Thursday, October 19, 2017

RESTORING OURSELVES

My wife Jeanne and I recently returned from a much-needed eight day vacation in the town of Wellfleet on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. That section of Cap Cod is only three miles wide. On one side is the Atlantic Ocean and on the other is the bay. Every day we walked on the beaches at the water's edge. We focused on what it felt like to walk in the moist sand, to hear the comings and goings of the waves, to feel on our bodies the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the onshore breeze, to smell the salt air. We sat on the sand and did our meditation taking it all in physically, psychologically and spiritually.
It was so restorative. The cumulative tiredness and depletion of the effects of my recent medical crisis and the many months of our work as psychotherapists gradually ebbed away. We felt nourished by this immersion in the natural world, our dormant and depleted life energy was being replenished. It was a reminder to both of us that whenever we have experienced a physical/psychological/spiritual crisis spending concentrated time in nature has been the most reliable source of reconnecting to the life force both within and outside of us.
Who knows why spending that kind of time by the ocean is so restorative. Certainly there is something primordial about being at the ocean's edge. Is there some resonance with our reptilian brain that reminds us of the origins of our species? Is there some connecting with the primal memories of being in the nourishing waters of the womb? Is there something about the intake of negative ions that affects us at a cellular level? Is the unending ebb and flow of the tidal waters connecting our spirits with some feelings about eternal life? Maybe all of the above.
As psychotherapists and counsellors it is essential for all of us to have ways of restoring ourselves. We all spend many hours each week in the energy field of the suffering and struggles of our clients. Each of our clients needs us to be an open-hearted compassionate presence. After work when we return home our partners and children also need us to be emotionally available. How do we sustain that level of presence and not become exhausted, overwhelmed, emotionally distant, resentful and numb?
In order to sustain that level of empathic connection which is necessary for our most optimal work each of us needs to find our ways of restoring ourselves that uniquely fit us. From over 40 years of experience in private practice I have learned that a primary pathway is to regularly spend solitary time in some local nature setting. Whenever I sit, stand or walk alongside the brook that is behind my home or the water flowing at the bottom of the small gorge several miles away or at a local pond I feel reenergized. My psychological and spiritual batteries are being recharged. Standing or sitting by the water, acknowledging this felt sense of the presence of life giving energy, I take some meditational breaths. With the inhale I say "Water of life" and with the exhale breath I release the feelings of depletion.
When I am in the office in the psychological energy field of my patient's strong feelings, that sometimes can be overwhelming, I look at the painting of a pond that I placed on the wall behind my patient. Using that image to tap into the memory of the feeling state of being by the water I quietly do a few meditational breaths. With the inhale breath I imagine myself accessing the felt sense of being by the water and with exhale breath releasing the feelings of anxiety about being overwhelmed by the power of my patient's feelings. Gradually I begin to feel that some larger source of life is sustaining me at that moment. I am again able to be fully present with an open heart.

For more about this topic I encourage you to read another blog entitled "A Walk In the Woods" and the youtube video called "Recharging" www.youtube.com/WilliamPRyanPhd

