Stay Soft

Stay soft.

Don’t let the colors of the past, paint your present.

Stay soft.

Don’t let your tomorrows steal from your todays.

Stay soft.

Feel your pains, frustrations, and anxieties, but don’t let them make a home in your heart.

Stay soft.

Know who you are, how you feel, what you need…and what the world needs, too.

Stay soft.

Remember there is only here and now.

Stay soft.

When you can, do what is loving because it resonates with Love.  When you can’t, do what is loving because it is the loving thing to do.

Stay soft.

Laugh.  Cry.  Be kind, generous, compassionate.

Stay soft in your heart.

Stay soft in your mind.

Stay soft in your thoughts.

Stay soft in your words.

Stay soft in your actions.

Stay soft.

Breathe.

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Rx: Negative Self-Thoughts

*Note:  The words “thoughts” and “feelings” are used interchangeably within this post.

Negative self-talk:  the subtle and gross unkind words we say to ourselves (silently or out loud).  Many of us are plagued by this at some point in our lives, if not regularly.  There are several schools of thoughts on how to combat this.  Today I will discuss two.

Name It

Psychological theories explore the idea of naming your thoughts and feelings.  This idea goes moves from saying the name of the emotion (which is a good starting point), to really naming the experience.  This allows us to face the thought/feeling and for it to become acknowledged, validated – giving ourselves permission to be experiencing it instead of avoiding it because it hurts (as is common with negative thoughts).  Isn’t our first step to overcoming a problem, identifying it?  This is the same thing.  An alcoholic admits, “I have a drinking problem,” and this acknowledgement opens the door for a myriad of next-steps.  Why?  Because we cannot address an issue when we are not willing to admit its an issue.  This requires a level of being deeply honest with ourselves and often naming things we do not want to name because just the thought hurts.  But there is freedom beyond this hurt.

Cultivate the Opposite

According to eastern philosophy (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), when we are experiencing negative thoughts or feelings, we can cultivate the opposite.  This is called “Pratipaksha Bhavanam.”   For example, if you are thinking, “I am stupid,” or “I am scared,” you will replace this with, “I am smart,” and “I am not scared!”  This is because thoughts become things.  Thoughts MATTER, they are matter.  They are real.  So, when you say, “I’m scared,” you perpetuate your fear.  But when you begin to say “I’m not scared,” you may slowly begin to believe this, and as you believe this it becomes real.  Take for example how fake smiling (or putting a pencil between your lips to mimic the action) can trick your brain into thinking you are happy.  Why?  Because when your mouth curves in that special way, your motor neurons send a message to your brain saying, “I am smiling, therefore I must be happy!”  We can do this with our thoughts, too.  We can create our own truths about ourselves – you do not have to be a victim to the automaticity, the habits, and the beliefs that your mind perpetuates.

So how do we know when to use what? When will it be to our benefit to Name It, and when will it be beneficial to Cultivate the Opposite when it comes to our negative self-thoughts?  I believe it is based on the circumstance.  When we need to move PAST or OVER a feeling, Cultivate the Opposite.  Why? Because there is a slight denying of our present state of feeling when you are saying the opposite.  When you think “I can’t do this,” but instead say, “I got this,” you are denying feeling the former thought.  You are not giving it space to exist.   This is useful when a particular thought does not serve you and you must overcome it.  It’s like saying, I see you, but I’m just gonna step over you and keep it moving.  Name It when you must move THROUGH a thought.  Why?  Because it requires understanding and acknowledging in order for us to investigate it and then to evolve from it.  It is like if our physical body aches, we cannot just ignore it or tell ourselves it doesn’t hurt – we inspect for the source, and say “Ah, my jaw hurts because I’ve been clenching it tightly all night – I should wear my mouth guard tonight when I sleep.”  When we Name It, we acknowledge its’ existence in order to heal from that very same place.  As you can tell, there is room for interpretation between these two.  We have to get real with ourselves (or if we have someone we trust that we can talk to) to decide which one will work.  In conclusion, when you must go THROUGH a thought or feeling (it requires deeper understanding) to heal, Name It.  When you can go OVER, UNDER, or AROUND it, Cultivate the Opposite.

