Thursday, December 20, 2012

Remembering the good times- RIP to my cousin MIchael

It's funny how when you're a kid, a day can last forever. Now, all these years seem just like a blink-

Hearts in Atlantis

“When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood

Sam Ewing

I woke up today in a very sentimental mood. Something about being home and seeing so many old familiar faces wakes up a kind of nostalgia, which is rare for me because I am more of a “present” oriented person.

I started the day at my grandpa’s old farm, pictured here-

I had so many good times here as a kid, and for years I had a recurring dream about returning. I even featured it in a book I wrote called The Empath. It’s funny seeing it now. What’s left of it anyway. A whole childhood of memories and now it’s just a rundown old barn. I wonder if the current owners ever think about the history of the place. If they knew what a pleasure it was for my brothers and sister and I to play in there and feed the animals, and look out into the almost endless backyard and watch the sunset. Probably not. That was our time, and now it’s their time. Still, every house has a million stories. This one certainly did.

As I was sitting here thinking about these things, I got a text from my mother, telling me my cousin had died. I was shocked. Although he had been sick for a long time, he was a young man. Younger than me even, and it didn’t seem possible. People from my generation aren’t supposed to die. Not yet anyway. I found myself angry at the randomness of it. It just seemed kind of unfair. Eventually my feelings drifted from anger to sadness, and I cried some tears for my cousin Michael. We had a lot of fun growing up when I saw him, and I wanted to try and remember that.

So I found myself driving to my other grandparent’s home, where he and I and my family had spent the most amount of time with him, pictured here.

It seemed so big growing up, and now it just looked like a little house on a little street. I could see a Christmas tree in the window, and guessed that a family probably lived there now. I probably looked pretty strange just sitting there parked in front of their house with tears in my eyes, but I wanted to remember. Remember the good times, and the trouble we used to get into and the many, many Christmases I spent here growing up. I wanted to go back again, to be young, and dumb, and free from my responsibilities and bills and worries. But mostly I wanted to go back so I could see my cousin Michael again.

Eventually I had to start the car and move, as a strange man sitting parked probably looks a little odd to people. They didn’t know.  We never really know. We pass by people and nod and smile and wave, but we don’t really know how their day has been. What their pain is, and what it is they might be struggling with.

Mostly I think about how my cousin could possibly be gone. The last time I saw him he was a kid, and now he had three kids of his own. I hoped that they knew that fun guy I used to know as a kid. That they laughed a lot and made a lot of memories and that he taught them some things that they would pass on to children of their own. That’s all life really is in the end. A lot of little days, and moments, and memories, that somehow in the end all adds up to a lifetime.

It goes too fast.

At least it did for my cousin Michael. I do believe there is a kind of our immortality in our shared memories however. We pass these little moments down from generation to generation, and do our best to remember. For me today it was about remembering the good times with my cousin. Rest in peace my friend. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Little Things

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Marianne Williamson

“You know we just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening. Back then I thought, well, there’ll be other days. I didn’t realize that that was the only day.

Field of Dreams

I’ve been thinking lately..

I’ve been thinking a little bit about pride. How it makes us a little snobby, a little guarded, a little slow to say things, and get involved, and reach out and reconnect with people.

I’m convinced this is a mistake.

I’ve been thinking this because I don’t think it’s a good use of our time. My time anyway. I’ve been thinking this because I know, in my heart of hearts, that we don’t have an unlimited amount of time.

I’ve been thinking this because lately I’ve become more attuned to the little things. It took some big things to make me think like this. A visit with my aging mother. A frank look at my own health. A horrific school shooting. It led me to a deeper understanding of my own mortality. And what I concluded was something a little unexpected.

I have a tremendous amount of power. Actually we all do.

I realize this because I got a letter the other day from a person telling me so. I didn’t expect this, and frankly, I didn’t realize I had even affected this person. It reminded me of something I keep forgetting. We have a LOT of power when it comes to influencing the lives of other people. Somewhere, right now, there is somehow longing for an encouraging word, a compliment, an affirmation about how they are living their life. Somewhere there is a person in need.

And you have just what they need.

This is where our power exists. All of those things we would love to hear? We can wait around for them or we can give them away instead. When we give, we get back. That’s how it works. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but it comes back around.

So personally, I vow to make 2013 the year of the little things. The year I don’t take things for granted. The year I take the time to notice when someone I normally don’t notice is in need, or in pain, or just needs a kind word. I’m not gonna wait for them to ask anymore. I’m gonna try and stay ahead of the curve, and not get complacent or lazy or apathetic.

I realize this because I think the universe has a kind of rhythm to it. Like we have our own personal soundtrack designed just for us if we only take the time to put our ears to the ground and listen.

