Thriving

Thriving Through Anxiety

I stress about stress meme

Stress.

I think I often talk about thriving through anxiety because I understand its weight. I know the opposite first hand. It can be all consuming, painful and overwhelming. Buried under the idea that having anxiety indicates that there is something wrong with me, I feel alone, worried (ironic, I know), and defeated. Add some physiological components and I know there is something wrong. My chest tightens, I feel hot and I start to clench my jaw. Tension builds and climbs my neck until my head begins to pound. My breathing changes. Then everything feels dangerous. Defeated and tense; perfect start. Finally, there is this thing my mind does all by itself. Once there is one problem, my mind seems to forge ahead into everything else I can possibly imagine being a problem. My mind races into all sorts of potential issues, my body reacts and I suffer. As the meme says: I stress about stress causing me to stress.

Where is the thriving piece?

A few years ago I was introduced to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I started my research in ACT under the pretence of expanding my toolkit for work. I left having found the opportunity for healing created through a shift in things like perspective, awareness and willingness. ACT’s perspective on thriving is as follows: It’s hard to be human. Given that I have what I have, am I willing to have it? Here and now, in this time and place? And given those, still do what’s important to me? ACT calls these the three ideas pillars: Open, Aware and Engaged.

For me, the ironic part is that I went to my first ACT workshop in hopes of getting better at my job (and I did), but I keep going back again and again because these pillars, tenets, or ideas have given me the space to be me with some compassion for what it means to be human. It’s hard. They have also given me a place to fight for the life I want, one choice at a time. Here they are in my understanding….

Open. Am I willing to have what I have?

It’s hard to be human. This is an earth shattering and understated notion I was oblivious to. For so long, I bought into the idea that my experience was indicative that there was something inherently wrong with me. I was the problem. The feelings I had, the struggles, the experience, they were not only unique to me, but also a result of something that was wrong with me. Me; I was (am) the problem.

This left me in a fight against my own experience. When I felt sad, I assumed others didn’t. When I struggled, I assumed others didn’t. I began to fight to suppress my own thoughts and feelings. Anxiety would spike and I would work quickly to numb the feelings or escape the situations that created them. Slowly I ate (quite literally) many of my own feelings and experiences. And it worked.

It was a miraculous short term gain with grave long term loss. Still, in the moment, it gave me the power to control how I felt, so I mindlessly ate. When I was eating I felt good. Standing on the scale or putting on jeans was a different story.

Openness and Acceptance.

ACT’s idea of openness is around the idea of acceptance. Are you willing to have what you have (all those difficult thoughts and feelings) since you already do, and learn to hold them a little lighter – with some measure of compassion – rather than getting entangled in them? By not allowing my difficult emotions and thoughts to dictate my actions. And not trying to fight to not feel or think something. It means being kind to myself in the presence of my own struggle. ‘Held lighter’ means sitting in the middle between the desire to drown my emotions in a bag of cheesies or bottle of wine or run away. Sitting in the middle means allowing my emotions to come and go without judging them. I approach my own experience with a little more curiosity. In that place something brilliant happens.

 

I learn a little more about me.

 

I’ve learned the most amazing things about me sitting in the middle with a little openness and curiosity. I have learned what makes me me. When I am sad and don’t drown the feeling or run, there is a small nugget of truth revealed. I can tie my sadness to something that’s important to me. Anxiety pops up in the middle too. Anxiety screams, “STOP we have been here before, and we are here again.” It grabs our attention yelling, “You’re about to act like you did last time and that didn’t work out so well for us. Choose. Be careful.” See, we struggle where we value. If something causes pain, anxiety or hurts, it’s a measure of something deeply connected to who we are and what we want our lives to be about. That’s not what’s wrong with me. That’s what’s right about me. This belief requires a shift in perspective.

Everything you've ever wanted, is one step outside your comfort zone.

Take a step!

In the presence of these emotions, I shift into a place of openness. I want to feel. I want to learn. This feeling is my ammunition for tomorrow. If I am aware, feeling empowers me to know more about who I am and what I want my life to be about. If I am open, I begin to understand the things that are most uniquely me. They are measured in glimpses of happiness, pain, sorrow, regret and richness. They feed little nuances of unique information about who I am and how I want to act in the future. They empower me.

 

Aware.

Awareness is twofold. One, it’s the ability to see ourselves as we actually are, rather than some construct or perception we have of ourselves. This is a major shift. We hold tightly to rules from our history. Rules formed to explain difficult situations become the reasons why we can’t or why we have to. We hold tight to these rules and they motivate us to behave. These actions usually exacerbate our own struggle and feed the rules. I call them tapes.

They tend to pop up in difficult moments and explain why what happened happened. “Nate, if you weren’t so stupid. Nate, that’s how fat people act. Nate, you need to realize that’s just the way you are.” NO! These tapes are echoes of my history; even measures of difficult moments, but I want to be careful not to let my perception of who I am become me.

This requires a little more willingness to examine the rules and explanations without acting on them. It requires me to be a little more engaged in being aware of what’s happening in the outside world rather than allowing an inside world to explain everything.

The second piece of awareness is really about where I am living. Anxiety drags the pain of the past into the present in anticipation of some horrible future. So much of this is who we are. We are either living in the past – regretting things we have done – or dreading what will happen in the future. In both measures we are failing to live. The past is done and the future is never attainable. The only place we can live is in the now. One single second at a time. I can’t tell you how freeing this has been for me. I am responsible for now. That’s it, that’s all. If there are measures of pain of the past or dread of the future, I tie them to what’s important and do the next thing I can in the service of those. Here and now.

Engaged.

So much of the previous two – openness and awareness – can, when we are off (i.e. closed and unaware,) leave us flailing endlessly in life without meaning and purpose. Engaged is about understanding what your values are and committing to goals in the service of those values.

