Visualizing Lemonade Instead of Lemons

Sometimes when I have done presentations I like to use a meditation to make a point.  It goes something like this. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Imagine that I am going to the refrigerator.  I open the door and open one of the smaller drawers. I take out something roundish and yellow. I look at it carefully, noting the vibrant color, the dimpled skin.  I rub my fingers over the slightly bumpy surface, immersing myself in the texture. I hold the object to my nose and gently inhale. I put it on the cutting board and slice it in half.  I watch as droplets of juice squirt from it. I take one half to my mouth and sink my teeth into it. At this point usually everyone in the class grimaces or shudders. I do not have to tell you it is a lemon.  And you do not have to bite into a real lemon to experience the sensation of actually biting a real lemon. Your mind and body will respond to what you are visualizing just as it would to the actual behavior.   This is a powerful example of how we react physiologically to what we think about.  Are you aware of what your mind is usually thinking about? Have you considered that if you are in a bad mood, that you may be thinking unpleasant thoughts?  Did you know that you can change your mood by changing the channel in your mind? I was just wondering…………………..

I want to illustrate to you the powerful effect your mind has on your body. For instance, in Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder), individuals respond to stimuli in very diverse ways.  One personality may be allergic to poison ivy, while another is not. One personality may be diabetic, yet others are not! Even more compelling, handwriting is different depending on the personality in control. These differences are accounted for by the differing belief systems in each of the personalities.  This is also illustrative of the power of the mind!

Other studies have demonstrated the physiological response of our bodies to events that we look at or watch, even though we are not physically participating.  Blood pressure and heart rate responses have been measured to be similar to those actually participating in the events. Even photos of emotionally expressive individuals can elicit a similar feeling and physiological response to the individual in the photo.  It is our ability to be empathic that allows us to connect to another in a similar feeling state. We are able to feel their pain or their joy. We share a similar physiological response with them. My mother and I always used to cry at weddings, sharing in thought the emotional joy of those at the altar.  Just seeing it in someone else could elicit in us the overwhelming happiness observed in the couple. There are innumerable daily events when we experience a reaction like this. It may come from the smile of a baby, which transports us to the same place, or the sadness in a loved one, which makes us sad too.  Our observation of these events affects our physiological bodies in ways similar to which we would respond if the event had occurred directly to us!

But here is the crux of the matter.  Even when we are not watching anything, reading anything, talking to someone, or participating in anything outside of ourselves, these same physiological responses are still going on.  They are reactions to what we are thinking about! If we spend our days entertaining ourselves with negative thoughts, then this will affect our immune systems in a negative way, and we will feel unhappy, perhaps helpless, maybe angry.  If we focus on positive thoughts and opportunities, then our immune systems will remain balanced and we will feel happy, fulfilled. When something bad or annoying happens, make a joke of it and laugh. When I had abdominal surgery years ago, my roommate and I laughed at everything, including our pathetic helpless situations!  We laughed when nurses didn’t come and we both laughed ourselves right back to healing! A friend called me this morning and in the middle of a trying work day, she stopped at Starbucks for a coffee and on her way out the door, the person ahead of her let the door slam into her and her coffee spilled all over her into her underwear!  She called me and we both laughed. Learn to see life as an adventure that will always have a new episode. See the humor in the human experience. Especially laugh at yourself!

So when you find yourself thinking of figurative lemons, quickly change the channel to one with happy thoughts and positive outcomes. Try to find the humor in the human condition.  Understand that your physiological body is reacting to your thoughts, so that in order to experience homeostasis and health, it is important to rebalance as quickly as possible. We will all have moments of sadness, disappointment.  Try to make them as short as possible. Are you willing to practice this to make your life better? I was just wondering………………………

Your Brain Believes Everything That You Say

In recent years, we have become more aware of the neuroplasticity of our brains and how our thoughts and feelings are affected by not only what we are taught, but also, by everything we are exposed to during a day.  In other words, learning is occurring all the time.  The brain never shuts off.  Whatever we are exposing it to, it is processing.  Much of what we are processing we are not even aware of.  Think of it like a movie camera.  It is constantly taking pictures of what it sees, and recording what it hears, and all of that information is not only stored, but also organized, helping to create our thoughts and beliefs.  This information creates networks or “roads,” which are then available to communicate this data.  This film that your brain is recording is the unconscious lesson that we constantly receive.  How aware are you of exactly what kind of film you are creating every day?  For instance, what did your brain learn today?  I was just wondering………………….

Of course, we all know that we are educated in our schools and we are also taught lessons by our families.  Our culture is also a major influence of our beliefs and values.  We learn this not from books and not necessarily through instruction, but by viewing what our neighbors do, how they behave, how they dress, and how they think about things in general.  If we are never really exposed to another culture, then we will most likely remain unchanged.  However, the more we expose ourselves to, the more this information is synthesized in our brains and we become fuller than we were and different from the people with whom we grew up.

