Ringing in a new decade

As 2019 came to an end, and we welcomed in 2020, it made me to pause and reflect back on the decade coming to an end, as well as look forward to the one about to begin. The main lesson that I learned over the past ten years is that we have very limited control in this life. Don’t get me wrong. There is great value in planning, visualizing and working towards goals. This serves an important purpose. It is essential to be clear and know the direction that you want to move in: to identify your dreams and values. To set a course towards a destination.

The truth of the matter, however, is that despite the most careful planning and preparation, much of life simply happens to us without rhyme or reason; and it is often presents a very difficult and unpleasant reality. All we truly have control over in those moments is the choice on how we respond. The good news is that there is power in this choice. There is dignity in this choice. There is grace in this choice. It may not be what we planned or hoped for but it is where we are at. Rather than fighting what is, there is an opportunity to change and shape it through how you look at it, and how you choose to move forward. I have taken a lot of solace in this over the past decade and I will continue to lean on it in the years lying ahead of me.

Cultivating Intimacy & Connection

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 a Passionate 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.

In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Gottman outlines the principles that build emotional intelligence and a successful relationship:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Winter Solstice

In astronomical terms, the Winter Solstice (20-23 December) is the single moment when the sun reaches its southernmost point in the sky (or its northernmost point if you are in the southern hemisphere). Solstice means ‘sun stands still’, and for three days at this time the sun appears to rise and set in the same southeasterly position on the horizon, before beginning its gradual incline north once more.

It is a spiritual event as much as an astronomical one, calling in the rebirth of the year, as the day on which the Winter Solstice occurs is the shortest of the year, and the night the longest. From now on the sun will gradually arc higher and higher in the sky until it comes to another standstill at the Summer Solstice, on the longest day of the year, when it rises in the northeast.

The Winter Solstice has been of deep spiritual significance since the Neolithic era and was marked by the stone circles and rows, passage tombs and temples left by the first farmers ever to till the rich earth. There are a number of sites aligned to to the rising or setting of the sun in the United Kingdom and Ireland: the ancient monuments at Maeshowe on Orkney, Stonehenge in Wiltshire and Newgrange in County Meath.

Newgrange, also known as Brú na Bóinne (Palace of the Boyne), is a majestic structure dating from 3200 BCE. This circular cairn or passage tomb has an exterior of white quartz and rounded granite boulders, and its impressive entrance stone is famously carved with intricate spiral designs, referring perhaps to the wheel of the seasons or the journey through life, death and rebirth. Its entrance also includes a small roof box through which the first rays of the Winter Solstice sunrise penetrate the deepest recesses of the tomb and illuminate the triple spiral carved on its back chamber.

My daughter and I visiting Newgrange in 2013

In the Celtic calendar, the Winter Solstice is a time of stillness and rebirth, when the wheel of the seasons completes its turning, only to begin again. At this time of year, I like to light candles in the early morning hours and spend some time reflecting. What are the seeds of intention that I wish to plant? What are my hopes, dreams and aspirations? How can I be of service? This is a quiet, inward time. It is a wonderful opportunity to slow down, express gratitude, and cultivate focus for the year ahead.

*Passages quoted from The Magical Year by Danu Forest.

The Talking Stone

As my daughter enters adolescence, emotions and hormones are starting to run high in our house. There are tears and slammed doors, raised voices and words thrown. But at the very heart of it, my child’s core desire is to be heard and listened to. A few months ago, out of the blue, she came up with the most amazing idea; and I wanted to share it with you.

After a particularly difficult exchange, she brought me out to the living room and pointed to two chairs. “These are going to be our talking chairs,” she told me. “When we are having a fight, I want us to come out here and sit down with one another.” She pulled a palm-sized labradorite stone off of my mantle piece. “This will be our talking stone. Whoever has it, gets to talk and the other person has to listen. We can’t leave these chairs until we are ready to say sorry and hug.” Amazing. This proposal came from a ten year old child.

We have been using the talking space for a few months now and it has been very impactful. It is interesting how, when emotions are running high, it is easy to want to speak over another person in order to get your point heard. But, of course, then no one is really listening to the other: everyone is just competing to talk.

When you are compelled to stop, and really listen to the perspective of the other person before responding, it shifts the dynamic. Now there is the opportunity to really hear them and to be heard. It becomes a human exchange, rather than a boxing match, and all kinds of solutions are born.

We have been practicing this approach for a few months now and it is working really well. We always walk away from the space with a renewed sense of love and connection, which is the objective in a healthy home environment; and I am once again reminded of how my child is also my greatest teacher.

Coming Home

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Image courtesy of the Holistic Psychologist

A Season of Giving

The holiday season is upon us. From the end of October onward, the stores are packed with merchandise, and we are bombarded with the message to buy more, more, more. Expressing love has become synonymous with gift giving.

A few years ago, I stopped to think about how I wanted to intentionally cultivate my own family traditions; and I spent some time reflecting on some important questions. What values do I want share with my child at this time of year? How can we meaningfully experience this season together? How can we give back to our community?

