I recently came across this very good article in Huffington Post on mindfulness. I’ve written before about what a valuable tool just paying attention is, how increasing our awareness helps us increase our capacity to deal effectively with the ups and downs of our lives.
“Don’t look for mindfulness to cure your anxiety, depression or addiction, look at it more as a new way of relating to life, a way of coming home, nurturing a healthier heart and opening up to the experience of being alive.”
More than once when a client comes into my office they are looking for a cure. After all, that’s what they seek from their medical doctors. They want to make the sore throat go away or the painful knee to stop hurting. I have to break the news to them that what our work is about is not so much curing them.
I can’t make it so that they will never be sad again. I can help them deal with and perhaps even transform sadnesses that they’ve carried for far too long. I can help them identify the feelings that really don’t belong to them, that are based on faulty beliefs or someone else’s pain inflicted upon them. And I can give them the tools to deal with sadness that comes in the future.
But things like sadness, grief and even anxiety are part and parcel of our humanity. They are acknowledgements of the inevitable changes of life, the ebb and flow that is as relentless as the tides.
I was at the beach with my five-year old great-nephew. He decided that he didn’t like the tide coming in. “Make it stop, Aunt Peggy,” he said. I told him that I didn’t have the power to do that. It’s just what the ocean did.
And change is just what life brings to us. Some changes are better than other, more joyful than others. But mindfulness is one way that we can navigate with some grace the changes that come and the feelings that they bring.
Some of us who are animal lovers have been greatly saddened by the death of Lennox, who was euthanized by order of the Belfast City Council. The short version of the story is that Belfast has Breed Specific Legislation outlawing pit bulls. Although Lennox did not have any pit in his background, authorities decided he did and that he was dangerous. Many things didn’t add up in the story. Well-known dog trainers in the US offered to take Lennox and provide him a new home. The City Council refused, saying that he was too dangerous to place in another community. Lennox’s family included a child, and they had never had a single incident of biting, attacking or other aggressiveness.
Every professional who evaluated him found him to be loving, except for the one police officer who deemed Lennox to be the most dangerous dog he’d ever met – and whose report was the only one accepted by the council. (Here’s a picture of Lennox dangerously licking that warden.) Lennox’s family, who’d fought a two-year legal battle to save his life, was denied the chance even to say good-bye to their beloved pet. (You can read more about this story here.)
As I followed the story I felt sadness for the family and the dog and outrage at the City Council. The more I thought about it last night I realized that I was also sad for the men who were making this terrible decision.
How hard does your heart have to be to deny a chance to save a life or to let a family say good-bye? How fearful do you have to be to look at what was by all accounts a loving dog and see only danger?
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross used to say that one of the ways that we combat evil in the world is by doing our own work. When we have not healed our wounds and faced our own fears we project them onto other people – and animals. When we have not dealt with the dark places and hurt places in our own hearts we have to close off our hearts, making them small and hard and fearful. When we are fearful we resist change, for if we stop holding on so tightly for a even little bit it may be the end of us. We cannot listen to another’s point of view – we can only defend our own point of view. We see the world in black and white because it feels safer that way.
I know that as a therapist one of the most important things I can do for my clients is to do my own work. I have to keep checking in with myself (or perhaps better said, with my Self.) Am I carrying hurts around? Am I letting fear have too much of a say? Are there things I need to let go of in order to grow or are there changes I need to allow into my life? Only if I keep my self clear can I be clear for my clients.
Where are the places in your life that need attention? Tending to them isn’t self-indulgent. In fact, the world pretty much needs you to face them and deal with them. We battle darkness in this world by first allowing our own light to shine.
One of the questions that’s never far from the back of my mind is this: Are there other ways of reaching out and meeting people at the place of their need? One of the great joys of my work as a counselor is getting to see people make positive changes in their lives. Although I joke around that it’s quite the faulty business model (they come in, get better and leave) I love the bittersweet conversation with a client as they are finishing up their work. Sometimes a new client will ask, “Do you really think that people can change?” My answer always is that I wouldn’t be in this profession if I didn’t.
At the same time, I know that not everyone makes it into a counselor’s office. Maybe they live in a remote area or their schedule is crazy. Maybe they don’t have insurance or they have a high deductible. Otr maybe they’re just not to the point of allowing themselves to take that next step to get help.
That’s why I’m proud to announce a new web site, Living Well (www.livingwellstuff.com) This is a place where I’ve gathered a lot of different articles and books that can be of help to people. The articles, which can be downloaded to Kindle (all of them) and Nook (some of them) range from brief guide available for free and slightly longer articles for no more than $2.99. Right now the articles include:
5 Ways to Stop Saying Yes When You Really Want to Say No
How to Heal From the Loss of Your Dog
Seven Ways to Help a Friend Who’s Lost a Pet
How to Find a Counselor
I’ve also included a link for downloading a free kindle app so you can read them even if you don’t own a kindle. Keep checking back because new articles are added regularly.
