The Least of These . . .

Because I’m a therapist, I try to keep the focus of my blogs on our individual reactions to what we find ourselves immersed in daily, and trying to make sense of it at the individual, average citizen level. All most of us want is to be enabled to continue our lives in the manner to which we have become accustomed, as citizens of a free country with justice for each of us.

This blog may feel like I’m going off on another little tangent, as I’m led to do from time to time, but I promise to bring it back to the individual.

The fact that our country was founded on the backs of immigrants, and has always been seen as a “melting pot” is something that has always made me proud. But the way many people are being treated now – immigrants, women, and people of ethnicities and lifestyles that differ from the straight, white men who have been in power for so long – has pulled me back to the level of trying to make sense of something that makes no sense at my core.

Just this morning, one of my friends posted an encounter she witnessed with a man verbally abusing a family because they looked different from him. They were just trying to have a nice breakfast. They did nothing to provoke his outrage. And from the sounds of things, even though they were shaken, as she described the event, they remained calm, quiet and composed. I am so grateful that my friend and some others stepped up to intervene, and then contacted the police so this man would be in the system and there would be a record of the incident. And so the family would know they mattered (to quote my friend). They told her they were US citizens, but that should not have mattered. They are human beings, and as such, deserve respect.

Although I grew up in a very sheltered environment, where I saw little to no diversity; as an adult, I’ve been honored to have been allowed the opportunity to vicariously experience institutional bias through friends and clients. Often the bias is very obvious, like the story above, but the most damaging is the covert – those things buried in bureaucracy – such as the implied belief that people who were born in another country, or who are on some form of financial or medical assistance are “less-than” the rest of us. (I don’t have the exact numbers at my disposal right now, but I heard a report just yesterday that some 40+% of US families are struggling to just pay their very basic bills. Over 40%!! in America!). I have worked with addicts, mentally ill, homeless, single moms, prison inmates, parolees, gay, lesbian, straight, transgender, black, white, Hispanic, Japanese, Indian, Native American, and the disabled. Sure, there are always those few who work the system. But my experience with all of the above, as I looked into their eyes and heard their stories, was that I eventually saw myself. As I said at the outset of this blog, all they want is what we want – the ability to continue their lives in the best way they can as free and equal human beings.

So as I hear stories such as the one above, and see all the ranting on TV and social media, I can’t help but remember one client I saw a few years ago when I was offering pro bono therapy at the LikeMe Lighthouse in downtown KC. I’m sharing a blog I wrote at the time only to help anyone who might not fully understand why this issue is SO important to many people you’ll never meet; and why it is incumbent upon those of us who have a little more privilege to be there for those who can’t help themselves at the moment.


The other day a new client came in who has liver disease. He had 1 tooth, reeked of alcohol, and reported that he had no friends – that people seemed to be “intimidated” by him. He had a very negative outlook on life, and I found myself thinking – “What’s the use? How can I help someone like him? He doesn’t seem to want to help himself!”

Yet, there he was. Sitting in my office asking for help. He has no clue at this point what that might entail, but neither do most of us at the beginning stages of change. I realized I was judging him without really knowing what he had come from. So I listened and I sent him loving thoughts.

I’m not a Christian Counselor, and I never quote the Bible. But I have to admit that a verse from Matthew came to mind as I listened to him spell out his problems: “. . . whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

As we talked, I discovered a man who had once excelled in a sport at the national level and successfully owned his own business for years. Yes, he has a lot of negative core beliefs, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t have at least a few! And he’s engulfed in a system of social security and healthcare that seems to make it most difficult for those who need help the most. My own experience of just trying to get a child on Medicaid several years ago was enough to drive me to drink! And I had connections that many people don’t.

So as I sat there I had to ask myself: Who am I to be judge and jury? I have to practice what I preach. I believe we all come from the same spirit and are just different parts of the whole (like individual leaves on a tree). So if I disrespect him, I disrespect part of myself.

