We are Islands
Resurrection Bay, Alaska
We are like islands in the sea,
separated on the surface but
connected in the deep.
I am on a plane and one of the instant gifts of travel is that I seem to gain new perspective and insights as soon as I lift off the ground. I have been thinking about my close friends some of whom I have known for many years - we have been in each others weddings and helped each other get through Graduate School, new babies and everything in between. We have been through a lot together and have witnessed some of the hard and messy places as well as the energizing highs. I have new friends as well who seemed to just pick up as if we'd known each other for years. Our lives can feel so separate and disconnected when I look at the calendar. Different states, different schools, different schedules with most all of us juggling our own careers can make for long breaks in between a real conversation or visit. I am guilty of not making effort as well. I find that sometimes when I do have ten minutes to reach out, I choose instead quiet or solitude which I also crave. Irony. When I have had a stretch of this loss of connection, I can find myself wondering if I really have people who are there for me and who also rely on me. Are we all just too busy and preoccupied with our own lives and well being? I ask myself "Am I just an island? Am I really living life with anyone?"
But then I get a phone call from one of these dear friends and we have time to catch each other up on our lives or to hear about some present challenge. Over dinner or drinks we ask questions and commiserate on what we have in common as we struggle to make good choices and keep showing up for our partners, children, family, our lives. As I hang up or drive home, I am reminded that yes, I do have people I am living life with. We care and are connected. I know the truth; that I am not alone and it sometimes takes a deep dive to remind me.
As you look, around you may wonder if you're an island with too much space separating you from the people you care for. If you're tempted to think that no one really notices or cares, remember that what appears to be unconnected on the surface is in fact, most often solidly connected down below where we don't always look or cannot see. Let the words of this quote by William James remind you of this truth and see how you can take a deep breath and dive under the surface to see who you are in truth, connected to.
There is more than enough
I have been thinking about the concept of scarcity versus abundance mindset. I think about it with time and with money and friendships. We operate in a culture that reminds us constantly that our resources are limited. It's what I have come to call a scarcity mindset - where I have to choose the best thing to do knowing I can't do it all-, the phone call to make, the quality time spent with which child or friend. Do I read my book at the end of the day or watch a show with my husband? Do I weed my garden or vacuum the house? Granted, these are all non-emergency decisions I make each day but they are a sampling of what fills many of my days and yours too, I would suspect. Even as I type this I feel my chest tightening; always more to do and never enough time!!
But....when I am reminded that all of this is scarcity mentality, I am also reminded that the remedy to this is the idea of abundance. And this spring as I walk around and see the cherry trees that were brilliant in their light pink puffy blooms, and the akebono tulips that I saw at Cheekwood a few weeks ago, and the birds singing and the rain that comes, I am reminded that abundancy is equally present. No one says how many bulbs I can plant or tomato plants I can grow. There is no limit to how many times I can say I love you to my daughter or smile at a passerby. There is always enough - we won't run out of these things. And so, I can look at my to-do's for the day and know that there is indeed enough time and I will have enough energy to do all that is truly needed today. And most likely, the sun will rise tomorrow and I'll have a whole new day to tend to what is needed and on and on...because from this perspective, there is always more than enough.
A Sacred Space
arrive. We boarded with about 50 others who were from all different countries and spoke different languages. Together we rode out about six miles into the middle of the bay of Fundy and looked around the still water as we waited to spot a whale. We had to be quiet because the fog was so dense that you couldn't see anything past the boat. As we waited in silence it wasn't long until we heard the water spout of a whale. We drove close to it and then in front of us was not one but two humpback whales that had just surfaced and were feeding on kelp before they went back down for another deep dive. It took my breath away. These creatures were so large and seemingly unafraid of us. If they wanted to they could have pushed our whole boat over with the slap of their tail. To imagine that they have a whole world below us that is deep and wide and not very accessible was mind-blowing to me. The captain shared with us how the humpback whales are very social and curious. They are as eager to see us as we are them! They swam around the boat just feet from where we were and kept coming back to us. Several times they popped their heads out of the water with their eyes peering out at us. Every person in the boat was mesmerized - totally captured by these huge gentle beasts. We were all suddenly one as we shared in this sacred moment that was so much bigger (literally) than us.
