Thursday, May 29, 2014

Let It Go

"It's over." "We're done." "I love you, but I'm not IN LOVE with you." These phrases have ended countless relationships, and in my counseling office, I regularly see couples who are on the brink of uttering those words. Often people regard therapy as a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. And it can be. But just as possible is the chance that therapy will illuminate what is deeply broken in a relationship, wounds and ruptures that may or not be repairable.

The general public may regard counselors as professionals in the business of saving relationships. I've encountered plenty of clinicians that also opine that their responsibility to couples is to help as many as possible avoid the trauma of divorce. But, in my experience, not every relationship can be mended, and perhaps some shouldn't be. Now, let me be clear: I NEVER make the decision for my clients to end or continue a relationship. I don't even offer an opinion about their direction in therapy. Clients' choices reside solely in the realm of accountability of the client. But that reality doesn't change my belief that sometimes, people choose to stay together even when they are continuing to harm one another, or even their children. Couples make the choice to separate or stay united for as many reasons as there are marriages that exist. And heated debates have raged for decades about whether divorce is an irreparable wound, especially for kids whose parents split up. But what about these fractious couples who continue to engage in destructive dynamics despite many rounds of therapy, with multiple counselors? Why do they stay?

I don't give credence to the "easy" answers I sometimes hear -- religious beliefs prohibitting divorce, financial constraints, couples being "addicted" to their painful mode of relating. Often, I think it comes down to our lack of comfort with letting go. Letting go of people, of dreams, of circumstances being what they "should" be, according to our well-laid plans. As a culture, we lack good modeling for letting go. The Anerican ethic often supports the opposite ideal -- pushing harder against any obstacle until, with enough pressure exerted, the individual is successful in her effort to overcome. We don't teach people the invaluable skill of grieving, despite the guarantee that loss will be a regular visitor in each of our lives. We champion achievement and accomplishment, and look down on those who "give up" or stop "trying." Perhaps we would do better to learn from the lessons of our Eastern cousins, who maintain that ALL suffering is a result of "clinging", of being unwilling to let go and release ourselves, others, our expectations or our beliefs. The more we hold on, the longer and more intensely we wed ourselves to suffering. Buddhists know that relief and freedom come with letting go. We are able to move in new ways, see from different vantage points, when we stop tethering ourselves to one specific value, behavior or person. I won't claim that letting go is easy. It can be terrifying, painful and sad to let go. But it can also be the only way to embrace our truth. Unfortunatley, we can't easily predict the correct timing to release our grasp, nor can we immediately know which ropes to let go and which to hold fast. Those insights can only be found within, in a fearless plumbing of the depths of our beliefs, feelings and values -- a courageous endeavor to say the least. I wouldn't wish for anyone the pain, confusion and grief that accompanies divorce. And certainly, a life changing event like ending a marriage demands a broad and thorough effort at maintaining the union before moving toward rupture. I'm simply suggesting that letting go can be a loving, affirming and respectful choice when all that lies before us is more suffering.

BOOKS THAT HELP: My favorite author on letting go, as well as practical ways to apply Buddhist principles to everyday Western life, is Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun. Her no-nonsense, clear prose in books like "When Things Fall Apart:Heart Advice for Difficult Times" and "Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living" elucidate how to let go and develop a deeper sense of peace and purpose in our lives.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bring Me a Higher Love

Folks familiar with Twelve-Step Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous are well-versed with the concept and importance of a Higher Power. In recovery, people understand the crucial need for a strong and committed relationship with their Higher Power to sustain and support their efforts at abstinence and learning to live and relate to the world in a healthy, balanced way.

Often, one's Higher Power is conceptualized as God, the Holy Spirit, or the Creator. But, as many folks in recovery know, our Higher Power can take any form or name. And we don't need to attend AA or practice organized religion to benefit from this nurturing relationship. Nature, for example, is an accessible and common Higher Power that fuels people with a sense of renewal, constancy, and examples of wonder and evolution. A group that comes together for a common purpose, such as a congregation, a family or a clan of long-time friends, can be a Higher Power that reminds us of the strength of connection, that we are more powerful together than we are alone. An ideal, like Love, Honesty, or Serving Others, can inspire us to strive to be our best selves in our movement through the world.

