Saturday, December 18, 2010

Wishing you....

Dear patients, readers, colleagues and friends-I-haven't-yet-met,

I wish you a love-filled holy season, and a new year over-flowing with the satisfaction of meaningful work and a life lived in congruence with your purpose.

Warm fuzzies,

Sunday, November 21, 2010

As we approach the holidays, perhaps....

Perhaps, we can decorate our home, and our new life, with the treasures that speak of our history, finding joy in the memories that they spark. Maybe, we'll bring with us some of the old, add a few pieces of the new, and practice the art of blending yesterday with today in the hope of creating another memory for tomorrow.

Perhaps, we can hang the special ornaments, or polish the menorah, and cherish the warmth of the love of which these symbols remind us. No one has to know the pain that we may be experiencing, even as we relive the pleasure and joy of having these objects in our life now.

Perhaps, we can gather with loved ones and count our blessings; counting not only the people around the table, but including ALL those whose lives have touched ours in countless ways. One does not have to be present to be alive in our hearts. Afterall, we shared a few moments of our life journey together and our hearts will never forget, even when others do.

And, perhaps, it may be that nothing will fit this year. But, the situation will get better, improving with age, or experience, or patience. We will probably always be a bit unsettled, unnerved when the roll-call finds a name missing or a chair empty. But, then, why shouldn't we be a little sad when a light goes out in our world?

So, this holiday season, try to look for things to enjoy. Gather in your blessings and count them ALL. Count the blessings of ALL the people in your life story, both present and deceased, and find the peace that comes from experiencing another holiday of joys recalled and love shared. And, just perhaps, the holidays will be better than you think they will be.

I wish you love-filled holidays and a new year of peace and joy.

A few helpful ideas for dealing with the holidays

Grief is never easy. Working through our grief, learning how to survive our loss, is a process---a process made more difficult by big family holidays. As we enter the end of the year, the time of year filled with the most intense and meaningful of holidays, here are a few ideas for dealing with the holidays and your loss.

1. Do not try to be brave. Take time to cry and just "be with" your grief. And, yes, strong men do cry.

2. Share your grief with others. Do not try to protect friends or family with silence. If friends or family cannot, or will not, listen....OR...if you feel like a burden to them, this may be a good time to contact a grief counselor, or a psychologist, or a pastoral counselor. Please do not allow yourself to feel isolated or lonely.

3. Please take care of your self. YOU ARE IMPORTANT and so is your health. . Try to eat well and exercise regularly. Even a short walk around the block will produce biochemical changes that can affect your attitude and you'll sleep better.

4. Please forgive yourself for everything you thnk you did "wrong." You did the best you could. Okay, maybe you didn't give your best every single day, but there was so much going on at the time and you had so many stressors in your life that you did the best you could, even if it wasn't the VERY best you could have done every single day. Remember that you were there for for the person you loved, and that is what is important.

5. Accept that there is no truly acceptable answer to the question, "Why?" Maybe your grief counselor or your spiritual counselor can help you find peace with this question. Just remember: you do NOT have to go through this alone.

6. Do purposeful work that brings meaning to eacg day and to your life. Bringing meaning into your life during a time when you may be questioning the meaning of life, God, religion, or previous choices, can be very beneficial. Volunteering to help the less fortunate, reading to children at the library, getting involved with your religious institution's outreach program can have a personally uplifting effect.

Friday, October 15, 2010


Have you ever wondered why some people just seem to get over "stuff" and get on with life more easily than others? Is that due to personality differences? Is it inborn or due to the parenting that they received? (Ah, yes, that old conundrum of nature vs nurture.) Or, maybe, God just likes them better?

In my line of work we call that resilience. Webster's defines resilience as "an ability to recover from or adjust easily to change or misfortune." Resilience does seem to make a great difference in how people handle life and all that it can dish out.

So, what is resilience exactly? Who knows. There are no clear answers from the brain researchers, or the personality researchers, or the religious/spiritual researchers. However, here's what we do know about resilience: some piece of it is inborn. Yes, it seems we either have some, or we don't have some. (Note the word some. Is the remaining balance acquired? Maybe.) However, that isn't the end of the story. We also know that some people survive their childhoods, and move on to bigger and better things, because of one very important factor: the presence of one person who believed in them. Is that all it takes to thrive? No, but it helps A LOT.

The presence, the influence, the saving grace, of one person who believed in us can change our life. It doesn't have to be a person who was full-time in our lives (like a parent or other relative). It can be someone who was transitory, for example, a counselor for two weeks of summer camp, a classroom teacher, the local librarian, a soccer coach. In fact, it could be as transitory as someone we knew for a moment, literally, a moment in our lives, e.g., when we spoke to the inspirational lecturer at a Sunday School assembly, or the woman at the bookstore who took a minute and really listened to us.

When you look back on your childhood or adolescence, who reached out to you? Who believed in you, even if just for a moment? Who might you thank for the way you turned out? And can you do that for someone else, a child or a teenager who might need just one person to believe in him/her and their resilience will be encouraged to flourish?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Questions to ponder

What are human beings?

What are you as a human being?

What are the forces that act on your life?

Do you listen to your inner voice?

What do you do to understand your Self?

Can a person become a perfect person?

Does G-d want perfect people?

Does G-d want imperfect people?

What are the obstacles to your personal change?

