Let's Not Figure It All Out At Once

"I hope you will go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work them, water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom." - Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Life is a beautifully complex, miraculous, bastard of a thing. It's funny. When I was in my early 20's it was my assumption that adults had things in order. After however many years on the planet, surely they had a grip on things. Right? I was mellowing into my well-adjusted 30's and discovered the truth: we are still learning the things. My 40-year-old friends insist that they are also still learning the things. They still experience episodes of cluelessness. Bouts of existential sadness and anxiety that wakes them in the darkness of the night. There are still chapters of their lives that are best titled Beautiful Disaster. Well, that's hopeful. Just when you think "oh yeah, I got this" and laugh in life's silly face, you get reminded: adulting is hard. 

Many years ago, I was told by a master clinician of anxiety and depression to never ask a client to do anything I wouldn't be willing to do myself. I honestly don't know how hard he lived by that, but his words embedded themselves into the sternum of my ribcage. I have lived by them ever since. Therapists are people too. We Love, we hurt, we try, we fail, we fuck up hard, we try again. As far as I'm concerned, it's part of my unwritten job description to live like hell so that it can best inform me how to attune to my clients' experiences in the world. I need to know life intimately if I'm going to do a lick of good. I need to bury my hands into my life and knead it into something I can be proud of. I need the self-awareness of a ninja. The kind of thing that can only be cultivated by life experience, intention, and an excellent therapist. 

I went to the Lumineers concert the other night. Kaleo opened up the show and they were absolutely epic. Knocked my socks off. I wasn't quite prepared for what the Lumineers brought. Like a surge, a flood of memories arose that I associated with particularly difficult times in my life. Times of loss. Times I've stumbled through my own mess. Times I've feared losing the things that mattered most in my life. Times I've suffered in a painful silence that high functioning people know all too well. They sang and I shivered in my seat as the words rang through my bones.

"don't hang your head, love should make you feel good"

A couple of girls danced in the pit; clearly having drank too much. They danced with a youthful freedom and clumsy innocence. I could recognize parts of myself in them. They looked like such happy little fools; suspended in their tiny world. My chest grew warm with compassion for the less wise parts of myself that had to learn some lessons the hard way. I looked at them with well wishes on their path as they danced in the dark like tonight was the only night that existed.

"Make your mothers proud"

I was sitting with someone close to my heart the other day as she sat in a pool of tears. She was in the middle of a time of growth - which is often cloaked in bad life choices and paired with things we didn't know. Things we couldn't have known until now. She ached for the clock to heal her heart. To get the learning over with already. Wisdom hurts and awareness isn't cheap. We've all paid the price. I thought of the liver spots on my therapist's hands. The way he adjusts his hearing aids in session as he leans his ear towards me. I wonder about the stories he's lived through. The wisdom he carries. The Life that he's lived in all its mystery and surprise. I wonder if his learning of the things has tempered now or if he still has moments when the tectonic plates of his mind shift in new perspective he never had.

"I was blind, now I see"

Dear reader, we come into this world blind. Life unfolds slowly. Be compassionate with yourself as you move through the world and learn the things. Listen intently to what your life is trying to tell you. Give yourself some time to reflect and choose your next step wisely. And for the Love of Pete, don't figure it out alone. If you're going to be a ninja at life, you're going to need a someone that knows the path well. Someone who has the skills and know-how to help you see. Someone who nods with an empathy of a life well lived.

Warmly, your fellow life traveler,

Dr. B

Let Your Darkness Speak

I bent over and leaned my elbows on the desk. I nibbled on the back of the pen in contemplation. It was a simple enough task. 1) Write your name on this name tag 2) Name one moment that drastically changed your life. I have such a hard time with this kind of thing. The answers that immediately came to mind didn't seem socially appropriate. Oh hey, I'm B. Nice to meet you. I was forever changed the day my mom died. It was slow and sudden and it split me in half. It's a beautiful day, right? So I picked something that was both true and safe instead: Hey, I'm B and my life was changed the day I kissed that boy. I pressed the little sticky tag to my shirt and went about my way.

