The Counselor's Bookshelf:
The Counselor's Bookshelf:
I've spent the past several weeks enjoying a beautiful book by Frank Ostaseski, co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. The Five Invitations: Discovering what death can teach us about living fully reads like a dharma talk, fluidly integrating Buddhist teachings with story telling and gentle reminders to come back to the richness of the present moment, no matter what is happening. He doesn't sugar coat death, promise that everything will be ok, or placate our fears that it won't. He simply reminds us, lovingly and persistently, to use our experiences with death to make the time we are living more rich and meaningful.
From the introduction:
"Life and death are a package deal. You cannot pull them apart.
In Japanese Zen, the term shoji translates as "birth-death." There is no separation between life and death other than a small hyphen, a thin line that connects the two.
We cannot be truly alive without maintaining an awareness of death.
Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most. And the good news is we don't have to wait until the end of our lives to realize the wisdom that death has to offer...
If you read my blog post about SoulCollage®, you won't be surprised to hear that I have been collecting old magazines from family and friends over the past several months. Mostly I just cut out the images I want, but an article in a 2013 issue of Scientific American MIND caught my eye. In Listening to Voices: A student's journey from "normal" to "schizophrenic" and back highlights shortcomings in how our society deals with mental health, Eleanor Longden talks about her experience hearing voices, being diagnosed with schizophrenia, struggling with the treatment offered, and then finding her own way to a kind of mental health that she believes is possible for others experiencing symptoms our medical system often rejects and tries to suppress. By befriending her voices, listening to their (metaphorical, not literal) messages, and integrating their wisdom into what was coming from her "rational" brain, she found healing from trauma and a meaningful connection with her emotions. For those of you familiar with Internal Family Systems, I think you will find her conceptualization of the role of voices in her life to correlate well with the concepts in IFS. The article isn't available for free online, but her TED Talk is. Enjoy.
(Thanks to Ted.com for the above photo of Eleanor.)
A few months into my clinical internship, while a graduate student in mental health counseling, my back started to hurt. Just a little bit. It wasn't the first time my lower back had given me trouble and I brushed it off as a minor nuisance caused by my new therapist lifestyle in which work = sitting all day. I felt confident that a little bit of yoga, stretching and exercise would resolve the issue as it had in the past.
Two and a half years later, after seeing a sports medicine doctor, a DO, an acupuncturist and a chiropractor, engaging in physical therapy and daily stretching, the pain is still here. For the most part it is just a nuisance and it hasn't gotten worse, but it also hasn't gotten better in spite of everything I have tried. I'm still looking for solutions. Certainly stretching and exercise help and for now, I keep those self-directed (and free) exercises on board while I try different things. It occurs to me that I may find the most lasting relief from my own brand of movement therapy that incorporates the most useful of the things I've tried: basic pilates, yoga, stretching, core exercises, and better posture. Maybe a better chair? I'm aware that there may be a psychological component: trauma from breaking my leg twice as a child, attention to the pain leading to cognitive distortions ("my body is weak", "it's my fault I feel bad", "I'll never get better"), and even the possibility that I need to cultivate a sense that the universe "has my back" or I need to "grow a backbone" by cultivating greater confidence. There are a myriad of ways to approach physical health problems and the options can feel both hopeful and daunting.
The last few years have been a great teacher in understanding that, for most of us healing is a journey that we must rise to meet. We are supported along the way by friends, family, and providers, and sometimes the silver bullet arrives in the form of a doctor, a therapist, or another form of healer that cures us completely. More often, however, we spend months and years living in our own bodies and minds seeking our own acceptable degree of wellness.
My husband forwarded me this article by Julia Belluz of Vox the other day. I found it really helpful. She writes that lower back pain is really common and that often solutions are elusive. She has reviewed over 80 research studies and her conclusion, based on their conclusions, is that panacea remedies are hard to come by. Rather, it is a slow process of urging an ever aging body back into alignment, as best we can...