Thursday, July 13, 2017

I ALMOST DIED

Two months ago, while home alone, suddenly without warning my body was wracked with chills. Then for the next four hours I had alternating bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. When my wife Jeanne arrived home she found me in this depleted state and called my physician who fortunately picked up the call and said go to the emergency room. In the ambulance my body temperature was 105 and my blood pressure was plummeting to dangerously low levels. The emergency room team treated me aggressively with antibiotics, intravenous fluids and norenephrenine to regulate my blood pressure. I was in the intensive care unit for five days with a diagnosis of streptococcal pneumonia and severe septic shock made worse by the fact I have no spleen because it was removed twelve years ago as a result of very aggressive lymphoma. On the third day of my stay in intensive care, as my body was recovering unexpectedly quickly, the RN revealed that when I arrived I was the sickest person on the unit. At that moment I became increasingly aware that if everyone(Jeanne, my physician, the ER team) had not acted in such a timely way I would have died.
PLEASE CARRY ME
In the ambulance en route to the hospital, in the emergency room and throughout my five day stay in the intensive care unit I frequently asked my Higher Self, "Please carry me." And it did. My dear wife Jeanne, who was fully with me throughout this major medical crisis - including sleeping on a couch in my room every night - said it was amazing to witness that my consciousness was present during the whole experience. My primary care physician, who is a dear friend, visited me at home two days after I returned from the hospital and asked,"Were you freaking out at times?" I was perplexed by her very understandable question. After a while I realized that at no time in this ordeal did I feel fearful or anxious. WOW!
My Higher Self carried me through what one of the RN's described as "the most massive stress test that your body could ever experience." That transcendent part of my consciousness helped me to be fully present so the I could: collaborate with the medical staff, be unafraid so that fear did not interfere with my treatments and recovery, and most importantly to feel deeply that I was going to be "OK."
This is profound for me. It has deepened my faith that no matter what happens in my life, including my dying, my Higher Self will be present as my companion,as a source of strength and equanimity to carry me through. WOW!!! For many years I have cultivated a personal relationship with my Higher Self - whom I call Wiseheart. This medical crisis bore to me the fruits of that ongoing work. With my psychotherapy patients I encourage them also to develop that ongoing relationship and teach them how to access their Higher Self in everyday life. This experience has affirmed the importance of that work. I encourage you too to cultivate an ongoing relationship to your personal Higher Self.
I AM ALIVE
There are no adequate words to describe the level of gratefulness that I feel to my body, to the medical staff at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton Massachusetts, and to all the people whose presence, love and prayers helped me through this ordeal. Coexisting alongside these feelings of immense gratefulness I was also carrying and contemplating - for several weeks after my return home - this unanswerable psychospiritual question "What is it like to not exist in this form?"
About a month after my hospital stay Jeanne and I felt we needed some time away and we went for three days to a town an hour and a half from our home. Our first night over pizza and beer we were discussing again all the thoughts and feelings we were each having while I was in the hospital. Then a man walked up to our table and said, "Do you remember me?" I looked up and said "Yes,but I don't know from where." He said,"I'm Matt. I was your nurse at the hospital." Both Jeanne and I got up, hugged him and expressed our great gratitude. I said," I can't imagine any hospital in the world giving me any better care than you and the rest of the staff at Cooley Dickinson gave me." He introduced his wife and son and we expressed our feelings to them. After he left Jeanne and I expressed our awe at this moment of synchronicity. What are the odds that at the moment we were talking about the hospital Matt - who lives two and a half hours from this pizzeria - would be there with his family.
Later that night,lying in bed while Jeanne was asleep, I began to have flashbacks of being in the hospital. After a while something inside me said "You are alive." Then it shifted to "I am alive' and then became a robust "I AM ALIVE." To affirm this statement I decided to do two things that I could not do in the hospital: one,get up and walk around; two, open a window and breathe outside air. Since that moment I say aloud robustly several times each day "I AM ALIVE." I do this to strengthen that inner feeling and to respond to the call to be more fully alive. The earlier question,"What is it like not to exist in this form" has receded. It is as if that synchronistic moment of Matt's appearance acted as a psychospiritual bridge to move me along from my thoughts that I almost died and ruminations about non-existence to a way-of being-in-the-world more connected to the life force. WOW!!!