How do you view the world?

Do you focus on the details or on the bigger picture?

Just some things to think about. Who knows, maybe the answers can change your life for the better.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Secrets to Being Happy

The title on my Yahoo homepage was intriguing, "The Secret to Being Happy." So, sucker-for-a-happy-ending that I am, I clicked on the link. Wow! It took me to a page that offered no less than 27 contiguous pages of happiness links.

There are, apparently, 9 secrets, or 10 secrets, or 17 secrets, or the secret (presumably one secret), to being happy. Then there were the endless categories of happiness, of which here are just a few: how to be happy with a part-time job, how to be a happy woman, how to be a happy dater, how to be a happy teen, how to be a happy teen with a part-time job. And, that did not include the paid ads in the margin for books on Amazon re happiness, numerous religious sites that promote happiness, and all the for-profits that promote happiness through a goal-centered life.

All we have to do, it would seem, is to focus with laser-like precision on happiness via the 9 steps (or is it 17? or 10? or just one?). Is it any wonder that we think that happiness can be obtained, like a job, or a car, or a relationship?

Happiness is a result, not a goal, as I have mentioned in earlier columns on this blog. (When Life Sucks, February; The Unlived Life, January.)

Do you want to know how to be happy? It's simple: be yourself. Be your TRUE self. Go ahead, dare to uncover all that is REALLY you and, then, spread your wings for a wild ride! And, if you say, "Oh, that's too simplistic," then allow me to say that nothing is truly complicated---we just make it that way. Just a thought.

'Tis the season....the wedding season, that is.

Yes, 'tis the season for weddings...and, the little-recognized post-nuptial depression. No, psychology is not creating another disorder that psychiatry can medicate and that the average layperson can mock. It's simply a fact of life: most of the big events of our lives are followed by a certain amount of let-down. For example, the college graduate, who is now leaving the academic fishbowl and facing an uncertain future in an even more uncertain economy, will probably feel some sense of loss for the predictability and freedom of their old life, and some anxiety about their new life.

So what is post-nuptial depression? Let's face it, there's a lot of excitement and romance leading up to the wedding. You're the center of attention and people are calling you all the time. There are details to manage, people to manage, and dreams to manifest. Ah, but then it's all over. Everyone goes back to their own lives, and there you are, stuck with reality. Yes, it's time for the letdown after the parade.

Not to mention the buyer's remorse. That prince in shining armor, who floated with you down the aisle and off to a wonderful honeymoon, now starts looking a little less shiny and little more rusty around the edges. That glowing bride, who never wore anything but matching lingerie, is now wearing comfortable underpants. And those changes don't take long to occur. Now that all the wildly flowing oxytocin and serotonin have calmed down, folks start to wonder if they settled.

Or, financial issues kick in: "Wow, we spent all that money, now it's over, and what do we have to do show for it?" "Geez, we coulda spent that money on a downpayment for a house."

Or, there can be the re-emerging depression. Very often there is a depression that predated the marriage, and now, in the not-so-glowing after-glow of the honeymoon and a return to the real world, the old depression is being kicked up, again.

None of this may become apparent right away. It may occur right after the wedding, or it may be delayed 3 or 4 months. In either case, finding someone to help with the problem can go a long way toward creating a more satisfying future. Just a thought.

Are you saying "Yes!" to your dreams?

Sometimes it is hard to even know what our dreams are.

Sometimes we have so many dreams that it is difficult to choose one on which to focus.

And, sometimes, it seems like our dreams are so very far away...and impossible to attain.

Other times, it just feels hopeless to even dream.

So, how do we even begin?

Try finishing the following sentences to begin to help clarify your special dreams:

In my heart of hearts, I want to...
If I had a billion dollars, I would...
If I had all the time in the world, the first thing I would do is...
I have always wished I could...

Start living your dreams and you'll find that you are living your own life. Just a thought.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Next journal exercise

Next journal assignment is,

Imagine being your Higher Power, God, the Universe.
Now write a response to the letter you wrote
about your spiritual concern.

And another journal exercise

Journal about your primary spiritual concern in life.
Write a letter to your Higher Power, God,
the Universe, about this spiritual concern.

Another journal exercise to explore spirituality

As promised, here is another journal exercise to help you explore your own spirituality.

What is your definition of spirituality, and, if applicable,
what is your definition of a Higher Power or God?

Spirituality and Psychotherapy

When I was a young undergrad in the early 1970's, psychology and spirituality were not the best of friends. In fact, B.F. Skinner was the hero of the hour-- and spirituality and his theory of behaviorism had nothing to do with each other. Freud was pilloried on every available occasion by behaviorists and feminists, not that he was particularly spiritual, just that he was out-of-style, and supposedly anti-feminist. Truth be told, based on what I was being taught, and feminist that I was (and am), I didn't want much to do with Freud, either. Then, finally, 20 years later, I read his original works and lights went on like crazy. The old guy wasn't so dated, after all, though he was still very anti-religion.

Truth be told, there were guys like C.J. Jung and Carl Rogers, who were deeply spiritual in their own lives and believed that spirituality and religion had a lot to offer human beings. Both found ways to bring spirituality into their work with patients, however, they weren't the flavor of the hour and their theories and style of therapy were not being taught in the 1970's. They were buried under piles of dust by a psych department that believed that they were anachronisms at best, and dangerous at worst. I had to discover them on my own in my doctoral program.

