Being The Best You Can Be


In her famous Ted Talk on being wrong Kathryn Schulz used the metaphor of the roadrunner who, chased by the coyote, runs off a cliff and keeps on running on air until the moment he realizes he is not on solid ground. Of course at this point he finds himself too far gone, too far from the edge to turn around and has no other choice but to fall. It’s when he realized he is wrong, despite being convinced he was right. Only then does the roadrunner fall.

For months now, I have deconstructed and analyzed my pursuing a PhD with the intention of working in academia; how is it going, how is it not going, the various contradictory feelings and thoughts swirling in my head, all fueled by one single question “Was I wrong?”

The story of the roadrunner has profound meaning, not only for our individual lives but also for the current political state we find ourselves in. As I think about it, I have one nagging thought: How will anyone ever grant a PhD to someone who has to google “how to spell kayotee?!” I am referring to myself. The obsessive self-referring, self-concern, self-promotion, self-protection that we all have, day and night, even in our sleep, never ceases to the detriment of our own happiness and the future of the entire human race.

That’s not an exaggeration.

I entered a PhD program in Counseling 3 years ago with the intention to teach at a university level. At the time, I stopped writing on this blog, stopped running, stopped eating well, sleeping and basically stopped having a semi-normal human existence. Out of frustration and exhaustion, Homeless Jesus was born. I was craving meaning and purpose so much I wanted to be a homeless vegan, visit Canada, grow my own food, go on a climate march (although that came later), the list is long. I actually did some of these things. I have proof.

Except for the homeless part. I now have not one, but two peaceful, beautiful, and blessed homes and I have a feeling I will never be homeless, lonely or hungry ever again.

Was I wrong? To change my life completely in pursuit of a degree in academia? Three years later, looking forward to one more year before graduation, I have come to a conclusion.

I was painfully, utterly, and irrevocably wrong. For the past three years of my life I stubbornly denied this truth but the truth has a way of always shining through.

I viciously bullied the truth about how much I failed but at least now I can humbly accept the truth and honor it by sharing it.

Yes. I just created a paragraph that contains only one sentence. I hope that doesn’t bother you.

I was wrong to think I am a good teacher and people would respect me or get something from my teachings. I am apparently not good enough. Being likable helps. NOT being a pompous a** is essential.

I was wrong. I’m not that good of a writer. I believe there is an expiry date on blaming your poor writing on English as a Second Language. Research is harder than I thought, especially if you want to get published. Scientific rigor is no joke. You can’t take your information from any Joe Schmo on some blog on the internet!

I was wrong. I underestimated the timeline, the fierceness of competition, the jealousy, the inequality, the meaningless, petty drama, even. I have yet to process all of that but I am more interested in learning something wise from it. Like, patience is a virtue, our success depends upon the success of others, rejoicing in other’s good qualities makes our mind peaceful whereas comparison is the killer of joy, the law of karma says no action is wasted, we experience results similar to the cause, and so on. Wisdom is far more valuable than education. 

I was wrong about the physical, emotional, financial and relational effects such an endeavor would have on a single woman in her 30’s with no outside support and no family to turn to on days when all she wanted to do was hide under mom’s dirty laundry (it smells extra mommy-ish in there). Not to mention, there is never enough coffee. *On a side note, I found a Greek cafe in walking distance from my house that makes excellent Turkish coffee. Of course, they call it Greek coffee and I have to remember to order it that way, but let’s face it. It is definitely Turkish, through and through.

coffee

It is difficult to look at all the things I have been wrong about and not conclude that I have failed. Jay Shetty once said “failure is just a sign that we need to widen our scope.” As luck would have it, I happen to be a great teacher in some other circles. And I enjoy it more.

Maybe the goal should be revised. Maybe there is no goal, only experiences that prepare us for our ultimate life purpose. I am sometimes arrogant enough to think that I choose my purpose. I believe we all have choice but we don’t always have an accurate view of reality or of ourselves therefore our choices are ignorant and blind.

