We speak of the soul as being an abstract thing, an ephemeral entity. Our thoughts and our emotions are also non-material, but we tend to give them more attention. In fact, we are very much swayed by their influences. All of these experienced are housed within our bodies – our concrete, material forms. Yet, we often do not pay attention to how inter-connected these aspects of ourselves our. To rejuvenate our spirits, we must be mindful of our thoughts, feelings and bodies.
Our bodies contain our experiences. They are affected by what we hold inside, and in turn, our emotions, thoughts and spirits are affected by the quality of the body. Winemakers understand this relationship between the container and the contained. The quality and taste of a wine can be manipulated by its container. Wine aged in an oak barrel has a different “personality” than a wine kept in stainless steel. The wine itself contains tannins, proteins and lactic acids that interact with one another and cause the container to produce certain changes.
Similarly, the “quality” of our body will inevitably affect our relationship to our spirit. The body is sending us signals constantly, non-verbal messages that we sometimes notice, such as a headache, and sometimes either ignore or overlook. Paying attention to these messages can sometimes reveal answers to questions we have or provide information about our present experiences. Often serious ailments are discovered when we are quiet enough to listen to the body, or if we do not listen, the messages and sensations become more and more severe until we can no longer ignore them.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and author, urges us to be aware of what we take into the body. What we eat, see, listen to and indulge in are all ways that we “feed” ourselves. Watching certain TV shows can make us feel weighed down, just as eating a bag of potato chips can. Fighting, reading negative stories in newspapers and listening to music that irritates our soul can all have an impact on us. It is probably not necessary to cut off all of these things entirely, but it is important to be aware of how they affect us and when we need to back away from them.
1 Take an inventory of what you “feed” yourself everyday. Notice the quality of food that you feed your body, the conversations you have, and the messages that you listen to on TV, the radio or online. Take a good look at what you are influenced by day in and day out.
2 Ask yourself how you are being affected by your daily diet of food, conversation and messages. Are there things that you would like to stop “feeding” yourself, but are addicted to? Are there things you could incorporate into your life that would make you feel lighter? What can you do to take back a little control?
3 Listen to your body. Check in with it during the day. Notice the sensations you have, the aches and pains and the places of ease. Ask your body what it is trying to communicate to you.
Rejuvenation begins with attention to our whole selves. How are you setting the stage for this process to begin inside of you? How can you “feed” yourself to build a strong foundation for growth?
February and March seem to drive people to counseling. The excitement of the holidays are over and the relief of spring is still months away. Many people proclaim that these last months of winter “drag on.” People seem to feel burdened by responsibilities and weary of the dark days.
When we take a vacation, we intend to “get away from it all.” We leave behind our work and routines that may be stressful or overwhelming. Vacation is a time for rest, renewal and release. We come back feeling energized and ready to engage in our daily lives once more.
The importance of resting from daily work is seen across time and culture. A day of rest is built in to many religious ideologies. Laws mandate days of rest in work weeks. Siestas continue to be a large part of many societies. We seem to understand the importance of rest and relaxation. Yet, how many of us truly allow ourselves to leave everything behind? Weekends and vacations seem to be full of errands, activities, schedules, maps and expectations.
For a vacation to benefit us, it may help for the body to “get away,” but it is essential that the mind does. Our thoughts fuel all of our actions, emotions and decisions. The body may be at rest, but the mind can still be doing summersaults in a vain attempt to “get somewhere” or “solve something.”
In his book, Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham writes, “We’re accustomed to living a life based on running after our wild mind, a mind that is continually giving birth to thoughts and emotions.” Mipham calls these vacations for the soul, “peaceful abiding.” He suggests, “When we experience a moment of peacefully abiding, it seems far-out. Our mind is no longer drifting, thinking about a million things. The sun comes up or a beautiful breeze comes along – and all of a sudden we feel the breeze and we are completely in tune…before we were so busy and bewildered that we didn’t even notice the breeze.”
This week, try giving your mind a vacation, or several mini vacations. When you notice yourself feeling tired or stressed, take five minutes to let yourself be still. Let your thoughts, perceptions and expectations leak out while you focus on your breath. Better yet, take a five minute mind break every few hours of the day. Let go of everything you think you should do and just be in the moment. If your mind resists, notice and over-ride it.
