I want it my way or, the REAL cure for stress

Everything in my life would be so simple if only everyone did exactly what I want them to do all the time. In fact, that’s so obvious that I can’t really believe I have never said it before.  If you people would just do things the way I want them done, then I wouldn’t have all this stress.

Why can’t you conform to MY expectations?  Why won’t you give up your own needs, desires, and wants in order to  meet mine?   If you won’t do that, then LIFE IS NOT FAIR.

And you know what that means……I’ll have to be all stressed out about life not being fair.

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It isn’t really just people, though.  I want the DOG to do what I want.  And I really, REALLY want the weather to do things the way that I prefer them.  Like I’ve really just about HAD IT with the snow. We are in the middle of yet another blizzard (can I stand to write another blizzard post?) and I want it to JUST STOP.  STOP IT!!!

And that’s where the whole house of cards breaks down.  Becomes pretty funny, actually, when the absurdity is revealed.

I can rail at the weather all I want but it isn’t going to have any effect.  The weather is what it is. I can rail about the dog, too, and I could even do something to separate myself from him or train him to behave differently, but my major complaint is shedding and neither he nor I have any control over that.

We often live in a illusory world where we believe that we should be able to control other people.  We want to control not only how they behave, but often (and more insidiously) how they think and feel.   We want them to LIKE us, or think kindly toward us, or treat us with respect.  We get stressed in our attempts to manage other people’s thoughts about us and their behaviour toward us.  We think we know what’s going on inside other people, we think we can foretell the future based on what we think THEY think, and we think that there is something we can do about it.

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Yes, that’s living in illusion.   A whole whack of layers of illusion.  Imagine the fabric that is called illusion….wedding dress stuff, layers and layers of tulle-like poufyness.  Then imagine what it would be like to have your hold on reality swathed in layers and layers of illusion:  not being able to find the ground, or find what is real….yes, that would be stressful!  Sometime we believe that the solution to the stress is for the other person to just Just Shape Up.  In other words, do what I want you to do, and do it now.  Then I won’t have to be all stressed.

If we look at the weather, the absurdity becomes obvious. If only the weather would cooperate, I wouldn’t have to suffer.  Not true! Suffering is a result of believing that I shouldn’t be inconvenienced. If the weather were perfect, I’d find something else to suffer (be stressed) about.  And I can’t change the weather anyway.  There’s got to be a better answer than that!

There is a better answer, one that actually works. The truth is that our thinking is wrong on two counts.   First, our stress is not a result of other people’s behaviour (or even the weather).  The stress comes from fighting with illusion….fighting imaginary tigers, if you will.  And the second wrong-thinking part is the idea that the cure for my upset (stress) is for the other person (or dog, or the weather) to conform to my expectations.  After all, I shouldn’t be inconvenienced if I haven’t agreed to it. That is not fair.  And that’s a thought a lot of us share.

The cure for stress is to get out of illusion, including the illusions that life contains no inconvenience and that life is fair. Imagine beating your way through the layers and layers of gossamer fabric, wrapped oh so gently around you, encompassing and wrapping you and keeping you in suffering.  The hardest part is to really allow yourself to wonder if you are in illusion. This is actually an empirical question.  It is testable.  You can ask yourself the question…”What do I know?”   And sit with that. What do you really KNOW right here and now? What do I know as opposed to what do I think, believe, or feel to be true?

I start with the things that are incontrovertible.  I know that I am breathing, for example.  I can feel it.  I can stop and notice my breathing.  Yes, I am certain that I am breathing.  Am I alive in my body?   Can I feel my feet on the floor?  Press them right into the floor and feel them there?  Yes.  I am breathing and I can I feel my body, beginning with my feet. So now I know that I am alive, a living organism, having an experience.   What else can I notice?

Then coming back to the upset at hand….what do I KNOW?   What have I seen, heard, observed?   Can I separate that from what I think I know about what I have seen, heard and observed?  For example, can I notice someone’s behaviour without engaging my beliefs about it?  Without the script or storyline? Can I just see what IS without all the layers of how it Should Be or or How I Want It To Be, or How Other People Might Think About It?

It is simple.   But it isn’t easy.  When I ask myself, what do I want to happen in this situation, I can see if I want to control something (or someone) else.  When I ask, what do I really know about this?, then I can better see what my own illusions are contributing

What do I KNOW right here in this moment?  Right here and now, can I separate my moment-to-moment experience from my thoughts, beliefs, plans, memories, concepts, and ideas?  Can I see what is mine and what is someone else’s?  Can I allow other people the same opportunity to be themselves that I want to have in my own life?  And when that becomes possible, what do I notice about my own suffering, or my own stress?