So why get so attached to our own choice, view, personality, talents, identities, opinions, goals, dreams, plans and those of others? We could be very wrong. We do not need to grasp at any man-made reality because we can rest assured we are not capable of seeing all the intricacies of luck, chance, intention, causes, conditions, consequences, opportunity, timing, and so on.

I know I’m right about this. Fantastically right.

The key to our happiness and the happiness of others is letting go and opening ourselves up to whatever comes next, embracing everything fully, no matter what.

Everything that appears, positive or negative, can be an opportunity to become a better person. Maybe becoming the best you can be is a good enough goal. Maybe better than good enough; the ultimate goal.


The Fundamental Elements of Health


Surviving-is-important.-Thriving-is-elegant.-Maya-Angelou-700x525

 

What do we need to be happy? What are the fundamentals of health, vitality, energy, sanity, happiness? What do we need to fulfill our human potential?

I have searched the answer to this for my own sake and for the sake of being an excellent therapist. Never in a million years would I have imagined to find the answers in a diet book (that is not really a diet book). In The 80/10/10 Diet, Dr. Douglas Graham presents the fundamental elements of health. This is the most comprehensive list to date. Rate yourself from zero to ten on each of the following areas:

____ 1. Clean, fresh air

____ 2. Pure Water

____ 3. Foods for which we are biologically designed (whole, fresh, ripe, organic raw fruits and vegetables)

____ 4. Sufficient sleep

____ 5. Rest and Relaxation

____ 6. Vigorous activity

____ 7. Emotional poise and stability

____ 8. Sunshine and natural light

____ 9. Comfortable temperature

____ 10. Peace, harmony, serenity and tranquility

____ 11. Human touch

____ 12. Thought, cognition and meditation

____ 13. Friendship and companionship

____ 14. Gregariousness (social relationships, community)

____ 15. Love and appreciation

____ 16. Play and recreation

____ 17. Pleasant environment

____ 18. Amusement and entertainment

____ 19. Sense of humor

____ 20. Security of life and it’s means

____ 21. Inspiration, motivation, purpose and commitment

____ 22. Creative, useful work

____ 23. Self-control and self-mastery

____ 24. Individual sovereignty

____ 25. Expression of reproductive instincts

____ 26. Satisfaction of the aesthetic taste

____ 27. Self-confidence

____ 28. Positive self-image and sense of self-worth

____ 29. Internal and external cleanliness

____ 30. Smiles

____ 31. Music and all other arts

____ 32. Biophilia (love of nature)

 

How did you rate? What’s missing in your life and what are you grateful for? What would you add to the this list?

 


System Failure.


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I read a blog today on PsychCentral.com on a book titled “The Happiness Choice: The Five Decisions that Take You From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be” by Marilyn Tam. It states:

“There are five decisions we make every day to bring us either more happiness: what we choose to do with, and how we treat our:

  1. Body
  2. Relationships
  3. Money
  4. Spiritual life
  5. Community”

It got me thinking.

I haven’t written in a while. Partly because I have felt uninspired. Not sure why, couldn’t put my finger on it. Until today. The truth is, I love what I do but I have been acutely aware of my limitations lately. You see, we (meaning therapists) like to believe that everything is up to the individual. “You can accomplish anything you put your mind to it” we say and many of us believe it. Generally I would agree.

But what happens when your body, money, relationships, community, etc are largely out of your control? When we talk about individual decisions, are we assuming that problems in each area automatically mean there is something wrong with the individual? Are we carelessly insinuating that unhappy people are inherently broken?

What is the payoff AND cost of such individualistic, narrow-minded, pathologizing point of view?

The pay off is easy to see. It allows us to avoid the heavy burden of thinking about and addressing individual issues systemically. It’s too overwhelming to think about community as everyone’s responsibility. I have met so many perfectly normal, well-adjusted young people who are severely isolated because of the state of our individualistic, extrovert-focused, technology-driven culture. And they all think they are broken.

What happens when your body aches, is malnourished, stagnant, or just simply ignored? Sometimes we do it to ourselves. And we have no one else to blame. But often, the body is simply a powerless victim of our food culture, ignorance, inadequate healthcare, accidents, sedentary work/life environments, etc.

