I was going on a 7 day residential workshop in Santa Barbara near LA, where I would be studying and practicing relational Gestalt psychotherapy with a focus on “Welcoming the Suffering Stranger’ proposed by Donna Orange, a New York analyst who was one of the facilitators. We all had read her book with the same name before going and were in the process of thinking about how our therapeutic and daily practice involved such moment by moment receptive actions. My friend and colleague Janice and I had planned for 5 years my attending this residential (this was her 14th visit) and I was staying with her in Los Angeles for a few days before and after the 7 day event. I couldn’t attend in years previously because of work commitments – as I had run a Gestalt training institute for 15 years and it had closed the year before freeing me up to travel in April.
Before I left Australia I had heard that her 96 year old husband of 36 years (called Robert) was ill and in hospital. He had been having dizzy spells and couldn’t stand up to move around. He had been given a blood transfusion which had rocked his delicate balance of health so much that his lungs had started filling with fluid and he had trouble breathing. He improved in hospital and was transferred onto a hospice and had been there for a week when I arrived. It looked like his condition was stabilising and even improving enough so he could come home soon. We left on a Thursday while he was in expert care at the hospice.
Janice received several calls every day from Mark his son who was a doctor, and Paul his other son a Marketing executive, from Robert’s doctor and from his secretary Alison, all monitoring his condition. By Saturday it seemed he was not improving. By Sunday there was a downturn and they held a family conference over the phone and decided to bring him home on Monday. They were hoping he would survive until the next weekend after the residential was finished. I was finding the constant reports about Robert very distressing for me. I was there to learn, but also as Janice’s friend I was there to support her, and we discussed each piece of information as it came in. She felt confident that Robert would survive until the weekend after the residential. She felt a strong spiritual connection with him and had decided that he would wait for her to return before he died.
On Monday he was transferred home and his condition declined dramatically. His heartbeat was low, his blood pressure terrible and his doctor thought he would die within 48 hours. Meanwhile I was urging Janice to go home and be with him. If the situation was reversed and it was my husband dying I would want to be with him by his bedside. I was prepared for her leaving me at the residential and while I wasn’t so keen to be alone there with the 43 other delegates I had been torn by guilt also for Robert’s family who were with him at home and feeling they must be angry with me for taking Janice away – along with her love for her group and her stubbornness to wait it out – she is very attached to me and we have had good times travelling together before and we had been looking forward to this for so long. She received about 20 calls that day which was a rest day from the residential and we had gone for lunch and shopping in Santa Barbara, so I shared most of the calls listening to her sympathising and understanding her family’s concerns.
The tension was building on Monday night and finally I offered that I come home with her to support her with his family and in his dying. Janice was Robert’s 6th wife and he had 4 children by wife #2. There were 3 men now in their 50’s – John, a lawyer, Paul and Mark, all very professional and caring and a unit with Robert while Janice had always felt a bit on the outer. The other child Michelle lived in Colorado and would be coming back for his funeral. They had all lived with their Mum and used to see Robert occasionally on the weekends and then off on big adventures in France for the holidays. Robert was born in France and was outrageously extrovertedly French. Bravo!! He was a wealthy film producer as well as a therapist and had an amazing art collection of many Picassos, Renoirs, Chagalls in a beautiful house in Brentwood that was held in trust for his children to be passed on when Janice dies. Janice had welcomed his children as family but never had any children of her own. There was a tentativeness about her with them and from my perspective the overwhelming bond between them was a shared spiritual connection. Robert had run a meditation and spiritual practice group for 40 years and had led meditations every second Sunday of the month for his many followers as part of that practice and his family were all involved in it. His assessment of others involved an energy monitor and seven rays practice formulated by Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society to gauge the essential nature of people and he strongly believed in the power of various meditations including Tibetan mantras and visualisations. In the one time that spoke with him he told me about his meditation practices and stories of his experiences with the Dali Lama’s teachers in India and Bhutan.
Anyway I felt Janice needed support to get home and at about 9pm that Monday I offered to leave the residential and go with her and then return as soon as Robert had died. Mark (the doctor son) called at 10pm to say Robert may not last the night…..and Janice decided to leave. So we started packing and were on the road by 11pm, driving through the velvety dark, rushing to get home before Robert passed away…it was like flying through the skies! We were speeding along in a car that had a hole in the muffler and exuding stinky fumes mildly worried that the car may not make it and so tired from the stress of things. Finally we reached home at 1am and came inside to the room where Robert lay breathing slowly, surrounded by his 3 sons and Annie (John’s wife) two grand-daughters in their 20’s and Alison, all with tear stained faces and very grim. The atmosphere felt quite serious and even hostile as there was the sense of “You should’ve been here hours ago” and “Why weren’t you here?”. I was tired and went to bed. I felt like I had brought her home.