So how to make use of this web site? First of all, use it for your own benefit if any of the resources speak to you. Secondly, if you have friends who are facing these issues, send them here as a starting point. The articles are not long but there’s a lot of help packed in them. They are accessible in terms of the time it takes to read them and they are accessible in terms of what it takes to purchase them (if anything). Thirdly, if you are in a helping profesison (or simply a person upon whom people lean for help), I strongly encourage you to make use of the How to find a Counselor guide. It provides clarity about the differnces between psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, social workers and pastoral counselors. Starting therapy can be a scary thing, and it helps people know what to expect.
Finally, let me know if you see a need that’s not being addressed. Maybe you and your friends find yourselves struggling with the same issue. Maybe it’s something you see in a lot of other people but don’t know how to help. Whatever it is, let me know. Because I am not all-knowing, I cannot promise an article will follow but I’ll do my best.
I’m not talking about the time where I threw away a bag of garbage and heard the unsettling clink of my office keys also hitting the dumpster. (Luckily they landed on top of a bag of trash and I was able to rescue them with a coat hanger.)
No, I’m talking about clearly and with forethought throwing a set of keys into the
trash. The thing is, I don’t know what they were keys to. I wasn’t missing keys. I have reason to believe that they belonged to the house at 2701 Ashburton Lane, my childhood home. If you go there now, you’ll need no keys for there’s only a school ball field there now. After being sold, the house was moved away. I feel certain they also changed the locks. So why was it so hard to throw those keys away?
As I’ve cleaned out family homes and even moved my self, I’ve found numerous sets of keys, most of which I have no idea as to where they belong. Even so, it’s still hard to throw them out. I always have a nagging feeling that one day I’m going to come up against that door where those keys fit and I’m going to need them. Throwing keys out seems a bit reckless to me, a little bit of living on the edge. (I know that as living on the edge goes, it’s not much. Bear with me.)
I see my clients struggling with much the same thing. Most of the time it’s not actual keys but rather old beliefs. Someone along the way told them, by word or deed, that this was a key to life. This was what was true about the world. This was what was true about their place in the world. This is what was true about God’s place in the world. They’ve held onto those keys for a long time.
The only problem is that they don’t open any doors for them any more. In fact, sometimes they get in the way of opening doors. My clients have no place for those keys in their lives. Still, it’s hard to let them go. They worked once. Or someone they loved very much gave the keys to the client. Or someone they felt like they should have loved passed along those keys.
One of our tasks as adults is individuation. That’s a fancy psychological term for claiming our own lives. We have to look at what others have taught us about life and faith and even who we are and see if it really rings true in light of what we know about life and faith and our place in the world. Does it open doors for us or does it keep the doors closed? Letting go of those keys doesn’t mean betraying that person or loving them any less. It’s just an indication that as we grow and grow up, sometimes we bring with us the things we learned. And sometimes it’s time to let them go.
I suppose he had every right to think of his childhood as deprived. My grandfather was hard hit by the depression and the family never seemed to get back on their financial footing. They moved around a lot. For a while they lived with his mom’s mother.
And yet, every time I think of my father’s childhood, I think of the richness of it. There were always stacks of newsprint at the house for drawing. He and his brother Harmon made papier-mache football helmets that they baked to a hard finish in the oven. When they loved playing Monopoly at a friend’s house, they knew they had no money for such trivial things. and so they made their own. The two brothers carefully measured out and painted the board. They melted on the stove scraps of lead they’d scavenged and poured it into sand molds to make the game pieces. (Whose mother doesn’t let her children play with hot lead?)
There was no money for entertainment but my grandmother packed up the kids and drove them to a local college for their free summer classical music concerts. And, of course, there were always books. As my aunt observed, “They read about boys having adventures. Then they went out to have their own adventures.”
One day my father happened upon Harmon building a boat in the basement out of an old bookcase. After the slightly less than seaworthy craft named Jeep was built, Harmon suggested that they tie it to the top of the car in order to get it to the James River. When my father replied that he didn’t think their mom would let them do that, Harmon replied, “Let’s assume she would have said yes if we had asked her, and go ahead and do it.” (Sailing the Jeep down the James became one of our legendary family stories.)
I feel that at this point I should insert the disclaimer: Do not try this at home.
Except that I think that the spirit of it is what we all need. (Second disclaimer: I am not advocating that your children sail their homemade boat down a major river.)
Joe and Harmon had an unfettered childhood. Their mother insisted on using correct English grammar, but she let them explore. Create. Use their imaginations. As a result, they grew up thinking that they could do anything. And they did.
I’m not talking about the sense of entitlement that we see far too often, children thinking that they should have anything or that everything should be done for them. This is the opposite: a sense of empowerment.
