When I was eight years old, I fell off of a jungle gym backwards. I was resting against a rope, at the top of a ten-foot gangplank, and it suddenly gave way. I dropped to the ground, like a rag doll, and I hit the back of my head on the concrete below. After the initial shock of impact, I caught my breath, and I stood up in a daze. There was no one around. I was completely alone. I stumbled four or five feet forward and then I dropped to the ground.
I was surrounded by a warm, all encompassing bright, white light. I was the light and the light was me. I had no body. I was fully immersed in a gentle and loving embrace and filled with an overwhelming sense of peace and joy. It felt like returning home. I was exactly where I needed to be; and I never wanted to leave. There was no sense of “I”, or a life before, just an indescribable happiness. After a period of time, an awareness grew that I could not stay, and I had to go back. I was then jolted into my body. Everything went black and I was filled with pain. I woke up on the ground and I crawled towards the house for help. It took many years for me to realize that I had not fainted that day. I had experienced a brush with death.
As described in this Scientific American article, near-death experiences, or NDEs, are triggered during singular life-threatening episodes when the body is injured by blunt trauma, a heart attack, asphyxia or shock. Approximately one in ten patients with cardiac arrest in a hospital setting undergoes such an episode. Thousands of survivors of these harrowing touch-and-go situations report of leaving their bodies, and experiencing a realm beyond everyday existence, unconstrained by the usual boundaries of space and time.
NDEs share broad commonalities: becoming pain-free; seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel and other visual phenomena; detaching from one’s body and floating above it; or even flying off into space (out-of-body experiences). They might include meeting loved ones, living or dead, or spiritual beings. A jarring disconnect separates the massive trauma to the body and the peacefulness and feeling of oneness with the universe.
Death requires irreversible loss of brain function. When the brain is starved of blood flow and oxygen, the patient faints in a fraction of a minute and the electroencephalogram, or EEG, becomes isoelectric, or flat. This implies that large-scale, spatially distributed electrical activity within the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, has broken down. Like a town that loses power one neighbourhood at a time, local regions of the brain go offline, one after another.
Given these power outages, this experience produces the rather strange and idiosyncratic stories that make up the majority of NDE reports. To the person undergoing it, the NDE is as real as anything the mind produces during normal waking. When the entire brain has shut down because of complete power loss, the mind is extinguished, along with consciousness. When oxygen and blood flow are restored, and the brain boots up, the narrative flow of experience resumes.
Until this point in my life. I have not shared my NDE story with many people; and from those I have told to date, I have generally received one of two responses, open and curious or utterly dismissive. In the end, I share my experience in the hope that it will be of service to others. I know what took place that day and it was real. I can clearly remember it now, even thirty-seven years later. It is beyond logical explanation. It was an expansive, spiritual encounter: not a simple trick of a traumatized brain. Having recently lost a friend to cancer, and facing the imminent death of two family members, this conviction provides me with a lot of comfort. “Life” continues on after a physical death occurs.
I recently watched the Surviving Death series on Netflix. The first episode explores NDEs and I think that they did an excellent job investigating the concept. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend that you check it out.
My thoughtful friend Elise gifted me a five-day, self-led virtual retreat for Christmas. It is offered by Jennifer Doheney of Welloga. I am already on day three of the course and I am enjoying it a lot. It includes a range of high quality videos and educational handouts on topics such as meditation, healthy cooking, mindfulness and yoga. Each day of the retreat is broken into small learning units, with a total time commitment of approximately 1.5 hrs, so it is very manageable.
As many of us are stuck inside at the moment, due to the pandemic, it is a great opportunity to do something nourishing for yourself. The retreat is also currently on sale, so it is financially accessible. Jennifer is offering it a very affordable price of $37 (USD). Please note: I am not affiliated with Welloga or receiving any financial benefit from this post. I am just loving the experience and I want to share it with you, as I think it is a valuable resource. I hope that you enjoy it!
I practice and study Buddhist Insight (Vipassana) meditation with a small local group of practitioners once a week. I discovered this form of Buddhism when my daughter was three years old and it has become an important anchor in my life. Vipassana can be translated as “insight,” a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens. It is a direct and gradual cultivation of mindfulness or awareness.
