Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Being Present

Learning to stay with emotions:

Recovering from a difficult past or keeping up with a difficult present


When asked to judge a contest to find the most caring child, Leo Buscaglia, author and motivational speaker, chose a four year old boy. The boy lived next door to an elderly man who had recently lost his wife. One day the little boy went into the old man's yard, found him crying and climbed up onto his lap. For a time, he just sat there. Later, when the boy was asked what he had said to the man, the boy said “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”  1


Healing from loss, trauma, and shame

The human organism has natural restorative processes for healing from loss, trauma, or shame. And it is primarily an emotional process rather than a cognitive or verbal process.


Learning to have tolerance for one’s internal experience

This means being able to observe one’s own experience—not as a distancing mechanism, but simply to be there for it without any effort to change it, like the little boy sitting in the grieving man’s lap.


Meditation and hypnosis can be understood as a process of inviting one’s self  to allow just being… not trying to do anything… just allow breathing, seeing, hearing, sensations, thinking, emotion as they occur… and gradually allow a settling into undirected being. No effort is needed to make hypnosis or meditation restorative. Simply allow to occur what is taking place of its own accord.



For example, try something simple: be with your breath… notice the sensations of the movement in the upper front of your torso. This isn’t about managing your breathing. It’s about noticing the sensations that occur just as breathing comes and goes… breath by breath.


You may have cognitive responses to noticing your breath: “it’s shallow, it’s fast, it’s nice and even” and on and on. Allow such thoughts and don’t do anything with them. Just observe the sensations as breathing unfolds.


If it’s okay, right now, take a minute and try this.


Sad and still breathing

That’s being with your breath.  Now let’s add an emotion: Assume you are sad. Can you notice the sensations associated with breathing, perhaps tightness around the diaphragm, chest or throat, the feel of your face, the feel around your eyes, the thoughts that arise… and just be with it? Without having to do something to change it? And if something comes up that you would normally call a distraction… see it. See what you can of the whole show that accompanies this sad state.  Again, anything that comes up… fine, allow it. Don’t try and prevent it, but don’t invite it to sit down and have tea, either.


Of course, you can explore being with any state in which you happen to find yourself: Angry, anxious, happy, embarrassed, ashamed, pleased, excited, bored, depressed, aroused or even no state in particular.


Open for what presents itself

Any emotional process that is ripe will find you in whatever stillness you allow. No emotion need be sought. Should an emotion arise, it need not be experienced more intensely than it presents itself. No internal experience need be experienced more clearly than it presents itself. No emotion need be held any longer than it stays of its own accord.


When there is an open, non-judging space… the organism-that-you-are knows what to do and at what pace… and knows in a way that is perfectly on behalf of your greatest good.


This is learning to have tolerance for your own experience. Staying with grief, anger, shame, anxiety, and fear allows the organism the time and space to emotionally process. Habitually moving away from such emotions short circuits the organism’s natural restorative processes—which, again, are not primarily cognitive or verbal. They are part of your emotional intelligence.


Staying with an emotion without quite knowing why it has come up

Sometimes, whether meditating or not, a strong emotion comes up, seemingly out of the blue. We don’t know what, if anything, it connects to in our life. We might think “What’s going on? Why is this coming up? Am I crazy?” We then have feelings about having feelings. Perhaps we get swept away by it all or use a lot of energy to try to make it go away. It’s kind of a mess.


It is useful to know…

…that emotions sometimes come up and we don’t have access to any cognitive reason why. This happens. 2


Consider that you already do this while you sleep: Dreams unfolds without need of conscious explanation. You may or may not remember the dream when you wake up. This is normal. It’s okay.


In the awake state, an emotional response can be triggered by circumstances out of our conscious awareness. Other times the organism-that-we-are can use the time and space available (just like when you sleep and dream) for restorative emotional processing.


Both can happen with or without a convincing narrative as to what’s happening within us. Sometimes the conscious mind makes up an explanation to go along with the emotion. Either way, without having to be certain what the emotion means or having to explain it—you can stay with it and let your emotional intelligence unfold and do its thing. It’s still okay.