We also learn from the media we watch and listen to and our opinions get formed this way.  Our brains create a neural pathway for these thoughts and beliefs. The stronger the belief, the more deeply entrenched is the neural pathway.  Divergent thoughts become difficult to hold onto because the neural network is heavily influenced by what information goes into it.  It becomes slanted by the information to which we expose ourselves. This is why it is so difficult for us to see things from another viewpoint.  It is also the reason that once we have formed an opinion of another person, it is very difficult for us to view them in a different way when contradictory information is received.

Fears are developed when we tell ourselves over and over again that we are afraid of something.  Every time we are faced with the feared object, we reinforce it with our thought system.  This eventually creates a really intensely rutted “road,” one which we are unable to escape.  The good news is that fears can be overcome with self- talk.   I did this experiment on myself years ago to overcome my fear of flying.  Filled with fear, I booked a flight four months in advance.  Then, every time I drove somewhere, I talked to myself about how I loved flying, how everyone else likes it, that if all these other people can do it, I can do it and so on. I talked about looking out the window, enjoying the take-off and landing and every aspect of the trip I could imagine.   Also, I made a point of doing this orally in order to overcome any lingering fearful thoughts that might try to creep into my head.  When you are speaking, you whole brain has to focus on the words you are saying.  The morning of my flight I remember feeling somewhat zombie-like.  There was no fear.  I just got on to the plane and enjoyed the trip.  My fear of flying for 29 years was overcome through self-talk!  Through my own self talk effort, my brain listened and created a new neural pathway that loved, instead of feared flying!

Because your brain is listening and recording all of the time, it is really important to try to become more consciously aware of those “drifting” thoughts.  Try to do a periodic check-in to determine what’s really going into your brain.  What are you thinking about?  Is it a healthy thought?  Is it productive for you?  Are you terrorizing yourself?  Are you making yourself depressed or anxious by obsessing over something in the past or in the future?  Learn to change the movie channel if your thoughts are unhelpful.  Avoid negative thinking so that your brain will not create neural pathways that will be difficult to overcome.

Instead, practice affirmations and positive self talk.  It will never harm you to think positively, but it could harm you if you continue to let negative thinking persist.  Stress caused by negative and worrisome thoughts is the progenitor of illness.  That’s right!  Thinking bad thoughts can actually make you ill!  Your self talk may also be a determining factor of your success.  Remember, your computer brain is actually uploading your self-talk data and will create your belief system about yourself.  If you are already lacking confidence, then use verbal affirmations to begin to overcome it by creating a new neural pathway for success.  If you want to better understand your moods, then just listen to your self-talk.  Make sure that your brain is being fed information that is nourishing for your mind and soul.  Are you willing to make the effort to improve your thinking?  I was just wondering…………………………………

 

 

 

When Opportunity Knocks

Recently a new friend I met at my yoga class invited me to attend a tango dance class with her and her husband.  I thanked her but felt I would decline.  While I love to dance, I didn’t really feel that tango would be my thing.  Also, I did not have a partner to accompany me and I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Besides, it was cold out, and it would be dark and even colder that evening when the class was scheduled.  I put it out of my mind and went about my business for the day.  As the hour for the class approached, I thought more about reconsidering.  After all, I’d swung across the Costa Rican jungle on a zip line; I swam with sharks, giant turtles, and stingrays in Bora Bora; and I braved the mosquito and snake infested Amazon.  What could be so challenging about a little tango? When opportunity knocks, I usually open the door.  What do you do?  Do you fear what is on the other side?  I was just wondering………………

The instructors were the real deal, all the way from Argentina! We spent about the first 20 minutes just listening to their explanation of the dance.  As I scoped out the room, I was surprised to see there were as many men in attendance as women and there seemed to be very few people paired up like my friends.  This was comforting, as I was not the only solo in the group.  Following the warm-up talk, we were told to find a partner and then we were instructed how to position our feet.  It seemed I was back in ballet class, except it wasn’t first, second, third, or fourth position, but duck feet position!  Yes, heels together and toes pointing out and away from one another, creating a V.  In this position, we had to practice “waddling” backwards.  At least that is what it felt like!  Waddling! Without falling, that is!  Seriously! After a little practice at this, we were told to get into hold with our partners, hands on shoulders of one another, and then together to move with our duck feet!  For the women, this meant being pushed backwards while the male “lead” had the more convenient forward duck walk position.  I can assure you I never envisioned tango as a duck walk! So, we did a bit of practice while switching partners several times.  Each partner was very polite, introduced himself, and appeared equally unsure of himself.  Then a man with icy blue eyes approached me, grabbed my shoulders, quickly took command and began rapidly and assuredly pushing me backwards.  I noticed he had an accent and I was going to ask where he was from, but he was all business.  No smile, no friendly handshake, no name! I began to sweat (something I almost NEVER do), as I stumbled backward, trying desperately to keep apace!  Then his mouth opened as he commanded me to stop wiggling my butt!  Next, he ordered me to stand very straight, like I was tied to a post!  Now with duck feet, I was being pushed backwards rapidly while pretending I was tied to a tree! OMG!  This was much more frightening than the zip line! And this guy was definitely not someone I wanted to meet in a back alley!  While he was quite good looking, those icy eyes and cold demeanor just had a way of turning me into jelly, and I don’t mean the lustful kind, but jelly like when you feel too helpless to save yourself!