These experiences we take with us. We get filled full of something that is bigger than us and also so intimately for us. I was left giddy the rest of that day as I recalled what I had witnessed. It was like I had come close to a liminal space where the sacred or divine was close and I could palpably feel it. Everyone on that boat did. It didn't matter where we were from or what religion we did or did not identify with. It was something outside of all of us humans. And I could sense my best self arising quickly and easily as I took it all in.I think everyone on that boat did. That was a pretty extraordinary experience but we can experience this in ordinary ways as well. When we take a walk in nature or look closely at the intricacy of a spider web or the petals of a siberian iris, we come in contact with something "other" - a sacred space where our best self arises and we are freed, if only for a few moments, to see more clearly and maybe love more fully. In this season of winter where it is quiet outside, I invite you to put on your winter wear and go listen and watch and wait for something sacred to show up. And then wait for your best self to emerge as you are invited to live and love just a little more deeply and fully.
On being human
Quote from "What is Psychotherapy"
"A defense of emotional honesty has nothing to do with high-minded morality. It is ultimately cautionary and egoistic. We need to tell ourselves a little more of the truth because we pay too high a price for our lies. Through our deceptions, we cut ourselves off from possiblities of growth. We shut off large portions of our minds and end up uncreative, tetchy and defensive, while others around us have to suffer our irritability, gloom, manufactured cheerfulness or defensive rationalizations. Our neglect of the awkward sides of ourselves buckles our very being, emerging as insomnia or impotence, stuttering or depression; revenge for all the thoughts we have been so careful not to have. Self- knowledge is not a luxury so much as a preconditon for a measure of sanity and inner comfort.
pg 33 What Is Psychotherapy , School of Life
This little orange book was recommended to me recently and it describes with great accuracy the work I do in my office. The quote above articulates why we must know ourselves. It describes why we need to look at ourselves, our pasts and our relationships to understand ourselves more fully. When we don't take the time to look at ourselves more deeply, we continue on with life, where we are not awake to understanding why we do certain things and feel certain ways. We get irritable from something little, we get angry at odd times or don't understand why we can't seem to enjoy being with that person we love. We are not free and don't understand why.
We start off in life with very little control to change our surroundings. So we find strategies to help us manage and maneuver through childhood. These strategies are brilliant when we are children and help us survive difficult circumstances or people. At some point though, these strategies end up becoming outdated. They no longer work in the same way and instead can hurt us. They begin to keep us from what we really want and the ability to use our sense of agency. For years we can lie to ourselves- saying "I can handle this" and "I can figure things out on my own". But the cost of this lie is high. This is where Psychotherapy can be incredibly helpful. It allows us to see these strategies with more clarity and look at why we have them; where they developed from. It can be harsh and terrifying to see the truth of our lives and story. The process moves quickly but also excruciatingly slow at times as we name our pain. Yet, as we gain understanding we are able to learn new ways of being in the world and in relationships. This is not for only those of us with trauma or terrible childhoods. Nor is it something to skip over if you had a picture perfect childhood. It is a journey that every human can and should go on. The end goal is, as the book describes, self-knowledge that gives us a measure of sanity and inner comfort (which unfortunately, no other person, nor money nor power can give to us in a lasting way).
If you are interested in purchasing this book go to the School of Life website or contact me.
I have copies for sale ($15) in my office.