Like a Mother: A feminist journey through the science and culture of pregnancy might not seem like an obvious book for a mental health themed blog. Or, on the other hand, maybe it does? Maybe it makes a lot of sense. We talk about postpartum depression like it's a discrete thing that happens to some people (yes, men get it too) after a new baby is born. What about the idea that pregnancy, with all of its physiological and psychological effects on the mother, and on the entire family unit, actually causes changes and challenges that exist on a spectrum continually evolving over time. Existential and often paradoxical questions about what it means to bring new life into the world, realities of physical changes in the body, a whole range of psychological experiences (often including many mood states, not just depression) as well as cultural expectations all play into each person's unique experience of growing a family. Also, we need to take into account the harsh truth that pregnancy, birth, and life after can be dramatically different for those who have money and access to resource than for those who are poor, live in under-served communities, and, the statistics on this are clear, are not white. Increasingly we are talking about gender non-binary and transgender people having children in a medical system that does not always understand their needs. All of this will have much to bear on the mental health of the entire family.
After hearing an interview on Fresh Air with Angela Garbes, I decided to buy the book. For some reason, perhaps the tone of the interview, I thought it would be a light and intellectually stimulating read. In the end I actually found reading this book to be both inspiring and fascinating, and also hard. Everything she covers from the dramatic, and sometimes long lasting, physical changes to the mother's body, to the scientific community's inattention and relative lack of funding for this critical aspect of women's health, is eye-opening and intense. She doesn't sugar coat anything, and thank goodness, because what we are left with is a deeply honest look at what creating new life really means. So much of mental health work is about giving people a space to be witnessed and held while sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly of human life. It is resources like this book that help us feel less alone when things get weird (or slimy, oozy, sticky and stinky).
The following excerpt is a taste of Garber's writing. It shows how fairly simple and straightforward research helps us identify small interventions that can make huge differences in the lives of new mothers. If you like what you read, give the whole book a go. It will open your eyes, soften your heart, and hopefully help you, and your loved ones, feel less alone in the gritty, visceral, emotional and very human task of giving birth.
In the early 1980s, after fifteen years of working in labor and childbirth, [Penny] Simkin, a physical therapist by training, was considering a career shift.
I'm up for just about any creative activity. I love settling into the groove of stitching, drawing or shaping raw materials into something unique. Losing track of time, getting lost in flow, or generally just being in the moment, feels so good. And yet, in all of my crafty years, I never got into collage. Except for a few exceptions (I've made some pretty cool multi-media journals that I might write a blog post about some time), I have mostly stayed away from collage.
I always thought of collage as a free-form activity where you just cut stuff out and glue it together and Voila! you have, well, a poster board covered with a bunch of pictures. For projects over the years I have spent time picking out images and fitting them together but in the end, I'm not sure what to do with it. I know I'm simplifying things, and there are probably serious collage artists that are rolling their eyes right now, but I have to admit, this is where I was at.
SoulCollage, developed by the late Seena Frost, a therapist and social worker, in the late 1980s, provides a structure to collage that incorporates all of the things I like about being creative (it's relaxing, intuitive and fun) while adding a depth I didn't expect. This tool, while simple at the surface, offers the possibility of increased self-awareness, validation and inner and outer transformation akin to work done in psychotherapy. SoulCollage is a lifelong process that you can start at any time. Through the process of making a "deck" of 5 x 8 cards- as many as you want - you create a visual and tactile tool that facilitates awareness and integration of emotions, aspects of self, archetypes, and even shadow sides of ourselves that are begging to be acknowledged and validated. (For those familiar with IFS, this is essentially a process of making a visual representation of, and then entering a dialogue with, our parts.)
SoulCollage Evolving is a light read that explains the how-to of this technique clearly and concisely. The book describes the different suits we create in our deck and outlines a technique for speaking through the images so that their wisdom is heard and internalized. Although I recommend reading the book and keeping a copy on your shelf for ongoing reference, I more highly recommend finding a SoulCollage workshop near you to give this process a try in a group setting. I will be completing a SoulCollage facilitator training at the end of August so check back in this fall for facilitated group offerings in the Portland area!
If this blog post piques your interest, let me know! I'd love to talk more about this technique and perhaps collaborate in a shared SoulCollage experience.
Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD. gave a TED talk in 2008 that went viral. You can watch it HERE if you're interested (it's totally worth the 18 minutes). I watched it around the time it came out and kept thinking about what she said over the years. I knew she had written a book, but I never made a point of reading it until I came across a copy a couple of months ago. Wow. I wish I hadn't waited so long. This book is an incredible personal story of tragedy turned into opportunity. It's also full of surprisingly accessible brain science. Most importantly, it's an invitation to take advantage of what we know about the human brain to make out lives better.
