Most of us live in an either or mindset. Things are going well or badly. We’re happy or sad. There is peace or chaos. Our brain and our culture like to put things in a box so we can make sense of the world. I see this daily with my clients. Someone will come in declaring their week was horrible, but by the end of the session we’ve identified many positive experiences. Or, a client says their partner has changed and is now loving and supportive, and they overlook the stitches, bruises and terror they’ve experienced in the past.
No matter what our perception is, the world is too massive and beautifully complex to be either or. When we open our minds and hearts and soften our focus, we can begin to embrace the paradox. Life is always both, and, and Hurricane Florence made this more evident to me.
The first place I noticed this paradox was in myself, specifically my anxiety. It escalated in the days prior to Florence, partially fueled by memories of what I saw and heard during my time as a crisis counselor in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. Ultimately my anxiety provided me with both a challenge and some assistance. I barely slept and couldn’t eat much as we prepared to evacuate. It was difficult to focus and sometimes I literally walked around in circles in our condo, forgetting what I was doing. Thankfully, I became aware of what was happening, pulled myself into the present moment, and looked for where I had control.
I channelled my nervous energy into packing and gathering supplies. All my favorite clothes and sentimental items were packed neatly into bags that I arranged perfectly in the back of my Subaru. We had flashlights, batteries and emergency packages of food to take on our evacuation drive. I had enough water to hydrate the Brady Bunch and calories to sustain us for a week (yes I calculated that out). Thankfully, I was over prepared, but my anxiety incited me to take control where I could which ultimately decreased my stress. I also don’t have to buy water or snacks for the next month.
We evacuated for three days, and when I returned home I experienced both gratitude and grief. I was grateful our home was dry (we only lost ductwork and HVAC) and friends and loved ones were safe, but I grieved the physical devastation of my beloved hometown, and the huge losses friends and neighbors suffered. At times my grief morphed into guilt and I felt both grateful for my dry home, good insurance, financial security and guilty that others were suffering with fewer resources to assist them. Sometimes it was difficult to hold all these feelings at once and I was thankful for the simple task of picking up shingles and dragging limbs to distract me.
The immediate recovery after Florence was not an either or situation either. It provided both complexity and simplicity. Everyday activities like getting gas and groceries, charging our phones and sending emails took more time and effort than usual. In addition there was the complicated and confusing process of calling insurance companies, filing claims, and requesting quotes for repairs. In this midst of this, things were also simplified. That first week after Florence I worked outside during the day, and in the evening sat with my husband as we cooked on the grill. When it was dark I slept. When it was light I got up. There was no where to go and nothing to do except the cleanup tasks in front of me. I couldn’t have done it forever, but I enjoyed the simplicity of spending all day outside with my husband doing physical work, simple meals cooked on the grill and sound sleep with no electronic distractions.
The paradox of Hurricane Florence was also evident in my community. Florence brought both destruction and beauty to Pamlico County. Trees were thrown like pick up sticks, piers crumpled or gone, homes and businesses destroyed by floodwaters, and then there was the quiet stealth of mold making homes unlivable. In the midst of the destruction that devastated many lives, there was also beauty; neighbors and strangers helping one another, lineman from across the country working 18 hour days to restore power, money, time, cleanup supplies, and food readily donated to help those in need, a perfect sunrise just beyond the pile of debris. In the middle of the loss and suffering was love, beauty and resilience.
The recovery from Hurricane Florence will take a long time. Restored power and internet, clear roadways, and access to gas and groceries has created some sense of normalcy, but the reconstruction, financial strain and emotional stress will not be resolved for a while. As we move forward after the hurricane, it’s important to take both action and inaction. We need to repair our homes, attend to insurance issues and help those in need, but this must be balanced with self care or we will burnout. It’s important to return to healthy sleep and exercise habits, a diet full of fruits and vegetable and to participate in the spiritual practices that sustain us. Each day we should look for things to be grateful for and focus on where we have control in the moment.
I challenge you to open your mind and heart, and soften your focus so you can see things as both and, instead of either or. We must acknowledge the challenges we face so we can overcome them, and improve our life and the lives of others, while simultaneously embracing the beauty, grace and love that is available, as this is what will sustain us as we recover from Hurricane Florence.
“I just want to be happy.” Eighty five percent of the time my clients say this when I ask them to summarize their counseling goals. I don’t correct them in that moment, but, “just being happy” is a goal with limits. Unfortunately it’s what many people aim for. Trying to “just be happy” can contribute to addiction as we look for quick fixes of happiness in food, alcohol, drugs, sex and shopping. Sometimes we believe we’ll be happy when we reach a goal like weight loss, a new relationship, our dream job, a bigger house. But this doesn’t achieve what we want either.
