Monday, May 26, 2008

Worry, Part II

We each have areas of our lives that are challenging. This is as it should be, since such nudges propel us toward growth. However, when the hurdles are uncomfortably high or frequent, when we lack (or forget to use!) an effective self-soothing mechanism, or when we’ve developed habits that actually promote uneasiness, those nudges feel more like hammers. As stress invades, worry grows.

Just as in Worry, Part I, when I speak of it here, I mean more than the specific thoughts we’re likely to spin when overwhelmed. I am referring to the whole constellation of physical, psychological and spiritual predispositions that feed~~and, in turn, are fed by~~our fretting.

A stressed human being is most often someone whose body is inaccurately perceiving signals of danger. While our bodies are amazing creations, in this way they remain somewhat primitive. When we’re agitated because we might be late for work, for example, our bodies just can’t relate. In their world, a megaphone is booming “DANGER! DANGER!” They’re thinking ‘saber-toothed tiger’, ‘lava flow’, ‘marauding band of evildoers’. They have no category for ‘keeping folks waiting’ or ‘irritated boss’.

Thus, adrenaline is released, and suddenly we’re all dressed up with no place to go. Our bodies are revved, ready to fight or run for cover. At the very least, we’re on heightened alert status. We respond instinctively by scanning the environment, searching for danger in order to reduce it. And if there’s no overt peril out there, do we abort the mission? Not usually. We keep right on scanning, continually searching for something to fix. This is the essence of worry.

However, this capacity doesn’t arise from our physical makeup alone. We are imaginative beings. Creating is what we do.* However, while humans produce loving interactions, acts of valor, and works of beauty, we also fashion much that is unhelpful and counter to the life we yearn to live. Worry is an example of this tendency. In fact, as a primary drain of creative energy, it may be responsible for preventing the creation all manner of amazing things.

In terms of our personal psychology, anxiety encourages us to look within. Perhaps there are important issues underlying our stewing, and it's time to do a little problem-solving.  Is our life out of balance in some way? Do we have a pessimistic bent to our personality, with a tendency to assume the worst? How about a need for control? If we return for a moment to the example of being late for work, do we have an excessive fear of displeasing someone? If we’re running late due to our own behaviors, is there a self-sabotaging style that needs attention~~a disregard of detail, a pattern of spreading ourselves too thinly or attempting to do too much, a need to get up or go to bed earlier? Or does a predisposition toward anxiety speak of earlier or current wounds that are crying out to finally be heard and effectively healed?

Yet worry is more complex still. I believe it is most often a manifestation~~ even an enactment~~of an underlying belief or approach that is pressing to be brought into awareness. Worry is, at its heart, a spiritual issue, and within it can be found a plethora of unconsciously held beliefs about our relationship to life itself. As such, fretting might reflect any combination of the following:
  • We lack trust in Spirit. This mistrust can take a variety of forms. We may not truly believe that Spirit can offer a hand, that learning is possible~~perhaps even intended~~in each event of our lives, that we will ultimately be okay, or that good can come from something we deem bad.
  • We perceive ourselves to be victims in a harsh and punishing Universe.
  • We have an inflated idea of what our responsibilities are, believing that we oughta be in control and that things should play out as we see fit.
  • We have a tendency to shirk or refuse the one thing that is ours to manage~~our own nature. We may reject, in practice, the call to live in harmony with what is and to choose the wisest, most helpful response to any situation.
  • We believe we know what is best, despite the limitations of human vision. Referring again to the example of being late for work, we ignore the fact that being 5 minutes earlier could bring us to an intersection just as a distracted Mom misses a red light and plows into us, seriously harming us or her children. Or perhaps that our boss may need an opportunity to choose wisely how to address our tardiness. We forget that even losing our job could be in our best interests, although it might be difficult to see from our current vantage point.
  • We forget that seeds of growth exist in any situation, and that focusing on these would be a far more productive use of our energy.
  • We are blind to the Holy, mistaking our own limited vision and personal reactions for what is ultimately true. In the large scheme of life on this planet, and even our own small ones, we forget that whatever incident we're hooked by likely doesn’t matter all that much. We continue to shrink ourselves into a tight box at the exclusion of so much.
In a previous essay, I discussed the need to keep our channels open to the spiritual force that sustains us. Worry is an activity that effectively crimps that channel, shrinking our sustenance to a mere trickle. By devoting our precious energy to anxiety, we forgo trust, reinforce a fear-based approach to the activity of living, and close down to the richness that surrounds us.

