A Search for Gratitude

As I’ve been pondering this blog the last few days I’ve found myself wondering about how to approach it-spiritually, psychologically, mentally?  Speak about the family perspective of Thanksgiving? Or something more related to gratitude. I’ve always thought of both thankfulness and gratitude as the same thing. But GK Chesterton’s proposition was that “thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” That very much spoke to me, the balance of thought and feeling.

So often at Thanksgiving we are celebrating food, football, and family. In that combination we are actually often only engaged in the thought of being thankful, occasionally feeling some happiness; but, how often is that thankfulness actually imbued with wonder? Wonder generally comes from something beautiful, unexpected, or inexplicable.  This is the key to much of why we likely experience actual changes in our brain when we have a gratitude journal.  Our thoughts of what we are thankful for, combined with the emotion of gratitude, is what causes both sides of our brain to process the experiences. As we cross the corpus callosum of our brain, we are changed.  Try an experiment, think of the most recent experience of a beautiful sunset, a puppy playing, or a special message of love from your best friend.  As you recall this, do you feel joy, relaxed or peaceful, or warmth deep in your heart? Then, as you consider that view, do you begin to think about how lucky you are to have that pup or thankful to have found your anam cara (see an article on anam cara here) friend? There you have it, thought and feeling, building in intensity as you allow the feelings to bubble up and impact you.  The life-changing moment of gratitude.

This Thanksgiving, enjoy the festivities and folks around you, whether solo awareness of others who are in your life or at a larger get together. But in addition to enjoying the day, I challenge you to not simply go through the motions. Instead, take some time to really consider what you are grateful for in life. Use the barometer of feeling gratitude to the point of an emotional reaction of joy, wonder, or amazement. For me it will include true joy in my experience of my new puppy Finley; deep peace that comes from memories of moments with my best friend; and heartfelt love for my dear sisters with whom I am spending this holiday. I want to cherish these thoughts and feelings along with the memories that triggered them. I choose to do as Brene Brown suggests: “[not chasing] extraordinary moments to find happiness, but paying attention and practicing gratitude” in its’ deepest sense.

Take care, and may the wonder of this holiday be yours.

Dr Beth

On an aging mind.

I recently opened a drawer and was surprised to see an article of clothing I had no memory of buying. It is a swimsuit. A dreaded article of clothing for me to put on any given day to begin with, I remembered it but I could not remember where I’d gotten it. Was this a memory issue I should take note of? It got me thinking about a recurring theme I’ve had come up in my practice and in my personal life with friends, not only as we ourselves age, but as parents and siblings and other loved ones do too. What IS normal brain aging and what are the signs something more serious is happening and needs attention?

As we age, our brains shrink. Years of studies have shown this to be the case but it’s not always a bad thing. For the vast majority of us, aging only means some forgetfulness—a haziness of past events, not recalling names of old schoolmates (but cueing helps), the need for a grocery list, occasionally forgetting what we walked into a room to get, word finding difficulty at times. You may also find you have less ability to concentrate and pay attention. All of these are typical to the aging brain. Add stress to the mix and the above problems are exacerbated, as is the case when you are only half paying attention to someone because your mind is already on something else.

So when is it time to pay attention and get some cognitive testing done, even as a baseline? I read an article not long ago that had a great list—I’ve pulled from it a few guidelines to follow (for more of the article, see: https://www.verywellhealth.com/is-it-forgetfulness-or-alzheimers-98574). Take a look at the list below and if you see some areas of concern, don’t be frightened about getting testing, the earlier the condition is found, the better we can prepare and treat for it.

  • Recent memory poor, and cueing and context don’t help
  • Can’t remember the order of things and who said what
  • Repetitiveness becomes obvious; memory intrusions occur
  • Unaware that a memory problem exists
  • Day-to-day functioning declines along with memory
  • Frequently demonstrating poor judgment and decision-making
  • Not being able to handle paying bills regularly
  • Often being disoriented to time and place
  • Difficulty with familiar tasks, such as making coffee every day
  • Getting lost on your way home from your daily job

Whether your memory slips are typical and bothering you or something more and you need to do some testing and work with a neurologist, talk to me. I have some things I can recommend that may help. And if you have a brain injury, your process may be a bit different– see our website at: https://www.thewholenessinstitute.com/braininjurytherapy.html for additional information. As I routinely say, there IS hope and I’m happy to help you find your way back to it.