Values aren’t achievable to completion, but rather more reflect qualities that we want our life to be about. Like authenticity, for example. Authenticity isn’t something I can buy, but rather something that is built. I am more authentic when I am honest. My goal then becomes building a more authentic life through action. The freeing thing I alluded to in the past paragraph is that this doesn’t have to be this huge or overwhelming thing. If authenticity, my value and my goal, is being honest; I’m obligated to take the next opportunity to be honest. That’s it. One choice at a time, being deliberate about my goalsI begin to build what I want.

The most empowering thing about these pillars is they give me a template to understand my own existence and take a practical approach to changing who I am.

YOUR TURN. Are you ready to thrive? Start here.

Open.  Are you willing to have the emotions you have, while not fighting them and be curious enough to learn from them? They are directly tied to what your values are. They feed the understanding of what your life would be like if you got to choose it (and you can, if you are careful.) What are your strongest emotions? What are they tied to? Can you see the relationship between how you feel and what’s important?

Aware.  Are you willing to measure what’s actually going on here and now with some awareness and curiosity rather than listening to old tapes of why you feel or think things are happening? Can you live in this moment, rather than in the past or the future, one choice at a time?

Engaged.  Are you willing to act deliberately to build the life you want one choice at a time? Engaged means being aware of our values, attaching those values to actions that are doable and finding the next moment to build that into our life. Each deliberate choices builds until change begins to cascade around us.

What freedom exists when you understand that your emotions indicate your values are in play and can – if we are careful- enable us to build – one action at a time – the life we want. This is about us.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.

Here, in this moment, I choose to be aware of the beginning and allow it to educate me about myself. That understanding means that what I do in the next moment is something in service of the end I want. That’s thriving. That’s freedom. That’s epic.

 

 

If you want to hear more, please register for ‘Thriving Through Anxiety’ coming February 24th – click here to register: www.natesearle.ca/register  

Something happened

Something happened. It did. I didn’t choose for it to happen and its bothering me. And then sometimes I get stuck. A feeling starts and it grows. I don’t want to feel it because it kind of feels like its taking over or suffocating me. It makes me feel like I have to focus on it. It doesn’t feel good. I want to change how I feel, but I’m feeling obligated to pay attention to what my mind is telling me. My mind races. My body hurts. I start to avoid things because they feel dangerous. I can’t stand how I feel. I grab for my toolbox. I throw open the lid of the tool box of things I know might change the feeling. I grab a bunch of tools. I choose them without thinking. I grab at irritability. I use it with the people around me. I yell and take it out on my kids. I grab at “having things exactly how I want.” I grab at organizing things and cleaning. I grab at “eating” even though I am not hungry. The tools work; they do, but just a little and only for a short time. My feeling of anxiety decreases for a moment, but then its back and with a vengeance. I grab another tool. Someone tries to help and I fight to make them back off. I want things a certain way. I want my house to be clean, my clothes to be folded. I want! Feelings grow and I feel powerless because the simplest things feel scary. My body screams. I refuse to do anything. I won’t go out. I won’t play with my kids. I push the dog away. My wife talks to me, tries to help and I have a big reaction. “Stop yelling I say.” Help feels dangerous. I’ve been here before. It didn’t work. I tried my best and I feel like I failed. No one should get yelled at. Its not who I am. I crumble. I hurt and I’ve hurt those around me. I’m stuck.

Or

Something happened. It did. I didn’t choose for it to happen and its bothering me. I can feel it. Anxiety grabs my attention. Screams! STOP LOOK. So I do. I stop. I notice it! I say hi! I remind myself that anxiety isn’t dangerous. I remind myself that anxiety is my friend. A guide. A flashlight in the dark that tells me there are important things I need to see. So I start. I’d rather notice things; find them – even if it takes some time. I’d rather learn something then let my mind drive my body till its screams and I hurt. I choose to be inquisitive and curious. If anxiety is present my soul or spirit or whatever you want to call it is noticing that there is something important for me here in this moment. I have to get back to the moment; to the right now. I need to get back to this second. I check in with my body. Feel for my toes. Stretch my arms. Touch my legs. Smell, listen, and feel. Jump if I need to. Run if I need to. Scream if I need to, but pay attention to how it all feels. Then I remind myself I am here in the “now.” Nothing dangerous is happening “now.” My mind keeps pulling me forward into the future, but that’s the future. It’s not happening right now so it can’t be dangerous. My mind keeps pulling me back into the past, but that’s done and I can’t change it. Its not happening right now either so that can’t be dangerous. What I have is this moment. I want to focus on “now” for a moment. I keep checking in with my body. Feel those toes, or arms. I push my fingers into things harder so I can feel them touch each other. I stomp my feet. Yes. There is my body. I will use it as my anchor to hold me here right now. Every time my mind jumps forward into the future with a spinning story with a hundred what if’s or backward with a thousand should of’s I pull on the anchor. I notice my body. I listen, look, and feel things that are right now. When I’m anchored. I look for my friend again. Even though I was focused on my anchor, anxiety hasn’t left. I can feel it in my stomach. I can feel it in my chest. I can feel it moving up into my jaw. So I make some space for those feelings. I’ve felt them before. I’m not going to push them away. I’m not going to fight them off. I’m going to accept that they are here and I have something to learn. Then I play detective. When did this feeling show up? What was I doing? Where did it start? In that space – the one where I am aware of the moment and anchored by feeling my body – I notice. That’s all. Notice what?

Its time to notice that anxiety showed up to grab my attention. Grabbing my attention means there is a nugget of truth in this moment for me. For my spirit or soul. There is something I need to be aware of so I can make some choices around it. I go back a little. Anxiety showed up when I had a lot to do. I felt overwhelmed. Then someone gave me something else to do and do it by tomorrow. I feel like it’s impossible to get it all done. I don’t feel like I can do any of it. Nugget: getting my work done and doing it well is important to me. Anxiety is here as my friend not to consume me or hurt me but to remind me I need to use my time wisely today.