Fast forward 38 years and spirituality is still trying to be understood by psychology, and religion is still being seen as a resource for clients, but a topic that therapists are better off avoiding with clients/patients. Yet, as those of us who have done this work for any respectable length of time know, religion and spirituality are important issues, even for patients who do not believe in religion or a Creator. I have found that at the bottom of most trauma issues that are brought into therapy there is the burning question, "If there is a God, where was He (or She) when all that was happening to me?" Yet, therapists are supposed to stay away from spiritual or religious issues? I don't know how to do that, so I dig in wherever the client is. I view it as marriage counseling between God (Higher Power, choose your name) and the client--and we work to improve the "marriage."

Here is a journal writing exercise that is intended to help you explore your sense of spirituality.

Describe your current religious or spiritual belief system and
how it is similar and/or different from that of your childhood.

There's more to come in future blog entries, as we follow this thread of self-discovery.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

You are NOT broken

Clients keep asking me the same question, "I'm broken. I don't think I can be fixed. Can I be fixed?"

I recently participated in a Passover seder at the women's prison in Chino (aka California Institution for Women). The Jewish and Catholic chaplains there are old friends of mine, so this was a two-fer: I got to see two old friends and I was in the presence of some pretty amazing women.

CIW is a medium-security prison. There are lifers there, but there are also quite a number of short-timers there (usually drug-related offenses). Interestingly enough, the women at CIW conform to the statistics for women in prison: most of the female prisoners are not there for violent crimes (unlike male prisoners in the penal system). Mostly they are incarcerated for acts of amazingly poor judgment. Not to say that they aren't smart, some are beyond smart, and the vast majority are very intelligent. The behaviors that got them into prison tend to involve men...specifically, bad choices in men. I'm not talking about the women who defended themselves against violent husbands or boyfriends, perhaps after years of domestic violence. Those guys tend to be charming and protective in the beginning of the relationship. Why wouldn't you choose a guy who woos you and makes you feel safe? It's only later that the charm turns into put-downs and insults; and the protectiveness turns into oppression, suppression, and/or violence. It's tough to see the potential abuser in the guy who is opening your car door for you; it's not the woman's fault for choosing him.

I'm talking about those women who walked into the relationship with their eyes wide open, who picked drug users/addicts, petty criminals, and low-end sociopaths. The women who have a penchant for bad boys or wounded boys-- AND wouldn't have it any other way. And, then, to the amazement of anyone with common sense, those women actually drove the get-away car when he robbed the 7-11; or allowed her own occasional drug use to become major drug use, and then allowed him to prostitute her; or chose him over her children, and are serving time for child neglect or abandonment. In other words, the majority of women in prison today are there because they have seriously bad taste in men. How did that happen? They probably had seriously bad (or absent) fathers, step-fathers, mothers, or step-mothers. They were probably abused, physically, sexually, or verbally, for most of their childhood. They were probably incested or raped before they got out of their teens. The victims of their own lives, they go on to become complicit in their own victimization as the years go on.

They feel broken. I listened to their stories during the seder. And, then, I spoke from the heart when I spontaneously asked them to join me in a meditation. "You are not your experiences. If you believe that you are your experiences, then you might believe that you are broken. You are not broken, nor do you need to be fixed. You simply need to be uncovered and allowed to shine. Let the Light shine through you."

What is my answer to my patients, when they lament their brokenness? "Creativity involves separating the parts from the whole. Repair is making whole the parts." Just a thought.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Two approaches to healing

There are two approaches to healing...

One is to find whatever has been weakened and damaged by illness (emotional, psychological, medical, or spiritual), and then repair and strengthen it.

Another is to find whatever remains viable and healthy, and then support and strengthen it. Since it is one body, fortifying one aspect brings healing to the all the rest.

So, too, the healing of the spirit: one path is to grab the weakness by its horns and fix up your act. Another is to focus your energies on the spiritual resources that are working well. Since it is one soul, when one area is enriched the rest is elevated with it.

So, too, in repairing whatever is amiss in your world: when you see others are not doing their job, that important work is being mishandled, or valuable opportunities are being passed up, it is not a time for anger or despair. It is a time for you to strengthen many times over the good work that you are doing in your own sphere.

And, since we are all one, the energy you invest in your little corner of the world pays off in every other portion as well.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

#1 Cause of Divorce

If you are married, your primary relationship in life is with your spouse. And, of course, the strength of that relationship will go a long way toward determining your satisfaction and happiness in life.

We've all had problems with our marriage, maybe even to the point where we were considering other alternatives. But, if you want it to work, how about making a decision to try the 100%-Commitment Experiment? Not 99%, but 100%. In doing so, something magical can happen. However, if you're not sure that you want to be content and satisfied in your marriage, then don't do this because it can begin as an experiment and end up as a lifestyle. And, if you accidentally found yourself happy, what might that do to your life plan? (Yes, it is true: some of us cannot bear to be happy and any happiness messes with our expectation of how Life is supposed to be, so we can have none of that.)

Here's how it works: one of you has to decide to commit 100% to the relationship. Let's say it is the man. When the man (husband, boyfriend, fiance) looks for the positives in his relationship and his partner, he will most likely begin to enjoy his partner more each day. She will naturally respond by being much nicer to him. This can begin an amazing transformation--I've seen it happen. And, you, too, can watch the years unfold and be one of those those couples, who, after 30+ years of marriage say that they've never been happier.