The room was filled with visitors within moments. We were hosting an event held by Creative Mornings. It was this past Friday at HumanHQ, my other work home. If you aren't familiar with this organization, you need to change that on the immediate. I have attended CM talks at every opportunity. This dedicated group hosts speakers from various fields (generally creative) to share their story with the aim to bring insight into their process and inspire. I will never forget my first talk. It was from a recognized, award winning cinematographer by the name of Ryan Booth. The advertised photos of him were spectacular. He looked like such a badass and was clearly rocking it out in a way I could only dream of. He walked up to the crowd and adjusted his mic, surrounded in eager gazes. I can't recall what he said word-for-word but it was something along the lines of, "Hai. So.... I don't know what I'm doing most of the time." What followed was an incredibly honest story of vulnerability and the willingness to transcend the ego for the sake of empathy: the place we create our most honest work. People. I fell in Love. I left that talk feeling warm with humanity. 

This time, the talk was a little bit different. We cozied up on couches and chairs. The candles flickered in intimate anticipation. Our speaker was Linda Geffin, a lawyer who spent a lifetime fighting against human trafficking and advocating for survivors. She shared her story about being silenced on a quiet and unsuspecting afternoon. At least they tried to silence her. She was beaten and left for dead on her kitchen floor. The room was still in collective breath for her. She shared about her struggle to feel safe in the world again. She read Victor Frankl's Mans Search For Meaning, one of my favorite books. It taught her about her own power. It taught her that no could take away her capacity to choose how she reacts. She had the ability to choose her attitude in any circumstance. It was something her attackers couldn't strip from her. So slowly, painfully... one step at a time, she entered into the world again. She left us with the wisdom she gained: At some point in your life, you're going to experience something that challenges you to the core and shakes you alive. You don't have to wait until something drastic happens to you. Start now. Be in the present moment. Make room for gratitude. This one moment is the moment we have.

I met up with her afterward and we shared a hug. I am always so taken by people's stories. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people name their darkness as their primary source of life fuel. We don't talk about it very much in the open. Hell, I felt it just hours earlier with my name tag. The hesitation. The flinch of my pen that said: you shouldn't go there. I'm not going to lie to you. When we talk about our darkness, it takes people to another place. It's deeper, and yes, heavier. But it's also because it's so rich with truth. It made me think about our relationship to the shadowy end of the emotional spectrum.

I was reading an article from New York Magazine this morning that proposed an interesting perspective on the darkness that is depressed mood. There is so much left to be discovered about the human condition in regards to depression. I'm a humanistic psychologist, so while I do believe clinical depression is a very real disease, I also believe that for the vast majority of us, we experience bouts of normative sadness that comes with living. I think it's in our best interest to use this as an opportunity to listen to what our emotions are telling us about our life. The article brought about the idea that evolution may have a part to do with depression (more scientific insight here). I'm not sure if you know this or not, but when you go into a period of darkness, it tends to lift naturally on its own with time. The idea is that maybe we're designed to experience moments of darkness so that we can enter into that state of introspection and gain renewed insight on our way out. The article quotes Iron John in this beautiful excerpt: one must "go through the door... immerse himself in the wound, and exit from his old life through it." I shared with Linda about my loss and how it's shaped my desire to create authentic spaces for people to feel something real. I'm a firm believer that the unexamined life is tragedy. Getting in touch with our internal world is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. It's where all the knowledge lies. It's where we come alive.

I took my time this Saturday morning. It was a warm day that begged to be experienced. I stepped onto my deck, feeling the warmth of the wood and its rough grain beneath my bare feet. I laid down on my back and watched the trees bend in the wind. I had gotten off the phone with my dad a few minutes prior. He reminded me that in a few weeks it will be 5 years since my mom's passing. I have this moment. This one moment. I could feel grief flush through my body with a gentle heat. My eyes welled with its brief, tearful visit. A bird soared high above me. And I smiled.


[original publication date 2016]

I was curled up on my couch reading Tuesdays with Morrie. It was one of those dark, drizzly kind of days that make everyone move slower but doesn’t keep you from going about your business. It’s a book about an elderly college professor with ALS and his weekly meetings with an old student of his. Each week they get together and Morrie discusses his philosophies on life as he endures his unforgiving disease. I had never heard of this book before and after hearing the “oh of course” tone in my grandmother’s voice when I mentioned it to her, it appears my age might be partly to blame. I was really taken in by it. It’s full of all kinds of life lessons. The stuff you know you should try to live by but it’s still hard to.

Morrie was talking about the concept of “presence,” truly being with another person and in the present moment. I believe wholeheartedly in this ideology. Mid chapter I realized that I was away from my iphone. It instantly pulled me out of the lovely moment I was having. It bothered me that it bothered me to be away from my phone. I normally wouldn’t care so much but I just started a new venture so I want to be connected when I’m needed. I fidgeted on the little part of the couch I had managed to settle into. I struggled but I stayed with it. After finishing my chapter I strolled into the bedroom where I found my little electronic friend waiting for me. 1 missed call. Life, you ironic butthead. Didn’t you know how present I was trying to be? This is how you repay me? I laugh to myself after returning the call and confirming that I was a little too late and lost a potential client.

