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The Burden of Trauma

16 Jul

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I have spent my entire life seeped in the landscape of trauma. After first-hand experience with it in my childhood and teenage years, I chose a career involving the study of it. I then spent two decades trying to help others get through similar experiences. And I now teach on the subject. Yet trauma still perplexes me. Every time I think I understand it, I’m struck by its tenacity and complexity. I’m surprised by how simultaneously fragile and resilient we are as humans.

I have learned that unless you’ve been through trauma yourself, people typically do not understand the experience. A person can say, “Don’t think about it,” or “be grateful,” or “don’t be so negative,” in an attempt to be helpful but when grappling with flashbacks, or emotional seizures that leave you in a state where you can’t stop crying, you can’t mind over matter the situation. Instead, you have to fasten your seatbelt and get ready to go on a ride. A ride that feels like death but that eventually comes to a stop- until you get thrust on the ride again.

The reason trauma is so damaging to the system is because the body registers it as the real or perceived threat of death. Whether violence, or an accident, or death, or a natural disaster, something heinous and uncontrollable occurs that warps our sense of stability and agency. Suddenly, we don’t have control. Terrible shit can and does happen and suddenly, all our thoughts of being in charge of our lives goes out the window. So much for “carpe diem” or “I’m the King of the world!”

I lost my mother to incarceration and suicide and my father to drug addiction. In the process of both situations, there was profound confusion, fear, abandonment, betrayal, shock, and abuse. Developmentally, I was young when these events occurred but when comparing these situations to children being torn from their parents at young ages or extreme poverty, I feel like my experiences reflect first world problems. Yet it’s all part of the same soup. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a school shooting or rape or incest or the Holocaust or poverty. Trauma leaves a scar that effects you whether rich or poor, privileged or not.

We all want to be connected; we all want to feel safe; we all want to experience love. Trauma threatens to wipe out these fundamental elements of human experience.

Humans crave stability, power, relationships, and control. Trauma obliterates all of that. And when you have few of those elements cemented regardless of trauma, a sudden tragedy threatens one’s sense of place in the world even more. Thankfully, we are incredibly resilient as humans. We can and do move on. We can and do thrive. We don’t stay stuck forever. Flowers can grow through a crack in the cement.

But even when doing well, the burden of trauma can rip one right back into the pain and the loss and the confusion. All it takes are a few elements that correspond with the original wound and ka-bang. Like ripping a bandaid off, we can find ourselves bleeding. Uncontrollably.

The only way through trauma is to keep tending to it. To respect it. And to connect with those who understand it. And when the moment passes, we have a personal responsibility to help someone else through the same tunnel because everyone has a story. Over and over, as I teach around the nation, I am shocked by how much pain and suffering there is in the world.

Recently, I had a philosophical cab driver from Nigeria remark to me, “The soul is meant to experience joy. When we cry, it is a moment of reflection.” Perhaps that is the essence of healing. May we use our tears as a period of reflection that brings us back to joy.

The Importance Of Getting Off The Grid

29 Jun

I don’t know about you but there are many days when I’m on complete overload. Modern life has created a cocktail of stimuli that is maxing out our nervous systems. We are bombarded by noise, demands, choices, and activities. Unless we take specific actions to decompress on a daily and even hourly basis, most of us are headed for burnout.

 

Sometimes we have to get off the grid. For that purpose, I’ve created a wellness retreat that will take place in beautiful Ojai, California on October 5th, 6th, and 7th. I hope you’ll join me!

During the retreat, we’ll reflect on what brings meaning and value to our lives- separate from the unwanted influences of our day-to-day schedules. Learn to better manage stress, improve your wellbeing, and feel revitalized! For details on the itinerary and accommodations, visit my website.

Take some time to care for yourself and to get away! I hope to see you in October in Ojai!

When Being Off Balance Is A Start

1 Feb

Last night while doing tree pose in yoga, the teacher suggested we toy with our balance by closing our eyes or swaying our arms. Tree pose, if you don’t know it, entails standing on one leg while the foot of the other is tucked above the standing leg’s knee, resting on the thigh. I find the pose relatively easy but as soon as I closed my eyes, it wasn’t. “They say one’s yoga practice begins the moment you feel off balance,” the teacher remarked.

