There’s a poem that tells, “People come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.”
A fellow customer — a gentleman I don’t know and will likely never cross paths with again — whom I saw in a small store the other day definitely falls into the “reason” category. When a store employee greeted the gentleman with the typical, “Hi, how are you,” the seemingly troubled customer quickly replied, “We can just skip over that,” and proceeded to describe what he was shopping for.
While some may have seen the man’s response as rude, it delighted me.
I’m often troubled by the “How are you” question because it usually expects a quick, positive reply. Especially for people experiencing a loss, this expectation makes it near-impossible to answer honestly, putting us in a situation where we can either be disingenuous or honest at the expense of the polite tone.
So, when this random man replied in an honest, quick way without getting into any of his troublesome “stuff,” I couldn’t help identifying. I had never heard that reply and it’s one I think is beneficial for grievers (or anyone for that matter) to have at their disposal.
Witnessing that interaction provides a clear reason why that man appeared on my path. Because of its impact, I believe the reason might stay with me for a lifetime.
Honey and OnionsRead Now
“One day honey, one day onions.”
That’s a saying that comes from the Sufi tradition (originally: “yom ’asal, wa yom basal”). The teaching reminds us that, when we’re going through bitter days/moments (onion), it means sweet days/moments (honey) will soon come.
Neuroscience tells us that regularly reminding our brains of helpful truths like “honey and onions” can have transformative effects on our default thought processes. And in a culture that leads us to believe that we’re supposed to experience mostly honey, those defaults are often non-healing — self-doubt, self-reproach, self-pity.
The only way to override such defaults is by regular practice and rehearsal. Repeating maxims like “honey and onions” on a daily basis actually helps rewire neural pathways that have been conditioned to produce negative thoughts.
Now, when I approach my honey states, I’m fully aware that I wouldn’t appreciate them nearly as much if I hadn’t first gotten a taste of (or really, a cry from) onions.
No doubt, that’s a healthy recipe to default to!
Cutting CornersRead Now
No one likes to deal with challenging people. But challenging interactions are inevitable. When they happen, how can we cut through our anxiety and frustration to find peace of mind?
When they happen in my life, I think of something my first “mom friend” said to me when we were commiserating over the struggles of early motherhood: “We make it harder because we don’t cut corners.”
Whether or not she realized it, her wisdom applies to so many aspects of life.
Sixteen years later, I’m still not great at cutting corners, but I have learned a quick way to cut through my “noisy” mind when dealing with challenging people. I will try to say it in words, but Alexander Milov’s famous sculpture (pictured below), featured at Burning Man in 2015, says it best.
Art speaks to each of us differently. To me, especially when I deal with difficult people, this sculpture says, “See the child in them.”
When we view each other as adult bodies carrying around (wounded) children, it becomes easier to find the points of LOVE — Milov’s title for this piece.
We mothers heal through our children, but the same healing is available to anyone who can cut through the noise of the adult world, and listen to the childlike signals within.
The messages of peace that proliferated during the winter holidays transported me back to a profound moment from this past summer.
During my son’s bar mitzvah in June, our rabbi, Rabbi Gary, spoke about peace in such a way that I now associate it with a different symbol than the ones we’re all familiar with:
Ever the illustrative teacher, Rabbi Gary described how peace can be likened to the creation of a puzzle.
In his metaphor, each of us is a puzzle piece with unique curves, points, edges, and ways of interlocking with others. If we discover how our “pieces” connect while retaining our distinct “shapes,” we complete the puzzle — achieve peace.
I find this interpretation of peace not only approachable but also very useful. It’s useful in part because we can apply it to our individual selves as well as greater society. In the metaphor, what’s necessary isn’t major change, as advertisers try to make us think. What’s necessary is understanding who we are and where we fit. Of course, experiencing peace on a personal level is a prerequisite to realizing peace on a larger scale.
Viewed another way, one could take the metaphor to mean that each person is a puzzle, psychologically speaking, made up of many pieces that need to join together. For instance, each of us is probably made up of, at minimum, a protective piece, an inspired piece, a doubtful piece, and a purposeful piece. What makes our puzzles especially interesting (READ: challenging) is that life experiences introduce new pieces and alter or even remove old pieces, making our individual puzzle an ever-evolving, fluid piece of art.