As for me? A couple of cues helped. I knew I must have ordered the swimsuit so I looked at my older emails and found the order—as soon as I saw it I realized I bought it at a time life was extremely chaotic and it was one of many things I was handling at once. I’d been doing too much at one time and as a result, my mind automatically filtered what I needed to retain and what wasn’t important. A relief to me, for certain!

Thoughts on fall

This Saturday marks the start of a new, welcome season for me—fall begins. Growing up in the Midwest, apple farms were prevalent and roadside stands with fresh apples, apple cider, and apple cider donuts were among my favorite stops. The leaves changing, the chill in the air in the morning slowly changing from dew to frost on the lawns, the fields being harvested, and the fall décor—cornstalks, hay bales, and pumpkins appearing in lawns everywhere, were all signs of the season.

Apples are one of my favorite fruits. I enjoy them year-round, but I always love the time of year I begin seeing the Honeycrisps show up in the produce sections. Every other year my extended family gathers at our family cabin to harvest apples from our tree and begin the weekend long task of peeling and canning apples and applesauce. It is a weekend full of work, undeniably. It is a weekend where we fill up every inch of the cabin, lots of people under one reasonably small roof. But it is a weekend of laughs, of love, of bonding that I look forward to often months ahead of time. This year the crop is not as plentiful, so we aren’t going to have that time.  But I still found myself thinking of apples and looking at pictures from past years this weekend. Some years the apple harvests are showy with an abundance of fruit, other years the work is happening underground and within the body of the tree. The fruit crop may be less, but the growth cycle is just as important.

applesatcabin

Something similar happens in the cycles of our lives. We have times that our lives feel overflowing, with commitments, with friends, with family. Other times we have more moments of solitude. Those quiet moments, while at times may feel uncomfortable, are just as important. Such as it is for me this year. The end of summer and this fall will be one less harried, more intentional, and with more quiet time for me.  I spent a weekend by myself at the cabin a few weeks ago, enjoying the peace, quiet, and hikes with Murphy. While fall is about letting go, solitude allows me to stop, think, pray, dream, or do some art to sort out where I’ve been and where I’m going. This reflective time allows some of the work to be done internally and spiritually as I consider the next steps for me in life.  And it allows for contemplation of progress made – perhaps to release, as apples ripe for picking; or perhaps it is the season for growth and change, a new bud on the apple tree. So, a time to wait. And to be at peace with waiting. “Solitude is very different from a ’time-out’ from our busy lives. Solitude is the very ground from which community grows. Whenever we pray alone, study, read, write, or simply spend quiet time away from the places where we interact with each other directly, we are potentially opened for a deeper intimacy with each other.” ~ Henri J.M. Nouwen

As the apples are released from their branches, some fall and others are caught, only some make it to the applesauce.  So too with the meaning of fall – let go, release, transition.  F. Scott Fitzgerald:  “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” If you are looking to do some spiritual reflection of your own during this season of harvest, please consider joining me for my upcoming workshop—Spirituality and Psychotherapy: Hope, Courage, and Presence. Spots are limited but I do still have a few seats available, for more details see www.thewholenessinstitute.com/workshops or call us at 602.508.9190.

The apples were harvested, let’s enjoy them one bite at a time.

With hope,

Dr. Beth

Love is Everywhere

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Valentine’s Day is an interesting holiday. Although originally the focus was on fertility, it later centered on a religious figure, St. Valentine, who was martyred for marrying couples. So although the origin is related to marriage and reproduction, today the focus is more on balloons, chocolate, flowers, and expensive meals out with a loved one. And yet, if we look at the roots, it was as much about love as loneliness. Loneliness is at the roots of couples unable to have children, couples unable to marry due to a decree, and today perhaps an individual who doesn’t fit the advertising world’s view of love in purchases deemed suitable for Valentine’s Day.

What? How can I say that?  Think about the infertile couple who long for children to love. Or, the couple lonely within their relationship. Or, the single of any age who might feel ostracized on a holiday clearly focused on what they are not- a couple. Or the divorcee or recently separated from a partner who misses being in the relationship, or still loves his ex, but instead is alone. What about the person married for 1 or 70 years whose beloved died and long for just one more hug? Or even the person is generally happy and content, but the holiday leaves them feeling something is missing? When you do think of it you realize that when we consider all these people there are a lot who may feel a bit down this week, or a lot down. Perhaps you’re one of them.

