Web Camel Transport 27

Athletes of Happiness:  Walk, Run, Participate

Sunday, February 28, 2016 (written April 24, 2016)

The day after Patriot’s Day, a Massachusetts holiday (April 18, 2016), I saw a blurb on the internet that said everyone who participated in the Boston Marathon was happy whether or not they completed it; whether they ran or walked.  And, seemingly, regardless of what corner of the planet from which they came.  They are all athletes, regardless of age, or whether in wheelchairs or with a prosthetic legs, or 65 years old; and many who push our human envelope to a maximal point of excellence and possibility.

What is an athlete? An athlete trains in a sport or discipline and gains exceptional strength, agility or stamina. And at a peak of mastery, excels in a physical and mental output that is awe inspiring, both for its quality, and for the amount of dedication and persistence required to get there.

Athleticism, whether physical, intellectual, or emotional, starts with training.  And training requires dedication.  Training often seems less than glamorous.  And similarly to sports training, in my years as a dancer, the exercises for areas of the body required reiteration thousands of times and on a near daily basis, so that, like walking, these positions and movements got incorporated into muscular intelligence and seemed natural. Runners run, all the time.  Swimmers swim.  Competitors in tennis, football, and the many forms of sport in the world, repeat and repeat what their bodies and minds have learned until, by habit, they perform under stress and in a variety of conditions those masterful scripts.

There is no quick way to become a master.  Thousands and thousands of subtle cues, nuances of movement, and orientations of the mind, have to come together in a recipe of as-close-to-perfection as it gets. So training, though mostly reiterative, also includes incorporation of more highly sophisticated, micro-informative material so that performance gets honed to a greater and greater degree.  When teaching dance for many years, I had to think through and describe and offer input to students. I found it fascinating that nearly every day a new thought, a slightly different perspective, an additional insight informed both my teaching and the students’ capabilities.  It seemed possibility that a never-ending deepening of understanding existed in dance, and therefore in every athletic variation.

Exceptional strength, physically, results from repetition, but also, most importantly, from pacing.  Pacing requires an ability to output a more and more exacting ratio of effort over time or quantity.  As an example, the amount of exertion has to cover one hundred repetitions of lifting a certain weight or running a certain distance.  If too much exertion gets expended up front then the remaining pool of exertion may run out before task completion.  I have often read that studies of productivity show that workaholics who stay late in their offices tend to accomplish less and less per hour over optimal energy times.  As someone who works fewer days in the office but longer ones, I have learned to pace my energy and to reboot four or five times during the day with healthy snacks, power naps, and stretching or brief exercises.  This does not always work because so many variables affect our wellbeing.  Fighting a cold, feeling under the weather, dealing with a non-usual stressor, a less than adequate night’s sleep exemplify some common influencers on ability to pace one’s energy over a long period of time to perform well.  We also have a chronobiology profile, or a circadian rhythm which, though possessed in common by the human species, has individual variations.  I am a “morning person,” but my mother is a “night owl.”  Yet, my low point in energy runs typically between 2 PM and 3 PM in the afternoon and I get a “second wind” till about 9 PM.  My brain still feels alive, excited and active until then, when Cinderella turns into a pumpkin.

Marathon runners must have stamina or endurance, to maintain and pace their energies over a long distance.  They know when to run fast, faster, and fastest.  They know when to slow down a bit.  These strategies achieve a high level of finesse over time.  In the psychological realm of our lives, stamina and endurance have as a partner, resilience, and perhaps patience.  Sometimes a situation or relationship requires of us that we hang in there through some hard or disappointing times.  It takes resilience to get through a divorce, and it takes endurance and stick-to-itiveness to keep applying for jobs, week after week and month after month of no responses, interviews but no job offers, and job offers that fall through.  Eventually stamina and endurance pay off.  The goal may not look like the initial vision—getting to the finish line or attaining that plum job.  But the goal stands as the result of hard work and sustained effort and has the halo of gold around it, and a happiness banner.  The result sports the face of your personal and beautiful best!