How we feel in the moment, and achieving things, are components of a good life, but the field of positive psychology has identified additional factors, and elevates the goal of “just being happy” to flourishing. Dr. Lynn Sotts, a positive psychologist, describes flourishing as “the product of the pursuit and engagement of an authentic life, that brings inner joy and happiness through meeting goals, and being connected with life passions, and relishing in accomplishments through the peaks and valleys of life.” The construct of flourishing was first identified by Dr. Martin Seligman and consists of five factors:
Accomplishment I feel a sense of accomplishment at completing two novels, but I also feel this every day when I’ve made the time to write or when I notice a small improvement in my skills. Pushing my comfort zone with public speaking, and marketing and promoting my books, has also contributed to feeling accomplished.
Engagement Writing helps me engage with both my inner and outer worlds. On a good day of writing, when I’m fully immersed in my plot, or finding the most eloquent way to express something, I’m engaged with my inner world. When I’m connecting with readers at book clubs or a reading, talking with my publisher, or coordinating marketing events with promoters, I’m engaging with the outer world. Sharing my writing and contributing my ideas, vision and creativity is also a form of engagement with the world.
Relationships I met two of my dearest friends 11 years ago, at my first writing workshop. Since then we’ve shared writing, reading and our lives in a deep way and I’m eternally grateful to have them in my life. Writing has also given me meaningful, brief relationships with my readers through emails or conversations about how my book(s) touched their lives. Though writing, I’ve also developed a more meaningful relationship with myself. Completing and publishing two novels revealed both my strengths and challenges. I was acutely aware of how I hold myself back with self doubt, self criticism, and feeling unworthy. I also found I have more creativity, courage and perseverance then I ever realized.
Meaning Knowing that my life, and my writing in some way, however small, has had a positive impact on another human being gives my life meaning. This broad sense of meaning permeates my daily life and provides the motivation to continue to write and not give in to self doubt.
Positive Emotions Ah, finally, we’re at the “just being happy part”, but it still isn’t that simple. Happiness, joy, peace, excitement are all positive emotions I’ve experienced in relation to my writing, but I’ve also experienced a great deal of negative ones: disappointment, loneliness, self doubt, anger, and frustration. The positive emotions certainly override the negative ones or I wouldn’t be a writer today, but it’s important to note that in the midst of a flourishing life, negative emotions are expected and not a reason to give up.
The emotion most strongly associated with my writing is not happiness. It’s peace. Knowing that I’m following through with what I’m meant to do and sharing it with with the world, despite the obstacles, gives me a sense of peace and authenticity. When I go long periods of time without writing, I experience dis-ease, because I’m not devoting time and energy to my passion and to one of the reasons I was put here on Earth.
I encourage you to look at your life through the lens of flourishing. Look for experiences and outlets that bring meaning, engagement, accomplishment, relationships and positive emotions into your life. Don’t settle for “just being happy”. Tap into your perseverance and resilience and create a life that flourishes.
P.S. When I finished this blog I felt HAPPY:)
Here are some resources to learn more about positive psychology and flourishing:
A couple weeks ago I spent three days in silence. I booked a retreat at The Trinity Center in Salter Path, N.C. after recognizing I was burned out. Lack of motivation, irritability, sadness, tearfulness and difficulty concentrating are easy symptoms to recognize in my clients, but more difficult to identify in myself and I let them linger too long. I thought my daily self care of a healthy diet, regular exercise, and 7-8 hours of sleep, would inoculate me against burn out, but it didn’t. When I cried on the way into work one Monday, I knew I had to take time away from my usual routine.
The silence, solitude and time by the ocean was balm for my frazzled spirit. Without the distraction of verbal conversations, text messages, Facebook and emails, the connection to my wise inner voice was stronger. I gained clarity and insight into my life and wanted to share one of the most powerful lessons I learned while on retreat. I waste too much time checking, shoulding, and worrying, and this interferes with the forward progress of my life.
Checking. With my phone off for three days, I was painfully aware of how often I pick it up to check things; things like personal voicemail and texts, work voicemail and texts, the wind speed on Saturday, the current temperature, how many likes my sunrise picture got on Facebook. Sometimes I scroll Facebook checking nothing in particular and gathering information that has little bearing on my life. The constant flow of information and images to my brain acts as a stimulant making it difficult to relax and concentrate. The checking, clicking, deleting, and scrolling hijacks my time and attention and prevents me from taking action towards my goals and dreams.
Shoulding. “You should set your alarm and get up at 5:30am”,“You should walk farther on the beach”, “You should leave the retreat with a blog to post.” These are just a few examples of the shoulding I did during my retreat. I had no agenda there other than to relax, but even then my task master was issuing orders. Each time a should statement was dispensed it took me out of the moment and into an internal debate about the proper course of action. Walking beside the ocean with nowhere to be and nothing to do I created discord. Luckily, during my retreat I quickly identified the should statements and ignored them. In my daily life though, when I’m less mindful, I spend too much time engaging with should statements. This is never productive and usually ends in harsh self criticism. When this happens I lose faith in myself and don’t believe I’m capable of achieving my goals. Forward progress stops while I lament my character defects.