I started laughing- not because the comment itself was funny but because it was so akin to what I’ve been experiencing lately. Normally, we think of being off balance as a sign of overload and stress, i.e. not good. In fact, a sense of balance is something people typically strive to create in their lives. But what if being off-balance was neither good nor bad but a sign of growth and expansion? A sign of taking on new forms and letting go of control? Obviously, we don’t want to be so off-balance that we teeter over and fall but is a little disequilibrium a thing to avoid?

Personally, I hate feeling out of control. I like structure. I like knowing what is going to happen. I like being in charge with a plan, Only life doesn’t work that way. Trying to make it so is exhausting and futile.

The teacher’s statement reminded me of my go to: “Confusion is a sign of learning.” However, for me, learning is productive so I’ll take a little confusion if I know I’m expanding my mind or learning a new skill. But do I really want to invite being off-balance for the hell of it? What “reward” will I get from being off balance? In my day-to-day life, won’t that drive me out of my mind?

Perhaps. Overload is overload and sometimes too much is too much. But I’m reminded that in acting, a similar phenomenon happens in terms of being off balance. There is often a point in rehearsal or filming when despite knowing your lines, your mind drops them. This happens when you’re so in the moment with a feeling or a connection to someone else that you get flustered. It’s a moment of being off balance; off kilter; not knowing what is going to happen that leaves you feeling completely vulnerable and like you’re falling off a cliff. Every director I’ve ever had has loved it when I drop my lines. “Keep going, keep going,” they’ll say. “What you’re doing is brilliant.” And I’ll think – actually, I’ll not think – I’ll keep going – feeling completely out of my skin in free fall and delight.

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So yes, I guess it’s okay to be off balance even if it feels completely weird and counter-intuitive. It might actually be spot on!

The tree can sway and still stay rooted. It’s a sign of being on the path.

 

 

What are You Starting and Stopping?

28 Dec

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This sign was placed at my regular trailhead recently. “How apropos for New Year’s,” I thought as I set out.

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As my feet began the familiar climb I reflected on the fact that the word “START” was placed on a sign known for signaling “STOP”.

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Then when I got to the first look out spot, I noticed the very familiar grafitti on this block of cement. Yes, God woke me up for a reason. What is it that I intend to do this upcoming year and during my life?

I take the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve very seriously. For me, it is a time to engage in serious reflection. As much as I can, I slow down and vacate the day-to-day rut of work and domestic life. I try to have very little agenda and a fair amount of solitude post all the holiday revelries. Whether it’s a hike or novels or Netflix, I try to just let myself be. In that process, I can think about the highs and lows of the year, let any residual “ick” float to the surface and release, and begin to imagine possibilities for 2018. And I often find myself pretty tired about now.

As is typical, I have a thousand projects brewing that all feel like they’re going to explode in the first few months of the year. For that reason, I resonate with both “START” and “STOP” for if we’re going to “START” some things, it might mean we have to “STOP” or at least “PAUSE” on other things. There has to be enough space in our lives for creation. And there has to be enough space in our lives to actually live.

It’s important to know when to start and when to stop because we can’t have the foot on the brake pedal and the gas at the same time.

It’s also important to simply look around while in motion. When I did this morning, I was greeted by this sweet friend.

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Here’s to 2018 and a wonderful New Year’s!

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Feng Shui the Psyche for 2018

20 Dec

Call me superstitious but I take the transition between one year into the next very seriously. How one spends New Years’ Eve isn’t so important but the period leading up to it is: the week between X-mas and New Years can be a valuable time to take stock. It’s an opportunity to think about all that has transpired and to set a template for what one wants to create.

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The only way to do this though is to carve out space in our schedules and psyches for contemplation. Who can think straight when our minds are running a million miles a minute and when our bodies are bone tired from pushing to the limits?

In Chinese thought, Feng Shui entails “a system of laws considered to govern spatial arrangement and orientation in relation to the flow of energy (qi).” To have qi moving with ease throughout a home or office, the furniture needs to be arranged in a way that optimizes its flow. If we were to apply the same concepts to our lives, we need enough spatial freedom in our schedules and psyches for qi to flow at maximum efficiency. If the Feng Shui of our inner lives is inadequate, some rearranging and prioritizing of how we’re spending our time and energy might be in store.