I had a personal experience with this last night in a most unexpected place. Yesterday I wandered into a little bar. A place I never go, but oddly, felt a little drawn to. I wasn’t even going to go out last night, but all day I had a feeling I just couldn’t shake. I felt devastated by the news of the school shooting in Connecticut, and I felt I needed to be around people. So there I sat. Alone. Sad. Disconnected.

And as I sat there staring at my beer, a most unexpected thing happened. I heard the door rattle, and all of a sudden there were 40 people inside, and they spontaneously burst into song. Christmas Carols. Just a lovely little pick me up that was exactly what I needed to feel a sense of hope for the human race again. 40 people who had given up their Friday night to sing. To make Christmas a little nicer for other people. I was one of those other people. It was one of the nicest things I can ever recall actually.

It was just a little thing..

So I make my vow to pay it forward. To remember that somewhere there is a person in need of some little thing I can do to make their life more bearable. You get what you give. You can sit around waiting or you can be the change you want to see in the world. I hope I can remember this. I need to remember. A little thing can change a path. Alter a life. Right a wrong. Maybe even save a life.

I’m gonna try and remember.. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

In search of the Binary Sunset

“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”
Norman Cousins

“A path is only a path, and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you . . . Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself alone, one question . . . Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't it is of no use.”
Carlos Castaneda

Growing up with the original Star Wars franchise, I remember being completely enthralled with the worlds that were created for me to watch up on the screen. At one point I made a homemade light saber. My brother had the coveted model Millennium Falcon. Star Wars was a big deal in our house.

One scene I remember in particular was where Luke, anxious for more adventure in his life, steps out at dusk and sees a binary sunset. The scene conveys a sense of longing for something more that was one of the most powerful in movie history.

And watching the scene, I always wondered if I would ever have an adventure, or if I was doomed to spend my life longing for a life different than the one I seemed stuck in at the time. I wanted to grow up, to move away, to be older and take trips and get out of my little town and my little life. Sometimes I would even look up at the sky in search of the binary sunset.

I never did find my sunset, but I did manage to see the world. I realized a lot of my dreams while some others never quite materialized. And now I find myself working as a Psychologist in the city of Chicago, a place I always wanted to go to growing up watching the Cubs play on WGN. It was one of the places I always wondered about on those evenings such a long time ago, and now I’m here. The dream materialized, but I still kind of feel the same. When is SOMETHING going to happen?

What I have come to realize is that nothing ever happens when we don’t take the initiative to make it so. Watch any movie and you are reminded of this. The hero doesn’t get the pot of gold without failing, probably getting his ass kicked a few times, and falling down, and the pretty girl doesn’t just fall into your lap. You have to go get these things.

What separates those who do get these things is that these people demonstrate an unusual ability to persevere, despite the setbacks. These are the Michael Jordans, cut from their High School basketball teams, who go on to become the greatest ever in their sport. The Ray Krocs, who failed over and over again, who ultimately created the most successful restaurant of all time. Ultimately this is the quality that seems to predict much of success. The ability to endure. Too many of us, including myself, have a tendency to give up when things get hard, and our gratification is less than immediate.

But this life is fraught with peril. We focus on what’s wrong with our lives, our families, the world around us, and our lives become one constant complaint about the things that we don’t have. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw said it best, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

I sometimes catch myself being one of these “feverish selfish little clods of ailments and grievances” and when I do, I usually laugh at my arrogance and try and make an attitude adjustment. I ask myself, what are YOU going to do to change the circumstances in your life? No one else cares that much.

So ultimately, I think I have come to find my own adventure in helping other people try and find their own. Of course I understand that people truly suffer from depression and anxiety and any number of other conditions, and I will continue to treat these things with the seriousness that they deserve. In the end though, I hope we can all come to better catch ourselves in the moments when we are pouting and whining about how the world won’t change itself to make us happy.

It’s just not how it works.

My hope is that at least one person who reads this will contemplate how their own personal adventure may have gotten derailed, and the personal choices they can take responsibility for to begin fixing these detours. It’s not too late. It’s never too late. So if you’re hesitating, enroll in that class you’ve been thinking about, volunteer somewhere, get to the gym, extend a kindness to someone, pick up the phone,  get out those old paintbrushes and find a canvas.

It’s your choice..

And may the force be with you..

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Listening to the drums

“Parents rarely let go of their children, so children let go of them. They move on. They move away. The moments that used to define them - a mother's approval, a father's nod - are covered by moments of their own accomplishments. It is not until much later, as the skin sags and the heart weakens, that children understand; their stories, and all their accomplishments, sit atop the stories of their mothers and fathers, stones upon stones, beneath the waters of their lives.”