There is a remarkable difference between a commitment of 99% and 100%. At 100%, you are determined to see your problems all the way through to their solution. At 99%, we can still find a way to take the path of least resistance, or to slack-off, or get lazy. Truth be told, we all take our partners for granted, at least some of the time. Most of us would prefer to look the other way, to take the path of least resistance. Therein lies the problem.

You want to know the #1 cause of divorce in America?

#1 cause of divorce: We grew apart
#1 cause of growing apart: I don't feel connected
#1 cause of feeling disconnected: Resentment
#1 cause of feeling resentment: Withdrawal of interest and energy

So, go ahead, look the other way, commit at 99%, and you, too, can be a statistic.

And, just fyi, the 100%-Commitment Experiment not only works for also works for life.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Letting go

Letting go, moving on, saying goodbye, rarely are these easy to do. Yet, life seems to require that of us, whether we want to or not. The co-workers we're fond of get new jobs, our favorite neighbors relocate, our siblings get married, and our children go away to college. Then there's the unwanted divorce, the unexpected death, and the estrangements with which we have to deal. And, deal we do; sometimes better than other times.

Grieving clients ask me all the time, "How do I let go?" The Book of Ecclesiastes makes the point that there is a season for all things, and that would seem to include relationships, which have to come to an end. Buddhism teaches a philosophy of non-attachment to material things, and that, too, would seem to include people. Yet, Attachment Theory tells us that we are hard-wired for connection to others, which is why it hurts so damned much when we have to let go.

The divorced client can't move on, stuck in an old mindset that says that she's still married. The grieving client can't stop yearning for the deceased loved one. The jilted fiance can't return the engagement ring to the store where he bought it. The drug addict continues to mask the pain of the death of his best friend when they were 9 with a plethora of street drugs. The overweight woman eats to fill a hole that can't be filled with food. The successful survivor of a very destructive dysfunctional family continues to allow the family to pull him back into their underachieving world. If all of them could just let go, by themselves, I'd be in search of a new career.

Well-meaning friends and family are always telling other people (aka my clients) to "let go and move on." And then I'm asked, "What is letting go?" and I have to say that I don't know what it means. I'm not sure that we ever really let go; maybe we just don't hold on as tightly, or as self-destructively. Maybe we just find a place for the lost person ---or we grieve the unmet need, and then, one day, it just seems that we let go.

Let go sounds like an action verb, an activity that we do with zeal and self-discipline. It sounds like something over which we have control. The Cognitive-Behavioral folks would say that's exactly right--we make up our mind, change our behavior, and voila, we let go. Hmmm. I've yet to see it happen quite that way. It's usually a very painful process to accept the goodbye, especially when we didn't want the goodbye in the first place.

And, that's where therapy comes in. Trying to let go (whatever that means), all by yourself, can be an exercise in futility; certainly an exercise in circular thinking. Ever notice that when you're talking to yourself about a highly emotionally charged issue you seem to return to the same starting place, no matter how long you go at it? We call that circular thinking or a closed network. Therapy changes the number of people involved in the thinking, it adds a new thought, an insight, and a helpful hint. Therapy becomes the action verb that is needed when trying to let go.

A broken heart requires mending. How will you begin the process of mending it?

Journal topics re moving on:
I have outgrown...
I miss...
I don't miss...
I am not quite ready for...
I look forward to...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Suggested readings

Readings that have helped yours truly cope with her losses...

When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold S. Kushner.
When Living Hurts, by Sol Gordon.
Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl.
Necessary Losses, by Judith Viorst.
How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, by Therese Rando.

Perhaps, as you meander through this time without your loved one, trying to find meaning or purpose in your life, you might find comfort and increased joy in living by joining others in a support group, talking with a clergyperson, working with a grief specialist, or reading an inspirational book. Just a thought.

The Keeper of the Flame

We were 37 when my oldest friend died. We'd known each other since we were 11 years old and attending the same dance school. We were very different people: I took classical ballet and tap dance; she studied modern jazz and tap dance. It was our similarities that brought us together and our differences that added spice. We knew each other for 27 years through the first boyfriend, the first pregnancy scare, the first spouse, the first everything. And, then, a few months before our 20-year high school reunion, she died. Suddenly. Literally, she dropped to the floor and was gone. The Coroner said it was an aneurysm.

Sudden death is particularly hard to deal with: there's no time to wrap your mind around the loss. Perspective has to come in time. The emptiness can be crushing. Feeling your heart pulled out of your chest, leaving behind ragged edges, is excruciating. The loss of a friend, especially an old friend, can be very much like the loss of a sibling because they have an essential ingredient in common: a long-time friend, just like a sibling, knows our history. They know where we came from, who we used to be, what mattered to us waaay back then, and they know how we've changed. They are the keepers of our story, and when they die, there is no one who knows what the story means anymore. For example, when the first real love of your life dies thirty years later, who is still alive who knows what that person meant and can recall the tender and joyful moments with you, as part of your healing?