One piece that inevitably gets introduced into and likely alters each of our puzzles is grief. This is true because everyone experiences loss of some kind during their lifetime.
Typically, it is very difficult to figure out how the grief piece fits into our puzzle. Grief is a particularly unusual piece. When first introduced, grief requires us to reorient the whole puzzle, assembling a new self in relation to this new contender. At first, this can be troubling, intimidating, immobilizing.
The first, critical step is about giving the “grief piece” space to exist. Shutting it out only perpetuates that unbalanced feeling. Beyond space, it is about embracing this teaching from grief expert, David Kessler: “We often believe that grief will grow smaller in time. It doesn’t. We must grow bigger.”
Part of growing bigger is learning to let go of the pieces that no longer fit in our puzzle. This is preparation for what we aim to do through the Grief Recovery Method — help people let go of the pain associated with a loss.
Indeed, the process of letting go is a puzzle and art in and of itself. More importantly though, it’s a significant piece in the creation of peace.
The Costs of Living: Why It’s So Important to Balance Our Internal CheckbooksRead Now
It’s hard to be a consumer these days. Whether you’re shopping for groceries, clothing, or household goods, one thing is consistent: inflation has affected prices and we are incurring higher costs.
It’s easy to measure the impact of a higher cost of living. It puts a dent in our bank accounts, and we modify our attitude about what’s most necessary which then extends shopping habits in response. Simply put, rising financial costs are the gentle push that sets an elaborate domino effect in motion.
Beyond the clear consequences of increased costs are less obvious but perhaps more insidious effects. For instance, the stress associated with higher prices and financial strain can lead to health issues, such as sleep loss and high blood pressure.
Rising financial costs are out of our control, so we can’t easily prevent the dominos from falling. We can, however, mitigate some of the non-financial costs to our well-being that emerge in other areas of our lives.
Non-financial costs are harder to measure, but just as impactful
The non-financial costs we absorb in life typically correspond with personal choices. A simple example is choosing to stay up late when we know we should go to bed to get adequate sleep. At some point, this choice takes a toll, whether in the form of needing extra caffeine to function or snapping at a loved one from feeling under-rested.
Another scenario that highlights non-financial costs in our lives is a networking event. If someone decides to skip such an event at a critical time in their career, it could mean not cultivating an important relationship and impeding professional advancement.
Many of us also minimize the value of our hurts, or lower our expectations of our friends and loved ones. While some amount of coping and adaptation is a necessary part of healthy functioning, too much of either means incurring damaging costs.
With awareness of how various types of costs show up in our daily lives, we can turn to costs related to behavior in relationships, including the one with yourself. Ironically, this type is harder to identify, but often, it wreaks the most havoc.
How to balance your internal checkbook
When costs accumulate, it’s because we’re not properly acknowledging them. Either we suppress our feelings, which is like being stuck in a deep hole and inviting others to shovel dirt into it. Or, we distance ourselves from others because of a perceived need to protect emotions — like building a dam.
Understanding and addressing the non-financial costs affecting our day-to-day lives starts with self-reflection. First, we must take an honest inventory of the forces in our lives and how they make us feel. This can happen through conversation, writing, or through counseling (self-reflection is an essential component of the Grief Recovery Method).
Just like financial budgeting, emotional budgeting sometimes means making changes. Changes don’t have to be dramatic — often, committing to a few small changes sets a positive domino effect in motion to make a big difference in the long run. Changes can be simple, like shutting off your smartphone at a certain hour of the evening, or more significant, like developing the habit to pause before transitioning to new activities/interactions.
You don’t have to adapt to non-financial inflation alone.
Sometimes, we need a little extra support. In my work, I often help clients who have racked up costs without necessarily knowing it. It doesn’t take the death of a loved one to make grief work helpful. If you’d like a little help assessing your non-financial costs, click here to learn more about grief work.
I was recently stunned by a quote from Dr. Bernice King — a thought leader, minister, and the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King:
“As a nation, I surmise that we do not grieve enough. In many respects, I would say that many of our issues we are challenged with in society are a direct result of lack of grieving.”
