Archive | March, 2009

There is No Formula: Why I Hate Self-Help Books

31 Mar

As a therapist and personal consumer of the wellness movement, I have read more than my fair share of self-help books. But quite frankly, the industry is saturated. “Five Steps to the Perfect Orgasm.” “Eight Ways to Solve World Hunger.” “How to Heal Everything.” “Earn Billions while Eating Bon-Bons.” 

The same solution based mentality permeates every other aspect of our culture. Join this internet dating site and the love of your life will instantaneously appear. Undergo plastic surgery and your life will be bliss. Swallow this pill and watch all psychological ailments dissolve. Oh, if life were so simple…

I hate self-help books because they promote formulas that don’t always work according to plan. And they would have us rely solely on ourselves for salvation instead of allowing something Higher to occasionally intercede on our behalf.

Instead of self-help books, I prefer literature more mysterious and complex: The Bible. Shakespeare. Greek drama. The poetry of Rumi and Hafiz. The words of Robert Frost. Even children’s books offer more wonder when it comes to the magic of living. There are pearls of wisdom in “The Little Prince,” and the rhymes of Dr. Seuss. 

How wondrous when love knocks on our doorstep when we least expect it. How miraculous when after sobbing buckets, we suddenly wake up one day feeling happy. How funny when the thing we thought we most wanted suddenly no longer matters and when the one person we couldn’t stand winds up being our best friend and/or greatest teacher. Thank God there is no formula.

Restoring the Years the Locusts Have Eaten

31 Mar

In Hamlet’s very famous speech, “To be or not to be…” he asks, whether it’s more noble to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them?” At fifteen, Hamlet knew life wasn’t easy. For anybody. Suffering it seems is pretty universal. Yet for each of us, our pain is so unique, so individual, there are times we feel completely alone in it – most likely because ultimately, we are the only ones who can feel it. 

At the end of a sermon on suffering, my pastor cited the scripture that talks about “restoring the years the locusts have eaten.” This passage resonated deeply for me because on the brink of forty, I look back over the years of my life and clearly see where the locusts took over.  

Like with crops being eaten with bugs, we see signs of decay when things are not working in our lives. In my family of origin, a key marker came when our most beloved pets died in quick succession of one another; the deaths symbolic of a systemic collapse. I also saw signs reflected in my parents’ appearances: With mother, smeared lipstick, glazed over eyes and the orange jumpsuit she had to wear in jail. With father, blue eyes that went from sparkling to dazed. 

While my friends were moving on with their lives – marrying, buying homes, having children, I fought desperately for mine. On the brink of forty, I see the harvest I lost. I feel my body at times as a landscape of sorrow. But I also know the beauty and humility that comes with healing. It is not my place to know the will of the Lord. The logic of his Grace. I take inventory of the profound love around me in the form of family and friends and I know God is restoring the years the locusts have eaten. I see the Phoenix rising from her ashes. I acknowledge Spring. The growth of new buds on flowers long dormant. 

I had a student once ask in a psychology class I taught, “Are there some hurts that never go away?” And I replied, “Yes. There are some hurts that never go away…” But they can be integrated.

Joy does cometh in the morning.

Being Still…

28 Mar

For the last number of months, it’s been my routine to attend a Friday night church service. I find it helps me break the “I’m so fried from the week” syndrome that courses through my veins by the time Friday afternoon rolls around. I like the comradery of fellowship in the context of worship. It’s a nice way to be with people while also remaining internal and quiet, which is kind of what I need by the end of the week.

