Break Open

Red-Broken-Heart-Clipart1In the broken places the light shines through. –Leonard Cohen

Last spring I posted, Blossom, encouraging my readers to “choose change” instead of waiting for a crisis to force their hand. This spring I sadly write, Break Open, encouraging my readers to again choose change, but this time, not only for themselves, but also for the victims and survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  As before, a poem inspires my heart…

There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken,

a shatteredness, out of which blooms the unshatterable.

There is a sorrow beyond all grief which leads to joy,

and a fragility out of whose depths emerges strength.

There is a hollow space too vast for words

through which we pass with each loss,

out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.

There is a cry deeper than all sound,

whose serrated edges cut the heart

as we break open to the place inside which is unbreakable and whole

While learning to sing.

— Rashani

Poet Rashani Réa, an impassioned social and environmental activist, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when she was only 13-years old. Marjory Stoneman Douglas teens, also inspired by MLK, did more than just march on March 24, 2018. These courageous teenagers, determined to create a movement for stricter gun control laws, organized the March for Our Lives, one of the biggest youth protest since the Viet Nam war. A quote by student, Delaney Tarr, unapologetically, pulls no punches …

This movement, created by students, led by students, is based on emotion. It is based on passion and it is based on pain. Our biggest flaws—our tendency to be a bit too aggressive, our tendency to lash out, things that you expect from a normal teenager—these are our strengths. The only reason that we’ve gotten so far is that we are not afraid of losing money, we’re not afraid of getting reelected or not getting reelected, we have nothing to lose. The only thing we have to gain at this point is our safety. 

Unafraid, Delaney screamed out passionately. Undeterred, she stood strong, despite her gut wrenching pain. Alone, together, she and her peers stepped up to the podium singing songs of hope and healing, leading chants of generational change. Never again! Vote them out! End gun violence! Register, Educate, Vote!

Captivated, I watched these brave young souls (or maybe old souls?) healing from the aftermath of trauma, an emotional freezing that disconnects us from our bodies and from each other. I saw how their anger melted deep despair, and how their grief rang out in a clarion call. They made me believe in a dream still worth dreaming, where separation withers and dies, and non-violent change blooms throughout our land.

My hope is that this generation, the mass shooting generation, can fulfill the dream of a man killed by gun violence 50-years ago today — Dr. Martin Luther King. We can’t delay any longer, now can we?  Our children are crying out in desperation: We’re dying by mass shootings! Stop the violence! Save us now!

So we can, and we must, but not only by marching, registering, and voting. We can and we must by healing our own pain. These students’ way forward can be our way too, for no matter our brokenness, there’s a place deep inside us that is unbreakable and whole. 

imagesTo learn more about healing from traumatic experiences, I highly recommend the podcast, Healing Trauma: The Light Shines Through the Broken Places, by psychologist, Tara Brach. Very educational and incredibly moving.

 

Stuck? Start by Ending

A few months ago I felt incredibly stuck, itching for a new beginning, longing for a major change. Several of my friends were achieving lofty goals – relocating to a new town, purchasing a new home, starting a promising new relationship. Their achievements occurred within a matter of weeks of each other’s. But me, NADDA! I felt like I was stuck in quicksand, my life going nowhere fast.

If only I could make something happen right now, my action-oriented self pined. Next thing I knew I was obsessing about my future, frantically setting goals and searching for a quick fix. A part of me realized that driving hard wasn’t the answer, but another part just couldn’t help it. I felt like my friends were leaving me behind. I was happy for them, but I was also jealous, bored and frustrated by the routine of my life. I wanted an exciting new beginning. After all, new beginnings are intoxicating. Literally, they are!

Our brains are wired to seek out novelty. New objects or experiences increase our levels of dopamine, which controls the brain’s reward and pleasure center. New cities, new jobs, new relationships, even new clothes or gadgets produce this feel-good hormone. In addition, research has determined that dopamine pathways light up when we take action to achieve our goals. Dopamine contributes to motivation. Hmm! Could this explain my achievement-oriented drive?

Throughout my entire life, I’ve prided myself on setting lofty goals and achieving results quickly. Patience has never been a virtue, especially when I’m feeling stuck. But despite my restlessness, I’m not in a position to make a dopamine-fueled-get-it-done-now kind of change. But coming to terms with this. Never been my style!

