Saturday, August 11, 2018

Forest Bathing ...

It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim
upon (our) hearts, as for that subtle something,
that quality of air, that emanation from old trees,
that so wonderfully changes and renews
a weary spirit.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Hello, Everyone!

I hope your summer's going well and that you're able to carve out time to rest and re-create.

A recent move to the head of Burrard Inlet has gifted me in many ways, but most especially with a new proximity to nature. I wake every day with an embarrassment of options for early morning walks and, armed with my camera and walking stick, I make my way into new-to-me local woods and forests.

I have loved being in the woods since early childhood. Something magical happens as soon as I walk beneath a canopy of leaves into the cool air and dimmer, dappled light. My pace slows, my eyes notice details I could have passed without a glance, my breathing deepens and slows and I'm held in the veriditas of nature. It is this quiet vital hum of green energy that has sustained me through many years of nursing, life as a grief and trauma therapist and seven years of caregiving for my husband. Walks in the woods literally saved my sanity during any number of in-sane days.

So, what is this mysterious power that forests hold over us and our well-being and why should we access it intentionally?

Recently, researchers at the University of East Anglia in the UK reviewed 140 studies worldwide and determined that proximity to green space not only makes us feel better psychologically, but offers significant physical health benefits including reduced risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death and preterm birth. It also reduces diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, pain perception and cortisol levels and increases immune function. Several Japanese studies suggest that phytoncides, chemicals released by trees, could explain some of this health-promotion. (Others suggest that the beautiful scenery, soothing sounds of running water, natural aromas of plants and even the experience of solitude may also make a difference.)

Since at least 1982, the Japanese have been practicing Shinrin-Yoku or forest bathing, spending intentional time taking in a forest atmosphere for the purpose of relaxation, re-creation and healing. People sit, lie down or walk slowly through forests in silence, paying mindful attention to their surroundings and inner responses. It is a slow, contemplative immersion rather than a brisk, purposeful activity. Physical prowess is not necessary.

Today, all around the world, people are following the lead of the Japanese in establishing forest bathing programs. In Greater Vancouver and on Vancouver Island, where the surroundings are perfect for forest bathing, certified Forest Therapy guides offer 2-5 hour immersive forest experiences to the stressed and wear and those yearning for reconnection with nature. They don't spend time teaching participants about flora and fauna, rather they act as guides to forest experience, holding space for whatever arises. As the website for Forest Guide Training in BC says, the forest is the therapist, the guides open the doors.

For many, the peace and quiet of the forest opens opportunities to grieve losses and release stressors  that have been buried in the busyness of everyday life. Just creating space and time in nature allows grief and relaxation to begin their healing work. More broadly, I believe that forest bathing could actually help us save our planet. We don't protect what we don't value and we don't value what we don't know. So immersion in the forest could lead not only to our personal health and wholeness but to that of our planet as well.

So, if you remember with weary longing early experiences of peace and rejuvenation in in the woods, why not try to spend a little time forest bathing this summer. Your body and spirit will likely thank you!

If you're interested in learning more about forest bathing, Japanese expert, Dr Qing Li has just written, Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing and M Amos Clifford has published Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature. Both should be available in local bookstores.

Let me close with one of Mary Oliver's lovely poems, appropriately titled, When I Am Among the Trees.

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks, and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."

The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, "It's simple,"
they say, "and you, too, have come
into the world to do this, to go easy,
to be filled with light, and to shine."

(From Thirst - 2006)

Enjoy your summer in the woods or under your local tree!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Summer Reading 2018 ...

We read to know we are not alone.

William Nicholson

Hello, Everyone!

Happy Summer!  After a very busy spring of workshops and writing (to say nothing of moving both home and office thirteen miles east to a mountaintop at the head of Burrard Inlet), I'm ready to put my feet up in my lovely new garden and begin reading the books that have been accumulating on my bedside table since the New Year.

Here are a few of the titles I'm hoping to read over the summer and fall (interspersed with a few novels and murder mysteries), just in case you might be interested in any of them yourselves:

1.  Indigenous Healing: Exploring Traditional Paths by Rupert Ross (2014)
Rupert Ross, retired assistant Crown Attorney for the District of Kenora, Ontario, writes about how the Indigenous people from whom he has learned about healing see healthy healing processes and a healthy future. He shares what he has learned about healing activities and about anchoring Indigenous life in traditional cultural visions once again.  He describes twelve striking differences between Indigenous and non- indigenous healing practices.