Mitch Albom

I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time... For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars... And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined our street... Or my grandmother's hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper... And the first time I saw my cousin Tony's brand new Firebird... And Janie... And Janie... And... Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me... but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday. 
Lester Burnham- American Beauty

     November is a big month for gratitude, especially in the Facebook era. There seems to be a lot of it going around, and frankly, when it’s sincere, I personally believe gratitude is one of the most proactive tools we have. Maybe life can be best understood as one large continuum, with appreciation for all of the little moments and people in our lives on one end of the spectrum, and resentment and cynicism on the other. We can always find things that don’t seem quite fair in our lives, and when we focus our attention there, that’s resentment. On the other hand there are plenty of things in our lives that, if we look closely at, make us incredibly lucky. When we focus our attention there, that’s gratitude.

     As a counselor, I temper my own understanding of gratitude with the issue of loss. I’ve sat with people who would do anything for one more day with the people they’ve lost, and yet their time has passed. And when we are confronted with these moments, and rest assured we all will be one day, we start to ask some nagging questions. Why did we waste so much time? Why didn’t we say all of the things we had to say when these people were still living?

One day these questions may keep you up at night..Trust me on this.

What I have learned from this, is that real gratitude is not simply writing things down that we are thankful for, although that’s fine as far as it goes. Take a long look around at the holiday table this year. One of those people may be gone next year. I know it seems morbid to think about, but I think it can also lead to a greater sense of urgency about what it is we are doing here.

I had a chance to practice what I preach a little this Thanksgiving, when my own mother came out to stay in Chicago for the week. As I was preparing for her visit, I got a text from a close friend who had lost her own mother over the previous year. She wrote, “Enjoy every minute with your mom, I'd do anything for another moment with mine.”

Although I am certainly happy to see her, I have a tendency to get a little impatient, and reading my friend’s text slowed me down a little. So this week I took some time to appreciate the little moments. Although I’m not exactly sure how it happens, most years my holiday persona more closely resembles the Grinch than it does Jimmy Stewart, and this year I decided to change that up a little. So we played games, and drank (lots of) wine, and bought gifts, and made 2012 one of the best Thanksgivings I can remember. This shouldn’t be a chore, but I’d gotten a little complacent over the years, and I needed a little reminder that all of this time with my mother is coming to an end. It helped me understand the seriousness of fleeting time, which ended up making this time a lot more fun.

And perhaps most importantly, I remembered to have some respect for the fleeting nature of my own time. Maybe I will be the one who won’t be sitting at the holiday table next year. It’s something I’m going to think about. The Buddhists talk about how we should meditate on the reality of our own deaths each and every day. Again, sounds morbid on the surface, but I think hold a great deal of wisdom regarding taking the time we have remaining a little more seriously. That doesn’t mean LIVING seriously, and in fact to me, it means the exact opposite. For you it may mean something else, but I do think there is value in contemplating the question.

I was reminded of all of this recently while watching the Blue Man Group, whose entire show seems to be about the concept of living your life with a greater sense of urgency. In one particular sequence the Blue men started pounding the drums as they were holding up various signs. The drums got louder and louder until they finally reached a kind of fever pitch that ended with the signs , YOUR LIFE, (loud drums), IS PASSING (even LOUDER drums) YOU BY!!!

And it is! These drums have been pounding in my head ever since I saw the show, and I hope they will continue to play. They remind me to live a little more mindfully, and to spend less time on cynicism and more on gratitude. They remind to not be lazy with my time, cheap with my affection, and complacent with the people in my life.

The drums have been a welcome addition to the soundtrack.. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012


“Bullying is killing our kids. Being different is killing our kids and the kids who are bullying are dying inside. We have to save our kids whether they are bullied or they are bullying. They are all in pain.”
Cat Cora

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
Kahlil Gibran

I must admit, I usually enjoy writing these little essays. I find myself jotting down little notes from time to time, and, over the course of a couple of weeks, they just kind of come together into a collection of (mostly) integrated ideas. It’s a fun process and something I usually look forward to.

Not this time though. No this time I felt compelled to talk about something that has in many ways been a huge issue in my life as a kid, then a teenager, and now as a child psychologist. This issue is bullying.

I've been on all sides of the bullying continuum. As a kid I was teased for my appearance, mocked relentlessly and humiliated. Later, as a teenager, I dished out plenty of the same. I teased just about anyone in my path, and this went on for a while. Maybe this was a way of dealing with my own experiences. One thing I know to be unequivocally true, is that this kind of stuff leaves scars. I've got plenty of my own, and am sure I've created a few myself. As much as I enjoy working with kids, I've often thought that it was my penance in this life to try and guide kids through their own troubled times as a way of making peace with my own past.

An image that will always haunt me came from one of my first experiences as a counselor in my early days as a psychology student. I had an assignment at a school at the end of the summer and it was hot. Not just warm, but summer in Chicago hot. A skinny kid came in wearing a baggy sweatshirt, and I made a sarcastic remark about him being overdressed. He managed a little smile, sat down, and we talked for a while. He talked to me about his parents, his neighborhood, and then finally what it was like to be gay in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood. I was very touched by his story, and told him to please come back again.