“This art of resting the mind and the power of dismissing from it all care and worry is probably one of the secrets of energy in our great men.” Captain J.A. Hadfield
Rest brings energy and rejuvenation. There cannot be one without the other. The journey of rejuvenation invites you to feel the breeze.
Conflict is inevitable. Within ourselves, amongst ourselves and even in our environment. Conflict means to “be in opposition.” What could be more natural than pairs of opposites? Even as I sit on this chair, there are opposite forces at work. Gravity pulling me down and the chair holding me up. The “struggle” between opposites creates wondrous things such as; thunder, fire and even balsamic vinaigrette. Our reality is full of friction. It stands to reason, then, that conflict would also be inherent within relationship. After all, we are complex entities.
In my last post, I introduced Jung’s shadow concept; the idea that we suppress the qualities about ourselves that we do not like. This is a prime example of opposing forces at work within the individual. When these forces come into conscious opposition, there is conflict or crisis. We think we should behave one way, but act out something different. We secretly desire something, but do not accept the urge. Conflict.
If such conflict is almost perpetually being played out within each of us, it is no wonder that we project this conflict onto one another. Desires, expectations, behaviors and insecurities collide like a never ending game of bumper cars. Most people who come to my office for help with relationships state conflict as the culprit. We are uncomfortable with conflict. Even those people who seem to generate it are often worn down by it. Conflict gets the better of us.
Nothing that we see as good in our lives is created without opposing forces at work. It can’t be. Opposing force sets everything in motion. I often look back on my life and realize that times of intense conflict served to bring about something that I appreciate or enjoy. In Jungian psychology, paying attention to the conflict within ourselves is the key to unlocking freedom. In other words, addressing the monster may be the only way to obliterate it.
In the recent “fairy tale” stories of Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling, the evil wizard Lord Voldemort cannot be confronted by anyone other than Harry. He is Harry’s evil counterpart, the two joined in a way that makes it impossible for anyone else to intervene. They are opposite forces creating friction and Harry alone must contend with the conflict. Yet, in the end, it is really not Harry who destroys the evil wizard, it is Lord Voldemort himself. Harry’s willingness to confront the evil lord alone allows for his destruction. Harry was always going to win that battle as long as he chose to face it. And don’t forget, it was Lord Voldemort who began the process of making Harry into a hero.
We are all faced with the choice of how to handle conflict every day. Yet, most of us don’t realize that there is energy to harness from conflict. What would be different in your life if you began to take mastery over the energy that conflict creates? How would your perspective change if you began to see the benefit of conflict? This week, in the quiet space you have created for yourself, examine the conflict in your life. Ask yourself what it is trying to teach you.
Our culture today revolves around action and progress. Technology and industry are growing rapidly and changing our world along with them. It seems as if everyone is trying to get somewhere else, be someone else, achieve something else. We value progress…in our world, in ourselves and in others. Yet, this leaves little room for acceptance and perhaps, contentedness.
Few people seem to be content with who they are in this moment, where they are and what they have. They act as if they are deficient. Not enough.
I see this every week in my office. People who feel they aren’t smart enough, talented enough, loved enough, worthy enough. People who feel their partners or children aren’t behaved enough, attentive enough, etc. Yet, what they are really telling me is that they don’t want to feel stupid, dull, or rejected. They don’t want their partners and children to be naughty, selfish or clueless. And the list of “defects” that we don’t want ourselves or others to be can go on and on. How scary. How daunting. How exhausting!
These “defects” that we desperately try to ignore can plague us. They can make us feel vulnerable, guilty, bad and abnormal. Yet, if all of us experience these shadows, doesn’t that make us …well, normal?
Carl Jung wrote extensively about our “shadow” side. Jung believed that the shadow consisted of all of those thoughts, feelings, behaviors and desires that we try to ignore or push away. They are the parts of ourselves that we think are bad or unacceptable. Some of us go to great lengths to disassociate ourselves with the shadow. Yet, what is pushed down, Jung said, will come up eventually.