The last two Decembers I’ve had to consider, “If I’m this tired now, how will I feel in the New Year?” I want to start 2018 with a feeling of vim and vigor but I can’t if I’m emotionally, physically, and mentally depleted. How do I hit the re-set button? What can I stop doing or take a short break from?

I don’t think I’m alone in these feelings. Modern life is pushing us to move faster and faster. Our smart phones keep us constantly connected to work, friends, family, and information. Rarely do we get a break unless we turn the damn things off. Even when things are wonderful, we’re over-stimulated and taxed. Abundance of any kind comes with stresses too. We have to manage the bounty on our plate and even nutritious food is unhealthy if we’re stuffed to the gills.

If we don’t take stock, we suddenly find ourselves crushed under a wheel of demands and stresses we can’t manage. Then the feeling of being victimized by “it” only adds to the stress.

But pain is information. It’s trying to tell us something. We can take cues from when our energy feels blocked, gummed up and low. Usually, that is a sign that it is time to practice some feng shui. For me, that means slowing down and doing less. It means not going to the gym but to the hills for a walk instead. It means spending more time in quiet and less time in the car. It means telling people I’m getting off the grid for a bit and that I might not be so quick to respond to calls, emails and plans. But I can only put rest into practice if I clear space for it.

Before the new year starts, it can be good to write down what we want to release from 2017 and what we want to create. But we also need to consider what is realistic when mapping out our goals, projects and intentions. Rome wasn’t built in a day. So perhaps we focus on a few things for January, February and March and then concentrate on other items during the remaining months. The key thing is that there is enough psychic space to keep the energy moving through freely. Otherwise, we don’t think well, sleep well, or relate well. Perhaps new years intentions aren’t so much about goals as about how to live and love well and how to embrace our passions without losing ourselves in the process.

 

What’s Your Reactivity IQ?

22 Sep

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Yes, I’m that odd duck that takes a picture of a Southwest napkin but I loved this slogan. In a world full of no, we need yes!

I’m quick to say, “no,” to things in my life so when I see a napkin that urges me to say, “yes,” it’s a nice reminder.

Much of what we say, “yes,” and “no” to has to do with how we perceive life.

Reactivity can be positive and negative.

When we reactive positively, this enhances our greater good. For instance, if I’m a football player and the ball is thrown to me, catching it would be ideal. Running with the ball in my hands would be even better!

However, when we over-react, we get stressed. We bleed our energy by imagining all of the bad things that might occur. This symbolizes a colossal “no” and puts our bodies and minds on over-drive. Systems then constrict and shut down.

I’m classic at saying, “no”, particularly when good things are happening in my life. The more good that comes my way, the more I tell myself no. The voices in my head say that I’ll get too tired, too stressed, too busy, too overwhelmed. I fear something catastrophic will happen. I tell myself that I’ll choke. I’ll let someone down. I’ll turn my back on one thing as I go after another. I tell myself that I can’t have it all.

“In a world full of no, we’re a plane full of yes.” Thank you, SouthWest.

Our reactivity IQ dramatically influences our well being.

How do we say yes, and yes, and yes?!!!

Because yes = possibilities, joy, solutions, and expansion.

No simply means no.

What’s your reactivity IQ and what are you saying yes and no to?

What Does It Mean To Spiritually Eliminate And Do You Need To Do It?

15 Sep

It’s a well known fact that elimination is vital to life. Without these biological processes, we would die. Our bodies discharge waste through complex physiological processes but do our bodies do this on a spiritual level too?

This question floated through my head during one of the most surreal yoga classes I’ve ever taken. Because focus was being placed on the first chakra, most of the exercises were geared toward the parts of our bodies dealing with physical elimination. “Think of this as spiritual potty training,” the teacher said. Yes, this is LA living. I’m lying on a mat reflecting on my anal sphincter…

The first chakra has to do with being grounded in physical life. It correlates to our physical health, basic survival needs, and personal safety as we navigate through day-to-day life. This particular teacher has been practicing yoga for years and also studied in India. I take her very seriously even though her comments sometimes make me laugh out loud.

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A toddler experiences potty training to learn how to effectively eliminate and to gain increased autonomy from her care-takers. How do we learn to effectively eliminate the “crap” from our lives that stores up as we digest “stuff” throughout the day, week, month and year(s)?