Here is a personal example, scenario:  I’m getting older and I would really like to find someone to share my life with – to be in a relationship.  This is my desire.  To Name It, I can say “I am longing for a relationship.”  This is a good start but underneath this longing there is a deeper feeling – fear.   So instead, I might name the experience this way, “I am scared to end up alone.”  Now what if I try to Cultivate the Opposite?  I might say, “I’m not scared.  I will not end up alone!”   Can you tell which method might be more appropriate here?  Telling myself I won’t end up alone will not secure that I will find someone, it will not help me conquer this feeling.  Naming it is scarier – it feels much more vulnerable.  But this is not a feeling I need to conquer, simply one I need to say, “hey, I see you… And now that I see you, you have a little less power over me.”

Why is any of this important?  Because you are not your thoughts.  You are sooooo much more.  You are not your mind.  In fact, your mind has a mind of its’ own and you can decide which way it will go.  It can continue automatically as it has been, or you can choose.  You can decide which of your thoughts will become things and you can decide how, too.  Name It and Cultivate the Opposite are just two beginning tactics toward liberating yourself from your mind.

Mass Shootings, A Memo

On February 14th, 2018, seventeen people were killed in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.   Seventeen students and adults.  Students, at the beginning of their lives – going to a place that should be a safe haven for their minds AND bodies.  Adults who have dedicated their lives to these students – to help them learn, grow, and contribute meaningfully to their own communities one day.   Seventeen of them, gone.   All mass shootings are tragic regardless of who, where, or how many.  They all waste innocent lives.  This one has inspired me to say something.

I am an educator.  I work at a high school on an open campus (students walk outside between buildings, not in hallways within buildings).  Today, two days after this travesty, we had a drill.  This was not a planned drill and the staff didn’t know what was happening.  Students and staffed gossiped nervously about what was going on as we walked toward the football field, many of us looking around us for clues.  Several colleagues made statements such as, “this is scary” given the events of the days earlier.    I was scared too.  I still am.  Our students felt similarly.  After we were cleared to return to our respective spaces, an announcement indicated that an alarm was set off  after one of the water pipes had a leak.  Our assistant principal thanked all students and staff for remaining calm and shared that counselors were available in the front office for any students who may need to debrief given the tension and fear already in many of us from the event in Florida.  A memo was sent to worried parents.

People – this is is unacceptable.  There is no reason families, adults, or students should feel fear in a place where the purpose is to learn.  I have seen suggestions that police officers be stationed on school campuses.  A student’s ‘full time job’ is to get an education – how would you feel going to your full time job and needing to walk by a group of officers everyday, several times a day?  Additionally, would we station officers in other public spaces to prevent mass shootings?  How would we predict which cities, schools, and spaces require officers?  For both scenarios, where would the funding come from? Couldn’t this very funding go to creating policy and action for stricter gun access?

I have also seen posts on social media indicating that some schools will consider allowing their staff to be armed in the case of an emergency.  Would you feel safe if your son or daughters teacher was carrying a gun?  I certainly wouldn’t if it was my colleague and I happen to know and trust my colleagues more than the average parent will know their childrens’ educators.  If some of you say yes, I do not want to minimize your opinion but we need to consider who we are arming and the potential risks, such as the possibility of students accessing these on-campus guns.  Additionally, will the average person or teacher be trained to react in an emergency situation?  Police officers and the military go through extensive training to be effective in high-risk scenarios and there are still mistakes.  Are we willing to put our teachers in this position and, in general, to expect the same degree of responsibility from a civilian?  I am not saying that a brave individual cannot step up and lives, but this is not a tactic that we should be relying on to keep people safe.  What statistics exist suggesting that an individual with a consealed weapon has been able to prevent a mass shooting or decrease a death toll?

