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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?

 

It’s Not Always A Mental Illness!

7 Jul

I have worked in the mental health field for twenty-three years. I know the terrain extremely well. And although I am grateful that public knowledge of mental illness has increased, I grow weary when I frequently hear every societal problem attributed to mental illness.

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Not everything is a mental illness!

Sometimes we’re distraught because we’re going through something tough. Perhaps a death in the family, a divorce, or job loss triggers a challenging period. Or maybe we’re anxious because we haven’t learned to manage stress well and we’re going through significant life changes without much social support. These types of things greatly influence mood state and to a certain degree are a regular part of life. Human beings suffer terribly and we are all challenged by how to develop resiliency.

I invite us to consider the concept of mental wellness. How do we learn to function whether we’re ever given a mental health diagnosis or not? We all need to address mental wellness no different than we look after our physical health.

Mental health exists along a continuum. It is comparable to physical health. For instance, if I have a runny nose, am fatigued, and don’t feel well, I meet the criteria for a cold. After two weeks, when the symptoms have cleared, I no longer have the diagnosis. But if I have diabetes or a heart condition, I might have the diagnosis my entire life and then I learn to manage the symptoms. Mental illness is no different. Sometimes we’re given a diagnosis at one point in our lives but later, we may no longer meet criteria. With another illness, the diagnosis might persist. Or, we may never meet criteria for a diagnosis. Nonetheless, we still need to develop basic coping skills and to manage our emotions and stress in a healthy manner.

Contrary to popular belief, mental illness isn’t the root cause of all sociological problems. It is actually the other way around. Sociological problems can put people at risk for developing mental illness. There are only a cluster of diagnoses whose etiologies are based in pure biology and genetics. More often than not, mental illnesses emerge from a combination of factors such as trauma, genetic predisposition, environment, social isolation, family dynamics, relationship ruptures, abandonment, and abuse, etc.

If we want to reduce mental illness statistics, we also need to address bigger cosmic factors that contribute to it. We have to stop pointing fingers at “mental illness” as the cause for all and start looking at the impact of how we treat our fellow humans. TLC goes a long way in influencing mental wellness. So does social justice.

On the same token, just because we have risk factors doesn’t mean we’ll develop a mental illness. Likewise, even if we aren’t exposed to primary risk factors, we could still be vulnerable to developing a diagnosis. We could have all the support and advantages in the world and still live with schizophrenia or severe depression. Mental wellness is a complex issue because we humans are complex. We’re a unique blend of body, spirit, intellect, and emotions. We all have different temperaments and life experiences.

Finally, one of the greatest mythologies about mental health is that people with mental illness are all violent. It has become very vogue to explain every catastrophic event that occurs as a by-product of mental illness. If a crime is committed, we immediately assume the perpetrator had a mental illness. If a child or teen acts out, he or she must have a mental illness. Because who in his or her right mind would commit a crime if sane, right? Well, crimes are committed all the time by people who do not have a diagnosis. In fact, only four percent of gun homicides can be attributed to those with a mental illness. What then compels people to violence? Why do we hurt each other? Is it greed, entitlement, poor impulse control, no moral compass, ignorance, or evil? Who knows. But not everything is caused by mental illness alone.

But one thing is certain. We can all work on our mental wellness. We can challenge ourselves to engage in basic acts of self care. Exercise, get enough sleep, breathe, socialize, and relax. Explore feelings and get in touch with our inner selves. See a therapist or join a support group. Laugh. Reach out to others. Connect to something that endows life with meaning. Because we all need to feel like we have a purpose and like we’re in relation to others. That part isn’t rocket science. It’s fundamental to humanity.

 

 

Lady, You’re Gonna Get Wet!

1 Sep

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Sometimes, all you can do is laugh. This morning a woman in a water aerobics class started screeching at me for “splashing too much”as I did laps in the lane next to the class.