Worrying. I know I worry. I understand what a colossal waste of time and energy it is but I come from a long line of worriers and am well trained. My retreat allowed me to step away from my life and examine it somewhat objectively, like I do with my clients. From this perspective I was able to see the impact worrying has had on my life. I was sad about all the time I’ve wasted living in the my head and not living my life. Sure, there are plenty of things I need to address, but the ruminating, and the anxiety it creates, depletes my time and energy and leaves little left for my goals and dreams.
In their own way, each of these bad habits robs of me of time. They pull me out of the moment and increase my stress. Time has never been a limiting factor for achieving my dreams before, experience, intelligence, motivation, opportunity, self esteem yes, but never time. My 50th birthday and a five day hospital stay last fall made it clear that my time here is limited and I must use it wisely.
I love the line from James Broughton’s poem, Easter Exultet that says “Run with your wildfire. You are closer to glory leaping an abyss than upholstering your rut”. Checking, shoulding and worrying are upholstering my rut and wasting my time. I need to change this pattern so I have the energy to leap the abyss that stands between me and my dreams.
So what will I do?
Checking. Thankfully, going cold turkey form my phone automatically reduced this. Some of my checking was due to FOMO (fear of missing out); fear of missing an important email or text, fear that something important was happening in the world or in someone else’s life, fear there was an opportunity I may miss. My retreat showed me I’m actually missing out on my own life with all the checking, not the other way around. Some changes I’ve made are to unsubscribe to over 50 emails to save time checking and deleting, to only scroll through Facebook once a day, to set my do not disturb on my phone form 8pm - 6 am, and to physically put my phone at the back of the house so it’s more difficult to check on things.
Shoulding. Once I identify I’ve made a should statement, or that I’ve already begun debating one, I’ve found several helpful options to derail this. One is to label the should statement and ignore it, like when my alarm goes off at 4:45am and my inner voice says “You should go back to sleep”. Thirty years of early morning exercise has taught me that I never regret getting up, so I do. Sometimes a should statement arises because I’m ambiguous about something like, “You should get a new certification in counseling.” I will avoid an internal debate to determine the best course of action and be proactive. In this case journaling, meditating, listing pros and cons and paying attention to my intuition will be helpful. The most insidious type of should statement is the judgmental one, like, “You should make more money.” I need to address this type immediately to avoid an avalanche of self criticism. The most powerful way to do this is by using I am statements. “I am working hard doing meaning work,” would be one to challenge the above statement. I will repeat my I am statement several times and then bring my attention back to the moment.
Worrying. A new strategy I’ll use in my life long effort to reduce worrying, is a daily practice of meditation, even if only for a couple minutes a day. Besides being the best way to practice mindfulness, it also connects me to something greater than myself and keeps my worries in perspective. When I notice I’m worrying I’ll label this behavior and then challenge myself by asking, “Is this thought leading me towards my goals and dreams?” Most likely it’s not and at this point I’ll either refocus my attention or take action to address the cause of the worry. Finally, I’ll remind myself of my retreat and the the grief I experienced about losing a part of my life to anxiety.
I won’t be perfect in my efforts to change, especially when I’m under stress, but I’m hopeful these new behaviors will allow me to reclaim my time from the checking, shoulding, and worrying. The next time I read Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, and she asks, “Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is your plan to do with your one, wild and precious life”, I can answer that my plan is to maintain inner peace and use my time and energy to love and serve others.
P.S. I also decided I waste too much time straightening my hair so my curls are back.
It all started because I was looking up at the stars on my 5am run. Their beauty and timelessness, and my body moving easily through the dark, silent morning, made me feel insignificant yet connected to all that is. Suddenly pavement hit me in the face and pain erupted in my knee. In hindsight I thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s quote, “we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Thanks to a small pothole, I went from experiencing a spiritual connection to being painfully aware that I was a mere mortal in a human body.
I thought this story would end with my skinned and bruised knee healing and a return to full activity. In fact, after running four miles pain free five weeks later, it seemed this was the case. Two hours after my run that day, my knee began swelling and became hot and painful. Urgent Care diagnosed infection. Long story short, I failed 3 days of outpatient antibiotic treatment and on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving was admitted to the hospital. I was discharged after 5 days of IV antibiotic therapy and a minor surgery to drain my knee.
I’m aware that my experience was insignificant compared to others’, but for someone who hadn’t been to the hospital since a tonsillectomy at the age of 4, it was a significant event to me. I tried my best to be a non-judgmental observer, both of my own reactions to a less then optimal Thanksgiving environment, and to what was happening around me. This worked most of the time. But alone at night, my room bathed in the glow from the infusion pump, and unable to move my left leg because of swelling or my right arm because of the IV, I cried. What if the infection goes into my bones or blood? What if I can’t run or paddle again? What will happen to my business if I can’t work for a while? Why can’t I just go home with my husband and dog and have Thanksgiving?