On December 10th, 1996, Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained brain scientist, woke up to a find that she was having a rare form of stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. The books details her observations that morning as she loses the function of her left hemisphere and is overwhelmed by having, for the first time in her life, a primarily right-brained experience. She notices that the without the left brain she feels fully in the present moment. The boundaries of her body dissolve and she experiences herself as being at one with everything and the universe. As her left brain's logical capacities come in and out of focus she experiences first hand that the left brain is responsible for linear, logical thinking, while the right brain is responsible for a sense of peace, oneness, and presence. Ultimately she is brought to the hospital and begins a journey of recovery that takes eight years. As it turns out, living entirely in a right brained experience is not realistic in human society- and she finds herself conflicted at times about letting go of that expansive experience. Today, having fully recovered her pre-stroke capacities, she has dedicated her life to sharing the wonders of the two hemispheres of the brain and of using this knowledge to demonstrate how accessible peace and connection are to us if we just choose to quiet our left brain and listen to our right.
This excerpt for the end of the book shares some of the insights Jill gathered from her experience of having the stroke, and of eight years of recovery.
"Having taken this unexpected journey into the depths of my brain, I am grateful and amazed that I have completely recovered physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually. Over the years, the recovery of my left hemisphere skills has been tremendously challenging for many different reasons. When I lost the function of my left brain's neurological networks, I lost not only function but also a variety of personality characteristics that were apparently associated with those circuits of aptitude. Recovering cells of function that were anatomically linked to a lifetime of emotional reactivity and negative thinking has been a mind-opening experience. Although I wanted to regain my left hemisphere skills, I must say that there were personality trains that tried to rise from the ashes of my left mind that, quite frankly, were no longer acceptable to my right hemispheric sense of who I now wanted to be. From both an neuroanatomical and psychological perspective, I have had a fascinating few years.
One day, as I was innocently browsing the internet for something I can't remember now, Jenny Lawson's blog popped up. I knew right away that I had come across something special. She's bold and at times crass. She is completely unafraid of offending you or of grossing you out. She's also incredibly funny and deeply honest about life in this crazy, hard and inspiring world we live in. If you want to read her blog, The Bloggess, click HERE. I ordered her memoir, Furiously Happy, to give her irreverent sense of humor a try, and I loved it. She writes about silly things, and serious things in the same breath. She's honest about her crippling experiences with depression and anxiety, and she is honest about the time she inadvertently crashed a funeral. She merges levity with depth in ways that will make you laugh and cry and feel less alone in your own wild and woolly life.
Here's some advance praise for the book:
Here's an excerpt:
Right now you're holding this book in your hands and wondering if it's worth reading. It's probably not, but there's a $25 bill hidden in the binding so you should just buy it quickly before the clerk notices.
You are welcome.
Furiously Happy is the name of this book. It's also a little something that saved my life.
My grandmother used to say, "Into everyone's life a little rain must fall- rain, assholes, and assorted bullshit." I'm paraphrasing. But she was right. We all get our share of tragedy or insanity or drama, but what we do with that horror is what makes all the difference.
Full disclosure, I haven't finished this book yet. I'm only on page 87 but I read something on page 68 that I thought was awesome and I want to share it now. For those of you who aren't familiar with Brené Brown and her work, I recommend checking her out. Click HERE and HERE and HERE.
Brené writes, "What I've learned from the research and tried to put into practice in my own life sounds way simpler than it is: Give yourself permission to feel emotion, get curious about it, pay attention to it, and practice. This work takes practice. Awkward, uncomfortable practice." She goes on to describe how she actually writes permission slips for emotions and puts them in her pocket to carry into a meeting, or event, or new situation.
So let's think about this for a minute. What if we could give ourselves permission to feel what we're feeling at any given moment? I give myself permission to feel nervous about giving a presentation. I give myself permission to feel angry about a decision a co-worker makes. I feel guilty about saying no to a friend. Permission granted. I feel anxious for no reason at all. Permission granted.
This doesn't mean we act on those feelings. It doesn't mean we are right and someone else is wrong. It doesn't mean those feelings make sense. It just means that in any given moment, the way we are, what we're feeling, is OK. Acceptable. Respectable.
Once the permission slip is granted and we are able to allow what we're feeling to be what we're feeling, then we need to use our skills to figure out what to do about it. This is where some deep breaths, writing it out, going for a walk, or a myriad of other emotion regulation skills come in. But what Brené captures so simply here is that the first step is always to accept first and work through second. By allowing our emotions first we give them the respect and attention they deserve and we are able to learn the important information they impart.