This Friday however, I simply fell asleep. I thought swimming after work would energize me (as it usually does) but I could barely move through the normally soothing water. So when I woke up at 6:45 pm, I realized I probably wasn’t going to make it to my service. But I so wanted to go, I got in the car thinking somehow by my sheer will, I’d get there in time. Of course this was sheer nonsense and five minutes onto the freeway, I realized the ship had sailed so instead stopped at the bookstore. The next best thing to a sacred space…

It’s so funny the way the Lord works, putting us exactly where we most need to be. Moving around the tables, I found myself in front of a display table highlighting — books for Easter. Perusing them, I got my dose of religion after all, including a look at the Tim Keller book that was recently recommended. However, what struck my eye was a book entitled, “Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World.” I gravitated toward the book, as the story of Mary and Martha is one of my most favorite in the bible. It tells of the two sisters having Jesus to their house and how Martha becomes upset when Mary fails to help in the kitchen. Instead, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus enraptured by his company. When Jesus hears Martha basically harping on Mary, he replies, “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it – it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.” (Luke, 10: 41-42 – in “The Message”).

I love this. “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much…” If my cats could talk, they would say the same thing to me. “Lise, dear, Lise, you’re fussing far too much…” How often do we run around, caught up in domestic duties only to neglect what is truly important – spirituality, our loved ones, our hobbies or our health? How often is it that we slow down enough to “Be still and know that I am God”? 

I love my Friday night service. I love the music. The quiet. The sensation of Love I encounter and experience. It is a different feeling than a Sunday service, although that too is meaningful to me. But sometimes we just need to be still. Even more still than we get at church (for that has its own noise and chaos at times). No car. No fuss. No conversations. 

Just for today… No errands. No chores. No bills. No paperwork. No social activity. No dates. No parties. 

Be still and know…

Ah…In the quiet of my heart, I can feel the peace. Tonight I needed to be Mary; not Martha.


16 Mar

Although I’d be the first to recommend a massage to anyone under stress or grieving, I’m not always so good at taking my own advice. Besides the expense, I think something in me thinks it’s indulgent – like I’m not worthy of the pleasure and nurturing. But every time I do get a massage, I think, “Why don’t I do this more often?” (particularly when you can get really good rates if you book a massage with students at one of the local schools).

The last time I was scheduled to get a massage was July 18, 2008. It was set for 1:00 pm. At 10:00 am that morning the police called me informing me that my mom had been found dead on the streets of La Mesa. Someone called and cancelled the appointment for me. 

It was a Friday. I had received a suicide letter in the mail from her on Monday. I had been sitting on pins and needles for days. Waiting for the shoe to drop. For the phone to ring. People told me no news was good news. But then the news came after all. 

I have not had a massage since – until today. I don’t know what came over me yesterday to see if I could get a massage today but miraculously they had an opening. When the receptionist asked me when I’d last been in, I put it together that I had been scheduled on July 18th. 

I could feel the tears moving their way up from my gut and into my chest as I parked my car. The body doesn’t lie. As soon as I met the man who was to give me the massage, the tears made their way into my eyes. The body knows when, where and who it is safe with.

I’m learning that grief from a traumatic death is different than a more natural one. Survivors tend to compartmentalize more. With the exception of the first month of the death, during which I openly mourned, I have now put the incident in a box on the shelf. I can talk about my mom’s death like I do the weather – completely cut off from my feelings. I This isn’t my style. It’s the style of trauma. 

But then there are times when grief hits like a wave you weren’t expecting. Knocking you down before you had a chance to see it coming. Catching you up in its current. Tossing you about without control. 

I’ve been giving my grief weekly to God but sometimes that just isn’t enough. Sometimes God needs to send an intercessor to help on the human plane. He did today. In the massage therapist who gave me more time than the hour I paid for, as I relived that week in July in a way I haven’t since it happened. His pulling the sheet over me reminding me of the sheet draped over my mom’s body. His hands on my hair, neck and face as I cried reminding me of the night a family member crawled into bed with me when I awoke sobbing the most violently I have in my entire life. 

I think touch is really important. And we don’t have enough of it in our society. We are so consumed with sex, but what of healing touch? Who touches you if you are single? Or sick or old? Why are animals and children so shameless when it comes to their expressing needs for touch but grown-ups afraid to ask for it? 