Through the process of mindfulness, you slowly becomes aware of what exists below the ego image. Vipassana is a form of mental training that teaches you to experience the world in an entirely new way. It is a process of self-discovery, an investigation in which you observe your own experiences, while participating in them as they occur.
Most of the members of my sangha are seasoned meditators, who have developed a committed and consistent daily practice over many years: sitting for lengthy periods of time, several times a day. They are all older than me, and they are either retired, single, or have grown children, so they are at a different stage and place in their lives. As an independent parent, working full-time, and caring for my aging parents, it can be challenging to fit in a formal sitting period once a day, let alone multiple times. It is easy to beat myself up about it and feel like a failure; or it is an invitation to recognize that this is the place I am at currently in my life. Mindfulness still provides me with refuge. It just shows up in a different form.
At the moment, I am allowed to visit my mom once a week in her assisted living facility. In addition her late stage Alzheimer’s Disease, we are also facing COVID-19 restrictions, so the visiting conditions are very limited. Our allotted half an hour is spent together in a small, boardroom with a large wooden table at its centre. I wear a surgical mask and I cannot hug my mom. We are allowed to hold hands, and as she needs to constantly move her body, we walk in circles around the perimeter of the table. My mom has lost her ability to use language. She talks with a nervous, non-stop energy, and the words tumbling out her mouth are mostly unrecognizable. We cannot carry on a conversation. She stoops and she cannot look me in the eyes. I listen and nod along to her monologue. I rub her back and I provide her with comforting responses and assurances when I think she needs them.
What I am noticing about our time together is that we are firmly rooted in the moment. There is no ability to escape and wander away from where we are with small talk or distractions. We are in this moment together, and then the next one, and the next, until the time in our proverbial hourglass elapses. It is a walking meditation, one which demands that I pay attention to my surroundings, and the subtle changes in my mother’s tone and demeanour. I notice the rhythm of my own breath and the pattern of our steps. We are learning relate to relate to one another in a new and unfamiliar way. There are no recognizable protocols. We make it up as we go. All that is constant is the love that connects us together.
As the parent of a young adolescent, I bear witness on a daily basis to the rapid physical and emotional changes taking place within my child. She is often flailing in deep waters of intense emotions and it is hard not to get pulled under with her. My daughter knows just what to say to evoke a response from me; she is smart and she never misses her target. It is easy to get caught up in an automatic response: a knee-jerk reaction, where I lose my temper and perspective, along with her. It is in these moments that I am being provided with an invitation to take a step back and pause for just a beat: to bear witness to the intense triggering that is occurring. To feel the anger and agitation that arises from deep inside and let it wash over me. To choose not to respond and instead take a moment to breathe in deeply and seek ways regulate my own body. Once I find my centre, I can then try to locate my child, and pull her into shore. This is my practice in motion.
During a busy day, it is easy to feel like there is no time for meditation, and so rather than doing a little bit, I do nothing. One of the members of my group, who used to be an emergency room nurse, provided me with some good advice, which has helped me to find a path forward. She shared that when she was working full-time she would fit in her daily practice in five minute increments. Much like getting up from your desk and stretching, or taking a short walk, a five-minute meditation is a mental break which can be easily fit in almost anywhere. I do not need a cushion or a quiet space: I only need awareness, the ability to scan my body, and my breath. This can be done while driving, walking or washing dishes. It can be achieved through generating thoughts of love and gratitude. These moments of conscious reflection are like mini-calisthenics for the brain: every little one helps to make it stronger and more receptive. Slowly but surely my capacity for holding this mental space increases over time.
Although I still enjoy the idea of going on a ten-day silent meditation retreat, or finding a way to cultivate a solid daily practice, I also accept that this is where I am in my life at the moment. It is messy and unpredictable and I need to be flexible and adaptive in my approach. Mindfulness provides value in all of its many forms and holding on to a set idea of what it needs to look like, in order to be successful, is unhelpful. Providing myself with love and acceptance is part of my work, because without the ability to extend this to myself, I will not be able to offer it to others.
Last weekend, my daughter and I woke up to a grey and rainy Saturday. We lounged around in our pajamas, reading books for most of the morning. As we neared lunch time, my child was struck by the idea to build a fort in the living room. We pulled out every blanket and pillow in the house, constructing a cosy rabbit warren of cushions and comfort. We drank tea under the cover of darkness, faces lit by the camping light.
