Elder Kindness

During this pandemic with such a focus on ‘distancing’, how do we connect?  How do we build relationships when society tells us, do not touch, do not sing, and most of all do not hug? Although at times it feels as though the world is falling apart, my experience has shown me that in the midst of chaos, compassion still flows. 

In these stressful times, it is easy to become trapped by our own judgments. When looking for our expectations, we can miss Compassion when it arrives in strange and wondrous forms. A technique for stepping outside the spiral of ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’ thinking is curiosity. Being curious helps keep the heart open. It is in those moments of an exploring mind-heart that  Compassion sneaks in. Although it may not be in the form or shape we expect, it arrives. It can do so even in everyday interactions as it did for me recently.

Wanting to visit relatives dealing with terminal conditions despite the pandemic, I booked flights and a rental car with some trepidation. The day before departure I realized that a midsized car was not going to provide the room needed for us to drive two elders with their health aide, a wheelchair,  and a walker. The blow to me was the matter-of-fact voice of the car rental agent explaining to me that because I had paid through a travel service, I would have to go back online, cancel and reserve a new vehicle as well as pay change fees. 

As I dejectedly said, “OK”,  the agent asked why I needed to switch vehicles. His question led to a discussion about the sadness that goes with the appreciation of being able to make one last in-person visit to a loved one. We connected as he said, “I know what you are going through because I’m experiencing it too.”  He ended our call by telling me not to make any calls or go online. He told me to show up and expect a minivan waiting for us. Compassion had arrived in the form of a young man working at a rental car agency. Being open with my sadness had led to a connection with kindness.

Staying open is a way to receive and share kindness. Take a moment to step outside and breathe. Notice the trees or some plants. Thank them for breathing out oxygen for you. When at the grocery store, you might stand in the florist department. For a moment experience the array of colors shared by the flowers. Thank the clerks for setting out beauty for shoppers to enjoy. Notice their smiling eyes. We can sense smiles and share gratitude even with masks.

As David Reynolds explains in his Playing Ball on Running Water, “We have nothing but now. That moment and this reality are all that is presented to us for action.” What many Moritist and Gestalt therapists explain is that our actions influence our world. I relearned at recent courses at the Boulder Psychotherapy Institute, how to notice our crazy thoughts and fears instead of acting on them. Making conscious choices we move with purpose to create constructive change in our lives. With open hears we can set aside fears and welcome in the kindness of strangers. We can breathe in the beauty of living beings surrounding us. By doing so, we connect with Compassion.

Zen stones with flower

Carol O’Dowd, MPA, M.Div., CAS, Psychotherapist and Spiritual Counselor
Certified Mindfulness Instructor
Prajna Healing Arts, Inc.
720-244-2299 
www.prajnahealingarts.com

rose with thorns

Longchenpa, a Tibetan teacher holds up for us a challenging path for living in his poem, Meditation on Afflictions. He captures how the challenges we face are truly gifts that guide us to liberation and happiness. His poem asks us to connect with Wisdom-Compassion flowing constantly in our lives, even in strange and wondrous ways.  I hope you enjoy his poem and the translation for ‘Dharma is ‘Truth’.  – Carol

 

Assailed by afflictions, we discover Dharma and find the way to liberation.  

    Thank you, evil forces!

When sorrows invade the mind, we discover Dharma and find lasting happiness.

    Thank you sorrows!

Through harm caused by spirits, we discover Dharma and find fearlessness. 

    Thank you ghosts and demons!

Through people’s hate, we discover Dharma and find benefits and happiness. 

    Thank you, those who hate us! 

Through cruel adversity, we discover Truth and find the unchanging way. 

    Thank you, adversity! 

Through being impelled to by others, we discover Dharma and find the essential meaning. 

    Thank you, all who drive us on! 

We dedicate our merit to you all, to repay your kindness. 

  – Longchen Rabjampa

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Watching the protests on the news carried me back in time to my protest days in the 70s and the inspiration I gained from Martin Luther King. His teaching, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” is so relevant for these heartbreaking times.

In times of extreme stress, we feel lost and do not know what to do. Although counter-intuitive, when under such pressure is when we need to practice compassion for self and others. Breathing sustains life, but we feel threatened by a killer virus lurking in the air, and the fear of suffocation by those tasked with protecting us. Take a deep breath.

