Weeks of rain have come to an end and raging waters now occupy a once dried-out creek. The speed and power of the water invigorates my morning racewalks and I find myself wishing it will never abate. And such is the mental suffering of clinging to permanence where there is none; especially here in typically ever-sunny Silicon Valley.
I often muse on my walks—mind wandering in waves of creativity. Lately I’ve been musing on possible meanings and resonances of the year of the Water Rabbit. This past Water Tiger year was so demanding and unforgivingly active. Not unlike the raging waters that have carted away sediment and felled dead trees all along the creek. Same element, yet Tiger and Rabbit represent antithetical animal energies and symbolisms.
Let’s start with contemplating the astounding properties of water. Water molecules want to cling to each other. Surface water molecules do not have other water molecules on all sides so they strongly cohere with their closest molecular neighbors. This affords water one of the greatest surface tensions of any liquid and makes water able to hold objects afloat.
Water can flow in any direction. This uber-mobility means water molecules are constantly colliding and applying pressure in all directions. That is how water—seemingly uncontained and not solid—has so much strength. It dissolves more substances than any other liquid and cuts through almost anything including metal and rock. Yet water can also be a wellspring of gentleness and healing.
That gentleness leads us to consider Rabbit’s surprising characteristics. While rabbits are generally regarded as innocent, harmless, and adorable animals, they actually possess very sharp sight, hearing, and smell. Their almost 360° panoramic vision lets them see objects behind them. Additionally, rabbits have extremely strong hind limbs and leap great distances with ease. Rabbits also possess a highly sophisticated dorsal vagal freeze response. This protects them from predators either by stopping and hiding in place or ‘playing dead’ should they be captured. Also noted for fecundity, rabbits have an astoundingly high annual offspring production rate.
Putting all this together a Water Rabbit year feels simultaneously powerful and subtle. Gentle determination might best describe energy manifested in flexibility, adaptability, keen sensory embodiment and limitless creativity. No more stomping around foisting and forcing personal gain onto others. Best to rely on gentle, deep listening and other-centered consensus building to accomplish all aims. That sounds enticing and so juicy given the full plate of transformative actions 2023 seems poised to require.
With that I wish you a healthy and happy Lunar Year of the Water Rabbit! Xīnnián hǎo!
Slowing down took a few days. My psychobiological system had been going non-stop with no time off for almost three years; ever since COVID shut down Silicon Valley on March 15, 2020. I and my organism forgot what time off—genuine reflective time—feels like physically, autonomically, emotionally and conceptually. I am slowly returning to an old friend—myself.
I’ve had many patients (mostly engineering types) tell me with great pride “I haven’t taken a single vacation day in years”. And proceed to recite how many vacation days they have accrued. Sometimes it was in the triple digits. That used to be the zeitgeist in this non-stop work locale. And so, I too succumbed to that outlook all in the name of service to those who suffered so much during the pandemic.
I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. No one keeps them past Jan 31. And unlike intention setting, goal-setting is often quite limiting. As my system has slowed and weighted itself in time and in body, my view of what constitutes a good life is shifting. This shift is not an outer endeavor nor is it about where to focus my efforts as I move forward into 2023. It is an inner inquiry into what is genuinely helpful and meaningful to put out in the world. That inquiry is in process and it will lead to significant creative shift for the Groundless Ground Podcast and Integrative Psychotherapy Blog. And that feels super exciting for the artist in me.
My entire professional life could be viewed as continuous waves of content creation, flowing from medium to medium consistently reflecting the ocean of clear awareness that pervades all thought, all speech, all action. Being a light in a world of darkness is for me the highest aim of everything I have ever and will ever produce. Returning to this, this most precious attribute of my life has been a great gift of this time off. I have a few more days of basking in the slow beauty of passing time. May your New Year be filled with incandescent beauty.
I start most days racewalking the Creek trail. In late Fall and Winter my headlamp illuminates a few feet ahead, until dawn finally lights the path. Raccoons scurry by; egrets perch quietly. Though skunk smell often hangs in the air, I have never seen one.
This morning my mind produced a disturbing thought/image… what if I got sprayed by a skunk? How would I remove the smell? With no answer in mind, I continued enjoying the special feeling of a Winter Solstice sickle moon hanging low in the sky.