2.  The Courage Way: Leading and Living With Integrity by the Centre for Courage and Renewal and Shelly L Francis  (2018)
Based on the work of Parker J. Palmer, Shelly Francis identifies key ingredients needed to cultivate courage, the most fundamental being trust - in ourselves and in each other. She describes how to build trust through the Centre for Courage & Renewal's Circle of Trust approach, centred around eleven "touchstones" or guidelines for trust building. Each chapter features true stories of how leaders have overcome challenges and strengthened their organizations.

3.  Everyday Gratitude by A Network for Grateful Living (Foreword by Bro David Steindl-Rast)  (2018)
A collection of quotations on gratefulness, each followed by a question for reflection.

4.  On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old by Parker J Palmer. (2018)
Best-selling author, educator and activist, Parker J Palmer, explores aging as a passage of discovery and engagement.  He writes about cultivating a vital inner and outer life, finding meaning in suffering and joy, and forming friendships across the generations that bring new life to young and old.

5.  Climate Change by HRH The Prince of Wales, Tony Juniper and Emily Shuckburgh. (2017)
A small book from the Penguin Ladybird Expert Series explaining climate change in brief and simple terms written after Prince Charles addressed the Paris Climate Change Summit in December 2015. In conversation with a friend, Pr Charles was told that most people really don't understand what climate change is all about. The friend went on to suggest that Pr Charles produce a "plain English guide" to the subject. This book is the result.

6.  Chronic Sorrow: A Living Loss  2nd Edition by Susan Roos  (2017)
This is a new edition of the only book written on Chronic Sorrow to date. Written in a more accessible, though still somewhat dense style, it is a pared-down version of the original psychotherapy text giving an excellent explanation of the concept of CS and useful practices for coping with the continuing grief of chronic illness/injury and family caregiving.

7.  Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems Edited by Phyllis Cole-Dai & Ruby R Wilson (2017)
This book begins with the words, Some poems are good medicine. It goes on to offer a definition of mindfulness that guides the choice of poems for this collection - Mindfulness is keeping our heads and hearts where our bodies are.  Each poet illustrates mindfulness in a distinct way, many employing natural settings or imagery.

8.  Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande  (2014) 
I've been meaning to read this New York Times bestseller for a couple of years. It explores, though research and stories, the conflict that occurs when what medicine can do runs counter to what it should do. It looks at the suffering produced by medicine's neglect of the wishes people might have beyond mere survival, the quality of life questions we all should consider much earlier than we do.
And, for those of you who are wondering, the next community-based Caring On Empty Compassion Fatigue Workshop for Helping Professionals will be held on Friday November 2nd at the Granville Island Hotel in Vancouver, BC from 9-4. Brochures and registration forms will be available in early September at

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Compassion Fatigue and Chronic Sorrow as Soul Injuries

All it takes is a beautiful fake smile 
to hide an injured soul;
they will never notice
how broken you really are.

Robin Williams

Hello, Everyone,

Lately I've been noticing that some of the people in the CF and CS workshops nod in immediate recognition when I describe full-blown compassion fatigue and chronic sorrow as soul injuries. They know, intuitively, that the suffering they experience is deeper and more pervasive than the emotional pain described and addressed in some self-care workshops. It is a relief for these folks to have someone acknowledge the severity of their pain. This acknowledgement is often a first step toward releasing shame and opening the pathway to healing.

Soul injuries are wounds of our souls or essence, the loss of our sense of inner goodness, beauty and vitality stemming from trauma, unattended loss, burnout and the guilt and shame of our own actions or omissions.

Soul injury symptoms are described by Opus Peace as the familiar signs of postraumatic stress plus a defense-penetrating breach in the integrity our deepest selves. They often include:
1.  A haunting sense of being defective or tainted,
2.  A sense of betrayal by one's self, others, an organization, religion or God/Higher Power, and/or
3.  A sense of emptiness arising from disconnection from the part of ourselves carrying the pain.
Some of us have carried these injuries from childhood and others have experienced them later in life or through longterm exposure to the trauma and suffering of those we serve.

