Is it a common occurrence for you to pay attention? How much of your day is spent in the here and now? When you add up the countless hours of television, mindless tasks, ruminating thoughts, and mind-filled wonderings, it can illuminate just how removed from reality our existences can be. We have replaced ritual and meaning with efficiency and tension (the primary factor in attraction and growth) with convenience. In 2015 Microsoft published a study on the attention span of the average American. It might surprise you to learn, says this study anyway, that the average attention span is only 3 seconds. What does this mean? It means that on average, every 3 seconds the human mind is bombarded with a distractor. Could this in part be due to this information age and the replacement of the sensory world?
The Harsh Reality of Our Psychological Desert
Our attention span is shrinking and our chronic distraction behavior ever increases. Distraction has become our oasis and the sensory world the harsh reality of our psychological desert. What can be done? For week 2 of Suicide and the Soul, I want to offer us a way into experience. Namely, the experience of the soul. We use this word often at Barn Life and it gets thrown around in religions, too. But what is the soul? In short, the soul is that which experiences. Soul can be defined as the convergence of the spirit and the material world. This can exist in the body, in the imagination, in the emotional terrain and in our stories. Why do we consider work with the soul to be the primary task in mental health? Soul, when sought after, produces movement into awareness where our truest most meaningful journey can take place.
Listening to the Still, Small Voice
Suicide and suicidal thinking can be understood as an act of the soul. This writing exercise will ask of you a bit more than 3 seconds, and distractions are sure to pry there way in. I want to encourage you to set aside some time for this practice. Stay open and return to the moment. Listen to the still, small voice beneath the noise and remain open to what it has to say. You may find what wants to be said strange or unclear. The secret to the exercise is flow and trust. Be vulnerable enough to go where the pen takes you as if a force beyond your mind’s eye wants to lead the way. Let go and stay with it.
Writing Down the Soul
The exercise is simple. Writing down the soul consists of setting aside a time to observe. To sit or walk or stand without distraction to notice, we allow the experience to enter in. This doesn’t have to take very long. Soon a sensation, physical object, a color, or memory can come to us. Giving attention and naming our experience is a movement from self-rejection to embracing the self as you are. This writing exercise is a way to get past the feeling that you have to fix it. Instead, writing what is as it occurs to you acknowledges the relationship with what comes in and what goes out. Here, with a free hand, we become present to the inner world through the outer world.
Writing to Regain Perspective
Naming our experiences helps to shape our perspective. I offer you a resounding assurance that the unconscious is patiently waiting for you. Through a playful opening to what reveals itself, no matter how trivial, the part that is curious in each of us that wants to live begins again. Writing in this way can help us to regain a perspective. Furthermore, should your pen take you to the worst in you and the harsh or despairing voice find its way to the paper, understand that this, too, connects us to healing and turns us toward the light. Another Stanford study showed that it is better to feel sadness than to feel nothing because to feel is to carry us forward. When feelings take form, it offers us a way forward – an expression that so desperately needs to get out.
Enter Into the Experience
In suicidal thinking often it is the big fantasy that dies. What we need is the experience and story of something smaller and more human. The soul is not gone, lost, or beyond our reach. What we must do is enter into the experience without grand expectations. Pick a place and put the phone down. Turn off the television and the easy consumption. Breathe and look around. What grabs your attention in this moment? Begin to write and relate. Whether the words make sense to you or not, the sharing of an honest moment holds great power. The soul gets to speak, and the experience gets to find meaning. I leave you this week with a poem by David Whyte that I feel captures how we can find meaning in the space around us as we open to the here and now.
Everything Is Waiting for You
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you. –David Whyte
You may never see it coming. The defenses can be aggressive, frigid, fiery, slithering, and destabilizing. Not too long ago I entered a women’s mental health inpatient to run a weekly group. Client rotation is common so meeting new faces is part of the job. I wore a t-shirt under my blazer with the image of the Greek Medusa displayed on my chest and introduced myself. A new client asked what I meant to say by wearing the shirt. I said that I guess it’s a reminder that sometimes our defenses come from deeper wounding. That attacks like these can make us feel like stone and that for any of us that have gone through traumatic mistreatment we can benefit a great deal from getting to know the slithering serpents in our hair.