With a nugget in my head I think about how to take some actions around using my time wisely. I know:
1. I work better in a coffee shop then at home
2. I work better listening to music then something that has talking
3. I work better with a list of things to get done
4. I work better when I am alone
5. I work better when my iPad is off
6. I work better when I have exercised and eaten properly.
Now I make my choices. I start doing those things. My mind pops up and tries to pull me away from some of them. It says “exercise will take to much time” or “your already tired.” I thank my mind, but stick to it. Anxiety showed up for a reason. Exercise it is. Check. Time for the next action. I am stuck between where to work. My mind shows up and reminds me I can do some chores and write reports at home. I thank my mind, but stick to it. Anxiety showed up for a reason. Starbucks it is. Check. Time for the next action. My mind shows up and tells me its time to get going. Grab the first report. Write it already! I thank my mind, but stick to it. Anxiety showed up for a reason. Creating a list it is. I make my list. The further I get into my actions – the ones that get me doing the things I know help me be productive at work – the less I feel my friend. I’m on the right track. I have momentum. Anxiety backs off till the next time when I am on automatic pilot and not aware that I’m missing something important to me.

In the end – if I am careful – I can see that anxiety is helping me to look past autopilot and see areas that are important to me; important to my soul. My mind often drives me to do things –without thinking – that push me away from who I actual am. These things don’t really line up –my mind and soul. I’m learning that its my soul I need to listen to. I’m learning that its important to stop when anxiety says “hi” and notice and learn. With this understanding when anxiety shows up I welcome it. Good you’re here. I have something to learn. When I learn it, I feel power. When I do and take action – by make choices based on my nuggets – I live more in line with who I really am.

It’s not that all my feelings go away. I still feel my anxiety. I am sad. I feel angry. BUT when those things come I welcome them with open arms and with a pleasant amount of curiosity I learn about me. A nugget here and a nugget there. Those nuggets spawn actions. I take do those actions a little more each day. Here in this spot, I am free.

Anxiety: What can I say?

What can I say? I didn’t get what I wanted, but what I needed.

 

I was placed in a job where I learned how to create support for children in need. I saw their struggle, their needs and the behavior that came with it. I was given the skills to help meet those needs, so I did.  My compassion for the broken grew exponentially.  I carried more and more until I started to sink under the weight of the suffering of those around me. It got too heavy. There was so much pain.  Barely able to keep myself afloat I struggled.  In the midst of that struggle I met a young man with significant anxiety. Maybe I saw some of me in him.  Maybe it was just the rawness of his pain.  I dug in and fought to find a way to create a safe place for him. In that journey I was given the grace to not only find the way to make a safe place for him, but also to see my own humanity, and suffering and build compassion for who I am and where I’ve been. Now while continuing to work with students with needs I make it my responsibility to share my story to end the silence on anxiety and open a conversation on who we are, why it’s so hard to be human and how we can thrive in the midst of all this suffering.

 

At this point in my life I don’t hate my anxiety.  I don’t even really dislike it. I know for many – in the midst of how anxiety can feel and it’s weight – that’s hard to hear, but there is another choice.  Maybe anxiety is not what’s wrong with us.  Maybe it’s what we do when we are anxious that impacts our lives.  Maybe a shift in our own awareness, our perception and the things we do is enough to create some space where anxiety isn’t a monster, but rather a guide that pulls me – if I am careful – into the richness of our own experience.  It’s hard to be human, but that’s not what’s wrong with me.  It’s hard to be human for all of us.

 

My goal for these two sessions is that I can share aspects of my story, the science of anxiety and enough practical supports to facilitate an opportunity for change.  These workshops are designed so that you will leave understanding enough about anxiety to make changes in your own life or someone close to you.  There will be direct applications for our kids, our teens and our clients.

 

 

Session One November 7th (7 to 9:30ish)

After Session One You will leave Understanding:

  1. What Anxiety is
  2. How it Effects the Mind, Body and our Behavior (What it motivates and why that’s a problem)
  3. How it Starts and How it Grows
  4. What it Means in our Lives
  5. Where we Start Building Support

 

Session Two November 14th (7 to 9:30ish)

After Session Two You will leave understanding:

  1. The Connection Between Anxiety and Exercise
  2. The Importance of Calm
  3. Getting Back into our Lives
  4. Value-based Living
  5. The Importance of Connection

 

 

Important Info:

The sessions will take place at 20639 123rd Avenue in Maple Ridge, BC

To join us, please click on the “Contact Us” tab and sign up.

The cost is $25/session or $40 for both sessions. Payment can be made at the door.

All it takes is one step

Our first Anxiety Workshop

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t not.

We’ve all been there: Exhausted from the day, barely awake and functioning in an upright position, surprised we can execute the final tasks to shut the day down. Our heads hit the pillow with some amount of glee that the day is finally over and we can sleep! Precious sleep. Less then we want, but it’ll have to do. And then it doesn’t come. Not even close, not even at all. Time creeps on minute by minute as we begin to realize with a reasonable amount of dread that sleep is not going to happen. We are no longer tired. Not even a little bit. In fact, the brain seems to have amped up to some new level of hyper-drive in the quiet and the dark in an effort to capitalize on the down time – now that we aren’t busy with everything else that plagues us during the day– and find a solution to every problem our brain can possibly conceive. Lucky me, cause my brain never picks the easy stuff. I rehash and regurgitate the best of things that tend to fall into two categories:

1. Things I’ve done and didn’t like the outcome in – the past

2. Things I need to do – the future

My mind churns on, as it races from one thing to the next in a marathon like effort to conceive of every probable solution and /or outcome to things I’ve already done or am going to do.

So the question comes “How do you quiet a racing mind?”

In all likelihood – if you are at all like me – your mind races like this during the day to. You’re just too distracted to notice it. When your head finally hits the pillow and you want to sleep your awareness changes. You are no longer distracted by all the stuff you’ve been juggling. In the dark and quiet, you are blown away by the capacity of your brain to run away with itself like a hamster on a serious dose of steroids.

There are a series of things here.  More than a few I guess.