After enjoying our new ‘home’ together, we pulled on some clothes and took our dog out into the wind and rain for a blustery walk on the beach. Returning home to warm mugs of hot chocolate, I prepared dinner, and we watched “The Sound of Music” on tv trays, tucked up on the couch. We pulled out the sleeping bags and spent the night sleeping in the fort.
This day was the first in a long time that I allowed myself to be completely and fully at ease with doing ‘nothing’ on the weekend; my focus was simply on allowing myself to steep in the enjoyment of the moment and be fully present with my loved one. I let my child lead the way. This is her natural habitat. I simply had to follow.
As a busy, independent parent, I normally have a long list of chores and activities to attend to on the weekend; I rush around in a desperate attempt to get it all done before I start back to work again on Monday. It has recently started to dawn on me that the work is never really done and there is very little satisfaction in spending my precious free time ticking things off a list. I need to prioritize rest and play as much as duty.
While it is essential to tend to the immediate and pressing needs of your family, there is a real risk of missing out on the life happening around you, if you push yourself too far in the pursuit of perfection. Endless doing and busyness is more often driven by anxiety, rather than necessity.
There is boundless joy to be found in exploring opportunities to rest and play: and no better teacher than a child to demonstrate how to do this well. Before every weekend task I undertake, I am now trying to ask myself, “Is this really necessary? Can I let this go for now?” Although I cannot always dedicate a whole day to rest, I can purposefully choose to build in pockets of time. It is a dance to find ways to let things go while also achieving what needs to be done to keep my family running; but I am finding it to be well worth the effort.
I have been at home with my daughter for four weeks now due to COVID-19. School is cancelled for the foreseeable future and I am working remotely. It is a very strange existence: one in which human contact is limited to the phone and internet. There is almost a complete lack of physical interaction with the outside world: except when I venture to the grocery store once a week. Even that could be ending soon, as some local stores are starting to limit shopping to online orders and delivery.
My ten year old child has not seen her friends for over a month. She is celebrating her birthday on Monday with a Zoom party. I cannot even imagine what this strange reality is like for her. Children thrive on play, exploration and imagination. As she does not currently have access to her peers, I am attempting to fill the void. We are enjoying daily games of hide and seek and impromptu dance parties.
That being said, I am struggling with trying to work full time and also support my child’s learning and emotional needs. It is hard for her to understand why she needs to spend so much time on her own, with self-directed activities, and we have been butting heads more than usual. It is easy to fall into a familiar pattern of feeling like a failure but I have been trying to remember to be realistic and kind. There is no right way to get through the current situation. I just need to do my best and apologize when I lose my temper.
As we navigate forward together in this “new normal”, I am taking note of certain things:
ASlowing of Time: In our house, we have shifted from living a busy, frantic schedule, to adopting a slow and even daily rhythm. There is no more commute or rushing to activities. There is just pockets of time unfolding within the small space of our home. I am finding it easier to transition between work and home activities with much less effort than usual.
Heightened Awareness and Gratitude: I have a deeper understanding of the contribution and sacrifice that our front line workers make every day. Not only the amazing health care and emergency services professionals but the grocery store clerks, garbage collectors, delivery truck drivers and mail carriers. Each of them is integral to the success and functioning of our society, both during this crisis, and every other day. Every night, when we show up at 7pm to applaud and make noise across the province, I do it for all of them.
Global Interconnectivity: There is nothing that we have in our society that is not reliant upon contributions from other parts of the world. From the medicine in our pharmacies, to our food supply, and manufactured products, we need each other. No country is an island. We are a global community.
Importance of Movement: Taking the time to move my body each morning is essential for my mental and physical well being, especially right now. It clears my mind and provides me with fuel for the day ahead. There are a number of free resources and trials available online that you can do at home. Some of the ones that I am enjoying include: Beach Body and Do Yoga With Me. My favourite trainer is Autumn Calabrese and yoga teacher is Fiji McAlpine.
Time in Nature: Despite COVID-19, spring continues to unfold around us. Crocuses, tulips and daffodils are pushing their bright heads through the ground. Delicate pink buds are appearing on the trees. Hummingbirds are trilling their mating calls to one another. Life is teeming. It is now warm enough to return to the garden and put my hands in the soil. I am enjoying the gift of the outdoors and feeling the sun on my face.
