Category: Intentional Living

Managing Pain with Mindfulness

I know you’ve been impacted by the opioid epidemic. Statistically, you’re very likely to know somebody who got addicted.But at the very least, you’ve seen the news headlines. You’ve seen the differences in prescribing practices when you visit the doctor or the pharmacist. It touches everyone.

These drugs were supposed to usher us to a bright future in health care — a future where patients wouldn’t have to tolerate pain, where healing from injuries or surgeries was peacefully comfortable, and where even if doctors couldn’t cure a condition they could at least keep patients reasonably comfortable while they lived with the condition.

It didn’t work out like that. People who use these drugs to manage pain will find themselves needing more and more of the drug for diminishing results, meaning they’re hooked on a drug that only scratches the surface of their pain.

Studies show it takes as few as 10 days on opioid pain meds for 1 in 5 users to get hooked.

10 days!

On legit drugs. From a doctor. For legit pain.

This subject always speaks to me. I spent 25 years helping people manage their pain. As a massage therapist specializing in pain and injury management, I saw people working desperately to conquer their pain. They saw every kind of specialist and tried every folk remedy, menthol patch, over-the-counter drug, and multilevel-marketing goop their well-meaning friends recommended.

Sometimes I’d work for over a year on someone’s chronic pain. They’d see a few days of relief after every treatment, but the pain would come back, again and again and again.

Sometimes I’d get a new client who had already consulted physical therapists and surgeons and acupuncturists before trying massage out of desperation. And they’d get off the table feeling great. They’d think they’d witnessed some kind of miracle. Sometimes even I’d think I witnessed some kind of miracle.

My takeaway after 25 years was this:

Some people get better and some people don’t, regardless of the cost or sophistication or intensity of their treatment protocol. AND regardless of the amount of prescription pain medication they’re taking.

In fact, I saw people whose lives were nearly derailed by the mental/emotional effects of their pain meds, even while they were still in pain.

Here’s the thing.

Those drugs work great for acute pain. Like, the day after surgery kinds of pain.

But they do far too little for chronic pain. And what help they do offer comes at a too-high price: dependency, confusion, mood and personality changes.

Through 25 years of putting my hands on people who were in pain, I learned to see a subtle difference in the clients who would get better and those who would stay in pain. I didn’t know how to articulate that difference until I started practicing and studying mindfulness. Before then, I simply noticed — almost on an energetic level — a quiet but profound difference.

Some people were looking for something from outside themselves, something they could passively receive, through a pill or a needle or a practitioner’s hands. They were the ones who continued to suffer.

Some people were actively engaged in their healing, asking questions, learning the names of the muscles or the biomechanical processes involved in their pain, and consistently doing their homework in the form of exercises or ice packs or hot packs or stretches. They were the ones who got better.

Mindfulness folds all of these engaged approaches into one intentional package.

And mindfulness is proving to be the most effective answer to the opioid epidemic. It works for some of the same reasons massage therapy worked. It interrupts the pain cycle and shuts down our body’s alarm systems.

See, I initially studied in the school of seek-and-destroy massage. We all thought we had to beat the tissues into submission. It was often effective, but it was almost always painful.

Eventually, I got wiser. I studied more about the body’s physiological response to pain, and I learned that my elbow buried deep in someone’s painful trapezius was adding to the pain signals.

But when that same trapezius got kneaded and soothed during a session that delivered relaxation to the full bodymind, it healed better. It shut off the bodymind’s fight-or-flight response. It silenced the alarms, or at least lowered their volume to a tolerable decibel level.

This is what people are learning to do for themselves in this current climate of mindfulness appreciation. There are several simple steps to accomplishing mindfulness for pain management.

  1. Stop the struggle. We naturally react to pain by resisting it. Resistance tightens our muscles and raises our anxiety level. Mindfulness teaches us to assess our situation and meet it with compassion. It’s like the difference between the seek-and-destroy massage and the nurturing kind.
  2. Connect to what’s real. Mindfulness teaches us to know exactly how we are in the current moment. It teaches us to let go of our judgments or labels and simply see what is. I would always encourage my clients to find a number to describe their pain. On a scale of 1-10, is it a 3? A 7? This makes a difference. Clients who came back week after week and answered my general question, “Does it hurt?” would answer “Yes.” and feel defeated. Clients who were asked to be more specific would learn that last week’s 7 is this week’s 3. So, yes, it still hurts,but there’s progress. That changes the entire mindset.
  3. Focus on what’s right. Meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn started teaching mindfulness to some of the most seriously ill patients at the University of Massachusetts Hospital. The results were so astounding, they launched the movement we’re all experiencing today. Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction helped patients learn that even with cancer or a chronic degenerative condition, there’s “more right with you than wrong with you.”

Ready to become a believer? Here’s an easy practice, led by the master himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn. You’ll be surprised by the profound simplicity. Here’s a guided meditation that takes only 10 minutes.

Mr. Rogers Was Right. Look for the Helpers.

Believe it or not, I’m just now getting acquainted with Mr. Rogers, thanks to his posthumous resurgence through a recent documentary about his career and an upcoming feature film starring Tom Hanks.

My brothers and I weren’t allowed to watch Mr. Rogers when we were little (“too fruity,” Mom said) so the mention of his TV show usually reminded me of Eddie Murphy’s parodies  that aired in the 1980s on Saturday Night Live.

When my husband and I watched the recent documentary about the legendary children’s TV host, we found ourselves in a darkened theater with dozens of other graying moviegoers who shifted bifocals to dab tears from their eyes. Shoulder to shoulder, we quietly sniffled through the story of his career, his kindness, and his understated bravery against racism and hatred.

In that theater on that night, it was as if we’d been bathed in a healing balm. It’s the perfect antidote to our times, which likely explains the renewed interest in his messages.

The world seems to be getting meaner — not just here in the US, where a petty Twitter bully holds our highest office and our social and political divisions seem more rancorous than ever — but around the globe. Nationalism is on the rise. Refugees huddle in makeshift camps. Tsunami survivors go hungry amid rubble and corpses while corrupt bureaucrats delay shipments of aid.