Not thinking is a practice and not an easy one. Typically, we call it meditation. Focused attention. Training the person to be in charge of their own mind with deliberate focus and awareness. The brain is a bit of an egotistical narcissist. It doesn’t not want to be working; nor does it want you to direct it. (But you can!) Learning to focus on something else can be helpful. This isn’t a practice I use just during the night, I use it any time I feel overwhelmed. I tend to focus on my breathing (and I am not alone). Breathing doesn’t stop. It’s there as a constant point where I can focus my attention and awareness. I shift my awareness from my thoughts and problems to the feelings and sensations that occur in the process of breathing. Something I usually ignore because my brain’s got that part of me on autopilot (and a good thing to!). Feeling the air come in through my nostrils, my lungs inflate and slowly letting the air back out. I pay attention to as many of the feelings as I can feel. As my mind wanders I pull it back. Not with a rebuke for losing focus, but simply an opportunity to redirect. The more I practice not thinking and feeling what I can feel in my chest the more my mind lets go of its attempt to capitalize on this quiet. It’s not easy, it takes time and practice, but its highly effective. So a short answer might be, one of the main things I do is not think, but feel breathing. In and out. Focused attention till my mind gives up its fight to dominate my night.

I also play with some other things at least initially when I struggle to sleep because I’ve learned that what creates anxiety in me is related to what’s most important to me. To me, then, there is also an opportunity for me to be aware that one of two things is happening:
1. I did / experienced something and I didn’t like how it turned out. I want to think about it a bit. Typically, if it’s coming back than it means I’d change something if I could. But I can’t. It’s in the past. Doesn’t matter how far back it is, its lost. However, I have found incredible freedom in the idea of next time. I can’t go back, but I can go forward and change the very next opportunity that’s similar by doing what I would have done – if I could have changed things. That’s it. So when I am stuck rehashing something from the past I will evaluate what it was that bugged me and promise myself I will carry it into the future: till next time.

nexttime
2. Something is coming down the pipe that I am having a hard time coping with and feeling calm about. These things that are vying for my mind at night are things that need attention during the day. For example, lying awake at night thinking about money does nothing to change my finances. But we mindlessly make tonnes of financial decisions all day long. Take a lunch or buy it. That’s a financial decision. Make it a combo or not. That’s a financial decision. There are tonnes of them everywhere. If you are lying awake at night thinking about money you need to take action during the day in every little area possible. I am speaking at a conference next month. That’s the one that keeps vying for my attention at night. It means I have to take action around it. Not everything we think about we can control, but there are things within it that we usually can. Like when I worry about my aging parents or relatives. I can’t control that -their aging- but it means that they are important to me. My values. So I play with the things I can control. Time invested in them. Now. What’s important to me is that there is in
formation related to my values that gets caught up in what keeps me up at night. I want some time with it – at least a little- so that I can learn and grow. It is me keeping me up after all.

The final thing I would do is something I do daily: Exercise. There is a direct relationship between how the body feels img_6215and what our brain is doing. As anxiety builds in our lives it builds tension in our muscles. The same systems utilized to save us in crisis are in play. The issue in most anxiety based situations is that we don’t do enough to let that anxt out. There isn’t enough of an outlet. So that energy is stored as tension. A tight chest says to the brain “you are in danger; get ready for more danger.” So the brain looks for it. It’s called a feedback loop. The brain scours your world looking for danger. At night – when you are laying there trying to fall asleep it can’t find a lot outside your thoughts – things you’ve done or are going to do. So that’s where it parks. A relaxed chest signals to the brain “things are okay.”
Exercise is my choice to use that anxiety based energy I seem to have in spades in a positive fashion. If I don’t I find that my mind tends to pick up all sorts of shrapnel from the past and near and distant future and pull it repeatedly into my mind. I know you can’t go for a run at night, but exercise is my proactive effort at calming and regulating my body. I do it as much as possible.

If I can feel the tension at night, then I’ll turn to some diaphragmatic breathing (deep, slow breathing that makes the diaphragm contract). Deliberate breathing involves expanding the chest muscles by inflating and deflating the lungs. By expanding the chest muscles (opening and closing them repeatedly) for a period of time, we relax the chest. This counters the message that a tight chest sends to the body. A relaxed chest signals to the brain “things are okay.” Deep breathing breaks the feedback loop we talked about above. That means in the moment, when anxiety is growing we can settle it down with breathing deep and deliberately for about 8 minutes.
Well that’s a lot longer than I anticipated and probably out of the order that I practice on a regular basis. So here would be my short and ordered version. To deal with a racing mind I:
1. Exercise daily. I get my butt kicked so my body is calm and my brain quiet.
2. Spend some time with the thoughts that are plaguing me so I learn my next times and where my choices should fall tomorrow for taking action.
3. Focus on breathing. I do my not think, but feel breathing routine.
4. Finally, if my chest is tight (and I can feel it) and my mind on fire I will square breath (google it) for 8 to 10 minutes to calm my mind and relax my chest. Then I am back at #3 focusing on more regular breathing.

I’ve lost nights, but I don’t fight them anymore. I feel my breathing and focus there. Slowly my mind has let go and given in to letting me sleep. Usually. It’s a practice.

The Art of Compassion

I find myself automatically judging and criticising.  I need not choose to, it just happens. Lady with 12 litres of coke. Judged. Screaming kid. Parent on phone. Judged. Fat guy in sagging pants. Judged. Its startling to me, how heartless my automatic reactions are, to the very sight of things.  People in situations that my brain figures should be going down another way.  I judge with no perspective.  I judge with no knowledge of what brought them to that moment. I judge with no awareness of their life, history or suffering. I judge easily, quickly and harshly.

But not only them.  I judge people I love. My brain jumps in, analyzes, critiques and judges before I’m even aware of the ghastly thing I’m engaged in.  I’ve asserted intent and malice.  I’ve found deliberate spite and thought about poor choices. They deserve [X] to rectify their choice.  I should [x]. Ugh. When awareness starts to slide in, I feel gross. I feel mean and judgemental. Yuck. It’s not who I am nor who I want to be. But it happens without choosing it.