I also believe the reason we are here on earth is to be of service to others as we each learn the lessons we need in order to become closer to enlightenment. So in retrospect, it’s clear to me this man was a messenger for me – and I received the message. Even though he’s coming to me for help, he’s probably already given me more than I could ever give him.

No one has ever become poor by giving.

-The Diary of Anne Frank

Mother’s Day

Among all the other things that are grabbing our attention this week, we need to take a little time out to honor all mothers – along with other women, and even some fathers who are in the position of primary nurturer of children. And let’s not leave out those of us who have already raised our children into adulthood. Mothers are arguably the most important people in the world, because of the influence we have on future adults who are now or will be running things.

But when I was a young mother, more often than not, I found myself dreading Mother’s Day. At the time, I was confused why this was the case, but I now realize it was because I didn’t feel I deserved to be “honored.” I was only 19 when my daughter was born, and 23 when I gave birth to my son. I had no idea what I was doing, so why should I be singled out to be appreciated? I felt pressure to be the kind of mother I thought society expected of me – to do everything the “right way.”

I’m now WELL past my 20’s. Actually, I’m on the downhill slide of my 60’s! And I’ve had a lot of opportunities to examine some of those early feelings, and to work on myself. I know now, that many moms feel the same way I did (maybe not about Mother’s Day, but about being a “good” mom), regardless of how old they are. There’s no class to teach us how to be a mother. We all just figured it out from watching our own mothers and other matriarchs; some of us read books and maybe even went to therapy to try to understand what we were “supposed to do.”

What I’ve come to realize (at least for me), is that there are no “supposed to’s”. Much like my spiritual beliefs, If my thoughts and actions come from a place of love, then I’m probably doing “the right thing” at that moment.

But all moms also know that we don’t always act out of love. The demands of the job are overwhelming and we can lose our sense of self with all the hats we have to wear. I won’t try to list all the things we do as moms because I’ll surely leave many out. But to name a few: we’re managers, coaches, teachers, spiritual leaders, huggers, secretaries, therapists, mediators, schedulers, cooks, taxi drivers, house cleaners, nurses . . .

While we put much of the pressure on ourselves, there really is always WAY too much to do. I’m a list maker; and while I’m much better now about not beating myself up if everything on my list doesn’t get done, I still put that pressure on myself at times. But one day I had an “Ah ha” moment. I realized that when I make my transition to the other side, there very likely will NOT be someone standing there with a clipboard containing a list of all the tasks I didn’t get done today or any other day. It’s a good way to remind myself that it’s not the end of the world if I don’t meet my own expectations. And that maybe I need to rethink those expectations anyway.

I’ve also allowed myself to recognize that I have been a pretty darn good mom much of the time. I’m not what I used to call “Nancy Homemaker;” definitely was not a helicopter parent, don’t even like to cook much anymore. But I was always there when my kids needed to talk (I learned that if I didn’t nag them to tell me everything right away, they knew I would be there when they were ready and that they could say anything without fearing my judgment, and trust that I would help them work out their own way to handle their situation). I drove them to and attended all their performances and games (even coached a few), & helped them hone their baseball, basketball and softball, drill team skills and their musical and artistic talents. Yeah, I screwed up some times, but I’ve learned to give myself permission to be the mom I am.

I’m paraphrasing here, but we have all heard that quote about what people say on their deathbeds: It’s not “I wish I would have spent more time at work.” Rather, they say “I wish I had spent more time showing my family how much I love them.” As a mom, that needs to be our #1 goal: to show our kids how much they mean to us, and how proud we are of the individuals they ARE; not to put expectations on them that may not even be what they want for themselves. We don’t have to live their lives, they do.

I’m going to leave you with this post from Sanaya that says what I think all moms (and the rest of you) probably need to hear:

There is time to get it all done. It is you who thinks that you must do it all in a certain period of time. And what does this do to you? It knocks you off balance. It lessens your awareness of who you are and why you are here. It causes you to lose your focus on what really matters. And what really matters? Being present. Being the presence of love. Loving. There is time for all else, in good time. If your “to do” list and your anxious thoughts take you away from presence and being and loving, then it is time to re-prioritize.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms, aunts, sisters, dads, uncles and anybody else who deserves that title. We have to be there for our kids. We must inspire the change we want to see in the world. That means allowing space for some imperfections (in ourselves and in them), but also championing the uniqueness of each of them.