My mother was kind but not demonstrative. I used to like being sick because then she would look at me with concern and stroke my hair. I remember once in nursery school a staff person snapping at me because I wanted her to keep scratching my back. “That’s enough!” She didn’t understand how much I liked being touched. And that my mom didn’t do a lot of it. My dad did but not my mom. My mom was scared of the authentic contact I so craved. If touching me, she’d pat me stiffly on the back like you would a dog. When hugging mom, her body would tense and when kissing her, she’d extend her cheek for you so that she didn’t smudge her lipstick.

Of course in my twenties, I tried to get my needs for touch met in all the wrong places. Like an abused child, I didn’t know what was love and what was not. There is something to be said for being older and wiser despite still being called kiddo by most around me. 

Typically, when someone is in pain, they don’t need to talk. They just need to be held. I remember breaking down in front of a boyfriend once while we were messing around – as college students do. And I’ll never forget his response – or the maturity of it. “Whatever it is, it’s very painful,” he said as he held me. He said nothing more. Nor did I. It was very painful.

God’s Small Graces

15 Mar

When I think of God’s grace, I typically think of it in large terms: God plucking us out of a cesspool of misery, His rescuing us from near death and/or His comforting us during a dark night of the soul. However, occasionally His grace comes in less dramatic poignant contexts. This week was one of those times.

I’ve been juggling multiple projects lately and although I’ve been focused while doing them, I’ve found my mind on the spacey side during breaks from concentrated work. During these lulls, I’ve tried to keep up with every day house-keeping tasks like paying bills, checking the oil in the car, etc. It’s been while doing these types of activities that my brain has lapsed. Case in point, I almost booked a flight for my Grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration on the wrong weekend. Related, I almost booked a flight on JetBlue (where I have miles) for 3x the cost of a flight I miraculously found on Somehow God intervened and spared me charges on a non-refundable ticket.  

Then while paying bills on Thursday night and projecting my expenses for the rest of the month and into April, I forgot the next day was pay day. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how I had let my bank account dwindle to such a low figure. How was I going to stretch this all out come April? Miraculously, I discovered money in my account on Friday. Duh! 

Finally, the other day I checked the oil in my car as my father taught me to do many moons ago every time I fill up with gas. I noticed the oil was not only low but dark. In car class 101 I learned that oil should always be clear not dark so I rushed the car to the service station where they promptly informed me my oil was fine. While there, I asked if they wouldn’t mind checking the air in my tires. They said sure. In fact, did I want all my fluid levels checked? Sure. Sure enough, the thing that was dark and low was the transmission fluid. My transmission was in serious need of a flush.

Thanks God. For looking after these tiny little details of life.

Good Vibrations… Selah!

9 Mar

Years ago while working in a nursing home, some of the nurses on staff had been trained in Reiki, a healing modality that entails energy transmission through laying on of hands. Eager to share their new skills, the nurses offered their services to residents and staff. Every Friday was Reiki clinic day. Interested residents were brought down in their wheel chairs and staff wanting to receive free treatments could come in on their lunch hour. I never understood why out of 800 employees (it was a huge nursing home), I was one of the only staff members who took them up on their offer. EVERY FRIDAY. 

Victoria was the name of the woman who habitually offered me treatments. She was from the Philippines, a devout Catholic and while placing her hands on various parts of my body would mutter prayers and the word Jesus. This is not necessarily part of Reiki, although Reiki does entail the passing of love and good energy. 

Victoria had healing hands. Serious healing hands. Heat would sear through my head or heart – wherever her hands rested – and uncontrollable sobs would escape from me. Then for the next twelve to twenty-four hours, my body would feel completely drugged. I started having increasingly bizarre physiological reactions after these treatments including tingling in my head and clavicles and the sensation that my heart was literally on fire. I was utterly fascinated. 

I was so intrigued I started researching energy healing and had the unique opportunity to hear Barbara Brennan, a renown healer in the alternative therapy world speak at a conference. Once a physicist who worked at NASA as a research scientist, her life took a radically different turn when she began to “see” energy in people and discovered how to help them with theirs’. My life took a dramatic turn as well when I began to get energy treatments from a woman trained at Barbara’s school. And then went to the school myself for two of the four year training program.

