Spring comes to the neighborhood

The c0f96d55f907f19adac3b8b649337d745rabapple tree is going to have a great weekend.  I can see her through the burgeoning green of the maple in my side yard.  The crabapple sits in my neighbor’s yard, currently housing an assortment of songbirds who are shuttling back and forth to a local feeder.  But the tree is focused on what’s happening in her flowers, not on the birds.  Birds are secondary, irrelevant.  The pink is deep, almost red, lightening at the edges of buds so swollen that they seem about to burst. The day is sodden and cold, so the buds are just waiting, just gathering moisture and strength, awaiting the next time the sun makes an appearance.  When that happens, well, you better watch out!  The crabapple is going to bloom, with a no-holds-barred eroticism that will pull every bee in a county mile into her orbit.  Watch out!  That sensuous hot pink, the seductive perfume….the tree will be humming as you walk by, humming and buzzing with the activity of a thousand winged things, all frantically doing what they do and the tree herself will be regal, vibrant, basking in the pleasure, taking it all as her due, enjoying the brush of stamen on pistil, the dusting of pollen, the industry of bees, the enjoyment of human passers-by.  Oh, what a weekend she will have.

The sensuality of spring is everywhere.  Birds are loud and demanding.  The frogs in the little pond across the street spend every evening declaring their intentions. The onions and potatoes in my kitchen bins are insistent:  sprouts happen, they tell me, and spring cannot be denied.

I feel it, too.  I feel the urge to create, to make something new.  I dig my hands into the soil of the garden, watch my mind generate ideas, stir up a new recipe in the kitchen.  Long spring days that last well into the evening, warmer weather that draws one outdoors, the smells and sounds and skin sensations of spring….all beg to know, what will you make?  What will you create?  What will you bring to this season of growth and newness?

 

Leave “not good enough” behind….

This New Year, I need to lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking, train for a marathon, meditate every single day, read a novel a month, and quit spending money.  Entirely.    (The subtext:  I’m not good enough the way that I am.)

wpid-IMG_20140128_085300.jpgUnrealistic goals, you say?   You bet!  But we engage in this unrealistic process at least annually, and some of us find that we have to be in continuous self-improvement mode to feel even marginally okay about ourselves.

I have been considering this question of self-improvement.  It is a North American pastime, and weight-loss programs, gyms, and other businesses that cater to our sense of being not-okay tend to make a lot of money in January before the motivation flags.

I am interested in this not-okay-ness.  Many of us have a continuous internal criticism process going on.  When we are engaging in our self-improvement behaviour, perhaps the critical voice quiets, or maybe it changes tone. Maybe we feel a bit better for a little while, but usually the judgment shows up again, or perhaps in another way.

Imagine thinking about everyone the way that you think about yourself.  Imagine what it would be like to view everyone as “not good enough” or in need of change.  If you see your partner, your children, your co-workers as all needing to change (generally we need them to change to suit OUR expectations), you probably also see yourself in just as negative a light.   In fact, I suspect that if you see other people in the light of negative judgment, your inner experience of yourself is probably powerfully negative.  And it feels miserable and yucky to think ill of yourself and everyone else.   It becomes so pervasive that even things that you might otherwise see as good and wholesome take on a negative tone (for example, a friend has success and you cannot be happy for her, but can only think of the reasons why she doesn’t deserve it).

Wall sit wikihow creative commonsI’ve heard people say that they are afraid of not being hard enough on themselves.  They think that they might become dissolute, lazy, pointless, or some other scary thing if they are not continuously correcting and criticizing themselves.  Even the idea of letting go of the internal critical voice is hard to think about because who would I be if I didn’t think all of these things about myself?   The inner critic becomes so much a part of us that we cannot recognize that voice as someone else’s.   We think that we are hard on ourselves because we DESERVE it.  And we are hard on other people because they deserve it, and also because why should they get to be themselves if we can’t allow ourselves that luxury?