Ways to Make Space in Our Lives

Do some days feel chaotic and out-of-control, regardless of what you do? Welcome to life on earth. I have more of those days than I like to admit. What I’ve learned about those days is that we’re supposed to have them – not all the time, but as I said – that’s life. No one is calm, peaceful and happy all the time, and we’re not meant to be.

I can’t say enough for making space in our lives, especially on those days when we’re running behind and the last thing we can afford to do is stop and smell those stupid roses! But the reality is that’s when we need space most.

We all know how good it feels to clear out some clutter in our surroundings. Studies have shown that a clear environment enhances clarity in the mind. The same concept applies to clearing the clutter from the top down as well. We all have way too much intellectual violence going on in our heads all the time. It keeps us in turmoil and contributes to those impulsive decisions we regret almost as soon as we make them. When we can clean even some of that out, it can feel like we have more space to just live life.

Here are just a few suggestions for how YOU can slow your life down & make space:

-Shut off all the technology around you (cell phone, home phone, TV, radio, computer, iPod, etc) for 5-10 minutes several times a week.

-Meditation – Don’t say “I’ve tried. I can’t stop the thoughts!” That’s not what meditation is about. We need to approach it without expectation of what it’s supposed to be. If you just sit quietly and close your eyes for 5 minutes, your blood pressure and heart rate lowers, and you feel calmer. Meditation is about taking your focus OFF the thoughts and putting it somewhere else. (In other words, don’t jump on the thought train and ride all the way past the next station. When you notice that you’ve hopped on, just hop off and let the train go on by – no judgement, no beating yourself up or screaming that you’ll never be able to do this!)  Often people focus on their bodies or breath while meditating, but everyone needs to find the right way for them to meditate. There are many kinds of meditation and many apps that are helpful. My current favorite is Headspace because it teaches you how to meditate with its basic packs. Most meditations can vary between 10 to 20 or 30 minutes – you choose. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, there are also packs for many other issues – such as productivity, grief, sleep, managing anxiety, stress, gratitude. . . It also has packs for kids and “mini” meditations of 1-3 minutes for those moments when you need to just back off for a minute!

-Mindfulness exercises (very similar to meditation) – looking outside at trees, flowers, nature – not judging them, but just being with them.

-Be conscious of being in the moment, rather than mindlessly going through the motions of everyday, mundane activities (washing dishes, driving to work, etc) while you’re thinking of all the other tasks you think you have to accomplish. This also helps when you’re dealing with physical or emotional pain. Instead of catastrophizing and telling yourself — this is always going to be this way or maybe even worse!! — or mounting the pity pot and reminiscing about how you used to never have this pain, why can’t it still be that way? — just pull yourself back to right now – this moment.  (I tell myself, “This is what I have before me at this moment, so this is all I can manage for now. I’ll deal with tomorrow when it gets here, and I can’t unfeel what happened yesterday, so I’ll just stick with this for now”).

-Keep something you find beautiful at your desk or workspace (a stone, flower, painting, etc), and stop for a moment while you’re intensely working on something to just “be” with it. Pick it up and feel all it’s properties: the texture, weight, warmth or coolness – with curiosity. Again, this gets you out of your head.

-Ground yourself in your present surroundings. If you’re sitting on a chair/couch lightly rub your hands on the fabric to feel the texture. Notice the solid ground supporting you as you sit or stand or walk. Again, this is just another way of bringing yourself back to the moment to find a sense of calm.

-Look at pictures of your loved ones and allow yourself to actually feel that love you have for them in your body for just a moment.

-Light a candle and just watch the flame for a couple of minutes. Just notice it, without any judgment or label.