Janice was up all that night and the next day and the next night. She slept a few hours here and there but not much as we were all patiently waiting for him to go. His sons were pleased she was back and they had many conversations together. They had to leave to work during the day so they came and went and sat with him when they could – working by his bedside. I sat with him too and a range of feelings came and went. What an exciting man to have developed all this in his life: this lovely, dynamic and professional family, the gorgeous house, the magnificent art collection, the spiritual group. Also anger came up around him being a crusty old bastard that he chose to die in the middle of the residential and brought us back to be with him. How the dying pull people in! But what an amazing family he was leaving behind – so spiritually aware and open to receiving me.
By Wednesday morning his doctor couldn’t work out why he hadn’t died. His pulse was 8 beats a minute, his blood pressure was 67 over 27 which is really low. She was amazed he could survive on so little vital energy. Paul said that he had been a meditator his whole adult life and that his body was used to surviving on little oxygen. Meanwhile I was torn between staying and going. I thought Robert would die earlier and I’d be back at the residential by now. Also the longer we stayed away the more my group would have evolved beyond where I was at and I would miss out and be left behind and it would be difficult to re-enter the group.
So on Wednesday morning Robert had not died and I was working out how to catch the train back to Santa Barbara. I had been emailing Lynne Jacobs the organiser of the workshop to let her know about Robert and us, and also my friend Liz Bentley who was in my work group. How wonderful to have a life-line to that other world! As I’m looking at the internet for bus and train times Robert’s doctor tells us he would probably die that afternoon. Janice shot a look of concern to me and I could see that 2 people leaving her on one afternoon may be too much so I said I’d stay that day and definitely leave the next morning.
We waited and sat with Robert reading him well wishes from his meditation group, some people had dreams about him and we were telling him those – one of which said he couldn’t see and needed his reading glasses so Alison put them on him for a while. There were many people coming to check in and say “Goodbye” to him, or to sit with him and linger – sometimes up to 5 or 6 people in his room at once. Janice was busy dealing with these visitors and I made tea and salads and cooked dinner and did the dishes in the background.
That night was the most beautiful experience we had together. From about 8pm we were all in Robert’s room – the 3 sons, Annie, Alison, Janice and myself – meditating together, being reflective, reminiscing, laughing, feeling sad, playing Robert’s favourite music – Bach, Mahler, Edith Piaf…the boys’ mother had been a concert singer and they played her version of “Summertime” – it was very soulful and his boys had tears in their eyes. Janice put on some Tibetan monks singing mantras and blowing massive Tibetan horns and crashing cymbals to help push his spirit on! Blaaahhh! Crrrsh! We were dancing in the living room like wild Demchogs….then back to be quiet at his bedside. Janice found some of his spiritual poetry and read it out and Paul had some evocations that Robert had written and read out the first line and we all repeated and then the second line and we repeated and so on. It was a very engaging and connecting experience for me. Janice then lead the singing of the Gayatri mantra and we all joined in….so deep and so beautiful! He stopped breathing at 11:57 and his heart beat for the last time at midnight. How wonderful that his dragon spirit soared at that portal in between the days! What timing! What a great send off he had! Surrounded by loved ones joining together in a “love soup” for him. All of us integrated into a cohesive loving family.
I want a death like that!
As his spirit left his body I prayed that in his energetic release I would receive some of his great confidence…that I could get up and express myself more fully and more in the moment – which is my growing edge and I was working on that aspect of myself at the residential. I have no problems expressing myself in one on one situations. I can deliver lectures and talk in front of groups when it is a prepared speech with aplomb. While I was the Director at Sydney Gestalt and I had lots of experience lecturing and presenting in groups but I still had difficulty being spontaneously expressive in front of groups feeling quite shy and tongue-tied at times. I know that I shame myself to avoid the others and I aim to remain connected with me and with them somehow. I wanted to feel more grounded in my body and generate a lightness of being that flows out verbally.