Next, as a school psychologist, I work with students who are diagnosed with or are being evaluated for Autism Spectrum Disorders, Learning Disabilities, ADHD, Anxiety, Panic Disorder, Depression, Oppositional Defiance Disorder, you name it.   As a trained mental health professional, there is no screening to say someone is likely to commit a crime or not.  We often use both formal (normed and standardized tests and rating scales) and informal (interviews, observations, clinical judgement) sources of data to inform our decisions to conclude that a person has this or that going on. But social and emotional functioning is not a hard science, it is an area with a lot of gray.  When we do identify a threat to self or others, it is our legal duty to report and act.  Please don’t ever think that school-based staff or mental health professionals already do not take these issues seriously.   Additionally, while I encourage our government to make mental health a priority, lets be careful not to conflate mental health with the availability and usage of guns.  According to a research article published by the NCBI, the percentage of crimes committed by mentally ill people account for less than 3-5% of all crimes, and accounts for even less of the percentage of crimes involving guns.  This means that we do not have evidence that those with mental illness are more likely to commit a crime, especially with a gun, than any other person. Moreover, a second article, states that “evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that suicide, not homicide, is the most significant public health concern in terms of guns and mental illness,” meaning that those with mental illness are much more likely to hurt themselves than someone else.  So while this argument about mental illness and guns has some validity (in terms of it being considered as part of a process for gun access), we need to be more mindful about how we are continuing to stigmatize mental illness more than it already is.  We need to support each other instead of pointing fingers, blaming, or making excuses.

I often hear gun supporters saying “Well if someone wants a gun they’ll find a way to get it.”  You’re right.  As the old adage goes, where there’s a will there’s a way.   I have also heard people say, “the increase in mass shootings seems related with the decreased parental discipline of current generations.”  I would like to address these statements and any other similar statements with the following:  1) correlation or a relationship does not imply causation, ie. x and y might be related but it does not mean x causes y 2) there is no retroactive way to change the home life and discipline that a person experienced growing up, instead we can focus on the present day problem – use and access of guns – and make sure we consider these different areas (mental health, moral character, personal history, history of infractions) when establishing regulations for access 3) it should not be the job of individuals, schools, or mental health agencies to protect the general population from gun violence when protection of the masses is the responsibility of the government and 4) it should not be the job of individuals, schools, or mental health agencies to supervise or regulate gun access when it is the responsibility of the government – just the same as how regulating food and drugs is the responsibility of the government.  Again, it is the governments job to protect its’ people.  It is the governments job to protect its’ people from forces outside of our country as much as it is to protect from forces inside of our country.  It is the governments’ job to protect our rights, but it is also their job to protect our livelihood.    Will we (mental health professionals and anyone else) help? OF COURSE.   But this is a top-down decision – create the legislation to restrict access, establish a screening and background check process and we will be there for you to do the grunt work.

So this is the question I am asking you all today:  At what point is our right to bear arms killing more people than it is protecting them?  Is it not possible for a citizens right to bear arms to coexist with gun laws restricting access to guns?

Comment your thoughts.

100 Miles to Joy

Have you heard this analogy before?

“Imagine there is a bank account that credits your account each morning with $86,400.  It carries over no balance from day to day.  Every evening the bank deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to use during the day.  What would you do do?  Draw out every cent, of course?  Each of us has such a bank.  Its name is time.  Every morning, it credits you with 86,400 seconds.  Eery night it writes off as lost, whatever of this you have failed to invest to a good purpose.  It carries over no balance.  It allows no over draft.  Each day it opens a new account for you.  Each night it burns the remains of the day.  If you fail to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours.  There is no drawing against “tomorrow.”  You must live in the present on today’s deposits.  Invest it so as to get from it the upmost in health, happiness and success.  The clock is running.  Make the most of today.”

Source – Unknown.

Pretty good right?  When you make time an easily accessible idea like money, suddenly how you use it and how you want to use it becomes much more clear.

What if we applied this concept to human energy?  Let’s pretend you get 100 miles on your car everyday.  The tank refills automatically every night, and that is the only time it can be refilled, so you can only go your 100 miles.  If you didn’t use any of your miles one day, you have a full tank ready to go for tomorrow.  If you run out of gas on the road, the amount of miles you had to use to make it back to your destination will be deducted from your miles for the next day.   You get equal milage on highways, traffic, backroads, etc (bear with me!) – so the only thing that matters is your 100 miles.