These words grabbed me with an unexpected force of clarity — largely because I agree. I have long believed that our culture, which is so focused on productivity and progress, discourages processing grief. I also know firsthand how unresolved grief lies at the root of so many personal problems which, when unresolved, extend to the people around us (our society).
Dr. King’s words lodged in my brain. As often happens with meaningful messages, it started to be reinforced in unexpected places — in this case, at a strawberry farm.
I’ve been buying the most beautiful and delicious strawberries from a vendor at my local farmers’ market for more than three years. Somehow, I only learned the name of her farm last week. How I’ve been oblivious to the farm’s gorgeous name — “Deeply Rooted” — is beyond me, since it conjures up so much.
When I first saw it, “Deeply Rooted” made me smile. I instantly envisioned a strong connection to the ground. Merely reading the farmer’s sign activated in me a sense of stability; consequently, my posture elongated into a “power position" (which research suggests can actually boost your confidence).
It was a beautiful a-ha moment. I felt what it means to have great energy flowing through my first chakra. Words carry such power.
Invigorated by this first wave of light-filled energy, I continued pondering the farm name in light of Dr. King’s contention. The more I viewed it through my grief specialist lens, the more I developed an alternate interpretation — a bit darker, and yet, illuminating.
I associated “Deeply Rooted” with the reality that most of us move through the world harboring deeply rooted emotional wounds. Because of how the external world discourages grief work, and because of how much work it would take to truly dig out our grief, many of us persist with low-lying grief in our systems.
But when we can find the faith to plunge into grief work, knowing that it will be difficult, deep, and uncomfortable, we take an important step toward reaching the roots of our pain.
Hoping for an interpretation of this phrase that would capture both the light and the dark of “Deeply Rooted,” I developed an acronym for R-O-O-T:
Grief comes from people or events that have wounded us in the past. Sometimes through malice, but often through pure happenstance. When we bury these hurts, we create entangled roots, knotted into our foundations.
Instead of burying them, we must upROOT them.
That’s a big ask — but perhaps no less significant than expecting a strawberry farmer to produce such great crops during one of the wettest seasons on record. I invite you to follow her lead and…dig deep! In doing so, we might just find that we feel more rooted than ever.
The Grief Recovery Method (GRM) helps us experience more of my light interpretation of “Deeply Rooted” by exposing the tangles in our roots. If you think you, or someone you know, could benefit from this work, please set up some time to chat with me.
Vitality Is Not SeasonalRead Now
How uplifting are summer’s gifts, whether it be extended daylight, the succulent produce harvested from local gardens, or the open invitation to commune with nature in some way?!
The strong sense of vitality that summer offers is arguably what makes it hard to say farewell to this season.
We can soften this seasonal transition by deciding to say goodbye only to summer’s physical aspects, and not to those qualities that spur a sense of aliveness.
This is possible because we have the ability to conjure up a sense of aliveness on our own, regardless of the time of year, if we make an effort.
Fortunately, there are simple ways to instantly invite greater vitality into our daily lives:
1). Do something for someone else
I have to thank the writers of Ted Lasso for inspiring this one.
I don’t want to spoil it in case some readers have yet to watch season 2, so suffice it to say…
In a recent episode, several scenes illustrate the incredible power of how focusing on another human can revitalize our own spirit, even when it is really low.
These scenes were so impactful that their heartwarming effect was palpable even with my thick-skinned teenage son who was also watching.
Obviously, we can help out another person (and thereby enrich our own life) any time of year, so if the finality of summer’s got you down, head on out and do something that will serve another.
2). Do a “Feelings Check-in”
This idea is something that I could see Ted Lasso whipping out of his coaching toolkit, but I didn’t get it from the show.
A “Feelings Check-in” is simply taking a moment or two to put your hands over your heart, enjoy a deep, cleansing breath, and observe how you’re feeling emotionally.
I emphasize that last word to clarify that this is not about your physical state, like feeling tired or hungry.
Rather, the check-in allows you to name how you’re experiencing a particular moment, e.g.: energized / purposeful / unmotivated / scared / peaceful / hopeful.
That said, there’s another point of clarification with this exercise: ALL types of feelings must be acknowledged, not just the so-called pleasant ones. Life experiences elicit a broad spectrum of feelings, so we would be remiss to discount the ones that are more painful.