I’ve been reading the book, “A Man Called Ove;” he is a man who is feeling desperately alone for many reasons, and we know that clearly people don’t gravitate toward this kind of curmudgeon. And though it’s set in Sweden, where I don’t even know if they celebrate Valentine’s Day; I’m sure he would not have felt very uplifted on this day at many points in his life. I’m not going to give the story away, but suffice it to say he learns, as the back of the book says, “that life is sweeter when it is shared with other people.” And this is the saving grace for many who face a day of loneliness each year…or many lonely days after the loss of a love.

On this day of love—reach out for some philia love, friendship. Call a friend and tell them how important they are to you. Give them a Valentine’s card for friends. Remember the exchanges in elementary school? When they weren’t unhealthy competitions, they were about sharing good thoughts with each other. Do that as an adult. Have nieces and nephews? Do they know you care about them? Tell them on this day. Write one to yourself-remind yourself of your good points. Cuddle your pet-give them an extra treat on this day. Plant a small houseplant to celebrate life. Put it in a red or pink pot to remind yourself of your friends all year.

All of the ideas will focus you on the love you do have. And love is everywhere … even when we don’t feel it … Just look around. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Finding Meaning in 2017

I am imagining that if you are like most people, and like me, you’ve been bombarded with ideas to use as resolutions for 2017, ideas of how to change something you’ve struggled with for quite some time, or even struggling with shame that you haven’t been able to successfully make that change. Perhaps it’s now your New Year’s Resolution for 2017. I’d like you to stop for a minute. Put the resolution down. And consider Parker Palmer’s words:

“There is always something meaningful I can do to honor the gift of life in myself, others, and the world around us.” -Parker Palmer

This reminded me of four-wheeling with a friend and her father years ago. We were in western Colorado, in the Ouray area. Hidden there is a wonderful place called Box Canyon Falls. Wonder how it got its name? Well, aside from being a formal name for a canyon with only one entrance/exit, this is one in which you have to hike or walk down the walkway for a short 500’, but within is a beauty. A real surprise to me as I’d never been there. Down inside, in relative dark, was a 285’ waterfall. The sounds resonated against the “box” sides, and the beauty has never been truly captured in any picture I’ve taken or seen – including the one above. What is so special, I think, is that there is such a gift after walking down. And the pure quiet except for the water gushing is incredible. That remains one of my favorite waterfalls today – although I have to admit I’ve seen other beautiful ones in Hawaii and Alaska. But this one, such a surprise, was a true gift to me.

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Let’s consider this in light of the new year and Palmer’s quote. Perhaps, even in a small canyon we can make progress in owning a part of ourselves as a gift, and seeing the gifts around us. Initially I questioned how a waterfall could even exist in the bottom of a canyon, with no sight of the sky above. Obviously, we can find water underground, but there was something quite special in the fact all of this – water, the fall, and beauty around was protected within the canyon. How about the strength you might have? Perhaps by owning that strength, that beauty, you can enjoy 2017 more than you’re thinking a few days in, and perhaps even wavering on the resolution made, or the fact the resolution has been broken already. Well, on that walk down I had a resolution to do the walk – despite my fear of walking on bridges, and I was so grateful.   In finding my courage, I was able to see even more beauty around me.

So does that mean no resolution? Well, I think we might be better to consider it recreating, or reconfiguring, or redesigning. Frankly we could take the “re” off and decide to create, configure, design our life as we go into 2017. That would also mean there’s not something we need to undo, but something new for which to aim or even simply allow to unfold. In other words, and from the concepts of Eckhart Tolle in “The Power of Now” when he says, “The only place where you can experience the flow of life is in the Now, so to surrender is to accept the present moment unconditionally and without reservation”; to those of St. Paul in Philippians 3:13 when he says, “No, dear brothers [and sisters], I am still not all I should be, but I am bringing all of my energies to bear on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead” (The Way,1972), our goal needs to be present focused or future focused. And in that, as they say and as Palmer says above, we are going to be amazed with the results and what we find in beauty and meaning.