When you lose a sibling, or your oldest friend, you lose your archivist: the Keeper of Your Stories. And, it feels like you've lost the Keeper of Your Flame. It does get better over time, although I'm not a big believer in the old salt that time heals all wounds. No, time does not heal all wounds...hard work heals all wounds. We have choices to make in our grieving---after the grieving seems to be over, there's still the yearning for the person. Will the yearning become a fulltime "occupation" or will it make an appearance only on holidays and birthdays? There is the need to have a place to put them. Will we preserve them under glass, the pain and agony very much alive? Or will we find a spot in the closet, in an old hat box, available to be taken out when we want to enjoy it, and safe and protected when we put the lid back on? The choices of how to deal with loss are ours to make.

When I have lost a loved one, I have been comforted by this meditation. I hope you will, too.

It is hard to sing of oneness when our world is not complete, when those who once brought wholeness to our life have gone, and naught but memory can fill the emptiness their passing leaves behind.

But memory can tell us only what we were, in company of those we loved; it cannot help us find what each of us, alone, must now become. Yet, no one is really alone; those who live no more, echo still within our thoughts and words, and what they did is part of what we have become.

We do best homage to our dead when we live our lives most fully, even in the shadow of our loss. For each of our lives is worth the life of the whole world; in each one is the breath of the Ultimate One. In affirming the One, we affirm the worth of each one whose life, now ended, brought us closer to the Source of life, in whose unity no one is alone and every life finds purpose. (From the New Union Prayerbook)

YOU ARE NOT IN THIS ALONE. I am here to help.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Free "therapy"

I'm a psychodynamic therapist, which means I do a whole lotta listening, while the client does a whole lotta talking. (I also do a whole lotta educating, responding, searching for insights, etc.) Carl Rogers, who created humanistic, client-centered therapy, is one of my heroes. I'm a big fan of the work of John Bowlby, who is synonymous with Attachment Theory. I give all praise and hazzuhs to William Worden, who (literally) wrote the textbook on grief therapy and grief counseling. Each of those psych professionals had their roots in psychoanalytic psychotherapy (aka Freudian therapy.) I'm a big fan of Freud's work. (Okay, not all of it. I'm not a fan of his Drive Theory or his ideas regarding women's sexuality. He was a Victorian, after all, and subject to the influences of his time.) And, philosophically, I'm an Existentialist: in short, a major believer in the concept of personal responsibility.

If it isn't clear already, I'm not a cognitive-behavioral kind of gal. I don't buy the idea that changing your behavior is enough. That seems much too much like putting cream on a rash: yeah, it'll get rid of the itch, but it doesn't "cure" the cause of the rash.

Having said all that, I do, happily, use one technique from the Cognitive-Behavioral handbook: journalling. Personally, I journalled like crazy all the days of my own therapy, and even when I wasn't in therapy. I always considered it free "therapy." So, from time to time, or maybe even regularly, I'll include a journal question or topic for readers to explore.

Write from the heart. There is no right or wrong answer. Don't worry about spelling or grammar. This doesn't have to be poetry or worthy of publishing. No one has to see it except you. It's simply you talking with yourself, so enjoy the conversation. And, if you want to share it with me, send it to my email. I'll be delighted to hear from you.

The first 3 journal topics are:
My first memory is...
I have tried to forget...
I wish I could remember...

Paths to God

Therapy clients frequently ask me about faith. It's a reasonable topic to come up in therapy, especially when a client knows that I spent years in hospice as both a therapist and an inter-faith chaplain (and am an ordained inter-faith minister). The assumption is that I must be a religious person in order to have been a chaplain, or at a minimum, I must be a spiritual person. The client is right on both counts, but it wasn't always that way. When I began working in hospice as a volunteer in my 20's, I was spiritual, but not religious. Then, in time, I became more religious, enjoying the practices and culture of my religion, but I did not possess a faith in anything I couldn't see, namely, God. (Or the Higher Power, the Creator, choose a name that suits you.) My path to God was, perhaps, a little unusual.

Hinduism teaches that there are 4 paths to God. The Four Paths are: The Way to God through Knowledge, The Way to God through Love, The Way to God through Work, and the Way to God through Psychophysical Exercises. In a nutshell, the first path, through Knowledge, asserts that thoughts have consequences and our thoughts animate our lives. Thoughts can involve positive thinking, or learning in one fashion or another (e.g., books, classes), and asking questions. The path of Love says that one adores God with every element of his or her being, for no ulterior reasons other than to simply and adoringly love God. Love can involve prayer, service (as in becoming a monk or a minister), meditation, etc. The path of Work says that each task becomes a sacred ritual, lovingly fulfilled as a living sacrifice to God's glory. Again, that could include committing to a life of religious service, or it could be digging ditches, which becomes a holy activity when done for the glory of God. And, finally, the path through Psychophysical Exercises, which asserts that one must drive the psychic energy of the self to its deepest part to activate the true self. This could include a deeper yoga practice, meditation, or my personal favorite, psychotherapy.

Many of my patients arrive with a bushel of excruciating issues and old pains that create walls between them and a satisfying, peaceful life...and between them and God. ("Where was God when I was being beaten/incested/raped/scorned/abandoned by my mother/father/grandparent/stranger?") As therapy progresses, as the issues are worked-through, as the walls come down, they desire more out of life: they want meaning in their work, a purpose for their lives, answers to deeper spiritual questions, and, maybe, a reconciling with the God they believe abandoned them in their tragedies...or, perhaps, they seek their first adult relationship with God. Yes, therapy can lead a person to God. It isn't my intention, I don't proseletize or preach. It just seems that the folks who come to me want something more out of their lives, once they feel more whole. (Is this Divine intervention, perhaps?)