When this practice period thankfully ended, I rushed back to my friend for comfort and to share with her my unsettling experience.  As I described the guy, her eyes widened and she gasped, “Oh, you mean the Russian!?”  Well that explained it!  He must still be mentally living in the “cold war” or else he just had to be a Russian spy!  My friend went on to explain that he has actually been an instructor as well.  He is definitely not one I would voluntarily sign up for!

So, back to the question at hand. As I previously stated, I generally respond when opportunities present themselves to me.  You are probably giving yourself ammunition not to answer that knock by assuming that I regret having opened this door, that I never should have gone, that it was a wasted, uncomfortable experience.  Wrong!  I welcome it all.  How do you ever learn if you don’t experience?  In fact, the very best education in life is experiential.  When you actually participate in something, you retain a fuller learning experience and you also tend not to forget it.  You also learn what you like and what you don’t like.  For instance, I like to dance, but tango is probably not my forte, but I would never really know that if I hadn’t tried it. I suspect that my tendency to wiggle may be more conducive to salsa. On the other hand, sometimes we reject things that we really don’t know enough about or understand, which, if given an opportunity to experience, may result in a different outcome.  Besides the experience itself that you may question, you will have the opportunity to meet new people, make new connections, and open the door for even more opportunities! Try things!  Experience life to the fullest! It is the only way you will really know what you like instead of imagining what you may or may not enjoy.  It is also the best way to make discoveries about yourself!

As for me, I not only learned first-hand about tango, I met a Russian with icy blue eyes, I met some other very pleasant people, and I learned I don’t really want to pursue more tango.  But best of all, I had an experience that is unforgettable, and now I have a funny story to tell!  I am glad I opened that door.  What about you?  What will you do the next time opportunity knocks?  Will you try something new or will you have a lot of excuses?  Will you overcome a fear?  Will you open that door?  I was just wondering…………….

Dancing in the Grocery Aisles

I’m not a big fan of the grocery store.  I like to go in, get what is on the list, and be done with it!  My husband, on the other hand, is enamored.  He loves to go there, spend some quality time, smell the melons, squeeze the tomatoes, carefully check the color on the bananas, sort through the fresh corn, look over the muffin choices, check out the desserts, ponder over the ice cream flavors, check out the nut choices, and finish in the candy aisle.  As you can see, he has a predilection for lots of bad stuff he shouldn’t be eating, but that’s another story.  Me, I grab the list, get my stuff, and I dance in the aisles while I wait for him to check out.  It’s not that I especially like grocery store music, but if I am standing, and music is playing, my body simply begins to move with it.  I can’t help it!  Sometimes I can be caught doing the yoga tree pose or even yoga airplane if I have a wide aisle.  Hey, it helps my balance, and I have nothing else to do while I am waiting.  I especially practice this while in the checkout line.  It really helps not to get irritated with waiting!  This true confession may leave you thinking I might be a little crazy. What’s wrong with that, I ask?  Can you consider adding a little bit of craziness to your life?  The organic crazy, not the drug induced kind.

 

So, let’s go with I may be a little crazy.  If you really think this is a bit crazy, you may be way too inhibited!  If you are constantly worrying about what other people are thinking of you, this also suggests you are probably too inhibited!  If you think people are staring at you or judging you, again, you are perhaps too inhibited.  And even worse, you are undoubtedly not having much fun throughout your day.  Instead you are too busy worrying rather than being able to focus on the moment and enjoy the “now.”  And strangely enough, those people you are worrying about judging you are actually way too busy worrying about themselves to really even notice you!  Eckhart Tolle, who wrote The Power of Now, advises, “Life isn’t as serious as the mind makes it out to be.”  We need to unshackle ourselves, and stop taking ourselves so seriously.

Have you ever seriously considered why alcohol and other recreational drugs are so popular?  The reason is that they give us the high that frees us up to be ourselves and enjoy ourselves.  Did you realize that you can actually achieve this state without ingesting one mood altering substance?  I want you to ask yourself why it is ok to be uninhibited if you are ingesting a drug, but not if you are sober?  What is the difference?  We must wonder about the message that our culture given us about spontaneity that makes us fear it.  Can you only set yourself free if you are high?  Many years ago, I used to sing Paul Simon’s famous tune, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” to encourage myself to end a relationship.  These lyrics can be useful to encourage us to slip out of our protective gear and get our SELVES free!  It is wonderfully relieving to remove that defensive protective armor.   It is so much more fun than sitting in a bar, drinking alcohol. Instead, as Paul Simon suggests, “Just get yourself free!”