Freedom from illusion isn’t freedom from pain.  But it sure can minimize the suffering.

There’s another blizzard on the way, or, wherever you go, there you are

Yes, I know that Jon Kabat-Zinn already has that title.   I keep reminding myself of the truth of his statement (which probably wasn’t original with him, either) as the next in a series of substantial winter storms moves closer and closer. But my struggle with winter isn’t just about winter.  It is about being present to reality, no matter whether I like that reality or not.

I have a belief that I only have to embrace winter a little and I’ll stop wishing it away.  And so I do embrace winter, sort of.  That is, I have developed a fascination with the light available in the winter, early morning and late afternoon light, especially when there is something developing in the weather.2015-01-24 07.56.47

I love the way that the light stretches over the land, slicing just above the horizon, lengthening shadows and distorting shapes.  I love the way that the tiny sparkles of drifting snow twist and turn in the wind, eddying and flowing and suddenly becoming sharply distinct in the sunlight of midday.

January dawn over the St John river 2015

I love the red of the sky….the pre-blizzard sky.  And I love being at home while the snow is pounding down, puttering in the kitchen, making the house smell spicy and warm, fingers wrapped around hot steaming mugs, wool socks and fleece shirts and even a warm scarf keeping me cosy in the house.

Red sky jan 15

Somehow that’s not enough, though.  That’s not enough of an embrace for me to stop thinking about how much I prefer taking the dog for his walk when I don’t have to spend 15 minutes dressing myself to go outdoors.   I can’t seem to get past a sensation of being closed in, either because of the overwhelming amount of outdoor clothing I require to stay warm (can you say “Michelin Man?”) or the overwhelmingly high snowbanks along the street and even along the sidewalks.  I understand that I ought to be grateful for plowed sidewalks and I am, I truly am.   And I am also struggling with the claustrophobic fear that winter will never, ever be over.

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Yup, those crocuses are supposed to be an image of the hope of spring.  I also know that yesterday was Imbolc, Candlemas, Feast of Saint Birgid, all of those holidays which are supposed to mean the same thing…halfway through winter!  And today is the day for ol’ Punxatawny Phil (my American roots are showing) to let us know the rodent perspective on that.  But you and I both know that today’s blizzard is more like what I should expect, not crocuses, for the next, oh, ten weeks.   Depending on how high and deep that old snow gets piled on top of my crocus bed.

It is a continuous practice for me to try to be present to what IS.  Winter happens to be WHAT IS right now.  I watch myself attend and appreciate and then also watch my thinking slip away into fantasies of summer.  Can I be kind to myself around my inattention?  Can I just notice my thinking….oh, that’s what my thoughts are doing….and bring myself back to here, to now, to Winter 2015?  Can I be present with my own claustrophobia and watch that feeling begin, grow, and then lose traction, as feelings always do?

In someone else’s words, “Don’t wish it away.  Don’t think of it like it’s forever.”  Neither one of those thoughts is helpful.  Both are ways to avoid what is happening here and now. (In case you were wondering, those are lines from an Elton John song that was popular in the 1980s…yes, that long ago….see this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6KYAVn8ons)

Welcome, Blizzard.  Welcome, Life.

Thinking about summer…..summer retreat dreaming….

Morning lupins

 

Well, the weather outside isn’t quite as frightful today as it was yesterday, with a huge, slow-moving blizzard bearing down on us.  It feels more manageable today:  clients are able to get to the office, I can imagine getting the car out of the driveway (thanks entirely to the efforts of the man of the house….many thanks….), and even though we have massive snowbanks, the sun is planning to shine.  I am almost sure.

But thinking about summer does help me to get through this, and particularly thinking about our upcoming Summer Retreat.  This year we are doing something new.  We have located in New Brunswick, on the Bay of Fundy, for our time together.  We’ll be retreating at the Villa Madonna in Rothesay, NB, for five nights in July.  July is typically our most summery month (by August we are getting out the light sweaters again, honest!).  So the time near the water, with beautiful trees and lovely grounds for walking should be a great opportunity for self-reflection and renewal.

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You can get the flyer and registration information on the Summer Retreat page (see the top of this page).  Let us know if you have questions.   Remember, too, folks in the US, that your dollar goes a LONG, LONG way in Canada right now.   And the retreat is structured to end on a Thursday at mid-day, which means there is time to explore the beautiful Maritimes as a tourist, if you are so inclined.

See you in the summer!

