The Duck Story

There are several themes that seem to repeat themselves with the clients I see.  One of them is how we humans can keep our suffering alive by constantly re-running our past in our heads. One of the ways I explain how we don’t have to do this is the Duck Story.

Since we live on a small pond connected to a larger lake, I’ve had the opportunity to watch the ducks & geese interact with each other occasionally. I’m often reminded of this story. I can’t remember where I first heard it, but it makes sense.

Have you ever seen 2 ducks fighting? After a time, they separate, flap their wings vigorously for a few minutes – and then they’re both peaceful.  They don’t have a human mind that continues the story (of what the other duck did or said to me and how I’m never going to get close to that duck – or any other duck for that matter – ever again!  That way I won’t ever have to feel this kind of pain).

No, the ducks just go on peacefully and meet each moment and situation as it arises.

Keeping the story going – thinking/repeating in our heads (what I call intellectual violence), is what causes the suffering.  The body doesn’t know the difference between the actual event – or the memories/thoughts about the event – or a similar situation that FEELS like the original.  So it reacts the same way when it senses those feelings of pain/shame/vulnerability.  This is when we know we’ve been traumatized.  If it’s strong enough, it doesn’t even have to be conscious for us to react to something or someone that reminds us of a painful experience or a person who perpetrated pain upon us.

Sometimes, we’ve held onto something so long, or it’s so ingrained into our system that we need professional help – like a therapist who practices a method such as EMDR (see my website for a short explanation of it) or some other form of trauma therapy. If we’ve been traumatized, then it’s not just a matter of “forget it and move on.” We usually have to go back and find a way to make peace with it, forgive ourselves and any other person involved, and let it go.  If we just try to move on without going through this process, we’ll find ourselves controlled by the incident – precisely because we aren’t as lucky as the ducks.  We do have human minds that complicate matters.

But the lesson on how to prevent this with most future events is to truly live in the moment, like the ducks.  Put it out of our mind, forget the details, in order to get past the emotional hold.  We can make the choice to not let it take hold of us and run our lives.

Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is a choice.

Violence is the Crutch of the Emotionally Crippled

This blog was written prior to the incident taking place in Charlottesville or Barcelona. While those are examples of the violence I am referring to in the first couple of paragraphs, finding a way through to the hatred ignited within those individuals is a whole different thing than what this blog is about.  I send love and healing energy to all who are directly effected by these situations, and hope there will soon be an end to such extreme violence and intolerance.

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Every day we wake up to stories about some violence being perpetrated against Americans or citizens around the world. There’s also a lot of anger-filled debate about gun control/terrorism/immigration/police brutality, etc.  Instances of physical, emotional and verbal violence are happening so often that we are becoming immune to the pain they cause. These are all very complex issues, and won’t be resolved quickly. As individuals, the power we have to effect change should not be underestimated, if we unite with activist groups and manage to put people in the positions that can make a difference (as witnessed by the marches and protests/phone calls to representatives around healthcare and other issues have proven). But it will still be a long, incremental process of shifting universal paradigms to change the violent nature of much of our society.

Even though many of these incidents are not necessarily in our back yard, they all affect each of our lives energetically.  While many of the situations mentioned above are caused, or at least fueled by things like institutional or individual discrimination/lack of available mental health services/governmental policies . . . any number of factors that we should all be conscious of and learn how to manage within our own minds and actions; the aspect I want to address here is the general energy of unchecked anger that we all see more often these days – in social settings, athletic events, instances of road rage, political rallies, and on social media.

A lot of people today are SO angry that they are blinded to any possibility other than getting revenge.  It’s a typical human impulse when we perceive that someone else has hurt us, to want them to experience at least as much pain as we did. When someone is in that mindset, it’s difficult for them to understand that their anger really hurts them more than others.  Only when someone is open to entertaining the concept that there may be an alternative perspective, can he/she make a change.  No one else can make that willingness happen.

Some people seem to enjoy being angry.  There are lots of extreme posts on social media, and sometimes comments made by public figures, that fuel the fire for someone who has not developed the emotional maturity to develop the skills to manage and relieve themselves of the energy without taking it out on someone else.  You see, it’s not the anger that is the problem.  It’s the aggressive behavior that stems from the anger.