Sometimes seemingly wise money decisions conflict with relationship decisions, or decisions about community and spirituality. What is the impact of financial issues on relationships?

Is it easier to define addiction as an individual problem and avoid the context in which it develops? Is it really surprising that we are largely addicted to prescription pain pills? Our doctors are legal drug dealers who have no consequences for their decisions.  Is sex addiction really just an individual issue? Separate from the technological advances it feeds on and the current state of the marriage institution?

And don’t even get me started on the issue of spirituality!

The cost of blaming individuals for system failures is high. It makes people feel broken. And that is a horrible way to feel.

I’m not saying you are powerless and you can’t make decisions about your body, relationships, money, spirituality and community. You can and you should. In fact, given the right support and guidance you can make incredible changes and dramatically improve your life. I am a witness to this everyday. But I strongly believe that things don’t happen in vacuum. I believe that everything effects everything and we are all connected.

You are not more broken than the system is. Sometimes you can’t change the context in which your problem developed. Sometimes you can. And when you can, you should. I recently found myself coming to the conclusion that advocating for introverts is as important as trying to teach them “social skills”.  Making sense of your reality in all its complexity is sometimes the most important step to change. Acceptance is easiest to achieve when you have knowledge, understanding and empathy.

Sometimes therapy can’t change your reality but it will help you come to a gentle acceptance. You have all the wisdom and the strength you need. But it helps to not be alone.


Hold On To Yourself.


I’ve been thinking lately.

About holding on to oneself. When everything around you seems to spin, how can you possibly hold your ground? It turns out, David Schnarch was right on when he concluded that the four points of balance in a relationship come down to this: holding on to yourself. But aren’t we supposed to seek out our object of attachment, our partners to soothe and comfort us in trying times? Well maybe, just maybe, all we need is to hold on to ourselves and repeat the mantra “this too shall pass.”

I hear a lot of my clients talk about codependency, identify themselves as codependent on their partner and ask “Am I supposed to be with this person? We can’t possibly be right for each other, can we?” I tell them, they are asking the wrong question all along. The question should be “Can I grow through this relationship? Can I hold on and learn to soothe myself? Can I grow with this person and become better for me, them and everyone else?”

I’ve been thinking lately.

The root to most addictions is the opposite of holding on to oneself. Addictions may look different but they are all equivalent to finding a “filler” between now and death. Addictions, may they be to alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, relationships, shopping, food, they serve as fillers for loneliness, substitute for real or desired relationships, default to being alone, bored, insignificant, an antidote to our persistent, underlying sense of mortality.

I’ve been thinking lately.

The only way to be in relationships is to learn how to be alone. The only way to find meaning is by knowing loss and befriending the perpetual feeling of meaninglessness that comes with being a limited, imperfect human being.

I’ve been thinking lately.

The only way to survive is to learn to soothe oneself in a way that does not involve fillers, addictions, or mediocre relationships. In the modern age we live in, the only way to survive the privileged loneliness, nagging boredom and painful emptiness is to give to people less fortunate than us (or procreate), realize that self-reflection (including therapy) has it’s own limitations, acknowledge and accept our own mortality and insignificance and give of ourselves as much as we can to the little/big people and little/big causes we love. Otherwise, we are bound to become a socialized mess of self-centered human beings who are only concerned with soothing basic, mundane needs through “fillers”, bad relationships and addictions of all shapes and forms.

I asked my client today if they could think of one single thing they did ALONE that excited them, made their heart jump, made them feel alive and happy. They couldn’t think of one thing. That was me once. That’s still me on some level. I’ve come a long way. But I have a long ways to go. After all this time, I can honestly say I have not one, or two, or three things I do alone that raise me up. I have a whole list. I’ve traveled far but I have a long ways ahead. As I hike foreign woods, near bodies of water and get lost and found in hiking trails listening to my favorite tunes, I’m exhilarated in my lonesomeness. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

lake

 


Everything Is Joy


This is an invitation to look within. Forget about the pain and the joy in the world. Forget there is a world outside of you and befriend the world within.