Which was my path? Knowledge. Specifically, questioning. Questioning and more questioning. What's unusual about that? Nothing. The unusual part was the the actual, real, physical path that I walked: the path of hospice. Some of the patients I worked with had tremendous faith in a Higher Power. They had a very real, almost palpable relationship with a living God. A God who inspired them, supported them, encouraged them, and believed in them. I envied their faith and their ability to talk, unselfconsciously, with their God through prayer. How could they believe in something that didn't seem to work, namely, prayer? (May I recommend a great book, Healing Words by Larry Dossey? That book took me to new places of scientific understanding regarding prayer.) How could they believe in a God they couldn't see and who didn't seem to talk to everyone, just to a select few?

Years would go by, decades for that matter, and as I worked with dying people their faith just seemed to rub off on me. That isn't to say that I didn't ask a lot of questions of anyone who would answer me. I certainly did, year after year. But, funny thing about prayer: as a chaplain, I prayed with persons from every faith tradition and in various prayer languages, and as I prayed with them it seems a little bit of something came my way. Maybe it was a little bit of peace, maybe a moment of clarity, or maybe a deeper understanding of a word (e.g., grace), concept or practice.

Then came the day when a questioning patient asked questions of me regarding faith. "How do you get it? How do you get faith?" he wanted to know. I heard myself saying, "Why don't you try faking it until you make it?" "Really?" he asked. "That's not dishonest?" "Seems to me if it is in an honest pursuit of higher knowledge, part of a true search for answers and comfort, then fake it like crazy. Maybe something will come of it." And something did: he found a special relationship with a God he could love....and he died with the peace he'd always envied in others.

My path was to ask questions like crazy. I questioned with the energy of a storm. I have some answers now. I will gladly share one answer that I have received: The Path of Questioning, and a life of service, brought me answers and peace. Okay, I'll share another answer: I have come to believe that my work is the vessel through which God provides blessings in my life. At long last, I have fewer questions than I have answers. Or to put it another way, I have more answers than I have questions. Maybe that is the definition of peace, after all.

The answers I received are not for everyone. They're mine, they work for me. I have peace...the peace I've always envied in others. Now, then, which of the Four Paths works best for you?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

When life sucks

Disappointed in Life, a young friend recently asked why happiness had eluded them. Why couldn't they be happy? Why isn't life being better to them? At the risk of sounding like a self-help book or a pop philosopher, it seems to me....

It seems to me that if we give up on something (e.g., a relationship, a college education, self-discovery) just because it is hard, we will not have a very satisfying life. If we generalize the painful or unpleasant experiences in our life, then it will seem as if Life is against us. If we need perfection in our self and others, then we are doomed to a life of disappointment in our self and others. If all we see are the walls that we hit, then Life will seem like a miserable maze filled with concrete barriers. If we continue to be hard on our self and others, then we will live a lonely life. However, if we open our self up to enjoying the wonder of Life, to exploring the variety of people within our sphere of influence, to pursuing the meaning and purpose of our own time on this planet, then, when our days are over, we will have had a life that we enjoyed.

It seems to me that when we pursue happiness, it eludes us. However, when we pursue meaning and purpose, happiness is a delightful by-product. As examples, when we pursue marriage, we will find someone, regardless of whether or not they are good for us... or bad for us. However, when we pursue an appropriate partner in life, then a good marriage is a by-product. When we pursue the acceptance or love of others, we will probably get it, but it will be fleeting and unsatisfying, because it is theirs to give or to withhold, not ours to demand or command. However, when we pursue our own identity (aka self-knowledge), then we will be in a better position to know who and what we want, to know who and what is good for us, and to have the strength and skills with which to deal with choices, decisions, commitments, responsibilities, success, failure, rejection, adversity, pain, and loss.

It seems to me that most of the things that we pursue in our lives are better left un-pursued.

Now I'm not suggesting that we just passively or indifferently let Life come to us. I'm just saying that most of what we want in life will come to us through routes other than direct pursuit. For example, happiness. In truth, happiness is fleeting. We think that a new car will make us happy, and, then, when the new-car smell is gone, we're not as happy as we were when we bought it. And, frankly, we think that a new spouse will make us happy (in fact, for most people it is part of the job description of a spouse), but when the "new-spouse smell" wears off, when they disappoint us, when our needs are in conflict, then we're unhappy and we want to know where our happiness went.

If the happiness is not already inside of us, then pursuing it won't do us any good.

However, if we pursue self-knowledge, then, quite honestly, an attitude of self-contentment, a joy in our purpose, a satisfaction in the meaning of our endeavors, will allow us to view the world through happy eyes. Have you ever pursued a butterfly? Then you know that pursuit pushes it away---and peace and quiet create the perfect environment to encourage it to visit your garden. And, it helps, A LOT, if you plant the right kind of flowers, the kinds that attract butterflies. Just a thought.

Friday, February 5, 2010

What do you say to a person who is dying?

The other day a patient tearfully asked me, "What do you say to a person who is dying?" It wasn't the right time to answer her question. Mostly because she didn't really want an answer; it was the time for grieving the recent loss of a young friend, not for answering questions of deathbed etiquette. It was the time for expressing the shock and pain of witnessing a progressive and pernicious disease take the life of a young person. It was the time for first attempts at clarifying the meaning of the loss and its still vague implications for life lessons. However, when the time is right, I will answer the question.