I was thinking today of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous assertion that the arc of moral history ultimately bends toward justice. My gut tells me that’s true. My brain surmises that it’s a truthful assertion. Right now, though, my heart fears that our moral arc has taken a jagged detour.

Looking up Dr. King’s words, I learned that he was paraphrasing Theodore Parker, an abolitionist and a minister in the Unitarian Church (my people!). He was the kind of articulate writer and speaker who even inspired the phrase “of the people, by the people, and for the people” in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

I imagine Parker’s life of activism, and the despair he must have felt, working for so long against the indifference and convenient defenses of a culture so accepting of slavery, so blind to the suffering and inhumanity. He died at age 49 from tuberculosis, and just before the outbreak of the Civil War. He didn’t live to see an end to slavery, but in the final months of his life he retreated to Florence, Italy, where he died among expats and kindred spirits — poets, social critics, and activists, including Frances Power Cobbe, who devoted her life to the causes of women’s suffrage and animal welfare.

Cobbe founded the (British) National Anti-Vivisection Society. Even though she lived to be 81, she never saw the end of vivisection. In fact, today — 114 years after her death — we still haven’t abolished cruel testing and experimentation on animals.

The moral arc is long indeed.

But I’m struck by the way these activists and creatives and enlightened souls banded together, forming close-knit communities where a weary activist could retreat, even traveling ill across oceans so he could breathe his final breaths among like-minded companions.

We need those communities. And that’s why I’m thinking today of Mr. Rogers, and his story about his mother’s advice when he saw disturbing and frightening realities in the movies or on the news. “Always look for the helpers,” she told him. “If you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

Look for the aid workers, pushing against bureaucratic barriers to bring food to hungry survivors. Look for the animal rescuers, the activists, the tireless crusaders, who might not even live to see the completion of their goal.

And so, tonight I will go to the meeting of our racial justice organizing committee, knowing that among the mundane details of meeting minutes and committee reports there is a vital energy, a hope for a future with greater moral justice. There are kindred spirits. There are people trying to bring kindness to an unkind world.

And this weekend I’ll gather with my friends. We call ourselves the sister wives. In each other’s company we won’t have to articulate why the Senate’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings triggered the hell out of our survivor brains, or why we’re sleeping more fitfully after days of shouted upsets and whispered sneers reminding us that it’s dangerous to be female in this broken world.

On Sunday I’ll help build a play structure for the rescued goats at the farm animal sanctuary, sharing hammers and saws with like-minded vegans, with gentle souls trying to bring more compassion to a cruel world.

Huddle and retreat. Cherish your kindred spirits. Or seek them out if you don’t already have them in your life. Because the world truly is broken. And countless people are working to repair it. Look for them.






Goodbyes and Endings: How to Manage them Mindfully

Oh, this month. That’s why I named it my Month of Mindfulness. I’m navigating it carefully, mindfully, intentionally. And it’s working. But it’s a lot to manage.

I just did a final massage on a client who had a standing appointment every other week for 16 years. She cried. She said, “I’m sorry; it’s not about me.”

“It is about you too,” I told her, “and I”m sorry you’re hurting.”

I had interactions like that every day this month. Some much more casual, many much less emotional, but all tinged with a bit of guilt — a realization that my career change creates ripples that impact 142 people who have relied on me as their massage therapist.

Going into this month, I knew about the one big change: I’m deciding to end my career of 25 years and say goodbye to longtime clients.

But also this month:

  1. One of my oldest friends was abruptly fired from the nonprofit she created 20 years ago. Her name is synonymous with the organization. She didn’t see it coming. Nobody saw it coming, with the exception of the three board members who handed down the decision, leaving all of us wondering what information they have, what concerns they feel they must leave unvoiced, what factors led them to this drastic and painful decision.
  2. I’ve gotten part of my income from freelance work I’ve done for that friend and her organization, and it was an integral part of my plan for the new career I’ll start next week. But that door just closed for me.
  3. Another of my oldest friends — a stay-at-home writer and daytime yoga-class-taker — accepted a teaching job that will put her in the classroom, starting today, ending her freelancing lifestyle.
  4. My recovery community is reeling from strained relationships and divided loyalties. The founder of our movement is the subject of a life- and career-altering investigation into sexual misconduct. It remains to be seen whether he’ll retain his empowerment as a meditation teacher when the scandal settles. It remains to be seen whether our recovery movement will retain its name, use this leader’s book, or even exist in its current form.
  5. The feral cat my husband and I have fed every day for six years stopped showing up for feedings a week ago. We continue to visit every day, shaking her food bag and calling her. We don’t know how long to look for her before we decide she’s gone. We named her Peekaboo. She lives (lived?) behind a restaurant, in the dense thickets around the parking lot. We’ve only ever seen glimpses of her, except for the few days we had her trapped and held captive for her spay surgery and recovery. She is a feral. She does not want to have humans for friends. But over the years, she’s come to know us, know our cars, and brave the vulnerability of a small clearing where we leave her food every day. We have a unique bond.
Where are you, Peekaboo?

My mediation this month has taken on a specific theme: Right now, it’s like this. Everything that starts will someday end. Every ending is also a beginning.

That embattled meditation teacher used to tell his students, during the wee early days of the movement he founded, “This community is already broken.”

He wasn’t pointing out inherent flaws in the community or the movement, although those are inevitable too.

Rather, he was reminding his students that every beginning someday leads to an ending.

He wrote some guided meditations that I count among my favorites. They are the ones that contain the reminder, “Right now, it’s like this.”

Guilt is a natural feeling, and we can feel it without surrendering to it. We need never apologize for endings. They are an integral part of life.

When we work in mindfulness and meditation to ease our suffering and lead happier lives, we aren’t harboring expectations that our practice will excuse us from future losses and endings and goodbyes. That is impossible.

Instead, we practice to free ourselves from the emotional pain we feel when we wish it were different. Part of our practice is to remind ourselves that everything will change or end. After 25 years, this part of my career is ending. The part I’ll start next week will end someday too. Life can offer nothing else.