Holding onto the good
This is not an uncommon occurrence in my home in the evenings - "Mom, I'm so bored" and "this is the worst day ever" or "we never do anything fun". The backdrop is of course, that we had playdates, made hot chocolate, played a game of cards etc, but none of this is remembered in the moment. We are hard-wired to remember and hold onto what is hard and bad and essentially, a threat to our survival. This is part of the survival mechanisms that we are born with. Fight, flight or freeze; survival of the fittest; defense strategies; etc. These are all functions of how we stay alive. So my children complaining of a hard moment or unfair circumstance in a day that is overall good, is what they are biologically programmed to do. And I therefore shouldn't be surprised. This is where mindfulness and gratitude come into play. Because we are intelligent humans, we have the capacity to override our biological urges and make choices that take effort and intentionality but ultimately make life more enjoyable. Since we do not live in a state of being physically threatened most days, we can shift our attention to what is going well and what there is to be grateful for. Our bodies are the place where we can hold onto these good moments in our days. By taking a few breaths and sitting with the present moment of goodness, our bodies (neuropathways and even cells) feel and take in the positive sensation. The by-product of this is a lower heart rate, more relaxed breathing, a quieting of the mind and a filling up in our hearts and chests. As we practice this holding onto the good, we get better at it and we notice it more. It's a positive cycle that has no limit to how much we can receive and take in.
So today, try taking a few breaths and holding on to whatever good moment(s) are part of your day. It will help give you strength, perspective and resilience for when the inevitable hard moments come.
How do we heal?
Earlier in the summer I was in an auto accident. It wasn't terrible but it was enough to total the car and send me for physical therapy. When we are in pain, we usually wish for someone to tell us the right path - and we hope it's the quickest one. My journey led me to see a bodywork specialist that was a referral from a family member while I was traveling. This practitioner's method was to apply direct and intense pressure to the trigger points that had been activated from the accident. The sessions seemed productive but I was left fatigued and sore. Hopeful that healing would be expedited, I continued with this method. The pain didn't decrease significantly and the therapist told me that it was important to continue treatment at home. The next person I went to see was a craniosacral therapist who I have seen periodically over the years. Her method has always been to listen to the body and respectfully and carefully apply treatment. She could tell that my first attempt at rehabilitation had been intense. She questioned the wisdom of that method from what she was seeing and told me that too much pressure to already injured tissues would only retraumatize the area instead of healing it. Healing takes time and I was reminded that our bodies (and our minds and hearts) are designed to heal. What I was feeling was my body relaxing for the first time since the accident. I left her office with a distinct difference in the two types of therapies I had received. My body instinctively knew which type of treatment it preferred.
We all want to heal quickly - whether it's from a busted knee, a difficult circumstance, or a broken heart. Our desire is so strong that we believe we can lean in and it will make it heal quicker if we will it to do so. Our bodies and our hearts want to heal and are even designed to do just that when the proper environment and circumstances are in place. I had to remind myself many times this season however, that it's a slow process and we can only go as fast as we can. And ironically, we don't have control over that speed - we can only be attentive to and careful with where we are in each moment. I have had experiences with a client where we have tried to dig in too quickly or too deeply and it is evident to both of us that we have to slow down. And so, it is the slow and steady path I have found, that moves us out of pain most quickly. How do we heal? With kindness, patience, consistency and love. And the surprise gift in the end is that we are always better and stronger because of it.
Take my breath away...
On a recent getaway with my husband I found myself waking up to this. It took my breath away and I had to spring out of bed (at 5am) to capture the sheer beauty that spanned the horizon. As I type this I can feel the energy in my body as I look at this photo again- its left an indelible mark on me. I recall wanting to take it all in- every bit of color and shape that my eyes could see. I carried the beauty and grandeur of this sunrise with me all day long . A little later I sat and did a morning meditation. This is something I have been trying to commit to after being reminded of the emotional and physical health benefits it brings. Its true that meditating with a backdrop like this makes it easy to find stillness and quiet through breathing. And I did find a calm space very quickly that day!