Incremental learning

Perhaps you’ll find your conscious mind becoming more comfortable allowing space for whatever comes up. Perhaps you will find yourself staying with your experience rather than interrupting it simply because you don’t have a story to explain it. And of course, if you get too uncomfortable, just stop… or find yourself naturally stopping. That’s fine. Should it—whatever “it” is—come up again, you can continue to build on what you’ve already accomplished.

Your comments are welcomed.

1Based on a story from “A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul”, copyright 1996 by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, attributed to Leo Buscaglia by Ellen Kreidman, submitted by Donna Bernard,


2For meditators, while meditating, the arising of emotions (and physical sensation—including itches and aches—and the activity of thinking, thinking, thinking) is a familiar occurrence.


Monday, July 18, 2016

In Support of Grieving


Over the years a local pain clinic has referred a number of their patients to me for hypnotherapy for pain relief. My observation: Those who gain relief are more emotionally available—more able to experience anger and grief—than those who don’t.


Being emotionally available

In the relationships in my life and in my hypnotherapy practice, it is my experience that when we are available to “feel feelings”—by this I mean we are able to stay with our internal sensations of grief, anger, shame, vulnerability, despair, for example—we are more able to make changes on behalf of our well-being. By “feel feelings” I do not mean acting out—road rage, throwing a tantrum, going victim, or being a drama queen / king. I mean noticing and allowing the natural arising of emotions in response to our experiences—without being reactive or moving away from them. Rather than shutting down, we allow emotional processing.


Becoming more emotionally available

Learning to be more emotionally available requires an openness to noticing internal sensations of emotions and a generosity towards our self as we do the work of reconnecting what had been previously inhibited.


How does it happen that some of us lose connection with our natural ability to grieve? And how do we reclaim it?


Old message: “Don’t be weak, stop crying, be strong!”

During a session, as Jan describes her childhood experience of her withdrawn and unaffectionate mother, I notice wetness gathering in her eyes and ask, “Would it be okay to make room for what’s connected to the moistness in those eyes?” With tension in her face and throat she says:


“No! It’s weak to cry and I need to be strong.” I ask, “Where did you learn that? You didn’t make it up yourself.”


Jan is the second youngest of seven siblings. As long as she could remember, when one of them cried, Mom would get angry and say “go to your room” or she herself would withdraw. If Dad was home, he’d say “Don’t be weak, stop crying. Be strong.” Jan learned to not cry and, along with it, she lost access to her ability to grieve.


Getting it intellectually

I ask, “So, now as you recollect some of your childhood and tears starts to well up, what in particular do you need to be strong for?” She replies, “Dealing with life, just staying strong in general.” Me: “Perhaps you would consider that maybe that tear is part of dealing with the losses you already suffered as little girl.” Tears well up; one rolls down her cheek.


This was the beginning of Jan reclaiming her emotional capacity to grieve. First, she got it intellectually: When she has the urge to cry and grieve, immediately the old message triggers—“Don’t be weak, stop crying, be strong.” Without thinking about it, she automatically tries to squelch the urge. It was learned decades ago and now plays out by habit. And this old message and habit completely miss what grieving is: A natural part of recovering from loss (and hurt) in a way that allows one to get on with living.


Getting it experientially

Parallel to her growing intellectual understanding, over several months, Jan begins to get it experientially. She gradually learns to recognize and allow feelings of grief. Her vitality increases as her depression lessens. She makes changes in her life on behalf of what she wants for herself now. Her sense of well-being increases.


Living more fully

Every time we suffer a loss that we don’t heal from, we lose vitality. For those of us who learned to inhibit our natural emotional processes, Jan’s story speaks to the possibility of reconnecting with our ability to grieve the losses we suffered and move on. We shift from existing within the echo of what had been to living what is now. 


If one emotion is inhibited, all emotions are dampened

To whatever degree our availability to an emotion, say grief, is inhibited—and however we may have learned that inhibition—our access to all emotions are dampened. Not just (so-called) “crummy” feelings, but good ones, too. Reclaiming our ability to grieve also opens up our natural ability to feel joy, satisfaction, love, affection, connection, wonderment, surprise, astonishment, and more than we have names for.


Simply put, we feel more alive.