As he got up to leave, he took a long look at me, and then slowly rolled up his sleeves. There were knife marks across and all up and down his arms. Not little ones either, but long and ugly scars from years of cutting himself.

“This is why I wear long sleeve shirts in the summer” he said quietly.

It was a statement that I've never forgotten.

I never saw this particular kid again, as my assignment ended shortly afterwards, and he never showed up for his next appointment. I've always wondered what happened to him, and I find myself hoping that he somehow hung on. Still, his scars ran deep, and there were a lot of them.

Unfortunately those weren't the last scars that I've seen, but it was the last time I ever made a sarcastic comment about a kid wearing long sleeves. It reminded me of a lesson that I often forget. Words matter. Sometimes they matter so much that they make vulnerable and scared children run knives across their arms, sometimes fatally. It’s all a little terrifying actually. You want to tell these kids that this stuff is not going to last forever. That one day they will be out of High School and free from small minds and mean people.

But you really can’t promise that.

What you can do is listen and try and understand. You can give them a place where they can talk about the isolation and the confusion and the humiliation. And some of them will survive and become the “massive characters” that Kahlil Gibran discusses in the above quotation. Many of the world’s great success stories start in this very manner. But some of them wont. Some of them will spend the rest of their lives thinking that they aren't welcome in a world that has been so hard on them.

What we can also do is advocate for those who have yet to realize the power of their own voices. Personally I've come to see this as my duty and responsibility. Bullying has become one of the most serious epidemics of our generation, and it’s killing our kids, both literally and figuratively. If you are in a position to influence a child in your life, please take the time to talk to them about this.

A life may depend on it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Navigating your emotions

“If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart.”

Pema Chödrön

Ever have one of those moments when your emotions get away from you? If you’re like me it probably happens at least once a day. I’m a psychologist. I should know better, but I promise you it happens to the best of us. I've nearly lost my mind in Chicago traffic when I’m running a little late for work. Sometimes even on the way to teach an anger management class. Ahh the hypocrisy.

 One of the better books I’ve ever read on the subject of managing emotions is called ‘Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman, who calls it “emotional highjacking” when feelings such as anger take over the brain of an otherwise (reasonably) rationale person. The emotion in this case overrides the thinking, reasoning part of the brain, and, for a short while, the emotion takes over instead. Ever wonder how a normally calm person can sometimes turn in to a completely different person when they are triggered in a certain way? Or wondered why people just seem to “snap” in certain stressful situations? Emotional highjacking explains a lot of this.

All of this has to do with the way our brains respond to fear. When we experience fear, our fight or flight response summons us to the present moment and makes sure we are paying attention. It’s the brain’s way of saying, “This is real, this is actually happening, and you have to address this NOW.” All of this happens in a matter of seconds. The problem is that our brains can play tricks on us sometimes. Often times we go on high alert when a thoughtful moment of reflection would have sufficed instead. I see this all the time while doing marriage counseling. A comment is made that sets off a person’s alarm system, a threat is perceived, and a person goes on the attack. Their partner attacks back, and within seconds everyone is at defcon five.

All of this can start with a comment as seemingly innocent as “does this dress make me look fat?”

One explanation for this is that these kinds of threats can be a blow to our entire sense of self. If a marriage is a huge part of someone’s identity, and a comment is perceived in a way that is threatening to the marriage, it also can pull the rug out on a person’s entire sense of self, which can lead to confusion, fear, and often even rage.

All of this is interesting to consider in relation to the “iceberg” theory of personality. What we see above the surface of the water may be substantial, but still, 75% of the iceberg is beneath the water. An example used in Goleman’s book was two kids in the backseat of a car driving along with their parents in the front. The Beatles song “Help” is playing on the radio. All of a sudden there is a fight in the front seat, and dad reaches over and smacks mom. The kids are terrified in the back seat, and duck their heads and hope that the fight stops as soon as possible.

Bur that’s not the end of the story.

These kids grow up, get older, but still, every time they hear the song “Help” they are overwhelmed by a scared and uneasy feeling. All of this happens just out of their immediate awareness, but the feeling comes over them and their well-being is at least temporarily disrupted. This is how emotional triggers can work, and by the time we reach adulthood, we may have accumulated thousands of them.

This is an important concept to understand, because it also provides an explanation as to why we often tend to make the same mistakes over and over again. Freud called this the “repetition compulsion” after observing people doing something a second time, even after it caused them pain the first time. His best guess was that we continue to put ourselves in situations like this again because we want a different outcome this time around.

It rarely ever happens that way.

Ever wonder why a person who just got out of an abusive relationship tends to pick a guy just like that again and again? Why a man with a nagging and impossible to please mother would marry a woman with almost exactly the same personality? Or perhaps a woman with a cold and distant father keeps choosing men that can’t meet her emotional needs?