A little more than halfway through my walk, the trail dips closer to the creek and I hear familiar bubbling waters and duck calls. It is too dark to see any of this. Suddenly I detect a faint movement of white close to the ground on my left. My mind races to determine what it is.
As my head turns, the headlamp illuminates a beautiful skunk, white tail straight up in the air. I startle and chuckle quietly… synchronicity? Power of mind? Intuitive foreshadowing? Please don’t fear me and spray! My body speeds up to avert the very image mind conjured up only a short while ago.
We are such strange creatures—so at the ready to connect dots, create meaning, assign deterministic frames to what are probabilistic random events. Randomness does not sit well in a meaning-making animal that spins tales of thought’s power and intentionality. We believe as we think, so life occurs. The grandeur we accord to our inner thought world is astounding. And we use this exceptionalism to distinguish ourselves from all other mammalian brothers and sisters. Want to hear how much we actually share with these animals? Listen to the Groundless Ground episode I recorded several years ago with Professor Kristen Andrews author of “Animal Minds”. It will blow your mind.
I finished my walk musing on my own penchant for meaning-making. How pattern recognition and superstition marry in my brain fooling me into believing I somehow made that skunk appear! Silly human.
When Alzheimer’s disease progresses—annihilating ability to word-find, understand language, and speak cogently to loved ones—what remains is affect; particularly affection. In the early stages, this disease has periods where sufferers exhibit highly reactive emotions that often present as angry, nonsensical or delusional. These periods are particularly hard on close relations and caregivers.
One very difficult experience I recall happened eight years ago in a favorite Upper East Side restaurant. Mom and I were dining and suddenly her neighbor came up to the table to say hi. Startled that she didn’t recognize him, Mom launched into a hysterical rant about how I was planning to kill her. Increasing agitation caused her to suddenly get up and leave the restaurant. I ran after her knowing she would never calm down if I caught up with her. So instead I followed her as she wandered the streets agitated and lost; finally ending up at her building. From across the street I saw her smiling and talking with the doorman. When I entered the lobby she sneered at me. Then let me accompany her up the elevator and into her apartment. She never spoke of what happened in the restaurant. Just as she never admitted to having Alzheimer’s, even through the five years she spent living in a Memory Care facility.
Four months ago her deteriorated physical condition required a transfer to a medical model nursing care unit for memory patients. Though it is considered the best unit of its kind, it is nothing like the family-oriented, loving memory care environment she thrived in. She no longer eats and sleeps most of the time. Mom is making it clear: I am ready to bring this horrible last 10 years of my life to a close.
For the last four years Mom has not known who I am. Yet, when I arrive, though she cannot speak much, she immediately brightens in her affect. The love is palpable. She laughs when I make jokes. I can’t tell if she understands anything I say, but her eyes display interest as I relay the goings-on of my life. I hold her hand when she lets me. Play Beatles songs she and my Dad adored. If she gets agitated I stand behind her wheelchair holding her shoulders gently to restore parasympathetic response.
These days it is especially hard to leave at the end of a visit, knowing it may be the last time I see her alive. Sadness pervades the field between us. We stand together in the awful knowing that she, a highly intelligent and deeply caring woman, has been utterly decimated by Alzheimer’s. And even so, our mutual love remains… triumphing spectacularly over this dread disease like a victorious army refusing to lose its most precious treasure.
Listen to Groundless Ground Podcast Episode 60
This is a very special and quite different kind of episode to finish out Groundless Ground Podcast Season 5. I have a frank discussion about the pitfalls of packaging and delivering meditation as a performative act in health contexts with Donna Sherman—clinical social worker and teacher of practical wisdom from yoga sciences, mindfulness meditation and behavioral sciences. Since Donna has studied extensively in the Tantric yoga tradition and I have expertise in Buddhist psychology, we interview each other about the ancient science behind Yogic and Buddhist meditative practices. Donna’s Therapeutic Yoga Nidra is the NSDR (non-sleep deep rest) practice I refer to my patients. And Donna is also a longtime dear friend and colleague from whom I have learned so much. It is hard to imagine a good life without her along for the ride! And wow, 5 years and 60 episodes. What an adventure Groundless Ground has been and much gratitude to every listener! GG listeners continue to be my greatest inspiration.