Time with Loved Ones: Although I miss seeing my friends and family in person, I have noticed an increase in connectivity since the crisis started. I have been using FaceTime and Zoom to call people that I have not talked to in months. We host Friday and Saturday night group gatherings. We make impromptu calls. With more time at home, and a lack of distractions, it is bringing people together more than ever. There is a renewed appreciation for those we love and a desire to express it.
Kindness and Love: Despite all of the frightening things that are happening right now, there are so many stories of hope and love and resilience. From the stories of postal workers in Ireland volunteering to check in on the elderly, to the hundreds of thousands of retired health care workers returning to work to help, and the citizens of Italy serenading to one another from their balconies: people are showing up for one another. As Mr. Rogers always told his young viewers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Hope for a Different Future: Humans can achieve extraordinary things when they put their mind to it. COVID-19 is shining the spotlight on a very broken global economic system and its vast inequities. The drastic changes that have occurred within the last month demonstrates how quickly it is possible for us to shift gears when we are motivated to do so. Perhaps this is our opportunity to start over. To reimagine what is possible if we were to do things differently going forward. This can be our moment.
I have not been able to bring myself to post onto the blog for a month now. Every time I sit down to write, I have been at a loss for words. All I can think is: “What can I possibly contribute at this moment?” A virus threatens the health and security of millions of people across the globe. Many of us are quarantined at home and physically separated from one another, with no end in sight. The world is in turmoil. Why does my one little voice matter?
As I have struggled with these doubts, readers continue to visit my site, despite there being a lack of new content. I am humbled to imagine a person sitting in Australia, India, Russia and Israel taking the time to read my words; and it reminds me that love, community and connection are the lights that will guide us through this this dark time. It gives me the courage to show up again on the page. I want you to know that I am here for you. You are not alone.
As a naturally anxious person, the last few weeks have been difficult. The human brain is wired to project itself into the future; it prefers to imagine the worst case scenario, and anticipate what is coming, rather than sit with the discomfort of uncertainty. The truth is that I do not know what will happen next or when this current situation will end. I do not know what life will look like on the other side. All I know for sure is what I am experiencing in this very moment; and it is hard.
The child-like part of myself desperately wishes for things to be “fixed” and to go “back to normal”. The wise part knows that life is complex and messy: not just now, but always. It is important for me to meet life on its own terms. I must make space for the difficult and uncomfortable emotions that I feel about our new reality: grief, sadness, fear and anger. They are all valid and true. They each need the opportunity to show up and to be heard.
In her recent podcast, Brené Brown speaks to the damage caused by comparative suffering in a catastrophic situation such as COVID-19. This is the belief that you are not allowed to feel upset and afraid, when many others face much worse: the front line workers; marginalized and vulnerable populations; countries with no infrastructure. The reality is that pushing your own emotions away only results in guilt and shame. Shame is the opposite of empathy. It is constricted, self-focused and finite, whereas empathy is boundless. You can hold emphatic space for your own difficult emotions, as well as for the suffering of others; and it is important to create space for both. This provides us with the strength that we require to make it through a time of crisis: both as an individual and as a part of the collective.
Right now, my daily work is to bring my mind back into the present moment. The wonderful writer, Liz Gilbert, recently shared a technique that she uses to ground herself, and I am finding it to be very helpful. It is called Five, Four, Three, Two, One. First, you look around and identify five things that you can physically see in your immediate surroundings (e.g. green grass, street lamp, red shoes, mail box, flower pot). Then move onto identifying four things that you can hear (e.g. garbage truck, robin chirping, person talking on their phone, wind in the trees). Again, it can be even the smallest thing, but it needs to be something happening in the here and now. Then move onto naming three things that you can feel (e.g. woollen scarf, cold fingertips, watch). Follow it with two things that you can smell (e.g. fresh cut grass, a daffodil). And lastly, one thing you can taste (e.g. remnants of morning coffee).
In a time of great uncertainty, this simple exercise will help to ground you in your body, as it brings the mind back to the present moment. This is our work right now: to feel; to notice; to show up for ourselves and each other; to keep putting one foot in front of the other; to take it one day at a time. As a wise woman once said to me: “The only way out is through.” I have always held this close to my heart and it has served me well. Take my hand and let’s keep going. We can do hard things together.