A Twisting and Passion Filled Assault
I did not expect the response I received. Her face was bright red. She accused me of being insensitive and an “asshole.” I tried to listen, apologies and clarify but it was too late.There was no room for repair. I felt frozen. Turned to stone. My words fell on deaf ears. She rejected outright my strong care for her emotions and I met a twisting and passion-filled assault. How incredible that 10,000 years later and the mere image of Medusa invokes a psychoactive response! Her story is the story of the overactive defenses of the wounded. I start this week’s theme with my story because it illustrates what working with some trauma survivors can feel like. While a diagnosis can offer us the nuts and bolts of a disorder, I want to focus instead on the idea of disorder itself.
The Personification of Borderline Personality Disorder
We might say that Medusa personifies a borderline personality disorder. Of the 9 criteria for the diagnosis, she demonstrates in her story at least 7 of them. But what I’m interested in this week is not the criteria of borderline personality disorder, but the pathology. Pathology refers to the sequence, the phenomenon, the experience rather than the behavioral criteria. A disorder is a more appropriate word in my view than diagnosis. Because to be “dis-ordered” is to have all the right pieces, only out of reasonable or functional order. Disorder implies not that someone is broken or missing pieces but instead has a tangling of parts. All the parts are there, and somewhere in-tact. What is lacking is the tact itself.
Our Delicate and Sensitive Work
In personality disorder, our delicate and sensitive work revolves around the recognition that the decision to overprotect oneself has turned pathological. That is, gone to such extremes that we are not experiencing relationship with self and others in healthy intimacy. Instead, defenses distort and prevent secure attachments. Stability comes in the form of defenses and prevents us from thriving in constructive relationships. Can we heal borderline traits? Studies on intensive DBT treatments tell us yes. With proper trust and safety, telling someone they meet the criteria for borderline personality disorder is ultimately constructive. To be clear: untangling the connection between empowerment and defensiveness is tricky work and belongs to the slow ego re-formation that comes through empathic understanding.
Medusa and Perseus
Let’s look in brief at the arc of Medusa and Perseus. Perseus is charged with the heroic task of obtaining the head of Medusa. To put it another way, by mastering the monstrous defenses of emotional trauma the hero then has access to her power. We can see Perseus, too, as an inner figure. The one who confronts and strives to overcome our disorders must square off with Medusa. I think it is important to note that this is not about conquering her, though that is the popular seasoning. Instead, Perseus shows Medusa herself- offering no interpretation, no aggressive attack, no attempts to overpower. A silver mirror presents a simple, voiceless reflection of her own image.
The Skill of Medusa
Perseus gains the skill of Medusa and shows her face to the monster of Poseidon – the Kraken. The sea of our emotions has many monsters and to win the gift of Medusa’s stare is to know when and how to freeze lethal enemies. She is a gift. Our wounding and our defenses have worth and will support us in the right ways once dislodged from the body of terror. The trick is in knowing the difference between a lethal enemy and an imposing reality. In other words, when Medusa runs the show, all are threatening. When the inner ego (hero) gains her strengths and can be shielded from her wrath there is great power and healing that can take place.
The Silver Mirror of Perseus’ Shield
Today, we know Perseus by many names. He goes by cognitive restructuring, emotional regulation, the spectral chart, emotional transference therapy, and many more. Any practice in mindfulness is a look into the silver mirror of Perseus’ shield. Learning to observe and self reflect IS THE SKILL. As staff, I am encouraging us to work with the emotional deregulation of clients with a softer eye. Rather than attempting to interpret, learning to be grounding and curious. To join with activated dysregulation may sometimes not be an option. In defensiveness, all we can offer is our own boundaries. This week I will be teaching on maintaining healthy relationships with borderline tendencies as partners, therapists and family members. I encourage you all to make some extra room in your relationships with clients (for staff members) and with staff members (for clients). The only way through disorder is untangling the story and the only way to untangle the story is to give it our undivided attention. May we all find the solutions in our symptoms and the passions in our wounding.
I wish I knew the beauty
Of leaves Falling
To whom are we beautiful
As we go?
There once lives a king, long before our histories. He sat at the center of a thriving united kingdom. His subjects were joyful. His lands were ripe, green and beautiful. One day the king was walking in the gardens to the west when, like a fish hook, his gaze was reeled to the sight of a single, brown spot on the leaf of a rose bush. He pondered at the deadening spot for day and night as if possessed. The king could not help but stare with all earnest as he watched the gradual decay spread from leaf to stem to branch to roots. Flowers began to die by the thousands. The rains did not seem to come, and, in time the entire kingdom was in grave despair.