There are actually many positive reasons for becoming less inhibited.  As we allow ourselves to be more spontaneous, we become more creative.  Our brains become more flexible and our neural connections are enhanced in new ways.  Because we are less blocked, we can become more aware, more sensorily awakened.  Because we are not so blocked, we may see and hear things in an entirely different way. We may also feel more energetic because the freedom will allow us to be less stifled by our natural defensive armoring.  We will also feel happier, because a little dose of disinhibition will create a natural high through the release of our own endorphins and enkephalins. This happiness can be contagious and may infect those around you, compounding the spontaneous feelings of well-being.  This sense of well-being will also include the benefit of stress reduction, and stress reduction is the very best preventive medicine from illness. For those interested in the effects of stress on overall health, I highly recommend The Stress of Life and Stress and Distress by Hans Selye.

I recommend that you practice a little “naughtiness” every day.  Stretch your boundaries of impropriety, dare to be different, practice being authentic within your own skin.  Famous Humanistic Psychologist Carl Rogers said, “What is most personal is most general.”   We don’t have to fear being human in all of its expressions, as deep inside, we all know the same uncertainties.  Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind stated, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing!  If Helen Keller could experience life in this way then anyone can.  Throw off your shoes, be a little improper, find a way to enjoy every moment, and seek your adventure!  And the next time you go to the grocery store, if you see me dancing in the aisles, will you dance with me?  I was just wondering……..

Harnessing The Brain’s Neuroplasticity

Until recently, we believed that the brain formed in early life and that its capacity to grow and learn began to decline thereafter.  Newer research has demonstrated that the brain has an amazing neuroplasticity capacity.  This means that we can learn new, even complicated things late into life.  Because of what we have learned about the brain’s plasticity, we also know that we can unlearn things that were earlier programmed, such as a fear, or even more debilitating, phobias.  It means that if we are right handed, that even as adults we can learn to write with our left hand.  It means that you can change beliefs if you practice reciting opposing ideas.  Think about the possibilities!  Because of what your brain learns from it, your daily environment is a tremendous influence on how you feel about your life.  What would you like to learn, change, or overcome?  I was just wondering……

Let’s start with the concept of fear.  When I was very young, before I went to graduate school, I worked for several years for an airline.  Because I had a fear of flying, { fear of being confined in that space from which I could not escape}, I worked in reservations, not as an attendant.  However, we did receive free trips and I would prep myself with alcohol before flying, one time at 7:00 am to catch an early flight to Miami.  After I left this job and got into the mental health field, I spent many years studying for my advanced degrees during which time I made sure all of my traveling was either by car or by train.  Twenty nine years passed and my husband said he wanted to travel somewhere outside of North America, so we drove to Florida to take our first cruise.  The next year my husband announced that he would meet me in Florida for the next cruise because he was not willing to drive there again.  My flying phobia had grown really severe in all of these years of avoidance, but I knew it was time to face my fear.  So with great trepidation, I made the airline reservations four months before the planned trip and then I began the work to create new cerebral neurons that loved flying.  Twice a week I had long drives for nursing home consulting, and I began each drive by talking out loud to myself about how I loved flying.  I would remind myself of my accomplishments, note that many people fly and enjoy it and if they can do it so can I.  I basically engaged in a pep talk to myself for about 20 minutes.  I am convinced the verbal component is crucial because it prevents the mind from thinking an opposite thought.  Fears become greater because we give them a lot of attention. Every time we remind ourselves we are afraid of something and list the reasons why, we are reinforcing that fear and that thought races over the neural connection already established for it so that it becomes a deep trench in the brain’s neural connections. My verbal practice created a new fear free neural connection in my brain resulting in a fear free flight four months later.  Since then I have flown all over the world without fear.

Another way to empower the brain’s plasticity is to learn something new.  We all do this, of course, but often we allow our learning to decline after our school years and even more often after retirement.  But just like in childhood when we learn to walk, to talk, to ride a bike, etc., we can learn strange new things with practice.  While I was reading Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, I began writing the alphabet and one short sentence once a day for a month with my left hand.  As recommended in the book, I then stopped the practice and 4 months later when I attempted the same exercise, the writing was much improved!  The book explained that it takes some months for the new learning to coalesce and then the result is improvement.  When I broke my right wrist around this time, they handed me papers in the hospital and asked me to sign an X with my left hand.  I astonished the staff when I produced my signature with my left hand!  I highly recommend the Doidge book to anyone who is interested in learning and the brain.

At the same time we must realize that due to this plasticity, our brains are constantly learning from our environments.  Our belief system becomes structured by our surroundings.  Our brains learn not only from what we study and read, but also from what we watch on television and by the company we keep.  Even something as seemingly innocuous as a sitcom may teach us what we come to believe are acceptable norms.  Once our beliefs are formed, it is much harder to challenge them.  It is important to take a moment and try to think outside of the box and wonder about the learning environment of your brain.  Is it getting enough exposure to life enhancing information, or is its learning environment lacking in growth producing ideas and instead, its exposure is too narrow and one sided?  Does your living environment make you think or are you in a non-stimulating routine that does not promote enrichment? Are the people in your inner circle promoting growth and new ideas for you to explore or do they portray life as a struggle, every man for himself? Are they happy or complaining? Without your awareness, your brain is learning every single minute of your day.  You have control over that which you expose to your brain.  Think of your brain as a camera.  You can change its exposure.   Are you content with your daily education?  I was just wondering…………………