Thursday, February 2, 2017

DEVELOPING A PSYCHOLOGICAL IMMUNE SYSTEM

One of my patients gave me a copy of "The Book of Joy". It describes a series of conversations between two of the most respected contemporary psychospiritual teachers - the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Thee two men - now both in their 80's - share their thoughts about how to experience joy amidst all the pain and suffering and conflict in the world.
Among the myriad insights of the book one notion presented by the Dalai Lama inspired me to write this blog. He raised the question: since we emphasize the importance of having a strong physical immune system why don't we also encourage people to develop a strong mental immune system? "Of course" I thought,"that makes sense. As psychotherapists and counsellors we can help our clients to do that." Some of what follows flows out of their discussions and some emanates from my own work with patients.
The central concept is that by developing our psychological immune system we are taking a proactive preventative approach. As with physical illness is it not wiser to try to prevent problems rather than wait until an illness occurs? When we have a strong psychological immune system negative emotions(fear/anxiety, powerlessness/helplessness etc.) usually arrive in an attenuated form and are not overwhelming. Also when a large stressor does occur we have more internal resources to deal with the situation.
All of what follows will involve active work by our clients between their sessions with us. Or as some of my patients describe it - homework. The active work is necessary because so many of our usual psychological patterns are deeply engrained and have been reinforced repeatedly over our lifetimes. And - it is important to remember - are physiologically wired through brain patterning. A plethora of brain research in the last decade confirms this neurological patterning - including the important insight that our brains are "wired for negativity." The concurrent hopeful news is that the research results are also reporting that it is possible to change these patterns through active effort.
BREATHING TECHNIQUES
I teach all of my patients a simple breathing technique as a tool for dealing with anxiety and for releasing negative thought patterns. I say to them,"Physiologically with your in-breath your body takes in what it needs (oxygen) and with your out-breath it gets rid of what is not good for it(noxious gases). Let us now imagine that with your in-breath you are taking in what you need psychologically(peacefulness, relaxation,positive thoughts/energy etc.) and with your out-breath you are releasing what is not good for you(anxiety/fear, helplessness/powerlessness, self-criticism etc.)" We practice this in the office for ten minutes. The enables my clients to experience the process, give feedback and to receive from me individualized tweaking of the technique. Then I encourage them to do this for ten minutes each day until our next session. At the next visit, and periodically in the following months, I inquire about their efforts. We discuss difficulties in the mechanics of the technique and any psychological/practical resistances to incorporating this tool into their lives.
I also recommend that during their everyday life whenever they are feeling anxious or being overly self-critical to take a few minutes to do the breathing technique. Each time that they do that they are strengthening a new psychological and brain pattern.
Of course there are a number of my clients who already have some form of a meditational practice that involves breathing(e.g. mindfulness) or an active practice(yoga,tai chi etc.) that incorporates breathing. For these folks I encourage them to bring these practices more into their daily life utilizing mini meditational moments throughout each day to release noxious emotions. I also now say,"The more you do this practice the stronger your psychological immune system becomes."

CULTIVATING COMPASSION
Both the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu place a strong emphasis on cultivating compassion. Since the need for connection with others is a fundamental part of our humanity they emphasize that it is essential that we develop a greater sense of concern for the well-being of others. Interestingly evolutionary scientists see cooperation(including empathy,compassion and generosity) as fundamental to our species survival. There is additional research that indicates that the reward centers of the brain are activated when we feel compassion and do something for others. Psychologically each time we do something for someone who is suffering we expand our heart's capacity for compassion.
Often when our patients are describing their own pain they will also report that they are aware that there are people in the world who are suffering more than they are. Not infrequently this makes them feel less entitled to their own pain. My response is"I have a different perspective. Whether your pain is greater or lesser than others is not the issue. It is not a competition. Our common pain is one of the things that connect us to others. Imagine that your current pain is part of the universal pain and that our hearts go out to each other." Another common comment by my clients when they are reporting the losses or big life trauma of someone else,"I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose your...or to have that kind of trauma." My usual response is,"I have a different perspective. Even though to do so is hard I think that it is important to take the time to try to imagine what it would be like to be them experiencing that pain. It will increase your compassion for them. Both of you will benefit. You will feel closer to them and they will feel the energy of your compassion. They will feel less alone."
Whenever my patients are overly critical of themselves I say to them,"It is important to be compassionate towards yourself." After they have heard this phrase from me a number of times they gradually internalize it and begin to say it to themselves. Developing self-compassion significantly increases our resiliency to stress because we are no longer attacking ourselves.
CELEBRATING OUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Many of my clients have difficulty taking in praise from others and in genuinely feeling good about their own accomplishments. Some of this difficulty is personal and related to their life narrative.(Please refer to the chapter entitled "Love Blocks" in my book "Working From the Heart" or an earlier blog also entitled Love Blocks" for an in-depth discussion of this issue). Some of this difficulty is cultural in that there is an overemphasis in our society on constantly striving and being productive. For many people this contributes to self-criticalness and unrealistic self-expectations. The resultant diminished self-esteem is not good for our psychological immune system. It leaves us with a sense of less inner strength to deal with life's stressors. I try to counteract this personal and cultural pattern whenever possible. When one of my patients reports some moment of psychological growth I stop the flow of the session to acknowledge the accomplishment. Then I encourage him or her at that moment to use their in-breath to take in more deeply the sense of accomplishment and with the out-breath to release some of the inner feelings of low self-worth. For some bigger moments I extend a "high-five"; for even bigger moments I will give a "double high-five" or a hug at the end of the session. These moments during the session are also a modeling. I encourage my clients as "homework" to take a few moments during their everyday life to use the breathing technique to acknowledge, celebrate and take in more deeply their daily accomplishments.