The next morning we went back to the residential (in another car), arriving at lunchtime. As we walked into the compound people came and hugged us and welcomed us and Liz came over and invited us to sit at their table. We joined Liz and two friends and felt very included. During lunch various colleagues came over and embraced me…I have never been so warmly received by a community! After lunch we had our workgroup and the leader – Donna – took 30 minutes to integrate me back into the group. I told my story about the events surrounding Robert’s death and my feelings and concerns about the group leaving me behind and maybe feeling that I had abandoned them. The group members were so interested in my story I had a sense that instead of being left behind it was like a parting of a river and now the waters were rejoining. The group had left a chair for me in the circle and my emails had been read out to them all. Such a relief for me and a delight to be so welcomed. Truly a deep process of the experience of a shamed traveller being welcomed back. Donna pointed out that I had originally had been in a good place like a host to Janice’s family process in dealing with death but along the way I had become caught up in something else partly as it took so long and I was rather torn to be there… I had become a hostage to the situation.
At the concluding ceremony of the residential on day 8 all 50 people sit in a circle and have the opportunity to speak if they want to. I was reluctant to speak and thought I wouldn’t say anything but as most people in the circle spoke I was forming something reflecting my disjointed journey over the past 8 days. What an intense time. For me it was around the difference between reading a book about being welcomed, and then the actual experience of being a tentative traveller welcomed in…the experience of which was so much richer and deeper for me….it connected at a cellular level in my body and would be with me forever. I also had the image of all of us taking this warm and welcoming experience from the residential and going out back into our communities and seeding areas of welcome for suffering strangers….spreading out the attitude by our actions…creating a rippling out effect. I was surprised with myself that I spoke so eloquently making it up on the spot….letting my thoughts speak. Some colleagues commented later that it was an impressive last comment. Wow!
Thank you Robert!!! Thank you Donna, Lynne and Gary!! Thank you Janice and Liz!! Thank you Robert’s family!! Thank you residential colleagues!!
Interview with Clinton on Creative Approaches
Clinton: We’re here today to talk a little bit about Gestalt therapy and in particular the creative aspects of Gestalt therapy. For those that don’t know perhaps tell us briefly in layman’s terms what is Gestalt therapy?
Rhonda: Gestalt is a German word and means “Whole” or “A sense of becoming”. Actually it has no direct English translation. It’s a sense of using all parts of the self and looking at how we respond in relation to the other and how this affects us as a self.
Gestalt was created in the 50’s by Fritz Perls as a response to the very strong tendency in psychoanalysis where people were quite passive. He wanted people to be more active, more involved, more engaged with each other. Good contact is nourishing for all participants, for both the therapist and the client. That it’s this engagement, this relationship that you develop between the therapist and the client that’s very supportive, very nourishing.
Essentially Gestalt differs from other therapies. All therapies are around understanding yourself, increasing your awareness, learning to accept and value yourself. I think what Gestalt offers is a sense of working at what we call the “contact boundary” and maybe in increasing your strength and your sense of yourself by your engagement with the other. We can do this with what they used to call “Experiment”, now people are calling it more “Exploration” of what you could do differently.
This experimental nature is always done in a very respectful and compassionate way. It’s bringing your curiosity alive and your sense of excitement about yourself in relationship to others. I think Gestalt is unique in offering that approach.
Clinton: What is good contact? What does Gestalt therapy consider good contact is?
Rhonda: Good contact is about coming from a place of authenticity. It’s looking at, “What is me? What is not me?” What has been taken on over a number of years and probably swallowed whole by yourself around, “This is who I am,” which may not be true. It’s like we’re looking at untangling what has been given to you, from what is in a sense your true self and your truth.
Good contact is about engagement and about listening and responding. There’s a loop that’s set up between two people which is: someone says something to you and you hear it. You take it onboard, you listen. You have your meaning to what that is. You have your feeling associated with that. You have your response. That impacts them. You notice how it impacts them. You look at their process how they listen, how they feel and how they respond.
There’s a loop that’s set up that is a contact-ful loop where you notice your impact on the other. You check it out. You’re also aware of your thoughts and your feelings and your actions, your behavior. You hopefully become more authentic and spontaneous and more capable of intimacy in this process. It’s often about slowing down processes too and looking at the elements that are involved when you make connection with another person or connection with yourself.
Clinton: That sounds like Gestalt therapy is very helpful in helping people identify what I think you said, “Swallowed whole.” What they’re carrying from their history or their experiences in their lives, growing up and looking at what is useful and what’s not useful today. Is that part of what you’re saying?
