April 2016: A Short Exercise for Hurting Hearts

Here’s a really short exercise you can do to try to work through some hurt you have sustained and are grappling with still. It was developed by Barbara Sher as a tool for moving past hurts from people, especially those who were our caregivers, who didn’t extend the compassionate, loving care that was needed. It’s not a magical exercise (i.e., one that will make all the pain go away instantly) but it can help clear a bit of debris out of your psychological space.

Letter to the Person Who Didn’t Love Me Enough
(Or, Love Me in the Right Way)

Practice:

Write a letter to the person who hurt you and did wrong to you by not demonstrating enough love or care for you or who neglected you and your needs. Write about your anger and hurt and explain to that person why it hurt so bad and what you wish would have happened instead.

Process:

  • Write for about 5-10 minutes.
  • Get mad and explain in detail.
  • Get sad and grieve each part of the loss.
  • Repeat until the really hard feelings go away.
  • Forgive them their failings.
  • Destroy the letter.

 Peace,

Shari van Spronsen, MA, RCC

March 2016: Asking a “better” question

There are all sorts of reasons for asking questions: curiosity, learning, information, checking in, and listening are a few. But how about the feeling you get when you hear, “That’s a great question! I’ve never thought about that before.”

Some magic just happened; there’s a pause, a reorienting, and a connection made that wasn’t there before. You moved past the rules (e.g., make sure your question is open-ended) and into relationship. That’s when I think we have asked a better question, one that opens up possibilities and narratives and conversations.

A ‘better’ question…

  • Unpacks & sifts through our immediate experience to what is vital
  • Keeps us grounded in the values & beliefs we do hold
  • Allows us to be truly present and a witness to other people in a way that brings health & healing
  • Encourages “beginner’s mind”: curiosity, openness, a not-knowing stance that invites more connection & authenticity
  • Demonstrates our careful listening and therefore our care & compassion

And, perhaps, to close the circle, a good question might also inspire a good answer and, then, another better question.

Peace to you and your household.

February 2016 Why is everyone so anxious?

Why is our culture so caught up in anxiety?  This is a question I am asking myself as a counsellor because the overall rate of anxiety is rising at an alarming rate, even for children.  So, I thought it might be helpful to sift through some ideas about possible reasons and then list some possible practices to quiet our systems to a more manageable level.

Possible Reasons:

  • Pace of life is faster than the natural pace of mind & body
  • Information overload
  • Living mindlessly rather than mindfully
  • Paradox of choice: both freeing and oppressive
  • Deeply attracted to our feel-good chemicals: we are wired & tired & busy
  • Bombarded with troubling societal and global issues
  • Fluidity & ambiguity in role formation (gender, family, parenting)
  • Temporary nature of our work
  • Pervasive & persistent sense of loneliness & isolation
  • Clamor of competing voices trying to convince us of something

 Possible Practices:

  • Inhabit our selves & our spaces (paying attention to our sensory information and our internal experience)
  • Embodied presence (being truly present in the moment—not anchored in the past or future—and aware to our external experiences with the world and with people)
  • Establish values & beliefs and working them out in our lives (these are the things that give us meaning and purpose)
  • Establish rhythms & rituals (patterns of being and belonging that ease the pressure points)
  • Orient ourselves toward health and healthy changes (Do you want to be well? If so, what does wellness look like for you?)
  • Learn how to be comfortable in both solitude and community
  • Create space for spirituality in our lives and in our stories (mystery & miracles—the things that are beautiful & good & working well)
  • Ask better questions as a sacred act (getting unstuck from our ‘Why’ questions and moving into our ‘What’ and ‘How’ questions.
  • Unplug from the tech world for periods of time—and create some ‘high touch’ activities (those daily, creative and restorative practices, such as hobbies, hiking, or hilarity)
  • Create something (music, art, a new building…anything really)

Well, this list is a bit brief, for sure, but I think it’s enough to get anyone started on a different life trajectory. Remember, it’s the difference (any small change) that makes a difference and that practices are for practicing, not perfecting.