Joe and Harmon got to use their imagination a lot a boys. Some of it was encouraged, like always having paper handy. And some of it was necessity, like making their own Monopoly set. As a result, they grew into a natural belief that if they wanted to do something, they’d figure out a way to do it.
When my father started sailing seriously, he learned celestial navigation. He designed much of the furniture he built. My uncle dropped out of high school but then went on to earn a PhD and spend much of his career as a university professor. They believed they could find a way to do it. And they did.
Children need unfettered play. (Once again, a disclaimer. I am not advocating sailing down the James River by themselves in a boat that is barely afloat.)
Children need an opportunity to create, to imagine, to make up their own games and their own worlds. Children need to gain a sense of mastery by facing a challenge and then overcoming it. The thing is, children will do this if allowed. Ever see a two-year old at Christmas having much more fun with the box rather than the toy that came inside?
As adults, sometimes we need to help and encourage them in figuring things out (What do you think we could do here?) And sometimes we just need to get out of the way. Give them blocks. Or boxes. Or a stack of paper. Or a yard to explore. And let them play.
One of the saddest comments I can remember reading came from a preschool teacher who said they children in her class had no idea of what to do when they were turned out onto the playground and given free playtime. They’d never been allowed just to play. Some adult always organized the game for them. They didn’t know how to turn the jungle gym into a pirate ship.
I wish every child such a childhood that creates adults who think they can do anything. And do.
For us psychologically oriented folks, we’d say that he was expressing a sense of mastery. He achieved something he’d never been able to achieve before. And the feeling of that achievement, in his words, was “feeling happy on myself.” That may be the best feeling description I’ve ever heard.
It’s one we adults tend to feel less and less. As we move through adulthood, the list of things we’ve mastered grows longer and longer. Conversely, the incentive for us to try new (and unmastered) things grows smaller and smaller. We might not do it well the first attempt. Why not stick with those things we can do well (or at least adequately)? Why risk the foolishness of failure? Besides, we might break something.
Learning something new can also take time. Artists and craftsmen know the value of repetition and practice. You don’t just read a book on making pottery. You learn about it and then you learn by doing it. You get your hands dirty. You make terrible, misshapen pots. and you keep working at it. And on that day when you throw a pot that comes out right… well, you feel happy on yourself.
I think that people age in one of two ways. Some people grow dry and brittle, like leather that’s been left out and never nourished. Their lives are brittle with fear and regrets and smallness. Other people have a glow about them, like the soft beauty of leather that’s been nourished over and over again, that’s worn but is worn smooth and beautiful.
The willingness to learn new things and risk new things is, I think, part of the nourishment of our lives. It helps keep us alive while we are yet living. It helps our lives to keep growing and keep shining.
So, what new thing are you going to learn or try or even allow yourself to think? If you need inspiration, here are some words from a very young but very wise man:
I know you can believe in yourself. If you believe in yourself, you will know how to ride a bike. If you don’t you just keep practicing. You will get the hang of it, I know it. If you keep practicing you will know it and you will keep getting better and better at it….You can do it.
I’ve become a student again. No, I’m not reading great tomes of theological literature. I’m not pursuing the latest thoughts in counseling. (Well, actually I am doing that but that’s not what I’m referring to here.)
I’ve become a typing student.
Each day that I come into the office I open up my computer typing program and start practicing and learning the lessons. (As long as I use words made up of the letters asdfjkl; I’m good to go right now. If this blog starts sounding strange, you’ll know I’ve reverted to my comfort level.)
I could have taken typing in junior high school, as some of my classmates did. But I was beginning to look ahead to college applications. By virtue of being in band, I already had one lightly weighted class. I didn’t think my academic standing could afford another.
Besides, when would I need typing? Other than typing the occasional term paper on the typewriter, I wasn’t going to be using that skill much.
I’ve typed well enough to get by. And if you don’t need a mistake free piece, I can actually type fairly quickly. But a significant portion of my work now involves typing, whether it’s writing a book or column or this blog, typing up client notes, writing a sermon or even posting on Facebook. My lack of skill was beginning to get in my way. So I swallowed my pride and became a beginner again.
Sometimes I talk to people who need to learn something, a skill that for whatever reason they didn’t learn as a child. Maybe it’s how to be in a healthy relationship. Or how to ask for what they need. Or how to make a bed. Invariably they try to tell me that they shouldn’t have to learn such things. They should know it.
But that’s the rub. They don’t. And just like my typing, we all have a choice sooner or later to become a beginner again and learn those things we have not yet learned… or to allow that lack to continue to have an impact on our lives. At some point, it doesn’t matter what you should or shouldn’t have learned. It’s about what you know. And what you’re going to do about what you don’t know.
That’s all for now. I’m off to learn the exciting world of e and i.