As a hospice chaplain, with patients with whom I had shared the long and winding journey from diagnosis to last minutes, I said what I felt: "When you die, you take a piece of me with you; and you leave a piece of yourself with me. You live on, inside of me. Thank you for sharing your journey with me." The look of peace and contentment on their face said it all. To another person, I said, "I will miss you. I will miss your sense of humor, your quick mind, our deep conversations." To a beloved uncle-by-marriage, I spoke the unvarnished truth, "Thank you for being such a great uncle. You were truly one of the finest men in my life." To the cat of my dreams, the cat that my daughter cherished, I remember thinking, "Thank you for all you gave to my daughter...and me."

Truth be told, no one knows the meaning of the loss more than the two of you who share the goodbye---and that includes saying goodbye to a marriage, sending a child off to college, or saying goodbye for the rest of a lifetime. The words that pass between you should come from the heart of your relationship. And, the simpler and the more direct the words are, the better. As we say goodbye for the last time, can you imagine that there is there anything more meaningful to the dying person than to know that she or he will not be forgotten? Is there anything more powerful than knowing that you will live on, at least a little bit, in the memories of those whose lives you touched? What do you think you would want to hear as you say goodbye to this world and the people you love?

As for me, well, I'd like to be remembered.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I figured out how to respond to comments!

Did I mention that I'm a techno-idiot? And, despite the fact that this blogging site is pretty near to being idiot-proof, I still did not know how to recognize that folks were commenting. Seems that there is a learning curve here. I have now responded to the comments and I welcome discourse, as they say. And thank you for your comments. Okay, so, here is a true idiot-question: are the comments "viewable" to all readers, or just to me? Seriously, if someone would answer that question for me, I'd be grateful.

First official rant

Officially, this is my first rant: I'm tired of cleaning up behind other professionals.

Some therapists are very good at some issues, and should stay out of other issues. Just because they have a license doesn't mean that they should offer their services in areas in which they have limited experience or no real education. And I don't want to hear that old salt about, "Gee, how else are they supposed to get experience, if they don't practice on whomever comes through their office door?" Oh, please. They can't just read a book and then decide that they're an expert. Or take one class and change their business card to reflect this new expertise.

Okay, so, how do you get experience doing something new? Take several classes AND read several books AND go to a few conferences, and if any of those learning experiences are credible, then the therapist should have the opportunity to participate in roleplays, watch roleplays, talk with actual professionals, and develop some skills. At a minimum, they should inform their new/prospective client that they have limited experience in that issue and not charge their new client(s)---or volunteer at a community clinic and receive supervision while volunteering.

Why do I care? Because I'm tired of cleaning up behind so-called professionals, who may not do harm (unless you consider lost years in one's life harm), but don't do any good either. And, then, there are those who actually do harm by establishing expectations of what therapy is and will be. Case in point, the woman who came to me after three previous therapy experiences: the first therapist used to pour a drink for the both of them while they had session (did I mention that she was an alcoholic?); the second one spent their time talking about his personal issues in the guise of teaching by example; and the third one slept with her. At least one of those therapists committed a criminal act (sex with a patient is NEVER okay!); one should have been reported and punished (drinking? during a session? with an alcoholic client? seriously!); and the over-talker needed to take a couple of good therapy classes and remember that therapy isn't about showing how brilliant you are, or how well you manage your own life, it's about helping the patient discover him or herself (and to discover how well s/he can manage his or her own life).

And, then, there are those therapists who think that grief counseling and grief therapy are no different than whatever kind of therapy they ordinarily do. For example, if she is a cognitive behaviorist, she simply addresses grief with the same techniques that she uses for cog-b therapy. Agh! Talk about compounding the problem! Grieving people need sensitivity, warmth, inclusion, and psychoeducation, not techniques, and certainly not emotional distance. They need someone who will explore the deeper meaning of the loss, uncover the ancient or multiple losses glomming onto the current loss, and who will (figuratively) hold their hand throughout the grieving process. Instead, they get no real help, and I see them years later when their lives are approaching the sunset years and the former years cannot be recaptured.

There are no do-overs for decades lost to grief. And, certainly, no do-overs for dreams, ideals, hopes, and love lost. So, please, therapists, stay in your areas of true expertise and leave grief to the true grief experts. And, consumers, BEWARE. Ask about specialized training, years of experience, where they earned their experience, what special certifications they may have, their philosophy of grief therapy, and their usual style of therapy (humanistic, cog-b, Jungian, etc.), and then go to and look up the style of therapy so that you understand it. You wouldn't do less if you were looking for a heart surgeon, would you? You owe your psychological future at least as much. Just a thought.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


The more I do this work that I love, namely psychotherapy and helping people find meaning and purpose in their lives, the more I discover just how very, very connected the mind, body, and spirit are. Not that this is a newsflash to me: I've been interested in the mind-body connection, spiritual issues, hypnosis, herbalism, vitamins, Chinese medicine, and wellness since I was a teen. It should come as no surprise to my patients that I frequently attend seminars and earn continuing education units in subjects involving non-pharmacological (aka drugs) treatments for all that ails a person: depression, anxiety, mood swings, ADHD, health issues, degenerative diseases, and more. Still, that didn't prepare me for the little gem I learned at a seminar this week: inflammation is at the root of cardiovascular disease, fibromyalgia, arthritis, and frequent mood swings.