Rhonda: Definitely! It’s often out of awareness that we have rules that we live by. They are rules passed down verbally and non verbally from the environment. This is something that was formed in us in relationship with our parents, our teachers, the religious groups and our peers. These rules often go unnoticed.
A simple example would be a belief that you’ll never achieve what you want or be successful, as fed to them by a parent.
It’s interesting to unpack that and see where that comes from and what the impact is on the person, what the impact is on the other. Sort out where they are actually, what they feel, “This is me and my authenticity,” and where it’s about the other and pleasing the other.
Clinton: Great! Many people I think are looking for something more than talk therapy aspect with lots of people who have done six or ten sessions of CBT and feel highly dissatisfied with what they’ve got out of that. Talk to us a bit about what are some of the creative ways that Gestalt therapy can be used as a therapeutic approach.
Rhonda: Gestalt often involves creative media. I can invite people to use art, to draw something, to put out some cushions to represent different parts of themselves or different people in their lives or we might do sand play where they choose a figure, a little figure or a number of figures and work with those in a tray half-full of sand. Again these can represent parts of themselves or members of their family or work situations.
I may use two-chair work which is a classic Gestalt technique where someone is talking about their mother and the therapist can say, “Put your mother in the chair. Talk to her as if she’s here.” That will raise the anxiety level often in a person but also the excitement level. They can get stuff off their chest that they wouldn’t normally talk about in just talking therapy. The work becomes much more direct and immediate and relevant I think often moving to the real issue.
With Gestalt you can cut through to really essential issues very quickly, whereas with talking therapy you can go around and around and talk “about” things quite a lot without getting to the underlying essence. Whereas with Gestalt we’re really focusing on the complexity of emotions like an emotionally focused therapy, but also broadening and examining the relationship to the other and also what meaning you give to things.
Yes, what I was doing there was explaining that some of these creative ways can open doors for people. It can really lead them into another place that they hadn’t considered before. It can also be quite playful and not so serious at times. It’s an exploration of yourself or others. It’s an invitation to play and develop your curiosity for, “Let’s see what happens!” The therapist nor the client, knows what’s really going to happen next.
Clinton: It does make me wonder if some of these … the creativity of the Gestalt allows people to access different areas of their brain, if we think about the neurobiological aspects. It sounds like what you’re saying is sometimes these creative approaches get to the heart of the issue very quickly and so simply.
Rhonda: That’s right! Yes, thank you for that. Definitely! In art therapy, when you have something where you come to a place where you’ve come to before you may feel stuck. I might invite the person to draw that situation. It may be tapping into something even preverbal that they don’t have words for. It may come out on the page. It will be apparent that it’s got a color and it’s got a form. It’s something here that you can talk about and go deeper into and understand more about yourself. Somehow by naming that, giving it a form, giving it a name it makes it easier to deal with it.
Clinton: What do you say to people that perhaps say, “I’m not creative,” or, “I don’t have a creative bone in my body?” Can they still benefit from Gestalt therapy?
Rhonda: That’s an interesting point because I think we’re all naturally creative. I think that along the passage of life we’ve been told – we’re not creative, that we’re not good at art. A lot of people are reluctant to draw because they feel they’re not good at drawing. I think that’s a process in itself and I wouldn’t force anyone, of course, to do it. It’s a suggestion. It’s an invitation.
The process of exploring that creative part of you is interesting in itself. It’s like if you can let go the judgment and let go the expectation of what it’s supposed to be like and go with your feeling, something new emerges. I always check in with the person how they’re feeling, what it’s like in their body before we start to do this sort of process. So yes, it’s a very interesting process to go through to be with someone who’s reluctant because they don’t think they’re very artistic and then to be drawn into it. We are both often quite impressed with what can be revealed.
People’s curiosity is often sparked by this process. If someone is truly not interested, I don’t push it. I probably would use creative media with say 60% of my clients. There are quite a few who are very sensitive, very traumatized and very reluctant to do that kind of thing. They need the comfort of just sitting and talking and building up their strength. Maybe further down the track you could do it, but it doesn’t always happen. It’s not something that we always do within a session, indeed not every session, only occasionally to develop a theme or to develop an issue.
I think that’s interesting when someone says that, “I can’t draw! No!” I say, “Stick figures are fine. Draw your family.” They see their family. They see that dad was a really the huge figure and mom was tiny and in the corner, and they were off somewhere in the distance. It’s clear. That tells me a lot about your family that I wouldn’t have found out just by talking. They can see that. “We are in this process together. We are on this journey together.”
