you hear… they’re true. So imagine my surprise when I discover I frickin’ love it. Today… I spent about 4 hours corralling 12 highly energetic, test-test-testing 12 year olds, with a smile on my face (sans the VERY SERIOUS looks and accompanying stern instructions I’ve learned to sprinkle throughout our time together to ensure the room itself and everyone it in remain in tact.)
I am struck every day I’m in a classroom by the ease I feel… with students, with the staff I meet, I’m struck by my willingness to flow with the reality of what’s in front of me, to know… there’s only so much I can do here. Something I could never allow myself through my years of teaching.
How could I feel so different?
Now sure, Subbing is different. Obviously. At the end of the day, the education of these children is not my responsibility. A relief. Yet still I can feel I’ve changed. I’m taking in the environment differently. There’s something in me that’s let go. That trusts. It’s a revelation. Subbing’s offered me a do-over.
So, what gives?
The discovery... I have an attachment system.
You’ve probably heard about attachment on the internet. You’ll find attachment related parenting advice. There’s some online quizzes you can take to learn more about your patterns in intimate relationship… A pop psychology book, which I have some issues with but it’s a good intro to the topic if you are unfamiliar.
So… your attachment system. Yes… you have one too…
It began forming during your earliest bonding experiences and your caregivers’ ongoing attunement or lack of it created a basic foundation, shaky or solid, from which you engage with the world. With the right bonding experience, you’ll move through the world basically secure and self-connected and therefore able to explore and enjoy the world. With an inconsistent or unpredictable bond, life itself can feel kind of scary. If your caregivers were unavailable you can end up out of contact with what’s actually going on with you much of the time. You might disregard your own and others feelings and experiences. You can find more detailed information about the basic attachment templates and how they form from some other sources.
But what I can tell you for sure:
Yours is coloring your whole world.
It’s impacting your choice of work, how willing you are to express your preferences, how curious or tentative you are, how easily you’re motivated, how you follow through, what you believe about how the world works, who ruffles your feathers. It impacts your imagination, how much you sleep at night… and the list goes on and on.
Our entire experienced reality is filtered through our attachment system.
Mine set me up to be pretty darn insecure.
But luckily, we can earn secure attachment.
And that’s what I’ve been working to do for myself and my clients over the last few years. I see now through new eyes just how hard on myself I was all those years. I see how confused and afraid I was. If only I’d known I was basing my reality on an old story. I see now how painfully distorted my reality was during those stretches. I was missing so much of the goodness that was available in life.
Knowing something about my attachment system has opened up a whole slough of new options for engaging in the world. Options I could not have even imagined with the mind of that teacher. During a session just yesterday, a client shared with me, her experience was changing. That she was getting it. Ephemeral… strangely subtle and yet, absolutely, obviously true. Something’s different. For one client its the way she feels sitting with her partner. For another, the surprising willingness to speak up in class. For me, it’s about feeling the goodness in the world.
In here. Bones deep.
Understanding how your attachment system operates...
And more importantly, and this is important folks, dedicating real time and attention to your present moment experience with a caring other, brining curiousity to the subtle energies that show up, checking out what's true here and now… This is where real healing happens.
It’s given me a do-over.
Sep 15, 2014
A few weeks back running from one appointment to another, I drop into the Albina Press, in North Portland for a decaf americano. I’m stressed. I can feel the buzz in my body as I run over the 15 things on my to do list for the day. What’s taking so long, I’m wondering? As I impatiently wait for my coffee, I scan the room for a diversion... my gaze lands on this piece of artwork:
Curl up bug!!
My whole state of consciousness shifts. This innocent illustration, drops me into my childhood body. I am transformed. Suddenly I’ve got nowhere to be.
It’s the memory that does it... remembering me in the back yard at my house on Wellington Rd. I am 4, crouched over a patch of dirt between tufts of yellowing Summer grass feeling the scruffy scratch of those tufts between my toes. The cool ground. My knees are bent close to my body, my frog legs little girl chubby.
I am engrossed in that singularly 4 year old way. I remember the joy of nudging the little curl-up bug with my 4 year old fingers with all the gnetleness I could muster. And zzziiiiiiiip! Just like I knew he would, my little bug friend would shut himself up, a perfectly stripey, impenetrable ball. It was the most wonderful thing in the whole world, that curl-up bug. It just never got old to my 4 year old brain.