I’ve often said that anger can be a smokescreen emotion. When we feel anger, we feel a surge of energy, and it gives us a sense of power – helping us to believe we can protect ourselves.  It’s as if we’re putting on a bullet proof vest  (we often act before we stop to think that there might be arrows shooting back at us in reaction to our aggressive behavior, so until those reach us, we feel powerful).

But it’s a smokescreen because there are almost always other, more vulnerable emotions beneath the anger and aggressive behavior.  Feelings like hurt, embarrassment, shame, etc.  And most of those have probably been down there for some time, left unattended.  We may have been able to contain them for years, but as humans we aren’t built to hold them in forever. They begin to seep out, sometimes a little at a time. Since we tend to equate vulnerability with weakness, when we begin to notice these feelings, our “go-to” is usually to slip into anger. And while the stream of steaming anger may be steady, there may also be a pit of resentments inside us.  As long as it’s kept hidden, that pit becomes harder and harder, like petrified wood.

So the way many people try to deal with their anger is to use it against another or an organization with aggressive behavior, abusive language and/or passive aggressive acts.  These are destructive, impulsive behaviors.  They initially make us feel we can control a person or situation, but in the long run, they render us helpless and we eventually find ourselves at the mercy of these weapons. What we typically get in return is resentment from others, often just perpetuating the cycle of anger.  The anger takes control of us, rather than the other way around.

The only way to become invulnerable is to change our view of who or what we deem as our enemies and learn to see every instance of harm as an opportunity — as something we can use to benefit ourselves and others.

Our enemies are our best teachers, because they ignite our anger and hatred. They force us to look at our own shadow sides, which is the first step to moving past impulsive aggressive behavior.

Once we have that wisdom, we can begin to employ more effective tools — tolerance, compassion and love — and begin to reap real benefits. If negative situations didn’t happen to us or keep us from getting what we want, how would we learn humility, tolerance and forgiveness?

We should be grateful to our enemies, for they teach us patience, courage and determination and help us develop a tranquil mind.  

-The Dalai Lama

Go to the Core

All of us have challenges in our lives.  Whether or not we see those challenges as problems or as opportunities will determine our sense of self.

Our problems are all near the surface.  When we have stress or anxiety, or any number of other concerns, as all humans do, it’s because we are allowing our ego to run our lives.  This definition of the ego is  the human part of us that feeds the thoughts that make up our belief system. The thoughts we feed are the ones that gain weight and eventually become our beliefs.  It’s the ego’s job to keep us feeling less than.  It tells us we are not good enough, never have been and never will be.  If we continue to pay attention to these thoughts, we will eventually define ourselves in this way.

Therefore, our problems originate with the ego.  When we become completely wrapped up in the comings and goings of our outer life, it can quickly wear us down.  It’s my belief that some types of anxiety and depression – and certainly stress – are caused by living on the surface, and not recognizing, honoring and feeling what we need to feel at the time a situation arises — in our core.  Our troubles result from avoidance of reality.

That might sound ridiculous to those who worry and obsess about things.  They don’t believe they are avoiding anything.  They think they are trying to face it and “figure it out.” (And I know a lot about this, since I have been known to obsess a bit myself!)  But all that does is keep us in our heads (which is where the ego resides). Most of those thoughts we are feeding are the same thoughts we had yesterday, and the day before that, and will be the same thoughts we’ll have again tomorrow unless we consciously choose different ones. And I’d guess the majority of those thoughts are negative.

There is nothing to be gained by ruminating about something.  This is when we become identified with those negative beliefs.  We become slaves to our beliefs. Slaves have no choices and no personal power.

But we are more than whatever is bothering us.  If we detach ourselves from these surface issues and become a compassionate observer of our own lives (through meditation, mindfulness and self-compassion), we discover the opportunity to address the causes of our problems, not just the symptoms. Often, there is something we can do – but mostly, it’s just about an awareness of who we are at our unconditioned level of self.  That is the part without the ego attached; the spiritual/higher self that is at our core.  That part of us is connected to our Source – and to every other being in existence. When we can find that place within us, we’ll find peace.  Rather than defining us, our difficulties then give us an opportunity to move forward – powerfully.

So our troubles are on the surface – much like an ocean, which can be rough, stormy and unpredictable.  But if we go deeper – to the floor (or to our core, unconditioned self), it becomes quiet, calm and peaceful.  The answers are not in our heads, they’re in our hearts.