The more we get in touch with our feelings, the more connected we feel. And when we have a richer sense of connection, we tend to experience life more fully.
3). Start each day with wonder
It was a game-changer for me when I made the choice to wake up each day reciting, “I wonder what will happen today.”
Getting in the habit of saying this sentence to myself was a highly effective way to increase mental flexibility. Such flexibility facilitates meeting daily challenges and unexpected events with more grace.
Ultimately, approaching each day with this mindset stirs curiosity, which is a quality that is very important to cultivate if we want to experience more vitality.
4). Welcome playfulness
This idea stems directly from one of the intangible factors that makes us love summer so much, namely, that adults are more willing to engage in play this time of year.
Simply put, when we are playful, we feel more alive.
So, if you seek more vitality, it just makes sense to invite more play into your life. Easier said than done, I know!
Ironically, making room in your life for playfulness actually starts from a mature, “adulting” behavior, not a kid-friendly activity…It evolves from giving yourself permission to engage in whatever is playful for you.
Once you grant the permission, start small if being playful is out of your norm.
Personally, I have found that just doing a little skipping is delightful. It makes me feel more carefree and youthful, which instantly infuses me with a zest for life.
If your version of playfulness also involves physical movement, I encourage you to find your pulse on your wrist afterwards. Tuning into that sensation in the body is a wonderful reminder of your aliveness.
There’s no doubt that closing out summer is a loss for many of us.
We can move into the next season of our life with ease though, if we invest some energy not simply to live, but to increase our capacity for aliveness.
The language of these two approaches to life connotes a subtle difference, but in practice, they couldn’t be more distinct.
This is vital to realize if you seek more vitality.
Nurture What's in NatureRead Now
After completing a lengthy visualization exercise, my Hoffman Process (www.hoffmaninstitute.org) class was instructed to remain in silence and take a half-hour walk outside.
It was an aimless, wandering yet purposeful walk, during which we were given the simultaneously clear and vague assignment to “simply notice” what we observe.
When we gathered to share our observations, it never failed that after each person described their discovery, the other sixteen students let out a genuine, collective “Ahhh” accompanied by lots of head nodding.
Indeed, our experience proved that with just a bit of focus on her, Mother Nature reflected back to us some very useful and powerful messages.
I’m thinking that the effects of that particular visualization have endured since late April, because I continue to notice awe-inspiring sights in nature, specifically in trees.
What’s more, my observations in trees consistently emphasize ideas that are foundational elements of supporting others, which is what I do for people who have experienced a loss of some kind.
Although the classic saying goes, “If only these walls could talk…,” I’m revamping the phrase from the perspective of “my” expressive trees (pictured below).
They seem to be communicating, “If only these humans could listen [to us!]”
Here’s what they want us to hear:
"Lean into one another"
"Expose your heart"
"Nurture your young (within)"
"Find beauty in the rot"
"Offer an embrace"
Having developed a deeper appreciation for the power of focusing the mind with visualization and applying it to the natural world, I urge you to seize opportunities to wander in nature.
With any luck, your quiet time there will be accented by expressive trees and your own voice saying “Ahhhh.”
I looked and felt as vulnerable as they come.
I was preparing to lie as rigid as possible on the platform of a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine, donning a classic, unflattering medical robe “opened to the back.”
A very kind technician handed me ear plugs so that I could “lessen the noise” from the loud scanner.
And another tech, a super sweet gal who dutifully explained to me every detail of the appointment, put a plastic, squishy bulb in my hand, and said, “squeeze that if you’re not feeling OK and someone will come.”
Despite all the jitters and nervous thinking* I had prior to these two simple interactions, everything suddenly shifted for the better.
In a word, I felt safe.
So much so that I was able to relax as I was glided into the cavernous machine. I even smiled as I looked up and saw that four of the ceiling panels were thoughtfully covered with a beautiful, serene image—a waterfall cascading over rocks.
The extreme change from feeling anxious to totally at ease reminded me of a conversation I had just a few days prior.
An acquaintance was telling me that he didn’t understand an e-mail message he had received because it mentioned that a leader in his organization was going to “hold space” for anyone interested in discussing a recent incident that had raised many concerns within his workplace.