There is a way out of this, and it isn’t at the gym.  Or it could be at the gym, but the way out actually begins with being willing to question your experience and your thoughts.   What if you were actually wrong about your need to change?  What if you were really okay just as you are, and that your internal litany of self-criticism is just a reflexive thinking pattern?  Would anything else change in your life if you could flex around this issue?

Changing your thinking sounds easy.   You just have to change your mind.  But your mind has been practicing particular thought patterns for years.   Shifting those pathways is not easy but it is simple.  You just have to keep on doing it, over and over.   Let’s look at specifics.

You're making me ANGRYSTEP 1

It is easiest to start with people other than yourself.   So try this:  think about a person in your life, perhaps a very annoying person.  Notice how your mind generates a story about how annoying this person is, and the specific behaviors that annoy you.  See how fast this happens!  Notice pictures, words in your mind, whatever your mind generates, and then notice how your body reacts to this line of thinking.  Don’t judge yourself, just notice!  Now stop all of that internal stuff and begin to look inside your ideas about this person for something that you really appreciate, respect, or even envy.  See if you can generate appreciation, respect, or even pleasure in yourself about this other person.  Try to stay with this thought and the feeling that comes with it;  notice what happens in your mind.  You may generate other ideas that are about appreciation.  You may want to shift back into negative judgment.   Just notice and try to stay with what you appreciate, respect, or take pleasure in.  Watch your thoughts and how your body responds.

What did you find out?   Remember that you are finding out about YOU, not about the other person.  You are finding out what happens to you in your thinking about the other person.

STEP 2

After you have practiced step 1 for awhile, you might notice that your everyday annoyance and judgment of other people is shifting. A practice that can help you to be less critical generally is to make a requirement for yourself that when you indulge in a critical thought about someone, you have to generate three items about that person that you appreciate.  This will help to shift the balance of your thinking from negative criticism to a place where you are feeling more open and positive.  Notice how your body reacts to your thinking.  Remember, for every one criticism, THREE appreciations.

STEP 3

If you have friends who like to engage in offering judgment and criticism of other people as group activity, notice how this feels to you.   Notice how you feel when you join in, and how you feel if you just observe without judging your friends (or their target).  Watch your body and your mind as these interactions go on.

At some point, you might try the experiment of offering an appreciation about the target within your group.   Do this as an experiment to notice how it feels to you to actually go against the group-think, and to see how the other people in the group respond to you.  Can you tolerate feeling outside the group?  Does the open feeling that comes from appreciation help you to manage any anxiety that comes from stepping outside of the norms of your group?

Silver maple flowersSTEP 4

If you have been doing the steps, you probably have begun softening your stance toward yourself without even noticing.   Check it out;   when you notice that you are criticizing yourself, see how that feels.  Then see if it is possible to make a shift to identify something that you actually appreciate about yourself.  For example, I might have spent more money than I planned but I do a good job of providing for my family.  Or maybe I haven’t quit drinking yet, but I have become honest with my partner about it. You cannot lie to yourself about how well you are doing, because your critic will be on alert for that.  (Curious, isn’t it, how we can lie to ourselves about how BAD we are but we cannot lie to ourselves about our acceptable qualities. That’s a topic for another post.)

If you can agree that self-respect is important you might borrow this strategy from the   Emotional Freedom Technique .  Agree about the thing that needs to change, but take the stance that you can still appreciate yourself.    Here are some words to use:  “Even though I have twenty pounds to lose, I still appreciate and respect myself.”

“Even though I …..whatever your critic claims…….I appreciate and respect myself.”

If you want to be radical about this, you can even say something like “I totally love and appreciate myself.”

CONCLUSION

Now you can assess what you might want to change about yourself.   But you can make that assessment from a platform of self-respect and appreciation for who you really are, and not from a place of shame and humiliation that makes you criticize yourself.   Maybe you want to explore your creativity more.  Maybe you want to try a new sport, or dance more.  Maybe you want to learn a new language, or to write code, or to take care of lost animals.  Whatever it is you want to change, let it be about becoming more yourself in the world, and not about conforming to the image of a critical, judgmental part of the self.