“I’ve graduated!” Most mental health professionals would not expect a patient to utter this proclamation at the end of therapy. Yet I have heard it more than once. The first time I was a bit taken aback as even I was lacking appropriate context for this framing. At the time I remember inquiring, “What about your accomplishment feels like graduating?” Their answer was so simple. “I have learned so much and radically changed because I have embraced this knowledge and use the skills in my daily life. I am still me, and yet, I am a me I could not have imagined being before I started this work. Therapy was not school but it feels like I have earned a degree!”
Though I don’t agree, psychoeducation is often considered separate from the therapy itself. I have always been a big fan of educating patients as part of the therapeutic process. Getting them excited about knowledge I have worked so hard to gain. Wisdom from biology, neuroscience, social science, psychology, and contemplative science is often as much of an ‘ah-ha!’ moment producer as directly perceiving mind, or landing firmly in embodied presence, or experiencing how goodness, kindness, openheartedness melt away anxiety, depression, loneliness and meaninglessness. It is all part of delivering an integrated package of resources for symptom alleviation and awakening.
Completing therapy fully equipped to meet life’s challenges with intelligence, humility, flexibility and inner strength is the aim. If accomplishment of that goal that feels like graduation I am all for it!
Over and over session after session;
Habit narratives are so damn limited.
I watch the beauty of learning to turn toward experience
And dive in fearlessly.
Inspired, I encourage.
“Fear not. You will not be swallowed up and chewed into bits.”
Experience opens its arms; welcomes them in.
Scoops them up and lifts them high.
Dance sway rest feel
Open in wonderment!
This is real.
The alive one you have always been.
Increasingly, I am hearing disturbing stories from new patients about what is being labeled in the SF Bay Area as ‘somatic therapy’. What is clear is how many clinical and non-clinical people are calling themselves ‘somatic therapists’ and offering subpar to damaging services to individuals in need of effective mental health treatment for PTSD.
Frankly, I have no idea what a somatic therapist is. Yet so many people are seeking somatic therapy because these days pop psychology views everything as traumatic and somatics as the cure for all trauma. This reminds me of what happened 15 years ago when mindfulness became the clinical intervention for every malady. We all know how poorly that worked out.
Integrative psychotherapy acknowledges that mental health is interdependently determined by the systemic quality of one’s mind states, emotions, and bodily responses. Human beings are organisms in constant flux; continually homeostatically reacting and responding to causes and conditions. Our thoughts are conditioned by body health as much as physical health is undermined by a chaotic mind and highly-reactive emotions.
Because traumatic experiences impact the entire human organism, resolving traumatic experiences must be a whole system endeavor. Changing thoughts is not enough. Loosening muscles and tissues will not prevent future bracing each time a challenging-enough situation occurs. And emotion regulation is a body-mind-heart mission.
Somatic Experiencing® (SE™) focuses on and accomplishes whole system trauma resolution. SE is a complex theoretical model delivered in a three-year training program. It takes time to learn how to recognize, work with, and deliver skills for effectively resolving the nervous system dysregulation commonly found in PTSD sufferers.
Other clinically helpful trauma methodologies include Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and EMDR. However, EMDR is often too activating and unhelpful for people with complex-PTSD who experienced early developmental trauma prior to adult traumatic events. SE is an excellent methodology for those individuals.
I encourage asking anyone claiming to be a ‘somatic therapist’ what training they have undergone and if they are a licensed clinical professional. Unlicensed practitioners are unregulated practitioners with no legal or ethical oversight. That is a minefield to avoid particularly for trauma sufferers.
I’ve had three blogs over the last twenty years, which no longer exist on the web. Mindful Psyche charted my first decade of psychotherapeutic practice. Dharma Moment offered a daily randomly selected teaching from the Pāli Suttas, accompanied by something I can only describe as minimal musings. The old Effortless Mindfulness blog was a complementary, commentary vehicle for my textbook on Buddhist psychology.
Integrative Psychotherapy blog will chronicle revelatory experiences and surprising outcomes which regularly occur in the sacred space my patients call “Lisa’s office”. Identifying personal information or topical content will not be shared. I will externalize my internal processes and flesh-out the rich intersubjectivity that makes the integrative psychotherapeutic container such a powerful force for change.
Each new post will be featured on my clinical website and on this WordPress blog so you can easily subscribe and comment. Here’s to another new blogging endeavor!