Dear fellow human,
I wish you: Peaceful sleep, abiding self-compassion, feeling at home in your body, plenty of sunshine, belief in your worthiness to be loved and to offer love, balance of rest and meaningful activity, and balance of time alone and time with others.
I offer you: A safe and quiet space where your inner knowing can begin to show itself. A sacred space in which the ups and downs of life can be experienced within a container of self-compassion. A gleam in the eye, when I get a glimpse of your original divine nature. A belief in your inner capacity for healing.
As both a licensed clinical psychologist on the faculty at Yale University and a yoga teacher, I use a variety of approaches to offer support through struggles with anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, addiction, depression, perfectionism, workaholism, burnout, stage of life issues, and stress related chronic health problems.
Gandhi tells a story about a guy who set out to change the world. After a time, he found that he wasn't making much progress, so he tried to change his country. This was also too difficult, so he tried to change his neighborhood. When he didn't have success there, he tried to change himself. Then an interesting thing happened. When he had changed himself, his family changed. And when his family changed, his neighborhood changed. When his neighborhood changed, his country changed. And when his country changed, the world changed.
How does personal transformation take place? For each person, it's a little different. For some, it begins with being listened to without judgment. For some, it might begin with observing thoughts, feelings, and emotions; learning to let go of self-judgment; and embracing self-compassion (See the writing of Kristin Neff, PhD for more on Self-Compassion). For some, it may start with learning to balance effort and ease through the practice of yoga postures. Perhaps it involves balancing efforts to change with gratitude for what is. Perhaps it comes about through a deep inquiry into what it means to accept the things I cannot change, to have the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Perhaps it is spending time in nature and noticing the cycles of change that exist all around us. Perhaps it is noticing how a child or a dog can light up a room simply by existing. Perhaps it comes from realizing that right at this moment, someone else is experiencing a similar struggle, that we are not alone.
Can changing oneself really change the world, or is this self-delusion? Is it "selling out?" Is it possible to change the world without carrying its weight on our shoulders? One doesn't have to be a yogi to notice that we are generally kinder to others when we feel relaxed. Heartfelt compassion towards others flows more easily and genuinely when we have self-compassion. We can learn from and be grateful for others more easily when we have a core capacity to accept ourselves as we are.
I had a teacher, Steven Goodman, PhD, who poetically said, "The ego is the sad little kid who tries harder." Can we learn to discern when our efforts to change the world, others and ourselves are born from the sad little kid who tries harder to be enough, to earn her keep, to stop parents from fighting, to stop dad from drinking, to make the bullies go away, or to stop death and loss from happening and now are driving us to exhaustion and burn out? Can we learn to allow change to happen by letting go sometimes? Another teacher, Yogani, says, "Enlightenment is not an arrival after all, but a natural and complete letting go of that which has been sought."
I heard that monarch butterflies migrate from New England to Mexico every year. Being a New Englander, I pictured the journey starting in New England and ending in Mexico. I also pictured individual butterflies making the heroic journey from beginning to end. But it doesn't happen that way. A monarch only lives a couple of weeks. It is the species that makes the journey, and a human contrivance to name a beginning and an end. Each butterfly contributes to the cycle by living its life, not by arriving in Mexico. How would my life change if I let go of the illusion that if I could only be “enough,” I would make it to Mexico and, instead, lived each day to the fullest?
In his poem, “Each Soul Completes Me,” Persian poet Hafiz writes,
My Beloved said, "My name is not complete without yours." And I thought, "How could a human's worth ever be such?" And God, knowing all our thoughts~and all our thoughts are innocent steps on the path~then addressed my heart. God revealed a sublime truth to the world when he sang, "I am made whole by your life. Each soul, each soul completes me."
Everyone has inner wisdom. Everyone has something to contribute. Like a seed, each soul has the potential to flourish, potential that is activated by fertile ground. I aim to create fertile ground for individuals to use psychotherapy, spirituality, and movement to flower, to deepen their capacity for non-judgmental self-awareness, to improve relationships, and to develop courage to live authentically and in communion with a life force as each understands it.
The other day, I was sitting with an individual who has experienced some horrific interpersonal trauma and is writing a book about his recovery. He was recalling each of the people who contributed to his healing. He reflected, "It took all these people to get me to where I am" and noted that while he has let go of fantasies that his book will save everybody else who has suffered, he is pleased to think it may be among the many factors that contribute to another person's healing. If we look carefully, we can each begin to notice the many people who have contributed to our own development, and also know that we also have been one of many people who have contributed to someone else’s growth.
Even bumbling interactions with others offer opportunity for growth. Some Zen Buddhist traditions suggest that as we bump into each other, we refine and polish each other, like stones in a tumbler that, at the end of it all, emerge polished. Finding a good balance of holding and letting go can free up energy and creativity. My friend and mentor Peg Oliveira, PhD, teaches legendarily difficult yoga classes. She says, "When faced with the difficulty of the class, you have some choices. You can choose not to come. You can take breaks during the class. Or, you can learn to do the poses in a more relaxed way." She emphasizes that any choice is valid. It's the self-inquiry that led to the choice that's important. We can apply the same process to choices made in our relationships to others, and in life in general. Carolyn Myss, PhD, asks us to imagine that we are given a set amount of energy each day. When it is gone it is gone. How will we put it to best use?
Bumbling through human life can be stressful. We see the proverbial “flight or fight” response in the natural world. In his book Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky points out that an animal who has survived an attack from a predator will literally “shake it off,” releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Once the threat has passed, the animal’s nervous system returns to its baseline state of relaxed awareness. The flight or fight response is easily reactivated if another threat appears, but in the meantime, the animal is able to relax.
In our modern human world, we may go from one stressful situation to another with no time to “shake it off,” or to share the experience with other members of our “herd.” We may be trying so relentlessly to be "enough," answering to what Karen Horney calls “the tyranny of shoulds,” that we never allow ourselves to rest.
Yoga and mindfulness practices tone the nervous system to enhance its ability to return to a state of relaxation after a stressor has passed. They also enhance our nervous system’s ability to discern a true threat from a perceived threat, lessening, for example, a tendency to lash out at someone just because they look like somebody who hurt us in the past (See, for example, the writing of Marsha Lucas, PhD and Stephen Porges, PhD).
A combination of talk therapy, mindfulness, and yoga can be particularly effective for addressing chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and addiction. First and foremost, sessions involve creating sacred space in which the ups and downs of life can be experienced within a container of self-compassion.
I’ve already mentioned my friend and mentor, Peg Oliveira. I remember being in one of her classes, when she suggested a particularly difficult maneuver. I surprised myself by doing it. Right on cue, she said, “See, maybe I can be a person who drops from headstand to chaturanga (a push up).” That stuck with me.
I invite you to complete the sentence, “Maybe I can be a person who _____.”
I would be delighted to be your witness.
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