In feeling the openness of living in appreciation rather than judgment, you can enjoy more and take more pleasure in your life.  We all know that life has challenges, struggles, pain and sorrow.  These are part of being human.  Those struggles don’t preclude us from pleasure and enjoyment.  We can have all of that, and more.

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Seasonal rituals to support your life…

Silver maple buds in marchDaylight savings time starts on March 13th.  Before that, we’ll have some enlightening experiences here in the Canadian Maritimes.   Daylight will come by seven am.  This is a Big Deal, considering that in winter, most of us go to work in the darkness.  On the other end, before the clocks change, it will be light-ish outside until seven.   And when the big shift happens, of course it will be light until eight pm.   Unfortunately, the sun will also be rising at eight am (again).   Living on the far western edge of the time zone means something different than living in, say, the middle of the time zone.

But messing around with the clocks is one of those time-honoured things that logically makes no sense whatsoever (you gain an hour?  lose an hour?   Not really…..twenty four equals twenty four) but we do it because everyone else does it.  What makes a bigger difference for most folks is the actual change in daylight hours, which is a function of seasonal change and the tilt of the earth’s axis.

On a practical basis, early morning light means I don’t have to carry a flashlight along with the poop bag when I walk Max the Labrador in the morning.  It means that when I head home from the gym in the early evening before supper I don’t have to turn on my headlights.  It means that outside activities can continue later into the day.   It also means that my internal clock, which appears to be set to “hibernate” from the short days in December, has re-awakened.Silver maple flowers

I love that re-awakening process.  I like to watch it in the world and in myself.   Today, gray and cloudy and peculiar as the light is for late February, I can look out the office window and see the buds on the silver maples.  They are near to bursting:  silver maple buds form in the fall and when the juices start flowing the tress flower very early.  You do have to look pretty closely to see those flowers:  these are not flaming hibiscus calling for attention.  They are pretty subtle, feathery dark red things that open far earlier than most.  I’ve been living side by side with silver maples for ten years now, and I love that they are a very early reminder that the light has changed and that spring is coming, just as inexorably as winter came a few months ago.

Silver maple buds in january
winter maples

Another sign that I am waiting for is the song of chickadees.  Chickadees are a very common bird here;  so common we might miss what signals they bring.   The characteristic “dee-dee-dee” call is heard all winter in our woods.   But spring brings another sound;   a two-pitched dropping tone….maybe like from the fourth to the second of a major scale?   Yeah, my music theory is a little sketchy…but the sound is also characteristic of late winter/early spring in this part of the world.  I have an ancient association with it from my own children’s childhood.  There was a little segment on Sesame Street about tapping maple trees.  The horses pulled a sledge through the woods, while the farmer gathered the sap, and the sounds were of the animals, the sledge and the “dee-dee” of spring chickadees.   My Dearly Beloved, who knows about this stuff, tells me that chickadee call is all about finding a mate.  It is most decidedly a spring thing, and becomes increasingly rare as the season wears on, birds are nesting and raising young, and that biological urge goes underground for another season.5065-chickadee

I notice signs in myself.  I am eagerly awaiting the first of March so I can start feeding my houseplants again.  This is a rule I internalized from somewhere…stop fertilizing in October and start again in March.  I have no idea if there is a good reason to give them a break in the winter but I am willing to do it, as it supports my need for seasonal rituals.   The other thing I notice is my sudden interest in gardening again…what shall I try THIS year?   Where shall I put the tomatoes, for example?  What flowers worked best in the boxes last year?   Those thoughts, like the silver maples, have been in something of a dormant state for a few months.  I actually remember being relieved when I put the garden to bed in the fall…but a little time off from something can make it more attractive.

There is something, for me, at least, in seasonal awareness, and seasonal ritual.   We put little fairy lights on a timer in a big houseplant in October when the days get short.  When March 13th comes, it will be close to the time when we remove them, because the sun provides the light we seek.   There is comfort in these seasonal rituals, small as they are, comfort in listening for the chickadees and watching the maples bloom.   The world around us may be full of chaos, but earth turns, seasons change, and we go on.