One of the things I learned there and/or in other energy healing workshops was how to discern energy within myself, other people, in relationships and in the atmosphere. It has proved an INVALUABLE skills while working as a psychotherapist. It allows me to know when people are going to cry (before they actually do), how to react to hostility or guardedness in ways that support vs. antagonize and how to know when my life force is being sucked right out of me and how to replenish my chi. But most important, through experience, I discovered that LOVE is the most vital component in healing and that the base of this is SPIRITUAL. And because I’m Christian, for me this energy is in the form of the Holy Trinity. 

In energy modalities, people talk of spiritual energy being high and fast in vibration. You can experience this within your system as tingly, in the upper regions of the body and there is a palpable sweetness to it (unlike toxic energy that comes in at low vibrations and drains you like a vampire drinking blood). Well, tonight, at my church’s monthly prayer vigil – Selah – the energy couldn’t have been any higher. I literally felt myself BUZZING with this SWEET, PURE SENSATION. At one point, I almost burst out laughing with joy. This Divine energy is all around us but when two gather in His name, the vortex of energy magnifies. And it IS heaven on earth. I could stay in that energy field all day. 24/7. I can’t wait for the next Selah. I didn’t want it to end. 


Let’s Finish This Thing!

6 Mar

My church is in the middle of a campaign to buy the building where its services are held. It’s a massive endeavor beyond anything I can imagine doing in my own personal life. But watching the process of an organization mobilize together around a massive goal has been inspiring. While I know God can do wonders, I’m also seeing that people can too, particularly in the name of God.  

During the campaign, the pastor shared a passage from 2 Corinithians 8: 10-20, in which Paul encourages his fellow Christians to complete their mission of spreading Christianity throughout the world, part of which will require money/offerings. Quoting from “The Message”, Paul says, “So here’s what I think: The best thing you can do right now is to finish what you started last year and not let those good intentions grow stale. Your heart’s been in the right place all along. You’ve got what it takes to finish it up, so go to it.” Or in the pastor’s paraphrasing, “Let’s finish this thing!” 

Well, this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about that line, “Let’s finish this thing!” as it applies to my personal life (vs. something bigger or more noble than me). And it became clear that there are a few goals, (even dreams) that I have not completed or brought to full fruition. Projects I have invested time, energy and in some cases years towards but then let grind to a halt because I don’t know how to “finish the thing(s).” So, I wrote “Let’s finish this thing!” on a piece of paper and taped it to my bathroom mirror where I can see it daily. 

So I’ve been thinking about this concept and my own behavior. By nature, I am not a quitter, nor undisciplined. I very often finish what I start and when I say I’ll do something, I most often do. However, I also have a lot of different interests and tend to follow impulses. I try to track what “thing” has the strongest energy at any given time and then ride its wave. This has many advantages and is synonymous with creativity. Nonetheless, I also get bored easily and tend to have my fingers in many pies. The danger of this is in becoming a “jack of all trades, master of none.” 

How does one finish something without becoming too goal oriented? Too invested in the outcome without learning from or enjoying the journey? And how does one muster the faith, energy and resources required to complete big projects that go beyond one’s scope of immediate influence (like trying to buy a building for example – or whatever big thing people have to contend with). For me, these are the true challenges. 

The other day I was having dinner with a friend of mine and he said to me, “Lise, ever since I’ve known you, you are so about the journey. You even go to a church called Journey.” This wasn’t a complement or a criticism. Just an observation. He continued, “Now, me. I’m all about the goal. If I had a church, it would be called ‘Destination.'” 

There is value to the destination as well. But getting there – those final stretches in the race, can be so tedious. For example, I find the act of writing a draft of something – fabulous. Editing it, writing query letters for publication or citing references DULL, DULL, DULL, particularly after already working long hours at a day job. So I stop. I love movies and writing them but then stop there because the thought of selling a script or raising money to produce a film stops me in my tracks. In more intimate endeavors, I’ve ended relationships or ran from them because the journey was just too ROCKY and the idea of a destination too TERRIFYING. So, my motto this week is LET’S FINISH THIS THING. Whatever the “thing” is.