Coming of the solstice

Solstice is nearly upon us and none too soon for me.  The short days bear heavily down on me, maybe more particularly because we’ve not seen the sun here for over a week.  I am inclined, as those long-ago ancestors, to wrap up in warm woolies, drink hot toddies by the (imaginary) fire, cuddle up with books and family and good food, and just wait it out.
Christmas tree in snow CPNY2002There is probably more for me here, though.  Why do I turn away from the darkness, resist the cold?  It is something different from my biological need for warmth….I live in a civilized place, after all, with central heating and electric lights.  I am unlikely to die from exposure.  But I still resist and turn inward, avoiding…what?  what would I come in contact with should I just let myself experience that darkness?  Why not play a little with it: look into the dark, sit with it, wait and see what is happening, and then, only then, turn back to the light if need be.  I know, my body and my mind both know, that the sun will return, the light will come again, and that the darkness is a time of rest, renewal and regrowth….I just have to be willing to accept those gifts along with the darkness and the cold.

What does fall evoke in you?

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This week has had warm, humid and sometimes rainy weather as a result of a late season hurricane out there in the Atlantic. That means diffuse light, brightly coloured leaves glossy and wet, and today, a gray morning of fog (mourning?). Grass is still green, leaves are drifting over lawns, and the tang of wood smoke would not be a surprise. Yet fall still feels gentle, moving in quietly but with purpose. There is some sense of movement in fall, though I know that the movement is toward winter.  But I notice in myself that I also feel movement, a shift toward maybe incubating something, a new project, new ideas, or maybe (more subtly) just a change in point of view.  Below are some views from my morning with Max.

 

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Embodied experience….or did I really fall off that cliff?

What’s that experience right before falling asleep? You know, the one where you are just starting to drop off and suddenly awaken with a jerk, feeling like you were falling through space? Yeah, that one.

What’s that experience right before falling asleep?  You know, the one where you are just starting to drop off and suddenly awaken with a jerk, feeling like you were falling through space?  Yeah, that one.

What do you make of that?   2014-08-13 12.23.56Being a scientific sort, I see the whole experience as some simple physiological reaction to the shift between waking and sleeping. But also being a wondering, curious sort, I can also imagine that I am falling between two worlds, really experiencing the liminal in a completely embodied way.  And that’s a much richer, more interesting, more human way to be with my own experience.

I have been thinking a lot about that word, embodied.   In a kind of cold, rational sense, everything we do and everything we are is, in fact, embodied….we ARE our bodies and that’s pretty much that.  But we live a lot in our minds, or perhaps another way to say that is we are often lost in memory or in future planning and often quite willing to experience our body sensations, feelings, and emotions in the most trivial or superficial of ways.  Sort of like when I want to scoff at my hypnagogic moment as a simple physiological phenomenon.

What makes us human beings is our capacity to make meaning out of our experiences.   And when we give that up, for example, if I don’t notice that my chest is tight and my heart beating a bit faster and my breathing becoming more shallow and my toes are curling up, then I give up seeing what meaning an event has for me.   The fact is, events HAVE meaning for us, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not.   We MAKE meaning out of events and when we refused to notice the effect that meaning is having on our bodies, we miss out on a whole range of human experience.

Body psychotherapy helps us to tune in to what the body is experiencing so we can connect to the meanings we are making in our lives.   

In trauma, our bodies know the meaning that we have made of traumatic events even when our minds have shut those events out.  Our bodies re-enact the events, over and over, telling us the stories of  terror and struggle.  We ignore them, trying to overrule from the top down, telling ourselves a different story.   But the body isn’t convinced by words.  The body needs more than platitudes and positive thinking.  It needs to have us acknowledge the meaning that the original event had for us.   That original meaning could be distorted and unrealistic; it could be completely out of whack with the facts.   Particularly when the trauma comes from childhood, the story of necessity has a child’s eye perspective.   But simply switching perspective isn’t usually enough to make lasting change.  The embodied story has to be heard.  The memories have to be unearthed and opened up to fresh air and the stories heard with the compassion and kind curiosity that allows full expression.   Once those meanings are opened up, they become free to change.  The actual work of trauma therapy is allowing the body to bring the meaning of the traumatic event into the room.  Then the body and nervous system can heal themselves.