Peace to all.

January 2016: Questions About Your Voice

Happy New Years!

As is typical, a new year begins for me with a reflection on the past year.  I am truly thankful for all the people who have allowed me to be a part of their lives this past 12 months.  It is a true honour and privilege to journey alongside so many glorious people and to witness their strengths and healing within struggles and difficult spaces.

And, of course, if you have known me for even a short time you will know that I also begin every new undertaking with a philosophical and contemplative thoughts and questioning all sorts of things. To begin this year’s ramblings…a quote from Mary Collins:

One of the best gifts for the critical mind and for a living tradition is the gift of a new question.

And, then, this quote from Carolyn Heilburn:

[Agency] is the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter.

In beginning this New Year, I am trying to connect ideas around the gift of a question and an individual’s place in public (and relational) discourses within their contexts and systems.  Some examples of my wonderings:

  • How can people be “voiced” into conversations that lead to identity, meaningful action, and intentional living?
  • How can we ask more questions and give fewer answers in our relational discourses [dialogues, self-talk, writings and posts]?
  • How can we create living traditions for what is most life giving and restorative to our self, others, and the Earth?
  • How can we listen more often to the voices inside of us (intuition, spirit, collective wisdom, past knowledges) and less to the clamour of others?

These questions begin with the words “How can…” for a couple of reasons.  The first is that I feel that the verb is quite important to the process of working these questions out.  The verb should could indicate an action motivated by guilt or obligation, will could indicate getting things done by gritting our teeth, and might could speak more to indecisiveness than conviction.

The second reason for the “How can…” is that it contains the idea that we already have some agency (belief in our ability to act) and that there is important space for us to inhabit in our spaces, contexts, and systems.  It also implies that we are moving in a certain direction, one that elicits critical thinking and generosity for newness, learning, and change.

This year, my hope is that we take the time to pause and ask a really challenging question (or questions) about how we are interacting and living amongst others in the world and how we are spending our hours and days.  Not in a gritty resolution-ish way but with a compassionate, generous, and grounded gaze inward and outward and a framework that upholds health, healing, and deliberate living.

I end this post with a few simple questions that I hope will connect you to your existent voice, way of being in the world and toward respectful and dignified spaces to stand and be heard.

Q? When you consider the year ahead, what contexts and conversations will be involved in the forming and informing of your life? How will these influence your life and the lives of those around you?

Peace and grace to you this year.

December 2015: The Blues and Getting Through This Day

I had one of those days yesterday. The one where you wake up depressed, look out the window at the dreary grey weather outside, feel more depressed, think of the day ahead, and feel still more depressed—and all this for no particular reason. But for someone like me who has struggled with bouts of depression in past decades, these kinds of days are a wee bit worrisome. I fear going back into that deep dark valley I used to inhabit for months at a time.

I know I am not alone in this. Whenever I experience these kinds of feelings, especially in Vancouver’s rainy wintery months, I start hearing about other people who have had just such a day. Sometimes, it is the exact same day (or days) that I was trying to get through.

So, yesterday I thought hard about what kinds of things might help me and, therefore, what might help others get through this kind of day too. Not, what was going to magically snap myself or anyone else out of a depression—but how could I going to get through THIS day with a bit more hope and self-respect and a little less dreariness and dark thinking. And, importantly, it had to be doable given the current high levels of inertia and meh-ness.