As my mother slowly slips away into the unknown abyss of Alzheimer’s disease, I am helpless to stop it. As she walks deeper into the dark and dense forest of her mind, I have to let her go. The entry is barred. I cannot follow her in or bring her back. My role is to bear witness and to nurse my broken heart. To tend to those of us left behind. To be strong. I am familiar with this uncomfortable territory. I have been here before. I long for things to return to how they once were. I yearn for the past.
When I look into her eyes, I do not know where she has gone. There is a glimmer of the woman that I once knew. She smiles in recognition of my face. She kisses my lips with love. But there is a dullness in her gaze and a slowness to her gait. We walk in familiar circles along linoleum lined hallways. She talks about everything and nothing: words crashing together, landing in a tangled pile on the floor.
The fiercely independent woman who once forged her own path in life is now reliant on the help of others to complete the most basic of tasks. A life that was once large and colourful is now contained and beige. I am grateful for the people that help us. They are our community. We lean on one another; but I am sad for a loss that is not yet fully a loss. Her memory is breaking into little crumbs. She is leaving pieces behind her: trying to remember her way home.
I am mourning my mother while she still stands before me. It is a strange and confusing time; and I carry a sadness deep in my heart. It is a weight heavy in my pocket. I try to stay in the moment and appreciate the small things, without looking forward or gazing back, “How are you now?…and now?…and now? What do you need? How can I ease your pain?”
It is hard to allow space for heart break. The discomfort is easy to push against and resist; but it needs to breathe and express itself or it will take up permanent residence inside of the body. This is my work at the moment. Allowing the pain to just be. Feeling it and letting it burn. Knowing that it will eventually pass. Everything is transitory. Remaining grateful for the opportunity to love so deeply in my life that my heart can be broken open, and come back together, time and time again.
As Glennon Doyle summarizes it beautifully in her book Untamed: “…I learned that there is a type of pain in life that I want to feel. It’s the inevitable, excruciating, necessary pain of losing beautiful things: trust, dreams, health, animals, relationships, people. This kind of pain is the price of love, the cost of living a brave, open-hearted life – and I’ll pay for it.”
I was recently talking with a friend. She spoke to the importance of cultivating a loving relationship with yourself before you can enter into a meaningful relationship with another. In other words, your primary relationship is with you. In order for the connection to be healthy and functional, you need to cultivate and nurture this friendship as you would any other: putting time and energy into the relationship each and every day.
Although this is a simple concept, it was a revelation for me. I have generally lived my life focused outwards. Helping others. Listening to others. Assisting others. I spend very little time checking in with me. This approach inevitably leads to burn out. I shift from being a high functioning performer to running on empty, without ever seeing it coming. This is a direct result of not listening to myself or acknowledging my own needs.
As a simple way to establish a connection, it was recommended that I start and end each day by checking in with myself: first thing in the morning and before I go to sleep at night. To place my hands on my heart and my belly and ask the questions, “How are you feeling? What do you need?” To listen and create space for the emotions and answers that come up: even the uncomfortable and difficult ones. To allow them just to be and try to meet them with kindness.
As the connection increases, you can start to take action on what you hear: “I need more rest”, “I need a hug”, “I am feeling lonely”, “I need to move my body more.” Taking action on these micro requests will eventually add up to a cumulative feeling of love and support: an understanding that someone always has your back.
It is easy to prioritize everyone and everything before yourself. What I am learning is that caring for yourself is essential to being able to love and care for others. The key is to make a regular practice of it and to commit to cultivating this relationship, as you would with any one else.
I have been reading a lot of non-fiction over the past year. I wrote an article on the blog a few months ago sharing financial resources that I enjoyed; and my most recent learning focus has been on relationships. As I explore the world of dating, I am particularly interested in expanding my knowledge of how to cultivate a strong and lasting connection; and I have been delving into all kinds of books that cover this vast topic.
Although I have already had a successful long-term relationship (21 years), it was not a healthy one towards the end. As I learn more from experts in the field, I can now identify many of the things that pulled us down, and I see an opportunity to do it better the next time around. A relationship is a living organism; it is something that requires daily care and tending, like a delicate plant. Love is not a destination. It is a way of being.