 

Look Again

As we welcome the New Year, many of us begin to agonize over the promise of our annual resolutions.  Because we so often fail at them or lose our commitment after a few months, I thought this year it might be fun to try something else.  Look again is a practice of quickly recreating reality.  It is fun, it is challenging, it is creative!  Are you willing to try something new?  I was just wondering…………………

Years ago, as physicists were attempting to perform a double screen experiment with light, trying to determine whether it was a wave or a particle, they became confused and frustrated.  The problem that occurred was that with each attempt to view the true nature of light, they became more confounded, as one time it appeared as a particle and the very next experiment demonstrated it to be a wave.  After a number of experiments, they finally concluded that it depended upon how you looked at it. Even more amazing, when a recorder was set up to observe the experiment, the electrons behaved in a particular way, different than when the recorder was not present.   This has awesome implications for the field of psychology and human behavior.  According to quantum mechanics, this means that consciousness defines how things behave.  So, the way we see the world is just that, the way we see the world, but not necessarily how the world is, because another consciousness (individual) sees it differently.  Also, the perspective and attitude of the viewer shapes the outcome!  We tend to think of reality as an ultimate truth, when in fact what you see is dependent upon how you look at it.  This is one of the reasons I love psychology so much.  There is no absolute reality.  When you have a disagreement with someone, from their perspective, they are right and from your perspective, you are right.  You are both right and you are both not right!  Quantum physics helps us to understand this dilemma, that is, it depends on how you look at it.

Since I first read about this concept I have remained fascinated by it.  I have tried to trace this in my own life.  I have thought myself fickle at times, because I like something, and then I don’t, but then I can see the other side and like it again for another reason.  Ultimately, I think this is a good thing because you become aware that you can always see it in a better way.  And we live by how we experience our lives.  We can be happy, we can be sad.  It depends on how we look at it.

For instance, how do you see your significant other?   I challenge you to look again.  Change your attitude and look once more.  You will learn to see the chameleon you create!  Think about it!  How much of who they are is real and how much is created by your attitude and baggage?

How about the other people in your life?  How do you treat them?  Are you really sure you are responding accurately?  Are you positive the people you don’t like are really as bad as you have concluded?  Can you look again and see them morph into something else?

Think about the things in your life you obsess over.  Do you really know why you are spending your time and energy doing this?  Knowing now more about this law of physics, can you see perhaps that things are not really the way you have been seeing them?  In order to confirm this possibility, all you have to do is to ask a few people what they think and you will get as many different answers as there are respondents!  Some will agree, sort of, wholeheartedly, a little, not at all, but they will be unlike your viewpoint.  Do you really need to hold on to these ideas that cause you distress and worry? Maybe things just aren’t exactly as you have perceived them!  Look for the hopeful and calming perspectives. As quantum physics would say, all the possibilities exist!  Chose a positive view!

Especially important is how you are seeing yourself.  Look again.  Make a list of positives if needed.  Read it every day to remind yourself that these traits exist and then look at yourself again.  Watch yourself improve as you sculpt yourself through your evolving perspective.  As the observer of yourself, you are the creator of the outcome!  That is an incredibly powerful concept!

As you begin to digest your newfound powers to create a more satisfying world by the way you are looking at it, never forget the profound authority you have over your life.  If you are not happy with what you are seeing, remind yourself of the kaleidoscope in your brain, and just shift the contents to create a new vision.  If you don’t like what you see, then shift again.  There is always another view.  Can you see it? I was just wondering……………………

 

 

Thankfulness

As I walked my dogs past Spring Lake recently, I encountered a wheel chair bound fellow basking in the sun, fishing.  I greeted him with a question, “Catch anything?”  He responded with a big smile and said “No,” without any regret, and then he laughed while he added, “It’s a good thing my wife went to the store.”  We began to chat and he informed me that he used to be a coal miner and that is where his accident occurred.  He told me he was 53, but the fact that he was paraplegic didn’t seem to disturb him at all, at least it certainly did not interfere with his ability to enjoy life.  I silently felt sorry for him, that he was unable to walk around the lake like me, that he missed out on so much that I can do that he cannot.  But I slowly began to realize that he may have a secret that I and others could learn from.  He clearly knew how to be thankful!  He was focused on what he could do, and he was definitely enjoying it! So how does a person make this transition from despair to contentment?  I was just wondering……..

During this season of Thanksgiving, this man offers us a wonderful lesson.  As I write this blog, I think of several people I know right now who are suffering deeply.  One lost a son to a tragic accident over a year ago and another lost a sister to suicide a few months ago.  These are both horrendous tragedies that even with the best efforts take time for healing.  But the most effective way to heal is always to focus away from oneself, by helping others and by being thankful for WHAT IS.