CULTIVATING GRATITUDE
One of the areas that Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama emphasize in order to experience more joy is to encourage us to cultivate gratefulness. They discussed how our competitive culture focuses on the accumulation of things, success/failure and external measurements of status. I also witness how often my patients focus on what is missing or insufficient in their lives. As a Buddhist the Dalai Lama has practiced for over seventy years non-attachment to externals and cultivating gratitude for life. He expressed his delight about the research that grateful people report more positive emotions, better physical health,vitality and life satisfaction combined with lower levels of depression and stress.
Introducing a more grateful attitude into our life does not mean we deny or minimize our pain and struggle. What it means is that we are acknowledging that coexisting with our current suffering are things and people in our life for whom we are grateful. To help cultivate gratefulness I teach my patients to use the word "and". For example,,"I am really struggling right now and I am grateful for friends who really care about me." I also think that ritual can be helpful in cultivating gratefulness. For example, at the end of my meditation I always spend several minutes thinking about the people now and in the past who have contributed to my growth including those who have caused me problems and forced me to grow. Several years ago I also started another ritual. After I have seen my last patient for the day I kneel down in my office and give thanks for the patients who came to me that day who by opening themselves to me sustain my work and my life. I am also grateful for all the sources,known and unknown, who have provided guidance that day so that I could help my patients. As these practices have evolved my life has felt increasingly rich and full.
In conclusion I would like to reiterate that all of these ways of developing and strengthening our psychological immune system inquire conscious effort and hard work. We are often going against the patterns of a lifetime that are psychologically engrained and neurologically wired. The results,however,are worth the work.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

AGING

At this time in my lifework as a psychotherapist I am seeing an increased number of clients in their 60's and 70's. Recently - in the same week - I started work with a man who is 87 and had a final session with a long time client who was 86 and dying. I am 74 and have my own personal experience with the aging process that I was able to bring into the conversations. As an elder in the field of psychotherapy with over 40 years of experience in private practice I would like to share my insights in the hope that they will help you with your clients who are aging.
For many of my patients in this stage of life there is an awareness - at some level of consciousness - that "their time is running out." For each of them there has been some life event that has begun that awakening. For some,like myself, it is a medical crisis that has triggered the process. Twelve years ago I had a very aggressive lymphoma which took thirty pounds from my tall and lean body. My very enlarged spleen was surgically removed followed by five months of chemotherapy. I was then and still are now very grateful to still be alive. At that time I became more acutely aware than ever before of the preciousness of time. The way I describe it to others,including my patients, is that "I now have two companions Aging and Death who walk with me every day. I have befriended them and are grateful for them because my awareness of them affects my decisions every day."
Every day there are multiple moments in which we make decisions about how to spend our time. A small example: one day while I was writing this blog I was really struggling about how to describe some notions. I stopped and asked myself,"What's going on?" Quickly the answer came. "I don't want to be doing this today." Years ago I would have just kept going and slogged through. At this time my two companions helped me to frame the question,"What do you want to do with your time today?" And the answer came back, "I want to continue that book about coyotes." I stopped and read with pleasure and peace of mind. The next day the writing flowed easily.
For others there is a minimization or denial of the aging process. One client initiated therapy at 71 saying,"For the first time in my life I wake up in the morning anxious and I don't know why." Another patient at 66 after looking forward to retirement for so many years was losing weight and feeling quite depressed and confused regarding these unexpected feelings that were showing up after he stopped working. For these clients my initial therapeutic task was to bring into awareness their underneath feelings about aging and dying. For them the phrase that I used that that most deeply resonated was "MY TIME IS RUNNING OUT."