According to William Bridges, author of the book Transitions, Making Sense of Life’s Changes, change is a situational shift – moving to a new home, getting a new job, having a child, losing a loved one – the sort of changes my friends are making now. But transition is the way we come to terms with change — the process of letting go of the way things used to be and then taking hold of the way they subsequently become.

We experience numerous transitions throughout our lifetimes, but there are two pivotal transition points that challenge us the most:

The first is the turning point symbolized by the phrase “walking on your own two feet” – that is, the transition from dependency to separateness and independence – a shift that typically occurring around age 30. No longer naïve, we’ve learned that things don’t always go our way and that life includes disappointments. It’s a time for reflection and redefining our choices, including our lifestyles, relationships and career paths, and for becoming responsible, mature adults.

The second turning point occurs in the late afternoon of our lives. Letting go becomes the prerequisite during this transformational stage, but we’re not just letting go of the things, people and places that shaped our exterior lives. It’s much deeper than that, writes Bridges. It’s a period of unlearning our way of mastering the world, of letting go of a particular kind of self-image and style of coping….of dismantling a whole life structure.

Thankfully, I pulled Bridges’ book off my shelf when I started writing this post. I found a quote to remind me of what I need to “achieve” as I enter the late afternoon of my life.

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.  -–T.S. Eliot

In time, new beginnings will find me in a whole new way — a slower, more patient way — in a new home, in a new town, enjoying the company of new relationships. But for now, it’s time to unlearn my style of mastering the world, transitioning from fast to slow, and from driven to deliberate, just as I’d do if I were climbing out of quicksand. For if you didn’t know it, the faster you move when you’re stuck in quicksand, the deeper you sink.

Mindful Moments

I recently returned from a wonderful vacation in mid-coast Maine. A highlight of my trip was a visit to Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park. I’d been anticipating this moment for weeks, setting my sights on this special place to practice taking photos with my new digital SLR camera.

After checking out the scenery, I settled on a spot and unpacked my camera gear. Raising my camera to my eye, I scanned the horizon to capture the perfect shot. Snap, snap! I checked the viewfinder. Not bad, but you can do better! my judgmental-self commanded, as it often does when I’m attempting to master a new skill.

I wanted to let go of this nagging voice. I needed to do what I teach my clients to do. Pause. Breathe. Focus on the moment. Inhale one. Exhale one. Inhale two. Exhale two. By the time I counted to 10, practicing deep belly breaths, my body felt calmer and my mind was clearer, just like the water in this beautiful pond.

Move closer to the water’s edge, a quiet voice within said. No longer searching for the perfect shot, that’s when he magically appeared. Snap, snap!

This is the beauty of mindfulness practice. When we learn to still ourselves despite our many stressors, we open ourselves to see what’s ready to come into view. Clearer and calmer, we observe our world AND ourselves without judgment, and with intentional practice, we learn to let go of anxiety producing thoughts that muddy our mind.

 Life is a mirror and will reflect back to the thinker what he thinks into it, wrote spiritualist, Ernest Holmes. So take a look. Pay attention. Pause. Breathe. And if you need a little extra help, try vacationing in Maine (and be sure to pack your camera). But it’d be easier and much more cost-effective to simply download a mindfulness app.

Desire’s Demise

the-embrace-1917.jpg!Large

The Embrace by Egon Schiele

It must be time to spice things up with a hot topic I’ve never written about before. Now I’m no a sex therapist, but recently, three different clients, all beautiful and bright thirty-something women, started their sessions saying,  I’m s-o-o-o embarrassed, the words sticking in their throats. Uncanny! I thought. There must be something in the water. All raised an issue with sexual desire; all were terrified that the flames of passion were dying out and would never return again.

It’s all right; you’re not alone! I said encouragingly, the words sticking in my throat. Could I truly help these women given my lack of clinical training on the subject? I listened compassionately all the while wracking my brain for some useful information other than personal experience. I felt like a game show contestant on Jeopardy trying to come up with the right question before the clock ran out. Ticktock, ticktock…got it. Whew! Who is Esther Perel?

You might not have heard of her. I hadn’t, until another client, an enlightened 30-something dude (who’d actually make a terrific therapist) raved about Perel’s new podcast titled, Where Should We Begin? I googled her after his session. Ge’ez! Her TED Talk, The Secret of Desire in a Long Term Relationship, had over 10 million views. She must be a phenomenal speaker, I thought, and come to find out, she is. Funny, too!