And here, back in present time at the coffee shop, my cells are awake. Suddenly my to-do list isn’t so urgent. I can feel the world around me again. Hear its sounds. The whoosh of the steamer, the slam of the metal tamper against the knock box, all the coffee drinkers’ murmurs and keyboard clicks, even the barista’s disinterested, “Decaf Americano!” it’s all part of the symphony of my life, all of the sudden. I grab my drink with a new shuffle in my step. Engaged and alive. Expansive. I’m different than I was a moment before.
Many of my clients worry that intentionally shifting from a troubling state is avoiding the hard stuff they need to deal with to heal. Man oh man do I get that. And.... Neuroscience is telling us that’s simply not true.
It’s important to notice how we feel when we are working through difficult emotions or challenging life circumstances.
We can trust our affective experience of what’s happening. We all know the feeling of a good cry or righteous anger. And I’m betting we all know that feeling of looping in emotions that feel stuck or overwhelming or unproductive. There’s a subjective difference and we know it when we feel it. I’m not talking about simple pleasure. I’m talking about that deeper kind of rightness. The kind that just feels wholesome… a deep in our bones, yes. This can be difficult to believe in the context of our puritan training. Training that tells us it’s got to be hard to be worth anything.
But what brain science is affirming is what feels good is good for us. You can trust your body.
So… then it’s simple right? Just… connect to a good memory. Feel good. Go.
Damn everybody’s patented 5 step road to salvation!! The idea that you can download wellness, that all of us have the capacity to think ourselves to health, perpetuates the deeply harmful misperception that emotional well-being is a simple do-it-yourself thinking exercise.
Soapbox alert, people. If you’ve come to this website… or you’re reading my blog, you probably struggle already sometimes with the feeling you’re not doing it right. Motivational speakers and new-age self help gurus with their messages of salvation in 10 chapters haven't got it wrong. It's just they don't get, telling us what to do, isn't going to cut it.
We've got hard packed trails in our brains leading us to familiar destinations. Those of us who’ve spent a lifetime battling negative states are god damned pioneers!! We work harder than anyone, bushwacking new trails, just to feel human in the world. Don’t let the messages of simple fixes send you down the pike of self-denigration.
There is nothing wrong with you, damn it.
I want the popular culture to acknowledge the bravery that’s required to keep walking, keep forging these paths in the world even when it feels like we'll never find our way out. I want them to... well... dare I say it... shut the hell up with their ableist proclamations of instant healing. All that practicing our brilliant stategies, the best tools we had on hand, the tools we were given by our upbringing, requires time and commitment to undo. And maybe there's something about valuing the process in all of this too. I wonder if we could take the quick route, if we'd choose it. Sometimes the best views are off the trail.
And what I’m beginning to believe is what we lack in glass half full thinking, we make up for in:
...and dedication to authenticity
...and beauty and connection and deep, thoughtful living.
We are the meaning makers of the world.
So… here’s what I’ve got for you today my fellow meaning seekers. Try this MP3 to support you to connect to a positive, resourced state. It's not your habit. So you're going to need help. It's no magic pill. But it is a great place to start when you are struggling to reach out.
Notice any resistance to it or analysis of it and celebrate your brilliant, skeptical mind. And if you can, allow some space to drop into a less cognitive connection to the exploration. Can you get curious? Notice everything you can about the shift in your state, as you listen.
Turn your magnificent analytical mind on the task of observing your internal world. Enlist it on your own behalf.
These are the breadcrumbs of one path to a more connected, engaged, secure way of living. Tell me what you think of it. And of course know that a recording for the general public can not follow the particulars of your experience. But it can support you in a way that trying to change your mind on your own will not. It’s not a substitute for the resonant caring of a real person. But… It’s a start.
Jul 17, 2014
The BS Story.
I’m hanging with my new emotion cheerleading friends, when one of them shares she’s in a really difficult place. She shares that in moving towards the vision she has for her life, for herself as the kind of human she wants to be in the world really, she’s come face to face with a character flaw. She can see this flaw and it’s ugly. She names this with a heaviness I recognize. I can feel in myself, the disconnection switch I imagine has flipped in her.
I know a lot about disconnection.
I was a sensitive kid. I cried too much. Past the age when it was considered acceptable to cry. I was tentative connecting with others. I was whiney. At least this is how I saw myself. I wasn't supposed to have feelings. Natural impulses? Needs? All of these were utterly conflated with a sticky sort of gloom that sucked me down, down, down into a very dark place. It was ineffable but pervasive and I felt powerless to outwit it.