This process is highlighted in the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Dr. Jekyll was a kind and loving doctor who found a way to transform himself into an opposite personality, Mr. Hyde, who was entirely without a moral compass. Dr. Jekyll was then leading a double life. One side of him was empathetic and ethical and the other murdered and manipulated.
Jung implied that we are all like Dr. Jekyll. We all have desires, urges, thoughts and instincts that we repress and detest even though we may not act on them. In Jung’s opinion, we must reconcile ourselves to the shadow. We must recognize and accept this part of ourselves as normal in order to maintain control over it.
What aspects of yourself do you see as defective? What thoughts, desires or “defects” do you try to ignore or suppress? This week, take a peak at your shadow. Begin an acquaintance with the side of yourself that you reject. The first step to accepting yourself is realizing that you are much more than you thought you were.
Last week we spent our quiet moments surveying the contents of our minds; our thoughts. Without judgment, we noticed what thoughts continue to swing around in our awareness when we aren’t paying attention. Perhaps you were surprised with what you found, perhaps discouraged, perhaps overwhelmed. Whatever your reaction, accept this as your starting place.
Identifying our thoughts gives us leverage. If we know they are there, we can disengage from them. How, you may ask, can I disengage from a thought? Don’t thoughts come from “me?” Who am I without my thoughts?
Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, asserts that thoughts are not “facts.” They are experiences to be noticed, but not believed. If thoughts are not facts, then they certainly can’t define who we are. Yet, many of us spend our lives dominated and defined by the thoughts that arise within us. We respond and react to them as if they constitute the only reality.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Men are not prisoners of fate, but prisoners of their own minds.” So, how do we find freedom from our endless thoughts, assumptions and perceptions? I propose three ways.
1 One way to find freedom from our thoughts is to give them our attention. Blow-ups, fights and conflicts are often subdued when people felt heard. The same can be true of our minds. If you notice yourself being bombarded with thoughts this week, consider setting aside a small amount of time to pay attention to them. Just listen and acknowledge or write them out. You’re likely to find that given some attention, they become less persistent.
2 Ultimately, we want to disengage from our thoughts; to stop identifying with them. Linehan teaches that a thought is “just a thought.” No more, no less. In DBT, participants are often encouraged to imagine a flowing river or a sky of moving clouds that they can “throw” their thoughts into over and over. In your quiet moments this week, practice noticing your thoughts, accepting their existence, and giving them up. Over and over and over.
3 Disengaging from our thoughts means we are back in control. As you learn to stop identifying with your thoughts, decide which ones you want to react to and which ones you don’t. A thought cannot cause you to react. You decide to react from a much deeper place. Freedom from thought arises with the realization that we can choose which thoughts to respond to, and which thoughts to simply notice and let go.
Rejuvenation is about discovery, not about a final destination. No matter what your experience is like this week, congratulate yourself for just noticing it.
Photo by Bet Mercer
This week on our journey to a rejuvenated spirit, we will take a good hard look at our mind. Actually, we won’t “look” at all, because the mind can’t be seen. It also can’t be touched, tasted, smelled or heard. We experience our mind in a way that can only be grasped by ourselves. It is our personal sanctuary, or our personal torment.
Buddhism refers to the untrained mind as a chattering monkey that jumps from branch to branch, ceaselessly moving and making noise. Distracted by endless thoughts, assumptions and perceptions, we go through life as slaves to our mental musings. The mind is selfish. It will never stop trying to get our attention. And we often give in without even realizing it, slipping comfortably into the mind’s control as if it were a pair of slippers. Our bodies, our emotions, our spirits and even hidden thoughts fade into the shadows.
Author and teacher Pema Chödrön said, “Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.” And what exactly is “out there”? Simply put, what is “out there” is really “in here.” Our perceptions of the world, ourselves and one another create the reality that we live in. Yet, how many of us take a good look at what perceptions are creating our reality?
The mind may be like a monkey, but it can also feel like a monster. Our thoughts are often painful, confusing or troubling; and these are just the thoughts on the surface. Those that lurk below our consciousness can be even more frightening. Remember those childhood fears of monsters under the bed and ghosts in the closet? All one needed to do was look under the bed skirt to confront the fear. Monsters demand confrontation. There is nothing else to do about them. Likewise, our beliefs can grow more daunting the longer we dodge them. “We can spend our whole lives escaping from the monsters of our minds,” says Chödrön.