I also think that this process of drawing can be very supportive. A lot of people think more the experimental sides of Gestalt can sometimes distance you from the person. I believe if there is a sense of compassion and care and inclusion around the whole process it’s not to set up someone to fail at all. It’s around curiosity and inclusion and care. From that on a lot emerges, a lot of new stuff can emerge.
Clinton: Do you have a favorite creative media that you use, Rhonda?
Rhonda: I go through phases, Clinton. (Laughs) For years I loved two-chair work. I just thought the experience of sitting on that other chair and answering (Laughs) that was amazing for me when I was in my therapy and when I first started as a therapist. I don’t do that so much anymore. I loved art therapy for a long time, I used to do workshops with art therapy for my institute and other institutes.
At the moment I’m very interested in sand play. I’m interested in that notion of complexity in that we live in a very complicated world. There are a lot of factors. With sand play, the figures often represent aspects within the person. They can also represent people outside. It’s layered. There are many layers within a sand play. We can sit and reflect … it’s like we hold those figures and their relationships and what they mean in between us, we can reflect a lot. The therapist and the client can both give their reflections on what it’s like. It can be very deep and very interesting work. I’m taken with that at the moment.
It’s very much like constellation work too which is quite popular. You can use sand play for a variety of things. I’m working with some people who are in organizational consulting and I find sand play is very effective there.
Clinton: Can a creative approach be used to treat issues like clinical depression or perhaps more serious mental health issues?
Rhonda: I definitely think so. You have to tread very carefully with severely traumatized people. You have to have a fairly strong or solid ground within your relationship where they feel safe with you. Definitely I with severely depressed people they often feel trapped with no sense of agency in themselves, you’re in a pit, a dark pit.
Using art is really useful. It can give them a sense of agency that they can do something here, that they can have insights into their own process. Can shine a light on something that hasn’t been … where there’s been no light before. That can give them hope – they are expanding their world. Yes, giving themselves space to express different aspects. Often with depression there’s a repetition of the same stuff that goes over and over in a loop of negative thinking. I find that art expression is a really useful way to open up the system. Sand play works well too.
Clinton: Wonderful! Someone perhaps who’s been through a course of cognitive behavioral therapy and is looking for something different. It sounds like Gestalt therapy in particular the creative aspects to Gestalt therapy could really help the person get new insights and new awareness about their particular problem or circumstances of difficulty they’re going through.
Rhonda: Yes, definitely. I think that CBT can be limiting with the focus on short term goal settings and change of behaviour. I’ve been through CBT myself. I was in a bad accident in the States and I had trouble driving so I did CBT therapy around driving which was very focused. It did help me in that area. I have had clients too who’ve been through CBT and sometimes it works. There’s no doubt about it. It’s really good for some people. But for some people it feels too cold. They don’t explore emotional responses so much. It’s more about your thinking and being more positive with yourself, which is good.
That’s part of Gestalt therapy too as we do that also. We set short term goals and look at clients’ thinking – the negative loop thinking – and how they can be more positive about themselves. There’s a step in the middle there where we consider more about the feeling states and what is happening for them internally in a felt sense. We have much more focus on body sensation and body responses and I think that’s really important. The relationship with the therapist is also really important here – and it’s about you letting the therapist know what you need, what works for you rather than being “worked on” like a faulty machine.
I don’t think long term change can happen for some people without them having considered their emotional responses at a body level and recognizing their feelings. I think just thinking about the problem is not going to produce long term changes. For some people it’s got to be that combination of feeling and thinking and support in a co-created reciprocal relationship with the therapist.
Clinton: I think what I hear you saying, Rhonda, is Gestalt therapy is a very inclusive therapy. It’s not just working with the thoughts or beliefs but also working with the imagination, working with the body and sensations, working a lot of emotions and feelings. It’s quite holistic in that regard?
Rhonda: Yes, it’s very much so. I think Gestalt is very inclusive because we do cover some CBT aspects, we also look at body work, emotional development, creativity and field influences. We look at the past and how the past affects the present time. We don’t focus on the past but funnel the client’s present experience through a field perspective. I believe Gestalt is a wonderful therapy in that it is very inclusive and holistic.