But not only them. I judge me to. Same lens. At least as harsh; maybe harsher. Done just as automatically.  I look at what I just said or did and slam into judgement mode first and then self-punishment mode to prevent such stupidity from ever happening again. I think harsh thoughts about my value and worth as a person, making sure I get myself a little lower than last time, so that this time it sticks.

Harsh to strangers. Check. Harsh to my closest. Check. Harsh to me. Double check. All around harsh.  Harsh. Judging. Automatic.

I am aware that I do it. It happens before I know and am most of the way in before I catch myself. Then I try not to judge the judgement because then I’m sitting in the same looping behavior, punishing myself a little harsher so it sticks this time.  Finally when I feel low enough to create an illusion that I am alleviating some level of my own inadequacy I engage in behaviors to make myself feel better.  And shame begets behaviors that exacerbate shame.

But what’s the alternative?

Like many other things the alternative is a practice. I practice perspective and I practice compassion.

 

Positive reinforcement word Compassion engrained in a rock

First perspective. Perspective is seeing a situation from multiple views with the openness that anyone of them might be possible. I have no idea why she has 12 bottles of coke. It could be for the food bank or her son’s science experiment.  Or maybe it could be for her because she’s a single mom, barely holding on and sugar and caffeine is what keeps her going into the night one bottle at a time. I DON”T KNOW and I don’t necessarily need to know!  What I need is perspective – possibilities – to slide me out of the harshness of the moment of judgement and into the flexibility of options.  I need to see the person and imagine that more than one thing might be possible. It softens the judgement and opens me to some awareness that their choices might be driving out of suffering.

Second is compassion.   Compassion is comprised of two core pieces; compassion to me is a combination of empathy followed by action.  Perspective gives me options, possibilities and space to be flexible with what might be happening.  Empathy is an extension of that. Empathy is the ability to see me – I become you – experiencing what you are experiencing; simply put ‘imagining what it’s like to be in your shoes’ and imagine how it feels.  I imagine your shame or see your grief. I feel your sadness or the weight of your lose.  Empathy: I feel with you. I imagine being where they might be and feeling what they might be. I imagine how overwhelming it might be if I was there feeling. I might not be right, but I don’t need to be. I need to be softer and more willing to see you there, where you are – suffering – without judgement.

Next is action. Action is doing. With options in mind and some softness to what might be felt by you in the moment I think about what I might want. What would I want in that moment? A kind word? A hand? Understanding.  It’s not a lot.  Actions with strangers can be small. A smile. A held door. A kind word. A bag picked up. Space. Time. A Lack of becoming a tyrant when they hold up the line, take up two parking spots or impact me.  Sometimes it’s more; sometimes it’s less.  But I do something.  It’s a package deal; Empathy + Action.  And it’s a deliberate reaction to the automaticity of my judgement.

 

When I am dealing with my closest its easier.  I have more ammo for perspective. I am more aware of their history and path.  Empathy is usually easier to.  If we are close we’ve shared some time and part of a journey. I’ve felt some of what you have. I can see me there, where you are, feeling what you are. I can imagine me feeling it to.   Here my actions get bigger. I can do more. Slide my card to the waitress. Hold the hug. Wipe your tears. Pick up your kids. Drop by with wine. Or just listen endlessly. Sometimes it’s more; sometimes it’s less. But I do something. It’s a package deal. And it’s deliberate. First perspective. Then empathy. Finally action.

 

Finally, there’s me.  I don’t practice perspective and compassion selflessly. I need them to; desperately.  I need to be able to show up with perspective and compassion for me when I’ve failed, dropped the ball, or yelled at my kids again. I need perspective and compassion when I’ve tried to eat myself into feeling better after a tough situation.  I need perspective and compassion when I’ve tried to not have what I have, or be where I’ve been.   I need space and perspective because I am human and prone to suffer.  When I suffer I don’t need judgment and the shame that comes with it.   I need perspective. I need compassion for where I am and why. I need empathy and I need action that brings change. I need to show up in my hardest moments when I am judging myself for what I just chose and be deliberate about perspective and compassion.  I need to see how anyone in this moment might be having a hard time and how I’d like this or that done to lessen the sting of the moment and my pang of my hurt.  I need.

 

And then it comes full circle in something ever so desperately beautiful. Them. You. Me. You.  The art of practicing perspective and compassion for those around me warms me to our common suffering and shared humanity. I see them there. I make space for their experience. I step in and help. They are healthier and so am I.  This practice feeds into the ability to practice it on you. When you are suffering I am open to it and how you feel.  I am driven to act – to change how you feel – and not just judge. We sit together in a moment and without judgment there is healing.  Next is me.  I get to do this in my hardest moments.  To see with perceptive, and awareness my own experience and let it drive action. I am healthier and less reactive to the world around me. I grow and heal.

Finally, with some compassion for my own suffering and experience I can take it all one step further where I can – if I am careful –  sit back down with you in your darkness and help you see some light. This is not a momentary process, but the willingness to journey with you in a staggeringly difficult world until the “Light Shines through.” Brene Brown says: “Compassion is knowing our darkness well enough that we can sit in the dark with others. It is not a relationship between the broken and the healed it is a relationship between equals.”  Let’s walk together for a while.

 

I only have so much…

I seem to jump into all sorts of things that aren’t really mine.  I also find myself jumping into things that I could easily stay out of.