Agility includes quickness and grace.  A person who possesses nimbleness of mind and/or body moves with efficiency.  No mental or physical effort gets wasted.  Every moment of the thinking process or the musculature serves the goal with nuanced and masterful economy. No matter the slalom course complicating the landscape or mindscape.  Agile people solve problems well because they can think through them, figuring the best path to navigate the situation.  You have to be highly in tune to yourself and to your surroundings in order to use yourself in this way.

Athletes of happiness try hard, harness themselves to the task like obedient oxen and plow the field, happy to feel their way, and happy to get to the end of a row.

Guest saddle:  In what area of life do you feel most like an athlete?  When and where do you try hard, and repeatedly, getting better and better all the time? In what arena of your life do you intend to apply yourself with more diligence and commitment?

Web Camel Transport 26

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again:  The Happiness of Trying

Saturday, February 27, 2016 written April 17, 2016

If you unpacked the contents of the oft-repeated phrase, “I’m trying,” at least one “doing,” if not multiple actions should emerge.  But I’ve noticed that many clients report that they are “trying,” when in reality what they mean by “trying” has to do with the experience of an emotional and visceral sense of effortfulness.  Sometimes, when a person feels stuck—in a dead end job, a disconnected relationship, poverty, a negative housing situation, or even a sense of being lost in the world—just hanging in there constitutes a sense of trying.  At this most existential level, staying alive while experiencing the low mood, lack of motivation, and sense of helplessness that defines depression, means “trying.”

Because ‘trying’ is really a ‘doing,’ it is necessary to literally, physically act.  But often problems loom as so monstrous or enormous that the fix seems completely unfeasible.  In the face of something overwhelming we tend to retreat, heads down, and avoid doing anything at all, perhaps hoping, if any hope remains, that somehow, serendipitously, a savior will arrive with the answers, or, because of the passage of time, things will somehow resolve on their own.

Sometimes, however, a small change, a baby step, an opening of the front door, an act of reaching out to someone else, yields an almost miraculous result:  something gets set in motion and that motion can gather steam until some real momentum pulls us out of the dark pit of despair in which we had sunk and settled for so long.  Oddly, doing something, even if seemingly unconnected to the big problem, can make a significant positive difference.

As an example, Sally felt stuck in her small apartment after retirement.  Neither the layout nor the immediate neighborhood had any appeal—no shops, coffee houses to walk to, etc.–and she longed to return to the neighborhood in which she had formerly thrived.  At the moment she could not find anything affordable there.  She also felt lonely and bored.  Because she knew she had to do something, even if not directly related to changing her housing situation, she applied for a part time job, just to get out.  She started to work a few hours every day.  At the end of each short shift she found herself relishing the return to her small and cozy apartment where it was quiet after the stimulating interactions with other adults while at work. Since she had spent some time in a more stimulating world while working, the quietness of her apartment’s neighborhood now felt relieving. Ultimately, she still wanted to move, but it didn’t seem quite so urgent a problem.  Additionally, because of the increased income a slightly more expensive apartment would become possible.

Basha felt very depressed because she had been laid off and now badly needed a new job, but she had a baby, and the cost of full time child care and the sadness of leaving her baby for a 40-hour a week job felt overwhelming.  She just wanted to stay home. Whether she had the baby-blues, or just felt plagued with worry she spent most of her time on the couch. But when it was time for her college reunion, her husband urged her to go so she picked herself up and went, just to mingle and to get her mind off of her worries.  There she met a former classmate who was directing an organization needing a consultant with Basha’s skills.  They wanted a part time person.  They offered flexible hours, and the option to combine working from home as well as in the office setting.

When we feel stuck, we have likely constructed a set of thoughts that box us in and make our lives appear windowless and without doors.  It seems like there is no way over, under or around our situation.  But stuckness can often function as a defense mechanism.  After all, if I think that I can do nothing to remedy my situation, I can let myself off the hook to take an action that might feel uncomfortable or uncharacteristic of the way I usually behave.  To find the windows and open the doors in my life, I have to gather my courage and push my own walls.