What excites me at the moment is a lot of the latest Gestalt research and writing is around the importance of the first 12 months of your life. Ruella Frank is a Gestaltist from New York who works on how important movement is for the baby’s neurological development. For example the crawling phase of a child is so important as it affects their spinal development and their coordination. If these processes are interrupted it can be really difficult and can leave long term influences in your life. They can go unnoticed for a long time. The therapist can uncover some of that from the way a person sits and from their posture as they talk. But then, with exploration and simple movements, people can discover resources they never knew they had.
This is the latest research that I’m very interested in: it is that influence of the early body development along with the relationship with the mother and the resultant neurobiological development and how that influences us. This brings up the importance of the therapist holding the client, of having a posture and an attitude as therapist, of being very compassionate and solid and very present for your client to be able to receive them at a deep and meaningful level. Yes, I love Gestalt for that – it’s very inclusive.
Clinton: Thank you so much for giving us such a wonderful overview of the creative aspects to Gestalt therapy. I hope that the people reading have certainly got a flavor of what’s possible with Gestalt therapy. They may decide to explore further.
Rhonda: All right, thank you, Clinton.
Clinton: Thanks, Rhonda. Bye-bye!
Rhonda: It’s been a wonderful opportunity. Bye-bye!
Tsunami Dream Case Study
I had a wonderful vignette happened recently: a woman rang and she wanted to work on a dream over 1 – 2 sessions and would that be OK? I said yes of course as I love working with dreams. Andrea came (she was small, bright, articulate, in her early 30’s with some Chinese heritage) and told me about a series of tsunami dreams that she has had over the last 5 years that make her really anxious (I’m wondering what happened 5 years ago?). She got married and has a 2 year old daughter (Aha I think – there’s a tsunami of feelings around that situation). I asked her to choose a dream and tell it and there is some confusion for her as all the dreams are very similar but each has a uniqueness, so I ask her to choose that last one which happened last week and prompted her to call me. She told her dream and we drew the main scene which was the big wave coming – a wall of water – on the page. I said where are you and she took another sheet and drew herself running up a hill gathering her daughter, husband, Mum and Dad, 2 -3 friends with her to flee the danger…they were just above the tip of the wave heading for a building above them.
I invited her to speak from her in the dream and she felt terror but more taken with being responsible for the safety of everyone (I’m wondering of this was the tsunami of responsibility and doing?). I asked her to be the others and they were frightened etc but trusted Andrea and getting to safety (good – seems to have trust in keeping herself safe). I asked her to be the wave and she found that a difficult one to be…she has little concept of her own power and big energy (which I can see. She has a job with the council implementing programs for special needs groups and I imagine she’d be very effective. They had given her 2 years off to have the baby which is unusual in local government – they usually only give 1 year maternity leave. They want her back! But she doesn’t see this as significant or of her being special). So here we have someone who takes responsibility, does a lot for others and doesn’t consider her worth …or is she scared of a part of herself maybe the powerful part/ the Critic?…(no she didn’t think so). Could it be being a girl and part Chinese that she carries the burdens of generations of discrimination and murder of girls?(I didn’t ask this as I felt it was jumping ahead).
I felt we hadn’t got to the core of the work and shared with her that and she agreed. Most musings had been around thoughts she’d processed before as she’d seen a few psychologists about this before coming to see me. I invited her to put the two pictures together and just see how that felt as she looked at them…to go with her body feeling. She looked for a long time and seemed quite sad and said she felt a lot of grief (ah I think a tsunami of grief?). I asked her where and she touched her heart and said there was pain around her heart and I invited her to stay with that. She then had her hand on her heart and looking down and….fell off the couch! She lay in foetal position on the floor and said “Just leave me alone. I want to be quiet.” I waited for a while and then sat down next to her and asked her what it was like down there and she said she felt OK calm – giving herself some space and “letting it all wash over me”. Maybe the collapsed place was what she was yearning for? It was an unfamiliar place for her as she was such a doer. She was on the floor for about 10 minutes and then sat up and her eyes were bright and she looked different – more relaxed. We had to finish in 5 minutes so to complete the session I asked her to put herself in the picture now and she then drew herself in foetal position after the wave had passed.
I had to leave the next week to a prearranged reunion overseas. While I was away she texted me that she had had another tsunami dream and this time she couldn’t flee so she went “with the flow expecting to drown or die but I ended up letting it flow over me and I’m still here. I’m alive! I’m alive!” I was so happy. She has come back to see me so we can work on the triggers for the danger dreams and some self soothing and meditation practices.