Have a seat. It will be a wild ride.

Find a quite place, sit your body. Tame your body and your mind will follow.

Sit with it.

Pain. Grief.

Anger. Resentment.

Sit with it.

Feel it fill your heart with blackness. Pumping blackness into your body, your mind, poisoning it.

Morbid. Fear.

Sit with it. Welcome to the human suffering.

Joy with be next.

Peace.

Take a deep breath. Sit with it.

Close your eyes. Breathe. Imagine your heart turning fiery red.

Love.

Feeling alive. Rushing through your body.

Desire will follow.

Longing.

Sit with it. See your Ego judge every moment you sit. Every word you speak.

Calm.

Calm your mind.

Sit with it.

Everything is transient. Like the trains at a station.

Through your breath discover the truth. Everything hurts. Everything is joy. Everything is transient.

Open your eyes. Stand up. Stretch.

Go about your day.

Do it all over again.


Forgive. Breathe. Let go. Love.


After years of being in the field of helping people and 32 years of human life experience (at least in this life), I have come to believe that there are 4 main pillars supporting the very painful, heavy load of human suffering.

Failure.

Fear.

Attachment. 

Karma.

Failure.

I have written about failure before. We think in black and white terms of right vs wrong. Winning vs losing. We are social beings with an innate need to compare ourselves to others. Our happiness, misery, sense of self, sense of success, status, etc are relative to whom we compare ourselves to. We want to be on the “right side of things”. We want to be “winning” or associating with winners. No one wants to discover they are wrong. No one wants to come to the realization they are nothing but a loser. A quote from Gary North comes to mind “Do you really believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, plans to be a loser in history?”

We learn very early on that the more we win the more power we have. The more right we are the more in control we feel. And human beings fiend on power and control. We also learn that winning and losing is up to us as individuals. As Vince Lombardi puts it “All right Mister, let me tell you what winning means … you’re willing to go longer, work harder, give more than anyone else.” But what if you work harder, longer and sacrifice more than anyone else but are STILL losing? Well, then there must be something else wrong with you.

Isn’t this what the American dream was built on? And what predominates today’s political debate?

Let me ask you. What happens to you when you realize you are wrong? Do you have a hard time admitting you are wrong? Are you willing to change your mind if you have to sacrifice your Ego and admit that you have been wrong all along? Do you often feel right yet still going insane?

I have found that the way we treat others who disagree with us determines a lot of our suffering, on a personal, small scale AND on a larger world-wide scale.

Kathryn Schultz says that our attachment to being right leads to treating others, who disagree with us, badly. She talks about what happens when others disagree with us, by listing “a series of unfortunate assumptions”:

  1. We think they are ignorant: they don’t have all the information and we are quick to provide it to them thinking once they have the information they will change their minds.
  2. We think they are stupid: they have all the information but somehow can’t put it together.

And when we find out that people who disagree with us have all the information and are actually smart, we resort to the most dangerous assumption of all:

  1. We think they are evil: and they are deliberately distorting the truth for their own malevolent purposes

My client last night asked a very poignant question about this as she was trying to decide which category her father falls into.

“Do I have to put him in one of these categories?”

” Not if your purpose is to work on your relationship with him. But yes if your purpose is to prove you are right and winning.”

And I added

“What if you are both right and both wrong?”

Some days I struggle with this too. People who know me well describe me as stubborn and opinionated. One of them once got me this card that read “Let’s save us both some time and agree that I’m always right”. My need to be right has caused me a lot of anxiety, anger, resentment and a general sense of inadequacy and impending doom that is hard to shake off. But when I get in such a state of righteousness I resort to making fun of myself. Of how I use the words steal, still and stale inappropriately and misspell steak (stake) almost 100% of the time. And reminding myself of screwing up in one major area of my life with no clue of how to make it right…And I keep this quote on my desk “Charlie Brown is the one person I identify with. C.B. is such a loser. He wasn’t even the star of his own Halloween special. “ Chris Rock.

Fear.