Now is the time to care for self and others. Doing so, we will not fall victim to the anger and violence that hatred spews.

Now is the time to remember we are all human beings doing the best we can, and that includes you and me. As Nelson Mandela so beautifully explained, “No one is born hating another.”  In the memory of George Floyd, we cannot allow hatred and fear to drive our actions. We cannot allow ourselves to be reduced to the kind of cruel behavior that killed him. Instead, we can practice opening open our hearts by welcoming others without labeling or judging.

Oddly enough, it is not a matter of looking for goodness. Goodness can be a judgment that drives our anxiety up when we don’t find it. An alternative is to focus on the question, “what will do no harm?” In stressful situations, that is not an easy task. Yet, as horrific as the killing of George Floyd is, we can honor his life by taking up the challenge to generate solutions instead of more anxiety and fear. We need to look for ways to help, not harm. The problem is that solutions are found by working with those we label as different from us.

As a young war protestor in the early ’70s serving in student government, I got to know many in law enforcement who were truly good people. Several student groups backed by national organizations organized a large rally at our university. I was surprised to learn that many campus security officers feared the potential for violence, as were many of the students. As a student government representative, I helped campus security negotiate a deal with local and state police. If the protestors stayed on campus property and marched on only half of the public street next to the campus, the police would let the event proceed. After negotiating with protest organizers, the march was allowed to continue.

The time was the 70’s, the place was the South, and I was a short white woman 20 years of age. That meant I was just a girl. Yet, I was the one who organized some young men in student government and a few in the criminal justice department who had plans to go into law enforcement. We spaced ourselves out and walked down the centerline of the street as the marching occurred. We yelled at, pleaded with, and pulled on protestors to keep them on the ‘campus’ side. When police officers saw something that caused them to want to approach the protestors, we held up our hands with a firm, “Wait!” and then handled the matter for them. Despite being surrounded by hundreds of people, I remember the march as a lonely one. I and the few men I had gathered to help, walked alone. We walked in an open expanse of the street between protestors who held signs and shouted words of anger on one side and police officers lined up with batons in hand, guns on hips, and hints of fear in their eyes.

As the march ended, dusk had arrived, and student protestors were walking back to their quarters to celebrate getting their speeches in the press. The police began strolling back to cars and vans. Having thanked my crew of march organizers, I turned to walk back to the dorm. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by the head of campus security and several local police officers. Looking up into the faces of these tall and big men, the campus security officer said to me, “Miss, these men would like to speak with you.” All I could think was, “Oh no. What now?” One of the officers stepped out in front of the others, took his cap off, and put in under his arm. As he stated in a firm voice, “Thank you.” the other officers began nodding their heads at me as well. I was truly touched. 

After telling them I was glad I could help, I added a comment about how together we had made sure no one was hurt. Everyone broke into big smiles. During that brief moment, no one was a girl, no one was a cop, and no one was campus security. Instead, we all were grateful human beings happy that we had done no harm.

We all can contribute to peace by not adding to the anger and hatred. Each of us can take responsibility for sharing compassion, and being responsible means being able to respond. We can use a few moments to play with a grandchild, send loving-kindness to all involved in a problematic situation, share a card or take a break from the news to enjoy the sunshine on our face. We all can respond with an open heart. We can reduce our anxiety by shifting our focus to doing no harm. Then might even enjoy a moment by engaging in a random act of kindness on an unsuspecting stranger.    

AcceptingAccepting – A Practice for Managing Anxiety 

How often have you listened to someone tell you, “Just accept ‘it.’ It is what it is.” If the ‘it’ is something painful or even horrible to you, how helpful is such advice? No wonder the result from such information often adds to the feeling of being trapped or overwhelmed by anxiety. The “It” becomes something solid and in control of us as we are frozen by contemplating how to live with it.  For many, the message is to accept that you cannot work, you cannot go out with friends, or for some, your loved one is sick or dying. 