-This one might sound a little crazy, but Earthing refers to direct skin contact with the surface of the Earth, such as with bare feet or hands. There have been studies in recent years showinng that walking barefoot on the earth enhances health and provides feelings of well-being.  It appears to improve sleep, normalize the day–night cortisol rhythm, reduce pain, reduce stress, shift the autonomic nervous system from sympathetic toward parasympathetic activation, increase heart rate variability, speed wound healing, and help thin blood.

-Just stop working and HAVE FUN once in a while! We’re all under so much stress these days that we forget we still need that balance that a little fun provides.

ALL of these suggestions are just different forms of mindfulness.  I sometimes set an alarm on my phone to go off every hour or two on days I know are going to be stressful, and when I hear the alarm, I stop what I’m doing and take a minute to focus elsewhere, using one of the methods above. (This is called Stopping Meditation. By the end of a day, I sometimes have meditated more this way than in my daily morning meditation). We need to remain conscious of where we are in the moment as much as possible. Otherwise, we lose so much of our lives by living in that scary neighborhood in our heads.

I’m not going to tell you what – or how to do it – that’s up to you & what works in your life. I just want to encourage you to consider finding a way to slow your life down. When you do, you’ll find that you make better decisions for yourself and you’ll have moments of that ever-elusive peace!

Serenity is not peace FROM the storm, it’s peace WITHIN the storm.

Making Choices

It’s my belief that we are here on earth to have experiences that help us evolve. The majority of those experiences are through our relationships. So if we feel stuck or victimized in some or all of our relationships, we have to look at ourselves to understand why. We’ve all heard “no one else can MAKE you angry.” And I think most of us would agree with that intellectually. But do we really understand it?

When we are angry about someone else’s behavior or feel their actions have caused us pain in some way, we are allowing other people, and events to dictate our environment. Some would argue that we have a right to feel whatever we feel. I agree. Just be sure that while you’re feeling, acknowledge that it is a choice you’re making.

Our emotions are not what our experiences generate, they are what generate our experiences (Neale Donald Walsh). From this perspective, our emotions are chosen. We feel a certain way about something or someone, based on our perspective about ourselves and our connection to that other thing or person (or what we believe to be true). Our perspective creates our perceptions, which in turn lead to our feelings.

Beliefs are not innate. They are based on thoughts that come from our environment – our parents, our church, our education, our friends, and the things that have happened to us over years. The thoughts generated from all these places that we feed are the ones that gain weight and eventually become our beliefs.

What is innate, is that which we “know.” I’m not speaking of the knowledge we gain through our education or life experiences over the years. (As I said above, that is information that helps to form our belief system). This kind of “knowing” is that “aha” feeling when we read or hear something that resonates to our souls. It’s a feeling that “I’ve always known this.” Sometimes we didn’t even realize we’ve known it; sometimes it’s been swimming around under the surface for a long time, but since it might be slightly different from the concepts that others around us articulate; we’ve never really formulated the idea fully.

Another concept we need to keep in our consciousness is what is called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for or interpret an event or comment in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs. This can make us dig our heels in and refuse to be open-minded about any given situation. Doubt is seen as a weakness. There’s a lot of confirmation bias going around these days! It can make our relationships difficult because if we aren’t careful, we can become people who can’t change our minds.

It’s one thing to have a set of beliefs that guides our morality. But the opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty. When people start putting political views, racial or gender bias and certainty about any other belief before faith, it’s a recipe for hate and judgment.

This might be a bit confusing if this is the first time you’ve considered this angle to your life. But, in any given situation, if you ask yourself, “what is another way I can look at this?” or “if I were in the other person’s circumstances, how would I see this?” and you’re truly able to come up with an alternative perception, you can follow the process through and see how you are making the decisions at every step. (I would add here, that if you are not able to put yourself in the other person’s circumstances, maybe you need to find a way to experience life as they do for a few days – volunteer or research in some other way how their lives are different from yours. I’ve always said that if our congressmen and women had to live just a month or two in the shoes of their least privileged constituents, we all might have a much different sense of what equality and privilege means).

