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The Lessons We are Here to Learn

I’m a therapist. I work primarily with adult individuals on trauma, grief, LGBTQ issues, addictions and other general mental health concerns. But I’m also an advocate for those who often can’t speak for themselves – or if they can, they aren’t heard until more voices join in to be sure their concerns are heard. I think I gravitated into the advocacy naturally because I get to know my clients intimately, and they have taught me so much about what it’s really like to grow up in circumstances I have never experienced. I don’t think it’s possible to understand an individual’s concerns unless we understand the context, so many of my blogs use some social/political issues to illustrate how we individuals are drawn into stress and pain.

It’s easier to think of the polical/social as impersonal, because then we can ignore others’ pain if we choose. But most policies and large social events affect each of us. They weigh on our psyche and wear down our bodies. But please remember, as you read this blog, the political is just the surface – just the stage where the play takes place. The actual real effect I’m focusing on here is within each of us. I understand people might disagree with my perspective, and I completely respect their right to do so. While I’m no expert on the social issues, I have worked with people from many backgrounds and lifestyles, and I’ve learned that the circumstances from which we come are not an excuse for current problems or behaviors, but they DO often explain them.

So my purpose here is to possibly put words to what many are feeling.  I always welcome comments and questions, but I won’t allow this to become a political war ground.

With the constant barrage of news, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Emotionally and physically, we aren’t built to withstand the stress, and it’s impossible to keep up with it all. Sometimes historic events have been pushed to the back burner because the day’s latest crisis supersedes the media storms.

The dichotomy, and yet the similarities between all the stories give me pause.  I understand that not everyone views them in the same way.  But it’s my blog, so I have the microphone at this moment and I’m going to attempt to look at the big picture and express how they are affecting me, in the hope it might be helpful to you.

Much of the news that we hear every day has historical implications and many involve prejudice and bias, greed and a lack of integrity. Others just display the deep divide that have taken place between us. The stories that seem to be more about hate than policy, have generated a lot of pain that will be felt for generations.  Some people are being traumatized and others feel like they have been perpetual victims of the way the systems in our country have always worked. Whether the issue is families being pulled apart, people losing their healthcare, farmers losing a market for their crops and possibly their entire livlihood, manufacturing jobs being lost and plants being closed down or moved to other countries, school/mass shootings, our water and other resources being contaminated and not protected – all of this affects each and every one of us.  If we are not part of a group or work in a job that is being obviously affected at the moment, we very possibly will be soon. We are all in this together, whether we want to think so or not.

The dichotomy of each situation is that they have also generated a lot of love and unity – displayed by Americans who are weary from the hate, violence and lack of integrity and respsect that have been displayed in recent years – and who can complelely identify with how it must feel to be in the shoes of some who are affected. Many of these people are helping in very concrete ways – marching to show support to the families trying to come into our country – or more recently who may be kicked out, donating money for bail or attorney fees or other personal needs, even driving parents across the country to reunite with their children. Others step up during and after shootings or natural disasters to give support – emotionally, financially, physically and spiritually. People give what they can. We’re hard-wired to be kind.

Each story contains the same characteristics, just in different circumstances – but they also are  each countered by people who put their love to work in ways that help.  It’s my contention that these situations are examples of the lessons we, as individuals are to encounter as spiritual beings having a temporary human experience. These are the tests put in our paths to allow us to examine our strength, our sense of purpose and our compassion.

Like many others, I despise the division we all feel between us. The depths of how hate can affect us as humans – and spread so quickly – simply because some people feel threatened by others who appear different from them, leave me in wonder. It’s difficult to completely wrap my head around the mindset that leads people to not trust anyone, but it seems that’s the case more and more. What  I do know, is that we all have the capacity, if we narrow our focus enough, to let something we believe germinate until it grows into something else that becomes larger than life. I also know the seed is fear; and that when we do this, we are making the choice to focus on the fear and hate.

There has always been a stark difference of opinion about many issues. That’s one of the pillars on which our country was founded and I respect and honor the right of those who believe differently than I do. But I’m repulsed by some of the self righteous comments and actions taken to move their own positions forward, moving from a difference of opinion to a personal attack and disparagement  – especially those made by political and religious leaders. They often characterize their actions as a means towards protecting us from the *other* and by identifying the people who often have few, if any alternatives in life as that group. The values I learned as a citizen and as a human did not inform me that I was to stand in judgment of, or try to control the behavior and lives of other human beings, especially when that behavior does nothing to diminish my own life in any way. Again, much of what is being said and done is because people are threatened by those who appear different from them or who believe differently.  As Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, commented to country singer Chely Wright, when he was helping her prepare to publicly come out as a lesbian: There’s no one quite as mean as people being mean for Jesus.