If the spirit is to be rejuvenated, the mind can no longer be the “alpha.” This week, we will watch our own minds. As Jane Goodall studied her chimps, we will study the swinging monkeys that are our thoughts, ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and perceptions. We will step back from them and observe without judgment. We will watch how they affect our emotions, our urges and our actions. We will be curious. We will begin to explore the terrain that is us.
In order to begin a journey of rejuvenation, we need a place to retreat and search for guidance. We need a starting point, a foundation. We rely on sources of direction and guidance. Even the best sailor needs a compass. During this lifetime, you will also have a guide – You. I should say, the Real You. The You that presents itself when the mind becomes quiet and quits trying to define who you are.
People call this Real You many things; spirit, soul, conscience, energy, etc. Whatever word you may use, it can only be found by making a commitment to becoming still and quiet and by listening to the wisdom within.
In our society, this seems like a luxury. How does anyone have time to be still and quiet when every day is full of activity? In the American culture, we focus on the health of the physical body. We spend time and money to make ourselves look and feel better; doctors visits, massage, dental work, hair products, gym memberships, and on and on. Emotional and spiritual wellness is equally important, but we don’t seem to realize the importance of spending energy on our souls. If this part of ourselves is overlooked, however, no amount of attention to our physical body will help us feel balanced.
To find rejuvenation, we must commit time and energy to our spirits. We must take a journey to find our true selves. Across many spiritual traditions, this is done with stillness. Finding a time to commit to quiet contemplation is the foundation of this journey. When we develop that foundation, we will find that the peace we find in our quiet time begins to spill out into our everyday life. The Book of Balance and Harmony explains,
“When you are mindful in times of rest, you are observant in times of movement. If you have self-mastery in times of rest, you can be decisive in times of movement…Rest is the foundation of movement, movement is the potential of rest.”
A time of stillness is essential for growing rejuvenation.
We make allowances every day for things that have become habits for us; brushing our teeth, reading the paper, making coffee, or watching our favorite shows. To find stability, our time of stillness must become a daily habit. Even ten minutes a day can begin to shift the course of our lives. So what do you do during ten minutes of stillness? For now, do just that. Be still. Be quiet. Watch your mind. Our task is to find a time to devote to this journey and to simply spend ten minutes being alone with ourselves.
In later posts, we will explore ways to quiet the mind and find more stillness. For now, find your compass. Commit to making this journey a living reality.
In counseling, we talk about people being “stretched” by their willingness to engage in an exploration of themselves. The word “stretched” indicates that two opposite ends are being pulled in two opposite directions. So, what do we mean when we talk about being stretched?
One of the premises of yoga is being able to notice pairs of opposites – both in the body and in the mind. Yogis pay attention to polarities, noticing their relationship to one another. Dialectical Behavior Therapy also helps clients notice and accept opposites, and to strive to maintain a balance between them. We label things as “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong,” “happy” and “sad,” but there is a magnetic pole between those pairs of opposites, making them dependent on one another and not mutually exclusive. Opposites can both be true at the same time. Getting a new job can be both “good” and “bad” at the same time. What is important, is noticing the relationship between the opposites, not the labels.
Trees are an excellent metaphor. A tree roots itself deep in the ground. In fact, this is the first thing it does as a seedling; it begins to explore the deep underneath. As it grows, it continues to reach downward, seeking nourishment and finding stability. If a tree does not reach down into that depth, it will die. A tree also grows upward. It spreads itself high and wide and produces incredible beauty as well as nourishment and protection for others. This tree continues its growth in opposite directions for its entire lifespan because it needs both to survive.
We, too, need this opposite growth. If we focus only on grounding and settling, we may miss out on personal growth, mystery, discovery and giving to others. If we focus only on expanding, we may lack the stability of knowing who we are and making decisions.
Where do you tend to put your time, attention and energy? What would change for you if you sought to balance yourself, to stretch, to embody the wisdom of a tree?
