Overcoming Suffering

The-Comedy-and-Tragedy-Masks-acting-204463_489_381I find it profoundly ironic that a comedic genius like Robin Williams ended his life in such a tragic way. Aristotle, our earliest literary critic, equated comedy with the ridiculous, tragedy with seriousness. Williams’ story of life and death illustrates the paradox of Ancient Greek theater, but it wasn’t until his “final act,” that we, his audience, fully acknowledged the seriousness of his suffering.

Williams was apparently in severe pain, yet the depth of his despair was eloquently cloaked in humor. I recently learned that he donned this mask in childhood to gain the attention of his stern father. One evening, while watching TV together, he saw a side of his father that was totally unfamiliar: a belly-laughing man enthralled by comedian Jonathan Winters. It was then and there, according to Williams, that Winters became his idol, a “Comedy Buddha,” who he’d strive to emulate. But did he do so at his own expense?

Humor — such an incredible salve for many an aching heart. Research now proves that humor can increase feelings of resilience, hope and optimism, but paradoxically, research also shows that humor, especially the self-deprecating brand, can be used to mask feelings of low self-worth, anxiety and depression. Williams wasn’t a stranger to this style of humor, especially when joking about his battle with addiction. He lived with this disease for several decades, and in addition, suffered with severe clinical depression, and possibly, bipolar disorder.

To live is to suffer, wrote Nietzsche. I don’t mean to sound morbid. I’m not a nihilist who believes that suffering is useless. I believe what Helen Keller believed: All the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it.

Suffering, in its original sense, meant “undergoing.” Overcoming suffering requires a prolonged commitment to face what feels insurmountable and heal whatever ails us so that we might become more compassionate and complete as human beings. The 13th century poet, Rumi, encourages us with his words…Don’t turn away, Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you. 

When we look at the bandaged place without resistance or self-criticism, we experience a “progressive softening”, writes Christopher Germer, Ph.D. In his book, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, he defines five stages of acceptance: 1) Aversion—resistance, avoidance, rumination; 2) Curiosity—turning toward discomfort with interest; 3) Tolerance—safely enduring; 4) Allowing—letting feelings come and go; 5) Friendship—embracing, seeing hidden value.

I don’t believe Robin Williams avoided suffering. Conversely, I think he endured it far too long. Maybe he desperately wanted to take off the mask that had become his overarching identity, interchanging the ridiculous with the seriousness in a more public way (and he did, tragically). If only a youthful Robin could have discovered a comic like Kevin Breel, in addition to Jonathan Winters, maybe he’d still be with us. Breel, an advocate for mental health, is determined to “shatter the silence of suffering,” speaking out about his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts.

You’ve got to watch Breel’s 11-minute TED Talk, especially if you, or anyone you know, suffers from depression or other mental or emotional anguish. It’s quite moving. And if you are suffering from any severe emotional distress, please don’t suffer in silence. Seek help.


Confused? Live the Questions

confusionYears ago I was burned out, living life on a treadmill, unhappy most of the time. I wanted my life to be different. But how? I didn’t know. I knew I needed to make a change, but what kind of change? What did I want? What would make me happy? I felt utterly confused.

Confusion. UGH! I hate it when I feel this way, don’t you? So unsettling! When confused, we naturally search for answers. We comb the archives of our minds, analyze our thoughts, and ask others for advice. We rehash ideas and mull things over, but if answers don’t come quickly, we often give up.

Thankfully I didn’t give up. My therapist wouldn’t let me. She suggested that I stop trying so hard to figure things out, and instead, simply allow my thoughts to come and go. Confusion always comes before clarity, she said. Be patient. Answers will come.

The great German poet, Rainier Maria Rilke, offered similar advise to a confused young poet:

Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answers…You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise you or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Be attentive to what is arising in you, and place that above everything you perceive around you.

         Go into yourself. Live the questions. Talk about confusing! Waiting for answers to “arise” is something most of us weren’t taught to do. We were taught to arrive at a solution as fast as possible. Remember those timed tests we took in school? We were taught to analyze facts, apply reason, and logically figure things — quickly. Seldom were we encouraged to pay attention to what was arising in our minds — slowly. That was called daydreaming, and daydreaming meant you weren’t paying attention to the teacher, the teacher “outside” of you.