After giving myself permission to have a small pity party, I was able to go to sleep. In the mornings I returned to observer mode and was alert for the lessons to be gained from this experience. Some were immediately evident, and some have come to light as I processed my hospital stay. Besides being discharged on the mend, with no long term impacts, I also left the hospital with these insights:
1. The coping skills I teach my clients actually work. I’ve been practicing mindfulness for many years and found this to be invaluable in coping with my illness and hospitalization. Jon Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” So, being fully present in a hospital room with a swollen leg doesn’t sound like much fun, but it did work. I promise. I focused on the nonjudgmental part and monitored my self talk. I tried not to say this is horrible, why is this happening, etc but would say instead, without judgement, “Isn’t this interesting? I’m a healthy person in a hospital”. The phrase, “isn’t this interesting” opened the door to observation rather then suffering about why these things were happening.
Mindfulness pulled me into the moment when I used a newer coping skill, coloring. Exercise and nature are usually my go to strategies, but besides looking out the window and hobbling down the hall, they were not as helpful here. I found great solace in coloring while listening to music. In these moments my mind was focused on the lyrics of a favorite song and what color I would use next and I wasn’t able to worry, or lament that I wasn’t out paddle boarding. My focus was on something I had control of in that moment.
Being mindful also allowed me to practice gratitude and notice the blessings despite the circumstances; my wonderful husband with a smoothy from Panera, the laughter of my nurse’s aide, the sunset behind Walgreens drug store. Having a needle stuck in my arm at 3am was not pleasant, but being gently awoken by my phlebotomist humming was. Where we put our attention makes all the difference and grace is available in every moment if we look for it. “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
2. Small gestures of kindness matter immensely. During my hospital stay I was on the receiving end of care, not where I’m comfortable. I don’t even like asking my husband to help put my paddle board on the car, but being in pain and scared made me receptive to the help of others. Several times during my stay I was moved to tears by the kindness and compassion that my loved ones and the hospital staff showed me. I experienced the impact a kind word, text message, authentic smile or simple gesture like filling my water bottle had. These small acts of kindness were as healing to me as the vancomycin and surgery, and this was an epiphany.
As a therapist I’m familiar with the research on the power of compassion, but I’d always minimized my impact on others, uncertain that I could make a difference. Now I know otherwise. I will continue to be mindful of my interactions with my clients and look for more opportunities to reach out to others in my personal life. I will not discount the impact my words, presence or physical help has on others. I’ve experienced first hand that the exchange of love and compassion is powerful, and I believe if this is done more regularly, it can change the world. It definitely changed mine. “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
3. I am not invincible. My body can get injured and sick no matter how well I take care of it. I believed, or wanted to believe, that regular exercise, a vegan diet, adequate sleep, managing my stress and supportive relationships would protect by body. I thought I was invulnerable, so why couldn't I fight off an infection? The best answer the medical staff could give was, “this just happens sometimes.” My rational brain knew this was true because I’d witnessed it in my personal and professional lives, seemingly healthy people who have a sudden brain hemorrhage, or an accident that leaves them paralyzed or cancer that takes their life way to early. But not me, I’m different.
But I’m not.
Lying in a hospital bed, my leg inflated to twice it’s normal size and the red tendrils of infection creeping north and south of my knee, it was obvious I’m not invincible. It was also the first time that I understood, not just with my mind, but with my body and spirit that I am going to die. One day my body will fail and I won’t recover, and like the bear, the field mouse, the eagle and the trees, my body will die and return to the earth. But that is not the end. “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
I wouldn’t have asked for a five day hospital stay over Thanksgiving but I’m grateful for the wisdom I gained from the experience. I knew before this that mindfulness is a heathy coping skill, that compassion is good and that I am going to die. But now, I understand these things not just with my intellect, but with my heart, spirit and body.
Soon I will be back to my 5am runs. Will I still look up at the stars? Yes. Will I fall again? Probably. But that is the nature of life. “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
I’ve never thought of myself as an activist. I donate money to causes I support and occasionally take action, like serving on the board of a non-profit in my community. But I consider my work as a counselor my primary contribution to society. Here, one person at a time, I help my clients function at a more optimal level so they can make a positive difference in the world.
Conserving my emotional energy for my work in mental health is one reason I haven’t been more engaged in political and social issues. Another is that I’ve never believed I had the power to change things at the macro level. It’s difficult enough to change one person’s behavior so taking on governmental policies, cultural norms, and corporate greed felt overwhelming. And finally, white, heterosexual privilege insulated me from the immediate impact of many social issues. I’ve always had clean water to drink. I don’t worry about my 18 year old nephew getting shot during a routine traffic stop. No matter who gets appointed to the Supreme Court I will still be married to the person I love.