There is not a reason to intimidate and torment another person just because they are different – unless there is fear. When we feel fear, we attempt to control whatever we believe is the cause of that fear.  I repeat: what we focus on expands. We are all capable of letting irrational thoughts or misunderstandings grow into hate.

Equality isn’t just for Black and other ethnic groups, women, LGBTQ, disabled or anyone else who appears different from the mainstream. It’s for each and every one of us. We all come from the same factory.  We may come in different packages, but inside we all contain the same ingredient. Just like a drop of water exists of the same molecular structure as the ocean, we are each a piece of the originating Source. That ingredient is the energy of love. The problem is that when we become human, we tend to forget that, and we let our ego run away with us. When the seeds of fear and hatred are allowed to grow, they are like weeds that take over the garden. It may not be YOU who is being targeted right now, but at some point, it may well be. By then, if you haven’t fought for those who went before you, who will be here to fight for you?

If I had to point to the one issue that clients present most in my practice – it’s that they are trying to fit into someone else’s idea of who they should be. They feel they have to please someone – or everyone else. So in the process of trying to please others, they become sad, bitter, addicted and sometimes homocidal or suicidal.  It never works to live our lives for others, but that’s what those who oppose equality are trying to enforce. They are saying, “You have to be more like me or you don’t fit in.”  (Please understand that we all want others to like and approve of us, but it becomes a problem when we allow them to define us). What we need to understand is that we are making a choice to allow them to have that power over us. To become healthier, we need to learn to take our personal power back to make conscious choices that benefit us, while also being aware of not harming others. It IS possible to stand up for ourselves, while allowing others to be who they are. We are all meant to be free – free to be who we are. Those who are fighting equality (unbeknownst to them) are actually more imprisoned by their own rigid beliefs, because any time we fight or resist anything we give it so much more power over us.

So, just as these stories coming through our TVs or social media may be part of a divine plan, so is our reaction to them.  I’m not saying God, the Universe, or whatever you call he/she/it caused these things to happen. Humans did, because we have free will. They happen because we can get off track easily if we don’t remain conscious of our need for connection, which I believe is why we’re here in the first place. But once they do take place, we have the opportunity to determine whether we make the choice to let the world explode from hatred or if we are going to lift it to new heights of unconditional love. It’s up to you and me.

Where Are You Looking?

There is an old story about a drunk who lost his keys.  A policeman sees him searching for something under a streetlight and asks what he lost. He tells the cop he lost his keys, so they both look.  After a few minutes without coming across the keys, the policeman asks if he is sure he lost the keys here, and the drunk replies, “No, I lost them in the park”. Of course the policeman is dumbfounded and asks why he is searching here.  The drunk replies, “This is where the light is.”

Apparently, he chose the simplest place to put his focus in order to find what he wanted.  But it was not even close to where the keys actually were.

How many times do we search for something where it is not?  For instance, if I want a better relationship with my husband, sometimes I focus on what HE is or is not doing that would make my life better.  He takes it for a long time before he finally gets frustrated with me and then we have to talk about what is really going on.

I forget that the answer is not with his behavior.  If I’m upset because he doesn’t pick up his things, it’s not his problem – it’s mine.  And that is very difficult for me.  Somehow I’ve always inherently understood that if I want to have a clear head and heart, it’s much easier if my physical environment is clear.  My husband – doesn’t really care about that.  He literally can sit in a room surrounded by all sorts of “stuff” and be happy.

So occasionally, he has to remind me that it really is my problem.

How do I deal with this?  Sometimes, not well. None of us enjoy to be confronted with our own character defects. But when I am able to feed my spiritual being by exposing myself to information and music that inspires me, physically working out, eating right and meditating, I can usually get myself back to a place where I recognize where my focus needs to be: 1) on my own anxiety that is stimulated by the surrounding “mess” and what I can do differently to make peace with the situation, and 2) on what he DOES do to make my life better in so many ways.  My happiness does not depend on him; it’s up to me to find it where it is – inside me.

When we put our focus on what we DO have in our lives, rather than what we don’t have, we can begin to move forward towards freedom and peace.

Eckhart Tolle says, “It’s almost a joke, how humans live – how they look for something where it can never be found.”