I didn’t understand what the problem was until the life guard approached me, embarrassed, and told me the woman was upset by my swimming. “I don’t understand,” I said. “If she wants me to switch lanes, I have no problem but how am I to swim without splashing?”

Lady, if you’re going to get into a swimming pool, chances are you’re going to get wet!

I switched lanes. The lady continued to scowl. The man in my new lane smiled. I smiled back. Because you’ve got to keep a sense of humor.

When people are that angry you almost have to feel sorry for them.

The woman didn’t understand that I’d just received a string of bad news and that I’d come to the pool to try and feel better. It didn’t matter. As I get older I just can’t be bothered anymore with bs – my own or other people’s. When I’m embroiled in my own, I have to shake myself and say, “Stop it! You’re driving even me out of my mind.” Because none of us knows how much time we have on this planet and I want to enjoy as much of it as I can.

Here is the thing. We are going to get splashed. We are going to get our hair messed up.

Why be alive, why sit by the pool, if you’re not going to get in it?

 

Just Breathe Through It

18 Jul

Many of us have been in a yoga or exercise class where the teacher serenely says, “Just breathe through it,” while we’re swearing beneath our breath because they have us holding some ridiculous position or are asking us to do endless crunches that make our stomachs burn as if on fire. “I don’t want to breathe through it!” we often scream in our heads. “I just want this *&&^%$ pain to stop!” What do the teachers mean when they say, ‘Just breathe through it,’ like a bleeping mantra? What is the breath and why is it so powerful?

While breathing seems so simple, it’s actually something we resist when we are scared or in pain. For some reason, we’d rather not “breathe through it.” We’d prefer to avoid it – whatever that it is – and breathing makes us feel it.

The irony is that the feeling is there whether we surrender to it or not. If we hold our breath thinking we can by-pass pain, we’re actually deluding ourselves. It requires a considerable amount of energy to keep something down. In fact, pain magnifies when we suppress it. Like damning up a river, once the floodgates open, the feelings will flow forth in full force.

If we weren’t breathing, we’d be dead. Yet if we invite the breath in more consciously and more fully, we ease the process considerably.

Why is a woman in labor told to breathe, breathe, and breathe! Because she’s pushing new life into being. When she holds her breath, she makes things more difficult for herself and the baby. When she breathes, she can push more easily.

All of this sounds nice but when we’re going through excruciating times, we’re like the woman in labor who wants to tell everyone around her telling her to breathe to “f— off!” Transformation is brutal work and sometimes the labor is so long and tenuous it feels like we will die. When the healing needs are global how do we breathe through rape, violence, illness, betrayal and injustice? It’s hard to go all yoga-zen in these moments. How do we as humans endure?

On a practical level we need to actually breathe versus intellectually reflecting on it. We don’t have to engage in fancy complicated breathing exercises. We can simply imagine our breath coming in and out like an ocean wave – back and forth, back and forth. There is nothing to control, fix, stop or judge. There is nothing we have to “do.”

When we “breathe through it”, we can feel the breath’s power to cleanse, sustain and revitalize every aspect of our being. In fact, the words breath in Hebrew (ruach), in Greek (pneuma) and Sanskrit (prana) are synonymous with the words “spirit” or “wind.” This indicates a link between our breath, being, and the divine. Our breath is the life force that helps us fully embrace and enjoy the moment. It is also the conduit of transformation.

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Just Say No!

17 Apr

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When I was in middle school and high school I was expected to get up at 5:30 a.m. to water the plants and take care of our animals before going to school at 8:00 a.m. This was in Southern California where delicate potted plants needed to be watered in both the morning and late afternoon. Much of our shrubbery had automatic drip and spray sprinklers but the plants that didn’t would easily die within a few days without consistent care, particularly the fragile, moisture loving flowers such as orchids and fuschias. These varieties are tropical in nature and not meant for an arid dry climate.