The repetition compulsion explains a lot of this, as our emotional wiring keeps steering us in a direction that leads to more pain. It’s somewhat like a pilot with a bad navigational system, who is trying desperately to get to Florida, but keeps winding up in New York instead. Until we can better understand our emotional tendencies and reactions, we repeat mistakes over and over, without always understanding why. And truthfully this can go on for a lifetime.

So how DO we break this cycle and begin to better understand our own navigational system? The answer I believe lies in training ourselves to focus our attention specifically to the present moment. To understand when we are susceptible to these emotional “hijacks” and to bring ourselves back to the present moment, which is the only thing we have any real control over. As Victor Frankl puts it in his wonderful book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

In pursuit of helping others find more of these moments in their lives, I would like to recommend a couple of things. First, acquaint yourself with the idea of mindfulness meditation, and perhaps start with the book Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn which may be the best book written on the subject. Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence is also a fantastic read, and one that personally helped me a great deal. Sometimes now, (not all the time) when someone cuts me off in traffic, I remember what is happening, take a deep breath, and laugh at my own reaction. I’m still a work in progress. All of us are. But as long as we are drawing breath, we can get better at making choices that empower us to be personally responsible for our lives.

That’s the best we can do..

Thursday, October 4, 2012

3 A.M.

It's 3 A.M. I must be lonely
When she says baby
Well I can't help but be scared of it all sometimes            
Matchbox 20

In my age, as in my youth, night brings me many a deep remorse. I realize that from the cradle up I have been like the rest of the race--never quite sane in the night.
- Mark Twain   

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense-
Ralph Waldo Emerson

For as long as I can remember, I have woken up in the middle of the night. Sometimes I will go a few weeks sleeping soundly through the night, but always, at some point, my 3 A.M. wake-up call returns. Being up at this hour evokes all kinds of things in a person, including fear, loneliness, solitude, and occasionally even serenity and a sense of hope.

Although it has often felt like I was alone in the world at 3 A.M., I know I’m not the only one. I've talked to dozens of people in counseling who have reported their own experiences at this hour, and their stories always make me think about what it is about 3 A.M. that seems to stir people.

There is some research that suggests that we were never really meant to sleep in 8-hour blocks. Apparently it was perfectly common for our ancestors to wake during the night, be up for an hour or two, and then go back to bed. So, some of what we think of as “insomnia” may actually be a part of our inherited adaptation to sleep.

At one point, I thought insomnia was about existential crisis. Those moments all of us have from time to time where we think about what it is we are doing here. Who am I? Where am I’m going? These are the kinds of things that come into your head at 3 in the morning. Life can feel a little rudderless when you’re awake with your own thoughts at that hour, and those questions can be a little harder to answer when no one else is around.

I also think 3 AM. has a lot to do with anxiety, which is a future-oriented fear about business that is yet to be transacted. We worry about money and our jobs and our health, and just about anything else that has been rattling around in our heads throughout the day. These things bubble to the surface at 3 A.M., sometimes even interrupting our sleep. It can feel like a cruel trick at times, as we are not in any kind of position to solve these problems at that hour. So we worry. And think. And run the same tape deck of thoughts over and over. Sometimes we even count the occasional sheep in between the ruminations. Who among us hasn't made some kind of “sleep bargain?” “If I fall asleep now, I’ll still get 5 hours." 

That never works..

An Indian man who specialized in meditation once told me that “the body takes sleep as it needs it.” It was little comfort at the time, but in retrospect I think he had a point. Although I've certainly experienced grogginess, fatigue, and poor concentration after a night of interrupted sleep, I have found that eventually the body always succumbs when it’s had enough.. In the past I've slept for what seemed like days after hitting one of these walls.

The real question seems to be, what can we do to quiet our minds down at 3 A.M. and what steps do we need to take to “finish each day and be done with it” as Mr. Emerson recommends? I believe the antidote to restless sleep lies somewhere in answering this question.

In the meantime there are several techniques we can use that can help us power down our minds in these situations. One of my personal favorites comes from Andrew Weil, who quite literally wrote the book on breathing. The second exercise here, the “4, 7, 8” technique is the best one I know to elicit the relaxation response that helps people sleep. A commitment to doing this exercise a couple of times a day will do wonders for your ability to feel more relaxed. I guarantee it.

I would also recommend a couple of thought-stopping techniques. One of these involves imagining your thoughts as being part of a river and letting them flow away as they come into your mind. Another bit of imagery that helped me was to imagine my thoughts as pop-up adds that come up when you’re on your computer. Just because they come into your awareness, you don’t have to click on every one. It’s okay to simply let them go.

These are techniques that are useful as short-term interventions, but still, I think the question of insomnia also has a philosophical component. How do we finish each day and be done with it? Some of this involves a bit of self-forgiveness. Sure we did and said some things we may have regretted, but so has everyone else. Often we extend all kinds of understanding and forgiveness to our friends when they stumble a little, but we are unwilling to extend the same courtesy to ourselves. What’s done is done. You can take responsibility for changing it, accept it, or let it go. Those are your healthy options. Ruminating on things is a waste of precious time and energy.