THE MAIN EVENT
As we age there are inevitable changes in our bodies and minds. Each of us in this stage of life to varying degrees is experiencing losses or diminishments in what our bodies are able to do. Also our brains are experiencing difficulties in accessing memories and feeling diminishments in our cognitive processing. In this brief blog it is not necessary for me to list the myriad possibilities. What is important is how we psychologically deal with these changes. It is essential for us to do the difficult task of acknowledging, grieving and accepting these losses. But it is also key not to over focus on them. Yet, probably because our culture overemphasizes the externals of physical appearance and fast efficient mental processing, many people frequently give a litany of these physical and cognitive diminishments. It is vital to acknowledge and honor that something else is also happening which from my perspective is the MAIN EVENT of aging. COEXISTING with the body losses and diminishments are the increased needs of our souls. As time in this body form is "running out" there is important, exciting and scary soul work to be done. We need to help our clients pay more attention to that process.
What are the core needs of our soul at this time? One of the primary needs of our soul is to be able to look back at our selves at earlier stages of our life with compassion, loving kindness and forgiveness.
It is a very human tendency for most of us to look back and see the mistakes we made, the pain we caused, our failure to do more for loved ones... Usually we look backward through a critical or judgmental or guilt-filled lens. My approach is to say to my clients,"You are looking from the perspective of your now self. You have evolved into a more developed person. At those earlier times in your life you were a less evolved person and you made those choices from your stage of development at that time. I would encourage you at this stage of your life to begin to look at those earlier versions of yourself with compassion and loving kindness." During the therapy process I will repeat that multiple times. Gradually my patients internalize my compassionate voice and then do it more for themselves. The way I theoretically conceptualize this process is that the source of that self-compassion is their personal Higher Self and that I am embodying that inner aspect for a while until they re able to access it themselves.
When talking about the needs of the soul I often use the metaphor of a jewel with many facets. When we arrive at this stage of life some of those facets(or aspects of our essential being) have been highly developed; others have been suppressed because of the need to support ourselves and raise a family; others are underdeveloped because they have never received any nurturance; others are deeply damaged by how others in the past have treated them; still others are so hidden that we have no awareness of their existence. From my perspective it is our task at this stage of life to reawaken and resurface those aspects of our soul to be honored and nourished in the time we have left. One example of this is the retired 70 year old furniture maker who had been a political activist in his early twenties who now wanted as a result of his therapy to find ways of doing service in his community. Through the assistance of his pastor he befriended an older couple in his community and he visited them regularly providing companionship especially for the husband whose wife was showing some early signs of dementia. Another example is the 65 year old successful businesswoman. who after selling her business decided to write songs, reawakening her long neglected passions of writing poetry and singing.

CLAIMING THE STATUS OF ELDER

Our culture does not provide pathways of honoring the role of elders. Of course there are exceptions wherein some public figures and some members of our local communities are respected and valued for what they can offer to younger generations. From my perspective, however, every aging person has something to offer, some area(s) of accumulated knowledge and experience. They too should be respected as elders. In our culture, however, people past a certain age are expected to step aside- some are tossed out - for the next generation and then to go away into some state called "retirement." What is not done is to honor and provide for the role of elder and encourage younger people to seek them out as a source of guidance. That leaves many of us aging people in the position of having to personally claim the status of elder and offer ourselves to those younger people who are open. That is what I have done with my book(Working From the Heart: A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy), my blog, Twitter accounts and Youtube videos. What I say in each of those vehicles is "At 74 years old with over 40 years of experience as a psychotherapist I want to pass on what I've learned." I encourage my aging patients to think of themselves as elders who have something to offer and find ways to offer it. Most of them have never thought of themselves as elders and are reluctant to acknowledge it because they question what is it that they have to offer. Gradually,though, they grow into the notion of being an elder and like it. One example: A patient who was involved with computers long before they became an essential tool for everyone has many years of experience in adapting to all the changes and solving the problems that inevitably arise. He decided to offer himself as a "computer pastor" who would make "house calls" for people who were struggling with computer problems He found an important and fulfilling niche in our community especially with people post 40 years of age who were really struggling with this now essential tool.
I know that the topic of aging is complex and a blog of a few pages cannot discuss everything. My hope is that some of these notions that I have offered are evocative to you and helpful in your work with your clients.



Tuesday, July 26, 2016

WHERE IS OUR EMPOWERMENT?

This is one of those periods in human history where we are being hit with one crisis after another raising big questions about what is happening, where are we going and what can we do. The list of crises include: terrorist bombings and mass shootings, increased racial tensions, income inequality, climate change, dysfunctional political processes... a powerful mixture of feelings are being evoked: fear, rage, sadness despair, injustice, powerlessness, distrust... They affect our communities, our families, our patients, us. The cumulative effect of so many feelings over a period of time can be overwhelming producing powerlessness, paralysis, apathy. So much needs to be done to make the necessary changes. As psychotherapists and counselors what is our part?