Marriage to the Self
In, week 2 of the Three Marriages we take a look at the marriage to the self. Who is the self? And what does it mean to invest our time, energy and effort into it. We may, on the surface be thinking the self is simply how we feel or making ourselves into who we want to be. We may stand up for and defend a sense that we have the right to be happy or treated fairly, loved unconditionally, supported, saved, received, and ok with things. Should we consider the self In terms of our expectations will surely come to some horrible let down. Our realizations that no one will live our lives for us, no one will offer the perfect medicine or promise the world, leaves will indeed die and the bliss of innocent perfectionism will painfully disappoint.
Talk of the self in such broad strokes can leave us wondering and wandering. The reality is that the self, that inner me and inner you, belongs not to our best or our worst, but instead to the world. It is not the self that creates our lives, nor is it our lives that create the self. By definition to be connected with the self is simply that. A connection.
Confronting Great Mystery and Adversity
To look within is not for the faint of heart. In our inner being, we confront great mystery, great adversity, fear, doubt, even badness. The self is not purified, not always kind, not even realized completely. From the self we experience all the instincts to love and take chances, to hope and dream, to step through the window and risk for our greatest longings. But also, the self may completely destroy what we think we are, at least on the surface. The ego and the self are not always the best of friends. Our versions of the story we like best, the hard-knock truths we demand to live by and expect of others are of no consequence to the self. Our truest being is always there, beneath the layers of how we think things should be.
A Reminder From David Whyte
David Whyte tells us a few things to remember when braving the inner world and searching out the experience of being one with what is within us. Firstly, Whyte wants us to know that life is where we leap. When we think about our passions, there requires a renewed innocent hope in order for our efforts to really come from the soul. In whatever experiences present themselves to you and me today, it is important to attend to the innocent hopes. Some of us may feel worn, beaten and even betrayed by life, and yet, the willingness to dream carries the soul onward. In part, this week I want to emphasize the role of hope.
Making Room for the Stirring of the Soul
If we are to commit to a marriage with the self we have to make room in the mundane, broken and hopeless for the stirring of the soul. Rather than forcing our energy into what we cannot change, what if we could come to an awareness of where the energy imagines itself toward? Can we help ourselves and our clients by making room for these surfacing hopes? Of course, our perfect images do not come to pass, in fact, they may not come at all, but the drive is inextricably linked to our hope. For the first glimpse of the self, everything must be possible. We have to step toward that light of possibility that expands the reaches of the self into a deeper and more profound experience.
An Unavoidable Truth
Secondly, Whyte offers that the pursuit of the self begins when we accept that human anxiety is endless and constant. There will always be waves of existential anxiety that knock over the surface self. The true self is that which remains. In each death and rebirth, every loss or inconceivable hijinks, the remainder is what always was and ever will be. A presence, an experience that we do not control nor manage, a truth that cannot be claimed only experienced. This is difficult to imagine primarily because we fixate ourselves in the throes of winning and losing.
An Active Relationship
Whyte says, “In the pursuit of the self we cannot get there from here. We get there to begin with by stopping” (p. 185). Stopping is not a passive surrender, but an active relationship. In all true connections, stopping allows us to look at the world as if we have seen it for the first time. Stopping reminds us that everything we strive to keep alive, keep permanent, keep secure, is simply a pit stop along the way. We ourselves are impermanent beings. To act in fear is to act as if we and our surface selves are immortal.
Tearing Down the Scaffolding
Why do we avoid intimacy with our relationship with the self? Because it means facing all the lies that scaffold who we think we are. Everything we work so hard to be in the relationship with the self must undergo the natural decay that accompanies our mortality. We look to the youthful hope that can ever drive us onward as we simultaneously learn the beauty in the surrender of the versions of life we claim as right.
Welcoming Loss As Growth
I remind clients often, and as I write this I remind myself that our work is not to gain but to lose. Our work is to strive and to welcome loss as growth. This week we come to the threshold between taking action and stopping to notice the withering leaves. What is dying must be embraced and what grows must first be planted. How can we support each other this week sorting the seeds of this surface self and the truest constancy of being?
I close with my favorite verse of the Tao Te Ching:
If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.
The Master, by residing in the Tao,
sets an example for all beings.
Because he doesn’t display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn’t know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.
When the ancient Masters said,
“If you want to be given everything,
give everything up,”
they weren’t using empty phrases.
Only in being lived by the Tao can you be truly yourself.