While our souls or essence will never be killed by our work, we can become separated from our original strength, truth, wisdom and compassion. We separate ourselves from our souls each time we cover up, numb out or run away from our truth and that separation eventually generates it's own symptoms. On the other hand, when we own our truth (including its pain) in gentle respectful ways, our souls can expand to hold and heal our wounds.

The healing of a soul injury entails addressing soul issues. Not only must we grieve unattended losses and re-regulate traumatized nervous systems, we must also forgive and make a home for the parts of ourselves we have denied and split off due to guilt and shame.  Then, we need to develop and nurture a life of the spirit - deeply personal and meaningful beliefs, teachings, ceremonies and rituals that will provide a strong foundation for building resilience.

As Opus Peace says, we all need a class on: to open our hearts to our losing and failing, paradoxically becoming whole in the process. Re-owning and then re-homing pieces of self (often hidden behind facades or exiled into unconsciousness)  can precipitate healing. Telling stories of our lostness (without the distorting illusion of how we wish our lives to be) is the first step toward freedom. Hearing other peoples stories en-courages us to liberate our own.

So as we become deeply honest with ourselves, at least one other person and Whom or Whatever Benevolence we believe in, trauma can be healed, losses grieved, guilt atoned, forgiveness accepted, shame dispelled and a future, strengthened and brightened by hope and small "s" spirituality, explored.

*** For those who've been asking, the next Caring On Empty Workshop for Helping Professionals will be held at The Granville Island Hotel on Monday May 7th from 9-4.  Brochures with registration forms are available at   Please tell your friends and colleagues!

Photo from the Opus Peace website.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Hope for 2018 ...

Hope is the belief that tomorrow
could be better.


Happy New Year, Everyone!

Here we stand on the threshold of a new year, in the in-between space of expectation and possibility between old and new.

My focus today (and perhaps my new word for 2018) is hope. Thoughts about hope have arisen organically through the rhythms of life over the holidays. I am taking Jan Richardson's free online retreat for Women's Christmas 2017 - Walking the Way of Hope, I'm reading a Christmas gift book about hope and, in a very real way, I'm actively practicing hope each day as I look for a new place to live. The notion of hope is all around me.

For me, hope is not a Pollyanna-ish, frothy, pie-in-the-sky type of experience but a rooted, ever-available, undergirding strength that promises that even in painful times, even when hope itself flickers, there are unexpected gifts, new directions and fresh possibilities in each moment, if we have the eyes to see them.

There are those who decry hope as being future vs present-oriented and, therefore, not a useful concept. To these people I can only say that there have been times in my life when focusing continually in the present would have been overwhelming and traumatizing and, without the forward pull of hope, I might not have survived let alone thrived.

Jan Richardson, whose blessings I use so often in my workshops, calls us to hope in this way:

Rough Translations

Hope nonetheless.
Hope despite.
Hope regardless.
Hope still.

Hope where we had ceased to hope.
Hope amid what threatens hope.
Hope with those who feed our hope.
Hope beyond what we had hoped.

Hope that draws us past our limits.
Hope that defies expectations.
Hope that questions what we have known.
Hope that makes a way where there is none.

Hope that takes us past our fear.
Hope that calls us into life.
Hope that holds us beyond death.
Hope that blesses those to come.

Whatever your circumstances this New Year, may hope accompany, enfold and strengthen you and may you look ahead with eyes primed to find the best this year has to offer.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Spiritual & Religious Care Awareness Week - Oct 16-22, 2017 ...

Spiritual health is the path to inner peace
regardless of the turmoil around you.


Hi Everyone!

This week is Spiritual and Religious Care Awareness (SRCWA) Week in BC. The theme for this year's observance is a timely one, Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World. (See the Canadian Multifaith Federation's SRCWA Handbook "Theme Readings" for an excellent list of resources on forgiveness.)

While a significant portion of the population professes no spiritual leanings at all, most people agree that we humans are endowed with a spirit that requires as much care and attention as our bodies and minds if we are to be fully "well".