Choosing what we give our attention to is an important aspect of conscious living. Granted, it may not always feel as if we have a choice, but we do. The first step is to become cognizant of the choices we’re making. There is simply no substitute for awareness. Once we have that, we can begin to choose differently. In next week's essay, I’ll offer some specific suggestions on how to do just that.

Some folks assert that we create our own reality. No matter how you feel about this statement, it can’t be denied that our perspective profoundly effects our experience of our reality. If you lean toward worry, you will find worrisome things to focus on, and that will become your experience, your reality.

This living alive is challenging work. Here’s to hoping we can all live with greater trust and a willingness to allow ourselves to be transformed by that small voice whispering our name.


Loanne Marie

*For more on how this tendency plays out when we try to quiet our minds in meditation, see Meditation Myths #1

Monday, May 19, 2008

Worry, Part I

In a recent essay, I defined meditation as the “gift of one’s complete attention to an activity.” When looked at from this viewpoint, we meditate in a variety of ways, and worry~~that all-consuming phenomenon~~is one of them.

As I’m using the term here, worry is comprised of both specific thoughts and the emotions and perspective that provide nourishment for those thoughts. Training our minds to forgo their tendency to gnaw on disturbing ideas and scenarios is necessary, but not sufficient. To make a profound change, one must go to the heart of an anxiety-provoking approach to life.

I know something about this topic, having personally wasted a fair amount of energy on anxiety. My current commitment to altering this tendency began several years ago. I’ve used the Tarot for decades, not in its predictive capacity, but for guidance in psychological and spiritual development. During the time period I’m referring to, I found myself frequently drawing the X of Wands. As anyone who has used the Tarot will tell you, when a card makes its appearance time and again, it’s a message to look at the issue embodied in the card.

The image in the traditional Waite-Ryder deck depicts a man trudging forward under the considerable weight of the 10 Wands he’s carrying. While interpretations vary somewhat, this card generally is seen as signaling a feeling of being overwhelmed.  Importantly, much of this burden is viewed as self-imposed. In addition to other suggestions, we are urged to lighten our load by becoming aware of, and changing, our perspective.

The X of Wands captures how I feel when I’m fretting--too much to carry, but with a surprising resistance to laying any of it down. And since this resistance seemed key, I knew a conscious decision to adopt a different outlook was needed.

As I worked with this card further, two additional images arose. The first was a figure, who now bore a striking resemblance to me, offering her wands to an unseen Presence. The second showed the wands suspended within a golden light and the woman sitting off to the side in meditation. These two images, drawn by my own hand, are now taped on either side of the window in my meditation space. They remind me to consciously offer my worried thoughts and feelings to Spirit, and to fill the space thus vacated with the Holy.

So, with all this as background, I found the process of writing this essay rather humorous. Time had been given to other things, and I was feeling rushed.  The writing was not going well. Without realizing it, I zipped into a worried outlook~~this as I wrote about worry! Would I finish the essay by my self-imposed deadline? Would I be able to craft my thoughts into an effective piece? Did I even have anything worthwhile to say on the subject?

The process of worry was thus delineated quite clearly. I had moved rather quickly from feeling a time pressure to doubting my worthiness. Quite the leap, eh? Worry is like that. It offers doubt a toehold and, if we don’t turn it around, zaps our spirit.

The definition of meditation I gave above was missing an all important word: conscious. Meditation is the conscious gift of one’s complete attention to an activity. A worry fest is, therefore, not truly a meditation as it is essentially an unconscious phenomenon. We unwittingly allow our attention to be consumed by anxiety, and our fear carries us off into territory that is not soul-friendly. Who would consciously choose that?! Life as it is, with its many dazzling manifestations and opportunities, passes right by--and so consumed are we by the web of our own creation that we hardly notice!

And so we need to replace our unconscious meditation with a conscious one. To that end, we need to accurately perceive what we’re giving our precious energy to and make other choices. For me, the image of offering up my anxiety works. It’s what I did~~finally~~in regards to this essay, and what came back to me was clarity about my own process, a suggestion to share that with you, and the groundwork for further exploration on this subject next week. A much better solution than a needless funk!

I wish you a worry-free week. But should you find yourself spinning your own anxious web, experiment with giving it away and filling yourself instead with Spirit.


Loanne Marie

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mom Quilt

Mothers. We all have them. Some are wonderful, archetypal in their ability to authentically and richly love and nurture. Others are harsh, rejecting, abandoning, damaging. However, most seem to be a swirling mix of positive and negative aspects~~as are we all~~though, with a decided slant toward the good.