It is so easy for us to obsess about everything that is wrong with our lives. I have been guilty of that at times myself!  No one’s life is perfect!  Just remember that!  But we all have some perfection in our lives, and while we are bemoaning our sorry lot in life, all the good stuff is just waltzing on by, and  we are not even seeing it.  Just think of the happy movie going on right around us while we are lost in negative thoughts.  Perhaps we look at but don’t see the beauty of the sunset.  Maybe we miss the flower that bloomed.  Perhaps we don’t see the love offered to us because we are so enveloped in our sorrow.  Imagine that we miss the possibilities and opportunities that might make us feel better because we just can’t see beyond the sad movies we continue to view in our heads!

My favorite teaching from the Rhonda Byrne book The Secret is, “What you think about, you bring about.”  Just consider this for a moment.  Really take some time to think about how this has actually transpired in your life!  If you keep yourself into negative and unhappy thoughts, that is just where you stay.  If you begin to monitor your thoughts and change them to positive ones, then you suddenly begin to notice those beautiful and wonderful people, things, events that have always surrounded you but you simply overlooked!  Life is not about one event, one circumstance, one person.

Thanksgiving is our yearly lesson in thankfulness.  But this time I encourage you to make it a daily practice, so that you can enjoy Thanksgiving every day of your life and thereby reap the benefits of being daily nourished by the Thanksgiving message.  Every time you catch yourself being sorry, sad, depressed, discouraged, dissatisfied, angry, irritated, think immediately of something wonderful in your life. It is there!  I promise!  And you probably won’t have to look too far.

An exercise I often use to help people be thankful is to write down 20 things you like to do.  The list is a starting point to help you get focused on what makes you happy and thankful.  My list included even small things like drinking a hot cup of tea on a rainy day, watching my dogs play and roll around on the floor, feeling the breeze blow my hair while riding my bike or while walking the beach, or just spending time with good friends.  Sometimes the simplest things are the most meaningful.  Next, start doing them!

Helping someone else is another powerful way to overcome your own despair.  This will quickly focus you away from yourself and help to create concern and thankfulness.  But the best trick of all is to go to the nearest mirror, and instead of asking like the wicked witch, “Who is most beautiful?” just smile at the image before you and your troubles will magically begin to melt away as your own reflection connects to you empathically and knowingly and with forgiveness as you realize how you hurt you own soul. Celebrate your life this Thanksgiving by being grateful for it by making the very best use of it every day. Remember those who are gone by making them present in how you choose to lead your life and show your thanks to the living by being a gracious and inspiring light.

Can you make a promise to be thankful for yourself?  Can you promise to make the most of your life like the fisherman in the wheelchair, and make it a joyful encounter?  Will you treat yourself with love, caring, compassion by focusing on what it good and what you have to be thankful for rather than using your thought energy on things that can’t be changed or that you can’t have?  I was just wondering…..

Whirling Dervishes

The term whirling dervish evokes a sense of mystery and my interest in this phenomena goes back many years.  I am not even sure anymore where I first heard the following parable about the dervishes which goes something like this:

A tourist and his guide were traveling across the desert.  It was hot and arid and the trek was difficult. After crossing some distance, they began to see something on the horizon.  A mirage, of course, they both exclaimed.  What else could be in the middle of the desert?  As they approached, however, they began to discern there were people, and as they neared the group they were able to see that these people were whirling.  With so many people whirling the energy was totally chaotically.  In the center of all of this tumultuous activity sat a woman who was calmly reading a book.  The tourist was astounded!  He turned to his guide and asked with perplexity, “How can she possibly concentrate on reading a book amidst all that frenzy?”  The guide paused and then replied with an amused knowing smile, “She just lets the dervishes whirl, and eventually they all just fall over.”

I actually had the privilege to observe one during a trip to Egypt.  Simply put, a whirling dervish is an individual’s attempt, by using a specific approach, to achieve spiritual transcendence.  My group watched with fascination as the practitioner, decked out in layers of colorful flowing material, began to spin.  Starting off slowly, the individual increased the speed of the whirl as well as alternating his position, frequently changing the center of balance.  The effect was both amazing and beautiful.  While we were mesmerized as onlookers, the effect on the practitioner was even more profound, as he lost himself to the practice in which he was engaged.

So while we were mesmerized as observers of the whirling dervishes during our trip, try to imagine sitting in the midst of many of these dervishes dancing about madly!  Just like the tourist In the story surmised, it would be extremely difficult to read a book or do anything requiring concentration in the midst of such intense energy.  I have used this story for many years as a reminder to clients to stay out of the fray.  And the lesson is, all that appears so agitating eventually just goes away, just as the dervishes in the story drop from exhaustion.

This is not an easy task however.  I am reminded of the droppings of the cottonwood tree, beautiful fluffs of billowy white cottony balls that float slowly in the breeze. If you are walking around them it is difficult to avoid having them attach themselves to you. Also, they are lovely and fascinating and in one way you want to touch them, to try to discern their mystery. The whirling dervishes in our lives attach in the same way.  At first they may seem interesting, and we may barely notice that we are immersed in them.