Here are the healing phrases that served me well this month in my meditation and my brief mindfulness check-ins:

Right now, it’s like this.

Everything will someday end.

Every ending is also a beginning.




Using Mindfulness to Manage Depression

It’s a hell of a month, and I’m not even halfway through it. During this month, I’m making a major career change after 25 years, entirely switching industries and professional focus, jumping into financial uncertainty, and ending many decades-long professional relationships.

It’s a lot. And I began the month feeling fully ready, welcoming it, embracing it, and all those things I said in my first blog post about it.

I’m still ready and welcoming it. I have no doubts or regrets.

But yesterday. Oh, yesterday.

I started the morning with an email to a new colleague, and she replied with harsh critiques of some work I’d done last week. This is becoming a theme. She’s increasingly displeased with my work, and starting next month we’ll be working together every day. Or is she actually increasingly displeased? Is that the truth? Is it just my feeling?

Then some out-of-town relatives popped in to whisk my husband away for a family reunion. I was still reeling from the email, and the relatives were full of chatty chatty chatty energy. I couldn’t meet their mood. They seemed unaware of mine. Or were they unaware? Could they tell I wanted to curl up in a ball? What did they notice?

I hugged and waved them all off, feeling both relieved to say goodbye to the chatty chatty energy and feeling freakishly abnormal. I could have joined them for lunch down the street before they left for the ruinion. I needed to eat, but there was no way I could have lunch in a noisy place and try to match the energy of their happy jabber. After lunch, they’d pile into the car and ride shoulder-to-shoulder in the happy jabber for a long drive that would end in Seattle rush-hour traffuck. I couldn’t do that. Or share hotel rooms and noisy restaurant meals through four days of relatives happily jabbering. I couldn’t. Not even. I’d run screaming.

I sometimes use my normal, happy in-laws like the macabre reflection in a harsh fun-house mirror. I gape at my exaggerated features, sometimes amused, sometimes repulsed and horrified. Guess which mood I adopted yesterday.

So, there I sat, all fun-house bumpy and disfigured, with loads of unfinished work piling in my head and around my laptop, and I stared at the walls.

After a few hours of that, I decided to try something healthier and I watched a sweet British gardening show on Netflix. The show has creativity, kindness, outdoorsness — all things I enjoy on a normal day, a day when I’m not working hard just to drag my limbs from room to room.

I got a few small things done, in the way one walks through knee-deep water, or maybe crawls through mud. I was barely functioning.

I tried to remember what mindfulness techniques might help me survive the day, might help me even want to survive the day.

“Well, hello, depression,” I said to my new state. “Long time no see. I’m surprised to see you popping up. You feel like an itchy wool blanket on a miserable hot day. You make my limbs feel heavy and my insides feel hollow. You tell my brain that nothing is worthwhile and the world is a giant, uncaring, cruel shit-show. I remember you. You used to live here.”

I felt better already. If this sounds unlikely, I understand. But naming and welcoming the feelings with gentle curiosity changed my mood. I wasn’t the freak in the wavy mirror anymore. I wasn’t an object of horror and derision. Instead, I was simply having an experience, a visitor, a weather system.

Before I go on, I want to stress that clinical depression is not mere weather or “a mood.” Depression is a serious illness. It can be progressive and fatal. At a few points yesterday, I reviewed in my mind the people and places where I could seek help, sort of like glancing at the map of emergency exits when you check into a hotel. Just in case. Safety first.

Don’t ever listen to the people who think you just need some running shoes and kale, or crystals in your pockets and magnets in your shoes, or prayer, or essential oils. And, in fact, don’t let mindfulness meditation get hijacked by that kind of magical thinking, either.

How would you treat cancer, or diabetes, or any of the other serious and progressive illnesses that some people get? You’d seek proper medical attention. You’d consider treatment options, review their effectiveness, do the full, intelligent fact-gathering piece, and then you’d choose a course of treatment. Having done that, you’d probably be wise to add some exercise and kale, prayer or meditation, some essential oils if they’re soothing or helpful. I won’t endorse the magnets and crystals, cuz that shit ain’t real, but even weird stuff is okay as long as it doesn’t hurt anything and you find it helpful.

Many so-called “alternative” treatments are truly effective at managing serious illness. Science would fully endorse the kale thing — exercise and good nutrition are good for everything. And mindfulness gained mainstream acceptance after Jon Kabat-Zinn proved its success in a hospital setting with patients undergoing treatment for serious illnesses like cancer and heart disease.  Mindfulness has shown to be as effective at treating depression as other conventional treatments.

But note that it’s being used as an adjunct treatment, under the care of people who have devoted their lives and careers to studying it — not well-meaning friends or relatives who read a magazine article or took a weekend workshop or signed up to be independent distributors of high-quality magnetic products infused with healing crystals and salt harvested from the joyful tears of Scandinavian forest gnomes.*

Aaaaand, anyway. Back to the Thursday From Hell. I stopped fighting it. I sat with it, painful as it is. And here’s the thing:

Depression is exhausting. Why waste precious, scarce energy trying to pretend you’re not depressed, or quietly scolding and judging yourself for being depressed? Or brooding over questions about whether that person really dislikes your work or you’re just imagining it, or whether those smiley-chatty relatives noticed my aching-hollow insides and the steaming blanket thrown over me?

Brooding is exhausting, and depression causes brooding. And brooding deepens depression. Vicious cycle.

So, break the cycle. It’s not a cure. That’s important here.

It’s a powerful coping mechanism. Coping mechanisms keep you reasonably sane and functional until this thing passes or you can get help, whichever comes first.

Here are the steps to managing depression with mindfulness:

Name it. Hello, depression, you private hell. You hot, itchy blanket.

Explore it. You make my limbs feel heavy. You make my insides feel hollow. You make my mind see the worst in everything.

Break the brooding. One reason the happy chatty makes me want to poke myself in my own eyeball? Because it is so incompatible with my quiet brooding. That’s not to say it would be more helpful to pile into a crowded car or a noisy restaurant with incessantly chatty companions. Find a place that’s safe and nurturing, if you can. Acknowledge that you’re brooding. Find a way to break the cycle.