WHERE IS OUR EMPOWERMENT?

From my perspective as an elder in the field of psychotherapy one primary way we can have a lot of impact is through our work. What is common to all of you readers is that we are working with clients who are suffering and struggling in their personal lives. They are being greatly affected by all this societal instability. We can help them feel empowered amidst this turmoil and to each make their unique contributions to the changes that need to happen. Imagine the ripple effects.
The first step of this process is to help our clients to feel fully all the myriad feelings that are being evoked. This will help to reduce denial and minimalization. Our clients are often afraid of the power of their feelings and what they may trigger from their own personal journey. Through our compassionate hearts we can invite these big feelings into the safety of the therapeutic space. This will provide a container to hold the feelings so that our clients will feel less overwhelmed. This will also increase their compassion for others all over the world who are suffering too. And diminish their feelings of separateness and aloneness.
It is then important to explore more deeply what aspects of their personal story are being tapped into. How do the feelings evoked by the societal crises connect with the feelings of deep sadness,rage,fear,injustice,hopelessness,powerlessness that they have felt in their childhood,adolescence, and adulthood? Exploring this connection can provide an opportunity to deepen their personal work. This will also separate out the past feelings when they usually felt powerless from the ones now being evoked by current events. The awareness of this connection is empowering.
The next step is to encourage our clients to hold these feelings in their consciousness AND to ask themselves the question,"Where is my empowerment now? What can I do?" The cumulative impact of all these issues fell so overwhelming, the amount of work to be done seems so daunting that it produces a sense of powerlessness. However, if we ask ourselves "What connects with who I am and what my interests are? What about my life experience gives me something to offer?" then something will come into our consciousness that can be our unique contribution. We can tell our clients that we are not all called to act on the big stage, but we all can contribute our part to the larger movement for systemic change.
Ralph is a sensitive artist and naturalist; he is a Vietnam Vet in his 60's. All the terrorist attacks and the shootings of black men and policemen were triggering his PTSD. All the impacts of climate change upon "our home - Earth" combined with the political dysfunction were triggering memories of the devastation wrought upon his childhood home by his mother's bipolar disorder and alcoholism. He was feeling enraged, fearful and powerless. After several years of sobriety he had started to drink again. He was ashamed of that and was embarrassed to tell me because he thought that I would be disappointed in him. Of course I was not - it was a projection of his disappointment in himself. I told him many people are coping with the big feelings evoked by these social crises by the addictive use of substances and addictive behavior.
After we worked through more deeply the feelings of his earlier traumas that were being triggered by the current events I told Ralph"It is now important to discern where is your empowerment in these recent world issues." He felt most strongly about the climate change issue. He has a deep heartfelt connection to the Earth as "our home" and feels that we are despoiling our home. He started to think that if he could help people develop a deep personal connection to the place where they lived, the natural setting near their home, they too would develop a deep heartfelt connection. Extending this heart attachment to the natural world they would want to take better care of their home Earth and become more involved in climate change issues. Ralph started by taking his teenage son's friends on nature walks. They loved it. This evolved into him leading guided nature walks for parents and kids in the local high school. The response was very positive and Ralph began to feel that he was making a contribution.
A few other examples: Tom who had been homeless for several years in his late teens and early twenties spoke at his synagogue about "giving voice to the voiceless" including non-human creatures and about the interconnectiveness of all beings; Carla, who had always felt like a "timid mouse", joined the Citizen's Climate Lobby and traveled to Washington to speak directly to Congressman; David decided to make monthly visits to some isolated members of his community; Walter led several workshops at his conservative Christian church about the congregation becoming more inclusive. The connecting thread in all these stories is that each of them moved beyond powerlessness and a sense of hopelessness into taking some action that fit with who they were. They felt also that they were contributing to something greater than themselves.
Of course we can contribute concurrently to working on these societal issues in ways that resonate for us personally. It is important, however, to realize that we can use our unique positions as psychotherapists and counselors to encourage and empower our clients to find their individual pathway - even though it may seem small - of making a contribution.