Of course, he could figure out from context that “hold space” basically means that there would be an opportunity to express thoughts and feelings, but he was at a loss as to why this initiative wasn’t just called a “discussion.”
Well, the answer rests in how these MRI techs made me feel. That is, when we hold space for someone, it’s as if we:
I have only anecdotal evidence to prove it, but I know that holding space delivers very powerful, positive results.
One example is when parents use the “Let’s Have a Drink” strategy as a way to hold space for their moody, isolating teenage child. I learned about it from renowned child psychologist and author, Lisa Damour and tried it out on my then fourteen year-old son.
I simply invited my son to come out of his room and have a drink (non-alcoholic, in case the phrase made you think otherwise) with me in the kitchen.
In this scenario, our drinks created a welcoming, non-threatening way to chat, so we arrived feeling relaxed and fairly open (Attribute 3).
I initiated that we say “Cheers” with our beverages, keeping the mood light, which for many teens is an important element to establishing safety (Attribute 2).
And to diminish the “noise” in my head about wanting him to reveal deep thoughts and feelings, I silently told myself to stay present and release expectations. This meant that I would promise to bite my tongue if I felt a strong reaction to anything my son said because otherwise, I would compromise it being a nonjudgmental interaction (Attribute 1).
Over the course of that drink, I learned a ton about his teenage universe. It wasn’t always easy for me not to challenge his views, but his unsolicited, “Thanks, Mom” at the end clearly indicated that he appreciated my holding space.
Whether it’s in a parenting, professional, or personal context, the next time you find yourself in a position to have an important discussion, perhaps first ask if you’re looking for powerful, positive results.
If so, holding space for that person might end with you both excited to say, “Cheers!”
*NOTE: Thankfully, the MRI (on my knee) did not reveal a severe issue/injury.
The spring theme of new beginnings was punctuated for me this year as…I became an aunt in mid March!
I cannot wait to meet and get to know my niece! (Her pediatrician advises we wait a bit). In the meantime, I am thinking a lot about what her newbie parents are experiencing, particularly her mom.
Granted, it’s been a while since I was in that phase of parenting (almost 13 years to be precise), but this baby’s birth story has made me hyper-focused on something that is thrust upon new parents and is a shared experience with most adults, regardless if they’re parents.
This something is labor, but of a specific sort.
I was awe-struck that my sister-in-law had labor pains for a mere fraction of the time I did with each of my kids’ births. Because our deliveries were starkly different, I became very aware of how quickly attention on her physical labor disappeared. While physical labor seemed to enter and exit her delivery room loudly and quickly, another type of labor stealthily snuck in to take up permanent residence with these proud and adoring new parents.
That is, emotional labor.
For those unfamiliar with the term, emotional labor can be interpreted in multiple ways. For this post, I’m referring to it in the context of personal life rather than employment, and my working definition is:
The mental and emotional energy required to remain (relatively) grounded in relationships, including the one with yourself, amidst seemingly infinite responsibilities.
Implicit in this definition (and more formal ones as well) is that emotional labor applies to anyone, not just parents. Another implication is that emotional labor is a major source of stress.
Fortunately, the birth of my niece at this time of year reminded me of a wonderful technique that can be helpful when stress from emotional labor rears its ugly head.
It’s called the 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise. Its premise is, if we tune into our immediate environment rather than our thoughts when we’re flooded by emotional labor, then we can calm the mind and become more grounded.
I like it because it engages all the senses in a very focused way in a short amount of time, and also because…it’s simple!
Here’s how to do it. When you feel compromised by emotional labor, take these five steps:
I’ve been taking in all the fresh sights, smells, and sounds of spring recently, and I’ve noticed that with such acknowledgments, my body and mind relax a bit.
It’s not surprising then, that when I heard that my niece was causing emotional labor stress with her nighttime wakefulness, “54321” leapt to mind as a possible aid.
Regardless of how many times in a week or even in a day we feel the need to practice this special countdown, it often feels like a new beginning when the exercise has been done to completion.
Indeed, the 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise is a form of labor, but it’s the kind that resembles the role of an aunt—you get to decide how loving, playful, and supportive you make it.
That’s something to acknowledge and focus on!
APRIL 9, 2021