Well, let me introduce you to another teacher, your “inner teacher.”  I believe that each of us has an inner guide, a wise-self that emanates from soul, not ego or intellect. This intuitive voice offers up subtle clues and serendipitous occurrences when we stop searching outside ourselves, and instead, start listening to our true self within. This quiet voice of soul can’t be rushed. It surfaces when times and conditions are right.

blueskyI remember a momentous day when the time was right for my inner teacher to redirect the course of my life. It was January 1, 2007. I was taking a walk on a crisp, blue-sky day, nothing to do except enjoy a quiet beginning to the New Year. All the questions I’d been asking were nowhere in mind. Interestingly, that’s when the answer appeared out of nowhere. A voice rang out, clear as a bell, Go back to school! My analytical mind immediately intruded, Graduate school at age 50. Really? But the mystical voice didn’t concede. It continued, reminding me of two friends who had gone back to school at mid-life to get their degrees in counseling. Wow! Better sleep on this, I thought. After all, it was a big commitment to make at any age, especially my age.

The next day I proceeded to get back to business, and as always, the first thing I did was check my email. OMG! In the mix of mostly junk, two significant emails appeared — one from each woman who had come to mind the day before. I was blown away. You see, I hadn’t communicated with either in over three months. But on Jan 2nd, their emails affirmed that it was time for me to go back to school.

Amazing, yes, but not at all surprising. I had started my masters in counseling at 25-years old, but abandoned my dream to start a career in business. I had told myself then that I could return to school later in life, and later was apparently now.

Just as Rilke had advised, I had lived the question, patiently. Life had prepared me to be a psychotherapist in ways academia never could. Confusion was gone. My answer had arrived at the perfect time.

The Ebb & Flow of Life

We have so little faith in the ebb and flow of life, of love, of relationships. We leap at the flow of the tide and resist in terror its ebb. We are afraid it will never return. IMAG0268

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I recently went to the seashore after experiencing a significant loss. I longed to be still in a tranquil place to feel my feelings and do what Anne Morrow Lindbergh so eloquently describes in Gifts From the Sea – to accept the ebb and flow of life. Morrow Lindbergh continues… We insist on permanency, on duration, on continuity; when the only continuity possible, in life as in love, is in growth, in fluidity—

Endings, no matter how painful, are necessary to our growth and renewal. Consider how nature illustrates this enduring truth. Colorful leaves turn into murky mulch as fall turns into winter. Winter storms bear down on us, blustering winds and frozen rain, until sprigs of green appear on a sun-drenched branch in spring. Ebb tides, the period between high tide and low tide in which the sea recedes, occur daily, water pulled by the force of the moon in the darkness.

Little light shines when we experience a loss; the pull of darkness is palpable. Anger and sadness, melancholy and mournfulness pull at our heartstrings. Our bodies grow tired; our minds struggle to let go. Life feels hard, overwhelming sometimes, but over time, grief transforms us.

Griefwork, according to author and psychotherapist, Miriam Greenspan, is not a return to the pre-loss status quo, but an opportunity for a wholly new awareness of reality, self, beloved, and the world…. One way or another, we construct a meaning story, and it is through this story that we find acceptance.

The opportunity Greenspan speaks of can never be rushed. A tide doesn’t turn in an instant, IMAG0265and fruit on the vine doesn’t ripen until it’s time. In nature, there are seasons of stillness, yet human nature (especially in our 24/7 world) struggles to embrace transitory times. We leap into the next job or relationship, grabbing hold of something or someone to help us feel more secure or less heartbroken. We get busy doing, distracting, or denying our feelings, fearing we’ll drown in the ebb tide of sorrow.

But we won’t drown if we allow the waves of grief to take their natural course. The poet William Butler Yeats affirms this truth…How many times man lives and dies between his two eternities.

It’s never easy to be still and contemplate life’s endings, but it’s the only way I know to make meaning out of loss. Greenspan knows this all to well, having lost a child two months after his birth. She offers us hope for Healing Through the Dark Emotions, reminding us that out of this stillness an imperceptible movement occurs, from sorrow for what has been lost to gratitude for what remains.

Today: A Gift

Today is not just another day. It’s the one day given to you today. It’s a gift. It’s the only gift you have right now, and the only appropriate response is gratefulness.