Fear is a natural emotion, which means it comes with our DNA and is not manufactured by society. This is because we need fear to survive. Without fear we wouldn’t be able to recognize danger and prepare to fight or flight. Without fear humans would not survive as a species or evolve. Fear lives in a very primitive part of our brain, the Amygdala. The Amygdala doesn’t care who you are, rich, poor, handsome, ugly, smart, dumb, winning, losing, aware or unaware. But it’s what saves us if we are faced with a tiger or a lion. When it senses danger it releases powerful neurotransmitters that sound the alarm in your frontal cortex (which is your thinking/feeling brain) hence initiating a chemical chain reaction in the body known as the fight or flight response. Your heart starts to beat fast as it pumps more blood in your extremities, legs and arms so you can fight or run. It takes blood away from your internal organs producing a “kicked in the stomach” sensation, it slows down digestion and other unnecessary functions for immediate survival. Adrenaline is pumped through your body transforming you into Hulk who can lift a car to save a life (true story). A powerful aggressive beast we become. Or a pathetic, helpless creature who runs or hides because he realizes the enemy is more powerful. When danger dissipates, the body feels relieved, relaxed and things go back to normal.  So far so good.

We are complicated animals. In everyday life we can’t always tell who or what the tiger really is. What we fear, what sends our Amygdala into overdrive sometimes is something seemingly non-threatening like traffic, the news, people who are different from us, unexpected events, illness, our own bodies or minds, our life partner, our children, our parents, loss of control, change, a drink or a drug, the object of our desire, our fantasies, and so on. Why? We have learned to associate these things/people/events with threat, physical or emotional threat. And we prepare to fight. We get all worked up. Or run and hide often in our depression or addictions. For a moment there we start to feel safer and stronger by implying various techniques like avoidance, assertiveness, playing dead, running and hiding, fighting, arguing, punishing, lying…

But the sense of safety is fleeting at best. If these people/things/events are there to stay our Amygdala is continuously in overdrive and we live in a constant state of fear. You may try to think your fear through, argue with it, bully it, numb it, hide it. But none of these things will work. The only thing that will is breathing through it. It’s that simple.

When I first came to the U.S, I was 21 and had been on a plane once. A very small one. I had no idea what to expect from a 12 hour plane ride over the Atlantic. It was very scary. Airports were scary, unknown places. I once tried to go up a downward escalator and when I had to take a bus to my terminal I think I had a small panic attack. I remember forgetting to breathe. I have no idea how I got through the experience. But I didn’t stop.

So don’t stop to face the tiger. Walk right by it. And breathe.

Attachments.

So much of human suffering comes from grief and loss. Especially the unspoken, unrecognized loss we grieve in the loneliness of our heart and bones. No one has to die for us to grieve. We grieve all kinds of different losses, the loss of a partner, friend, house, job, money and other material things, the loss of health, our body or mind functions, the loss of freedom and control and so on.

But what we don’t realize is that there would be no grief without attachment. In psychology attachment is defined as a bond.

“The emotional bond that typically forms between infant and caregiver, usually a parent, not only stimulates brain growth but affects personality development and lifelong ability to form stable relationships. Neuroscientists now believe that attachment is such a primal need that there are networks of neurons in the brain dedicated to it, and the process of forming lasting bonds is powered in part by the hormone oxytocin.”

But I’m not talking about that kind of attachment, although I believe that a similar brain process may be at work in it’s formation. What I’m referring to here is something very, very different. What Buddhism defines as

Exaggerated not wanting to be separated from someone or something. (Exact opposite of Aversion) Because the label of “pleasant” is very relative and based upon limited information, Attachment includes an aspect of exaggeration or “projection”.

I think anyone can relate to this. I don’t need to describe it or explain it. If you’ve ever felt attached to anything or anyone you know how wonderful it feels to have them, the ecstasy, the happiness, the comfort, the  sense of well-being and security. And you know how devastating it feels to lose them, the grief is crippling, you feel empty inside, all is dead and gone and there is no more beauty in the world. Because of the exaggeration innate in attachments we often feel ashamed, guilty,  inadequate or weak for having them. And we often grieve in silence.