This was also the era of Nancy Reagan’s, “Just say no!” campaign to help young people not sucuumb to drug use. I think of that phrase now. As direct as Nike’s, “Just do it!”, “Just say no!” is a great motto, if you can adhere to it.

I bring this up because these days many of us the minute we wake up log onto the computer or our phones to check text messages and emails. There is little division anymore between work and private life. It’s all mushed into one undifferintiated mass.

I’d rather water plants at 5:30 a.m. and walk and brush two magnificent large dogs like I did when I was young than look at a screen the minute I open my eyes. It’s a more humane way to wake up. It’s more embodied; more centered; more intimate. It’s a semi- equivalent of a toddler jumping on your bed or a lover kissing one awake. When outdoors at 5:30 a.m., you see the sunrise and the way the colors shift with an ever increasing degree of light. Even if engaged in a type of physical labor, there is something balanced in it because it involves the body fully vs. sitting sedentary at a screen.

I was raised with a Midwestern, farm mentality work ethnic and that ethic is in my DNA. However, that ethic can be brutal when it’s not mixed in with nature and natural rhythms and interpersonal relationships.

Sometimes we just have to say no to work and to technology and to get into our bodies and into nature. This actually feeds productivity because relaxation restores the mind and soul. It opens new vistas. As all farmers know, sometimes you have to let the fields lie fallow in order to create a better yield. If you demand the goose that lays a gold egg each day to produce more, she can stop producing all together.

Creativity always demands a tension between inner/outer, surrender/will, rest/activity. There is day and night, light and dark, life and death, order and chaos. There is a reason on the 7th day, the Lord took a break. We must take a moment to see, “That it was good.” Otherwise, we miss the show all together.

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Running Water Over Stones

25 Mar

As I watched a group of neighbors dressed in black walk to Maudy Thursday services at a nearby church, I looked down and realized that I too was dressed in black. My yoga pants were black and so was my sweater. Only the neigbhors entered the church and I walked into the funky and traditional yoga studio near my house. “I’m worshipping at a different altar tonight,” I thought. However, for me, it’s all the same altar. Prayer, meditation, yoga, nature, church fellowship, and worship are all fundamental resources that help me feel connected to God.

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Although I have taken yoga classes for twenty years, it has only been in the last few that I have started to understand yoga and to realize why having a practice is vital for my emotional, physical and mental well being. Yoga teaches me not just about my body but about how I hold stress and negative thought patterns and how I can stop the constant gripping.

I went to class last night because it was a restorative one. Restorative yoga is different than active yoga. It is specifically designed to calm the nervous system. By using props (a bolster, blocks, blankets, and a strap), you put your body in resting, open postures and hold them for a good ten minutes, if not longer. As you relax into the poses, you can actually feel when the body begins to melt into the floor or the props; you start to notice when the body begins to surrender its never ending push for control and hyper-vigilance. You notice when it starts to release the defensive and protective armor that no longer serves.

“As humans, we are always pushed into stressful states yet the body cannot hold stress and relaxation simultaneously. If we train our bodies to relax, it is physiologically impossible to hold stress at the same time,” said the teacher.

“In growth and transformation, there is always a degree of discomfort. So when you hold new poses, you might initially feel uncomfortable.” I burst out laughing. Yeah, growth and transformation can make one a wee bit uncomfortable.

The first pose we did was called something like “running water over stones.” At least this is the imagery the teacher talked about. Lying on our backs with bolsters and blankets propped to put our spines in their natural curvatures, our bodies were akin to stones that stay  solid and stationary as water runs over them. That water, that ever pulsating movement of life can wear down the stones, yet if we are solid and stationary, the water doesn’t have to push us around. We can be in harmony with the flow of life.

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There are some restorative yoga poses where the props are meant to be intrusive, pushing the body to open and stretch more actively; others that are designed for the body to simply melt and surrender.