My perspective changed on November 8. The language, behavior and priorities of the incoming administration frightened me and didn’t reflect my values. After the election I did my best to stay focused on areas I had control over, but my one person at a time approach didn’t feel adequate for the circumstances. A week after the election I heard about the Women’s March on Washington. Its mission supported issues important to me and I decided to attend. To quote Gloria Steinem, I decided to “put my body where my beliefs were.”
On Saturday January 21 I stood for seven hours in one place, with four people I love and surrounded by over a half a million others. The crowd was energized, peaceful and kind. I listened to impassioned speakers ranging from 82 year old Gloria Steinem to 8 year old Sophie Cruz. The entire experience was overwhelming and I drove home from from D.C. buzzing with the energy I’d absorbed. I was empowered! I could make a difference!
I began the week calling senators, sending postcards and reading the news multiple times a day. The week progressed. Fueled by emails and Facebook posts telling me what was wrong and what I could do about it, I called my senators again and kept reading the news. By the end of the week I had difficulty concentrating and racing thoughts about the issues in my Facebook feed. I cried. Did I really have power? The energy I’d soaked up at the march was now scattered and unfocused, creating anxiety and helplessness instead of empowerment. I didn’t like this feeling.
How can I be an activist without sacrificing my internal peace?
I turned to someone wiser then me for help. The second core principle of Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation is: “We need a contemplative mind in order to do compassionate action”. He defines contemplation as “a panoramic, receptive awareness whereby you take in all the situation ….without judging, eliminating, or labeling anything up or down, good or bad”. I was not acting from a contemplative place but simply reacting to directives from my emails and Facebook feed. I was motivated more by fear of what could happen then out of compassion for those impacted. Behaviors motivated by fear, no matter how well intentioned, still ignite our stress response system and this is what created my anxiety, irritability and helplessness at the end of last week.
There are different strategies to reduce the stress response and create a contemplative, quiet mind and I’ve found that limiting my consumption of news, meditating and spending time in nature work for me. Thankfully I’m outside every day exercising and walking my dog so that’s already in my schedule. This week I’ve added 10 minutes of meditation in the morning and evenings. I’m also being selective about where I get my news and going to primary news sources rather then clicking on articles posted on Facebook. My next step is to set a time limit on when I read the news. Most likely this will be over breakfast and again early evening with time to decompress before bed.
Now that I’m spending more time in a contemplative mind state and racing thoughts aren’t clouding my judgement I’m in a better place to decide what compassionate action I want to take. But how do I chose? There are a multitude of worthy issues to support. Jean Shinoda Bolen, Jungian analyst, provides some direction in her book, Like a Tree; How Trees, Women, and Tree People Can Save the Planet”. Here she says, “..it is important to take on what you recognize as your particular assignment and not something others say you ought to do. …You can recognize your assignment by your answers to these three questions: Is this meaningful? Will it be fun? (i.e. surrounded by good people; able to use your creativity) Is it motivated by love?”
Using Dr. Bolen’s three questions I will discern what issues are most important to me. From there I’ll use a combination of research, journaling and meditation to determine what action steps I want to take. It may be a call to my legislators regarding one of my top issues, attending another march, volunteering locally or writing a blog post. It may be as simple as carrying a peaceful and compassionate heart through my day.
A positive outcome of our current political environment is more people are standing up for what they believe in. My hope is that everyone will take time to first create a sense of peace in their own life and then choose how to act compassionately to promote their values. The more people (liberal or conservative) focused on supporting what they believe in, rather then fighting against what they hate, the better our country and the world will be.
I will close with a quote from Bill Plotkin’s book Soulcraft. I return to this again and again when I find myself jumping between people and issues I want to help and support. “It’s not possible to save the world by trying to save it. You need to find what is genuinely yours to offer before you can make it a better place. Discovering your unique gift to bring to your community is your greatest opportunity and challenge. The offering of that gift - your true self - is the most you can do to love and serve the world. And it is all the world needs.”
Please take time to quiet your mind, discern your priorities and take compassionate action using your unique gift.
Summer has 3 more weeks but she is starting to fade. I was inspired to write this poem after eating a mediocre peach and melon for lunch and then walking my dog Maya. The trees, shrubs and even the grasses seem to be tired from the heat.
THE MIDDLING TIME
Melons, blueberries and peaches,
A bruised, diluted version of July perfection.
Heat and moisture, the forces that coaxed them to their peak,
Force their retirement.
Flower beds, once a flashmob of color,
Now a scattering of protestors, brown heads hanging,
Resisting the change.
The trees sense the longer nights.
Their leaves hungry for chlorophyll.
Tired in their struggle and
Unaware their grand finale will be as stunning as their debut.
In this middling time, Mother Nature refills her palette.
And the pumpkin waits.
Paddling on the Neuse River brings me great joy. Last week I went out on my stand up paddle board at dawn. I watched the sun rise, the osprey fish and the dolphins play in the pink light. I paddled for over an hour, grateful for a healthy body, good balance and the cup of coffee waiting for me at home. Life was good.