As a psychotherapist, I have been given a unique view into the lives of children of all ages, and have heard many stories of various mother-child dyads. I have also been given the opportunity to see the ways in which folks internalize aspects of their mothers~~for good or ill~~and have witnessed the gradual resolution of destructive mother wounds. And I have seen this healing advanced through attention to, not only the mothers of one’s immediate family, but the other mothers encountered in life. For you see, most of us have known several mothers and, if we’re wise, will continue to collect new ones throughout our lives.

Mothering is not something that is confined to the women who birthed us way back when or to those who raised us. Mothering, is not a biological or a sociological fact. It is a way of relating offered by the women who grace our lives with their presence.

A relevant concept from traditional psychology is that of the maternal introject. This term refers to the process by which children internalize the qualities of their mothers. While the infant and toddler require the mother’s presence to feel safe, for example, by the time a child has made repeated forays into the world outside the family, she or he has hopefully learned to carry that sense of safety within them. This internalized mother allows them to gradually expand their world and gain a sense of autonomy.

The difficulty comes, of course, when the child’s mother is not safe, or not consistently so. But here is where that incredible resilience of the human spirit comes in~~and lucky that it does. Children who were given a mother who was inconsistent, confusing, or harmful often find positive mother figures, and instinctively use them to modify that original defective model. They internalize aspects of these mothers as well. Being able to draw on several maternal figures is important for all children, since it furthers the awareness that safety and support are not confined to one person or one relationship. However, for children who were abused, neglected, or otherwise given short shrift in the mother department, this task is essential.

The work of rounding out or healing a less than totally healthy maternal introject is an important aspect of maturation for most of us. We must make peace with the internal mother mix~~heal the aspects that were harmful, nurture those that remain beneficial~~all so that we can mother well, whether that mothering be of ourselves, our offspring, or within any important relationship of our lives.

The metaphor which seems to capture this process, and our task within it, is the Mom Quilt. To explain this image, though, a quick detour into the world of quilting is needed. There is a form known as the Crazy Quilt, which consists of many pieces of fabric of various colors, patterns, shapes and sizes. The skill of the esthetically inclined quilter lies in the placing of these disparate swatches, one against the other, to form a whole that is pleasing to the eye.  A given fabric may not be particularly appealing in itself and would not be chosen for an entire spread. However, together with the others, in just the right placement and unified within the perfect border, it works beautifully. An added delight is that such a quilt is utterly unique, a one-of-a-kind creation.

This seems a particularly appropriate symbol for the task set for each of us~~the crafting of our very own Mother Quilt. The mother of our birth will certainly be included. If we were blessed with a loving and supportive biological mother, her fabric may be large and central to the entire quilt. If aspects of her influence were harmful, our task may be to cut her down to size, including her in a way that reflects her importance in our development, but no longer overpowers the entire quilt.

Other women~~aunts and grandmothers, supportive teachers, mothers of friends, fictional, religious or historic figures, professional or personal mentors, best girlfriends, and others~~have their own swatches worthy of inclusion. The size, shape, and placement of each will reflect the impact of that woman on our lives. And as we lend strength and love to others~~as well as to our own sweet souls~~these pieces, too, become part of the whole.

Now unlike a real life Crazy Quilt, our Mom Quilt will continue to be modified as the years go by. New women will come into our lives bringing with them new fabric, while others may decrease in importance as their swatches shrink or change position. Through the process of grieving when our mothers die, we may come to see them and their place in our lives differently, with a resultant alteration in their allotted portion of the whole. Indeed, our Mom Quilt must be a work in progress. With a light and flexible hand, we allow this creation to mature with us, while remaining open to new mothering figures who come our way. In just this manner, our quilt will provide warmth throughout a lifetime.

Yes, a Mom Quilt is a dynamic thing indeed. And utterly unique. We are the ones who determine its layout, who step back periodically to gauge the overall effect, who decide on needed changes. One nagging legacy of deficient mothering is that the child may unconsciously seek out ‘momming’ of the same defective style as the original. The Mom Quilt image can be used to clarify this process by encouraging us to search out new colors, shapes, and textures and to play around with positioning.

So on this Mother’s Day, here’s to every woman out there who mothers, nurtures, and supports others in the way best suited to their own talents and life situations. You are earning your place in the Mom Quilts of others!

And to those who are grieving the loss of a mother, or are struggling with the emotional harm inflicted by a harsh or distant one, I know that the classic Hallmark card doesn't accurately reflect your feelings on this day. Perhaps the metaphor of the Mother Quilt will soften the pain as it encourages you to step back and gain a richer perspective. This hurt will not always be so piercing.