What I Learned from my Dad

This week was my Dad’s birthday.  He would have been 99 on July 28. I hope you’ll humor me while I take a moment to remember him.  My dad was Harold Koestel. He transitioned in 2003, but I continue to feel his presence in my life daily.

As adults, especially parents, we sometimes forget how much just living our lives influences our children.  I often tell clients they have to be what they want their children to be, because they are watching every move!

My dad was a shy, gentle man who grew up speaking German in his home.  When he went to school he had to speak only English.  He had difficulty pronouncing some words (even as an adult), and he took this as an indication that he was not intelligent. This was by no means true.  My dad was also a hard-working, successful farmer.  He had a rough life in a lot of ways, and he didn’t always think enough of himself, but he taught me so much.

I learned to be giving. My mom was a teacher, so when I was home sick, even though he probably didn’t have the time, he would come in and fix my lunch – milk toast, just like I liked it. He was kind and gentle, and he never complained.

I learned to be compassionate. When I was a teen I drove my car into the ditch. Dad hopped on the tractor and pulled it out, saying, “No problem. Everybody makes a mistake now and then.” And I saw him nurture, love and care for his parents, mother-in-law and my mom until they each went on before him. I also saw him do for and give to other farmers and families in our neighborhood when they were down on their luck.

I learned determination from him. You decide what you want and then you do whatever it takes to get it. If you REALLY want it, you look at what you’re willing to do and what you’re not willing to do. (And there had better not be anything on the “not willing” side).

I learned how strong the love of a parent can be.  After my brother and sister went to college, I was the lone helper for fall harvest.  When my truck caught on fire in the field, I was paralyzed with fear.  My dad jumped off the combine and ran across the field to pull me out of the truck to safety.  Although it wasn’t as dramatic as it might sound here,  I could tell he was scared too, but I also knew he would have risked his own life to get me out.

I learned to look for the funny side of life. He couldn’t wait to tell a dirty joke – and then he would giggle so hard he almost cried. He laughed so much that he had a hard time finishing the joke! He always looked at the humorous side of things. (My kids have never let me hear the end of it when I get so tickled I start to cry).

I learned how important it is to choose a profession for which I have a passion.  As I look back, Dad was very passionate about his way of life.  He had a deep respect for animals and for working with the earth.  He loved being out in the elements, regardless of the weather.  He worked hard, but it was a labor of love.  I feel the same about my work.  I have to watch myself to avoid compassion fatigue and to keep balance in my life.  There is always something else to learn that might help someone.  It never feels like work.

Dad didn’t go to church often, but he was still one of the kindest, most spiritual people I ever met.  I think he felt closer to his God when he was communing with nature.  While this was never a topic of conversation between us,  I have always felt very connected spiritually, and this bonded us without the need to express it verbally.  In fact, knowing what I know now about the Universe, I believe he was very uncomfortable as a human. I have been told by those whose sensitivity is more developed than mine that he exudes a very gentle, loving  spiritual energy  even now.

My dad wasn’t perfect.  He was a simple man – he didn’t like a lot of fuss. He didn’t join a lot of organizations or have public accomplishments that can be listed,  but he made the world a little better one kind deed at a time.  If I can have half the integrity I saw in him, I’ll be doing good!

Boundaries and Compassion

Learning about compassion for self and others, and setting boundaries are two issues that often come up in my sessions. Boundaries are of utmost importance in taking care of ourselves, and is one of the first tools we must practice when learning self-compassion.  But have you ever thought about how setting boundaries with others can also lead to more compassion towards them?

Nobody is born with boundaries.  We are taught about boundaries by our parents.  Some of us have no sense of boundary; others have built walls instead of boundaries. Still others have boundaries with holes in them.

Few people are fortunate enough to grow into adulthood knowing who they are, and what their rights are and aren’t. They don’t trespass other people’s territory and they don’t allow others to invade theirs. They have healthy boundaries and a solid sense of self.

Unfortunately, more of us emerge into adulthood with damaged, scarred or nonexistent boundaries.  Or we may have constructed such a thick shell around us so people can’t get close.

Many events contribute to this.  It happens when healthy boundaries aren’t role modeled or taught to children, when children’s boundaries and rights are invaded or violated, and when children are forced into inappropriate roles with those around them.