Engage. I had to attend a racial justice meeting last night. I wanted to cancel. Once I got there, I spent the first hour eye-rolling through every minor irritation, every boring and too-long monologue. I watched the door. I knew it would be easy to just slip out. But then I listened to current community concerns about refugee families being separated, about refugees being detained at a nearby federal prison, about an interfaith gathering and protest outside the prison, the Sikh temple members who fed the entire crowd, and the detainees who waved out the windows of the prison to let the demonstrators know they felt the support. So what the hell was I so worried about this morning? My colleague didn’t like that Facebook video? “Not-ready-for-prime-time” she said? Yeah, that sucks. But I’m not on a prison cot. I’m not in a strange country where I don’t understand the language or the legal system.

Getting outside of ourselves if vital. It’s essential for our personal growth and for our perspective to engage in something larger than ourselves, to work for justice, to contribute in some way to making the world suck a little bit less. I noticed when I left the meeting that my limbs were a. bit easier to move. I felt like I could go home and do a little bit of something.

Create. Doing and creating are acts of hope. I saw that on Facebook one day and I copied it down. It’s true. There’s also that Zen thing about busy hands and quiet mind. Last night, I had to choose carefully. I have a list of unfinished projects (well, hello, depression) from partially-built matching side chairs to partially-built bathroom cabinets, to a stack of materials waiting to become a rag rug loom. I wasn’t up for anything ambitious or sweat-making. So I turned on the British gardening show again and I worked on a latch-hook rug I’m making from strips of old t-shirts. It’ll be soft and fluffy when it’s finished — perfect for going under my feet when I’m writing at my standing desk.

So, did I cure my depression? Oh, hell no. I coped pretty well, considering. I stayed sober and mindful and worked my way through a hellish day. I still have symptoms. I stayed up too late last night and listened to a podcast to lull myself to sleep. I had some trouble waking up this morning. I’m only slightly more productive today than yesterday. The weekend is coming up. I’m recuperating. I can’t even describe how much more functional I am than in past depressive episodes. Mindfulness hasn’t magically transformed me into a normal, happy person without depression. I’m still me. I still have the genetics and trauma that are our family crest.

I also went back to taking my full prescribed dose of anti-depressant. I almost always stretch out the doses, both for economy and to minimize side effects. That usually works, but it’s helpful to know when it isn’t working. So for now I’m on the full normal dose. This is a good month to have all the supports in place. Kale, running shoes, yoga mat. Anybody know where I can score a vial of gnome tears?

*I think I made up the part about the gnome tears. But there’s probably somebody somewhere doing something a little bit like that. You know I’m right.






How to Be Mindful Around Other Peoples’ Strong Emotions

I saw a video yesterday on social media. I’d share it here, except this video really isn’t the point, because what happened is so common that not one person commented on it.

It was a video about a homeless boy and his mother who finally got public housing. The family had suffered such a difficult time, a local charity teamed up to furnish the home, including a dream bedroom for the young boy, complete with Star Wars decor and art supplies. The boy had never had his own bed before. He’s somewhere around 10 years old. The happy volunteers turned a video camera on him to capture his reaction as they toured him through his home and showed him all the wonderful things they’d gotten him. He was overwhelmed. He cried.

On social media, people commented on what a sweet story it is, what selfless volunteers those are, what a fortunate mother and son. Some people commented that the video brought tears to their own eyes. All fair. It was an emotional video.

But I didn’t see a single comment on how the adults — volunteers and the mother alike — responded to the boy’s emotions. “Don’t cry,” they said half a dozen times. Finally, his mother said, “Stop crying. Stop it.” Mind you, this wasn’t an effort to control a fit, to stop a boy from knocking his fist through the new drywall; he was simply walking through his new house in amazement, rubbing his tearful eyes, and sometimes covering his face for a few sobs.

In short, the boy was being appropriate. He was expressing strong emotions, and actually expressing them in a restrained way. And the adults wanted to cause strong emotions, remember. Why else would they tour him through the house and show him, using sing-song voices suitable to a far younger and less intelligent child, Look, sweetheart, look at what we got you. Isn’t that wonderful? Remember you said you like art? Well look at this whole table of brand-new art supplies. All for YOU! And remember, too, they followed him with a camera to capture his reactions.

But when he reacted with tears — maybe they anticipated him jumping with glee and saying Aw, shucks, thank you so much — they just couldn’t handle it. That needed to stop.

It was almost abusive. There, I said it. You might not agree. But think about it.

These adults — grown-ups who we assume are more capable of navigating strong emotions and riding out an intense situation — placed a child in a crowd of virtual strangers (and white strangers, surrounding the black child and mother) and whined and baby-talked through a tour meant to elicit a strong emotional response for the camera. And the boy, who has been homeless and alone with a struggling and undoubtedly somewhat broken mother, cried.

And they shamed him. Stop it. Don’t do that. Stop.

The message was manifold: we want you to react for us, but we want you to guess what kind of reaction we want. Oh, no. Not that reaction. Stop it. There’s no room here for those emotions. We did so much for you, and you’re doing something we don’t want you do do.

There was not one adult — at least in the span of the minutes when they paraded the emotional child in front of a camera to show off the touching good deeds of the generous charity volunteers — not one adult who said, “I know, buddy. This is emotional. You’re doing great. It’s a lot to take in. Feel all the feels, kiddo.”

This is a problem.

Let’s try a show of hands: how many of you remember being a kid and hearing, STOP THAT. Don’t have that emotion.

Worse still: how many of you can relate to the poor toddler I saw in a supermarket a couple of months back. Riding in the cart while her mother approached the checkout line, she started fussing. Tired, fidgety. Whimpering a little. And then she did something I didn’t see. Maybe she bucked in the cart and accidentally kicked her mother. But the mother yelled “STOP IT” and smacked the child’s bare leg. The sound of the smack traveled far in the tile-and-metal market. People looked, disgusted by the mother using physical punishment. And then they looked away. Done with it all.

