Thursday, October 30, 2014

Which Wolf Will You Feed? ...

It's been a hard few weeks. Our lives have been shaken by the deaths of 24 year old Canadian Forces Cpl Nathan Cirillo and 53 year old Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. Many of us have been feeling the effects of secondary traumatic stress as we've been exposed, again and again, to the details of their deaths and the aftermath.

Those of us who know about secondary traumatic stress have tried to respond by focusing on good self care and on gathering with loved ones for comfort or to talk about our thoughts and feelings (though, hopefully, without re-traumatizing each other through the sharing of "gory details"). We've exercised in order to shift some of the trauma energy from our bodies and we've used spiritual practices like meditation and yoga to lower our general level of fight/flight arousal. We may even have tried to teach others to do the same.

But how do we go deeper in our responses, now, now that a little time has passed, the initial shock is wearing off, the funerals and commemorations are done and the families and friends are settling into their long bleak journeys of bereavement? What can we do in our own lives to help prevent such incidents from happening again?

In the months after 9/11, a wisdom story circulated widely that may shed some light on how we can begin to make the changes we would like to see in the world:

A Native American grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind. The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. And the grandfather answered, "The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed."

And here lies the challenge. Which wolf will we choose to feed as we continue to respond to the events of the past weeks?

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist teacher living at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, reminds us that if we want to see change, we must be the change we want to see in the world. She offers us the following pathway for recognizing how our own words and actions may be causing suffering and leading to aggression and violence. She shows us a simple, though always not easy, way of "feeding the kind wolf":

1.  Make a commitment to ourselves to let go of old grudges, to not avoid people and situations and emotions that make us feel uneasy, to not cling to our fears, our closedmindedness, our hardheartedness, our hesitation. 
 2.  Be honest with ourselves. Most of us have gotten so good at empowering our negativity and insisting on our rightness that the angry wolf gets shinier and shinier, and the other wolf is just there with its pleading eyes. But we're not stuck with this way of being. When we're feeling resentment or any strong emotion, we can recognize that we are getting worked up, and realize that right now we can consciously make the choice to be aggressive or to cool off. It comes down to choosing which wolf we want to feed.
3.  Experiment with interrupting our automatic reactions to the things that push our buttons and make us angry. Learn to pause. Pausing creates a momentary contrast between being completely self-absorbed and being awake and present. We just stop for a few seconds, breathe deeply, become present and move on. Practice this several times every day and then when highly charged situations come along, we can shake up our ancient fear-based habits by simply pausing and waking up. 
4.  Access the 3 basic qualities of being human, natural intelligence, natural warmth and natural openness to help us to feed the kind wolf. When we are angry, when someone says something we don't like, when we want to get even or when we want to vent, we can use our natural intelligence to help us solve problems rather than making them worse,  we can use our natural warmth to love, have empathy, laugh, feel gratitude and appreciation and tenderness, and we can use our natural openness to think expansively, flexibly, curiously and within a stance of pre-prejudice. (Adapted from Pema Chodron)

We can each make a difference in our individual lives and relationships and those individual actions can  add up to make a difference in our society. Each time we choose to feed the kind wolf over the aggressive one, we take one more step toward peace.

If you would like to read more of Pema Chodron's thoughts on choosing new ways of being, try reading her 2009 book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Memories of Thanksgiving...

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is
 thank you,
it will be enough.

Meister Eckart

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! 

I hope you've had a richly happy holiday weekend no matter where you've been - gathering with loved ones, caring for an ill relative alone at home or working shift at a local hospital or firehall keeping us all healthy and safe.

For me, one of the highlights of Thanksgiving weekend is going to the big Cathedral downtown with family and friends to sing generations-old harvest hymns and see (and smell) the colourful displays of flowers and produce lining the chancel steps. The intentional focus on gratitude, particularly for fruits of the earth to share with others, is grounding and revitalizing. 

This Thanksgiving, theologian, The Rev Dr Ellen Clark-King, drew our attention to how easy it is to become focused on the stresses of life and lose sight of the enormous number of things for which we can be grateful:
When were you last truly thankful? Not just thankful because it was the appropriate social response, not just saying the words with your lips, but feeling that deep gratitude within the centre of your being. When was that? What provoked it? How did it feel? Who did you share it with? What difference did it make to your day or your week or your life? Revisit that feeling, hold it again.
To be honest, I couldn't immediately bring to mind the particular time I'd last felt that grateful. I did get there after a few moments but for someone who writes a gratitude journal most nights, I was surprised at the pause in my remembering. So surprised, in fact, that when I got home, I made a point of pulling out gratitude journals from years past and reminding myself of the particular things for which I'd been whole-heartedly grateful for over the years. The first journal I read was from 1998, the year after my husband, Derrick, was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy (progressive weakening of his heart muscle).