But was it?
I went into work. A client recently diagnosed with ALS wiped her tears by lowering her head to the Kleenex in her hand; she could no longer lift her arms; another client recounted over twenty years of physical and emotional abuse beginning at the age of nine; a third was reeling from the infidelity of a partner. At the end of the day I reflected on my morning. How could I have been happy when there was so much suffering? Many of my clients rarely experience positive emotions. A good day may simply be a decrease in the intensity of their depression, grief, anxiety, or maybe feeling neutral but rarely something as positive as what I’d felt that morning.
Every few years I wrestle with this conundrum. How can I authentically express joy when I’m acutely aware of other’s pain? Is it OK to sing in the shower or laugh until I have a stomach ache when I know others can’t shower without help or don’t even remember the last time they laughed? And these are just the people I personally know. What about the struggles of the Syrian refugees, young girls sold as sex slaves, victims of the war in Sudan and of course I could go on. Often in a moment of happiness, guilt washes over me when I think of others coping with huge challenges. As I strive to be compassionate and decrease the suffering of others can I contain their pain, as well as my own, while simultaneously experiencing joy?
If I look to our society for the answer it seems I should pick joy or suffering. We live in a dualistic culture where things need to be either one way or the other: good or evil, same or different, liberal or conservative, happy or sad. As I gain life experience I feel this perspective contributes to suffering, both personally and globally. The answer lies in the non-dual approach, yes and, instead of either or. Yes I can be emphatic with my clients, and I can fully experience the beauty, love and happiness in the world. In fact I have to in order to be of use to others.
If I come into work overwhelmed with my clients' experiences and the atrocities happening around the world, I have little to offer. How can I shine a ray of hope into the lives of others when it’s extinguished in me? Mahatma Gandhi said it perfectly, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. If I want others to experience love, peace and beauty it’s imperative I also do this. Feeling guilty and overwhelmed turns the focus to me and my emotional state rather then outward to those people and situations I’m trying to transform.
Recent research supports the value of positive emotions in impacting change. The broaden and build theory, introduced by Barbara Fredrickson, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, poses that positive emotions trigger broadened, curious, and optimistic patterns of thought, together with more spontaneous and energetic behavior. Emotional states such as joy, serenity, gratitude, love and awe improve our problem solving skills, help us learn new information, create greater social bonds, and promote resilience and optimism. These attributes give us the tools needed to create positive change at a individual and global level. The social contagion theory is another line of research supporting the benefits of a positive mood. It states that our emotions have the power to influence those around us. We can change lives for the better simply by walking out the door in a state of gratitude or peace. We’ve all experienced this when our mood shifts because of who we’re with.
The challenge here is that in order to authentically experience the full spectrum of positive emotions so that we have the hope and energy to help others, we also have to experience the negative ones. They come from the same source. We can turn down the volume on emotional pain but that also mutes our ability to experience joy. It’s important to allow ourselves to feel sadness, grief, and anger, knowing that the negative feelings will ebb and flow depending on their intensity, but eventually subside. As we allow the negative emotions to flow through us, rather than stagnate, we create the space for the positive ones.
Our natural instinct is to avoid pain, so without conscious intention we push our difficult feelings aside. Our busy schedules, Netflix and social media are only too happy to help with this. In order to process pain and create joy, we need daily practices that connect us with our feelings. These practices vary widely depending on the person but can include mindfulness, talking to a friend or therapist, gratitude, journaling, creating art, spending time in nature, exercising or spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation.
Let in the the joy and suffering and embrace the paradox that is life. Yes there is abuse, hunger and sickness in our world and there is awe inspiring beauty, acts of kindness and great love. Yes I can cry for a client on the way home from work and I can dance in the kitchen with my labrador while I make dinner that night. To live a meaningful life and positively impact others, we must not deny the pain or feel guilty about the joy. The pain tells us there is something wrong and the joy gives us the hope and energy to do something about it.
I love a routine. It helps me get things accomplished, helps me maintain healthy habits like exercising, getting eight hours of sleep, keeping regular meal times. If you ask me what I’m doing at 10 a.m. on a particular day, I can usually tell you: Tuesday I’ll be with a client; Wednesday, writing; Saturday cleaning the house. On most Friday nights my husband and I will be eating pizza at The Silos in Oriental.
Having a routine keeps life predictable and safe. In times of heightened stress or during a crisis a solid routine can maintain our sanity, but like anything, moderation is key. Safe and predictable also keeps us in our comfort zone. We don’t grow, change or learn if we linger here long.
Too rigid a routine and life can dull and lose its luster. I often have clients say, “My life is so good. I don’t know why I’m depressed.” Further exploration reveals all their basic needs are being met. They’re even enjoying themselves on occasion but there is no challenge, no spontaneity. Life is most fulfilling when we have moments of living at the edge of our comfort zone. This is sometimes referred to as the flow state, where a challenge meets or slightly exceeds our abilities.