I think dreams hold such a deep insight into the character of the person. In working with them we avoid all the usual defences and creative adjustments that come up from early trauma and get to the core of the person’s issues quickly. It can also feel a lot like constellation work in that old messages handed down from generations are revealed as themes. I love the pictorial nature of them and that there is a special scene and often associated feelings come through so easily when we explore them. So often there is confusion and then the Aha as the elements are worked through the felt senses and an inner wisdom emerges. Aha!
1. GRATITUDE. Write down five things each day that you are grateful for. Be as specific and as descriptive as you can. Do it at around the same time every day, to set a pattern. When you do this exercise be careful NOT to look for or mention stresses or hassles. If convenient, try not to repeat the previous day’s items.
RATIONALE: You are training your brain to scan your inputs for things that make you happy.
2. JOURNALING: Write down your positive experiences, IN WRITING. The act of writing is more immediate than just thinking about your experiences, and it bridges across your semi-subconscious impressions and your conscious, verbal brain. RATIONALE: This will help you see positive connections in your life story.
3. SIMPLIFY vs MULTITASKING: The conscious brain does one thing at a time. When you multi task, your brain isn’t multi tasking- it is jumping from one thing to another, introducing frazzle and stress.
RATIONALE: This will reduce stress in your life, making you happier.
4. EXERCISE: Exercise is an antidepressant. If you introduce as little as a few minutes a day of exercise into your life, it will change your brain chemistry. It doesn’t have to be any specific exercise- any physical exertion that changes your respiration or your body tone or your pulse will induce happiness.
RATIONALE: This is stress-reducing, simple and self-rewarding.
5. MEDITATION; Meditation improves your mindfulness and your awareness. Simply focus on your breathing. Watch your thoughts and feelings. Breathe slowly and deeply, and if stray thoughts enter your mind, deliberately ignore them and observe your own breathing. Tell yourself “Back to breath.”
RATIONALE: This helps you slow down and watch your thoughts and helps you to relax and unwind; and with practice, it will provide a safety valve when tensions build up within you.
Couple Love or Kid Love
I wonder whether you realize this simple but powerful fact – that your survival literally depends on the healing power of love, intimacy and having good relationships.
As individuals with a partner or deeply connected friends and families, as communities, as a country, as a culture.
That’s a lot of unhappiness and loneliness out there as people respond in an individualistic paradigm in that “me first” attitude, keeping others at a distance. Many people just delegate love, intimacy and relationship to the realm of the “touchy-feely” and don’t embrace the idea that love and being intimate is that important. There is now mounting scientific evidence to show a direct correlation between health, long life and loving relationships.
So what are you doing about insuring your life and survival? What are you doing to bring more LOVE into your life? I’m curious about what matters most to you? What was at the top of your New Year’s resolution list? Did you include doing what ever it takes to make your partner, children, friends, family, the people that matter to you, feel more loved and cared for? What gets in the way of you doing this?
Remember the feeling of your eyes lighting up or your heart skipping a beat when one of your loved ones enters the room or even just thinking about them?….. It feels sooooooo good to love.
Do you know that you have the power to change your partner’s day into a nightmare or into a day of joy and pleasure? Did you know that within all your criticisms, frustrations, arguments and conflicts are the seeds and potential for deep change, growth and healing for both of you?
So, I challenge you to commit yourself, for the next year, to learning to love deeper. A good place to start is to END ALL CRITICISM. Why? Because criticism hurts the other and yourself and it usually doesn’t get us what we want anyway!
Criticism never works to get us love and connection. Criticism is a cryptic expression of our needs. Underneath all criticism is a need or a desire. A good strategy is to become curious about what you criticize and judge in others as well as what others judge in you. Re-write your criticisms and complaints into what you NEED. Say specifically what you want instead of what they are doing wrong and tell them what doing it right would look like and request they do it.
Criticism is negation of the other. When we criticize another we are actually saying that their difference is not OK. What ever it is they are doing is wrong, or bad, or is not up to standard. Our challenge is to honour the reality/perspective of the other whilst still holding onto our own, to see that we are two separate people.
An exercise that helps with this is take the time to really understand another’s point of view when you disagree with them – try it with your partner, or your child screaming for something you don’t want them to have, or someone at work doing something opposite to the way you think it should be done. Really enter their world and seek to understand and validate their way and let yourself be influenced by their reality. Validation means that you understand their logic, how they got from point A to point B. Practice “walking a mile in their shoes” not forgetting that you have to take yours off to put theirs on! Explore their way of doing things and observe what comes up for you.