When such conditions are labeled as It, they generate stress and anxiety. In response to all the fear associated with the pandemic, the World Health Organization has created a new diagnosis code for Anxiety Disorder. It designates Code F41.9 as “an unspecified anxiety disorder which is often characterized by anxious feelings or fears often accompanied by physical symptoms associated with anxiety.” The American Medical Association for 2020 uses the ICD-10-CM Diagnosis Code F06.4 for anxiety that goes with medical conditions. 

Such codes are for those with health issues, and high levels of anxiety require medical treatment. General anxiety has become a disease. Most of us would call it dis-ease when dealing with worries about friends and relatives while cooped up in our own homes listening to 24-hours-a-day news about horrific events in the world. As awful as it is to be living in a horror movie, we can change our script. We can do so by treating life as a verb, not a noun. We can practice connecting fully to life by accepting what is as-is. We can remind ourselves that conditions are constantly changing and that there is no it. 

Even your body is changing as you read this. As The New York Public Library’s Science Desk Reference (Stonesong Press, 1995) notes, “There are between 50 and 75 trillion cells in the body… Each type of cell has its life span, and when a human dies, it may take hours or days before all the cells in the body die.” In other words, being a human means, I am a dynamic process, not a static “it.” Occasionally, I look in the mirror and wonder where the young woman with brown hair went, I still prefer to experience life. 

Experiencing life means accepting all of it, not just clinging to what I want the world to be or what I think should be or what I have lost. Accepting life as is can be an exciting practice. We become an explorer, a scientist, or as I like to pretend, a surfer. Having spent time on the beaches of Bali, I use the surfer phrase for accepting. “What’s happenin’ dude?” 

To manage what is happening, I must become aware of the causes and conditions that I see in front of me. Doing so, I am forced to explore what is going on and remember that I am not all-knowing. There are so many events and conditions of which I am unaware. The only state I can control is how I respond. 

Our challenge, like the surfers, is to ride the waves of change. We can step into the day or occurrence with an open heart. We can choose how to deal with a moment. An easy way to practice accepting is to give and receive with an open heart. 

Some simple techniques include:

  • Be kind toward self by noticing frustration and fears as part of the human condition without reacting;
  • Choose what to listen to during the day. “Yep, here is all the news about the cases of and deaths due to the virus, again. I will listen to some music instead.” 
  • I’m feeling down; I will go outside and experience sunshine. (or rain, or wind by standing outside or sticking head out of the window and notice body sensations);
  • Watch a comedy before going to bed;
  • Play a puzzle or an online game that is calming; 
  • Take a walk and experience what you see, smell, hear and touch;  
  • Call a friend;
  • Read something inspiring, calming or fun; 
  • To accept change, I will (wear a mask, drop off food at a nursing home, send my grandchildren funny cards, etc.) 

The pandemic will eventually be a part of history. Let’s write our history by creating the story we want to remember. Let’s embrace these changing times by accepting what is and doing what we can to care for ourselves and others. Remember, laughter is healing for body and soul. 

 

 

Small Cabin In VermontSitting on the deck of a small cabin in Vermont, I watched the setting sun on my last evening helping conduct a Naikan retreat at the ToDo Institute. Listening to the crickets begin to sing, I contemplated how the self-reflections participants had shared changed them and me. Preparing for the end of the retreat, I was and remain inspired to say thank you more often for the benefits I receive. Supporting others with intense Naikan practice inspired me to be a bit quicker to share apologies for the difficulties I cause. 

Truth SpaceNaikan, when translated literally, means ‘looking inside’ and sometimes is translated as reflection. On Naikan retreats, participants use a structured process for reflecting upon their life, from birth to the present day for six days or more. Participants sit behind shoji screens that enclose enough space for a couple of cushions, an eating tray, and a notepad for about 10 hours a day practicing Naikan. The cordoned-off area is called a “hoza” or “truth space.” 

 

The Naikan process was developed in Japan by Ishini Ishimoto to help people leave their anxieties by focusing their attention on gifts received, gifts given and troubles caused. Naikan Self-Reflection by Norimasa Nishida describes the practice as used in different countries. It shares how a Naikan retreat can be life-changing. 