Your object of attachment determines your happiness. Or misery. If you are attached you are doomed to pain and misery because eventually everything dies and everyone leaves or changes. Don’t hold on. Recognize your attachments, tell them you love them and then let go.

Karma.

I don’t mean the law of moral causation, “you get what you deserve”. Although that is somewhat implied. Karma is the “deed” or “action” that causes a whole cycle of cause and effect. I think of Karma as a pattern of repeating the same mistake over and over again. Doing the same thing over and over again although it leads to the exact same effect. If you have a victim life script going on for you “why does this always happen to me?” you may want to look at your Karma, you pattern of causality. Anyone who is addicted to something will understand this. You fall pray of the same old patterns and that determines your life story via a complicated vicious cycle of cause and effect.

If we were given a chance to live life over what would we do differently? It turns out, nothing. That is our Karma.

“My dear friend,” he says, “this trap is called life. . . . You must realize that you yourself can change nothing and that you must seek help. . . . And to live with this realization means to sacrifice something big for it. … A man can be given only what he can use; and he can use only that for which he has sacrificed something. . . . This is the law of human nature.” – The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin

But as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it “When the karma of a relationship is done, only love remains. It’s safe. Let go.”

The only way to stop Karma and get to love is to develop spirituality. I don’t mean religion. I mean the ability to get out of your head and see the big picture and realize that we are all connected. That the universe repeats itself just like we do. Karma is safe, you know the result before you start. We don’t mind bad Karma either, it’s predictable, it’s controllable. Without Karma we would feel out of control. We don’t like to try anything new and uncomfortable. It’s because we don’t realize that sometimes doing something new and different is more than just a scary experiment. Doing something new, as small and insignificant as it may seem at the moment, could be what breaks your Karmic pattern forever, what leads to a different effect which becomes the cause for something else greater than you, greater than before, greater than anyone could have ever imagined.

You are not alone. All is connected. All comes full circle.

Ultimately we can’t avoid suffering. Why would we want to? But there are four words I repeat to myself as a mantra when I am in pain, one for each pain God.

Forgive.

Breathe.

Let go.

Love.


Life Starts When You Stop.


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I’m not a big fan of AA (for different reasons which I won’t list here) but I have to admit, I have learned a few things about myself, others and life in general from their bumper sticker style slogans. And I want to share some with you.

Live and let live.

This, too, shall pass.

More will be revealed.

No pain, no gain.

You will be amazed.

Let it begin with me.

Have a good day, unless of course you have made other plans.

It takes time.

When all else fails, follow directions.

Share your happiness.

Count your blessings.

Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth.

The price for serenity and sanity is self-sacrifice.

You can’t give away what you don’t have.

Fear is the darkroom where negatives are developed.

Spirituality is the ability to get our minds off ourselves.

When your head begins to swell your mind stops growing.

Sorrow is looking back, worry is looking around.

Minds are like parachutes—-they won’t work unless they’re open.

If you turn it over and don’t let go of it, you will be upside down.

It isn’t the load that weighs us down——it’s the way we carry it.

You are not required to like it, you’re only required to DO it.

Time wasted in getting even can never be used in getting ahead.

You are exactly where you are supposed to be.

A drug is a drug is a drug.

Pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth.

The road to resentment is paved with expectation.

Success means getting your BUT out of the way.

Analysis is paralysis.

Life starts when you stop.

We have a living problem, not a drinking problem.

Reality is for people who can’t handle drugs.

A winner is a loser who keeps trying.

Don’t try to clear away the wreckage of the future.

Stand by the coffee pots. It’s a good way to meet people.

Always remember the insanity…Be thankful for the pain…But most of all be thankful for the days that remain.

The A.A. Paradoxes:

From weakness(adversity)comes strength.

—We forgive to be forgiven.

—We give it away to keep it.

—We suffer to get well.

—We surrender to win.

—We die to live.

—From darkness comes light.

—From dependence we found independence

AA is starting to sound Buddhist. Aren’t we all in the business of recycling truths?