For me, quality time is very important. I want to fill my child with love and lasting memories. This is a gift that she can carry with her forever and it does not end up in the landfill. I also want her to learn the value of community and the importance giving over receiving.

To try to achieve these goals, we have established some traditions that we look forward to sharing.

Giving:

  • Santa’s Anonymous: There are so many families who need help during the holiday season. If you visit a local mall, such as Hillside or Mayfair, between November 25 – December 6, 2019 you will find a Tree of Wishes. Low income children from across the CRD have requested a special gift to make their holiday season bright. Food hampers are also provided to their families.
  • Donations instead of gifts: Instead of giving large gifts to the adults in our family, I make donations in their honour to charities close to my heart; and I ask them to do the same for me. I also like to choose special books for each person, purchased from independent booksellers, like Munros, Bolen Books or Ivy’s Books. This not only supports authors and publishers but also local businesses.
  • Volunteering: There are many local not-for-profits looking for help at this time of year. In our family, we volunteer with a local chocolate maker. She raises money for Connections Place, a supportive drop-in centre for people facing mental health issues, through her annual fundraiser. My daughter and I help with the packaging and assembly. I also order her delicious chocolate for stocking stuffers.

Home Activities:

  • Baking: It is really fun to spend time together in the kitchen. There are so many delicious treats that you can bake at this time of year. We enjoy shortbread and sugar cookies. Decorating them together is the best part! You can gift your goodies to friends and family.
  • Host a Gingerbread Party: Invite a few of your child’s friends over to the house and decorate gingerbread houses. If you do not want to make them yourself, there are simple prepackaged options available at the grocery store.
  • Trim the Tree: We love to pick our tree together and spending an afternoon decorating it, while enjoying festive music and hot chocolate. My daughter loves putting the star on top at the end.

Community Events: There are so many great events taking place across the city and many of them are low cost or free. Here are a few events coming up this year:

  • Christmas Lights Across Canada: Celebrate the lighting of the provincial Christmas tree and the Parliament Buildings. Enjoy festive performances, music and seasonal treats. December 5, 2019.
  • Gingerbread Showcase: The Parkside Hotel & Spa hosts an annual Gingerbread Showcase in support of Habitat for Humanity. It is free to visit and you can enjoy exploring a wide range of creative and festive entries, in support of a good cause. You can vote for your favourite one. It runs November 16, 2019 – January 5, 2020.
  • Light Village: The Downtown Victoria Business Association is hosting a light maze in Centennial Square this holiday season. It will run from December 13, 2019 until the end of the month.
  • Christmas Movie Nights: Oak Bay Beach Hotel is hosting screenings throughout December. Holiday films are accompanied by light dinner, popcorn and house-made sweet-treats. Partial proceeds of all sales go to the David Foster Foundation. Films include: Love Actually; Elf; Home Alone; and the Polar Express.
  • Christmas at Butchart Gardens: Colourful lights and festivities are on offer at the world-famous gardens. It is hosted from December 1, 2019 – January 6, 2020. I like to take my daughter in the days following Christmas, as it is quieter, and it is nice to have something seasonal and bright to look forward to after all of the holiday fanfare is over.
  • The Peak of Christmas: Every year, we make a special trip to Vancouver to visit Santa at Grouse Mountain. It is a lot of fun to take the gondola up to the top. Grouse does an amazing job create a winter wonderland, with ice skating, a light maze, live reindeer, crafts, movies. Santa Claus has his own cottage in the snow. It is at truly magical experience.

Celebrate Diversity

  • Learn and Grow: There are so many wonderful celebrations taking place throughout December in addition to Christmas. In our family, we enjoy learning about how this season is celebrated by cultures across the world. A few of them include: Hanukkah; Winter Solstice; St. Lucia Day; Kwanzaa; and Ōmisoka. You can do this by taking books out from the library, researching information online, and/or speaking with friends in your community who celebrate these special holidays.

Every year we add new traditions to our list. It is fun to try out new things, spend quality time together, and explore this beautiful season in our own special way. It is the greatest gift we can give to one another.

Hold On

My daughter is nearing eleven years old. I am starting to see signs of adolescence on a daily basis. Her body is metamorphosing. She is more reactive when conflict arises. We are entering into a phase of rapid brain development, which cause larger than life emotions and irrationality, similar her early years.

I have been taking notice of how triggering it is for me when she yells or explodes about an issue. It is so easy to fall into the reaction trap. Someone is yelling, so the automatic and primitive response is to yell back. But she is a child, not my peer. What is is doing is not based in logic. It is a cry for help, love and guidance. And as I always tell her, no one can hear you when you are yelling. You need to speak softly.

In taking a moment to step back and reflect, I understand that my daughter is struggling to manage the brewing storm inside of her. My work is to create a container for these emotions: to guide her in learning to express herself in a positive and respectful way, without taking any of it on personally. This is easily enough said but harder to achieve in the heat of the moment.