Embodied experience: tuning into the experience of being alive from the point of view of oneself as an organism….as a human being in a human body.   How do you know when you are “in your body?”   How do you know when you are no longer in touch with those moment-to-moment experiences?  Can you notice the shifts that happen?   Doing grounding exercise can make a difference.  Try this now….take a moment to notice whatever is present to you right now.  Notice the screen, any noises from electronics, any light impinging on you, your body standing or sitting or lying down.  Then stand up and bring your clear attention to the way that your feet connect to the floor.   Bend and straighten your legs a few times, each time pushing your feet deeper into the floor.   Imagine roots going deep into the earth to support you.  Then stop and re-assess….do you experience your body differently?   How much are the external stimuli impinging on you? How aware are you of thoughts and sensations?  Have you moved more “into” your body?   Have you increased your momentary awareness of your body experience?   What meanings do you ascribe to the experience you have just provided for yourself?

Certainly when I am in my bed and feel like I have fallen off a cliff, I have not actually fallen off a cliff.  In fact, I have never fallen off a cliff, so I am not even experiencing a memory.  But I have made a meaning (“falling off a cliff”) for the sensations I experience, and so to me I have fallen off cliffs many times as I drift off to sleep.   The experience is in the body;  the meaning is also in the body.

 

 

Popsicle Days

Here is a picture of my new “therapeutic” intervention.

Popsicle money

 

Yes, it is popsicle money.   I have been carrying popsicle money around with me all summer.  I have spent some hours on the bike path, either on the bike or running (or walking) and carrying my popsicle money with me, just in case I was in a place that had popsicles when I wanted a popsicle.

You may need to know that popsicles are not a regular thing with me.  In fact, they are pretty far off my usual list of foods to eat, and they certainly don’t instill any health benefits.   However, there is an opportunity for pleasure and even fun with those icy treats on a hot day when I have been exercising.  And so my quest for the pleasurable popsicle.

I tried to get one and had to settle for something similar one hot weekend day three miles into a four mile run.   Whatever that concoction of water, sugar and flavour was, it hit the spot.   It was thoroughly enjoyable and I made the very most of it.

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So I am sharing this idea, and in the therapy office, I have put out a tiny bowl full of change for popsicles, along with a sign to encourage people to plan to have some fun, plan for pleasure….plan for a popsicle.  Be prepared because you don’t know when the opportunity might arise to indulge and really, deeply enjoy.
Happy summer!  Happy popsicle days!

Could weeding this garden be my life’s purpose?

Garden sweet peas

I sought my life’s purpose as if there was something Out There that had my name on it.  I was convinced, in my adolescence, that there was a Right Path that was mine and all I had to do was to find it.   I was so convinced of this that I changed life paths, or at least career paths, quite precipitously in the middle of my university education.

Now I see things differently.  Actually, it isn’t a matter of seeing things but more a matter of knowing in my body, in some deep place of knowing that isn’t cognitive, isn’t verbal or imaginal or even conceptual.  Which, of course, makes it pretty hard to describe in words.

If I am weeding this garden, then right now, that is my purpose.   If I am writing this blog post, then that is my purpose.   If I am helping someone to express a feeling that he or she has long held captive in the recesses of mind and body, then THAT is my purpose, right there at that moment.

Somehow, I guess, that purpose isn’t something outside of me that I have to find.   It is more about doing whatever I am doing with the intention of doing it fully and with all of myself.

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After Almost-Hurricane Arthur

Pine tree again

Pedaling through the aromascape I am assaulted, again and again,

barely time to register the sense impression before the next one arrives.

(I pedal smoothly down the path meeting wave after wave of fragrance,each carrying its own set of images, memories, concepts)

Full autumnal tang of crushed poplar leaves generate a golden afternoon and the dear one who was there.  Superimposed is another face, radiant in the yellow light, images from ten, twenty, forty years ago as immediate as the present.

Then the nearly-acrid tang of pine gone badly wrong, the blowdown’s massive trunk is rent, torn asunder and bleeding its sticky fragrance into the warm summer air   (Ghosts of Christmas past, brown needle-carpeted playhouses, wide boards freshly sanded in an ancient keeping room)

Pedaling on, the thickly fragranced atmosphere bears down, intense and pressing in the hot sun

Red clover, crushed tansy, heavy floweryness of milkweed calls insects and birds and me  (six years old, gripping my milkweed pod between my fingers, a green and silent canary)

A brief hint of woodsmoke evokes a hundred campfires

The smell of water arrives before the plashing and tumbling, brown water rich with mud and decay and humus, scents of fecundity and death,  life and that which feeds life all at once

And I stand to pedal, exulting in the effort, the ache in my calves, the pounding of my heart, the heaving of my chest (body remembering childhood, climbing the hills in my hometown)

fully here, fully alive

 

Wildflowers after Arthur

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