Our research shows that those with a strong, nurturing spiritual life are more resilient to the impacts of adversity - our own and others'. Hundreds of rigorous, elegant, peer-reviewed scientific articles show spirituality as the root of wellness in children throughout the first decades of life and beyond.

In her best-selling book, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving,  Columbia University researcher and author, Lisa Miller, PhD, says that children who have a positive, active relationship to spirituality are 40% less likely to use and abuse substances, 60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers and 80% less likely to have unprotected sex.

At the other end of the developmental spectrum, the Canadian Military Journal reports that, "Whereas religion/spirituality impacts military operations writ large, it can also play a significant part in the healing of individual warriors after those same operations." The US Department of Veteran's Affairs  also cites positive outcomes of healthy spirituality on PTSD and depression in some trauma populations and on the intensity of clinical symptoms like anger, rage and desire for revenge in trauma survivors. Healthy spirituality can also help with meaning making, the processing of guilt and moral injury and grief and bereavement after trauma and loss.

Spiritual and religious care providers are among the least well-recognized helpers in our communities. Those who support others in their spiritual development, particularly through times of crisis -  clergy, spiritual directors or guides, chaplains, pastoral care volunteers and others - may have the benefit of having spiritual resilience practices already in their toolboxes but they are still at risk for compassion fatigue and burnout.

The sheer volume of people seen by spiritual care providers, the traumatic circumstances under which these people often seek support, the need to protect confidentiality, expectations of exemplary reactions and behaviours on their part, and not infrequently, a culture of competition and judgement can all contribute to the symptoms of post traumatic stress, emotional disengagement and loss of capacity for empathy that are the hallmarks of compassion fatigue.

If others' spiritual wellness is at the centre of your helping work, (and even if it isn't) you are warmly invited to attend the next Caring On Empty: Creative Tools for Compassion Fatigue Resilience workshop on Friday October 27th at the Granville Island Hotel in Vancouver, BC. (email Jan for registration forms at

And if the notion of positive spirituality is new to you, or it's been a while since you've thought about it seriously, here are a range of books with ideas you might enjoy exploring:

1.  The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving  (2015) by Lisa Miller

2.  Embers: One Ojibway's Meditations (2016) by Richard Wagamese

3.  Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (1992) by Thomas Moore

4.  My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging (2000) by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD

5.  Soul Moments: Marvelous Stories of Synchronicity - Coincidences from a Seemingly Random World (1997) by Phil Cousineau

6.  The Spirituality of Nature (2008) by Jim Kainin

And here are a couple of great spiritually-based websites:

1.  Brain Pickings: An Inventory of the Meaningful Life 

2.  On Being: The Big Questions of Meaning

Whatever your personal spiritual leanings, perhaps this would be a good week to nurture that part of your life and to notice and show your appreciation for those who work to provide spiritual solace and support for others' spiritual growth.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Is Compassion Fatigue a Myth ...?

I discovered that compassion fatigue is a real thing.

Chris Marlow

Hi Everyone!

Happy Autumn! And welcome back from a hot, dry and smokey summer. I hope you've kept safe and well and have managed to make some time for respite and refreshment.

During the summer heat, a colleague sent me an article suggesting that Compassion Fatigue (CF) is a myth because compassion research (not compassion fatigue research) shows no negative effects of using compassion in relationships. This critique, like others I've seen over the years, seems to indicate a misunderstanding of the basic concept of CF. It assumes that CF arises from the use of compassion rather than from trauma exposure.

CF is, at its core, a trauma issue, not one of compassion or fatigue, as the name might suggest.  In CF, exposure to others' trauma and suffering leads to symptoms of posttraumatic stress in the helper , culminating in a diminished capacity for, or interest in, being empathic with others' suffering and in emotional withdrawal from the very people we are trying to help.

We don't know, conclusively, what mechanism accounts for the transmission of traumatic stress from helpee to helper. Some researchers/theorists relate the transmission to emotional contagion through empathic engagement, some to overuse of compassion, some to underuse of compassion, some to the accumulated undischarged fight-or-flight energy from the helper's posttraumatic stress reactions to helpee's stories, some to workplace issues, some to the helper's unconscious need to atone for perceived childhood "badness" through "caring too much" for others, and others, to childhood attachment issues.