On that note, I have picked a few of my favourite books to share with you. They vary in topic and approach: from exploring early dating to maintaining an established relationship. They each offer a valuable perspective on the complex journey of being in relation with another human being. I can highly recommend them all.
Wired for Dating by Stan Tatkin
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is the author of Wired for Love and Your Brain on Love, and coauthor of Love and War in Intimate Relationships. He has a clinical practice in Southern California, teaches at Kaiser Permanente, and is assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In his book, Wired for Dating, Tatkin uses neuroscience and attachment theory to understand dating couples. He categorizes readers into one of three attachment types: islands, whose predominant approach is “I can do it myself”; waves, with a more psychologically dependent nature; and anchors, with a balanced, stable approach. He then counsels readers on how to identify and interact with each of these personality groups while exploring how childhood influences shape one’s psyche.
Tatkin provides practical tools for navigating the emotional landscape of early dating, so your choices are based on fact not fiction. These include: developing “sherlocking” skills so you can really get to know your partner; asking your friends and family to provide honest and regular feedback; and learning how to foster a securely functioning relationship.
Secrets of aPassionate Marriage by David Schnarch, PhD
Dr. David Snarch is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist. He directs the Marriage and Family Health Centre in Evergreen, Colorado. Secrets of a Passionate Marriage is structured around three main sections: the Basics; the Tools for Connection; and Observations on the Process.
This is not a “how-to” book on creating a passionate marriage. Rather, it is an insightful book which gives couples a guide to sexual fulfillment and intimacy via emotional maturation. The first section lays the groundwork for the book and acquaints the reader with an understanding of Schnarch’s theoretical model of sexual and emotional development. The second section, Tools for Connection, offers the reader specific examples of where and how to begin in making changes in your life and relationship. And in the final section, Observations on the Process, he reflects upon his own experiences as a clinical counselor and a married man.
Throughout the book, he provides thoughtful insights by:
Describing the process of differentiation in intimate relationships;
Discussing why emotional gridlock is a critical and necessary phase for a healthy relationship;
Recommending steps to achieving more passionate sex and a more intimate relationship;
Explaining how to “self-soothe” your anxieties and open to the full range of human eroticism;
Interpreting the psychology of sex.
The Mastery of Love by don Miguel Ruiz
don Miguel Ruiz is a renowned spiritual teacher and internationally bestselling author of the Toltec Wisdom Series, including The Four Agreements, The Mastery of Love, The Voice of Knowledge, The Four Agreements Companion Book, The Circle of Fire, and The Fifth Agreement. The Toltec Wisdom books have sold over 12 million copies, and have been published in 46 languages worldwide.
In The Mastery of Love, don Miguel Ruiz illuminates the fear-based beliefs and assumptions that undermine love and lead to suffering and drama in our relationships. Using insightful stories to bring his message to life, Ruiz shows us how to heal our emotional wounds, recover the freedom and joy that are our birthright, and restore the spirit of playfulness that is vital to loving relationships. The Mastery of Love includes information on:
• Why “domestication” and the “image of perfection” lead to self-rejection; • The war of control that slowly destroys most relationships; • Why we hunt for love in others, and how to capture the love inside us; • How to finally accept and forgive ourselves and others.
“Happiness can only come from inside of you and is the result of your love. When you are aware that no one else can make you happy, and that happiness is the result of your love, this becomes the greatest mastery of the Toltec: the Mastery of Love.” ~ don Miguel Ruiz
Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman, PhD
World-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has conducted 40 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. His work on marriage and parenting has earned him numerous major awards. Dr. Gottman was named one of the Top 10 Most Influential Therapists of the past quarter-century by the Psychotherapy Networker. He is the author or co-author of over 200 published academic articles and more than 40 books.
The Seven Principles
Gottman’s principles are research-based. He and his colleagues have studied hundreds of couples (including newlyweds and long-term couples); interviewed couples and videotaped their interactions; even measured their stress levels by checking their heart rate, sweat flow, blood pressure and immune function; and followed couples annually to see how their relationships have fared.
Enhance Your Love Maps: Gottman encourages couples to get to know each other well. Asking questions is a way to meaningfully learn about your partner and to stay connected as you grow and change.
Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration: Gottman contends that fondness and admiration are two of the most important elements in a satisfying and long-term relationship. By focusing on each other’s positive traits, you will build respect for one another, and it is easier to move past the more challenging aspects.
Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away: According to Gottman, “[Real-life romance] is kept alive each time you let your spouse know he or she is valued during the grind of everyday life.” This principle teaches that little things add up. Couples that turn toward each other have more in their emotional bank account. This account distinguishes happy marriages from miserable ones. Happy couples have more goodwill and positivity stored in their bank accounts: so when rough times hit, their emotional savings cushions them against conflict and stress.
Let Your Partner Influence You: Happy couples work as a team. They consider each other’s perspective and feelings. They make decisions together and search out common ground. Letting your partner influence you is not about having one person hold the reins; it is about honouring and respecting each other’s role in the relationship.
Solve Your Solvable Problems: Gottman says that there are two types of marital problems: easily resolved conflicts and perpetual, gridlocked issues. It is important for couples to determine which ones are which. Telling the difference can sometimes be tricky: “One way to identify solvable problems is that they seem less painful, gut-wrenching, or intense than perpetual, gridlocked ones.” Solvable problems are situational and there is no underlying, long-term issue.
Overcome Gridlock: While some conflict can be solved through simple adjustments, many disagreements are related more to more fundamental differences. Finding a way to respectfully work through these more complex and difficult issues is the key to a healthy marriage.
Create Shared Meaning: Building shared meaning together sustains the family culture; this is where traditions, rituals and rites of passage are found. There is a spiritual element underlying this principle; and it is the one that binds a family together.
In my journey towards inner healing, I have been learning from my friend and mentor Tamara about Dr. Richard Schwartz’s theory of the Internal Family System (outlined above). He believes that each person’s internal system is made up of a number of different roles, with only the core self reflecting our true inner essence. Although one can strongly identify with the other roles (manager, firefighter, exile), these are essentially learned responses or coping mechanisms, rather than a true reflection of self.
It is important to start to recognize which part of the self is coming forward and engaging at any one time. This provides the opportunity to observe, listen and tend to its needs rather than simply moving into automated response mode. You can identify when you are acting from your differentiated, core self if your behaviour meets the eight c’s: calm; curious; compassionate; connected; confident; creative; courageous; and clear.
In order to reconnect with the core, it is essential to start to cultivate awareness through the body. This is done through the act of nurturing a loving connection with yourself on a daily basis. You can achieve this by intentionally taking time to pause throughout the day, sit and feel the emotions that are coming up, without judgement or resistance. This helps you to start recognizing when care and attention is required, and offer it to yourself, before slipping into an automated pattern of habitual response.
Connected to this practice is the theory of healing the inner child. Many of the behaviours that manifest for the adult self are reflective of unresolved issues from childhood. Reparenting is the act of giving yourself what you did not receive when you were young. This concept is captured well in these short videos by the Holistic Psychologist:
In order to offer yourself the deep care and nurturing you require on a daily basis, it is helpful to adopt the four T’s: time; touch; tone; and tenderness.
Time: Cultivate your relationship with yourself by making time to regularly check in. A good opportunity to do this is when you first wake up in the morning and when you are falling asleep at night.
Touch: Place your hands on your body: heart and belly. This helps to establish a point of contact; and it bring your attention to the physical and energetic sensations that you are experiencing.
Tone: Become mindful of your self-talk. How are you speaking to yourself? Try to adopt a gentle, soothing tone: think of how you would address a child or a close friend.
Tenderness: Offer loving kindness to yourself, as you would any other. Tend to your needs. Recognize that when you are coming from a place of strength and wholeness, there is so much more that you can give to others.
You can start by exploring this menu of simple but powerful tactics outlined by the Holistic Psychologist. She recommends cultivating a daily practice of setting boundaries, building emotional awareness, offering self-care and exploring what give you joy.
With aging parents, the responsibility for care often falls upon one child; and it is usually the one who lives close by. In the case of my family, it is me. My siblings live away in other cities, some far and some near; I am the only one who lives in our home town. As the situation amplifies on the ground, I have been struggling with feelings of disappointment and frustration when help does not show up in a way that I hoped or expected.