 

What I found fascinating was how being an interviewer could also be life-altering. Constantly asking myself, how can I support the participants and exploring how I caused difficulties, I did not have time to even contemplate who was at fault for not having tasks done. Instead, it was a practice of searching out how I could help, which is something I take back to my work. The tasks required to support the retreat participants with a constant flow of assignments, interviews and time out in nature fill my six days. 

During the six days, Gregg Krech managed to find time for staff to have a few moments for reflection.  I cherished the opportunity to create a truth space for reflection outside. A small bench surrounded by growing plants and trees set up behind the main house was a place to shift my attention from anxiety to reflection.  It was a space to notice how much of my tensions were focused on what I thought other people might think. I laughed as I realized my worries were often internal dialogues with myself. Shifting to what I received, I began noticing the myriad of causes and conditions that make a moment. It was often humbling. Standing up from my small bench, I thanked the flowers, the bees, the dragonflies and the spreading trees for sharing their beauty.  Gregg and Linda Krech have done so much to have the ToDo Institute host Naikan retreats in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Check out the schedule for Naikan classes and retreats at www.todoinstitute.org 

Todo Institute Retreat Center

Anxiety is a heightened mental or emotional state of stress resulting from challenging conditions. However, events themselves are not intrinsically stressful. The same set of circumstances that produce smiles in some people generate fear and anxiety in others.  Anxiety and stress are caused by how we react to events.

Such diverse responses can be seen on the faces of those on a roller coaster as it descends into a deep dive.  The same is true for an invitation to attend a public reception of five hundred people. Some respond with an attitude of, “How wonderful! I will meet so many new people.” Others respond with, “How horrible! There is no way I’m going to get lost in such a crowd.” One person is excited while the other is stressed or anxious to the point of sweating just thinking about the event.  Both responses are reactions to a mental story, not the event. 

We often respond to events by generating anxiety. Unhelpful responses to stress take many forms. We may use intellectual analysis to dream up “what-if” situations. Projecting our fears based on what someone said is another typical response. Or, we may paint a story onto some common condition in our lives. Then we dwell in the emotions and anxiety about responding or dealing with the story we generated. 

Anxiety can be so disturbing it will disrupt daily routines and work habits. When stress is intense, methods that work best are often those not dependent upon more mental assessment or analysis. Dr. Pat Ogden developed such methods by combining somatic therapy techniques with attachment theory and cognitive applications. She founded the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute in 1981 to teach sensorimotor therapy. Adapted from Dr. Ogden’s principles of walking meditation, I share with my clients walking mindfully. 

When stress boils over into anxiety, it is possible to walk away.  Even in an intense work setting, a short walk done mindfully can provide a bit of relief. 

Mindful walking requires the mind to focus on all that is happening while walking. It demands walking with the body instead of all the blah, blah, blah. Although all the anxiety may not disappear, the intensity of it will lessen by forcing the thought processes to drop down into the body.  Sense everything around you, a foot touching the ground, a leg swinging out, hearing the sound of a door closing, a car horn. By placing attention on the sensation, one cannot stay fixated on feelings of anxiety nor past events that cause stress.

When anxiety starts the foot pumping or fingers tapping on the table, it is time to get up and use the simple instructions below. If at work it might be a walk to the water cooler or a break room.  If at home, it might be a walk around the block. If waiting for an appointment, it can be a short walk down and back in the hallway. Use the instructions below to take a mini-vacation from stress and anxiety.  

MINDFUL WALKING TIPS

Prepare to walk: 

  • Stand with shoulders back and head up. 
  • Look outward and lower the gaze. 
  • Breathe in and out, SLOWLY.
  • Align with gravity.
  • Distribute weight over both feet and relax. 
  • Bend knees slightly.

Walk at your own pace mindfully: 

  • Pick up one foot and stretch out the leg in front slightly. 
  • Place heel down and feel the heel touch the ground.
  • Continue shifting weight onto the foot by putting toes on the ground. 
  • Stand fully on the one foot, letting back heel start to rise.
  • Bring back leg forward and place heel down on the ground.
  • Continue walking with a relaxed gaze.
  • As thoughts arise, return focus to walking.

