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

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