We can also wake up each morning and do the things we say we are going to do. Write them down, make a list on your Ipad, tie a string around your finger if you have to, but do everything in your power to accomplish a few things that make you feel like you are moving towards the person you want to be. It has been my experience that unfinished business is a big piece of what keeps us awake at night, and reaching small goals throughout the day is a wonderful antidote. Research bears this out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am writing this article at 3 A.M. Often when I have an idea rattling around in my head, it stays there until I do something about it. Not all thoughts should be ignored, and sometimes the ones that come back are trying to tell us something. In my case I woke up and started typing. Perhaps I will learn something from a fellow 3 A.M. person, and maybe I’ll even help someone get a little sleep. In any case,

It’s done..

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

In search of the Golden Valley

From the movie Shadowlands

Joy: Is it someplace real?

CS Lewis- I think so. It's called the Golden Valley, I believe.. Somewhere in Herefordshire. –

Joy: Somewhere special?

C.S. Lewis- In a way. It was on our nursery wall when I was a child. I didn't know it was a real place then. I thought it was a view of heaven. Or, the promised land. I used to think that one day I'd come around a bend in the road...or over the brow of a hill, and there it would be.

C.S Lewis-Shadowlands

“Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.

Thích Nhất Hạnh

I’ve always been fascinated by C.S Lewis. At different incarnations in his life he was an atheist, a philosopher, an intellectual, a born-again Christian, and a children’s book author. I love the idea that one man could be so full of constant contradiction and evolution. It’s something I can definitely relate to.

The above scene from the movie Shadowlands about his life always stuck with me. I’ve had a few “sacred” places in my life like his beloved Golden Valley. The top of a mountain in Ireland, the bottom of the Grand Canyon, alone on a lonely and solemn September night, and a lovely valley in the Orosi region of Costa Rica, pictured here.

Today was the first time I’ve ever returned to a sacred place in my life, and it was something I’ve always wondered about. Would the place have the same meaning to me if I was to one day return, or was there something specific about the way I was feeling back then? Would it still have its magic if I returned? 

So I sought to answer that question today, and walking through the hills in the Orori Valley, I had the oddest feeling of simultaneously being in two places at the same time, as the memories and my current incarnation began to intertwine. One burgeoning area in my field is called “Ecological” psychology, which explores the effects certain kinds of places have on our lives. It’s a fascinating idea that these places can act so powerfully on our mental state, and, having experienced it on such a personal level, I wanted to explore the mystery a little deeper.

So I ventured into the mountains of Costa Rica in search of this feeling, wondering as I did if these are the kinds of things we can force, or if we just need to let them happen organically. I took in the beauty of the rolling green hills, and as I walked a feeling of calm and serenity came over me as I became totally invested in the moment. In this time, in this place, all of the regrets of the past and the worries about the future dissipated, as I simply appreciated how fortunate I was to be in this beautiful place.

As I continued to walk, I stumbled across a little village up in the mountains and decided I would forgo my experiment for the moment and take a little rest. The first thing I noticed was how small and run down the homes were, and for a moment I felt a little saddened. I took a seat in the town square and watched families and friends gather together to talk and laugh. I watched four generations of families kick a soccer ball around in a little field. I sat and just took in their lives, and eventually I came to understand something that was different than what it was I came for.

Costa Rica was recently named as the happiest country on earth in a survey called the "Happy Planet Index." This index takes into account a variety of factors such as longevity, health care, pollution, etc. As I sat on my little bench watching these people in this little town, I began to get a sense of why this place earned the ranking that it did.

 What I observed was that on this summer Sunday afternoon, everyone was totally in the moment, enjoying their friends and their families, and simply taking a little time to be completely in the here and now. It’s a quality that is very elusive in the hustle and bustle of American life. Everyone seems to be somewhere else. If you don’t believe me, watch a group of people out at a bar or a restaurant the next time you’re out and about. Half the people will probably have a phone in their hand, texting or calling someone else as opposed to being in the moment with the people they are supposed to be out with. It’s a troubling trend in American life that I myself am also completely guilty of.

So as I watched these people I realized that, although I had gone off in search of some kind of transcendent experience in nature, I had found a different kind of life lesson about staying in the moment. Sometimes it seems like life is always about getting more. Get the newest phone, move to a bigger house, get the newest gadget and by all means stay on it at all times to justify the purchase. It’s an exercise that I believe leads to a great deal of anxiety. 

 But not here. Here in this little valley my gadgets didn’t work, I had nobody to text, and I just had the pleasure of watching people enjoy their lives as they existed. Although their houses weren’t large and their clothes weren’t new, and none of them had the newest ipad, they were happy, and it made me happy to sit and watch for a while.