When I can imagine rising above and look down on my life – seeing the big picture, it eliminates the victim mindset that someone is doing something to me. All the minutia that wasn’t what I had planned, and that I think is screwing up my life, is just the weeds I know I have to wade through to get to the garden.

It gives me a sense of freedom to feel, and more importantly BE what I choose, based on the lessons I’ve learned on that trek through the weeds. But more importantly, what I choose is to be free of the constraints put on me by all the different “supposed to’s” from society and open to the wisdom of knowing there is a multitude of options that may lead me to a better and more fulfilling life.

What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how its supposed to be.

My Head is a Nice Place to Visit, But I Wouldn’t Want to Live There

One of my favorite quotes is: My head is like a bad neighborhood and I shouldn’t stay there alone!

I’ve shared that with many people over the years. What it’s always meant to me is that if I try to analyze my problems myself without verbalizing them to a trusted friend or therapist – or even just writing them down, or without allowing myself to actually feel through them – they just seem to take on more & more power over me. I call it the intellectual violence that I perpetrate on myself.

In the 12 Step Program we talk about getting outside our own heads, which I’ve taken to mean something similar – and also understood that if I carry the message on to others, then I will learn and grow more myself, as well as being of help to others.

Staying in the moment, which I remind myself to do on a consistent basis, also means staying out of my head. To do that, I usually switch the focus to my body.  As humans, we’re kind of thinking machines, so we’ll never completely get away from our thoughts. But we can work on being aware and conscious of what is going on around us as much as possible, so as not get caught up in that intellectual violence.

At times when I’ve had some real hurt in my life, I’ve meditated to help me stay in love as I dealt with it. Then, invariably, a friend or family member shared some very difficult problems in their lives. I’ve “gotten outside my own head” and reached out to them. I’ve put myself in their place and felt their pain. As a therapist, I’ve learned the art of being compassionate while detaching at the same time, so I can remain objective enough to be helpful. It’s much more difficult with friends and family, but I’ve been able to use that skill to be there for them.

During the time I was focusing on my friends and their issues, I totally forgot my own problems. And sometimes the issue I’d been working through just turned completely around and started working well again. I know it won’t be that way forever but I’ve learned to live in the moment and take joy in the good times when they are here without waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The part that amazes me is that I just know part of the reason it turned around is because I let go of it for a time, and gave from love to someone else who needed it. Don’t misunderstand. Very often, our problems need to be revisited until we see them through. But that means letting go of the obsessive thoughts about them and feeling the emotional part. And it doesn’t help to stay in the problem constantly. Otherwise, we’d never move toward a solution. Allowing ourselves to be there for others, even in the midst of our own pain (if we are able), can help us in that process. I swear what we put out there comes back to us – and even opens up the energy field for everyone else!

The energy in the world right now feels very heavy and sometimes dark – depending on who we are listening to or what we are focusing on. We are all experiencing some very harmful, painful events, even if it is somewhat vicariously for some of us. It’s difficult to just brush it off and go about our own business.

I have always been the eternal optimist when it comes to societal issues. I believe we are on the cusp of a more enlightened civilization, but there are those who are not as spiritually or emotionally in tune, and they feel very threatened. They are hanging on to everything they “know” (the familiar) because the unknown is too scary and they don’t seem to be willing or able to learn about that uncharted territory. That heavier energy is felt by all of us.

But I do think we can combat it by doing just what I said earlier. Let it go, even if for a few minutes at a time. Do whatever works for you to free yourself. Meditate, pray, play, plan the vacation of your dreams – even if you don’t believe you’ll ever really take it. Most of all focus on love. Look for stories about the people who are helping in the horrific situations we wake up to on the news every day.

Nothing in this world happens that is not first imagined. Contrary to what you may have been told as a child, daydreaming is not a bad thing, as long as we don’t stay there ALL the time. We need to envision the world we want to see – personally and socially in order for it to come to fruition. That’s the first step towards the solution. Then we come back to today and do what we can to move towards that vision.

“Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on.”

– Eckhart Tolle