Going back to Box Canyon, guess what else I found, as I had no expectations? I found a beautiful creek within as well.

box-falls-creek

So as we look at moving forward, accepting what we see and working on creating new experiences, behaviors, or life we also will find special facets of something we aren’t expecting. While there is a time to look at the past to move forward, in the case of change of behavior, it is often the moving forward and change that is more important. While I walked down the stairs, it was important to stay in the moment in this beautiful place and open myself to what was in front of me. It was fun to walk around the edges of this water and feel the sense of calm there, but also the sense of quiet amidst the pounding of the falls I’d just seen outside this small area.

I invite you to make a new climb this year. Not “out of” where you were, or are; but “up into” a new life experience and so also experience the special uniqueness within; the beauty of what is around you in other people as well as in the geography; and recognize what is meaningful in your life, self, others, and world.

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Adversity

Adversity happens to every one of us. We have our difficult moments in life, don’t we? And yet, how often do we believe that we shouldn’t have to go through adversity or difficulty? Years ago M. Scott Peck wrote: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths” in his book “The Road Less Traveled”. And, he says, when we recognize this, when we “get it”, we stop fighting it, we accept it, then the fact it’s difficult no longer matters.

I have a very good friend going through a months long period of adversity. She began with a surgery in July and 3 months and 4 surgeries later she is just beginning a recovery from the final surgery a week ago. It’s been interesting watching and listening to her. I’ve been astounded by her courage at times, and concerned about her fear and whether she had the fortitude for the next step at times. A few weeks ago I saw a real change in her. In talking that day, I asked her about it, and she smiled. She shared that as she was facing this time in her life she decided there must be things she was to learn. There must be a greater reason that she hadn’t yet found in what was happening. And so she began looking for those reasons. As she was beginning to ask these questions she began to see life in a new way.

Peck says that only as we face problems, such as my friend did, that our courage is called forth, that we grow spiritually – or intellectually, that we learn we have more capacity than we had thought we had to solve problems and learn and grow. We learn that we don’t have to give up to get through something, which really doesn’t work; but instead learn something new about ourselves, life, or intellectually learn a new skill to actually implement.

As my friend accepted that her situation was not okay, i.e.: her leg was injured, she began to move forward. It’s not easy to recognize one’s vulnerabilities. Even something as simple as the canoers in this picture. dont-give-upIf they were in the middle of a thunderstorm and being tossed around by waves it definitely would NOT be feeling ok. And the situation would not be okay – it would be difficult and even potentially dangerous. To stop and give up means essentially death to the canoer in that situation. But to use all one has learned about canoeing, to call on the courage within one might not have been aware was even there, to reach up in prayer or out to spirit will allow one to get through the situation in a new way. The philosopher Seneca said many, many years ago, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage”. But courage doesn’t mean we have to do it alone. On the contrary, courage can mean asking for help.

My friend also realized this. As she accepted the difficulty and began looking for the lesson, she also began asking for help. She still has much of the burden of getting through this journey in her life just as we all must own in our own lives. But, she began asking for help for things she didn’t know about or couldn’t do. From asking for emotional support to asking for someone to pick up something for her at her home, to asking for prayers and thanking each person who helps her at the physical rehab facility; she stopped trying to do everything alone and control everything. And I think control is a big issue in this whole concept of life being difficult. Byron Katie said something interesting about our desire or attempt to control our lives: “If you want real control, drop the illusion of control. Let life live you. It does anyway.” So, in my friend’s situation she needed to look at the control she did have – how to choose her attitude and reach out and up. But release the control over what happened in her life, the illusion of control she went in with the day she had her first surgery. This is a tough one for me as well. I want to think if I do x, y, and z nothing bad will happen, or I’ll get a specific outcome. But I’ve learned more and more all I can do is the next right thing to do. I have to then wait and see where life takes me. And then work with what it is.

So this fall, as you’re looking at holidays and how they might not be what you want, or children who don’t bring home the grades you want, or the boss who is demanding something from you that is hard to reach, or the illness suddenly thrust on you that you are overwhelmed by, think about my friend. Think about her road from blaming life or others for a difficult situation to realizing she had something to learn and needed to look at it differently, to reaching out and up for help, to letting go of some specific outcome, and think about what you might learn from her lesson. May you accept adversity in the spirit of Napoleon Hill who said, “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit”.