Chickadee and Silver Maple blooms are Creative Commons licensed

Winter maples, Leslie Ann Costello

 

Shake it up, baby! On doing morning releasing exercises as a practice

If I am unwilling or unable to feel my emotions as they are happening, then I have to do something to keep them from being in my consciousness. So I tense my musculature, tighten and constrict so that nothing gets through.

Sunrise thanks to creative commons
Okay, so today is only Day Three, and maybe that’s a little early to be making any statements about this new practice of mine. I am trying to commit to a 28 day practice of engaging in the sequence of bioenergetic exercises that David Bercelli has pulled together and labeled “Trauma Releasing Exercises.” Click here to go to his website: trauma prevention

I’m not sure I entirely accept all of the claims made by the proponents of the method but I do know that the first part of the series is profoundly grounding and the second part opens up the opportunity for the body to discharge a lot of energy in the form of movement.  I also know that when I work through a stress-release, stress-release sequence of movements, I usually can feel a lot more and mostly I feel better.

Cat stretch creative commons wikimedia

The FEELING more is what counts for me.  I am pretty good at shutting things down in my organism, i.e., my body.    I  look quite contained and relaxed, and situations and events do not visibly distress me.  I also have chronic tension in my neck and shoulders (my physiotherapist would just shake her head at this point) and sometimes stomach upsets and sometimes trouble with sleeping.  If I am unwilling or unable to feel my emotions as they are happening, then I have to do something to keep them from being in my consciousness.  So I tense my musculature, tighten and constrict so that nothing gets through.  Not feelings, not energy, and if I am particularly tight, I can even limit the flow of fluids through my tissues.  And I am not alone in this:  many people are expert at this sort of shutting down.  So opening up is a good thing!

On the weekend, I was delighted to have a group of bioenergetic therapists and trainees visiting me in my home and office.  We shared a lot of good ideas and some of our particular interests.  Margaret Bernard of PEI led our group through the TRE and that was a great reminder for me that daily bodywork is really a must for me to stay connected to myself.  I can readily connect with my thinking parts but find connecting with the feeling parts takes more attention. TRE helps me to bring that attention and also to let go of the holding and constriction.

So in only three days, I’m noticing that my feet are connecting to the ground differently.   I have increased flexibility in my toes, which is a bigger deal that you think.  Toes are a critical connector to the ground, and thus when we have good movement in our toes, they can hold on better.  Really!  Take off your shoes and try it.  Squinch up your toes and try to walk around. Yes, really do it.  Do it until your feet have some intensity of feeling in them, say, a seven out of ten. (Intensity, also known as PAIN!!!) Then mindfully spread out your toes on the floor, feeling everything (relief?) and try walking with all of them active and engaged.  Aahhh……thank you, toes.

Nicer toes than mine....flexible looking! creatve commons
Nicer toes than mine….flexible looking! creative commons

    So toes.  That’s good.  I also notice that when the vibrations get going,, I can let them move quite readily up my body but that things get hung up at my diaphragm and throat.  This is not new news to me; I know that I have blocks there, pretty typical ones from childhood.   But when I allow myself to make a sound with those vibrations, the blocks ease up a bit.  And when the sound starts to soar, almost like it isn’t part of me, then my body opens up to laughing and sobbing and all sorts of spontaneous movement.  It is very cool.

From traumaprevention.com with thanks
From traumaprevention.com with thanks

I stay aware in this process, too, because I know that these kinds of unusual movements often permit the free flow of thoughts, memories, images, and sensations in the body-mind. This is access to my unconscious, and I don’t want to miss a thing! What I have found is that after I am finished (and how to decide to be “finished?”), I sit to write in my journal and the ideas are also flowing….ideas about so many things, not just the constricted content of my usual thoughts.  Who knew that bioenergetic exercise would also open up my thinking self?

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I’ll keep doing my daily practice and let you know how it proceeds.  In the meantime, you can do TRE also…there are books and videos available from that website and also therapists and bodyworkers who are trained to help you learn the sequence.  You can find a practitioner on the website. You can also just follow  your body into movement and charge and discharge, but I know that can be harder to do than it sounds.   Let me know how you do!  Below is a video about TRE.