There is also the inhalation, the exhalation, and the space between the next breath. That space is vital; it’s where the next beat of life and creativity spring from. That is the space I am most interested in harnessing, yet it is the whole flow of breath that keeps one moving through transformation and growth.

“Relax, relax!” the Saturday teacher always says to me when taking the hatha yoga class. “You’re making it too hard.” If he only knew. If he only knew how often I can make things too hard or how hard I can be on myself. It’s good to take a look in the mirror sometimes. Yet he also says like a kind grandfather (and with a twinkle in his eye), “That’s beautiful. You’re holding the pose beautifully.” It’s also good to note our progress.

Valentine to the City

14 Jan

A few days ago I found myself in a hotel room with my legs up the wall in a yoga inversion pose trying to induce sleep because in the city that never sleeps, it’s often hard to dial down from the buzz. Because of NYC’s initiative to train 250,000 New Yorkers in Mental Health First Aid, there will be a number of instructor trainings to meet that said goal and thus, I was fortunate to be one of the trainers who visited here recently.

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Twenty years ago I was a New Yorker. I was one of those starry eyed youth who came to the Big Apple because why not? I will never forgot those years. Once Manhattan has been part of your life experience, it’s always in the DNA. You really can’t understand the city until you’ve lived here; until you’ve been crammed on a subway daily in winter, spring, summer and fall either bundled up in a coat or sweltering in the urine smelling tunnels when it’s 100 degrees underground. You really can’t understand the kindness of the people here until you’ve had the guy at the corner market store chat with you every morning while getting your non-Starbucks coffee in one of the cups you always see in cop shows.

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The city is a heart beat pulsing with life and vitality. I love the rumble of the trains and and the old fashioned glamour of Grand Central Station. I love track lines that take me outside the city to people and places I love and the sense that anything is possible if you put yourself in the right place at the right time and keep your eyes and heart open.

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En route to the airport a few weeks ago, my uber driver was very young. I knew he was relatively green when he put the airport address into his phone GPS when the directions are a pretty striaght shoot. I also knew he was just shy of a kid based on his demeanor, the way he spoke to me, etc. “Today is my first day as an uber driver,” he said. “I just got out of the navy and am at school. I like uber. Everything is a tax write off and I can work my own hours.” And you can also make some seriously good money, kid. Good for you! I was touched by his lack of pretense; his lack of needing to do things perfectly; and his willingness to take life by the horns. He reminded me of a young woman I met in the city who was visiting from Canada. She was here just because. It was her third trip this year because she is smitten with the city.

New York is an old city with a history and yet it retains the joie de vivre of youth. Sure, the city can wear you down. In parts of it, it’s loud and dirty and grey and gross. The rents are high and there are lots of people. Yet it’s also glorious and romantic and wild.

New York is vitamin B for the spirit. You just have to find time for a little legs up the wall to quiet down from the stimuli and to fully appreciate the vitality.

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

5 Jun

When I was ten, I wrote these words in my diary:

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Growing up in a home with alcoholism, I became the consummate observer. I learned how to track the behaviors and moods of others because my survival depended on it. Has she been drinking? Is she slurring her words? What level is the vodka in the bottle at? I learned how to mind everyone else’s business but my own.

Despite all my best intentions, I couldn’t get my mom to stop drinking. I couldn’t prevent her from going to jail for five felony DUIs related to driving while under the influence and I couldn’t convince her to pursue recovery. While I never stopped loving her, I learned that focusing on myself was the only chance I had at serenity.

Focusing on myself is one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in my life and it is a daily practice. Whenever I have put the focus too much on others, I take a trip to hell and back while sucking the breathing space out of my primary relationships and my relationship with myself.