More important than the form one's Higher Power takes is it's function in providing us with the knowledge that we don't have to rely solely on ourselves for strength, guidance, wisdom to know the next right step forward. A Higher Power eases the loneliness and fear that can accompany being human; it provides a resting place for our pain and struggle when we can no longer bear our burdens. The road of life is a twisting, surprising and--hopefully--long journey to navigate. A Higher Power can be a constant, committed companion that helps us see the potholes in our path, picks us up when we fall, and whispers "You can do it!" in our ears when we are afraid to turn a corner. And this travel partner is always packed and ready to go, whether we know our ultimate destination or we are careening around in the dark. Like a fail proof GPS, our Higher Power will show us the path to our most authentic and fulfilling lives. We just have to be willing to plug in.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

THAT Moment in Time

Recall a favorite memory, a moment in time that you wish you could relive again in exactly the same way. Maybe it was the birth of your child, or your first step down the wedding aisle. Perhaps it was hearing your beloved say "I love you," or the last time you embraced a treasured friend before she passed away. Revel in the details of that moment: the smells, textures, sights and sounds of that experience. Get swept away in the beauty, the grace or the poignant sweetness of that moment. Now, consider this question: what if THIS moment was THAT MOMENT, now? What if right this instant is a moment that, at some future point, you will look back and want to experience fully in every way possible?

That query shakes our perspective by asking us to recognize that EVERY moment could be THAT precious moment -- that first time, that last time, that best time. Each moment has the potential to be so cataclysmically staggering that it marks us forever. Each experience could be the catapult into enlightenment, intense joy or sorrow, the knowing of our spirit. We often think of those moments as either fond memories or hopeful anticipations of the future. But each second of our existence is an opportunity to create an indelible experience, one ripe with wonder, or awe, rage or passion. The doorway to that realness is awareness. Just as we imagined that long-ago special time, complete with recalling the color of our dress, the softness of our lover's kiss, or the sweet fragrance of our baby's skin, we can today notice, with all our senses and feelings, what this moment holds. For this moment, RIGHT NOW, will never come again. What must we do to remember that every moment is precious, every instance of life is a memory worth revisiting? What could you do, NOW, to make this moment THAT moment?

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Silent Treatment

Silence. Quiet. Calm. Those words are a distant memory to most busy adults I know, whose days are a blur of work meetings, waiting in the school pick-up lane, chores at home and, if they're lucky, a few precious, uninterrupted moments spent with friends and loved ones. Many of us report not finding a space of quiet in our daily lives for more than a second or two before we are pulled back to what we believe (or are told) are our pressing obligations and innate responsibilities as parents, workers, partners.

 I didn't realize how long I'd lived without quiet until a recent surprise hospital stay. Now, I wouldn't recommend a bowel obstruction as a regularly-scheduled interruption to your daily life, but four days on my back, hooked up to a nasal gastric tube, IV pump and painkillers, was a forced hiatus from my constantly growing list of "to-do's." What I discovered, once the initial pain of my condition had been eased by my treatment, was that I was prevented from "doing" much of anything, other than laying in the hospital bed, flipping through television channels and trying to get myself and my IV pole to and from the bathroom without becoming entangled in plastic tubing. It wasn't long before the usual chatter in my head started to fade to a faint background murmur. Sure, I could have spent my mental energy worrying about my condition, catastrophizing about possible treatment options or scrolling through work tasks that were being left undone. But, despite my usual anxious personality, I found that my mind fell into a kind of silence I don't ever recall experiencing. Maube it was knowing that I couldn't accomplish any life tasks from a hospital room, or that I knew my spouse and child were banking the home fires just fine (with the help of neighborhood take out, of course.) Maybe it was the "permission" of the hospital staff to get as much rest as possible and focus on my SELF only, rather than all my usual life tasks. Whatever the reason, I found myself, for the first time in my adult life, with NOTHING TO THINK ABOUT. Foreign, indeed.