–Brother David Steindl-Rast

“Bear! See them?” shouted my friends. “Two of them!” I jumped up in grizzly_bear04my seat, excited, yet slightly rattled, given I had just dozed off to sleep. We had just left the city limits and were winding our way up a mountain road in the safe confines of a truck. I knew bears lived on this mountain, yet seeing them up close and personal—OMG! What an incredible surprise.

Surprises! However could we exist without them, for surprise, according to Brother David Steindl-Rast, is a beginning of that fullness we call gratefulness. Surprise stops us from taking things for granted. Moments of surprise, writes Steindl-Rath, want to teach us: everything is a gratuitous, everything a gift.

How often do we fail to remember this profound truth and fall asleep to the gifts of life? It’s so easy to forget in our hectic 24/7 world. We rush through our days or get caught up in routine until an unexpected surprise wakes us up.

This past year I’ve had the privilege to walk beside a beautiful man who faced an unexpected surprise—a diagnosis of male breast cancer (yes, men can get it too.) Talk about a wake-up call! So many people are surprised when they receive a diagnosis of cancer, yet half of all men and one-third of all women in the U.S. will develop cancer during their lifetimes.

Cancer, like a bear who shows up on a mountain road, can come and go given the wonders of modern medicine. But what I hope never leaves us, all of us, not only those who survive cancer, is the realization that every day we’re given is a gift.

In the following video, Brother David inspires us with his wisdom, as Louie Schwartzberg graces us with his breathtaking time-lapse nature photography.  Now pay attention: if you stumbled across my post today, then surely, you were meant to receive gifts from these two phenomenal men.

For more on “Surprise and Gratefulness,” read an excerpt from one of Steindl-Rast’s inspirational books, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to the Fullness of Life.

A Harmony of Head & Heart

One of my favorite singer-songwriters/musicians,Van Morrison, inspires me with his lyrics, “If my heart could do my thinking, and my head begin to feel, I would look upon the world anew, and know what’s truly real.” His words ring true for me now, but it washttps://i2.wp.com/us.cdn4.123rf.com/168nwm/buttet/buttet1208/buttet120800003/14691310-love-info-text-graphics-composed-in-head-and-heart-shape-concept-word-clouds.jpgn’t always so. Years ago, fear paralyzed me and anger wound me up. My body reacted before my mind could respond. I felt, and felt, and felt—sometimes to a fault.

I learned faulty feelings from my parents. My mother was ridden with anxiety; my father stuffed his anger until something or someone pushed him over the edge. Enraged, he’d explode. Terrified, I’d retreat. It wasn’t until I got into therapy at age 32 that I learned that I needn’t react to or suppress my emotions. I was determined to learn something my parents, despite their love for me, weren’t able to teach–how to engage the connection between head and heart in a healthy, functional way.

The latest research in neuroscience has proven that emotion and cognition are inseparable. Their interaction is hard-wired, and interestingly, science has proven that the neural connections from our emotion centers to our cognitive centers is more powerful the other way around. Makes sense when you think about it, doesn’t it? Why else do we fall prey to anxiety or lose ourselves in anger? Why can’t we let go of frustration with those we love the most? On a more positive note, why do we fall hard when the love of our life appears? According to the Institute of Heartmath

Once an emotion is experienced, it becomes a powerful motivator of future behaviors, affecting moment-to-moment actions, attitudes and long-term achievements. Emotions can easily bump mundane events out of awareness, but non-emotional forms of mental activity (like thoughts) do not so readily displace emotions from the mental landscape. Likewise, experience reminds us that the most pervasive thoughts – those least easily dismissed – are typically those fueled by the greatest intensity of emotion.

For years, the therapeutic community rallied behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), an approach that focused on changing our thoughts to help change our emotional response and/or behavior. Today we know that CBT isn’t enough. Emotions have to be addressed, since emotions, especially negative ones, frequently hijack our thinking. IHM’s research has proven that negative emotional states produce disorder in our heart rhythms and autonomic nervous system, fueling the body’s stress response. On the other hand, engaging positive feelings, most especially appreciation, balances our heart rhythms. It’s been scientifically proven that overwhelming emotions, such as anger, irritation, anxiety or frustration lose their power when we connect more deeply to our heart.