And the child wailed. It was a scream of impotent rage. It said, “I’m already having a shitty day, and I don’t know how to manage my emotions, and I’m hot and tired and trapped in this metal cage-seat. And now you’re hitting me. I’m LOSING IT.”

I felt the child’s rage. The betrayal. The anger that she lacks the words to name. It stayed with me all day. It pretty well ruined my day. I talked about it later that night in my meditation group.

No doubt the mother was having emotions of her own. There are few things more trying than a toddler’s tantrum, especially in a crowded supermarket with others watching and judging.

The meditation teacher Tara Brach tells a story of a grandmother taking her young granddaughter through the store. The child is fussing, asking for everything she sees, and complaining when she’s told she can’t have those things. The grandmother keeps repeating calmly, “Just a few minutes, Cindy. We’re paying now and we’ll be home soon.” The cashier smiles understandingly at the grandmother as she repeats her little mantra a few more times during checkout. “You’re doing fine, Cindy. We’ll be in the car soon, and just a few minutes later we’ll be home. Maybe you can take a nap.” The child continues fussing.

As the grandmother finishes paying, the cashier says, “You’re being very patient with Cindy, and I hope the rest of your day is happier.”

“Oh, I’m Cindy,” the grandmother responds. “That little handful is Susan.”

That little story is so much fun, because while everyone is having a hard time, the grandmother is simply injecting some compassion in the moment. Compassion for herself, for her granddaughter, for the surrounding shoppers listening to a toddler do what toddlers do. And she’s reminding herself and everyone else that this will pass.

It’s about compassion. It’s about letting others have their feelings.

This month, I’m saying goodbye to clients. Some have been with me 10, 15, 20, and even 25 years. I’ve relied on their consistency for my livelihood, and I’ve valued their trust in me. Now I’m ready to move on. But some of them aren’t yet ready. Their visits with me have been a source of comfort, an important part in their self-care, and sometimes a significant relationship in their lives. Some of them have had dramatic recoveries too. They have feelings about this.

It’s hard to navigate the emotions of others, especially when their emotions run counter to our emotions at the moment, or when their emotions are uncomfortable or inconvenient for us.

It’s okay. There’s a tool for that. The RAIN technique works for others’ emotions as well.

One caveat: we don’t make space for others to be abusive or harmful in any way. I’ve fired clients in the past because they yelled or slammed doors or used abusive language.

But those are the exception. We can make space for others to have their emotions. We don’t have to identify with them or take them on. All we need to do is allow them to be. We can do this in a few short steps.

Recognizing that people have their feelings. Sometimes they’re even mysterious and foreign to us, because their feelings are so different from how we’d respond to the same situation. Try to name the feeling. Or even ask the person if they can name what they’re feeling. “Aww. You’re really feeling this. This is a big change, I know. Are you feeling sadness?”

Allowing people to have their feelings. You can still honor your own boundaries. I can’t sit with a client for two hours while she processes her feelings; I have other clients to see and other things to attend to. I can’t allow a client to yell at me or call me names or mistreat me. But I can allow a client to feel whatever she’s feeling. “I understand,” I can say. “It’s hard when someone you rely on retires and they aren’t there for you like they’ve always been.” There’s no need to fix it or offer a solution or ask the person to feel anything different. Just acknowledge and allow what’s happening.

Investigating the situation. Because I’m a bodyworker, it’s most consistent with my scope of practice to ask the client where she’s feeling the reaction. “Tight shoulders? Can you breathe into them and invite those muscles to let go?” And it’s okay to investigate how I’m feeling about it. Defensive? Tired? Checked out? Resentful? Grieving? That’s all okay. No need to do anything about it. Let it be.

Not identifying with the feeling or reaction. That crying client is a human with a full range of other emotions. I’ve had some interaction with their emotional well-being and their level of skillfulness at navigating life’s challenges, so sometimes I can begin to anticipate how clients will react. But sometimes they surprise me, because people don’t fit labels. Oh, she’s the dramatic one. That’s the stoic one. That’s the needy one who will try to demand that I do something to erase her feelings about this. Truth is, one of my most stoic clients was the most emotional and resistant to my retirement announcement. One of the neediest has been (so far) relatively level about this change. That’s because emotions come through us like weather passes through a valley. Emotions are not our identity. They change. They are fluid.


At some point, we are all that crying boy in the video, feeling strong emotions in a crowd of people who refuse to allow space for him to feel. And sometimes we’re that toddler, feeling rage at being punished for having a crappy day. And sometimes we’re the person with the video camera, or the exhausted mother, wanting the drama to stop.

Using the RAIN technique, we can all keep our sanity. We can keep our dignity too. This quick technique may take only moments, or you can turn it into a longer meditation if you have the time and space. But this simple, powerful tool reminds us to allow feelings to arise and pass. There is nothing we need to do. It will be okay.


RAIN: 4 Simple Steps to Handle Tough Feelings

This month, as I continue my exploration of staying mindful and sane during a month that will deliver change like it’s blasting out the end of a fire hose, I’d like to share this simple and powerful mindfulness tool for riding out the hardest of emotions.

I learned to practice RAIN when I first started treatment for my PTSD. The moments when I felt the sort of terror that would masquerade as anger, the claustrophobic panic simply because someone was standing in a doorway that I needed to use, or the hours of unexplained irritability after watching a movie with scenes of abuse and exploitation — they all answered to this simple approach.

A number of meditation teachers offer a variation on the RAIN technique. Two of my favorites are Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. They use slightly different words for the acronym, but the approach is the same. Here’s my version:

Recognizing the feeling. Name it if you can. “This is anxiety.” Or, “I’m feeling panic.” If this sounds overly simplistic, you’ll be surprised what a powerful step it can be. When you’re in the grip of a strong emotion — especially one that hijacks your nervous system the way PTSD triggers can — it can be surprisingly difficult to name what’s happening. Stopping to concentrate on the feeling and give it a name, you’ve already slowed down the cyclone of feelings and reactions. You’re well on your way to peace.