I’m pretty sure my need for a clutter-free house and my husband’s lack of enthusiasm for that may never quite be resolved for me.  But we’ve made it over 49 years together in relative peace (most days), so I think we’ll survive.  As humans we are always under construction.  That’s why we’re here – to experience ALL of life’s little joys and pains, and the bigger ones – and to grow from them.

 

 

What Is Your Truth?

The way we communicate our beliefs and world-view differs for each of us.  The last several years in this country, we all seem to have fortgotten that the real purpose of communication is NOT to prove who’s right and who’s wrong, but to come to a place where we can understand each other. There are some things on which we’ll never agree. But if we choose to, we CAN find ways to co-exist without hating each other. Things didn’t get this out of control over night.  Our collective belief system in this country has been gravitating for years to the firestorm that fuels our political and personal atmospheres today.

In social media, and on the political scene today, the extreme beliefs that permeate our society have gotten out of hand.  A difference of opinion is turned into a personal battlefield.  Everyone seems to be more invested in being RIGHT, than in stopping to listen to the other side, learning something from it and then uniting our differences to come to a better and stronger solution.

The way our elected officials behave towards each other and use personal attacks to prove their own righteousness at the expense of the rest of us has become the epitome of this mindset.  For the past several years, it has plummeted to the level of bullying.  Most of us, as parents, make every effort to prevent our children from succumbing to such acts.  But if they are exposed to news programs about social issues and the political process at all (which I have always believed they should be, depending on their level of maturity and ability to understand) they are seeing adults behave in ways towards each other that have to be confusing to them!

Beliefs are important in our culture. We have each developed a set of beliefs by which we rule our lives.  Even those who say they don’t have a strong belief system think and behave according to beliefs they’ve developed about how they view their environment, whether or not they are completely conscious of them.

Beliefs are just thoughts we string together and think often enough for them to gain weight.  The more weight they gain, the stronger the belief.  These thoughts have developed from things our parents told us – and what we watched them do, what we’ve heard in church and school, in society at large, from our friends, and from things that have happened to us and that we have witnessed.  Thoughts are some of the most powerful energy on this planet.  (Notice I did not say they produce powerful energy – they ARE energy).  But the point here is that we all think our belief is THE truth.

For this blog, I want to focus on our beliefs and how they manifest.  If we’re conscious of this, I think it helps us to understand how we can manage our communication with each other in a more respectful way – with the intent to come to agreement, rather than just bulldoze our own agenda past the other.

It reminds me of the ancient story about the blind men who were told there was an elephant in their village.  I’m sure you’ve all heard it, but I’m going to briefly share it here, just to make my point.

The men had no clue what an elephant was, but they decided they would go physically touch it because that’s the way they “see”. Each of them touched the elephant. One touched the leg and said the elephant was a tree.  The next touched the tail and said it was like a rope.  Then there was the man who touched the trunk and thought the elephant was like a large snake.  The one who touched the ear thought it was like a big fan; the man touching the belly said it was like a huge wall.  The last man touched the tusk and said they were all wrong because the elephant was like a spear!

As they argued about the elephant, each insisting he was RIGHT and becoming very agitated, a sighted man arrived. When they told him what they were arguing about, he told them they were  ALL right, and that the reason they each felt differently was because they had touched a different part of the elephant. When the blind men heard this, there was no more reason to fight.

Are you like the blind men?  As I said before, we all “see” life through the lens of our own experiences, thoughts, and beliefs – which lead to our own perspective. That perspective is what drives our attitudes, how we feel and how we behave.  Our focus tends to be pretty narrow.  If I’m in a dark room with only a flashlight, the things I shine the light on are the things I see, and  therefore the things that inform my beliefs.  That is my truth.  Someone else in the same room, might shine their light on other things, and consequently come to a different truth than mine.

But what happens when someone walks in and flips the switch to light up the whole room?  Then we both have access to everything in the room. Those things have always been there, we just didn’t see them all.  We each might see at least some of the same things the other was focusing on, and at the very least, we might begin to question the beliefs we had each developed and so strongly held onto.  Might the other person have had a point to their perspective?

When we can remember that we each have our own truth, based on our own experiences and values – and can learn to explain how it affects us, it teaches us to be more tolerant towards others for their viewpoints.  We also each have to be able to hear (and empathize) when others describe how their truth affects them.  None of us is wrong when we can see where each of us comes from.  We may never completely agree. We’re still going to have experiences that affect us strongly enough that we hold on staunchly.   But we might at least be able to begin to work together to come to a more unified sense of truth for more of us.  If we don’t, no one wins.