So, I did some research and some reflection and came up with a list of a few things that might help you get through your today:

  1. Acceptance: The first thing to do is accept that you are here in this place again, right where you don’t want to be. Accept it as a day in your life, accept the emotions you are experiencing, and accept that it may be hanging around for a while. BUT, also accept that you have gotten out of this funk before and you will get out of it again. Some days have been better, some weeks, months, and even years have been better. Accept that this day is just one day, it’s not all that there is to your life, and you WILL eventually feel better.
  2. Nurture & Nourish: What are some very small things you could do to add a small flicker of sensory goodness into your life? We’re not aiming for ‘joy, joy, joy’ happy-clappy here (although if that happens embrace it, obviously). But what are some activities you like that are all about your senses: taste, touch, scent, texture and so on and then make it happen. Make a list of these if you don’t have one already and keep adding to it on happier days so you don’t have to think up that helpful idea in the midst of heavy brain fog.
  3. Get outside: Tell yourself you will only go out for five minutes. And then be sneaky; trick your brain and stay out way longer. Extend your walk around the block to include that new coffee shop six blocks away. Or, take you, your dark mood, and your lunch to the park or museum. Listen in on other people’s conversations as you walk around and really see people and nature as you trudge along. Notice beauty and life around you: examine those strange vegetables at your local grocery; notice the colours of leaves on the sidewalk and your neighbour’s garden; browse for a bit in that pop-up store.
  4. Be in Community (or not): If you’re stuck in the house, go find some people. Coffee shops, stores, art galleries: all are full of people making noise. If those noisy people are also your lovely, upbeat friends so much the better. Contact people for no reason at all and focus on their lives (put gloomy thoughts aside for a few minutes). If you’re stuck in an office or a crowd, go find some space by yourself and daydream about that warm, sunny place you’ll visit someday or remember your niece’s giggle when you were reading a book together last Christmas. Read or watch something positive or funny or lively (i.e., inhabit some ‘opposite-world’ space for awhile).
  5. Do something creative: Cook, macramé, build something, finger-paint…whatever creative work inspires you. This is not the time to start up that huge project or delve into a complicated solution to a design problem (unless, of course, it is). Creative work is like comfy pants for the brain. Tell your serious, brainiac side it’s okay to ease up a little and take some time off. Cease from all that incessant thinking and mental processing and engage in some imaginative or discovery play-work.
  6. Serve Someone: Do something for someone else. Make a meal, clean up the leaves or pull some weeds, knit a scarf, build something you could give away. Most importantly, notice someone else’s need. Get out of your solitary hamster-wheel-bad-thoughts headspace for a few minutes or hours and be fully present to someone else who could use a gift like your attention or your non-heroic service.
  7. Listen to Music (or make your own): Soothe the savage beast that is your emotional life right now. Grab a guitar and sing. Drum out some of that nervy energy you’re packing around. Dancing: also good. Plus, if you are as coordinated and talented as I am, you’ll have the added bonus of making other people laugh while you do it. (My moonwalking is especially good for cheering up others around me.)
  8. Distract yourself: Find something else to think about. Facebook rants are probably not going to give you that oh-so-welcome dopamine hit so maybe just avoid them. Instead, do one small thing that challenges your brain a wee smidge. Figure out the name of that band you listened to last year and loved and download some of their music. Clean up your floordrobe (you know, the clothes that could be hanging in the closet but have made the bedroom floor their rumpled home). Make lists. Paint a wall. Plant something. Go to the library/rec centre and look at all the “New/Hot-Sellers” books and check out some programs they are offering.
  9. Change of Plans: Change things up a bit. Move your glacial-speed heavy body around and get busy for awhile doing pretty much anything except laying on the couch with only your own dark thoughts to keep you company. Trust me: it won’t make you feel any better about yourself to empty the Kleenex box while rockin’ your decades-old hoodie and sweats. Alternate between moving and sitting, working and resting. Save the pyjamas and sloth-appreciation-day behaviour for bedtime.
  10. Think Light-Bright. Turn on all the lights in your space. If it’s still dark, go buy some more. If you live or work under fluorescent bulbs, replace them with the full spectrum kind. Or buy some Ott bulbs for your lamps. Do you have a light especially designed for Seasonal Affective Disorder (drugstores have them)? If not, get one and sit under it every day. Wear colourful clothes or scarves. Cook with red, orange and yellow veggies. Buy something bright and place it directly in your line of sight.
  11. Be Mindful: You may think binge-watching Netflix is the definitive antidote to your raincloud self but mindless TV watching doesn’t actually alleviate bad moods or stress. Actually, mindless anything is probably not that helpful. Checking out is not the same as distraction and “a-musement” (not thinking) creates mental cavities, not relief from your own tedious thoughts. So, what could you bring into this moment that counters your restless boredom (ennui) and engages your whole being and brain for a short while?
  12. Put Good Things in Your Body: You know this one but it bears repeating; stay away from the crap you NEED to gobble or guzzle RIGHT! NOW! If you really, really want that sugary, boozy, or salty thing, find the most nutritionally dense option that won’t bring on a food-coma, food-baby, or hangover. Everything in moderation (including those common pain relievers a.k.a. alcohol and weed). Too much of any food, drink, or drug, once gone, produces the opposite feeling you were longing for—and that’s probably not what you hope will be the defining part of your tomorrow. So, show some mercy to your systems and s.l.o.w.l.y eat that ice cream you want to shovel in your hungry belly (soul or spirit). Enjoy it; savour it.
  13. Get Through the Day: just keep working through the day as best you can (radical self-acceptance, right?) and then go to bed. Hopefully, your sheets are cool or soft or crisp or however you love them and your room is cozy and peaceful. If it isn’t, make that a priority for tomorrow. If sleep doesn’t come in 30 minutes, get out of bed and repeat all the above ideas until you are tired enough to sleep right away. BTW: don’t bring your screens to bed with you and be sure to turn them off an hour before sleep-time. Why? Their light is especially good at keeping your melatonin levels low and you need this hormone for falling asleep (but there’s a blue-screen app for that if you just can’t turn that device off).