Eventually I returned to my little hotel and looked at the pile of gadgets I had sitting there, and wondered if I shouldn’t just leave them all behind. They were the tools I used in my life back home, but for a moment they seemed like heavy baggage that perhaps I didn’t need as much as I thought I did. I am a Psychologist, and my job is to be with people in the present moment as I bear witness to the various struggles in their lives.

I don’t need four different Apple products to do this..

Eventually I went home with everything that I came with, but also with a new approach to living in the moment that I had always understood on an intellectual level, but no so much on an emotional one. I wanted to find and bottle what those people in that little mountain village had, but knew that all of this started by taming the distractions in my own mind.

And in the end, I think I also helped answer my own question about why certain places in nature are so sacred to us. Although the places themselves certainly have a kind of power, ultimately I believe it is the state of mind we are in when we observe them that helps contribute so much to their influence over us. As John Milton said hundreds of years ago, “The mind can make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven.” I vowed to keep that in mind as I touched down on US soil again.

For now, I am grateful for the time I have been given today. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Such a long long time to be gone

Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there
Grateful Dead- Box of Rain

   All the people we used to know
   They're an illusion to me now
   Some are mathematicians
   Some are carpenter's wives
   Don't know how it all got started
   I don't what they're doing with their lives
   Bob Dylan- Tangled up in blue

   How do we reconcile the past with the present, 
   when we don’t feel comfortable in either one?
   October Road

Every summer I get this odd kind of feeling. There’s something so fleeting about it, and sometimes in the middle of a summer day, I start thinking about all the places I’ve been. Sometimes I even sit and time travel for a moment as I watch the sun go down. I think about being 18 and sitting by the river in my hometown, wondering if I was ever going to get a chance to leave. I think about being on top of a mountain in Yellowstone Park, or drinking beer in a crazy Montana bar, and I go back for a short while to those places. 

And then the moment passes. I take measure of where I am, and wonder what happened to all of the people I used to know and have such good times with. You get so close to people and make such amazing friendships, and then one day you look up again and find yourself in a completely different incarnation. Seasons change and people come and go, and we are often left wondering what happened. 

Modern technology has helped a little bit. We can use Facebook or something similar to catch up with people or to take a glimpse of the lives they are living now, but sometimes this doesn’t really scratch the itch. Many memories get frozen in amber, and we have a hard time reconciling how the people we used to know don’t seem to be the same anymore. We want them to stay the way WE remembered them, and when the way they are now conflicts with the way we see them, a strange loop of perception can occur, where we are left wondering if maybe all of our experiences were just some kind of a dream.   
In thinking about this issue, I thought about an exercise I sometimes give people in counseling, where they are instructed to write their own obituaries. Although it sounds a little morbid, it sometimes helps people clarify what it is they want to accomplish during their short stays here on planet earth. How would you like to be remembered, and what would you want people to say about you? “Bob spent his later years mostly eating Doritos and playing Xbox 360, he died in his beloved sweatpants he had worn for 27 straight days.” Probably not. Probably you would want the people you had shared significant experiences with to remember you and say something about the good times you had together. 

Which makes me wonder why we don’t just go ahead and do these things while we are still drawing breath. Stephen Levine posed the question, “If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say?  And why are you waiting?” Why DO we wait to do these things, and where does this apprehension come from? I think we get trapped in our comfort zones at times, and settle into a kind of complacency where we just kind of survive on auto-pilot rather than think too much about it.

 I recently read an article called “The top five regrets of the dying” which was written by a nurse who had spent a lot of time with people at the end of their lives. Two of the five items involved courage, which I think informs so much of our happiness, but it was another item that really caught my eye. The item was “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” In explaining this item, she writes, “"Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."

Powerful stuff, which I think speaks to the point I’m trying to make about stepping out of our comfort zones and picking up the phone. I know for me personally I have vowed to do a little more than examine the pangs of nostalgia I feel and take a little more action. So what are YOU waiting for? Pick up the phone and call an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Make peace with someone you are having a silly and stupid argument with. Make plans to visit a place that has special memories for you. Pick up that guitar that is gathering dust in the closet and give it another shot.

Such a long long time to be gone, and a short time to be here..

Monday, July 2, 2012

Bang the Drum Slowly

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. 
~Victor Frankl

But I tried didn’t I? At least I did that.
~Randall P. McMurphy- One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The Pacific Northwestern salmon beats itself bloody on its quest to travel hundreds of miles upstream against the current, with a single purpose, sex of course, but also... life
~Drew Baylor ~Elizabethtown

When I was a young man in my early teens, I became interested in a movie called “Bang the Drum Slowly.” It was a baseball movie, where Robert DeNiro plays a young catcher dying of a terminal illness, who has one last season in the majors before his illness takes him. Something about the movie and this phrase captured my imagination, and sometimes during particular moments that I thought life was moving too fast, I would repeat this phrase to myself. Bang the Drum Slowly. Slow down a little life, and let me enjoy the moment. I’ll get older soon enough.