As you walk, notice sensations in the body. Notice where you are placing your weight? What do you feel when you walk? (internally and externally) What do you see, smell, or hear? Do you feel air moving on your skin from a fan or the wind?  Is there warmth on your face? As thoughts or emotions arise, notice the idea or feeling and then think, “I am walking.” Breathe in, breathe out. Focus on the movement and sensations of your body. And, if a sensation is pleasing, remember to smile. The sun won’t mind.

  • By Carol O’Dowd, MPA, M.Div., MI, RP 

 

Create A New Message For Yourself

My therapy clients struggling with abuse, whether sexual or emotional, initially seem to listen to external voices.  It is not uncommon for women and men sexually abused as children to think it was their fault. Society, communities, and families send messages that are received as expectations. Unfortunately, when it is a difficult situation outside what the society or community defines as normal, the message heard is “don’t talk about it.”   Such a message has the unintended consequence of telling a child that what they have to share is bad.

At a young age, when children think that they are doing something bad, they so often slide into believing that makes them a bad person. When families fall into alignment with what their community or society tells them, they can unknowingly reinforce such beliefs.  The illusion of the rugged individual, so touted in the United States, only magnifies the belief that children possess thinking they are in control. Such thoughts become a drumming of, “I am responsible for……” My clients share their fears that they never shared as children. They could not say, “he hit me, she touched me, etc.”  Believing they were the cause, they grew up feeling alone with what they labeled as their faults. Since in their mind it was, ‘I made him or her……’, the feeling of isolation took over.

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To deal with their supposed faults and eventually any mistake, they began muttering, “I coulda, I shoulda, I woulda”.  Then it became simply, coulda, shoulda, woulda which is an easily chanted mantra. Unfortunately, the meaning of the mantra sinks into the bones.   As Doug Shadel and Bill Thatcher describe in their book The Power of Acceptance: Building Meaningful Relationships in a Judgmental World, “Not only am I not alone but here is an almost critical mass of individuals in the United States undergoing the pain of personal isolation.” What the research was showing was how so many of us were continuing the pain of abuse from long ago.  

The good news is that we do not have to remain hidden behind walls crouching with our pain. We can walk away from being a victim to being a survivor by changing our mantra. We can start by reconnecting with who we are.  We might listen to words of Odis Redding as sung by Aertha Franklin in Respect.  The song demands that we spell for ourselves. If we can r-e-s-p-e-c-t ourselves, only then can we contribute to the well-being of others.  To practice r-e-s-p-e-c-t, we must stop muttering coulda, shoulda, woulda. Start a new mantra. When you get up in the morning mutter, r-e-s-p-e-c-t, or any words that inspire you, then stand with dignity and start your day with a smile.


If we can respect ourselves, only then can we contribute to the well-being of others.

Shifting Attention

Self Healing

Healing from challenges such as anxiety, trauma, and grief can be enhanced with the practice of attention. Often times we just react to our emotions instead of taking a moment to decide how we want to react, or if it is worth our time to react. During times of depression and loss, it is helpful to stop agonizing over the past when we can. Even medical research tells us that worrying does not help the healing process. Rushing off into what if’s or getting stuck in the mantras of could’a, would’a, should’a, only increases stress.

Shifting Attention

The simple practice of shifting our attention is a way to reduce stress. An easy way to shift our attention is to take a few moments to ask what is happening with our senses. Taking time to notice what is present such as the picture frame, the furniture or people in the room gives you the opportunity to shift your attention. The theory behind consciously shifting attention is found in Morita Therapy which was developed by Shoma Morita  , M.D. (1874–1938)

Sense Awareness

Exploring with the senses can bring a sense of calm back into the body. For example, when grieving, one might see a photo of a passed loved one. To experience their absence with less pain, we might pick up a framed photo, feel the frame, look at its placement on a shelf, and dust the area where the photo sits. Doing so, we can symbolically sweep away the pain. Placing the photo back in a special space as an opportunity to transform our response to the loss. We might thank those who made the camera that was used to take the picture or utter a simple thank you to the loved one in the photo. We can think of something they did that we appreciate about them. We might then smile or cry tears of gratitude.