Usually we criticize others because they are doing something or being some way that we don’t like. The other person is separate and different. The person you are relating to is NOT YOU and our goal is to validate their difference – otherwise we are into symbiosis = “You and I are one and I’m the one”.
As well the other person is usually unable to hear us when we criticize as criticism triggers defensiveness physiologically. Our brain is scanning the environment 24/7 and when it picks up signals of danger it will move into defence mode automatically. The prime directive is survival. You are perceived as the enemy and dangerous.
For example, a time when you’ve said something to someone which you did not think was particularly attacking and all hell breaks loose. The relationship shifted from a place of respect and caring to total negativity in the space of seconds. The part of their brain that is scanning for danger kicked in. And once that happens it’s a long way back to being close and connected.
For any relationship to succeed there must be a rich climate of positivity, being able to receive the other and create an intimate space – in fact there needs to be a commitment to zero negativity and criticism! Replace criticism with what you find right about the other rather than what’s wrong with them. When the other feels supported and loved then be clean and clear in asking what you want. Choosing this way of behaving is guaranteed to bring more love into your life and happiness and well-being for all.
Exuberance and the Power of Pleasure
Full-spectrum living is about living your life to the fullest measure of your potential. It sounds great but we all know it’s not that easy. Real life can sometimes get in the way and unexpected events can cause stress and have to be dealt with.
Yet some people seem to aim high, work hard, and enjoy the process more than others. They’re having fun. Look at Jeff Bezos, he’s always laughing. You might say, “Sure, he’s laughing. He’s a billionaire. I’d laugh too.” But I bet that sunny disposition helped make him a billionaire.
The truth is, most of us hold on to a particular disposition or temperament all our lives. Psychologists call this a happiness set point. Two years after winning the lottery many people return to their pre-lottery level of happiness. A grumbler might get infuriated at the sudden deluge of new relatives and friends. A pessimist might worry about going broke on taxes or that the new wing on the mansion is turning out all wrong.
When you’re having fun, though, energy flows. You’re enthusiastic, eager, empowered by your vision. You meet challenges with gusto. You see your disappointments as temporary setbacks. You mourn your losses and failures, feel bad for a while and then move on. You don’t get stuck in the pain—whether it’s fear, anger, resentment, guilt or shame.
Much of it boils down to how you talk to yourself—your default inner dialog. Self-stimulating fear, resentment, guilt and shame scenarios—what I call telling yourself ghost stories—robs us of hope and courage. So, how do we overcome these internal habits? We need to notice when the self-talk is unkind–carping on what we’ve done wrong–and practice being compassionate, forgiving and encouraging with ourselves.
You can’t punish yourself to stop punishing yourself. So, as usual for me, I advocate for pleasure. Experiencing the fun and pleasures of everyday life, I think, is a good habit to cultivate. When you feel good, it’s easier to be hopeful and adventuresome.
But, isn’t just having fun a superficial way of looking at things? Yes it is, if fun is all about distracting yourself from yourself—entertainment, playing games and partying. Mind you, I’m all for superficial fun. But there is a more profound way to understand fun.
Look at it this way. Having a spirit of fun is what psychologists, neurologists, early childhood educators, and social philosophers call exuberance. A joie de vie, or elan vital if you will.
Psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison describes it this way:
“Exuberance is incomparably more important than we acknowledge. If enthusiasm…finds the opportunities, and energy makes the most of them, a mood of mind that yokes the two is formidable indeed. Exuberant people…hold their ideas with passion and delight, and they act upon them with dispatch. Their love of life and of adventure is palpable. Exuberance is a particularly pleasurable state, and in that pleasure is power.”
Pleasure is power because pleasurable experience infuses us with energy. So aside from the fun of physical activity, dancing, singing, laughing with friends, and good sex, how can we connect up with our inner exuberant selves when we’re doing something that’s not such fun, or having a difficult day?
Maybe we can stop and ask ourselves, “Where are my little pleasures for this day? For me it’s in the morning stretch, a little walk, taking a break to sit and breathe and look at the sky, a five minute meditation, listening to a favourite piece music, a kiss from my sweetie, an unexpected phone chat with an old friend.
And I feel replenished.
I like this sentiment from Albert Einstein:
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
What are the everyday miracles of your life today?