Social distancing is helping to slow the spread of COVID-19 and without an antidote or vaccine, it’s currently one of our only tools to combat the disease. However, it is also presenting a new set of problems. A recent article by PBS highlights how the coronavirus quarantine is a danger to those struggling with mental health conditions. It says that “mental health experts warn that the isolation, combined with the stress of coping with a global pandemic and the disruption summoned by the virus, could brew a toxic environment for people grappling with mental health issues.”
Increasing Anxiety is the New Normal
A March 17th poll, also by PBS, shows that a fifth of Americans have lost their jobs or had their hours cut due to the coronavirus. At the time of this writing, there were 6.6 million weekly unemployment claims. That’s a source of tremendous stress and with gyms, restaurants, and other gatherings shut down, outlets of relief are becoming few and far between. To compound the matter, one adult American in three lives alone. Many of these folks rely on activities such as going to the grocery store or post office for their socialization. Finally, many workers such as those in the healthcare field are still out working and putting themselves in danger. Anxiety levels are through the roof and there’s no sign of stopping anytime soon.
Love Life Again
In response, many mental health providers are turning to telehealth therapy as a means to deliver services to folks who desperately need it. Barn Life Recovery, a “re-treatment” center in Costa Mesa, California, is one such provider. Barn Life offers an evidence-based approach combined with ancient Eastern healing methods such as tai chi and qigong. It’s all part of our holistic solution to mental health issues. If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety or depression, please give our admissions office a call today to find out if telehealth therapy with Barn Life Recovery is right for you. Call now and learn to love life again.
With the coronavirus pandemic essentially shutting the world down, mental health is as important as ever. Unemployment claims are skyrocketing. Families are hoarding food and supplies. Much of the country is under shelter-in-place orders, making isolation the norm. The anxiety is palpable, even for those who don’t suffer from mental health issues. Furthermore, the CDC is recommending that those who have mental health conditions continue with their treatment during the pandemic. Additionally, they also advise remaining vigilant as symptoms could easily worsen due to the increase in stress and anxiety. But how are people going to get treatment and still remain safe?
As a response, many providers are turning to telehealth treatment in which clients receive services online via video chat. Additionally, government officials at the state and federal levels are offering support. Chuck Ingoglia, CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health states that, “[w]e’re seeing a lot of states respond by proposing pretty radical changes to their telehealth reimbursement policies both by increasing types of services that can be delivered by telehealth, the types of professionals that can deliver those services, as well as thinking very broadly about the types of technologies that can be used.” Furthermore, insurers such as Aetna, Anthem, and Cigna are amending their policies on telehealth coverage in an effort to make sure that everyone who needs help is getting it.
Love Life Again
Barn Life Recovery is now offering telehealth therapy as part of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our top priority is the health and safety of our clients, their families, and our employees. Furthermore, we will continue to provide the quality, comprehensive treatment services and programs as we operate under our infectious disease protocols. If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, please don’t continue to suffer in isolation. Give Barn Life Recovery a call today to see if telehealth therapy is right for you.
These are very challenging times. We know that in the midst of all that is unfolding in the outer world, and how our inner world is responding, the work in our program can feel like a lot right now. However, as one of our faculty colleagues has shared, we could look at our program as a source of strength rather than demand. Above all, stepping into the world of an idea (another’s experience, a new practice, an unknown, a book) is giving our minds something to chew on and consider, and this is helping us feel more grounded.
The Once and Future King
As Merlyn said to the young Arthur in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, “The best thing for being sad is to learn something. Indeed, that is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. Ultimately, there is only one thing for it then—to learn. Indeed, learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or mistrust.” (183)
A Soulful and Curious Stewardship
Merlyn is echoing one of Jung’s deep insights, that suffering and consciousness walk hand in hand. This week our program simply wants to encourage a soulful and curious stewardship of these unfoldings. Attend lovingly to your own restlessness. Furthermore, listen intently to the heart. Finally, endeavor to lean into this tension knowing that we cannot solve but only share in the unfolding. On our break from the hero theme, I’ll say briefly that it is my belief that our clients don’t need us to “have it together,” no shielded, armored, sword-striking interpretations and behavioral prescriptions. Instead, we are a bridge to the humanity that links us all to one another. In fact, a global crisis brings a global cause and in this, we may forge heartfelt community. May we endure with open hand the unfolding and show up in this work with all humanity and all humility.
I’d also like to share a poem:
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.