Despite watching his diminishing strength and abilities and grieving for the many changes in our lives together, the journal entries of that year reflected the joy of simple things - a slow walk by the lake on a fall morning, a quiet cup of tea together in the mid-afternoon, a short visit with friends, the discussion of a new book. My entries for Thanksgiving Day 1998 included more simple gifts, each one worthy of re-membering:

1.  The beauty of the first frost and the leaves beginning to change
2.  A lovely country Thanksgiving service at little St Oz even though I had to go alone
3.  The feel of Derrick's hand on my face
4.  Derrick feeling strong enough to help with dinner and the fun we had in the kitchen.
5.  Thanksgiving dinner with all of us around the table.  

Being truly grateful is both a spontaneous heart response and a habit of mind. Learning to open ourselves to deep gratitude, intentionally taking in the good of those experiences, and then making time to remember our thankfulness can do much to shape the quality of our lives. For some whose circumstances are painful or exhausting or feeling hopeless, though, it can be hard to imagine such an upsurge in thankfulness as Ellen describes. For you, especially, may the last words of her address hold true:

So hold again that memory of a time when you were truly thankful. Open yourself again to that feeling. Take that with you into this holiday and into the week ahead. Let it live in you and through you, let it touch those around you ... so a thanksgiving day can become a thanksgiving life.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A New Book for Your Fall Reading:

Hi Everyone!

I'm just back from a walk at the lake where I could see my breath for the first time this fall and where I wished I had thought to bring along a pair of gloves! As I walked in the early morning light, I was thinking about compassion fatigue and chronic sorrow resilience and how important basic information is to our ability to heal and come back from the secondary trauma and accumulated grief of our helping work.

In the early 1980's, complex trauma author, Jane Middelton-Moz, called basic information about trauma and grief healing, a cognitive life raft. A cognitive life raft is an intellectual understanding of the healing process that acts as a secure base when the experience, itself, feels overwhelming. It reminds us that our feelings and responses are natural and understandable within the context of our experience.

This week, an excellent book by Boston-based psychiatrist and trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk, became available, adding a new source of information for building our cognitive life rafts. The book is called,  The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. I'm about half way through it and couldn't wait to let you know how good it is.

Reading like a novel, this well-reviewed book (the "Advance Praise" pages read like a Who's Who of the trauma and mindfulness worlds) covers Dr van der Kolk's evolution in understanding of trauma over 30 years as a clinician and researcher. It explores the world of trauma healing under headings such as:

1.  The Rediscovery of Trauma
2.  This is Your Brain on Trauma
3.  The Minds of Children
4.   The Imprint of Trauma
5.   Paths to Recovery
The chapter on recovery includes sections on trauma language, the legacy of inescapable shock, EMDR, trauma-sensitive yoga, self-regulation, rewiring the brain, finding your voice through theatre, and making choices about trauma treatment as a society. There is an emphasis on the individual nature of treatment - one size does not fit all and psychopharmacology, in particular, should only be an adjunct to a larger individualized recovery plan.

This book is a great starting place for trauma survivors, their families and support systems. It offers a clear "big picture" of current trauma understanding and treatment practices in language that is utterly accessible and pleasurable to read. It is a great synthesis of history, research, neuroscience and story, written in the voice of a true story-teller. It begins like this:

The Tuesday after the Fourth of July weekend, 1978, was my first day as a staff psychiatrist at the boston Veterans Administration Clinic. As I was hanging a reproduction of my favourite Breughel painting, "The Blind Leading the Blind", on the wall of my new office, I heard a commotion in the reception area down the hall. A moment later a large, disheveled man in a stained three-piece suit, carrying a copy of Soldier of Fortune magazine under his arm, burst through my door. He was so agitated and so clearly hungover that I wondered how I could possibly help this hulking man. I asked him to take a seat, and tell me what I could do for him.
His name was Tom. Ten years earlier he had been in the marines, doing his service in Viet Nam. He had spent the holiday weekend holed up in his downtown Boston law office, drinking and looking at old photographs, rather than his family. He knew from previous years' experience that the noise of fireworks, the heat, and the picnic in his sister's backyard against the backdrop of dense early-summer foliage, all of which reminded him of Viet Nam, would drive him crazy. When he got upset he was afraid to be around his family because he behaved like a monster with his wife and two young boys. The noise of his kids made him so agitated that he would storm out of the house to keep himself from hurting them. Only drinking himself into oblivion or riding his Harley-Davidson at dangerously high speeds helped him to calm down...  
and the last page includes these words:
Trauma constantly confronts us with our fragility and with man's inhumanity to man but also with our extraordinary resilience. I have been able to do this work for so long because it drew me to explore our sources of joy, creativity, meaning and connection - all the things that make life worth living. I can't begin to imagine how I would have coped with what many of my patients have endured, and I see their symptoms as part of their strength - the ways they learned to survive. And despite all their suffering many have gone on to become loving partners and parents, exemplary teachers, nurses, scientists and artists...
... Trauma is now our most urgent public health issue, and we have the knowledge necessary to respond effectively. The choice is ours to act on what we know ... 

Go out and buy or borrow a copy of this book. You won't regret it.