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.  

-Marcus Aurelius

A New Normal

As a grief therapist, I’ve worked with many clients who were struggling with the deep (and inescapable) trauma of the loss of a loved one. There’s no right or wrong way to navigate grief. But it’s one of the few things EVERYONE will have to experience at some point in our lives. With the news recently forcing us to look at suicide and other losses again, I thought it might be a good time to, once again, look at how grief expresses itself.

What grief is really about is the process of experiencing the changes in our lives and finally getting to the point of understanding that we’ll never go back to exactly the way we were. We have to embrace the changes and eventually realize there is a new normal. It won’t be the same, we may not like it as well as what we had before, but it can be better or at least as good.  The one thing we can be sure of – it will be different.

Grief is not confined to the loss of loved ones or relationships. It extends to any change in our lives: the birth of a new baby, an older child going off to college, a job loss or promotion; the list is endless. Some of these are positive changes and some are obvious losses; but even with positive change, there is a loss of what was. This list should also probably include the huge changes that are taking place at lightning speed in all of our lives today because of the internet, immediate news coverage and other technological advances. Even for those of us who enjoy the challenge of change, it can sometimes be overwhelming.

When things happen in our country or worldwide – like the huge amount of gun violence, the displacement of millions of refugees around the world, the emergence of laws and policies that affect all of us, whether we agree with them or not – the way we have always perceived our world is affected. If the change is something we had hoped for and worked to implement, it makes it easier to accept, but it still requires an adjustment of our daily lives.

When the change is not something we wanted, we can get thrown off-balance. We felt a sense of safety because we thought we knew “how things were supposed to be.” Then when something happens, we may feel threatened – life as we have always known it, is gone. We try to deny it – or if we acknowledge it, we still hope/wish it will go back to the way it was. If we maintain this mindset for long, it puts us into a holding pattern. We wait it out, assuming that one day things will go back to “normal.”  As this time of waiting increases, we are just existing. We miss out on life. We don’t experience the day to day joys – and sorrows. We just don’t experience life as it happens. We sit in depression, missing what used to be and in anxiety, wondering when it’s going to change back, so we can get on with our lives.  Some become angry and try to fight it.

One example that illustrates this is people who have successfully found recovery through the 12 Step programs or otherwise. They eventually realize they have grieved the “good old days” – the partying, the fun or the escape they experienced as their addiction progressed, the self identity they developed over time as the life of the party, or just someone who could enjoy an occasional drink (although as addiction progresses, “a drink” is usually not the norm). As this realization sinks in, they begin to accept that things will be different, and there will be a new normal in their lives.

Our grief process from the loss of a loved one, a broken relationship, a job, or a major social change is not different. We have to get to a place where we recognize – and even embrace the fact that things will never be exactly the same.

In his book THE TURNING POINT, Gregg Braden called this “expanded resilience”. Resilience is the ability to return to normal functioning after a trauma in our lives. As Gregg explained it, expanded resilience is the ability to think and live every day in a way that allows us to thrive in whatever comes, because we’re facing reality. He goes on to discuss physiological reasons we become less resilient as we age or face traumas. There are technologies and techniques being developed every day that can be used to help us learn to expand our resilience.

For my purpose here, I just want to make the point that regardless of whether we are experiencing the loss of a loved one, or some other change in our lives, we are probably at some stage of grief. It’s important to take the time we need to mourn the relationship/things we’ve lost, and even the hopes we had for our future that won’t happen now (at least not in the way we thought they would).

But don’t misunderstand. While we need to accept where we are and that the future may not look like we thought it would, it doesn’t mean we have to just lay back and allow life to roll over on us. Sometimes change is a challenge to examine that new normal, and decide if there isn’t more we can do to make it even better. Depending on what the loss/change was, maybe we need to develop new relationships, or skills to help shape the prospects ahead or to prevent isolation. Or maybe we need to lose our complacency – to stand up for policies we’ve always believed in, but never thought they’d be at risk. As I said earlier, it will not be the same as it was, but it can be better; but that’s only if we make it happen.

Mostly, we just need to be as honest and open to whatever comes each day. If we continue to hold on to what was, we won’t be able to create space in our lives for what will be.

Be open to everything and attached to nothing.