For example: I’m driving down the road and someone cuts me off, honks cause I’m slow or almost hits me as they turn without signalling.  In that moment I have every right to react, shout, stomp or swear.  I can and sometimes I do.  My issue is always afterwards.  Even if I give the guy a dirty look, shake my finger at him or give him a piece of my mind, it’s never done there.  I can’t leave it there. My mind picks it back up again and again and I ruminate on it.  My mind spins rapidly trying to change how I acted, reacted, won or lost something in that moment.  My mind wants me to go back and do it again but more perfect this time.  It wants me to assert justice and pass down a warranted punishment on the refuse that offended me.  Yet, I find myself hours later picking up the same regurgitated scenario to rehash – again- for a different possible outcome that is impossible. Time has moved on.  I cannot go back.  I am regurgitating something that is untouchable, unchangeable and unfixable hoping that I can fix it. I work myself into a frenzy and suffer.  It hurts all over. I beat myself up for the woulda-coulda-shoulda’s that weren’t.  I do thousands of if / then’s I’d’s. And I work myself further into a frenzy and I suffer. Since multiple things tend to happen in the same day (or commute for that matter) I can get to the end of a day or drive with a multitude of regurgitating scenarios that leave me reeling into the night. I CAN’T SLEEP because I am reliving – over and over- what I should have done different to deal with that thing…. And I suffer.

 

With a measure of awareness, I begin to realize that the outcome of all of these situations seems to be the same: no matter what, once I am in, I end up suffering.  So I started asking myself.  “How do I not get in?  How do I stay out?” If no matter what I do the end result is suffering, why do it at all?  It’s like willingly signing up to punch yourself in the face repeatedly. Hmmm, can I opt out with a no Thank you….pretty please?” I don’t want it.  I don’t need it.  I have enough on my plate already.  So how can I not? Cause really I always seem to be picking up the pieces and living with regret.
8fdb82ad0ac4651d05d22cd9a8cef77dIn a book called Wonder, by R.J. Palacio (an epic book by the way), there is a quote by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer that resonates profoundly with me “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” I’ve been choosing what’s right for far too long with no evaluation to what’s kind to you – or even kind to me for that matter.  Don’t get me wrong there are things worth fighting for in terms of right vs wrong, but there are also myriads of things that I pick up daily in an effort to fight for justice that don’t matter in the grand scheme of things that aren’t kind and result in me suffering. It’s those that I need to learn to set down.

 

So what’s kind?  Kind is not putting myself through things I don’t need to go through. Kind is not engaging in behaviour automatically that will result in me thinking and rethinking about what I chose and they chose.  Kindness is not picking everything up. Kindness is awareness that picking some stuff up means I suffer and you suffer. Kindness is leaving some things well enough alone – even though I’m right! Kindness is only picking up what I have to. Kindness is saving myself for the right moments.

In a world full of suffering our resources are already taxed.  We only have so much.  When I jump into certain things I spend – invest in – give-away energy that I don’t have. I spend it on things that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t matter at all.  We are so selective with many things: organic or not; local or not, fashionable or not.  We read labels, check ingredients and choose.  But when it comes to what we invest our energy in, how we behave, our very essence, not so much. Sometimes we are all in – without thought – over things that don’t matter at all in the big picture.  Being all in everywhere always saps your ability to invest in the things that truly do matter.  So I don’t.  I flat out refuse. How? I start by paying attention.

Instead I’ve started to think about what my brain gets stuck on.  What do I ruminate on? What can’t I put down? What keeps me up? When I’m stuck I take note.  Freaking out over getting cut-off. Noted. Thinking about driving my car into you to correct your asinine road skills. Noted.   The way I talked to… Noted. That thing that kept me up… Noted. Noted. Noted. Once I start to pay attention I realize there’s a plethora of moments. What’s cool is, I usually get a warm wash of icky anxiety hitting me as I step into one of these moments. It shows up to, albeit not so subtly, remind me I’ve been here before and I, me, this guy didn’t like how I acted. So it’s here, in these moment, begging me to pay attention and to help me choose – if I am willing.

Now as anxiety washes over me as I start an argument, start to react to tailgating or social ineptitude I welcome it – anxiety – and stop to think about what I am about to pick up – a bucket full of suffering – and if I am careful I can gently set it back down.  I’ve got enough.  I don’t need it or want it when it doesn’t matter. I’m not perfect at it, but I’m learning to set things down that aren’t mine and act in kindness for both me and you.

At the end of the day it leaves for more for other things.  I can care deeper, longer and better about the things that matter because I’m holding lighter, setting back down, the things that don’t matter. Got my order wrong? Okay. I’m good. Adamant we need to do it this way or I can’t do that. Okay. I’m good. Curt with me. Yep I heard it, but I ain’t picking it up.  I got bigger fish to fry and a heart that can only hold so much.  I want it full of what warms my soul and hurts my heart, not trash that clutters my vision so I can’t see what’s important.

What are you picking up that you don’t need to? Note it. Next time set it down before you are elbow deep in suffering that was optional. You can choose. Just saying.

Alone in the crowd

It’s amazing how lonely one can feel in a crowd. Maybe amazing isn’t the right word.  I guess it’s better described as tragic.  Tragic that I can stand amidst dozens of other humans – even thousands – and feel separated, distant and alone.  The issue doesn’t of course start in the crowd, but if we are careful it’s easier to see, feel and become aware of how we feel when there are so many people around us and we don’t feel like we can connect with any of them.  Loneliness is painful. Loneliness is deafening.

1-alone-in-the-crowd-caroline-gorkaConnection is a practice.  Connection is an art.  Connection is a lifestyle and one that is dying.  Human connection – my eyes on yours – my hand in yours – a hug – a real conversation – is being replaced by things that disguise themselves as the real thing.  This is most evident in the digital age.  We watch a show. Neurons fire. We are pulled in. Our emotions are tugged up happy, down sad, over thrilled and back. Each show is designed to carefully manipulate our experience. Facebook is no different. Video games. We had an experience. We felt connected. Like we had something, like we did something.  And we did and we were. No question, but should we be? What’s the cost?

In April 2016 the average adult American spent 725 minutes (over 12 hrs) each day plugged in (statista.com) to various media. This constitutes most of a day. Most of our day experiences are not real. Rather they are other’s lives or listening to others stories, fiction or non, and essentially living by proxy. This is a minuscule representation of the real deal. We stand on the outside of our own lives and watch them pass slowly while finding meaning in what others have contrived – yes contrived – for our entertainment.  Every minute we engage in it steals from our desire to have it! I want to live the movie.  I want to live the life that makes me feel the feelings because I had the experience not because I witnessed it digitally.