Your comments are welcomed.
Footnote: About examples
Stories and vignettes that are inspired by my own or my clients’ coming to change are not intended to accurately portray therapy and are most often fictionalized syntheses written to make clear some point. When drawn from a particular interaction, they are used with permission and are always altered to protect client anonymity.  

All are offered with gratitude to my clients—all of whom teach me that our capacity for intelligent and life-affirming responsivity and change exceeds conscious imagining. And all are offered in support of people making enlivening change in their own lives and in support of those of us who, in turn, support others opening to more options for being alive and vital.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Grieving Heals the Wound of Loss


Stuck for months unable to decide to stay in or leave a decaying marriage, my client began to cry as she talk about all that had been good about it. By the next session she had talked with her husband about separating and setting divorce into motion.


Grieving processes loss in a way that allows one to get on with living.


Grieving heals the wound of loss.  It is a natural, restorative process--like a scraped knee bleeding, scabbing over, tissues mending and perhaps leaving a visible scar, perhaps not, and getting on with “being all the knee it can be.” In the course of grieving a loss we shift from living in the pain of What No Longer Is to living and fully inhabiting What Is Now.


Suffering incremental losses

During the first four years that I worked with Steve, a 40 year-old man with multiple sclerosis, he suffered numerous incremental losses of his physical and mental capacities caused by this progressive disease. It affected his ability to balance, walk, and write legibly; sometimes it affected his ability to quickly focus his gaze.  He noticed it was harder to concentrate.  Muscle tension and pain had increased in various areas and interfered with sound sleep. He said he felt “locked down” and it was just getting worse. He gradually became more depressed and less expressive. When he spoke, it was increasingly about what he couldn’t do.


Upwelling of grief

One session, he had more difficultly than usual walking into my office and sitting down. He said he woke up two days ago and had lost some control of his left foot. He began to cry. I had never seen him do this.  He sobbed and told me how helpless and hopeless he felt. For about 20 minutes feelings just welled up in waves. And then it all subsided.


In subsequent sessions, he begin to talk about various interests he was exploring, what he has doing, how he had figured out the logistics of traveling to someplace he wanted to go. During one session as he told me what he was up to he said,


“I’ve never been happier in my life. I’m doing more of what I like than ever before.”


Grieving as a restorative process

In the years since, as we continued working together, I watched and learned from Steve as he repeatedly suffered degradation of various abilities. And each time he grieved his losses, it was as if he reset the counter from what had been to what now was… and each time regained being enlivened and engaged in his capacities as they had become, rather than how they had been.


Your comments are welcomed.
Footnote: About examples
Stories and vignettes that are inspired by my own or my clients’ coming to change are not intended to accurately portray therapy and are most often fictionalized syntheses written to make clear some point. When drawn from a particular interaction, they are used with permission and are always altered to protect client anonymity. 

All are offered with gratitude to my clients—all of whom teach me that our capacity for intelligent and life-affirming responsivity and change exceeds conscious imagining. And all are offered in support of people making enlivening change in their own lives and in support of those of us who, in turn, support others opening to more options for being alive and vital.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

When old strategies become problems, Part 3

A third example of the sanity and logic that underlies a problem behavior, in this case, worries about an upcoming adventure (and plane flight).

Threads:                        Getting unstuck, breaking up old patterns
Relevant recent posts:    2/22/2013     When old strategies become problems: Part 2
                                    2/12/2013     When old strategies become problems: Part 1
                                    8/23/2011     Getting unstuck: Part 2
5/13/2011     A frame for how we learn
2/14/2011     Unconscious Learning


But how do you prepare enough for such a thing?

Locked in
When an old strategy is triggered, you more or less lock into the set of responses and options dictated by the associated old learnings. For instance, in Part 1, snakes triggered paralyzing fear; in Part 2, waking up in the morning triggered the feeling that it was safer to stay in bed.

No replacements, just room for something new
Therapy is most often not a case of learning a new behavior to replace an old one. Rather it involves becoming free of the constraints of the old pattern in a way that one’s natural, unfettered intelligence emerges to meet the circumstances in this moment now, not as they were then. 

Example 3

In this example, drawn from work with a client and used with permission (see “Footnote: About this example,” below), an ostensible fear of flying turns out to be rooted in an old learning about the dangers of going on an adventure. The therapeutic work consists of the client becoming aware of the functioning of her old patterned response in a way that she can gently interrupt it. Here’s a shortened and simplified telling of our interaction.