Since moving to Oriental I’ve become an avid stand-up paddle boarder. When I began, simply standing on my board and paddling in calm water put me at the edge of my comfort zone. I was quickly captivated by the sport partly because every time I got on the board I had the opportunity to push myself into new territory. Soon I increased my distance, paddled in white caps, competed in races. I felt invigorated, even when I was scared.
In the cold last winter, a warm, sunny paddle around Key West in the spring sounded inviting. In January, I signed up for the 13 mile Key West Classic and May seemed a long way off, until it wasn’t. I read the course description again: start in the Atlantic Ocean then enter the Gulf of Mexico! What was I thinking? This was a far cry from Smith and Green Creeks in Pamlico County. They’re protected and close to home, in other words, in my comfort zone.
Two weeks before the race I couldn’t sleep imagining ocean swells, waves, and strong winds. Would I finish? Would I fall off every five minutes? Would I end up in Cuba? I’ve counseled people through more difficult issues, but I needed help I called a sports psychologist friend and we talked about visualization and calming mantras and he reminded me that, "It’s only a paddle board race.”
Finally it was race day. The gun went off and I paddled. I paddled over bigger swells then I’d ever encountered. I paddled on my right side for an hour because of the wind. I paddled through fatigue and muscle cramps, never fully certain I would finish. I was literally at the edge of my comfort zone.
Three hours later I rounded a corner and saw the finish line. Music blared from the speakers and the crowd cheered. I’d done it! I cried, hopped off my board and ran under the arch of balloons on the beach. When I look back at that day I remember the color of the water, the angle of the sun at the finish,, the feel of the sand on my feet, the hugs from my husband and paddle friends, and the extreme joy and pride at accomplishing my goal. My experience was captured vividly in memory because at that moment I was fully alive, something that doesn’t occur in a predictable routine.
Pushing my physical limits comes more easily than stepping outside my comfort zone in other areas. Thankfully the success I’ve had in this realm contributes to my overall self confidence and emboldens me push myself in other areas: to say no because I want to, ask someone I’ve just met to lunch, or follow through with new avenues to promote my novel, Hungry Mother Creek. Who knows, one day I may even order something besides pizza at The Silos.
My experience and the wisdom I’ve gained from counseling my clients has revealed strategies that may help propel you out of your comfort zone.
Once you’ve successfully expanded the limits of your comfort zone, celebrate! Savor your success and enjoy the gifts your change has brought but don’t become complacent. Be alert for the nagging feeling that something is missing in your life. That’s your signal it’s time to grow again.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
This week I’ve been coming off the high of an amazing weekend, Chattajack 31 paddle board race. For those of you not familiar, this is a 31 mile paddle race on the Tennessee River. It starts in downtown Chattanooga and winds through the Tennessee River Gorge, dressed for fall in red, orange and yellow. For the past 6 months this race has been a primary focus. I’ve planned weekends around long training paddles, gotten advice from veteran racers, shared fears and expectations with other first timers. The weekend itself was intense, fun and best of all shared with fantastic people. Now that I’m back to real life I’m experiencing Chattajack depression or post event let down (PELD). Obviously I’m grieving the end of something highly anticipated but I was curious about the specific causes contributing to my PELD.
As a counselor I’ve noted that many of my clients with depression suffer from a lack of connection. They may be disconnected from themselves: their purpose, passions and body and from others: intimate relationships and the community at large. Most are also disconnected from the natural world due to excessive time in front of screens and erratic sleep patterns. Their disconnect could be a root cause or symptom of their depression but either way, one of my goals is to help them stop living in fear, make healthier choices and reengage with the world. These changes may start with small steps like journaling, calling an old friend, or time in the sun but little by little as clients reconnect their mood improves.
I think my transient depression after Chattajack was due to withdrawal after a weekend of intense connectivity. Connection to people was the most profound. During the 8 1/2 hours the race course was open, 300 racers and a similar number of volunteers, sherpas (people providing support to a specific paddler) and race organizers were focused on getting the racers safely across the finish line. People from different states and countries, different career paths, different socio-economic status were connected by a common purpose. My role was to get myself to the finish line while helping and encouraging other competitors and showing gratitude to all the volunteers. The flow of support went both ways and I received cheers and shouts of inspiration from people I didn’t even know.
In the midst of this I’m paying close attention to my natural environment, the current in the river, the wind, air temperature and cloud cover. A change in one of these factors would necessitate a change in paddle technique, dress or hydration so couldn’t be ignored. The entire race I’m also acutely aware of the beauty of the Tennessee River Gorge, the slope and height of the mountains, the rock formations and of course the fall leaves. In the last few miles when my body was ready to stop, I focused my attention on the trees lining the riverbank, lingering on the ones with exceptional yellow, orange or red. These vibrant colors were the inspiration I needed to get around the last corner where the finish line was in sight.
