Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Leaping off the Grid

It's my birthday in 3 days and I'm off for a weeks vacation.
My birthday present to myself is to use this time away to LEAP off the grid.

I'm going to bring poetry books, a sketch pad, and my beloved journal.
No computer in sight. My cell phone will be on silent retreat. Not hooking up to wifi no way, no how.

I'm leaving my therapist self behind and curling up with the me that is left when I step out of that role.

Of course the idea of this experiment makes me have a powerful felt-sense of how attached I am to these portals of communication; how identified I am with my role as a therapist.

As I'm LEAPING - I leave you with this poem....

Sonnets to Orpheus, Part One, IV
You who let yourselves feel: enter the breathing
that is more than your own.
Let it brush your cheeks
as it divides and rejoins beside you.

Blessed ones, whole ones,
you where the heart begins
You are the bow that shoots the arrows
and you are the target.

Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
onto the earth;
for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.

The trees you planted in childhood have  grown
too heavy.  You cannot bring them along.
Give yourself to the air,  to what you cannot hold.
        Rainer Maria Rilke  
(from In Praise of Mortality, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)

I invite you to leap out of a role that you can't imagine being without; one which has defined your sense of purpose and meaning in life  - even for an afternoon or day. Open the back gate of your psyche 'give yourself to the air, to what you cannot hold' - and see what happens.


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pushing Off From the Shenpa Shore

I had vowed to write a blog entry every week.
The last two weeks have been a dry spell.
I love writing, it's my way of exploring the mysteries of life and sharing my ongoing musings with others.
But when I'm distracted with strong emotions or lost in seemingly unstoppable internal narratives that cause worry and rumination - my writing flow jams up.
Basically, I've been having a wholehearted Shenpa party with one guest: My worrisome mind.

Shenpa is a Tibetan word, which Pema Chodron (American Buddhist nun/teacher) translates as the experience of getting hooked, emotionally activated, caught in a sticky feeling. It has a quality of urgency where we feel the urge to feed and escalate the troubling emotional experience with wholehearted gusto.

I just love the word Shenpa.
Something about the sound of it evokes the nitty-gritty, real-time tangle of emotional activation and reactivity. When Pema explains Shenpa she spells out the word with a dramatic pause on the "N" and says "N as in nutcase." This is a great reminder to bring humor to the moments when humor is not our go-to resource. Humor is enlivening and, if we let it, can expand our limited perspective of what is possible with the challenges we are facing. Pema is also pointing out that, yes, at times, we are all nut cases. Join the human race; get on the bozo bus, all good, nothing going wrong.

Shenpa is like getting our canoe caught in a tangle of deep rooted reeds on the banks of the river. We see the river; want to get into the creative, pleasurable, open flow of our lives and selves - but somehow, during a Shenpa attack, pushing off from the shore seems impossible.

I'm assuming that we all get tangled in Shenpa; we all hit the reeds and feel off course in honoring what we hold to be most valuable, meaningful, and true in our lives. We question if we were ever on course. We get caught in the reeds of strong emotions and troubling inner stories about how difficult life is; how we are incapable of rising to whatever is on our plate; how we are lacking in innumerable ways; how someone else is not being what we need or want; how things are not going the way we had hoped. Judgement and blame take over.  Fear lurks. We contract, feel hopeless, confused, exhausted and set up camp on the Shenpa Shore. (Yes, I'm really milking this Shenpa metaphor.)

In the grip of Shenpa we also lose confidence in our abundant inner resources, natural intelligence, and resilience. It's like we are blindfolded, bound, gagged and barricaded in a corner. The barricaded state and accompanying loss of confidence and hope - often have to do with the stories we tell ourselves about what is possible. We have a limited view of who we are and what we are capable of being and achieving. We usually set narrow parameters for what is possible based on what we learned long ago in the limited classroom of our childhood (implicit core beliefs).

My experience of this kind of Shenpa Party on the Shenpa Shore is that at some point, when I think I can't take it one moment longer and I've exhausted myself from clawing and cursing at the tangled reeds; worked myself into a frenzy of worry, fear, doubt and self-judgment - something dawns on me: I can decide to be with my emotional activation and inner stories with the trusty tools of radical compassion and open, loving curiosity.  I can push off from the shore simply by naming and taming my fears and self-judgments and questioning and updating the files on my limited stories about what is possible.

Yes, not so easy to do, but simple in that it only requires my willingness to pause and look down into the murky, reed-filled waters, reach in and slowly, gently, lovingly begin the untangling process.  When I do this, I notice that the Shenpa gradually subsides and I'm pushing off from the shore; back in the flow of my river.