TRE video

When Pleasure Fails

Dr. Scott Baum, in his paper “When Love Avails Not” has written about anhedonia in the person whose mistreatment at the hands of others has resulted in the death (and dearth) of love.  That is, in people who have been so badly abused that all love, all capacity for experiencing the general goodness of the world, has been drained or squeezed or ripped out of them.

“People use the word pleasure to cover a broad spectrum of feelings. We could break it down into many categories: relief, gratification, satisfaction, enjoyment, joy, fulfillment—and surely there are more. Not all these meanings are tied to goodness—for example, sadistic revenge can be gratifying, and we ignore that fact at our peril. However, I choose to use “pleasure” as I think Reich and Lowen intended—meaning the capacity to feel connected to the benevolence in the universe. Surely this is related to love….Pleasure’s opposite, anhedonia, is a complicated psychosomatic phenomenon. … One aspect of anhedonia is that the person’s capacity for love — to feel the cushioning, warming envelopment of the energetic field, which I am quite sure exists on some physical level—is destroyed. This can, of course, be a temporary state. In grief, for example, or in the aftermath of a catastrophic event, a person may lose the capacity for pleasure or hopefulness. This loss may be intermittent or persistent, but it is a transient state, and eventually the person’s underlying capabilities to experience pleasure are reinvigorated. This can happen with the passage of time or because of more direct intervention, such as psychotherapy, where this restoration of function is a directly intended outcome.”

Fortunately, most people experience anhedonia as a temporary situation, one in which the capacity for pleasure has become limited.  Focusing on the body’s language helps people to notice both their lack of enjoyment (pleasure, gratification, joy) and also the tiny light that appears as one begins to regain that capacity for feeling.  Often, there is an obstacle that lies in the way of pleasure.   For many of us, it can be our practice of avoidance.  That is, we may believe we have a need to avoid our unpleasant thoughts, memories, images…any of the mental content that generates big unpleasant feelings.   It seems paradoxical:  in order to get back our capacity for enjoyment, we need to dive right into what many people consider the opposite: our rage, our terror, our horror, our despair.

frightened child

In simple terms, when you work to shut down emotional experience in one realm, you effectively shut it down across the affective area in general.  Specifically, suppose I was terrified as a child, spent my very early childhood fearful of parental anger, and subsequent years trying my hardest to keep my parent happy, or at least avoid getting him or her angry.  In order to get out in the world and survive, for example, in order to manage school, I  had to figure out a way to function without being frozen, so I learned to numb out that fear. I  also avoided ever feeling angry, because that would trigger my angry parent.  I probably didn’t feel much in the way of sadness, either, and happiness was a very light surface skim of a feeling, mostly relief because it went with avoiding punishment.

As an adolescent, I might have found places to go where there was a bit more safety, or I might have just assumed that all places were as unsafe as my home.  As an adult, I might actually begin to look at my childhood and realize that everyone didn’t have terrifying parents, and that maybe there are lovely people in my life and I could perhaps learn to be a little trusting.  But feeling good….well, that might not actually be possible.  It might be far to frighterning to feel good….and I certainly don’t want to go into feeling that terror from childhood.  I grew up so I didn’t have to feel that, right?

credit:  http://ttactechtuesday.pbworks.com/w/page/7857889/AT%20Solutions%20for%20Writing
credit: http://ttactechtuesday.pbworks.com/w/page/7857889/AT%20Solutions%20for%20Writing

Unfortunately, that model isn’t reflective of how people actually work….If I want to feel the joy that I think is probably available to me, then I need to let my body feel that terror, that rage, that despair that are all stuck in me somewhere.  Saying yes to pleasure means I have to say yes to all of my feelings, not just the ones I think I’d like to experience.