In my own experience of CF, the core experience was one of compassion becoming fatigued through acccumulated trauma exposure, not through overuse of compassion. Even now, I remember having a vivid daydream in which I was walking along a semi-circle of closed doors inside my head, pausing briefly to open each one in search of the caring person I used to be. I knew, intellectually, that I had once been that caring person but could find no evidence of her in my current felt sense. My caring, and even my desire to care, had disappeared - and, in fact, it took some years for it to return fully.

I believe that we in the field hold some responsibility for the ongoing lack of clarity regarding CF.  We often do not refer in enough detail to the rapid evolution of CF nomenclature when we teach about CF. We chose a "user-friendly" but ultimately confusing term in naming the experience "compassion fatigue" rather than "secondary traumatic stress".  And we don't yet agree on a standardized definition for CF. (Much of our theoretical fuzziness can be resolved through a careful reading of reading Chris Marchand's excellent article, Compassion Fatigue: History of a Concept.)

So, do I think CF is a myth? No, it is a real, painful and debilitating experience that requires the addressing personal trauma, workplace trauma and their accompanying burnout and accumulated grief in order to heal fully.  It is a response to trauma exposure rather than an over- or underuse of compassion.

The best news is that we now have skills and strategies that will help to ease the effects of our secondary traumatic stress and boost our resilience.

If you're interested in learning more, please do consider joining us at the next Caring On Empty Workshop at the Granville Island Hotel in Vancouver on Friday, October 27th. (email me at for registration brochures.)

Monday, July 10, 2017

Living With Uncertainty ...

Uncertainty is the refuge of hope.

Henri Frederic Amiel

Hello Everyone,

Again, it's been quite a while since I've been able to write here. I've been spending many hours a day working with the frozen shoulder that resulted from last year's fall and arm fractures and, more recently, I've also been working to find a new home after my landlords of 22 years decided to stop renting my half of the house (!) (Fortunately, neither situation has interfered with my ability to continue the teaching I love and plans are well underway for the fall workshops.)

As one who has always been more comfortable with a predictable life, this has been a time of uncomfortable uncertainty, a threshold time of limbo, angst and hope. Like all thresholds, it holds both anxiety and possibility. While I'm concerned about when my arm will heal and where my new home will be, allowing myself to live into the threshold experience has brought its own gifts. After the initial panic, I've found myself slowing down, waiting, and exercising (at least a modicum of) patience; spending more time with options and possibilities; and opening more to trust and synchronicity. It's been a liminal time of s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g and learning new responses to uncertainty and unpredictability.

Any time we humans find ourselves in the in-between place of uncertainty, a time when the familiar has already disappeared but the new hasn't yet arrived, we tend to experience a full range of uncomfortable reactions - fear, anger, irritability, grief, rigidity, forgetfulness, paralysis, loss of humour, aggression, fatigue, vulnerability and disorganization, to name but a few. If we can allow ourselves to tolerate, and even lean into the sources of this discomfort, and WAIT, we will probably find that it is also a time of hope and creativity.

Waiting in the threshold is an active kind of waiting. We pause as long as need be and then slowly put one foot in front of the other, trusting that we will see each next logical step as we move ahead. (As the poet, Antonio Machado, says the way is made by walking.)  This "active waiting" requires a great deal of presence, mindfulness, trust and listening, an openness to what is and to what might be. It asks us to be willing to risk living at the growing edge and being uncomfortable. It forces us to relinquish our desire for certainty and control and to walk into the fog of unknowing.

For many of us, questions like these help to guide us into and through the fog:

1.  How can I calm my body so I can think clearly?
2.  What do I want/need? What are the deep desires of my heart?
3.  Where am I now and where might I be headed?
4.  What is the meaning of this time? Why this and why now?
5.  How can I step outside the box of my habitual patterns and see this situation with "beginner's eyes"?
6.   What/whom will sustain me in this in-between place so my imagination and creativity can flourish?
7.   In what/whom can I trust and abide deeply to provide a supportive sense of hope?

Questions like these expand our awareness and help us to make better decisions as we make our way forward. Whether you're facing the uncertainty of job loss, a loved one's illness, the loss of a partner, economic uncertainty or other imposed change, may such questions help you to feel your way toward more certain times.