Allowing the feeling. Remember, much of our suffering and stress come from fighting what is. Allow the feelings. Opening the door to your feelings might seem frightening. It can feel like things could become too hot to handle. Hang in there. Say to yourself, “This is a feeling. It’s okay.”

Investigating the sensations associated with the feeling. Here’s where you make peace with whatever’s happening to you. After recognizing it and making room for it to exist, you can turn your friendly curiosity on your state. It’s like you’ve found an usual piece of beach glass in the sand, and you’re going to pick it up, hold it up to the sunlight, run your fingers over it, and really explore it. “Anxiety makes my stomach knot up.” Or, “I’m feeling angry, and now my jaws are clenching.” “I’m in a panic and I can feel my breathing get rapid and shallow.” Where does this moment manifest in your body?

Not identifying with the feelings. This step can seem difficult, but if you’ve followed the first three steps, it will feel almost automatic. These feelings have a way of picking us up and carrying us off. This is different. You’re taking control. In R, A, and I, you’ve examined the feeling as a phenomenon, almost like a weather system. It’s something passing through, and you’ve allowed yourself to approach it with gentle acceptance and curiosity. Now, simply remind yourself that you are not the feeling. You may be feeling rage right now; you are not the rage. You may be feeling panic or grief or profound sadness, because thoughts and feelings happen. They arise and they leave.

These coping skills can help us manage anxiety, stay calm during a harsh conversation, or be compassionate with ourselves when we’re feeling fatigued. It develops a safe and structured way to process emotions if you’ve been accustomed to numbing and avoiding them with intoxicants or food or distractions.

Let it rain. Take a deep breath. Step outside and wiggle your bare toes in the grass. Be here, now. It’ll all be okay.




Three Ways to Stay Mindful in Challenging Times

Welcome, August!

I’ve been counting the days to August 1. Welcoming. Anticipating. Preparing. Opening.

This will be a month like no other. A month of several massive life shifts that have been in the planning stages and on the wish-list for years. Decades, even.

Change is good. I generally see change as more exhilarating than stress-inducing, but it still comes with challenges, even if they’re welcome challenges. We humans seek stability; we practically worship homeostasis. But that trips us up. Everything in life is impermanent, as the Buddha taught, including life itself. We are always adjusting to change, even when we aren’t aware of it.

One of my favorite analogies is the cup of tea. Before we make the tea, we’re thinking, “Yes, a cup of tea. That would be a good thing right now.” We choose the tea, boil the water, watch the leaves steep. And then we drink. “Ah, nice tea,” we think. And soon, sip by sip, we empty the cup.

The tea is gone.

But how many of us grieve the loss of the tea?

We don’t do that, of course. Tea finished, we go on with whatever else we’re doing. Or maybe we make another cup of tea. Either way, we gracefully flow with the stages of planning, preparing, enjoying, and finishing the tea. But the finishing is essentially a losing, or a not-having. And we’re all good with that. It’s just tea, after all. There’s more where that came from.

Everything in life is like the tea. I don’t mean to trivialize important relationships, beloved ones, careers, homes, health. Many of the changes and losses we experience are worlds more consequential than a cup of tea. But the universal truths that empty the cup will eventually have their way with all things and all beings.

So, when we practice mindfulness and we strive to live intentionally, we’re learning to skillfully and gracefully navigate this flow of life: the planning, preparing, filling, enjoying, emptying.

That’s what August is all about for me. I’ll say more on the particulars in coming days, but for today I want to lay out the top three skills for staying mindful when life is challenging. It’s about diving IN. Or, since there are two Ns in this acronym, I’ll call it INN. It’s my shorthand for the important coping skills that will help you navigate whatever life hands you.

Staying Mindful when Life is Challenging. 

Practice being INN

Inhabiting your body. Your formal mindfulness meditation practice will make this easier to do during challenging moments. That’s why we practice: to develop the skills that we’ll apply in daily life. I think of it like coming home: coming back into the now. If this is challenging – and let’s all agree it’s never an easy or automatic skill, which is why we call it a practice – seek out some guided meditations or a teacher to help you develop this skill. An app like the Insight Timer is helpful. Or you might appreciate recovery-oriented teachings and guided meditations like the ones on the Refuge Recovery podcast. Whatever your practice, you’ll be grateful for this skill when life is challenging. Our minds will send us whirling into the past or the future or the what-ifs or the what-did-you-mean-by-thats. That’s when we need to come home. Drop into the body and observe what’s happening. Greet each experience with gentle curiosity. Hello, tension; I feel you in my belly; you’re a tightness in my jaw. Or: This is anxiety. I can feel it in my breath. I know it by the butterflies in my belly or the wrinkling in my brow. Don’t judge or chastise. Just observe. And while you observe, can you soften the brow, relax the belly, deepen the breath?

Non-clinging. So much of our suffering comes from our resistance to reality. When we cling to what we love, it’s not the same as appreciation. You can enjoy that perfect blend of hibiscus and green tea while also knowing that cup will soon be empty. Maybe you even know you’ll never find that blend again: it was a one-time acquisition. It’s the fleeting and impermanent nature of everything that makes it all the more precious. Of course, non-clinging is more challenging when we’re dealing with the loss or change of something much more meaningful than tea. But the principle still applies. When life is challenging or stressful, take a mindful moment to ask if you’re holding too tightly to the things you wish were happening, or the things you appreciate. Again, without judging or chastising yourself, simply be aware: Ah, there I go. I’m grasping at the way things used to be, or the way I wish they would be. You can observe and accept your emotional responses without letting them pick you up and run away with you. Just name your experience. It’s okay. Like everything else in life, this experience is temporary.

Non-aversion. This is the flip-side of clinging to what we want. When life gets difficult, it’s natural to meet it with resistance or resentment. The Buddha taught us that our suffering comes from our responses to life’s events rather than from those events themselves. We relieve our suffering by greeting our difficulties with compassion, by letting them be what they will be. The Buddha doesn’t hold a monopoly on this wisdom: think of phrases from other traditions, like “Let go and let God,” or “Insha Allah” (literally: “If God wills it.”) In my recovery community, we all navigated profound grief together when a leader of our weekly meditation groups very suddenly died. He was a young man, a father, healthy, accomplished, working on a master’s degree. Together, we could offer each other reassurance and acceptance. This is grief. Of course it’s painful. Of course this feels unfair. 