I've long been a devotee of meditation, and I did spend a bit of time meditating on mantras of wellness and renewal. But I kept finding myself drawn to observing the silent space within me. What a unique experience to feel my brain nearly "empty" of chatter, judgement, list-making and dialogues that make up my internal world. Like viewing a serene landscape, residing in the quiet of my mind brought me a sense of calm and hopefulness that I hadn't known I'd been missing. In that space of emptiness, I sensed an expansiveness and lightness that brought with it peace and gratitude. I told my best friend that the sensation was like hearing the wind whistle through my body. Two weeks post-hospitalization, my mind has reverted to its "normal" pace and the lists and self-talk and internal noise are just a few decibels below deafening. Clearly, I have work to do to get back to that restorative space of quiet. But knowing that it's possible to dial down my brain, to live for a few moments in a void from all noise and clatter, is a revelation I will strive to replicate as often as I can. I know now that peace and ease -- and wisdom -- dwell there.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

(Mis)Adventures in Nature

We couldn't be sure what was twisted in a "figure 8" in the middle of that Carolina dirt road. Was it a torn and rotting piece of rubber? Was it a strip of fabric that had blown into the path of our rental car? Was it . . . A SNAKE?!? My eagle-eyed wife spotted it first, as we retreated down the dusty driveway of the winery we had just visited. When my admittedly wine-glazed gaze finally settled on the quiet mound, I nearly shrieked in delight. A REAL SNAKE, out in THE WILD!

 Here was my chance to commune with nature, to observe a majestic, colorful slithering invertebrate in its natural habitat, slinking from the knee-high grass, into the rutted, dry dirt of the winery drive, possibly headed toward the murky creek on the other side of the road. Before I knew it, my excitement propelled me out of the idling car. Look! There it is! A REAL LIVE SNAKE, uncoiling before me as a I approached. "It's BEAUTIFUL!" I called out over my shoulder to my wife, who was tapping out an SOS on the car's horn. Ignoring her calls to return to the car (to be honest, she used some colorful adjectives in her request) I couldn't help but gape at the gracefulness of this creature as it raised its kite-shaped head at my approach. I took in the complex pattern of chocolate brown and coral orange that marked its skin, noting the undulations that shifted it's appearance as it moved toward me. My sentimental nature was enhanced by the several glasses of wine I had enjoyed at the winery's tasting table. I crouched down, my face mere feet from the cold-blooded creature. "You're such a PRETTY snake! aren't you? Aren't you a PRETTY SNAKE!" At that moment, my new friend seemed to levitate, the upper third of his ropy body rising vertically as if pulled from above. I'm not sure if it was the snake's hiss or my wife's hysterical screeching from the safety of the car, but I toppled backward just as the snake lunged in my direction. Somehow I managed to coordinate my limbs enough to scramble crab-like away from the snake's immediate vicinity and catapulted myself toward the car door that my wife had thrown open. Once we were assured that I had suffered no more than a dust-covered behind from my adventure, we proceeded to take pictures of the snake from the safety of our rental. We were surprised to hear from locals who viewed our photos that my snake friend was a copperhead, a venomous variety common to the region.

I was shocked and embarrassed to admit that the possibility of getting bitten had never entered my mind: I'd been too excited to see such a gorgeous specimen up close. Once I had spent more time reflecting on the experience, though, I realized that I am often taken in by the glittery, the pretty and flamboyantly unique. I am easily seduced by pleasant packaging and dramatic flair. My run-in with the copperhead was a reminder that beauty can belie a genuine threat, and that the enticement of the rare and unique can also be an invitation to pain and fear. I will never lose my appreciation of nature and it's wonders, but perhaps I will now consider as well that just because something is pretty, doesn't mean I have to invite it into my life. Some wonders are best viewed from a secure distance. And definitely best enjoyed fully sober.