As an example, Jerry felt overwhelmed by the amount of work he felt expected to do on his IT field tech job.  He frequently took home a beeper, whether or not assigned, and responded to all problems in a timely fashion, including on weekends when he had made other plans and had to disappoint family and friends by cancelling at the last minute.  In his mind, if he complained about having too much work his company would fire him.  He felt stuck between that proverbial rock and hard place:  over work or get fired.  His black and white thinking maintained his sense of imprisonment.  He stubbornly clung to his negative thought pattern even in the face of evidence that his work was highly valued by his company and their voiced awareness that he would need an assistant.

When we cling to thoughts that maintain our dysfunctional living, we need to find the payoff for our misguided loyalty to those thoughts.  In this case, Jerry feared confrontation and hardly ever asserted himself.  So long as the thought of getting fired persisted, he did not have to test himself in a situation where he would have to say that he could not keep up the current pace.

When helped to realize that an option existed to merely have a conversation with his supportive boss about how much Jerry valued his job but needed some help in prioritizing tasks and adding some work/life balance, he began to see this middle path.  While we may have some all-or-nothing choices in life, most times options for compromise exist. To find those we options we must move beyond our comfort zone when it has shrunk so small as to make us ineffective and dissatisfied.

There are lots of kinds of helping hands.  Real ones—person-to-person—have great advantages.  Sometimes a helping hand gets offered, and sometimes one has to ask for it.  But when even multiple helping hands do not constitute enough to move someone out of a rut, medications can provide a different kind of helping hand.

As an example, SSRIs  (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) generally work by preventing the neurotransmitter serotonin—produced and moved by one brain neuron to another–from being gobbled up so quickly by the receiving (reuptake) neurons.  When serotonin bathes the brain with its soothing balm longer, mood is lifted.  In one article I read a long time ago, a study at Yale University mentioned that the brain suffers a kind of temporary damage from unmitigated stress, worry, and anxiety.  Stress hormones like adrenalin, when cumulative, can cause serious effects on our brains and bodies.  This “fries” the brain, as working too hard can cause burnout. Feeling fried and burned out are real, physical, organic realities.  You might think of an anti-depressant as a helping hand, soothing the fevered brow. This helping hand might make the difference between a serious lack of motivation (someone staying under the covers, unable to move out of bed to shower or prepare food, or greet the day), and the ability to rise.

Some people have brains that may be boosted by the presence of others’ helping hands, alone or in combination with an elevation by psychopharmacology.  The beauty is that almost anything and everything, kind and heartfelt (even if tough) can help, at least a little, if one is open to it.  A cup of chicken soup, a talk, a card, an invitation to walk, the offer of a hair wash, a drive in the countryside, the sounds of an inspiring piece of music, a prayer in company, etc.  Everything has the potential to open up an avenue toward a new place of wellbeing in the mind and heart, and within the fold of our human companions.

Try something! Watch for what happens.

Guest saddle:  What are the “helping hands” you value most?  How/to whom do you reach out your helping hand?


Web Camel Transport 25

Nap Happiness:  Refreshment, Enlivening and Maybe a Rabbitat

For Friday, February 26, 2016; written April 10, 2016

“Lili’s so happy;  she had a two and a half hour nap this afternoon,” my daughter said about this beaming, cruising, grabbing, chortling 10 month old baby.  My daughter’s family had come to dinner, along with my son who’d driven several hours from graduate school to spend the weekend with us.  What joy!

With the acquisition of three bottom teeth and two uppers, Lili enjoyed sweet potatoes and bananas and little things called “Happy Baby puffs,” while the rest of us talked and ate.  She eats more when others eat, an obvious sign of the social behavior that constitutes “breaking bread together.”  There’s the learning aspect; but more importantly the tribal one.  Food shared among a loving group means everyone will eat, everyone will survive; everyone will thrive.  And the tribe is connected to the earth from which the food sprang, and the hearth on which it was prepared.  And we sat at the oversized round butcher block table custom made for my family of origin when I was a small child.