Monday, May 30, 2016

DEVELOPING POSITIVE INNER STATES

How can we help our clients develop some of the personal character patterns and inner feeling states that will improve their lives? How can we help them: have more perseverance, feel more inner peace, become more assertive, feel more inner strength...? How can we help them cultivate these qualities and emotional states?
Because these are primarily emotional states and because emotional states are controlled by lower level brain functioning(which overrides neocortical processes) rational/cognitive techniques are less effective in producing change. What I have found quite effective is to help clients invoke symbolic images because of their capacity to evoke powerful emotional states.
I'll start the discussion with a personal example. My lifework as a psychotherapist requires me to have a sense of grounded inner strength when presented with the myriad strong emotions of my patients. The work also requires me to have a reliable degree of stamina, especially on those days when I feel personally tired, and yet have to be with patients for hours. For me the image of an old tree with its roots above ground reaching deep into the earth symbolizes inner strength and endurance. On my weekly woodland walks I have sat and meditated many times with my back against a particular old deeply rooted tree. On several occasions I have imagined what that old tree has "witnessed" and "endured." By my frequent visits coupled with breathing meditations I am symbolically imbuing the image of that tree with those qualities and also creating brain patterns. In my office I have a poster of a giant redwood - I have meditated inside redwoods several times - and a stained glass image of the "Tree of Life." Before starting my day's work and also during those sessions when I feel tired, I look at those images and take a few deep breaths. Through this practice I can feel myself tapping into those deep inner states. This usually overrides the tiredness of my ordinary self and enables me to be fully present to my patients.
When we are helping clients develop their own images it is important to emphasize that the symbol needs to come from them - something resonant with their life narrative. Walt was anxious most of the time even when his life was going well. From prior experiences with other psychotherapists Walt knew the reasons for his "inner river of anxiety." He was quite close to his mother whose pervasive fearfulness permeated the atmosphere of his childhood home. As a sensitive child he absorbed her fearful energy into his own consciousness and it became strengthened through brain patterning. In an attempt to counteract this engrained pattern I asked Walt "Is there some place either now or earlier in your life where you have felt more peaceful?" Within a few minutes he began to talk about a local pond that reminded him of a lake near his childhood home. He used to go there to escape the tremendous tension at home. I recommended to Walt that he begin to go to this local place regularly by himself, sit near the pond, say out loud the word "peace" and do fifteen minutes of relaxational breathing. He was so determined to change this lifelong pattern that he started to visit the pond several days a week and quickly lengthened the time of his visits. One day Walt reported that he had taken a picture of the pond. Now that is the image he first sees when turns on his computer. He also hung a framed copy of the picture on his living room wall. Each time he opens his computer or stands in front of the picture he pauses, recalls time at the pond and takes a few breaths. Walt was amazed at how he started to feel internally more peaceful. "My wife has commented how more relaxed I am." Pleased by these results he became even more diligent about incorporating "pond time" into his daily life.
Carla had a lot of difficulty standing up for herself, protecting herself from personal verbal attacks or asserting her own ideas and feelings. She grew up with loving parents who had a pollyannish worldview and refused to acknowledge the dark side of people. She never witnessed them get angry, nor did they allow her to express anger. She felt loved, but totally unprepared deal with a lot of life situations. I asked Carla, "What animal comes to your mind when you think of an animal protecting her young?" Within moments she said "A tigress. I remember as a girl loving pictures of them in National Geographic magazine." Carla talked about the confident way the tigress moved, the sounds she made, her overall attitude of "don't mess with me." I encouraged her to watch tigress videos and to read more about them. I recommended to Carla that when she was alone in the house to imagine herself as a tigress walking around. We also did some deep breathing imagining the tiger inside of her. I asked her to imagine the tigress walking alongside her available whenever she needed her. She continued this work at home for several months. One day she demonstrated for me her tigress growl. She particularly loved the image of her tigress walking alongside her always available. Carla started to stand up for herself more and also to advocate more strongly for her children in their school.
I could offer more examples - the Vietnam vet who developed the image of a Native American shaman as a "Warrior" who helped him with his PTSD symptoms or the psychotherapist who grew up in Cape Cod using a lighthouse as a beacon of hope in her own despair. What is common in all these stories is that each of the symbols taps into some personal experience that resonates with the needed personality trait or desired inner emotional state. Imbuing them with symbolic power so that they can be reliably sustained and strengthening them so that new brain patterns can form and become engrained requires conscious effort and a lot of diligent hard work. Once patients begin to feel the difference and envision a better future they are usually able to do the hard work.