Van Morrison knew this intuitively when he penned the lyrics to a beautiful song, I Forgot That Love Existed. Take a listen…

Finally, scientists at Heartmath have proven it empirically. To experience increased harmony between your emotions and thoughts, I recommend a simple tool designed by Heartmath—The Quick Coherence Technique. Just follow these three quick steps or click here for a more detailed description…

  1. Heart Focus: Focus your attention on the area of your heart, the center of your chest.
  2. Heart Breathing: Breathe deeply but normally and feel as if your breath is coming in and out through your heart.
  3. Heart Feeling: As you maintain your heart focus and heart breathing, activate a positive feeling.

To learn more about other IHM’s tools, techniques, and technology visit www.heartmath.com. To learn more about the power of the heart, watch this brief YouTube video, then download IHM’s free eBook.

Emotional Honesty

The final regret of the dying, according to Bronnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing, is “I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.”  Many of her patients suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. Ware writes, They settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

What might their lives have been like if they chose to be emotionally honest? How might your life be different if you told others how you truly felt?

Recently, I worked with a client who was a breast cancer survivor. She was a highly intelligent woman, yet deeply disconnected from her feelings. She talked about locking her emotions away in a “Pandora’s Box.” She was acutely aware of how this choice fueled her passive-aggressive behavior and caused her to drink too much. Still, she didn’t know how to change her ways. She was terrified of opening up what was hidden deep inside.

I gently probed to help her discover why she continued to stuff her feelings. While sharing her childhood history, she told me that she never saw her mother cry until two years prior to our meeting (this woman was 51 yrs of age.) Interestingly, her mother had lost one son in an automobile accident and another to a chronic illness years before (my client’s brothers) and lost nearly all of her possessions in Hurricane Katrina.

Hmm! Such tragedy, yet my client’s mother hadn’t shed a single tear over the death of her children or loss of her worldly possessions, at least not in public. Hmm? Nor did my client cry while recounting this story or talking about her emotionally abusive marriage.

I don’t know about you, but I would have been boohooing for days. Crying for me is cleansing, a salve to heal my soul. Still, many individual have difficulty expressing their feelings, especially the “negative” kind, like sadness, fear, and grief. Like my client, many people were taught that being emotional means being weak, overly sensitive, or disrespectful. Buck up and stop being a crybaby. There’s nothing to be afraid of (you wimp). Don’t you raise your voice young lady! That’s no way for a nice girl to act.

Thankfully, times are changing. Daniel Goleman’s book on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) has changed our minds and begun to change our hearts. Yet still, EQ only scratches the surface. It doesn’t address what’s tucked away in Pandora’s Box. That’s why my client, and millions of people all over the globe, continue to numb their feelings with alcohol, drugs, food and other addictive pastimes; distract themselves with work, shopping, and other compulsive activities; or dissociate from painful memories for fear that overwhelming emotions will take them down.

Being aware of your feelings IS the first step, but it’s insufficient in creating a healthy life. Renowned neuroscientist, Candance Pert, has proven that emotions reside in every cell of our bodies, and that when we stifle the flow of our emotional energy, sorrow can turn into depression, anger into aggression, and fear into phobias or panic attacks. And it’s not only our mental health that is negatively affected. Neuroscience is proving that bottled up emotions can contribute to systemic inflammation in our bodies which results in cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s.

To live our best lives and die with little regret, I believe it’s essential to let out our feelings in a constructive manner. According to author and psychotherapist, Miriam Greenspan…

Goleman’s focus on the need to control potentially destructive impulses neglects the value of free-flowing emotional energy when it’s mindfully tolerated. The free flow of the dark emotions can’t happen in a contain-and-manage kind of process. What Goleman wants control to accomplish is better accomplished through emotional tolerance and mindfulness. These skills prevent the dark emotions from becoming destructive. When we can tolerate emotional energy mindfully, we can control our impulses without suppressing our emotions. Strictly speaking, it’s not our emotions that we control, but our actions. The emotional intelligence of the dark emotions moves us not to management but to transformation.

Learning to be emotionally honest can be scary. Expressing your feelings to those that matter does take courage. But remember, if you learned to suppress you can learn to express.

If you need a helping hand in opening up your Pandora’s Box, I highly recommend Greenspan’s book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions. But don’t stop there. Spend some time with a trusted therapist or a caring friend who can comfort you along the way.