Finally while being mindful of other people and the natural world, I’m dialed in on my mental and physical status. Am I hungry? Have I been drinking enough? Are my feet numb? My mental state fluctuated throughout the race, the first and last 5 miles being the most challenging. During these times I used a positive mantra and focused on my gratitude for the opportunity to have this experience.
All the connections I experienced during Chattajack 31 made me feel alive, engaged, part of something greater than myself and so the absence of this intensity created passing depression. I know it’s unrealistic to maintain the stoke of last weekend every day, but we certainly have room to improve the connections in our daily life.
"We are water people and the water connects us.” John Beausang, The Distressed Mullet
I didn’t schedule a book launch party for my novel, Hungry Mother Creek, because it felt self centered, a celebration just for my accomplishment? No need for that. Several months later a dear, wise friend asked if she could host a reading of my novel in her home and invite some of my closest friends. Honored, I agreed and a few weeks ago I was at a celebration just for my accomplishment. It’s hard to put into words how grateful I was that thirteen amazing women took an evening to share their love and support with me. That night I felt like I was plugged into an electric socket and barely slept. My heart was overflowing. As I lay awake with my buzz of good energy I realized I was full because I’d been able to receive the love, congratulations, support and complements that had been shared with me. The impact of that evening was profound and I questioned if I’d ever been that open to receive before.
How many time had I deflected a compliment, discounting the credibility of the person for surely if they thought well of me they must not know what they’re talking about. Many times I felt uncomfortable receiving a promotion, raise, or award, like an impostor; if only they knew who I really was they wouldn’t have given it to me. Based on talks with close friends and my clients, I know I’m not alone in this. Why do we have so much trouble receiving the positive while simultaneously complaining about no one appreciating us, feeling drained and burned out? I believe a combination of factors contribute to our difficulty receiving.
Sense of worthiness. The greatest impediment to receiving is our sense of worthiness. When the outside world is sharing something positive and it doesn’t resonate with our internal beliefs, we discount it. Many of us have the core belief that we are not enough. So even as the world is trying to fill our cup, we don’t fully receive because the good slips out the crack of unworthiness.
How do we fill that crack? How do we feel worthy of love, success, happiness? This is a complicated question and the answers are as individual as each of us. Asking the question is the first step. The next step is reviewing our past for the messages we received as a child and young adult that reinforced our unworthiness. Challenge those messages. Maybe we had a parent who could not provide unconditional love or required “perfection” before bestowing praise. These experiences plant the seeds of unworthiness. Now imagine our best friend in the same situation. Are they unworthy because of the actions of their parent or because they are not perfect? NO, of course they are still worthy and that same logic applies to us as well. At some point we have to accept that we are worthy of love, joy, happiness and stop sabotaging our success; start enjoying periods of happiness and peace in our life without focusing on what bad thing is about to happen and accepting love and kind words from others. Feeling worthy will mend the crack in our cup and allow us to receive and hold onto all the good that life is trying to bestow on us every day.
Mindfulness. A second potential crack in our cup that inhibits receiving is our attention. Our brain is designed to focus on potential threats and negative circumstances. Rick Hanson PhD, in his book Buddha’s Brain, says that our mind is like velcro for the negative and teflon for the positive. Our brain is hardwired to scan for the bad, immediately store it and make it easily available for recall. In contrast we must consciously focus on something positive for 10-20 seconds for it to sink in. It’s difficult to receive the good in our lives if our brain is not even allowing it to register. To overcome our physiology we need to be mindful and look for the joy, beauty, and love that is always available. Once we are aware of the gorgeous sunrise on the way to work, the smile of the barrister in the coffee shop, the compliment from our co-worker, the feel of our partner’s hand in ours, we need to spend just half a minute reflecting on this and appreciating the positive experience. The simple steps of increased awareness and reflection go a long way in filling our cup and allowing us to receive the good that is always there for us.
It is better to give then receive. This is a tenet of many cultures and most spiritual traditions. I believe it is better to give but that doesn’t mean to never receive. Continually giving without receiving empties our cup and when empty we feel depressed, resentful, burned out. Many people think that if they only give more they will feel better without realizing the problem lies within them. Serving as the giver keeps us in control and in an active state of doing which feels comfortable and is more socially acceptable in the Western world. Being on the receiving end requires vulnerability and a state of just being, something we have less experience with.
Continue to share your time, energy, love and money but be aware if you want to continue to give with compassion and joy, you need to keep your cup full and allow yourself to receive. Remember that as we receive gratefully, we allow others to experience the joy of giving. In healthy relationships there is a balance of giving and receiving.
I challenge you to improve your ability to receive: begin to accept your inherent worthiness, be mindful of the positive experiences available to you every day and challenge the belief that it is always better to give then receive. You will find that by receiving, your cup will fill with love and compassion and you will have more to pour out into the world.
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.