Hope this helps get you through this dark today but if a lot of days are starting to feel this depressing, get yourself to a doctor or a counsellor (or enlist a friend to help you get there). Mind, body, and spirit: all of them may be out of whack, so be creative in your list of helpful options or get someone else to help you create that list. And then take a small step. Trick your brain into thinking its just for one meeting or one appointment and then keep going to the next one and the next one until you feel better.

Note: I will be holding a workshop in late January or early February about understanding and working with mild-to-moderate depression. Send me an email via shari@secondstorycounselling.com if you’d like to get on the “Interested” List.

Nov 2015: Follow Beauty to Truth and Truth to Beauty

This month I am thinking hard about this statement I read recently and adapted for my own bent for philosophical queries: Follow truth to beauty and beauty to truth.

And I am simultaneously considering this quote from Thomas Merton as well:

I no longer believe that our life’s task is to change or even improve “self”. Instead, I see it as a turning toward, a graced movement bringing us more and more into congruence with the person we were meant to be.

The way forward may be more about moving toward whom you were created to be (i.e., a graced movements toward congruence, authenticity, and beauty) and not as much about striving and slogging through tough self-improvement tasks (i.e., grit and determination shaming ourselves into change).

If these tenets were true and you (I) could fully live them out starting today, would that change anything…or maybe everything?

Oct 2015: Healing through Narratives

In the first few counselling sessions, I generally ask people to tell me stories about who they are and what they think is important for me to know about them. People then begin to tell me some stories about their life and how they came to have this current struggle.

In the process, some narratives are told and some are withheld; some come forward shyly and some get blurted out. Often people surprise themselves about what they talk about. “I haven’t thought about that in a long time” and “I didn’t realize the meaning of that until I said it” are common statements. In moments like that, meaning and emotions are abruptly unveiled like a sudden plot twist and surprise and curiosity ensue.

Sue Monk Kidd speaks to the healing power of narratives in her book, Dance of the Dissident Daughter:

The truth is, in order to heal we need to tell our stories and have them witnessed…the story itself becomes a vessel that holds us up, that sustains, that allows us to order our jumbled experiences into meaning.