This is when I remember to hold onto myself. To use my belly breathing as an anchor. To allow the storm to blow around me and trust in the strength of my roots to hold me fast. Sometimes it is just a matter of not saying anything when I desperately want to lash out. To take a moment to breathe and create space for reflection. To remember that none of it is personal. It is just a difficult and uncomfortable phase of necessary growth. Although it does not always work, it is a good starting point as we navigate uncharted territory together.

#NewYork2019

I just returned from a spectacular seven days spent in New York City. I visited my sister, as well as a very dear friend from art school, who I have known for over twenty-five years.

It was a fantastic trip. From the moment I arrived, it was go go go. Every day was filled with fun and adventure. I was fortunate enough to experience the city through the eyes of two natives and it provided a unique view into its many, diverse cultural offerings.

Some highlights included:

Aside from the joy that it gave me to spend quality time with two women that I cherish, I was amazed by the reminder of how friendship and connection can be maintained and cultivated despite geographic distance.

I see my sister a few times a year, and every time we are reunited, we pick up from where we last left off. My lovely friend Elise and I only have the opportunity to visit in person every five years or so but it is equally as effortless. This speaks to the resilience of deep heart connections.

This trip was a gift that I will always hold close: both for the unique and wonderful things experienced as well as for the reminder of how lucky I am to be loved and to love deeply.

Making Choices

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.

Never Walk Alone

When my marriage ended almost four years ago, I was emotionally devastated; underlying all of the pain and heartbreak, there was a deep seeded fear that I would always be alone.

I have since discovered that this is a common fear many of us share: often leading people to enter into a new relationship, not because it is the right one, but because it is available.

I was determined that if I had to go through the unwanted experience of a marital break-up, I was going to turn it into a growth opportunity; and I made the decision to remain single until I could do some inner healing and rediscover solid ground and connection within myself.

It is interesting how, if you have been in relationship from a very young age, much of your identity is tied up in the other person, and in being part of a couple. It is hard to answer the question – who is at the core of me?

I set about trying to discover the answer to that question for myself. Through paying close attention, I began to identify what gives me joy. Personal joy. And what saps my energy. I also learned how to befriend my emotions: to sit with them when they arise and give them space to breathe, rather than pushing them away, or distracting myself with activity. To closely listen to what they have to say.

How am I feeling? What is my body telling me? What do I need? What is the next step that I need to take? It is in asking these questions, over and over again, that leads to more intimate connection with self. The quiet small voice at the core of my being who offers gentle guidance, clarity and loving support. My most constant and committed companion.

The other day, I realized that I can now clearly hear my inner guide. The noise and inner chatter of my mind remains but it is turned way down. If I need support and grounding, she is always available to me. It provides me with great strength to know that I can tap into this source of love and wisdom whenever I need to. I simply need to ask.

This benevolent, knowing presence has always been there. It is a kind and trusted friend. Since the day I entered into the world, she has been by my side; and she will remain there until I take my last breath. It is just a matter of listening and tuning in. I can never truly be alone, as she is always close at hand. That simple but profound truth gives me great peace and confidence as I walk this path of life.

A Celtic Heart

“Now is a time to lay down your tools, the symbols of your productivity, and light a fire to honor not only what has been done throughout the past year, but also all that has preceded you — in this life, and in all the lives lived before. Now is a time to make space, in your heart and in your mind, for the stillness and silence of death.” ~ Teo Bishop

Irish and Scottish ancestry roots runs deep and wide in my family; and I have always been drawn to the magic and mystery of Celtic traditions. One of my favourite books growing up was The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I still love it to this day. I recently discovered a wonderful book, Walking in the Mist, by Donald McKinney. It reflects upon on the subtle nuances of Celtic spirituality.

The Celtic Fire festival of Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “sow-win”) is commonly known as the Celtic New Year. Samahin is a time of growing darkness and introspection. It is usually celebrated from October 31 to November 1 to welcome in the harvest and usher in the dark half of the year. Celebrants believe that the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world are thin during Samhain.

Ancient Celts marked Samhain as the most significant of the four quarterly fire festivals, taking place at the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. During this time of year, hearth fires in family homes were left to burn, while the harvest was gathered.

Since the emergence of Christianity in the British Isles, the festival of Samhain became overlaid with the Christian festival of Halloween or All Hallows Eve, on October 31, followed by All Saints Day on November 1.

Although I do not formally celebrate Samhain, I like to practice simple rituals to acknowledge its presence. I burn candles and keep my fire lit. I create a small alter on my mantelpiece, with seasonal items such as: colourful fallen leaves; interestingly shaped sticks and twigs; nuts, gourds and mini pumpkins. I meditate and journal. I rest. I remember loved ones who have passed on. I feel their continued presence in my heart.

Samhain is an opportunity to pause and reflect: to grow a practice of stillness, silence and listening. It marks the transition of the seasons and helps to prepare the mind and body for the winter ahead. There is something powerful in marking the transition of the seasons and reconnecting with one’s ancestral knowledge. I enjoy the quiet introspection of this time of year and the chance to open myself up to the unknown.