On other days though, back in my normal life and flow, it can be a lot more difficult to get quiet through meditation if I even get to it! But the benefits still outweigh the difficulty in taking the time. What research shows to be most beneficial about meditating is that through intentional breath work, the mind slowly calms down and begins to be quiet. Our mental chatter gets told to move on down the river while we stay upstream for just a little while and focus on our breathing. We follow the breath in...and out....in... and out. When this is done with repetition and we focus on our breath's natural rhythm, our neurological system begins to quiet down. We can notice how we are in our bodies - what's tense, what may be hurting and maybe what tiredness feels like. We are also able to make connections with our body and our emotions and thoughts. What does anxiety or frustration feel like in our bodies? Or how we truly are feeling about being single or getting older. We are invited to just observe and not judge or do anything with what we notice. It may be difficult at first since we are so used to letting our minds run wild and feeling the resulting roller coaster effect of feelings or physical shifts. With time though, and practice, there is a longer lasting shift that we notice. The ability to stay with a situation or conversation that we used to react quickly to or avoid. We may notice that we can be present to challenges in ways we used to need coping mechanisms for. It's really quite remarkable what happens as a result of consistent meditation and sitting with ourselves. Our neuropathways are able to rewire through the phenomena of neuroplasticity and in our bodies we literally change at the cellular level. So of course we will notice this and it's effect on our relationships and our overall well-being. And that should take your breath away!
There are others way to practice meditation as a spiritual practice that I'll mention here but could use their own proper explanation. They are Contemplative Prayer and St. Ignatius' Prayer of Examen. I love both of these and take turns with all three. There is a new app I have been working with called CALM and it is a great introduction to meditation.
So while it is easier to create a quiet space while away on holiday in a tropical island, the truth is we actually need it in our every day lives. We need to find our breath and be with it and not let it get away!
Resources: "Body keeps the Score" by Bessel van der Kolk and "Brainstorm" by Dan Siegel
This winter season has been filled with a lot of news- news that many have found to be upsetting. I have talked to countless people who have been on a roller coaster ride of emotions who are trying to find their grounding. It has also been quite amazing to see people wake up to what is happening around them. As M Scott Peck famously noted, "Sometimes good things have to fall apart for better things to fall together." With this perspective, our opportunity now is to take all of this concentrated energy we've given to politics and re-focus it on all the places that need our hopeful attention. And, in the midst of this new energy and activity, I'm also reminded that we still have a life to live. We have jobs to attend to, homes to keep up, children to get to school and groceries to be gathered.
The question we have to keep asking ourselves is where do we find perspective? For good work to continue, it is essential to find perspective that is bigger than the moment. That is part of the work that I do with my clients when they come to me in the midst of a crisis. Before we do active work on the presenting problem, we start with the person and help them get grounded by teasing out positive tethering points. We can gain perspective by reminding our hearts of all the people who care about us. Sometimes it comes by reminding ourselves of gratitudes and keeping them in our memory. Sometimes perspective comes by getting into our bodies through exercise or breathing. And once again, I'm reminded that just getting outside into nature can align the heart, mind and body in a way that yields a calming perspective. Because it is only with a grounded perspective that we can be ready for the hard work that comes after the crisis.
I find that being outside is where I need to be to restore myself. I soak in the quiet and spend time watching the movements of nature around me. Last winter, I was struck by how the cold, barren winter serves as a metaphor for how we may feel dead, but be pregnant with a newness that, like spring, is just around the corner. Right now, I am reflecting on how nature offers perspective in a way that calms us, grounds us and remind us of our center. Needing some perspective? Consider slipping on your coat and finding your way outside into the landscape that is bigger than your despair, and the crisis of the moment.
To contemplate -
Wendell Berry wrote a beautiful poem that I have found myself reading over and over again this past weeks and months. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.
When despair for the world
grows in me
and I wake in the night
at the least sound
in fear of what my life
and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down
where the wood drake
rests in his beauty
on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the
peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives
with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence
of still water.
And I feel above me
the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the
grace of the world,
and am free.