We need to hear each other into speech (Nellie Morton), which means allowing for the stories to be told in the way that they need to be and that our witness conveys respect and empathy. Our life narratives hold a great deal of power; what we say about ourselves (past) colours every part of our living and being in the world (present and future).

Listen deeply to the storytelling of people around you and notice how influential this act is in creating deep connections with others. When soul and story meet, we walk alongside fellow sojourners and our isolation and separateness drops by the wayside. This walk (or dance) is what makes us able to bear up under the pressures and problems of life and offers us the promise of health and wholeness. This is the essence of narrative therapy.

Sep 2015: Decision, Decisions

Come September of every year there are suddenly many more things to do than time to do them. Summer days start to fade away in light of what is new and fresh and purposeful for the Fall season. But how do you choose what to get involved in? Some people find that basing life decisions on core values and beliefs is helpful in sorting it all out. Likewise, keeping the big picture in mind can help differentiate between a good and great opportunity.

To get you thinking about what to add or delete from your list of options, here are few questions to ask yourself:

  1. Living with Myself: What do I want to be known for? What do I want to accomplish the most in the next few years?
  2. Living with Meaning and Purpose: What is most important thing in life for me right now? How can I best invest in the world?
  3. Living within Relationships: What parts of my relationships need boosting? How can I best serve those around me?

Beliefs & Values > Decisions >Actions >Habits >Character >Beliefs & Values (repeat)

Aug 2015: Solvitur Ambulando: It Is Solved by Walking

I came across a blog post the other day that argued for the benefits of a regular walking practice for folks struggling with anxiousness, stress, and mild depression (and I would add to that: problem-solving, creative blocks, and emotional overload). The following is a selected piece of that argument. A link to the site is provided at the end if you want to read more. Interestingly, it is part of a series on “The Art of Manliness”.

Going for a walk is a highly effective way to reduce your stress, depression, and anxiety. Like any form of exercise, walking releases endorphins which give pleasure to your brain and reduce your stress hormones, but unlike other forms of exercise, you can do it anywhere, anytime. A brisk 20- to 30-minute walk can have the same calming effect as a mild tranquilizer, and walking daily for a half-hour has been shown to quickly relieve major depression.

Walking has also been shown to clear the mind and refresh the senses. It’s a form of “meditation in action” which can rejuvenate your “brain fatigue.” Research has shown that reaching this meditative state through walking is made much easier when you take your stroll in nature, or even simply a small green space within a city.

The mechanism at work here is a psychological phenomenon called “involuntary attention.” As opposed to the frenetic cityscape, which grabs our attention in an exhausting way, natural surroundings engage the brain, but do it an effortless manner that still allows space for reflection. In this calm state, the knot of worries that have been tangling up from our day-to-day lives can more easily be unraveled and released.

Focusing on deeper meditation as you walk by centering your thoughts only on the present – concentrating on the movements of your body or counting your steps – can also help you tame your “monkey mind” which begets anxiety in its constant need to flit from one thing to another.

Finally, walking’s rejuvenating power may be located in the opportunity it provides for much needed solitude. Our two feet provide the opportunity to leave behind the crowd and the noise of the world at a moment’s notice, and regain our solitary independence.

original blog post

Jul 2015: Poetry That Honours Your Soul & Spirit

Here are a few poems I’ve come across lately that honour the human spirit and the divine spark in each of us. I hope they give you pause and that you can enter into their mystery and beauty.

Bhagavad Gita (10:35):

I am a magnificent hymn,

A sacred chant.

Rainer Maria Rilke:

I want to unfold.

I do not want to remain folded up anywhere,

because where I am still folded,

I am untrue.

William Blake:

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity, a human face;

And Love, the human form divine,

And Peace, the human dress.

Walt Whitman:

To have the gag removed from one’s mouth!

To have the feeling today or any day I am sufficient as I am.

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