There is something so human about connecting. We need it. We were meant for it. Google returns 50 million plus results of the impact of isolation on the human mind. It’s well established as the single most reliable way to make someone go insane. Loneliness is connected on a cellular level with all sorts of physiological changes in our bodies. It changes what we do, how we think and act.  Loneliness can kill you. And in many ways it does.  When we experience what we think is connection – digitally-  we are left enough of the wrong thing to motivate us to avoid the right thing.  We consume so much media that is airbrushed, edited and photo shopped forgetting it’s not on any level real. Yet our level of consumption makes it the standard on which we base our reality.  And how can we measure up? We can’t.  So we don’t even try. We build walls to protect ourselves from what we think others perception of us will be. When the opportunity presents itself to look into your eyes I look away.  Looking into your eyes will allow me to be seen and I’m scared that you won’t like what’s there.  So we stay on the surface.  I lie about how I feel.  I avoid places I might connect.  I feel lonely and empty. I want to hold your hand, but I’ve forgotten how.  I want to see you as you want to be seen, but I won’t lift my eyes.  Instead I go back to another season of [x] and let my life be lived out digitally.  I grab at other things to make me feel better. I eat my feelings and my loneliness – at least for a moment – is drowned in some TV, a double creamed brie and a glass or cab sav.

When we are stuck in a crowd without connection – digital or otherwise – we are aware of how lonely we really feel.  The English poet W. H. Auden put it, “We must love one another or die.” And we are dying. Slowly we are losing our very essence. We are forgetting how to talk, connect, hug, cry and carry each other. Slowly life is becoming less alive and more plugged in.  Slowly we are forgetting who to be human. To be ourselves; not who we think we should be.

Its startling to realize how you can go through interaction after interaction with other humans and never really connect. I’m there. You’re there. Together we are physically present. But most interactions feel like a transaction instead of a connection. We have the opportunity, but we withhold. We don’t let ourselves be seen. We keep ourselves safe gaining a feeling of security in the moment, but losing our very essence in the long run.

So here I am in Starbucks 2300 km away from home surrounded by people and incredibly aware that I am alone.  I feel pulled to cope. Another coffee. A bag of lays. There has to be internet somewhere. Do I have  any new emails? Texts?  Yet what I need to do is connect.  Simply. Show up and allow myself to be seen in real life. Lift my eyes and look into yours and answer with honesty. You say “how are you?” and I resist the programmed fine and say: “lonely.”  I don’t need to hug the barista, but I do need to be honest.  She likely won’t care for more than the transaction she’s required to support me through (my Grande pike), but I will. Something changes when I am honest.  I allowed my voice to be heard.  I started something in me and for me.  I was vulnerable with who I am and how I feel. I was present. I was who I was at that moment: a guy alone in a crowd. Missing my family and friends.  That doesn’t make me broken or wrong.  That makes me human.  The difference is my own permission to be who I am – to have needs – and to let them be seen (even if its just me).

Connection is an art. A practice. We need each other. I need you. You need me. But not the who we pretend to be or think we should be, but who we are.  We won’t change overnight, but we can start the process one greeting, conversation, or interaction at a time.  We can, if we are careful, begin to be seen and to see.  The side effects are astounding and fulfilling. By the way. I’m lonely and that’s okay.  🙂

Tag your it.  Can I see you?

Saturday Morning’s Session: Anxiety stole your fun, and that sucks.

The first kid I worked with who had anxiety I ended up hurting,  albeit accidentally, but it sucked.  I made his anxiety worse before I made it better. I apologized to him and he was gracious enough to be understanding. Still the feeling lingers and the thoughts came back: “I hurt him and that’s not who I am. That’s not who I want to be.” I still think about him (clearly here we are 5 years later). See, I can’t go backwards and make it better because time marches on. All I get is now. So instead of focusing on the unfixable, I carry it with me, not as debilitating burden, but as a token of remembrance.  I didn’t like that. That token motivates me to act, choose, do, and change.  It motivates me to be different.  In that there is freedom and some healing.  I’ve dedicated work – effort – and research to carrying that hurt forward into each next child to honour him. That means taking it into the future as a reminder that this – the wellbeing of a child – is so very important to me.  Next time I will do it better.  The awesome part of “next times” is that there tends to be a lot of them if you look carefully enough.  Looking back, I wouldn’t change how it happened.  I wouldn’t ‘not’ hurt him if it meant that 200 kids got a different chance to hurt less, to live differently and more free. In that there is meaning and I think, knowing him, he’d agree.  The ironic part is it changed my life too.  I am different and as such am dedicated to carry that hurt forward for another next time.  You’re always one decision away from a totally different life.  The key is in what you choose.

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So Saturday morning is dedicated to the kids and doing it right. Saturday morning is dedicated to the first kid and honouring his suffering by sharing what I learned in his name, with you.  Saturday morning is about walking through the process so other kids have a chance. So many of us suffer silently, thinking we are alone, broken and somehow wrong for being who we are. If we can’t? How can they when they are so much younger?

Treating anxiety takes effort, but it is so very doable.  How do we step far enough into their lives that we make a difference? How do we equip them to stand brave in the face of fears that have been crippling?  One step at a time. One choice in the right order with the right tools.  A child once asked me: “Why do I have to work on this; it’s hard!” I agreed, but noted: “Anxiety stole your fun, and that sucks. I saw you here, before, with a grin on your face and a twinkle in your eye. You loved it. Now, you’re shaking, and terrified and that’s not fair.”  Tell a kid someone stole something from them and they will rise to the occasion with tenacity.  Help them understand that anxiety is in all of us and you take the aloneness out of it.  Help them understand what it looks like, feels like and acts like and we steal the mystery. Show them that anxiety exaggerates danger and fear gets stuck in the wrong spot and we’ve helped see the trick. Teach them how to calm their bodies and we’ve equipped them to step back into their lives one choice at a time and live.