Along with the heavy gloom (as if in itself the experience wasn’t bad enough) came this uncomfortable urgency to be anywhere but where I was. My body was a strange and confining package that felt empty and too full all at the same time. If the devil appeared to me in the night with an offer to get rid of my body entirely, I might have taken him up on it.
Though I felt broken and alone, I hid this. I expended an awful lot of my limited energy suppressing the truth of my experience. Putting on a good show. I did this so expertly, even I lost track of what the hell my true experience was. I felt lost in the world and from myself.
Along my way through life, I learned names for my struggle. A therapist who met me once and gave me a checklist of symptoms to tick off, diagnosed me with depression. A disease. Awesome.
The Moniker, depression, was proof there was something wrong with me. It did offer some semblance of a context for how crappy I felt, I suppose....
My next stop was Buddhism. And the name for my problem: attachment. Buddhism taught me I was more than my thoughts. This revelation would change the trajectory of my story from victim of an illness to participant in the human condition. I was no longer alone in my suffering.
Brene’ Brown came next with her vulnerability campaign.* Her definition of shame perfectly defined my experience all those years. Her prescription to share my pain, her naming that empathy is a key tool for healing pointed to the reality that: Humans are interdependent. Hallelujeh! In a world where many mainstream self-help strategies ignore relationship entirely (I’d read every self-help book I could get my hands on, journaled, took up a yoga practice) it was relieving to be given permission to ask for help.
Still, none of these names for my experience quite did the trick. According to what I knew so far:
I “had” depression, an illness, which was orienting. These symptoms I’m having? They are treatable. Ok… better than, “You are beyond all help.”
I could let go of attachments. Buddhism offered me a way to actively participate in my own healing. I could exercise my mind to change my thoughts. Peace seemed possible at least.
I experienced shame, a “psycho-social-cultural construct,” according to Brown. I was a product of my misguided society. Great. It was not my fault.
Why did it still feel like my fault?
Why with all these perfectly reasonable explanations was I still saddled with this strange wordless heaviness.
Surely something was wrong with me.
“Character Flaw,” I say. “Mind if I share another perspective?” She seems reservedly open.
"Here's a way I've learned think about it. There are no character flaws… only brilliant strategies. And we can learn to let them go,” I add, “With support, when they’re no longer useful.”
“Right,” She’s nodding. And there’s a pause, “Right! ...When we’re sick and tired of the same old BS.”
Yes…. I’m calculating letters…. B…. S…. I land on the acronym. YES!! BS!! We are all laughing together now. One small step for the acronym. One giant leap for closeness and connection.
All the bad habits we beat ourselves up for: codependency, perfectionism, over-thinking, avoidance, they are brilliant strategies.
Even that debilitating gloom, that heaviness of mine... It was a brilliant strategy. A tool I picked up at a time I needed it to survive. Not an illness. Not Attachment. Not a psychological, societal, cultural problem to be managed but a brilliant strategy. My depression was a brilliant physiological solution to an otherwise unsolvable problem: my particular family system and it’s impact on my sensitive infant nervous system.
That was the missing piece, accepting my body was trying to do good. It was trying in a rather misguided way to take care of me. I could teach it a new way.
BTW…. I still struggle with depression sometimes. And it still sucks. Big time. What’s changed is I am in the driver’s seat these days.
I’ve learned to pay attention. To simply be with what's true. That I've got other options. And when I fall into that old, familiar BS, I can be kind. And when I'm struggling with kindness, I lean on the people I love to be kind. I can reach out and let in their support.
It’s a damn powerful skill set.
And what's even crazier. I've learned to trust. Trust in the absolute brilliance of my human psyche and physiology in all its strategic forms.
Beyond the thinking mind, we all have access to a profound, experiential knowing. And it's available in me all the time. Connection of this kind, both intra and interpersonally, is a skill we can relearn. It's a natural human capacity and healing in itself.
So... Let's hear it for BS! And let's hear it for the truth of connection.
*Jenn Anderson LPCI and owner of Daring Happiness is a Certified Daring Way Facilitator. She offers The Daring Way, a curriculum based on Brene Brown's research on shame and vulnerability. No doubt you'll learn some mad skills. Here's more info.