- Wendell Berry
the small push
I am fortunate to have family that lives in south Florida where the temperatures stay summer like and the ocean is swimmable all year long. I recently was able to visit and while sitting at the beach, my kids were asking me to join them in the surf. It definitely was swimmable but it was still on the chilly side. I hesitated. I was so happy sitting and watching them while reading a magazine. But their insistence finally got me out of my chair. As I slowly worked my way into the water, I felt the cold and uncomfortable shock to my body. It was so cold!!! And I"d been so comfortable in my chair enjoying the view! But soon I was in and just like my kids promised (and I intuitively knew), it was lovely. As I swam around enjoying the feel of the water on my body and the sensation of floating, I was reminded of this idea: that the really good things we experience in life often take a little effort. It takes a small push out of our comfort zone into a place of play and enjoyment on a deeper level. Children instinctively move towards play and are rewarded with many rich experiences of adventure and excitement. As we grow older and life becomes more challenging, many of us do not look at play in the same way. We choose comfort and security over play and adventure...often because we just need a moment to catch our breath. To move into play requires energy while resting requires none! Of course there are times when we should simply stay on the beach chair and read our book or watch a favorite show or "check out" with social media. It is important to learn how to rest and take a moment. But if we take that every time, then we miss out on the really good stuff that comes when we give ourselves that small push. And while rest is good, moving into something that fills us up is really good! It can recharge and invigorate us far beyond a rest or "checking out" can do. This comes from mindfulness; it comes with saying "yes" when an opportunity presents itself. Sometimes we need to chill, and choose a t.v. show, or a nap, or a manicure. But we need to keep investing a little bit more energy to go outside for a walk, to call an old friend, to do yoga (even for 15 minutes), to pick up your paintbrush or garden shovel. Or to wade through the chilly water to get to the adventure of playing in the ocean with your kids.
So in this new year when we rise and fall on our resolutions of good health and living, maybe find a more sustainable way to push yourself.
Working ourselves around the Circle
I had the opportunity to travel to Guatemala for a quick weekend recently. What was so fun for me was that I had come down to explore the country and learn the language 20 years ago. To be able to return made me curious how I would find the country to have changed and also how I myself, would have changed and what would be the same. What struck me was that the country was still much the same- the people and the beauty of the land was just as striking and also poor. And while I interacted with a very different group of people than those of my backpacking days, they were still kind and generous and eager to make my experience special. As I thought about how I had changed it was similar - much was the same. I was drawn to the same places and being outdoors, I was curious about the food and submersing myself in the culture. And yet I was different too - older, wiser (hopefully!) and more settled in myself.
This "same but different" experience reminds me of the work I do in my office each week. As I sit with my clients we look at the same issues/problems/frustrations that they have often been dealing with for years. They wish they could just be done with a problem or never have to address a particular issue again. But what I encourage them to understand is that each time a recurring issue enters back into their life, they are different and so their ability to deal with it will be different. And that is where hope and the process of transformation come in. Its not a new brilliant idea that finally solves a problem. It is a slightly different perspective, or a small increase in being able to tolerate an uncomfortable feeling. These incremental shifts allow for big changes in our collection of issues over time. I find this hopeful - as its less about finding the panacea - and more about coming back around to a familiar place in the cycle with a better ability to navigate through it. Sometimes my husband and I would both wish for our familiar and tired issues to go away even if we had to replace them with a new set. But we both would admit that although they are still the same, when they come back up we suffer less, we listen better and we move through more quickly.
As we come to the beginning of this Christmas season and all of the joy and consternation it often brings, maybe try noticing yourself navigating through the challenging parts in a slightly different way than last year. And maybe being able to be present just a little longer than you have in the past. Knowing that next year as the circle comes around again, you'll have another opportunity to shift.
Kimberly Simpson, a native of New Jersey, graduate of Wheaton College and resident of Nashville. Married and mother of three children. Lover of the ocean, gardens, yoga, cooking and travel.