If your personal or family history involves self-medicating out of these difficult feelings, this is a new and life-saving skill to develop. I remember when a family member had recently died and relatives sank into their booze and pot and other escapes, all trying to numb their feelings. Since it was all I’d ever known, I responded the same way, until I heard myself saying, “Of course this is hard. Losing someone is painful. You will feel pain and grief and loss. That is normal.” It was a brief glimmer of insight that I wouldn’t truly embrace for many years to come, but I’ll never forget that even in my fog of dysfunction and unskillful coping, I knew there was a wiser and more skillful way of managing.

I’ll be blogging my way through this month of August and all the changes, the goodbyes, the steep learning curves, the shift in my personal and professional identity. Just today, I found myself on the receiving end of some pointed criticism from a colleague. It was a very difficult conversation – one that could have left emotional scars on either of us or on our relationship. The non-mindful version of me immediately put up my defenses. The mindful version of me remembered to drop INN. Hello, defensiveness; you feel like a knot in my gut. And there you are, snarkiness; you’re formulating your come-back before you hear what she has to say. All normal. All natural. All okay. But!

I was able to sit with the discomfort, the sting of fielding criticism, the harshness of feeling misrepresented or misunderstood. And in the end, I was able to simply watch those feelings without acting on them. I had compassion for what I was experiencing. And I had compassion for what my colleague was saying. I thought about how hard it is to confront someone with a complaint like that, how risky it feels when you don’t know how the other person will respond. And before I knew it, we had come out of it unscathed. We had a better understanding of each other, our intentions, our sensitivities.

Be mindful. Inhabit your body. Practice non-clinging and non-aversion. And drink some nice tea. This will all be better soon.

Roadmap to a Relapse

Robin Williams Madness

My feeds are sprinkled with Robin Williams tributes. He would have turned 65 this week, and judging by the chosen quotations in his many tributes, this is his most enduring message: “You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”

It’s fitting that we remember his little spark of madness, since he’s the reason we all owned rainbow suspenders and thought “Nano-Nano” was a stupidly hilarious punchline for nearly anything. But maybe this quotation endures for other reasons too. After all, it might have been his own little spark of madness that metastasized into the thoughts that murdered him by his own hand. But perhaps it endures for the simple fact that we all sometimes feel singed by our own sparks of madness, and framing them as precious incendiary gifts is immensely comforting.

So, how are your cherished sparkles of crazy today?

I’ll tell you how mine are. They’re dancing like fireflies in the summer sky, nimble and uncontainable.  I had them captured in Mason jars for a bit. They were glowy and almost cute, as if I could post selfies on Facebook with my crazies’ cherubic brightness buzzing behind me, the way I post pictures of my dogs sleeping in comical poses. “Life is good, all. My dogs are snoring on a pile of my bed pillows and my batshit is all closed up in a jar with a ribbon on top. So, so pretty.”

Not to make light of crazy, because its spectrum ranges from quirky to criminal, but let’s talk about the relatively benign portion of that bell curve. We all know, or at least suspect, that our efforts to chase happiness and cling to normalcy make us feel crazy. If your gray matter contains even the average number of colorful sparks, they will forever conspire to steer you off the bucolic road into the wild woods, and then back to center, and then off again. But somehow we convince ourselves that all of those turns in the road represent some pathology, or some failure of character. That’s where we get into trouble.

I recently read a dour interpretation of Buddhist thought asserting that you’re meant to suffer.  That’s true, of course. After all, no being navigates life without suffering. Our challenge is to simply accept and observe all of our states, like the passing scenery out a train window, without judgment. If we try to exert control, if we think we’re called to create a constant state of happiness – or even believe we should be capable of it – we’re fools.

I’ve been that fool lately, not just because I’m as prone as anyone to pathologize my own sparks, but because other people’s sparks insist on ramming into the side of my cozy little Mason jar. And how dare they? Don’t I have enough to do just keeping my own little fireflies in check? I found my equilibrium here, and zap, zap, zap.

I got a text from a close relative with the news that she just had a heart attack, although she reports that a series of medical tests confirm there’s zero damage to her heart. Which – and I’m no doctor – I think by definition rules out an actual heart attack.* Were I a normal person, I’d feel only sympathy and concern, but this particular heart attack sounds like her others, plus her several strokes, two rounds of nondescript cancer, MS, fibromyalgia, childhood polio, and a recurring case of “blood clots in the rectum,” all of which didn’t actually happen in any medical sense. They only happened inside her little firefly farm. Zap, zap, zap. So instead of sympathy and concern I feel irritation. I feel manipulated, played. What kind of terrible person am I? Zap, zap, zap.

Getting ready for construction to begin on our master bedroom addition, I rushed through a last-minute door installation, mis-aimed the nail gun, and embedded a nail, curved through the bone like a fishing hook, into my index finger. My husband’s cognitive process turns to TV static in an emergency. He can’t remember the way to the hospital, traffic is bad, my finger hurts like a mutha. I used every muscle in my body to muzzle the snark. I walked the last block to the ER to spare me watching him find parking while his brain frizzed. I silently chided myself, finger held high, trying to speed-walk but not run: So now I’m someone who responds to pain by poking everyone else with angry, impatient barbs? Shove those fireflies back into the jar and be lighthearted during the three-hour ER visit, you jerk. Zap, zap, zap.

Just a few days into construction everything stopped because the guy who will install our heat ducting is out at sea for a second week of catching and selling tuna. I’m stressed over the unscheduled stoppage so he can kill members of a drastically declining species instead of doing his job.  Move the electrician and plumber around, force the carpenters to take a two-day break, but swallow down the fireflies and say nothing, you militant vegan freak. Zap, zap, zap.