Watch any pack of siblings fighting and you’ll hear mom or dad say, “Focus on yourself!” when Sally or John whines, “Mom, he’s doing a, b, c ….” or “Dad, she’s doing x, y, z….” We’re taught this lesson early on in childhood but society also tries to drill it out of us. If I put the focus on myself, I’m often perceived as selfish and self-centered because we are taught to care for and serve others. Yet often, the best way to care for others is to put the focus on ME. Focusing on myself is minding my side of the street and taking responsibility for my thoughts, behaviors, and actions. Anything else quickly turns into meddling, blaming, controlling, nagging, and manipulating. Period.

Focusing on others can bring an enormous amount of suffering, particularly when people don’t behave the way we desire. We can express our disappointment and state what we need but beyond that, we have no control. We can’t make others love us, commit to us, or change for us. Nor can we make people be something that they’re not, unless they themselves want to change.

Each day, I try to place my focus on myself and God. I ask myself, “What do I need to do today? What is my work for the moment? How am I feeling? And what do I need to do to take care of myself? (because no one is going to do that job for me).” Obsessing over what others are doing, or why my life isn’t a certain way because of what others are or aren’t doing, is the height of dis-ease. It’s best to mind my own circus and my own monkeys because that is all I have jurisdiction over and quite frankly, it’s all I can handle. Each of us, even in union with others, has to live our own lives and are responsible for our happiness.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference….

 

 

 

Will You Play With Me?

9 Mar

The other day within an hour of being around a family friend’s child, the little boy approached me and with quiet earnestness asked, “Will you play with me?” As I nodded yes, he gently led me to the living room where his toys were scattered and we began to play. Although the toys were appealing what fascinated him most was the switch that could dim the lights. As he lowered the lights, making the room grow dark he pronounced, “Now it is night.” Taking my cue, I rolled over on my side and began to gently snore. Then the lights came back up. “Now it’s day.” I stretched out my arms and sighed, opened my eyes and said, “Good morning.” Looking at him I continued, “I’m hungry. Are you hungry? What shall we have for breakfast?” We settled on pancakes and bacon and then went through the procedure again. The lights dimmed, I snored, the lights came back up, I awakened and then we ate pancakes. We did this at least ten times proving yet again that Freud was not entirely clueless for repetition compulsion is most definitely an aspect of children’s play and a mechanism through which they can explore the events they observe on a daily basis.

It never fails to amaze me how much children yearn to play and need to play. It is not to be underestimated. The therapeutic benefits of play are profound which is why some of us psychotherapists use it as a central part of our work. But it isn’t just children who need to play. We all do. Animals. Children. Adults. All of us benefit from the intimate contact that comes through play as we enter the portals of our imaginations with another. So in a way, those five innocent words – “Will you play with me?” are like a secret password that if taken seriously initiate us into a very specific form of delight, exploration and experience of each other’s company.

The above words are a re-post from two years ago. They came to mind as I revisited the role of play in my own life. While all humans have the capacity for spontaneity and joy, life experiences can hinder the prominence and regularity of play in our lives. Trauma in fact, can abort it. I look back at my childhood and see patterns where play simply stopped. I think of the adults who would routinely say, “Not now, honey. We’ll play later,” and I remember when my mom started drinking to the point of black out. Focusing on my mom’s well-being became more important than slumber parties or dress up.

As adults, many things interfere with our abilities to play. We are told to grow up and get serious. There are bills to pay, chores to do, and things to look after. In my life, these attitudes were passed on to me in my DNA, costing me an acting career because to act for a living would be the height of frivolity, right? For many of us, play is something that comes at the end of the to do list and sometimes simply gets channeled into sex, the consummate form of adult recreation. We forget the deeper needs behind the simple words, “Will you play with me?” Instead of inviting others in, we tune them out or tell them they aren’t playing right. We tell them to get off the playground or that they’re not good enough for our team. Some of us break the rules and hurt others.

Play comes into our lives when we invite in the energy of the Divine; when we look at the ocean and see the way it dances.  Play comes when we can relinquish worry and reclaim deeper pieces of ourselves. It is in fact, a serious matter.

It is serious play and how we master life.