It was eight before my daughter gave Lili milk and placed her in the softly lined carrier to fall asleep.  She herself had napped beside the baby earlier and both had slept well.  Such sweet and open sleep do babies in safe places experience, foreheads free from worry, mouths slightly open, and arms released.  Waking to whatever happens next in an unanticipated world that has no check lists yet, no obligations, no coveted rewards for hard work or good service.

Renewal and refreshment come in several prized, energetic forms:  food, sleep, inspiring stimulation.  Lili had had her good, re-energizing sleep, and together our conversation and laughter was buoyed by tasty and nourishing food, and our minds received the stimulation that ideas and anecdotes provide.

The day before, a tremendously enlivening experience changed my life in some ways.  A young professor from University of New Hampshire and a graduate student, arrived at my house to walk with me through the still bare-leafed 95 acres on which I live, to determine whether some piece of this densely tree populated wetland area might be cultivated for the New England cottontail rabbit, a species rapidly going extinct, with only one hundred surviving members.  They survive in shrub lands where densely filled out low growth bushes protect them from predators.  They are hiders, not fighters.

As we walked through the muted pallet of fallen leaves and bare tree limbs, their conversation awakened the woods.  Haley pointed out small chewed twigs under a tree where a porcupine likely nestled toward its crown.  Matt looked in vernal pools with binoculars to find the first of the frogs’ eggs.  There were divots in the leaf beds where deer had gone, and scats, and squared holes where pileated woodpeckers made their way into the trees, and the sounds of the titmouse and many other birds.  Matt pointed out red oak, black and white oak, white pines, a darkly lit hemlock stand.  Up higher the ground was sandier and full of ledge.  Lower down the earth stood richer and fuller and through it ran rivulets from the marshy pond beyond, a “power grid” along which the rabbits could theoretically make their homes.

Everywhere we walked, punctuated only by the sounds of our walking and the wind sweeping in through the trees sometimes, the woodlands woke up and showed themselves to me differently, as if I had borrowed the lenses of these experts’ mental binoculars.

Everything can be interesting, bursting with news, revelatory!  Awakening senses, intelligence, and imagination.  But more, a sense of connection.  A kind of kinesthesia, I felt the woods—cool, sometimes moist as rain fell lightly; sometimes patchy with warmth where the sun stole through.  And the forest floor, lounging and lunging and bulging with rock and hummock and hardening around tree roots and sprouting all kinds of intensely green mosses, so green no matter the weather.  And the atmosphere, as if it sifted right through my skin and into my interior.  As if breathing in the moist curling air, spiraled something alive in me.

I do not have skills as an orienteer.  I get lost easily and explained that 95 acres covered with growth might as well be a seventeen mile area because I could potentially lead them in circles.  But as we bushwhacked back to the house, I began to feel a sense of direction I had not felt ever before. I recognized some places in the woods, but more strongly felt the slope of the land under my feet, and a tug to my left shoulder.  And we arrived, not too shabbily, back at the ranch.

To help potentially contribute in a modest way to saving a species from extinction and to have a rudimentary lesson in the braille of my woods, was most inspirational, and enlivening, and that energy carried me a long way into that Friday night.

Just like the woods are high ground and low ground, thick and thin soiled, so are we humans high dancers one moment and nap-worthy monsters the next.  And so much of happiness depends upon a nap, a stir fry, an eye-opening walk in the woods.

Guest Saddle:  What was a recent moment of real refreshment for you?  A moment when your senses or your heart was enlivened?  When you saw something in a new way?  Or when you shared something with another person that opened that persons mind, heart or imagination?

