tranquility

During these times, many of us are feeling a bit lost, if not confused.  We listen to stories or watch videos of events that stop us cold. As we watch events such as those with George Floyd or the police officers killed at the capitol, we realize how easily events in life can rise up and destroy. How can we feel calm again? How do we get through the day, when so much of life is beyond our control?

What we might try is accepting. Accepting doesn’t mean you have to like or approve of what’s happening. It is more of an exercise of exploring or noticing what is happening. Such an approach includes accepting who we are instead of getting in a dialogue with our own projections. Doing so we notice when anger and confusion rise up. We understand they might carry us in directions we do not want to go.  When we find ourselves sitting up at night wondering and replaying our worries and fears, we do have options.

We can use the same mental techniques that left us tired and spent to open our hearts and reclaim peace. The time we used creating a Plan B for bad and horrible outcomes, can also be used to generate a Plan A – for the acceptable and inspirational possibilities. Worst-case scenarios are so powerful because we KNOW what can create the worst case. We then use that ‘what’ to visualize the horrible outcomes. That is why dwelling on such fears can be so powerful. Fears are emotions and often arise from dwelling on thoughts and emotions.

We can use the same approach to visualize a best-case or even a good-case scenario. Of course, we cannot bring those killed back to life. However, we can think thoughts or take actions that put a smile on our face or another’s. We can reach out with calls or volunteer time to support those impacted by the deaths. We can use our time to connect with life instead of dwelling on fears that keep us locked up inside our emotions and thoughts.

You can make this shift by contemplating something positive you KNOW can happen. You might visualize how a colorful card inspires a relative or friend you haven’t been in touch to give you a call.  Maybe you make a donation to a relief fund or attend a vigil to warm your heart. The practice is shifting the focus to accepting what is and then working with that. 

Although you cannot bring someone back from the dead, you can send a card of sympathy or make a donation to charity in someone’s name.

By accepting and working with what is, we practice noticing and connecting. We make conscious choices about where we direct our thoughts. We choose how to collaborate with events in our lives. When in the midst of what feels like chaos, we can use our thoughts, words, and deeds to engage in ways that add peace, if only for a moment. 

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

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. 

 

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.

Learn More

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.

Woman Riding Horse

Fear Can Be An Obstacle or A Resource

Fear can be a destructive emotion when it causes us to freeze or get so flustered we feel lost. As Takehisa Kora explains it in his How to Live Well: Secrets of Using Neurosis, “If we do not accept things as they are, and if we try to rid ourselves of them, then our minds tend to stay with them.” Recognizing fear as an emotional energy pattern, we can use it as a motivating force instead of tying ourselves down with our own worries. Dr. Reo Leslie, LPC, LMFT, CACIII, RPT-S, DAACS, MAC, Executive Director, Colorado School for Family Therapy, taught me how cognitive behavioral techniques (CBT) can help motivate a shift away from attitudes and behaviors no longer serving our wellness.    

I learned how to ride the shifts in life during my teenage years from a powerful stallion named Tiger. After a traumatic event in my life, my parents sent me to my grandparents in Oklahoma who put me in a summer riding camp. When helping with prepping the horses and afternoon clean-up, I watched how some of the horses could sense fear in their riders. A stallion named Tiger was an expert at it. He seemed to buck those who were afraid just for fun. Most of the camp instructors were anxious around him and often refused to ride him.

Mount Your Fear

Yet, Tiger would let me ride him bareback. The instructors encouraged me to do so with hopes others would be riding him soon as well. One afternoon when I had him in a walk around the arena, I noticed the camp instructors had left a gate open. Clenching the rope reins in one hand and grabbing a bit of Tiger’s mane in the other, I leaned forward and whispered forcefully in his ear, “Let’s go! ”

Tiger’s ears shot straight up. Then with a slight jump and a loud neigh, Tiger took off through the gate at a full gallop. As we entered the nearby forest, my fear told me to keep my head next to his neck and below his ears. While racing through the trees, the branches snapped and the world became a blur. The yelling and screaming of the camp staff receded as we sped away. My fear of falling off caused me to use every nerve and muscle in my body to stay upright.

Enjoy the Ride

The intensity of the experience kept me focused on blending with the movement of his muscles. We were one being in motion. It was the ride of a lifetime. What it taught me was how fear, sometimes, can be a powerful tool for focusing our attention, keeping all the senses alert. Fear does not have to limit us or leave us feeling lost. Instead, when we listen to our fear carefully, its energy can be transformative, freeing, an inspiration. And sometimes, a wild ride!

Transforming fear into a positive force in your life can be exhilarating. Counseling can help you transcend fear and avoid some of those tree branches along the way.

  –  Carol