-Wayne Dyer

 

What I’ve Learned

Last week, a FaceBook friend on my personal page totally misunderstood something I said in response to a question she asked, which quickly escalated into a total meltdown on her part, ending with her unfriending me before I could even respond. While I valued that person’s friendship (we didn’t know each other personally, but she had been very supportive of my family through some rough times), I also understood that it was her problem. I always go back and re-read/re-evaluate situations like this to be sure whether I had some part in the issue and take responsibility for it by making amends or whatever is required. In this case, I was making every attempt to be factual and unemotional in my words. This was one of those cases that reminds me that, regardless of how well I choose my words, attitude and tone, I simply cannot take responsibility for how the other person hears them.

So here’s a blog I wrote several years ago that I repeat occasionally. It reminds me how I’ve learned to manage relationships, and how far I’ve come to date. We’re all works in progress, so each time I post it, I add new things I’ve learned. I hope it helps you as well.

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Like many of you, there are people in my life that challenge me in just about every way possible. Some of these people I love very much. I’ve spent lots of energy trying to understand, help them, and at times, to realign my side of the relationship so that it feels better to me. Sometimes, it’s eventually possible and even healthy to eliminate toxic people from our lives. In some cases, this is not an option.

The realization I’ve come to is that these people have been and continue to be my greatest teachers. I now believe that we are joined together on a spiritual path through which each of us is meant to learn.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned (and often am even able to practice) so far:

-To enjoy the moment. Yesterday may have sucked and so may tomorrow, so when it’s good, I relish in it. Even if today is the one that sucks, I’m learning to appreciate the lesson and the fact that if nothing else, it will propel me upward eventually.

-When I know I’m going to be in that person’s presence, I prepare myself emotionally and spiritually to remain aware during that time. This helps me consciously respond to behaviors and comments, rather than impulsively react (which I usually regret later).

-To love unconditionally, with no strings attached, is the only true love. Anything other than that is either obsession or some other form of self-indulgence.

-To allow the other to live their life in their way, even though it feels very wrong or unsafe to me.

-To want the peace that I want for myself even more for the other person.

-To send that person love every day (at LEAST once a day) – and those days when I’m not feeling the love to ask my Source to make me an instrument of the loving energy that comes from the Universe.

-I’ve learned and practiced a meditation where I breathe in the pain of another and breathe out the healing energy of Love.

-We don’t have to be in each other’s lives every day. Sometimes the best we can do is love them from a distance.

-When we are together, it’s OK – and often better to just have a surface level conversation so things don’t get uncomfortable. (In most cases, I encourage open and honest communication to get down to real issues; but there are people with whom this is just not possible. I need to know the difference and act accordingly).

-To honor the other’s perspective on life and understand that we each see our environment through the lens of our own experiences. Based on that person’s belief system, I can respect their choices.

-I can’t hurt enough for the other person to make them better. All that does is double the amount of hurt. It doesn’t help the other, and it certainly doesn’t help me!

In order to do ANY of the above, I have to allow space in my life to let something new in. If I keep myself obsessively busy trying to understand it, control it, fix it or worry about it the only thing I’ll be successful at is numbing myself. Any of these behaviors will keep me from having space in my life to allow anything else to come in. Peace, true understanding or love will not be able to squeeze in. And I will have drained myself of any energy I had to be of help if and when the opportunity comes.

I’m not saying I can practice all of this all the time. Life isn’t all or nothing, and sometimes, even though we learn, it takes several reminders before it becomes a part of us. But each time I get pulled back down, a new light eventually comes on and I’m that much further ahead than I was before.

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SANAYA SAYS: Donning Your Cape

“Oh, but I don’t want him or her there!” you cry, and this is understandable if that one’s energy is so very dissonant to yours. If you are unable to see from your soul’s perspective, you will spend your time together focusing on how your two vibrations grate against each other. Ah, there’s the rub. That other is in your life for a purpose. If they rub you the wrong way, there is growth to be had. Can you be in their presence long enough to ask your higher self why the discord? Yes, you can choose not to include another in your activities, but when you can include them and find peace, then you have turned what would have before been an unpleasant situation into a triumph of the spirit.

How to survive a clashing of vibrations? Be like Superman. Put on your spirit cape and your giant “S” and rise above the clatter. Do you recall how humble Superman was? He did not go about telling the world that he was the caped crusader, and we recommend you do the same. Quietly shift to your greater role and see why that other acts as they do. Now muster all the compassion in your heart and silently send it their way from that giant “S” on your chest. Suddenly it will not matter who is in the room, for your love will have changed the whole dynamic. You have saved the day for your lower self. Isn’t it powerful to be a superhero?

– Sanaya