I’ve heard this anecdote numerous times and I can’t stand it: basically, forget the whole “balance in life” thing. It’s a farce. Something is always going to give so if you invest too much in your work life, your personal life will start going to shit and vice versa. You can meditate and eat as much kale as you want but there’s no secret door called “balance” that will open for you. At least not for long. Soon enough you’ll be thrown back and forth into that struggle of time and energy again.

I was wondering about what to do about that as I ran out of my house 10 minutes late to meet a dear friend for coffee (presence problems). I paused at the red light, getting ready to turn right when I noticed an older man beginning to walk across the street from the other side of the road. I could have gone ahead but decided to sit there a moment instead. I still had Morrie on the brain so I took a deep breath and waited for him as he made his way across. He looked at me and smiled, offering a gentle wave my way. I smiled and waved back. A brief moment of human connection between strangers. I feel the warmth build inside my chest and thank Morrie for the sweet moment I would have otherwise missed.

The coffee shop is modern with a hint of hipster. I like it. There are panels of dark wood on the walls and modern fixtures hang from the ceiling with Edison bulbs. I order a cortado and take a seat when I get a text. My friend was running late as well. I generally have a book in my handbag because why wouldn’t I, so no big deal. I reach for my bag when I remember that I had purposely not put one in there because I was reading Morrie and had thought to myself, “you’re meeting a friend. What do you need to bring a book for?” Effing Morrie. I smile to myself. I take the remainder of my time to sit and just be.

There are macs everywhere. Some folks are having meetings. Others appear to be students. Many look like creatives and small business owners themselves. And then there I am. Present and hanging with Morrie feeling all warm and happy. I wonder to myself: being present, mindfulness meditation, all that jazz has become so popular within my field of psychology. My own interpretation of why this practice of being attuned to the living, breathing moment is becoming so big is because we’re losing our everyday capacity to engage in this way of being. I think we’re spiritually shriveling up as we lose sight of the importance of cultivating fulfilling, grateful moments. We get swept up too easily in another wave of work and life responsibilities. It becomes too tempting to be plugged into technology more than necessary for those moments in between. I think that’s why we have so many hipsters. We’ve gotten too out of whack with how we live so people are starting to grow beards, listen to vinyl, and blog about how horrible technology is. Case in point (minus the beard…).

Psychologists are now turning to mindfulness meditation to help treat depression and anxiety and the research is ridiculous in how effective this practice can be to our emotional well-being. The practice of being present in the moment can actually change our brain. It helps us break away from depressive thought traps and access these “present-moment” neural pathways better. Research findings indicate that it may even decrease the density of grey matter in the amygdala, a part of the brain that is implicated in stress and anxiety. These moments of connection, and more so, the feeling of connection with something greater than ourselves, opens the door for emotions that far exceed happiness and can lead us to feelings like joy and awe. So I’m thinking about all of this as I’m sitting with no barrier between me, my cortado, and the world. Present, alone, and engaged, I can’t help but think to myself: is this kind of creepy? I mean, like really. I’m just sitting here with nothing and no one and looking around at my environment completely fascinated. I wonder about our ever-evolving modern day culture. In our need for greater presence in our lives, is the approach in doing so going to become creepier and creepier?

Morrie didn’t write a chapter on that so I guess I’ll have to finish it myself. I’m thinking that we’re going to have to make an honest fight for our spiritual sanity. We’re going to have to actively engage and challenge ourselves to be fully alive and not caught in that in-between state too long as we run from task to task. And that might mean missing out on a potential client sometimes and it’s going to be totally OK. I would rather my headstone read “lived in the present moment” than “never missed a potential work opportunity.” Of course we will always be caught in the struggle between the two, but I know which side I will gladly err on at the end of the day. Plus, the more fully engaged and alive I feel, the better work I’ll be able to do anyway. So there’s that. I think I’ll stick with this whole presence thing, even if it does border on creepy sometimes.


Brain References:

Albom, M. (1997). Tuesdays with morrie: An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly. New York, NY: Gotham Books.

Lu, Stacy (2015). Mindfulness holds promise for treating depression. Monitor, 46, 50-55.

Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. T. (2012). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression (2nd ed.). New York, NY: The Guildford Press.