The spiritual correlation isn’t too different from the physical dimensions of our bodies. If we don’t have control over our elimination system, things will get impacted causing constipation and blockage and/or things will move through with no control. What is this crap and how do we discharge it efficiently?

All day we take things in – some of it is nourishing; some is the equivalent of junk food. We take in conversations and information, relationships and experiences. We take in work demands, personal crises, and personal joys. Our systems perceive all kinds of stimuli – positive and negative that needs to be processed, metabolized and released. In today’s modern world, we have the equivalent of spiritual pollution: exhaust from social media, our devices, traffic, arguments, reality t.v., US politics, etc., etc.

Increasingly, I need to gauge how well I’m digesting and eliminating what is not necessary; what is waste; what isn’t vital to my spiritual and nutritional health. It’s part of my health regime. At a certain point, I can’t take in anymore without completing maxing out my nervous system or soul.

Today I went for a hike. I’d had enough of the computer screen and to do list.

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Tonight, I will do a little more work and then power down. Enough.

If we’re wound too tight, we can’t let go.

What helps you unwind? Clear out? And get back to health?

 

Do You Need To Think Less And Feel More?

8 Sep

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The other day I was in a yoga class when the instructor encouraged us to “think less and feel more.” As my mind slowly let go of the endless hours spent answering email and making lists, I felt the peace of that intention. “Think less, feel more.”

As a therapist I often encourage individuals to pause from talking so they can discern what they’re actually feeling. Sometimes the feelings are incongruent with the thoughts, which people always find surprising.

Feeling gets a bad rap in a world where cognition reigns but Daniel Goleman dubbed the term “emotional intelligence” to make a case for the innate intelligence of our emotions. However, “feeling more” as the yoga teacher suggested doesn’t necessarily suggest affective registration or release. “Feeling more” can simply imply scanning the body’s sensations.

I would be completely ruined if I didn’t dial into my body. It is the only way I can regulate my mind, which often operates like a wild horse dancing in frenetic circles as if spooked. When I check in with my body, then the true power of the mind expands like a horse galloping freely in the wind.

The term yoga means union. When we slow down, think less, and breathe more, we start to unite body, mind and spirit. The bifurcation of these disparate parts mends. We feel integrated, whole and at peace again. Petty things stop mattering and what is truly of value rises to the surface. With calm comes clarity.

Wild and Dangerous

1 Sep

I’ve been to Alaska twice but each time was for work so I didn’t get to see much of the terrain. However, even a glimpse of the locale is enough to witness its majesty. The natural beauty is breathtaking.

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Alaska is dark for much of the year though. At some points there are only four hours of light. Then in the summer there is endless light.

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I almost prefer it when it is colder and the tourists have gone home.

I have always met incredible people when working here – people I will remember for the rest of my life.

Despite not having seen much of the geography, every time I’ve been in Alaska some Higher force has spoken to me. Whether it’s the spirit of the people or the animals, something whispers that it’s okay to be wild. It’s okay to be free. Some of us are not domesticated.

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We are a world that thrives on convention and when you don’t fit into those conventions, it’s easy to feel lost and not good enough.

Alaska doesn’t care about those conventions. Alaska is true to itself. It has its problems for sure but it doesn’t apologize for itself.

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Lost in the Woods?

1 Dec

I’m convinced that the most exciting times in our lives are those in which we don’t know where the hell we are or where we are headed. They are also the most scary because the unknown can make us feel so lost.

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Dante wrote, “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.”

Most of us want order and control in our lives. We want to know how much money is in the bank, who we’ll fall in love with and when we’ll retire. Sometimes we want this kind of certainty more than wonder, joy, and mystery because let’s face it: the latter three invite more ambiguity. Wonder, joy and mystery can’t be structured, manipulated or planned for and they can disappear as quickly as they make an appearance. They aren’t the by-product of a game plan. They are the ball soaring through the air but when you least expect the touchdown.

Direction typically emerges out of intention. What is it that you most long for? What are your passions and how do you want to live your life? What do you want to be remembered for and what do you want to give to the world? Who and what do you love and who and what loves you? As 2016 draws to a close, instead of thinking about New Years resolutions, perhaps it’s more wise to reflect on these questions because out of the questions answers emerge. Out of the undoing and the not knowing comes clarity, focus, and manifestation.