To give you a preview, Perel explains how love and desire both relate and conflict. According to Perel, “Love seeks safety and security, whereas desire thrives on the unknown and unexpected. Both are essential to everlasting love.” states Perel, but she warns that, “Too much we and not enough me can surely extinguish the flames.”

She surveyed people in 20 different countries, asking: “When do you find yourself most drawn to your partners? Not attracted sexually, per se, but most drawn?” Their answers were universal:

  • When she is away, when we are apart, when we reunite. Basically, when I get back in touch with my ability to imagine myself with my partner, when my imagination comes back in the picture, and when I can root it in absence and in longing, which is a major component of desire.
  • When I see him in the studio, when she is onstage, when he’s in his element, when she’s doing something she’s passionate about, when I see him at a party and other people are really drawn to him, when I see her hold court (think Dany in Game of Thrones;) Basically, when I look at my partner as radiant and confident.

Now some believe (incluing some researchers) that men don’t have problems with sexual desire no matter how long they’ve been in a relationship. Could that be why my 30-something babes were freaking out? Bunk! Says Kristen Mark, a sex researcher at the University of Kentucky. Mark’s research found that desire has a natural ebb and flow in both men and women. “The longer the relationship goes on the lower the desire gets in men just as it does in women,” states Mark.

So what to do when the ebbs come and flows go? In addition to Perel’s suggestion of creating a sense of longing, Mark’s research points to the following strategies: communicate, even if uncomfortable, focus on meeting your partner’s needs, have sex without desire, and have patience / let time work out the problem. In addition, schedule sex, wear sexy lingerie, and put date night back on your calendar, especially if you can’t remember the last time you enjoyed an amorous evening, a mellow morning, or an intoxicating afternoon with your partner.

Most importantly, remember you’re not alone. Why else would a  TED Talk on sexual desire get over 10 million hits. Here’s the link once again: The Secret of Desire in a Long Term Relationship It’s a perfect activity for date night, that is, before enjoying something even better 😉

 

Blossom

The following is a favorite poem by Dawna Markova, a perfect inspiration for spring…

I will not die an unlived life. 20160323_123902

I will not live in fear 

of falling or catching fire.

I choose to inhabit my days,

to allow my living to open me,

to make me less afraid,

more accessible,

to loosen my heart

until it becomes a wing,

a torch, a promise.

I choose to risk my significance,

to live so that which came to me as seed

goes to the next as blossom,

and that which came to me as blossom,

goes on as fruit.

Markova penned these words the night her father died. She wrote so movingly in her book, I Will Not Die An Unlived Life, My tears had turned to ink. The words were a bridge across an abyss my father could not cross.

So often we wait for a significant life event – a death, a diagnosis, a devastating emotional experience – to take a risk and change our lives. Something beyond our control rocks our world and cracks us wide open. I know it did for me. I was 32-years-old. My father died in March. My marriage imploded in April. I lost my job in May. It was the worst spring of my life.

Until that time, I thought I was happy. I was going about my life in the way I thought I should. I told myself, I should get married. I’m 32-years-old. It didn’t matter that the red flags were everywhere. I should drive hard and work 12-hour days. I need to make a lot of money. It didn’t matter that my work wasn’t meaningful. I should act like I have my shit together. What would others think if they really knew how insecure I was?

Day in and day out, I defined myself by a set of unrealistic expectations, working diligently to craft an image of what I thought my life should look like. But “shoulding” on myself wasn’t working; it only kept me stuck and strengthened my facade. If only I’d realized this sooner. But I didn’t until crisis came along.

You may have heard that the word crisis in the Chinese language – wēijī – means “opportunity disguised as danger.” But this is incorrect. The wēi symbol in Chinese does convey the notion of danger, but jī doesn’t mean opportunity. Instead, it means an “incipient moment; a crucial point when something begins or changes”.

My father’s death, along with the death of happily ever after, was an incipient moment for me. Up until then, I ignored a deeper inner voice powered by my emotions and intuition. But after enduring such painful losses, my feelings could no longer be denied; the voice of intuition, no longer masked.

Fast forward 10 years later when I’m 42-years-old. No longer deathly afraid of change, I quit my job in March (despite my lucrative salary), sold my home in April, and boarded a plane in May to circumnavigate the globe. It was the best spring of my life.