Abuse, humiliation and shame damage boundaries. They leave gaping holes where the violation occurred.  If we were emotionally, physically or sexually abused as children, we may grow up without healthy borders around that part of our territory.  As adults, we’ll be vulnerable to invasion in that area until we repair and strengthen that part of our border.

Inappropriate generational roles among family members, and inappropriate roles between our family and other families can damage boundary formation also.  We may not have learned to identify or respect other people’s territory or our own. Our original boundaries with our primary caregiver determines how we bound with others.  Our boundaries determine how we fit or bond with those around us.

Without boundaries, relationships will cause us fear. We feel vulnerable to losing all we have, including ourselves.

With boundaries that are too rigid, we will probably have very few relationships. We won’t dare get too close, because we don’t trust.  We may fear people will leave us.

The goal, as we get healthier, is to develop healthy boundaries, not too pliable or too rigid. And we need to patch any holes in our borders.  Developing healthy boundaries is our responsibility. We cannot afford to put the responsibility for taking care of ourselves, or looking out for our best interest, in anyone’s hands but our own.

As we develop healthy boundaries, we develop an appropriate sense of roles among family members, others, and ourselves. We learn to respect others and ourselves. We don’t use or abuse others or allow them to use or abuse us. We stop abusing ourselves. We don’t control others or let them control us. We stop taking responsibility for other people and stop letting them take responsibility for us. We take responsibility for ourselves. If we’re rigid, we loosen up a bit. We develop a clear sense of our self and our rights. We learn to have a complete self. We learn to respect others as well as ourselves. We do that by learning to listen to and trust ourselves.

So when most of us think about setting boundaries, we see it as a way to protect ourselves. They are how we draw the line in the sand and communicate that “this is my sacred space, and you can’t cross this line”. It is extremely important for each of us to become the whole, healthy person we want to be. But I repeat: We learn to respect other’s as well as ourselves.

In a new program by Brene Brown she talks about boundaries. She repeats a concept I have tried to practice for years: If we can believe everyone does the absolute best they can at any given moment, we can feel more compassionate and less judgmental.

It requires boundaries and integrity to be generous. Brene shares how surprised she was when she realized that the most compassionate people she interviewed in her research were people who set the best boundaries.

It’s impossible to extend generosity to someone who is taking advantage of us, being disrespectful, hurting us, not hearing us. We can only be generous to those people with whom we have set boundaries, and from whom we demand boundaries.

The only way we can extend true compassion to other people is from a place where we are clear on our own boundaries. We respect them, we are clear on their boundaries; we are standing solidly in our own integrity. And from this place of integrity, we can be generous in how we view them.

In my own experience, when I have allowed others to dictate my boundaries, I have become resentful of them and disappointed in myself. There have been times I have allowed someone to guilt me into doing something they wanted, and I ended up doing it (not out of generosity or choice), but because I felt forced.

Most of us were raised to be giving and easy to get along with, but that does not mean we need to let others walk all over us. Always saying yes is the easy way out – until it’s not.

When we impulsively say yes, it’s usually about thinking we have to please everyone or need everyone’s approval; or we want to fit in.  But what it really amounts to is that when we don’t set healthy boundaries with another person, they end up with all the power.  When we learn to set boundaries, we begin to take our power back (personal power/not power over any other person). Consequently, we have the choice of how to use that power.  We might feel more free to be compassionate, which will give us much more of a sense of connection with that person than we would have had otherwise.

It’s uncomfortable in the moment, but if we can project ourselves to the consequences of saying yes to something we really don’t want to do, we’ll get past the discomfort. (Brene calls this “embracing the suck”).

It’s hard to say no – especially to those with whom we have a difficult or guilt-laden relationship. I’ve learned I don’t have to give an answer immediately. What works for me is to slow things down; visualize myself having done whatever I agreed to, and then allow myself to feel how I will feel, (knowing I’ll be disappointed in myself or upset that I gave up time or energy for something I really didn’t want to do). I practiced saying, “Can I call you back? And the minute I hang up the phone, I realized, “Hell no, I can’t do that!” But in that moment before, when I was on the phone or in the presence of that person, I felt compelled to do whatever they asked.

And once I learned to say, “No, I can’t do that,” I realized that I was much more generous with my time and energy with that person the next time we were together. I didn’t feel forced to do anything. I felt genuine care and respect for them.

So setting boundaries can not only be self-protection.  It’s a wonderful tool that helps us be more compassionate with others, as well.