On a personal note, to my own mother who crossed over nearly 12 years ago, your position in my quilt remains front and center. Your swatch, bright with the occasional darker swirl, continues to enrich my life as I discover aspects of your mothering I simply could not see while you walked this earth. I love you.

Blessings this day to all mothers~~and to all their children,

Loanne Marie

Monday, May 5, 2008

Meditation Myths and Half Truths #4

Myth # 4: There is one correct way to meditate.

Nope! There are numerous styles of meditation, including some that represent quite a stretch in the traditional meaning of the term. I suspect that folks new to meditation would do well to begin with a rather broad definition, trusting that refinement will naturally occur as practice deepens.

The broadest view I can conceive is this: meditation is the conscious gift of one’s complete attention to an activity. In this sweeping notion, any activity can be done meditatively. This is, in fact, a view shared by many schools of meditation and gives rise to various manifestations of the adage, ‘When you walk, walk; when you sit, sit; when you eat, eat’--and so on. To engage in the act before you with complete focus brings an immediacy to any experience. It also runs counter to the way many of us spend our lives--multitasking, rushing from one thing to another, never fully here since so much of our attention is held by the past or called to the future. We all too frequently are divided within ourselves, and thus separated from an authentic and intimate experience of the world.

With this broad view of meditation, anyone can begin right now to deepen their experience of life. It doesn’t require fancy technique, special training, or specific commitments of time. I once read of a woman lamenting to her mentor that, as a single mother of young children, she just couldn’t find the time to meditate. Her teacher asked what one activity she did most frequently. They then went to the sink and together washed each dish and utensil with full attention. Diapering, playing, rocking, feeding, even limit-setting--all the activities of parenting can be done more fully or less fully, with more or less awareness and presence. Likewise, one can drive, converse, work, walk the dog, make love, read, plan for the future or reminisce about the past with a meditative awareness.

But many of us find that a specific meditation practice allows us to best develop the skill to engage all areas of our lives with more immediacy. And so, the beginning broad definition seeks refinement. While we begin with the giving of our complete focus, to what do we give it in order to best cultivate this aptitude? And precisely how?

There are several answers to this question offered by the various schools of meditation, with many subsets within each one, and quite a bit of overlap between them. You may be encouraged to focus on one or more of the following: your breath, either natural or controlled; a sacred word, phrase, text, idea, object, or image; energy centers within the body; simple or complex visualizations; sounds; observing thoughts and sensations that arise. Some schools take a decidedly devotional bent while others may seem rather cerebral. Technique can be complex or simple. One may walk, sit, take particular postures, or dance; chant or be silent; use prayer beads or rosaries; practice alone or in groups. You may be encouraged toward total absorption or complete detachment. There are forms that rely on a deep bond between teacher and student, and ones that downplay such relationships, encouraging individuals to experiment with teachings to find what works for them. In other words, there is something for us all.

I think this last point is essential. We are not all the same, so why should the style of meditation that works for one person be a perfect fit for another? I suspect many folks find a first attempt ill-fitting and, not realizing the plethora of meditation flavors available, abandon the practice all together. This common misconception of a one-size-fits-all meditative approach is, I think, unwittingly furthered by meditation teachers who speak or write as though their own teaching is the only one, when it is simply what has worked for them.

There is, indeed, a style of meditation for any temperament, as well as modifications of each that can tailor it further to a particular nature. If you are interested in pursuing meditation, investigate various schools. Take classes, read books, listen to tapes, search the web, go on retreat.  Notice when something resonates. Then, experiment.

And relax! Cultivate a spirit of curiosity. Follow your own intuitive urgings. This is your life, your journey. Trust that if you feel called to meditation, a fruitful direction will appear. When something resonates, cultivate it so that it will bear a luscious fruit.

The simple truth I find in this particular myth is that, ultimately, any meditative approach will bring us the same gifts: a loving acceptance of what is, a connection to all that is, and an awareness of the sacred within both the small and large moments of our lives.

I am reminded of somthing I heard the Dalai Lama say in an interview years ago. “If it brings good heart, is good religion; if it does not bring good heart, is not good religion.” For the purpose of our discussion here, I think the following modification works well: “If it brings good heart, is good meditation.” In that way, there is only one correct way to meditate--the way that brings you good heart.

May you find your own good heart throughout the coming week.


Loanne Marie

PS. For other Meditation Myths and Half-Truths in this series, please click on Myth #1, Myth #2, and Myth #3.  I'd love to hear about your experiences!