Monday, March 28, 2016

BEING BOTH PROFESSIONAL AND A LOVING HUMAN BEING

I have a dear friend who has been hosting for over forty years a late night radio show about psychological and social issues wherein listeners call in to speak about their struggles. He frequently encourages them to seek professional help for their psychological problems. He has shared with me on multiple occasions that the #1 complaint from these listeners who have had unhelpful experiences with psychotherapists and counselors that they have consulted is "I didn't have any sense that they cared about me as a person." Moreover, the literature on effective psychotherapy has consistently reported that when clients are asked what was most helpful to them they say,"my therapist cared about me as a person." As a reader I ask you,"How often in your professional training and supervision was it emphasized to you the importance of treating your clients with compassion,loving kindness and other forms of heartfelt caring?" From my personal experience in my own training,with the therapists that I've supervised and from the responses I get when I tweet about this topic it is an area that is underemphasized and undervalued in most people's training.
I think that there is an overemphasis on the importance of maintaining professional distance. YES, it is important to have appropriate boundaries, especially with clients whose body and psychic boundaries have been violated. YES, our hard-earned knowledge about what produces psychological problems and our techniques for reducing them are important. AND, it is essential that we move away from the hierarchical, superior-inferior aspects that are culturally built into the roles of therapist-client to move to a more deeply human-human interaction. Through our compassion, simple acts of loving kindness, warmth, sharing of relevant personal stories, encouragement, welcoming attitude, celebrations of moments of growth, emotional nurturance.... and other expressions of heartfelt caring we shift the relationship. It becomes more between two human beings, one of whom is suffering, and the other who has expertise that will alleviate that suffering.
YES, it is very possible and liberating to be both a professional and a loving human being.

BROTHERHOOD/SISTERHOOD

Ii my daily period of meditational preparation before I open the door to see my clients I pray,"Help me to be a vehicle of peace, brotherhood and love with my clients today." [In prior blogs I have talked about being a vehicle of love and peace] With this prayer my intention to place my lifework as a psychotherapist into a larger context - an acknowledgement of our connection of human to human, of the interconnectedness of all beings. The word brotherhood is the term I am using for this connection. Perhaps, if I were a woman I would use the word sisterhood.
Underneath our roles of client-therapist is this human to human connection. When we share relevant aspects of our personal stories that reveal our empathic connection to what our client is discussing we are breaking down barriers to heart to heart connection and underscoring, without minimizing their suffering, that their struggle is part of our common human journey. When we show our caring in whatever way fits for this particular client and our unique personality we are honoring our heart to heart connection. Our clients experience this genuine caring at multiple levels of consciousness. AND, it makes them more receptive to our techniques, insights and suggestions.
It is a massive understatement to say that we live in an area of great divisiveness wherein the experience of "other" as different, inferior/superior, frightening is pervasive throughout most cultures.It is well beyond the limits of a brief blog to even attempt to discuss the why's of this increasing sense of separateness. However, rather than be overwhelmed and paralyzed by the bigness of the problem we can help our clients develop a greater sense of brotherhood/sisterhood and thereby contribute to some of the change that needs to happen.
First,by being both a professional therapist/counselor and a loving human being we are modeling for our clients a way of being in all the varied roles of their lives.
Second, by exploring with them what aspects of their personal histories have contributed to their inner self-criticalness ands judgmentalness of themselves. Then discuss with them how that is directed toward others. It is these aspects of each client's inner landscape coupled with the fear of being vulnerable to psychological attacks by others that contribute to their defensive barriers to a deeper human to human interaction.
Third, in addition to their personal history it is important to discuss the impact of living in the competitive atmosphere of Western culture. This underlying competitiveness - which is so insidiously pervasive that we are usually unaware of its psychological impact - places us in an adversarial position with others. I have found it quite helpful to explore this often unexamined territory with my clients to help them move from an adversarial relationship to a greater sense of feeling their common humanness.
Imagine the ripple effects if thousands of therapists and counselors were helping their clients feel a greater sense of brotherhood, a deeper valuing of our human to human connection.