Mark Nepo, in Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, says “…there are small pressure points of residual feelings that live in our bodies, small pockets of trauma that hold the sediment of the stories that have shaped us.  We carry these residual feelings like emotional time capsules……” and sometimes those time capsules open right up.  We try out best to shut them down, to close them up, and we do it using our bodies.  We tighten, we cut off our breathing, clench the jaw, tense the shoulders, do whatever we can to not feel. But then we miss out.  Nepo goes on to say about those emotional time capsules “… whose small doses of healing are released when we bump into life unexpectedly.  It is natural to recoil from the rupture of those potent feelings but it’s the meaning carried in them over the years that begins to heal us…” And once we have allowed those feelings, actually felt them, allowed the body to open up, expand and integrate the feelings and the meanings we make of our experience, then, THEN, pleasure can become available again.  Baxter State Park, Maine, 2010

We can start the process of feeling pleasure by tuning into sensations. Notice the warmth of your coffee cup on your hands.  Notice the way that the warmth moves into your hands and begins to move up your arms.

Thanks to Katie Huffman, of Looking at Life through Agreeable Hours
Thanks to Katie Huffman, of Looking at Life through Agreeable Hours

Notice where you are blocked, and where you are holding on tightly, so that you cannot feel.  Allow warmth and softening to enter those tight places and notice what else is present to you at this moment.  Notice any sensations of movement within your body, or desire or intention to move in some way.  Notice whatever sensations and feelings arise for you without judging or turning away from what you experience.  Let your experience happen;  let your life flow bringing whatever emotions are present for you.  Feel whatever it is and let it flow.  The path to pleasure can be circuitous, especially if you have cut off the pathways for many years.  But getting back there is so worth the effort.

Many thanks to Dr. Scott Baum, Video of Dr. Baum on bioenergetics

And to Mark Nepo  Mark’s website

Simple pleasures

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There is not much more important than experiencing pleasure for us human-type beings.   Pleasure is a label for certain types of sensory experiences: some things we do are pleasurable.  Sometimes, things that once were pleasurable do not seem to evoke pleasure any more.  When I hear that from people, I take note.  Anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure, often accompanies depression, and sometimes is the most difficult part of depression.

Pleasure is an enormous motivator for us.  We’ll do a lot of things because the consequence is experienced as pleasurable.  These things can range from preparing and eating gourmet cuisine to climbing up rock faces.   And when pleasure as a motivator is not available, due to depression, stress, or preoccupation, then it can be difficult to do some of the things that we need or want to do.

Pleasure is a body experience.  That is, we have an experience of pleasure through our sensory systems. There is also a cognitive component, as there is for many emotionally-based experiences.  We’ll have words or images to reflect our pleasure (“Mmm, mmm, good..”).  We savor pleasure.  Pleasure requires our sustained attention, and when we cannot give our attention to our experience, we have a dearth of pleasure in our everyday life.

When people present in the office with symptoms of depression, I ask a lot about what they enjoy….have they been having any fun lately?  Lots of times people are taken by surprise by this question.  First surprise, then a sudden realization and often sadness….no, no fun lately.  In fact, often people cannot think of anything at all that would be fun.

Finding the pleasure again is essential.  When depression is the diagnosis, we look at shifting thinking, motivating activity, and regulating sleep, appetite, and attention.   Simultaneously, I ask people to start to notice where they can feel pleasure, even the most limited little bit of enjoyment, or even just relief of negative symptoms.   This is a mindfulness task, requiring attention to sensory experience in the here and now, and is a very useful marker for getting better.

Pleasure is our birthright.  We are creatures who have a wonderful and awe-inspiring capacity for pleasure….what will you enjoy today?

What does fall evoke in you?

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This week has had warm, humid and sometimes rainy weather as a result of a late season hurricane out there in the Atlantic. That means diffuse light, brightly coloured leaves glossy and wet, and today, a gray morning of fog (mourning?). Grass is still green, leaves are drifting over lawns, and the tang of wood smoke would not be a surprise. Yet fall still feels gentle, moving in quietly but with purpose. There is some sense of movement in fall, though I know that the movement is toward winter.  But I notice in myself that I also feel movement, a shift toward maybe incubating something, a new project, new ideas, or maybe (more subtly) just a change in point of view.  Below are some views from my morning with Max.

 

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