And sure enough I did. I had all kinds of dreams as a kid that didn’t exactly materialize, but some other ones came to fruition instead. So here I sit, a psychologist, not quite old, but not exactly a young man either, trying my best to help other people realize their own dreams, or at least make the kind of changes in their lives to find some kind of happiness.

I was reminded of all of this, because this week one of my patients passed away when her heart simply didn’t work anymore. It was my first death since I’ve been a psychologist, and it hit me pretty hard. This is a letter I got from her a couple of months before she died.

I share this on these pages, because in many ways I was incredibly proud of this woman, and her willingness to make changes in her life, even as it was coming to an end. She could have simply thrown in the towel and kept on doing what she was doing, but instead she chose to try and change a few things in her life and take responsibility for her own happiness. It’s something so few of us are truly willing to do, although if you ask people they will usually tell you otherwise. What we really often want is someone else to change. In reality however, the only way we change the temperature of our own happiness in any kind of lasting way, is to make some internal changes in ourselves. The people and places can and do change, but in the confines of our inner worlds, the song remains the same. Confronting and changing these inner workings is difficult work, and in this case, a very brave woman was able to do this. Right at the end of her life, sure, but still, much like McMurphy in Cuckoos’s Nest, she tried goddamnit. At least she did that.

The saddest part of the story was that she had so little time left after she decided to make these changes in her life, and I couldn’t help but wonder why the drum couldn’t have beat a little more slowly for her. So much of life seems to work like this. We thrash and we struggle and we flail, and in the end we find we held the keys to our own prisons the whole time. This woman found this out at the end of her life, and, although I wished for her to have more time to enjoy herself,  maybe I missed the whole point.  Maybe the happiness she found at the end of her life was the culmination of a lot of suffering that eventually crystallized into wisdom. Although it would be nice to think we can have one without the other, I’m not completely sure that’s how it works. In any case, she found her peace at the end, and, in dying, left me with my own new lessons to contemplate. Am I taking responsibility for my own happiness, or have I grown complacent and cynical? Am I actually walking the walk, or am I just saying the words? These are questions we should ask ourselves again and again, and personally I’m starting today. Thank you for this one last lesson my friend.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memories and Gratitude

“Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.”
― Paul Bowles

      Memorial Day weekend has always been a favorite of mine. Having slugged though another long Chicago winter, it marks the beginning of summer and all of the good times that come along with that. After 3 days of basking in this summer fun, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the holiday has a more serious purpose and more important meaning.

     For many, the day is a reminder to step back and acknowledge all of the service people who gave their lives fighting for their country. It reminds us that a price was paid for us to live the way we do, and that this price involved a lot of other people actually losing their lives in pursuit of this freedom. Courageous people paved the way for us, and the lives of convenience we enjoy today involved a lot of sacrifice. It’s an important idea to remember, and perhaps this idea can also serve to rekindle our sense of gratitude in an age where many of us have grown a tad entitled to the lives we live today.

     Beyond the military aspect of the holiday, I think this day also offers a wonderful chance to think about where we came from. Although they may not have been the kinds of choices that cost them their lives, our own mothers and fathers made tremendous sacrifices to give us a better life, and as children we rarely stop to acknowledge this. As the quote above attests to, it is only later in life, “when the skin sags and the heart weakens” that we begin to fully realize how our own lives are also part of a much larger story. Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents came to this country from somewhere else, and faced down tremendous fears to start a new legacy for their families, and we are the ones currently reaping the benefits of their acts of courage so many years ago. To me it’s a powerful thought, and one that makes me a lot less inclined to complain about the wide array of “first world problems” that seem to seep into my life on a daily basis. My biggest problem is losing my remote control, but somewhere in history it was a matter of literally finding food, clothing, and shelter. Kind of puts things in perspective.

     In my own life I think about my own mother working multiple jobs so her kids could one day have a life better than her own, and I am grateful. I didn’t say it a single time growing up, but now, as a doctor who has all kinds of options in my life, I realize someone else paid a price for me. It’s humbling and I am grateful. I suspect we can all think about a similar choice our parents made at one point, and I hope in these moments we can continue to choose gratitude. Parenting is like being a participant in a relay race, where you take the baton as far as you can go, based on the best information you have at the time. You hope your kids will run faster and run further, and one day their kids will run even further than that. Like I say, we’re part of a larger story.

     All of these thoughts come to mind today, because I do believe we have entered an age of entitlement, and sometimes it makes me a little sad. I know I am personally almost constantly taking things for granted, and in these moments, I try and think about where I came from and where I’m going, and what the original authors of my story would think about my whining and complaining. In these moments I often end up laughing at my own sense of self-importance, and remind myself to keep on moving the baton. Remember the sacrifices and be grateful. A simple mantra, but one I think we all could stand to repeat once in a while.