The problem: Anxiously thinking about what might go wrong

A client I’ll call Bett, a resourceful woman in her fifties, wanted my help to “overcome irrational, silly fears…” including the fear of flying. Up to this point, she had avoided flying; now she wanted to go on a vacation that required plane travel and had booked it, non-refundable. She couldn’t stop anxiously thinking about what might go wrong.

Where did you learn to do that?
I asked where she learned to think so hard about what might go wrong. She said her father was a worrier. She vividly remembered when going outdoors on some adventure he would call after her, “You’re going to get hurt; be careful not to break your neck.”

This was Dad’s earnest attempt to make sure his little girl would take care of herself. Bett took it to heart.

The old strategy is an attempt to accomplish something good
When she went outside on an adventure she certainly didn’t want to get hurt or break her neck. What preparation and amount of vigilance go into being careful enough? She didn’t know.

It became clear: In a well-meaning effort to take care of herself Bett had learned to think and think about what could go wrong… without ever arriving at the sense that she had thought and prepared carefully enough to avoid something bad happening.

A new adventure triggers the old strategy
Now, with respect to the old learning, Bett’s booked plane travel qualified as an adventure… triggering this old strategy.

Learning to recognize the old pattern
Bett recounted a number of past instances of being anxious and thinking about what might go wrong in anticipation of an adventure. We both could appreciate this old behavior, although ineffective, was an effort to accomplish something good.

Gently interrupting the old pattern
We explored the possibility of Bett comfortably preparing for and going on an adventure. She said she’d like that. I suggested, “Although this old strategy of worrying means well, it may be time to refine it. Perhaps whenever it starts up—and you find yourself endlessly thinking about what might go wrong, see how it feels to say something like:

“Thank you for being so persistent in trying to take care of me. I have thought about how to take care of myself on this adventure, and I think I’m okay. If there’s something specific I missed, let me know.”

A new learning: Knowing when you’ve done enough

She liked how it felt, and said she would do it. We did a few minutes of hypnosis to support the interruption and refinement of this old learning in a way that would allow Bett to more comfortably and adequately plan for her upcoming travel. Suggestions included the following metaphor:

"And when everything that can be done that should be done has been done… then there can be a natural settling. Just like breathing: The diaphragm engages and inhalation comes to you… and when enough has been taken in… then there is a natural settling into the exhalation that happens of its own accord."

At the end of the session I asked if there was more work for us to do with this. Her response both answered my question and broke with the old pattern: “I think that’s enough. I feel ready to go.”

About these examples

In this and the previous two posts, thanking old and obsolete habitual behaviors “…for being so persistent in trying to protect me…” could seem a bit cookie-cutter-ish. There is more to it.

First, there is therapy that precedes and then follows the work portrayed in these vignettes. A lot of the old behavior is already dismantled by the time someone can recognize its functioning clearly enough to be able to talk about it (rather than be blindly in the thrall of it). Also, there may be follow-on work in support of the client accomplishing a sustainable and satisfying outcome.

Second, out of session, 1) doing the work of recognizing when you’re in the middle of enacting the problem behavior, 2) understanding that it is old and obsolete, and thinking to thank it… all contribute to the pattern losing traction.

And third, there are many kinds of old and obsolete behaviors and equally many ways to therapeutically address them. I chose these three vignettes because they share an underlying template: An old behavior, learned at a young age as a protective strategy, continues to function even though it has become outmoded. After reading about it in three different settings, it may be easier for you to become aware of old obsolete habits functioning in your own life—that may mean well but that you no longer need. 

Your comments are welcomed.
Footnote: About this example

Stories and therapy vignettes that are inspired by my clients’ coming to change are used with permission, are always altered to protect client anonymity, are not intended to accurately portray therapy, and are often fictionalized syntheses written to make clear some point.

All are offered with gratitude to my clients—all of whom teach me that our capacity for intelligent and life-affirming responsivity and change exceeds conscious imagining. And all are offered in support of people making enlivening change in their own lives and in support of those of us who, in turn, support others opening to more options for being alive and vital.