A well-known psychotherapist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, Carl Gustav Jung, spent his life delving into the overlapping waters of spirituality and psychotherapy. Jung was interested in the way human beings experience the ethereal and divine in every day life. He taught that symbols, whether in dreams or in the waking state, represent ideas and concepts that can’t be captured in words or pinned down indefinitely by any culture.
As a psychotherapist, Jung studied the psychological process of coming to terms with these existential and spiritual concepts. He sought to understand the relationship of spiritual symbols and archetypes to the human psyche or soul. In his commentary on, The Secret of the Golden Flower, Jung compares modern day psychological symptoms to our primitive reactions to the gods.
“…we imagine we have left such phantoms of gods far behind. But what we have outgrown are only the word – ghosts, not the psychic facts which were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as possessed by our autonomous psychic contents as if they were gods. Today they are called phobias, compulsions, and so forth, or in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus, but the solar plexus, and creates specimens for the physician’s consulting room, or disturbs the brain of the politicians and journalists who then unwittingly unleash mental epidemics.”
In therapy, clients often describe their behaviors as uncharacteristic of themselves and difficult to control, as if an outside force were propelling their actions. It’s not difficult to see how the Greeks could have believed that circumstances and reactions were influenced by unseen, powerful deities. Today, a similar relationship is found when people feel like slaves to their own mental health symptoms and, either willingly or not, submit to their influences.
In days past, the remedy was to appeal to the gods for help and pity; to respect them and attempt to understand their nature. Yet, this same remedy is not applied to neurosis. What is it that makes neurosis and symptoms so less approachable than powerful and unpredictable gods? Perhaps the idea of gods allowed people to explore depths within themselves from a safer vantage point; places that one would not willingly venture into. Perhaps resolution with the psyche today comes by approaching our phobias, compulsions and symptoms with the same respect, reverence, curiosity and acceptance that men and women used to make peace with the gods, and consequently, with themselves.
Why do some people rise above suffering while others are destroyed by it? This was the question that led Dr. Marsha Linehan to create Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Marsha discovered that those who did not suffer were able to accept the pain in their lives. Those who couldn’t accept the pain, suffered. Acceptance seems like an easy concept. It’s mandatory for us to accept situations in life that we can’t control, like the weather or someone else’s mood. Yet, acceptance is often mistaken for admittance. We may admit that we can’t make it stop raining, but unless we let go of our internal struggle with Mother Nature, we are not accepting.
The internal struggle is often more painful and damaging than the outward one. A relationship ending may feel like a threat to our existence, when in reality, it is a common occurrence. The threat is emotional, and emotions take us on a roller coaster ride that leaves us feeling miserable.
The Greek mythological story of Pandora highlights this concept. At her creation, Pandora was given gifts from the gods. Hermes gave her a golden box he told her never to open. Pandora was happy and provided for, but slowly she became restless with curiosity about the box. Her mind buzzed with guesses and reasons why she should open it. So preoccupied with these thoughts she became that one day she opened the box. Out flew the ills of mankind; disease, age, famine, insanity.
Acceptance cannot be won with the mind alone. Pandora’s thoughts only served to increase her restlessness and cause her to forget her contentedness with all else. In the end, Pandora’s inability to truly accept and be at peace with what she could not control, led to great suffering.
DBT utilizes Eastern Philosophical ideas urging people to “go toward” that which we must accept. Our thoughts, our feelings, our circumstances, our urges. To accept these, we must know them and know them well. Acceptance asks us to fully embrace what we want to avoid or discard. Only in embracing these unwanted pieces of ourselves or the world, will we find the ability to accept them and be at peace.
In The Tracker by Tom Brown Jr., the author writes about his acceptance of cold weather by embracing and inviting it. He would stand half clothed in the chilly air until his body and his mind no longer resisted. With time and practice, cold weather brought him joy, not pain.
What are you resisting in your life? Does your suffering come from the thing itself, or from your thoughts, feelings and perceptions about it? What would change if you stood in the midst of it all and just let go?
The Spirit of Therapy
Where psychotherapy interacts with our mental, emotional, spiritual, physical and relational wellbeing.