Another less appealing but equally enticing analogy is the difficulty we have walking past a “trainwreck.”  Often times horrible things hold a certain fascination for us and we can become victims to its pull to engage us.  We crane our necks to view an accident that we pass, we move toward an altercation to hear what is going on, we watch engrossed at news reports of tragedies and calamities.  We can’t take our eyes off of someone’s bad behavior, because while revolting, it is also somehow captivating!

It is similar when we are not minding our own business, allowing ourselves to be pulled into something that does not concern us and then causes us great distress.  Or when we obsess over a problem, lose sleep, can’t eat, and just can’t let the bothersome thoughts go.  These are whirling dervishes in our brains, numbing our ability to concentrate and clogging our thought processes and disturbing our daily routines.

Think about what was bothering you last year.  Does the problem still exist?  What about six months ago?  What about last week? Do you still have the same concerns?  As time goes on, everything changes, and the truth is, many problems just dissipate without any sort of intervention.  But joining in with the fray will rarely help you to resolve a problem.  Allowing the dervishes to cloud your thinking will only prevent you from finding a solution.

The true whirling dervish practitioner is in a state of transcendence instead of a state of anxiety, worry or chaos.  He is not frightened by appearances, but instead is in a calm state of mind.  He is not distracted by appearances, but instead is focused on inner peace.  Can you learn to detach while you address the issues in your life?  If you have problems for which there is no apparent solution, can you disengage, remembering that everything changes and it most likely will not look the same in 6 months, next week, or maybe even tomorrow?  Can you stay out of problems that don’t need to concern you?  Can you just let the dervishes whirl like the puffs from the cottonwood tree and avoid having them stick on you? Can you resist their pull and stay centered and immune to the chaos around you?  I was just wondering…………………..

We Are All One

In the wake of recent tragedies here in the US and around the world, we are challenged with how to deal with our emotional responses. It is so easy to go directly to anger and even worse, hatred, for those who have perpetrated these horrendous acts of violence, but this only exacerbates the problem and engenders more of the same. We are left stunned, fearful, and ready to attack back, losing our important and powerful capacity for judgement and reasoning. Reacting with a full charge of emotion fueled by fear producing adrenaline, we most often make the wrong judgement and only pour more fuel into the already embroiled mass of emotion. But let’s stop for a moment and take our temperatures. How are you feeling? Are you sad, fearful, enraged, hopeless, confused? I was just wondering………………….

As I have explained in my book, Anger the Toxic Temptress: Understand It to Overcome It, anger acts as a defense mechanism. That is, anger blocks us from experiencing our true underlying feeling, a feeling of vulnerability. This is why it is so easy to go directly to anger in response to recent events. But it also means we are not actually dealing with our true feelings of vulnerability. It does not help to mask vulnerability with anger. It only ensures that the battle will continue.

But even more importantly, we are failing to understand that we are all interconnected, and that what hurts one of us hurts all. You may not be aware of this, or you may not view how this is directly happening to you or your loved ones, but let me help to make this clearer. Many years ago Ken Keyes, Jr. wrote about the hundredth monkey phenomena. While observing a Japanese monkey, scientists discovered that one monkey one day learned that washing a sweet potato removed the unpleasant tasting dirt. This new trick was taught from monkey to monkey across the island. But strangely enough, the same behavior began to be observed across the sea. Scientists came up with the “Hundreth Monkey” theory, that is, when a behavior reaches a certain critical number, that we collectively “get it,” almost as though the behavior is transmitted by ESP. This discovery lends credence to the concept that we are interconnected through some kind of force, or even more fascinating, that we are not only interconnected, but we are all a component of one large whole. Metaphorically speaking, once the big toe gets it, the new learning slowly travels throughout the entire body system. Think of each living creature as a part of the one, large, all-encompassing whole being, that we call by many names such as God, Buddha, Krishna, Allah, Great Spirit, Jehovah, Yahweh, or my own favorite, Order of the Universe. We are one collective consciousness. So, once one part of the body whole gets it, the rest eventually adapts to the new learning. This is critical to understand because we can then see that everything we do spills out into the universal being, that is everywhere throughout us. So it is so vital that right now we do not take the wrong path toward hate, anger, and revenge.

Another great example of this phenomena is the “butterfly effect,” coined by Edward Lorenz. This concepts states that a small change in one state can result in a large difference in a later state. Again, to simplify, Lorenz discovered that the flapping of wings of butterflies many weeks before a large hurricane system can influence the direction and force of that system. This phenomenon has also been known as the “ripple effect” or the “domino effect,” which also demonstrate how very small events spread out far beyond the area of initial impact. The implications of this are astounding. We come to realize that even the most seemingly insignificant action can have a staggering effect on future events.

We understand this phenomenon also in family systems therapies. Achieving change in only one person’s behavior will have a change effect on the entire system. Teaching someone to stop reacting, for instance, will often have the effect of eliminating the annoying behavior. It is a circular system. One change creates other changes. However, just as in the previous examples, the exact outcome cannot be predicted. However, we know that positive behavior generally elicits more positive behavior. Negative, angry, threatening behavior creates fear which results either in submission and withdrawal or in war.