Now imagine all of the activities in your life that require energy whether mental energy, physical energy, emotional energy, or other.  The more energy that an activity requires, the more mileage it requires.

Here is a sample list:  Work – 70 miles, exercise – 10 miles, cooking/cleaning – 15 miles, taking care of pets – 5 miles.  Uh oh – no miles for a relationship today.  Should you minus 5 for tomorrow?  Or wait and configure your miles for the next day differently?

Here is a different example:  Work – 20 miles, children – 60 miles, spouse – 5 miles, housework – 10 miles, reading/self-care – 5 miles.  You decided your partner needed 10 miles to spice things up recently, where will that fit?  What about the online class you’re taking?  Or blog you were trying to keep up with?  How will the miles get used?  Today or tomorrow, or the next day?

Eventually, if you keep “borrowing” miles from the next day, you will be left with a day with only a few miles on it, and you might even need to take a break from behind the wheel.   So the big question is, are you satisfied with how you are using your miles?  If you are, that’s fantastic!  If you aren’t, where can you make some changes?  What patterns are you noticing in where your miles go and how it leaves “miles” for other activities?  Where is there room for miles to get used differently?

What if you had $86,400 in your bank account daily and 100 miles you could drive?  How would you use it?  How would you spend your time and energy?

 

From Indifference to Make a Difference

Last night I watched the 1970’s film “Big Little Man,” a socially conscious movie highlighting the differences between lives of early Americans and Native Americans, and the injustices to the latter.  After the movie ended, I felt deeply saddened and angry at the state of the world and at the historical and current injustices against certain groups both inside and outside of America.   I felt scared about the increasing tensions between the United States and North Korea and about the threat of nuclear war.  I felt gridlocked in my ability to change what seems to be a repetitive historical narrative of oppression, the power of power (the ability to influence others, especially tied to social status and ranking) and privilege (advantages granted to certain groups or individuals over others). The movie even made me feel gratitude for my family, the love in my life, and even for my privilege – that I am not in a group where most of these issues impact me directly.

Now, don’t misunderstand me – I am not discounting the great progresses that have been made in the world and in America over the years.   I recognize that change also requires a catalyst.  But I am frustrated at what can be done, at what can do.  What contributions can individuals make to make this planet better and more equitable for each of us?  How can we harness our goodness, our privilege, our power to do so?  It is so easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day of our lives.  It is easy to turn the other cheek because an issue is not affecting us.  It’s easy to not know what to do.  But let me tell you:

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(Photo credit: poster hung in a room for Malaria awareness)

So now, I’m asking you, dear Internet… What do we do to help?   If you think you’re too small to make a difference, remember that one becomes 2 and 2 becomes 3 and suddenly we have a caucus!   We can be vocal with our thoughts.  We can engage in thought-provoking conversations (not arguments) with others.  We can donate to organizations and not-for-profits?  What else can we do?  I want to know.  I want to know because I want to be a doer and not just a thinker.

When we are in relationships we are often told, “Actions speak louder than words.”  Well, we are in a relationship with each of our fellow beings and with our planet.  What are actions we can take to show we care?  What are the ways in which we can contribute?  What are ways in which you are already contributing?

“Now, we must all fear evil men.  But, there is another kind of evil which we must fear… and that is the indifference of good men.”  Boondock Saints 1999

 

Practicing Presence

Recently, my mom asked me about meditation.  She said, “I just don’t understand how to do it.  How do you turn your mind off, how do you clear it?”  For a long time, I had no idea.  It was an elusive concept that seemed extremely easy to say, but much harder to put into practice.  How do you live in the moment? Do you let the moment guide you and your decisions? Live based off of your impulses?

