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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.

 

 

Putting Away My Smart Phone Pacifier

18 Jan

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Every day I grow increasingly horrified as research emerges about the impact of social media and technology on society at large: decreased concentration span, less meaningful relational engagement, compare-and-despair syndrome, ADHD, depression, and irritability in the kid/adolescent population, and a decrease in human civility are among the findings. Most alarming is the fact that phones are being used as pacifiers for infants and toddlers. Very young children hit developmental milestones through affective interchange with adults, imaginary play, and self-soothing activities. Phone and tablet use threaten all of that and could impact human evolution in an extraordinarily destructive way. There is a reason Steve Jobs didn’t allow his own kids to play with the very I-Phone he invented. But what of our use as adults? Why do most Americans fall asleep with their phones next to their heads and wake up clutching them as if their devices were stuffed animals? Are they that soothing?

I find not. Even though I check my own phone quite regularly, and at times compulsively, I don’t get much gratification from doing so. It is far more stimulating to hold a yoga pose or to read a book. Yet through some habituated twitch, I reach for my phone. So lately, I’ve been turning my phone off by 8 p.m., so I can truly relax. Whatever or whomever is trying to reach me- they can wait until morning when I have the time and energy to be more present. Sure, if I needed to keep it on for emergency purposes, I most definitely would. However, some of us still have land lines and doorbells.

Do I really need to look at email and FB one more time before I shut my eyes? Honestly, what’s so exciting to see there? Do I need to view it all day long?

Eventually, the child needs to wean herself of the pacifier. I’m taking my own out of my mouth. How novel, and perhaps, more grown up.

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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.

 

Which Is More Stressful? Doing What You Love Or Not Doing What You Love?

29 Oct

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I’m a firm believer that following one’s dreams is not only life giving- it’s a necessity. When we don’t pursue our hearts we run the risk of growing old, resentful and disconnected from our life force.

That said, chasing a passion extracts a cost.

There is never balance. It’s a constant juggling act.

I remember a loved one suggesting that I consider art a hobby and not aim for it as a career. Creating for the sake of creating should be reward enough.

At some point toying with passion isn’t enough though. At some point, if you are serious about yourself and what you have to offer, you become serious about it all. It’s not about whether or not you actually hit the big time; it’s about whether or not you actually swing at the bat.

The funny thing about pursuing a goal is that it requires a degree of relaxation too. Trying too hard stunts creativity and spontaneity, so you have to loosen the grip a little. But if you want to be in the game, you have to practice, sweat, get dirty and deal with stress and exhaustion. That’s just the way it goes. No one who is remotely successful achieved anything by wistfully dreaming about it. Creativity requires risk and action. It will throw you off kilter and plunge you into the unknown. Forget security. It will require last minute decisions, schedule changes, and sacrifices. It will mean that not all will understand or even support you. In fact, most won’t even care. And that’s okay. Because the only person who needs to care is you.

Because which is more stressful? Doing what you love or not doing what you love?

Most new mothers would never go back to the hospital and say, “Thank you. I’m returning my child. I miss eight hours sleep.” While they might dream about eight hours sleep and miss aspects of their previous lifestyles, most wouldn’t trade their children in for simplicity and convenience. That wouldn’t enter most new mothers’ minds beyond mere fantasy.

So which is more stressful? Doing what you love or not doing what you love? And who and what do you make sacrifices for?

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.