That's just what I did before sitting down to write this musing.
I found out that my belief that I must say something wise and brilliantly original in my writing or write nothing at all - gets me caught up in the Shenpa Reeds.
It took a bit of time to untangle that bundle of reeds but I stayed right where I was, all blocked and fearful and worried and hopeless and kept reaching into those murky waters (as deeply as necessary) with compassion, curiosity, humor, and patience.

So as usual, I invite you to test out my remedy for Shenpa.
Notice when you're having a Shenpa Party with a guest of one, caught in the Shenpa Reeds, setting up camp on the Shenpa Shore - and experiment with using my way of pushing off from the shore.

I welcome your feedback on how your experiment unfolds.


Another great resource for pushing off from the Shenpa Shore:
Tara Brach on Standing Still and Listening

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Radical Compassion

This morning I sat in my garden thinking about the idea of radical compassion.

This thought came by way of a bee landing on my knee. I'm not fond of bees - they sting. I usually react out of fear, jump up, curse, swat, and run for cover. Generally lose my cool. Yet this time I decided to do something different. I just let it be there. I pushed the pause button, breathed deeply and reminded myself to  be curious and open toward this fellow creature. In a matter of seconds the bee gently buzzed away.

That's when the notion of cultivating compassion for all beings (even bees) kicked in.

All beings? Yes, a very tall order and an idea that engenders heated debate. How can we have compassion for all beings - when all beings do not seem to engender compassion? It is a complex topic, which most scholars from all domains have weighed in on with great eloquence. But since I was sitting in my garden on a very hot day, my logy summer mind went in a less scholarly direction.

First I reminded myself my definition of compassion: Fierce, tender caring for the wellbeing of all sentient beings. The wish that all beings be free from suffering. The intention to cause no harm. (Of course all beings even includes ourselves!)

Yes, this is a very Buddhist inspired definition. But after all, I am Buddhist inspired. It's a very nuts and bolts philosophy on how to live in a way that brings me peace in the midst of my own challenges. And anyway - "sentient" -  simply means everybody (including bees) even the bodies that bother us, hurt us, and don't offer us compassion; even the parts of ourselves that we think are not worthy of compassion and understanding.

Then I thought of my work with my clients and how the topic of compassion inevitably arises. It certainly arises for me in every moment of sitting with someone who is experiencing emotional suffering. Compassion is my home base as a therapist. Without compassion, I lose sight of the humanity and beauty of the other. Without compassion my heart shuts down. Without compassion I get into fix-it mode.

Compassion also arises as a core healing element for my clients in their process of reducing emotional distress. I always know that the healing process is taking root when I witness true compassion (for self and other) breaking open in my clients. Whatever the specific concerns being explored - compassion has a way of opening us to new and freeing ways of being, feeling, thinking, and acting. It's kind of fool proof. It's like a portal into happiness.

But the rub is that compassion for self; compassion for others is, without a doubt, the number one most difficult quality to summon when strong emotions kick in. Suspending judgment, opening our hearts, softening, listening with an open mind, when in the clutches of inner or outer conflict, is butt-kicking difficult. This is where the radical part of compassion comes in. It takes a radical shift in perspective to summon compassion when we feel a natural impulse to close our heart toward ourselves and others.

I've come to the conclusion that FEAR is what makes compassion so difficult to access. I suspect that we all fear that if we soften and really open our hearts in a fiercely caring way, we are letting down our shield of self-protection. We convince ourselves that self-protection is intelligent. But self-protection is not as smart as we think it is. It is certainly not a comfortable and safe place to be. Not really. It doesn't truly protect us from anything or anyone - it just generates more hardening of the heart and emotional distress. Don't get me wrong - I celebrate personal boundaries, advocating for our needs, not allowing others to harm us. These all represent radical self-compassion in action. Self-protection is another beast. Self-protection closes us off to ourselves and others and produces more judgment, more fear, and most importantly - disconnects us from true intimacy with ourselves and others.

Radical compassion is not for the faint of heart. It does require courage. Perhaps it is the most essential quality for living a life of meaning, purpose, and happiness. As the Dalai Lama says: "Compassion is not a luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability; it is essential for human survival."

So I invite you to ponder the theme of radical compassion. Check out for yourself if compassion is all that I'm beefing it up to be. Experiment with softening when hardening, judgment and fear kick in. Let down the shield of self-protection in small moments. See what happens. Let me know what you find out.


Resources for your pondering: 
Neuroscience and Compassion
More From the Dalai Lama on Compassion
Sharon Salzberg on Compassion and Wisdom
Jack Kornfield on Forgiveness and Compassion
Pema Chodron on Awakening Compassion