Well, I’ve been exploring this concept and concentrating on applying it in my life.  Here are some practical tips I’ve practiced that have made this slippery concept more tangible:

  1. Focus on what is happening right now.  Who are you around?  Where are you?  What are the different stimuli your senses are taking in (what do you see, hear, feel, smell, or even taste?).
  2. Do not focus on what is not.  Let go of your hopes, expectations, or anything else your mind has created for wherever you are right now and get back to what is actually happening.  Accept that.  If you have a thought that creeps in, “Well I was hoping this potluck was going to have more vegetarian options,” tell yourself OH WELL!  Check out actuality instead and make your next move based on that.
  3. Catch yourself when you start drifting away from the moment.  Our thoughts and emotions are often developing so automatically, that this can be the most difficult step.  Recognize when you stopped taking in the outside world and when thoughts, often judgement, creep in (“I can’t believe she did that!”), or when emotion is building (stomach in knots).  When you recognize them, say hello, and then consciously focus back on the moment.  You may find yourself floating back to your thoughts and feelings, and that’s OKAY!  It takes practice.
  4. Be kind to yourself.  Practicing presence is like getting to know yourself all over again – you are re-wiring yourself to experience life differently.  It takes time and practice, be patient.

Overall, being present does not suggest abandonment of oneself.  It suggests staying in tune with the moment, in tune and in check with yourself, and taking it all one step at a time.  Yes, “Carpe Diem!,” seize the day, live (and love) now because tomorrow is not promised.  But don’t worry! You will not become a vagabond running rampant.  When letting go of your thoughts, judgments, expectations, fears, worries, doubts, etc, you are not letting go of you.  In fact, presence will likely bring you closer to your true self, while alloying you to shed all of the created conceptions of your identity.   You become the “I am,” and lose the, “I think I am,” “I should be,” and “I want to be.”

 
“Watch your thoughts, they become words.  Watch your words, they become actions.  Watch your actions, they become habits.  Watch your habits, they become your character.  Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”  –Lao Tzu

Live Now or Forever Delay Your Peace

When my boyfriend in high school cheated on me with a long-time family friend, I thought a part of me died.   For a long time (five years) I didn’t dare let another man get close – in fact, it even impacted my friendships with other women.   A part of me had died – the trusting, forgiving, vulnerable being.  I felt violated, and thought of myself as a victim in a cold, cruel, unfair world that was love.

Trust, or distrust I should say, has continued to dominate aspects of my personal life.  It’s difficult to say whether I may take some twisted sort of pleasure in being the victim, or if the thought of my personal victimhood has been so pervasive in my self-narrative that it has become part of my identity.

In Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now, he discusses the following idea which forced me to question my created reality as victim:

“What you think of as the past is a memory trace, stored in the mind, of a former Now.  When you remember the past, you reactivate a memory trace… The future is an imagined Now, a projection of the mind… Past and future obviously have no reality of their own.  Just as the moon has no light of its own, but can only reflect the light of the sun, so are past and future only pale reflections of the light, power, and reality of the eternal present.  Their reality is “borrowed” from the Now.”

The idea here is that, all that exists in our lives is the current moment.  Each passing moment, is the only reality that is real, alive, and breathing.    The past is a memory and only exists in mind.  Similarly, the future has not yet been created and also only exists in mind.  Therefore, the present is all and everything that we have.

I speak specifically of the past when I say that yes our experiences shape who we are in the present.  But it is the existence and moreover the persistence of our thoughts that allow those experiences and the attached beliefs to live on.  If I continue to believe in and engage in my thoughts of victimhood, I allow this past to endure and to exist in my current reality, in my “Now.”   The fire burns because I fuel it.

In this sense, we are both the cause and the solution to our problems.  This can be terrifying but it is also empowering.  It suggests that while the world around us is largely outside of our control, our thoughts, beliefs, and reactions are within our control – that our very thoughts are what molds our realities, our “Now’s.”  While I could not control the actions of my ex-boyfriend or friend, I have the power to prevent the memory from poisoning my current reality.  We are the deciders of our happiness, our depression, our serenity, our anxiety, or any other emotion.  When we can control our thinking (instead of letting our thoughts run amuck), we become oriented to and connected to the present moment.  Despite what is without us, peace and joy can still be found within us if we choose them and allow them to be.

So, what would happen if we stopped feeding our fires?  Would they go out?  Would they cease to burn? Well, I’m ready to find out – but I believe that eventually, yes!