Saturday afternoon: What if its what’s right with me?

Our emotions, the ones we aren’t supposed to have, are directly tied to some of our deepest values. They are there because things that are important to us have occurred.  When we lose someone, we grieve because we loved them. We cry because it hurt to lose them. Those emotions indicate the depth of things that are of value to us. In that there is something so very right.

Yet, we’ve been socialized to believe that we shouldn’t grieve, feel sad or anxious.  Still we do feel because life happens and it isn’t all pretty. Having those feelings indicate that something is wrong; that we are abnormal, different than the rest.  So when those emotions show up we fight to get rid of them, to not be abnormal, to not be different. But we do feel them, all of them, at different points. So we are stuck feeling that we shouldn’t feel what we do and that feeling it indicates that we are wrong, weak, and broken. In that we grab at so many mindless things in an attempt to cope and change how we feel.   I want to feel better so I grab chips, a beer, or my iPhone.  I binge watch a season of the latest rave on Netflix and drown my sorrows.  At the bottom of the bag, bottle or the end of the season I wake up somewhat zombie like and try to step back into my life. Don’t get me wrong, at the right time and in the right place I can happily eat a bag of lays, share a bottle of wine and binge on Netflix with no regrets.  It’s the timing that’s key.

When I grab at those things in an effort to escape my own experience, I lose part of me. My sadness, shame, anxiety and grief speak volumes about who I am, what’s important to me and what I want my life to be about if I am willing to have them.

I wrote this FB entry 2 years ago.  My wife’s cousin died suddenly 7 yrs ago today. It was tragic. She was too young. A mom. Full of life. And it hurt.  I sat with it for a while and struggled to experience my grief, my wife’s grief and understand what does it mean…  Here were my thoughts:

Honouring your life requires that your death be ever present in our minds. It was too early. To soon. Not expected. It hurts. It feels wrong. Yet here we are in your absence. We are given moments to live. We continue. The past is complete; the future not guaranteed. Honouring your death requires that we allow it – your sudden loss – to impact the moments we are given. The now. The challenge is not allowing those moments to pass without living. See there is the loss. How can we honour your memory if we are not changed? how can we honour your memory if we exist without life. We are – if we honour you with a legacy where your life and death change ours – obligated to live differently. We are required to let the grief that fills us move us to moments of life where we live differently and fight for the moments that you miss. Honouring your death means fighting to live. Fighting for smiles. Fighting for laughs. Fighting for compassion. Fighting for love. Fighting for sorrow and moments of vulnerability where we share authentic reality. In this there is both vitality and honour. In this, your death spurns us on to live differently; to love differently. In this you are not dead to us, but a memory ever present that reminds us to cherish each moment we are given – to live it to our fullest – because it may be our last.

When I reflect on Rebekah’s death the memory hurts, and I automatically desire to drown it, but that emotion and her memory stand strongly to remind me that I want to live, to have life and not when I come to die discover I drowned the very essence of who I am in a bag of lays and a Netflix series.

Our emotions are guiding and telling.  They are mine after all. They show up in the moments that are important to me, stop me, and remind me what my values are.  They give me a light to indicate where I should invest my actions and choices. They are, in essence helping me become more of who I am and less of what I’m not.

“Love and loss are poured from the same vessel. There is no way to turn away from what we have lost without turning away from what we have loved.” Kelly Wilson Ph. D.

I started my journey not willing to have some emotions; most of them actually.  I had a deep sense that there was something that was fundamentally wrong with me because they were there. I’m glad, five years in, that I’ve learned to stop, ponder them with a little curiosity and wonder if they are here what do they have to teach me about who I am. I’ve learned that those emotions, aren’t what’s wrong with me, but the very thing that’s right with me.

There is science behind that journey: acceptance and commitment therapy.  Our hope for Saturday afternoon is to walk far enough through some of these processes that we can leave  looking at emotion from a different perspective by connecting it to our values and allowing it to empower us into our lives.

 

 

Friday’s Session: Knowing The Monster

One of the things we miss, I feel, is what I call “knowing the monster.”  My kid has anxiety. I have anxiety. Half the world has significant anxiety. But what does that really mean?  It’img-things more than worried, its more than scared. It’s not just about spiders or germs. Its bigger than that. Its fear stuck in the wrong spot. Its fear stuck in every spot. My body is tense. I don’t eat. I don’t sleep.  I can’t shut my head off. I can’t think straight. I am fighting for my life when the world around me is calm, cool and collected (and staring at me!).  It feels like I monster I know nothing about!

Anxiety is shutting down the world. Its stealing fun from kids and adults alike, in all sorts of places. Our lives are getting smaller and we feel out of control.  I didn’t choose this.  I didn’t check some box on the way out asking to  get what I got and yet here I am.  I didn’t choose what bugs me and yet it does and its growing.

And then there’s times when it’s been better and times when it’s been worse. How’s that happen? Did I do this?  Though all of it I feel like I’m on a roller coaster and someone else is at the wheel, but its my fault.

Its time we got to know the monster; what is anxiety? How does it affect the us? Me, you, them.  I’m not alone.  Knowing my monster, what anxiety is in me, is critical. Knowing is critical.  How can I hope to make progress if I don’t know what I’m fighting?  Our Friday night workshop is designed to set a solid foundation of knowledge in a friendly and engaging format.  Science, personal experience, treatment and theory delivered carefully so you’ll have the chance to interact with me.  You’ll leave being able to answer the following:

  1. What is anxiety?
  2. How pervasive is it?
  3. How does it get places it doesn’t belong?
  4. What is its effect on our minds, and
    bodies?
  5. What impact does it have on our lives (what’s the prognosis?)
  6. Is something wrong with me? Them? Us?
  7. Where do we start working?

And well, this is just the start.  Saturday is all about the work. How do we get out of our anxiety and back into our lives.   How does anxiety become our ally instead of the monster it can sometimes feel like?

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