It is interesting how the brain desperately wants to categorize things into right and wrong, black and white. In reality, there is often no clear right or wrong. There is just the choice that you make with its reverberations; and the choice that the other person makes, with its own separate impacts.
In a chaotic and stressful situation, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to control the uncontrollable. To date, I have been trying to micro-manage the choices of my siblings, by asking for specific assistance. When it did not show up in that form, I have struggled. It recently dawned upon me that I need to get out of their lane and back into my own. My focus needs to be on tending to my own relationship with my parents and leaving my sisters them to do the same. How do I want to show up for this situation? What can I willingly contribute? What can I give from my heart? The rest is none of my business.
As a recovering over-functioner, I have slowly come to the realization that there will be gaps: things will fall through the cracks, or drop, from time to time. It is not on me to hold together all of the pieces. It is for me to hold onto my own pieces and leave the others to tend to their own. This does not mean that I will not continue to be there for my family members. It is just an acknowledgement that I am only responsible for delivering my own part. I cannot do it all and, in reality, no one is asking me to.
“If you feel lost, disappointed, hesitant, or weak, return to yourself, to who you are, here and now and when you get there, you will discover yourself, like a lotus flower in full bloom, even in a muddy pond, beautiful and strong.” ~ Masaru Emoto
This week, I have been paying attention to feelings of expansion and contraction. There are days where I feel open, joyful and a part of an energy greater than myself. I easily connect with other people and I make great progress with projects. I am creative and full of ideas. Everything feels streamlined and fluid. I experience ease and flow.
And then there are days where I feel small, vulnerable and afraid. I second guess every decision that I make. The world around feels large, frightening and menacing. I cannot see solutions. I am stuck in the mud and I cannot move forward.
There is little tangible difference between the two kinds of days in terms of form: I wake up; I go about my business; I return home; I sleep. The cycle of activity is essentially the same. It is the outside situation that changes and my perception along with it.
On the days where I feel expansive, things are going my way. There are little wins or moments to celebrate. I receive praise or acknowledgement. I am facing no obstacles. On the days where I feel contracted, I am reacting to a situation or a person that is unpleasant. There is an issue to be overcome. I am grappling with a challenge or inner battle. The common thread is that the outside factor controls the inside response.
Equanimity is defined as a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by experience of or exposure to emotions, pain, or other phenomena that may cause others to lose the balance of their mind. It refers to the power of observation and the ability to see without being caught by what you see. When well-developed, such power gives rise to a great sense of peace.
“If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will know complete peace and freedom. Your struggles with the world will have come to an end.” ~ Ajahn Chah
In Buddhism, equanimity is a protection from the “eight worldly winds”: praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. Becoming attached to or excessively impacted by success, praise, fame or pleasure can cause suffering when life changes direction.
There are seven qualities of mind that are recommended to help cultivate a sense of equanimity:
Integrity: When you live and act with integrity, you feel confident about your actions and words, which results in the equanimity of blamelessness.
Faith: If you have confidence in your own abilities, then you are more likely to meet life’s challenges.
A well-developed mind: Much as you can develop physical strength, balance, and stability of the body in a gym, so too can you develop strength, balance and stability of the mind. This is done through practices that cultivate calm, concentration and mindfulness, like meditation.
A sense of well-being: It is easy to overlook the well-being that is easily available in daily life. Taking time to enjoy a cup of tea or time spent with your child can be a training in well-being.
Wisdom: Wisdom is an important factor in learning to have an accepting awareness, to be present for whatever is happening without the mind or heart contracting or resisting. Honest awareness of what makes you imbalanced helps you to learn how to find balance.
Insight: One of the primary insights is the nature of impermanence. In the deepest forms of this insight, it becomes apparent that things change quickly that you cannot hold onto anything: eventually the mind lets go of clinging.
Freedom: This comes as you begin to let go of reactive tendencies.
There is power in knowing that I can break the cycle of expansion and contraction. I can live more intentionally and cultivate an inner peace and equanimity. The first step is to take on the role of observer in my daily life. What is triggering me and causing a reaction, both positive and negative? How can I start to sink beneath the waves, rather than riding on top of them? How can I locate my centre and stay grounded, despite what it taking place around me? These are some of the questions that I will be investigating in the weeks and months ahead.