(Picture is “Girl with a Pomegranate” by William Bougeureau.  Pomegranates are symbols of renewal)

Web Camel Transport 24

The Twelfth Fairy:  The Happiness of Assistance

Thursday, February 25, 2016  (written April 2, 2016)

In the milder version of “Sleeping Beauty,” a tale that made its way from gruesome narrative to love story, a princess is born to a hopeful and happy King and Queen.  On the occasion of her christening 12 of 13 fairies are invited (sometimes in the story there are 7 of 8 invited). After eleven of the fairies have bestowed their blessings on the baby princess, the wicked crone breaks into the ceremony and, as revenge for being excluded, curses the princess to prick her finger on a spindle when she turns 16 and die.  Just as the horrified crowd looks on, the 12th fairy steps out.  While unable to reverse the curse, she is able to mitigate it.  The princess will indeed prick her finger on the spindle but will sleep for one hundred years until the kiss of a prince awakens her and the entire court.  All sleep behind a ring of impenetrable thorns until the special prince comes along.

I love the mythic and archetypal quality of this story—even this Disney-esque version—because it captures what most of us experience periodically in life:  Things go along relatively well until we hit a crisis of epic proportion:  we or someone close to us gets ill, we lose a job or a house, we suffer the break-up of a committed relationship, a friend betrays us, we cheat or are cheated upon.  Something in life violates us and everything good and happy takes a backseat to this earth-shaking situation that threatens to completely overwhelm or even kill us.

But then this is not the end of the story, the last chapter.  Someone—a friend, a lover, a parent, a sister, a congregation, a group of coworkers—mitigates our situation.  Suddenly there is light in the void, a hand holding ours, a healing infusion of hope and help and caring surrounding us and lifting us up.  The 12th fairy has arrived with a moist cool cloth for the fevered brow.  Our curses may not be lifted entirely, but they are ameliorated.

Just as things can always get worse, they can always get better.  We are connected within a matrix of energetic beings and channels of healing energy and inspiration promote our well-being.  We also contribute to the well-being of others, and can do that more deliberately by becoming aware of those around us, hearing and seeing a need, and intervening even in a modest way.

As a psychotherapist I feel lucky to have ready-made opportunities to function as a Twelfth Fairy.  Now, any seasoned therapist realizes that we are only a very small part of someone’s healing journey.  The one hour a week or every two or three weeks that we spend with someone is far less contact than someone has with their family and friends—their inner circle of important others.

And yet, what is powerful, has to do with catalysis.  The Twelfth Fairy co-catalyzes or revs the engine of healing within someone.  After a therapeutic alliance has been well established, a client may say, “I could hear you in my head, Lisa, and I knew I had to broach the topic with my boss and set a boundary.”  This is an example of introjection, where a sub-part of the client has been mobilized and is represented by an image of me.  But really it is not me per se; it is the catalyzed sub-part of the client ready for action, fully engaged, and freed up to exercise options that had formerly been shut down or dormant.

In ‘The Sleeping Beauty,’ we understand dormancy and shut down.  A princess, with everything to live for, has ceased to act.  She can only sleep in her life, until awakened.  Awakenings come from moments of crisis, or from the dawning awareness that arrives out of lesson after lesson in life, or by the positive influence or presence of another being who gently awakens a de-activated or un-potentiated aspect of consciousness.  The Twelfth Fairy and the kiss of the Prince have a lot in common.  They both awaken healing energy within the recipient.

In our lives we harbor one or more sleeping princesses within.  Regardless of gender, there are dormant or suppressed parts of ourselves that have something to contribute.  Perhaps they have lived silently in the shadows due to shame, guilt, or fear.  Perhaps they have never been invigorated with sources of nurturing and remain nascent as dried seeds.  But to flourish, each sleeping princess must awaken and look around, and find herself fondly greeted by an encouraging and supportive presence.

So much inherent happiness thrives in doing what a Twelfth Fairy does, and in openly receiving what a Twelfth Fairy gives.

Guest Saddle:  For whom have you functioned as a Twelfth Fairy?  And who has offered you the hope, encouragement or validation of a Twelfth Fairy, even when you felt most in despair?