During my flurry of rescheduling with all the subs, a friend sends an ominous email with no subject line. “Please call me asap.” I take the bait, only to hear she has extra garden produce to share. Oh, yeah, she knows the email sounded alarming, hee-hee. On a troubled and hungry planet, I’m the monster who’s inconvenienced by free arugula and green beans. Swallow those fireflies, you ungrateful First World brat. Zap, zap, zap.

I’m still rearranging the construction schedule when another relative sends two text messages, one Facebook message and a voicemail within five minutes. She has an emergency. I need to call her NOW. It’s all about a her tiny dog’s behavior problems and a dog-walker who quit because of them, about which I can do NOTHING because I’m hundreds of miles away. Zap, zap, zap. It’s one of the few times I let the fireflies out of the jar instead of swallowing them down. I hang up the phone knowing I was too hard on her. I suck. Zap, zap, zap.

That evening I’m planning the next day’s logistics with my husband: I’ll work a full schedule and oversee the builders and meet a City worker for a plumbing inspection at 3:00. I’ll get home in time to meet the inspector at 3:00, I say. At which point my glazed and inattentive husband asks what time the inspection will be. Zap, zap, zap.

I was already wound like a tight spring, along with everyone of conscience in the world right now. Bombs are falling, snipers are shooting, cops are killing civilians, civilians are killing cops, refugees are fleeing, and thousands of Americans wearing red and blue sequins and yearning for the good ol’ pre-civil-rights era spent the week cheering an orange-hued misogynist racist in his bid to be the leader of the free world. Zap and Zap and Zap Zap.

So I doused the zaps. In whiskey. The fireflies floated happily into their jar and lulled off to sleep. Nighty-night.

The fireflies awake in the morning, of course. They can’t spend forever in a calming whiskey wash. Or maybe they could, but the whiskey would make a far bigger mess of me than my sparks would ever dream.

Here’s where I failed to practice mindfulness. To release judgment – of myself and others. To know that everything is temporary, including the construction project and the political convention and a really, really, really bad week. Through this march to relapse, I didn’t once just stop and plant my feet on the floor and take a deep breath. I didn’t once say to myself, “Wow. I’m anxious. People are really pushing my buttons right now. I’m being hard on myself because people are irritating me.”

My mistake was in trying to shove down the fireflies, and when that failed, trying to drown them. But the true answer is to not pathologize the sparks to the point that I want to silence them. And to remember that without our madness twinkling through the darkness, we’d be damned boring. I’d have nothing to write. I’d have less arugula.


*Merriam Webster. “Full Definition of heart attack: an acute episode of heart disease marked by the death or damage of heart muscle due to insufficient blood supply to the heart usually as a result of a coronary thrombosis or a coronary occlusion and that is characterized especially by chest pain —called also myocardial infarction.”






Vegan Mojito Meringues (Aquafaba)

20160527_181525Oh, the possibilities. Have you heard about the new vegan cooking phenomenon that’s taking even the mainstream cooking world by storm?

It’s light, low-calorie, gluten free, vegan, and since you make it from stuff that you normally pour down the drain, it’s FREE!

The funny name aqua/faba (water/bean) tells its whole story. It’s the liquid from garbanzo beans. And when it’s whipped it forms a stiff, white, airy meringue that’s indistinguishable from the stuff made with egg whites.

(And why not egg whites? Oh, so many reasons.)

So, we all know vegan cooking is going mainstream now, but when the likes of the New York Times and Cooks Illustrated are sharing aquafaba recipes with their readers, you know it’s officially a thing.

I had to try it, of course. So I first dove into the NYT recipe for aquafaba meringues.

I’m hooked. These are light as air, slightly crispy, lightly sweet, and only about 25 calories each.

Working with aquafaba is just like I remember egg-white meringue: it requires patience because it needs a solid 15 minutes of whisking to form stiff peaks. It also requires some flexibility on your part, because it’s sensitive to changes in humidity. I tried these on a rainy day and my dogs were happy with the little meringue blobs, but I was disappointed.

aquafaba blobs

I’m already scheming up holiday versions of these wonderful little meringue nibbles: peppermint flavoring and sprinkles of crushed candy cane, chocolate extract and cocoa powder, mint and lime. And the piece de resistance: I’ll start working on making an aquafaba version of my grandmother’s lemon meringue pie. That particular pie is like kryptonite to my dad, and I haven’t made it in at least five years because I get hung up on the egg thing.


But first: my mojito meringues. It marries my new aquafaba obsession with my hobby of inventing fall-over-delicious virgin cocktails. And this is super simple, although you’ll want to make your minted sugar a day ahead of time.

Open a can of garbanzo beans and drain off the liquid. It’s not very much (maybe 1/2 to 3/4 cup) but fear not.

Whip it. My stand mixer doesn’t have a whisk attachment, so I use the hand mixer. Give it the highest speed your gadget has, and give it a good 15 minutes.

These are soft peaks: almost there. The peaks need to be pointy for this to really work.

aquafaba soft peak


Soft peaks won’t work at all for this, so keep going until you can make little peaks that stay standing. Like this.

aquafaba stiff peaks

Then add 2/3 cup sugar, a little at a time, while you beat another 5 minutes. For the mojito version, I let my sugar sit for a couple of days with some bruised mint sprigs* so it was infused with mint flavor. Once whipped with the sugar, the aquafaba gets shiny. Now you’re ready to add flavoring.

I added the zest and juice from one small lime, then whisked some more.

aquafaba with lime

Can you just about smell that lime? I wish I was posting this in the Scenternet.

Drop your meringue onto baking sheets lined with parchment paper.

aquafaba on paper

Depending on the size of your meringues (larger ones take longer in the oven) you’ll bake them about 90 minutes at 250 degrees. (At that temperature, you’re really drying them as much as baking, so you just look for them to be dry, firm, and light.)

Let them cool. These are light, crispy, minty, and like nothing else you’ve ever had. Enjoy!

aquafaba finished


*To bruise mint leaves like a pro bartender (no, don’t ask me how many times I’ve seen this in person) you set the mint sprig on your open palm, then clap your hands together once or twice. It releases the oils. Just bury the bruised sprigs in your sugar and let it sit.