Now I’m not suggesting you do the same, unless of course you want to. I’m simply encouraging you to listen to your intuition and pay attention to your feelings instead of waiting for a crisis to force you to change.

It’s hard to change without help, so I encourage you to reach out to a caring therapist or trusted friend who won’t should all over you. And as the seeds of spring go to blossom this year, why not risk your significance and leap into the unknown. For as Anais Nin writes, and the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

Happy spring!

Haunting History

treeOn my morning walk today, the goons and goblins were out in full glory, Halloween decorations fronting the lawns of my in-town neighborhood. One particular display caught my attention–four faux headstones fronted by skeletons rising up from the ground. One struck a chord. It read, “I’ll be back!”

Oh yeah, I thought, as I reflected on an issue that’s been haunting me for weeks, an emotional wound I buried in childhood, that for the most part, doesn’t wreak havoc on my life anymore. But despite my belief that I’d thoroughly exorcised this demon, come to find out, it still hadn’t vanished completely.

The haunting started a few months ago over a conflict with a friend. She was struggling with her own issue, and to be honest, I didn’t want to hear it. I knew I should be supportive and draw on my inner caregiver, but another part of me, a childish part, felt angry and resentful. I don’t want to help her! I don’t want to prioritize her needs when she’s not paying attention to mine.

I knew these childish thoughts and feelings oh so well. I’d been listening to my internal rants for years. They’d come and go, like ghosts in the night, most often when a friend or lover was caught up in him or herself and seemed indifferent to what was going on with me.

No more, I thought! I must assert my needs and wishes more often. I must stop reacting childishly and choose a different way. Yet despite my desire to do so, I felt fear within my bones. Would I be criticized? Rejected? Or worse yet, abandoned? Of course these weren’t my grown-up thoughts. They’re the thoughts of a vulnerable child. According to Hal and Sidra Stone, founders of the Voice Dialogue method, the vulnerable child within us embodies our sensitivity and fears. Its feelings are easily hurt and it generally lives in fear of abandonment.

Abandonment issues are exacerbated in homes where parents/caregivers were emotionally wounded themselves. Children, being exquisitely sensitive to their surroundings, sense their parents’ unmet needs and typically make a choice, albeit unconsciously, to subjugate their own desires and take on the caretaker role.

The late John Bradshaw, renowned for his books and PBS television programs, concluded that this process is the reversal of the natural order. In his book, Healing the Shame that Binds You, he wrote: The caretaker role is strangely paradoxical. In an attempt to secure parental love and avoid being abandoned, the child in fact is being abandoned. Since the child is there for the parent, there is no one to mirror the child’s feelings and drives and to nurture the child’s needs.

To break the spell, we must encounter our fears, both past and present, and face their causes courageously. It’s essential to take a step back, stop re-acting out of anger, and instead, tend to the vulnerable child within us with love and compassionate care. Only then will we see what’s lurking behind our walls of self-defensive. Only then will we be able to communicate our needs in an emotionally healthy way.

Tears will fall first, if we’re willing to feel them, as mourning is required to heal the haunting hurts of our childhoods. In addition, wrote Alice Miller, acclaimed psychotherapist and author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, we must speak out against our mistreatment, confronting our parents in an inner dialogue to discover and validate our real needs, past and present.

Now you may be thinking, “My parents didn’t mean to hurt me.” Of course they didn’t! They were doing the best they knew how. But that doesn’t mean that you and I didn’t endure significant losses, most especially the loss of being who we were meant to be: the loss of our true selves.

Facing the pain that we buried away not only liberates our true selves, but also releases our gentle spirit, the essence of a vulnerable child who knows how to care without caretaking, love without condition, and confront without controlling in order to feel safe. You see, this spirit knows that our vulnerable child is not the only one hiding in the darkness; it recognizes that our loved ones are hiding there too.

There’s so much more I could write about how our personal histories shape our present relationships, but it’s time to conclude with the words of a man whose own history is haunting, whose poetry is healing, and whose music forever lives in our souls…

A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself – and especially to feel, or not to feel. What you happen to be feeling at any moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what s/he really is. Most people love you for who you pretend to be. To keep their love, you keep pretending – performing. You get to love your pretense. It’s tropen doorue, we’re locked in an image, an act – and the sad thing is, people get so used to their image, they grow attached to their masks. They love their chains. They forget all about who they really are.

Rest in Peace, Jim Morrison. Rest in truth (even if it scares you) my dearest friends.