I encourage everyone reading this to take a moment to take your emotional temperature. If you feel angry and hateful, I strongly urge you to connect to your underlying vulnerable behavior. Once you are there, then connect emotionally to the tragedy in all of this and make a promise that you will not add to the growing fury. Stay connected to the pain and try to find a way of understanding how we got here. Remember that great psychologist Carl Rogers said, “What is most personal is most general.” Think carefully with reason and good judgment, do you really want to hurt another part of the collective being of which we belong? Begin to understand that we are all one and that we must address this growing problem with an even temperament that does not cloud or judgment.

What is your emotional temperature? Can you connect with your vulnerability instead of hiding it with anger so that you can avoid reacting impulsively and dangerously? Can you remember that when you cause harm to another that it boomerangs back? Can you be a strong force so that we can collectively stop “shooting ourselves in our own hips?” I was just wondering……………………..

Erica Jong, Woody Allen, and the Human Condition

My book club recently read and discussed Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying, which elicited a lively conversation about the human condition. Having read her earlier book, Fear of Flying, as a psychology class assignment in the 70s, I was somewhat prepared for the author’s style, but I wondered if her latest book was going to be about sex in her sixties. It was marginally about sex, but it was more about acting out. While dealing with aging and dying parents and an ailing husband, the author tempers her existential angst by fantasizing about perfect, uncommitted sex and goes about seeking this distraction to her troubles by searching dating web sites. While some of the women in my group were horrified at the stupidity and danger of her attempts at hookups, I was merely amused at her pitiful efforts to immerse herself in something exciting as a replacement to her difficult life challenges. After all, it was just fiction! But this is what Woody Allen has mastered in all of his films, the ability to portray us with mocking absurdity and absolute frailty in our efforts to overcome our angst. To obscure our angst, we often find ourselves acting out, just like Vanessa Wonderman in Fear of Dying or like any of Woody Allen’s protagonists. The question to consider then, is what do you do when faced with an existential dilemma? Do you act out? In what way? Are you aware of it? Are there other options? Do you use other defense mechanisms? How do you escape the human condition?

I was just wondering……………

The existentialists such as Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard wrote a lot about the human condition and our difficulties in facing it. The Theatre of the Absurd also spawned from this movement and Eugene Lonesco portrayed us as helpless and farcical in our efforts to deal with our existence. Artist Edvard Munch portrayed his concept of this problem in his rendering of his famous painting, “The Scream.” Sigmund Freud added to the concept when he defined angst as inner turmoil often felt as intense apprehension and anxiety. Kierkegaard introduced the concept of anxiety as a feeling of dread, a deep seated condition arising from our freedom of choice. Arising from our decisions comes the concept of guilt, creating further anxiety related to whether or not we have made the correct choices. The human condition includes the concepts of birth, growth, emotions, conflict, death and all the ramifications of these issues. Existential angst haunts us in particular with such unanswerable questions as why are we here, what is death, is there a God, why are relationships exasperating, how do we get along? The human condition is that which occurs as a result of these dilemmas, which like the painting ”The Scream,” leaves us suspended in a frightening void.

As a therapist, I have come to view the human condition much like these existentialists, especially those who see the humor in our efforts to deal with our existential angst and the human condition. While there is always a time for sadness and human connectedness and empathy, I cannot help but feel amusement at times, even with myself at some of my pitiful efforts to deal with life. To me, it is bittersweet to observe the play between the difficulties that arise and our sometimes pathetic attempts to cope. But in a way, bittersweet describes the whole picture. It is not all bad and it is not all good. Some of our best stories about our lives are the ones we tell together with friends and family about when we did something absurd, crazy, but we can now look back and laugh at ourselves. I think this is a healthy way of coping, to forgive ourselves, see the humor, and never take ourselves too seriously. The people who cope the best with this whole angst issue are the ones who can make fun of themselves, understanding that no one is perfect and that after all, we are just human.

There are many other ways to deal with angst that are more functional than acting out. Concentration camp survivors endured by remembering their families, things that were meaningful to them. Others use their religious and/or spiritual beliefs to bolster them during trying times and religions also provide answers to many of our unknowns. Some find meaning in their life work, and that provides peace. While the larger question is how to find a sense of meaning, we still remained plagued by the day to day challenges that beset us like, why the one we love doesn’t love us back, why can’t we get ahead, why can’t we love ourselves, why do we feel so guilty, and so on.

My challenge to you today is to think about how you deal with some of these issues. Become more self-aware. Do you choose functional ways of coping, or do you act out like Vanessa Wonderman? Do you withdraw or rationalize your behaviors? Do you intellectualize? My best advice is to not be so hard on yourself! Do your best and if it’s a bit crazy for a while, that’s okay. We all have this frailty. See the humor in it! After all, we are only human. Can you forgive your errors of judgement ? Can you accept yourself as perfectly imperfect?

I was just wondering—————————.