One of the things I have noticed by practicing this myself is that I often ignore or reject emotions that seem to be contradictory and yet are arising at the same time. For example, I can feel happy AND tired after a positive social experience. If I think happy is the "normal" or "acceptable" emotion to be feeling I may ignore the tired feeling which also needs to be attended to. Here are some examples of ways I've given myself permission to feel everything...
I've been thinking a lot lately about sharing. Not the kind of sharing we teach our children when they cling to their toys. I mean sharing less tangible, but equally substantial, pieces of ourselves. I'm talking about sharing our thoughts, personal stories, histories, and identities.
I listen to a lot of podcasts (The Moth, Death, Sex and Money, Modern Love to name a few) where people share their personal stories with large audiences. I listen to so many of these stories that it seems completely normal that someone would want to express themselves in this way. Then I find myself in a position to share something personal about myself and I get scared. Sometimes really scared. Why? Because sharing our histories, our viewpoints and our values is a deeply vulnerable thing to do. We are social creatures and we share without knowing how our most personal perspectives will be received.
If you think about stage fright, fear of public speaking and any other social anxiety, it doesn't make sense why the brain's fear center would fire when physical safety is almost entirely guaranteed. And yet, we can all relate to the quickening of the heart, the flush of heat to the face and the sweaty palms that go along with taking social risk. Remember the first time you asked someone out on a date?!
On Edge: A journey through anxiety by Andrea Petersen is a fantastic merging of personal narrative and journalism. As someone who is fascinated by anxiety (for both personal and professional reasons) I gobbled this book up in a matter of days. As I was reading, I was continually impressed with the author's candor in sharing her personal experience with the world. And I was grateful. It is through sharing our deepest selves that we risk rejection, and also where we find connection. As I read her book I felt resonance with her struggles and her triumphs. In sharing a piece of herself, she has given a world of people companionship in suffering from one of life's most isolating and painful conditions. If you want to feel less alone in your anxiety, and understand it better from a scientific perspective, this book will be a resource and a balm.
Here's an excerpt:
Fear ambushes me.
It is early on the morning of December 5, 1989. At least early for a college student, which is what I am. A sophomore at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a bucolic campus of creaky A-frame houses, earnest politics, fraternity sweatshirts, and dollar pitchers of beer...
Do you ever get a good idea and then watch it quickly mature and flourish in your imagination? You are reading from your newly published book to an enthusiastic crowd! You are being interviewed on Fresh Air! You are invited to give a TED talk or, if you're a therapist, you see your schedule full of beloved clients whose evolution and growth feels deeply rewarding while your bank account fills with well-deserved inflow of money. When the fantasy fades, you are back where you were when you started: full of good ideas, and with the glow of fruition still a long way off.
There's where you are now, there's where you want to be, and there's everything in between. It's in the space between the dreaming phase and the successful outcome phase where we spend most of our time, and where we can struggle to stay motivated, inspired, and focused. Lynn Grodzki's book, Building Your Ideal Private Practice: A guide for therapists and other healing professionals, offers a bridge between vision and final product. She guides us through the nuts and bolts of advertising, handling money, building an online presence, keeping clients, and other aspects of running a private practice. What is so magical about the book is how she integrates these practical tools with meditations, positive affirmations, and intuitive exercises that help to clarify vision, develop an abundance mindset and engage our creative, passionate, playful sides so often left out of the day-to-day realities of running a business. When I feel stuck, bored, discouraged, or unclear, I open this book and am reminded of the possibilities inherent in each moment, and the practical tools that will help make those possibilities a reality. I highly recommend this book.
Here's an excerpt:
Send Love to Your Practice
Years ago I developed a meditation to enhance therapists' feelings of goodwill and love toward their businesses. I teach this same meditation in almost every presentation or workshop I lead because it does so much good so quickly providing therapists with a quick antidote to fear-based thinking. In the space of the five minutes it takes to complete the meditation, I see therapists make a shift. As they contemplate sending love to their businesses, their faces change. Furrowed brows become smooth, tense jaws lift up into soft smiles, hunched shoulders relax. Here's a written transcript of the meditation. Ask someone to read it to you or make your own tape. Then sit back, listen, and send love to your practice...
The Counselor's Bookshelf:
Sharing the books, articles, podcasts, and other resources I'm drawing from personally, and in my work as a counselor.