Wellness researchers and doctors do not use the word inflammation in the same way that you and I use it: it is NOT swelling or mild irritation of a body part. Inflammation in the naturopathic, wellness jargon is systemic and far more complicated than I can get into in this blog. Let it suffice to say that the treatments for systemic inflammation include eating certain foods, taking vitamins and herbs, and the reduction of stress. Lifestyle issues, such as meaning and purpose, definitely factor into the wellness equation. As I tell my clients, I can make a big difference in your depression with therapy and hypnosis, but if your problem is bio-chemical (and whose isn't after years of depression?), then all of our efforts are akin to pushing back the ocean with a dixie cup. We need to approach this from all directions...and, then, your life can be your own.

If you'd like to understand a little more about the biological causes of depression and anxiety disorders, send me an email at.... ....and I will send you the educational hand-out I give to clients who suffer from depression or anxiety. If you'd like to attend free presentations on wellness by an American-university-trained M.D. (turned wellness practitioner after 30 years of practicing western medicine), contact Dr. Susan Sklar at the Sklar Center in Long Beach, Ca. at or 888 635-well.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Unlived Life

I worked in hospice for many years, during which time I frequently heard, "Oh, my God, that must have been depressing." Not so. It was truly inspiring and taught me a few important lessons about living one's own life.

In the 1930's, Jung wrote about the concept of the unlived life: in a nutshell, for every choice that we make, there are choices that we didn't choose, and those choices accumulate in our unlived life. Think about it: if you chose to get a BA in business, what didn't you choose? A BA in art? Sports psychology? Chinese literature? And what were/are the implications of each of those choices? And what about the Dream Crushers, the people who told you who you were supposed to be, and maybe even made your choices for you? What will be, or have been, the consequences of those imposed choices? In hospice I saw, firsthand, the consequences of choices past and how they translated into regrets.

To tell you the truth, there's nothin' pretty about regrets and the last days of a person's life. So, I'm thinking that it's important to live one's own life. Not the life that your parents insisted on, or that your spouse needs you to live, or that your children seem to require of you. Maybe, just maybe, if you live your own life, they will be empowered to live their own lives, too. And then what might happen to the world, or at least your family lineage? The result could be inner peace, joy, contentment, a life filled with meaning and purpose, many persons' potentials fully manifested. And, then, as the final days of your life unfold, maybe, just maybe, you'll be glad that you lived your own life, not someone else's. Just a thought.

Aging gracefully

I was driving to my office the other morning: maybe it was 7:30, cool, not much traffic on the route, and not too many people. I saw a scene, in my opinion, that captured the essence of living life with grace and style.

As I sat at the stoplight, two women, each in very different stages in their lives, crossed in front of me. One, a young woman in her early 20's, wearing tight running shorts and a hoodie, brunette hair in a ponytail, was jogging across the street. Actually, it was more like prancing: her knees high on each step, but not a lot of speed in her gallop. In the parallel crosswalk, on the opposite side of the street, was an older woman in her late 60-somethings. Wearing a full sweatsuit, her silver-grey hair styled short, she was walking comfortably; a gentle saunter, at most. As each woman reached the corner, she stopped and waited for the light to change: the younger one checking her pulse, the older one enjoying the sights on the street. After the light changed, they both, in their very separate styles, passed each other in the same crosswalk. The young woman raised her hand in a high-five and the older woman smiled. I wondered if they met each other this way every morning. Each continued on her way. The light had changed to green and I accelerated through the intersection, thinking about the contrasts between the women and the lessons of the scene.

We all have choices to make as we grow older: will our lives, indeed our worlds, become smaller--or larger? Will we adjust to the changes, bringing our own personal style to each stage of life--or will we resist? Will our spirit soar with each new time in our life--or will we allow our spirit to be crushed by our need to hold on feverishly to what was, to who we once were, or to who we thought we would be? Maybe, just maybe, choosing to do what we can to stay healthy, alert, connected, and truly alive might be the key to living life gracefully? Just a thought.

Blog #1

Okay, so, everyone says I should have a blog. I'm not sure exactly why, but EVERYONE says I should have a blog.

I've never been one of those folks who does what everyone else does, but EVERYONE says it is the new way to communicate, to reach out and touch someone, to make a difference--one reader at a time. That last one sounds pretty good to me. I'm all about making a difference. My entire life has been about making a difference. Alright, I'll give this blogging-thing a chance. Truth be told, I'm not a techy kind of person. I just discovered the wonderful world of having a website, but I don't Twitter and I don't do a lot of things that others can do with their eyes closed. But, I can, and do, observe.

By nature, I'm an observer...I love to watch people doing what they do in the simplest and most ordinary moments. The best part of going to Disneyland was always about watching the people. And, I'm an observer by training. I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist, which, by definition, means a whole lotta observing and a whole lotta listening. My Ph.D. is in pastoral ministry and I'm an ordained inter-faith minister, ditto the previous sentence. And, I'm a woman, which the new brain research tells us, is pretty synonymous with listening and observing. So, here are my observations, maybe a musing or two, and probably a short rant every once in a while.