Using Attention

Taking time to concentrate on what is around me moves my attention away from concerns, if only for a moment.  By noticing what I am sitting or standing upon, the color of the sky or the people in the room shifts my attention. As Gregg Krech of the ToDo Institute teaches, it is possible to refocus at any time during the day with the question, “Where do I want to place my attention?” Focusing energy on the answer, if only for a moment, carries me away from anxiety and depression. Noticing a skill or talent I was shown or past gifts from my former loved one, I keep them in my heart with appreciation. Placing attention on what makes me smile and if only for a moment, supports the healing process. Experiencing the moment with each of my senses, I can take a break from anxiety and use the moment to rest and heal.

Trauma Recovery

Many people get frozen by trauma. It reappears in various ways and often is re-lived over and over again in dreams. Individuals often carry around the memories and are triggered to respond as they did years ago. War veterans know this when jumping at the sound of a popping tire as if it is gunfire. Women and children tortured by captors may avoid contact with others due to fears of past interactions.

An alternative to replaying the trauma as it is remembered is to literally re-story it. So often after a traumatic event, the anxiety that arises is of being a victim again. Yet, as I have journeyed with many of my clients, we find a new story to remember. Those who survive trauma have a story of strength to share. I explore with my counseling clients how they tapped inner and outer resources to endure difficult times.

In addition, I use what is called in Applied Existential Psychotherapy (AEP) ‘empty chair’ work. My clients transfer the anxiety-producing voices in their head to an empty chair. With a bit of separation from the old voices, clients explore new ways to tell their story. They speak with the lens of an open heart. As Betty Cannon describes in her book, Sartre & Psychoanalysis: An Existentialist Challenge to Clinical Metatheory “Sartre attempts to discover the ontological structures of human existence which manifest themselves in experience, whereas Freud attempts to discover the metabiological forces which lie behind human experience.” Using an AEP approach combined with some Japanese psychology, I help my clients make conscious choices about living life fully.

Clients gain an understanding of how it is unnecessary to replay what happened or let others tell them how to live. They begin to see teachings from their trauma, anxiety, and fears. Aha moments happen as they explore living as a survivor instead of as a victim. Practicing a compassionate view of self and others, it is possible to make wise choices in difficult situations. As many of my clients have concluded, sometimes the wise choice is not to fight, but wait for the opportunity to escape.

A critical lesson for many was the awareness of not being their trauma or dis-ease. Together we tested tools that allowed them to transform their trauma into a reservoir of lessons learned. Discarding the voices of judgment and blame, a new view was possible. With new perspectives, they walked out into the world again with the strength to live life embracing the full range of the human experience.

 

–  Carol

Carol O’Dowd, MPA, MDIV, MI, RP
Prajna Healing Arts
720-244-2299

Woman In Field

Being Trapped

After surviving traumatic situations, we stay stuck in the muck of fears. In a state of anxiety,  we get hooked by our own emotions and the emotions of others. We feel as though we cannot move, sometimes not even breathe in the presence of others. The world around us seems alien. We become trapped by fears of what might happen. We dream up situations where we lose friends of years or how we become ill. We might stop driving being so afraid we might get into an accident. We become trapped by our own fears and expectations.

Finding a Way Out

The sensation of being trapped is partly due to being lost.  When the thoughts of “I cannot, I’m not good enough, I might…… become overwhelming, then is the time to remember that we all are seekers. The human condition, instead of being a trap, is a resource.  The process of being human can free us.

Walking Free

My training as a Buddhist priest and a Chaplain along with certifications in Applied Existential Psychotherapy and in methods of Japanese Psychology led me to integrate spirituality with psychotherapy.  My mental health clients and mindfulness students have shown me it is possible to recognize and step away from destructive emotions. It is possible to walk free from neurotic fears.

Although it does not happen in one day. It takes some patience and a bit of practice to live life fully. The practice involves being willing to see with a new view. Only when fears are seen as chains do they bind us. Recognizing fear as just another thought pattern, it is not a trap. With practice, we can walk out into the world despite fears and even with our fears. We can use fear as a reminder to notice and to ask what are we seeing and where are we. Using tools of self-reflection and techniques for embracing the human condition, we discover the freedom to heal and grow.   

  –  Carol

Carol O’Dowd, MPA, MDIV, MI, RP
Prajna Healing Arts
720-244-2299