Exploring sports triggered violence and healthy ways to express aggression.

 

This last weekend was the Super Bowl game that happens once a year in the U.S. It’s a pretty big deal for many people, even those who aren’t big football fans. It ends up being a time to get together and cheer on with some friends. Good fun.

But there comes a change when the game ends. Soon after the winning team is declared, the fans of that team begin to churn up wild, primordial energy. This energy becomes violent and destructive, as they take to the streets and begin to damage property, overturning cars and smashing windows. Remember, these are the happy winners. So, why does this happen?

Every man has a wild beast within him.
– Frederick the Great

In a recent article, Why do fans riot after a win? The science behind Philadelphia’s Super Bowl chaos, the authors interview multiple social psychologists with a few ideas. First of all, they say that as humans, we strive to belong and be part of a group, and being a fan of team gives us that experience. When you have a sense of belonging, you feel less isolated and alone, and you are generally happier and more productive in your life. Awesome! (This is also in alignment with recent studies about how isolation and loneliness are significant precursors to addiction.) They go on to say that when a fans team wins, their testosterone levels increase, which leads to aggression. Add to this the consumption of alcohol and the poor decision making of mob mentality, and you have the perfect recipe for riot.

A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.
– Albert Camus

The phenomenon of sports riots is not the only example of this wildness itching to break free in our culture. There are many other events that people love attending so they can be part of a group, break out of their shell and let loose their animal spirit. In San Francisco we have many street fairs and other nearby events which are the perfect petri dish for just this: Halloween, SantaCon, St. Patrick’s Day, How Weird Street Fair, Bay to Breakers, Burning Man, and more. Most of these events are the perfect venue for such expression, and generally do not cause (much) damage to other people or property.

How to re-wire your brain and re-wild your spirit.

I’m no expert, but I have a few ideas. I do think it’s necessary to have a space for healthy expression of aggression and destruction; to express the energy and impulses that testosterone creates in our body and mind; to surrender to our wild beast. I believe that space is in nature. And I believe that it might be because of our disconnection with nature that we have this pent up animal energy that yearns to be expressed.

The natural world is constantly creating and destroying (or transforming) all around us: waves crashing on the shore breaking up rocks and shells; fires burning down forests and homes; earthquakes shaking the ground beneath us and reforming the landscape. These aggressive impulses are a natural part of life and cannot be repressed. Connecting to these aspects of nature can help us to release our own energy and hold us while we do it.

Practically this can take many forms: running through a forest, chopping wood, digging holes to plant trees, throwing heavy rocks over a cliff or into water, pulling weeds in your garden, burning old branches from pruned trees, going to the beach and screaming at the waves, dancing or drumming around a bonfire, swimming under a waterfall. These are all ways to connect your wild spirit to the power of nature and productively move that energy through you. *These ideas are encouraged to be done safely and mindfully.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one WILD and precious life?
– Mary Oliver

I challenge you to take your sport and play with nature. Release your wild-ness to the wilderness, and let it teach you about the productivity of aggression.

~ Nick Venegoni

 

Do people ever say to you, “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” and your inner voice replies with something like, “But I don’t know how not to,” or “If I’m not, who will? I won’t get very far in life”?

One of my yoga teachers talks about the “Little Man” in our head who tells us how we’re not going to succeed. “You can’t balance on one leg for five seconds – you will fall! You’re not good enough for them – they’re out of your league! You have to do everything yourself – you’re a loser and no one is going to help you! You’re gonna miss that bus, then you’ll be late to work, and then you’ll lose your job!”

All of these messages come from that voice in your head & can really beat you down, causing stress, anxiety, depression, and self-hatred. The majority of the time we are our own worst critic.

But here is the secret: That voice is not really you! You may think it is you because it’s coming from inside of you and and it sounds like you; but it’s not a part of you. That voice and those messages are a part of someone or something else. They grew from a little seed (or 2 or 20 seeds) that you unknowingly swallowed along time ago.

From a psychological perspective this is called an introjection. An introjection is “the unconscious adoption of the ideas or attitudes of others.” These voices or messages in your head are just ideas from someone else you started to believe without question.

Not all introjections are negative or make us feel bad about ourselves, but it’s wise to be curious about all of our unconscious beliefs. Introjections can be ideas we picked up from our family or community about religion and spirituality, politics and money, sex and identity, race and culture. They can also be ideas about who we are – things that people told us about ourselves as we grew up.

So, if you grew up in a home where you received messages about being smart, attractive and successful, after a while you probably started to believe that was true because it’s what the authorities in your life told you. And if your school environment was supportive of your growth, encouraging you to think critically and told you you were smart, then you probably believed that too. But imagine if you had parents and teachers who were unhappy, stressed, angry or sick, and blamed your for their suffering. If this went on for a few years, then after a while you started to believe that it’s true. We internalize these messages about ourself and the Little Man is not so nice – he is our own worst critic, judge and tormentor.

Now the question becomes, How do I get rid of the Little Man? I believe that the Little Man is not something we want to get rid of, but something to change. That voice is something which can be helpful when it says things which help us feel good about ourselves. It takes time to change that voice and the messages. It’s takes consciousness, awareness and effort. Think of it as retraining your brain to think differently about yourself.

This is where self-compassion comes in to help soften the voice and soothe the Little Man, so he doesn’t get defensive when you tell him he’s wrong. That would be like arguing and yelling “Shut Up! You’re wrong!” That’s not going to help someone change their thinking. Self-compassion brings in a level of understanding your own suffering allows the mind to open to other possibilities. This takes time and discipline, just as with any new skill we learn.

One of the best tools for working on this is practicing a Loving-Kindness meditation (or Metta from the Buddhist tradition). This practice has two parts: sending loving-kindness to yourself and to others. For the practice of self compassion I suggest focusing just on yourself. The basic practice is to get into a mindful state and focus on this mantra:

May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.

I suggest starting with just five minutes a day, every day. Over time these messages will start to become more natural and automatic, and eventually the Little Man may adopt them into his arsenal.

There are many other ways to work with introjections and cultivating self-worth and self-esteem, such as working with a therapist. This is just one way to begin the work on your own.

~ May you be free from suffering ~

– Nick Venegoni, MFT

Often when we feel like something isn’t right in our life, we look for problems outside of ourselves. How many times have you asked yourself, Am I in the right relationship? Am I with the right person? Is this the right job/school/neighborhood for me? Full of doubt, confusion or frustration, you consider these thoughts over and over and over, trying to find the right answer. Asking, What if I stay? What if I go? It can be tiring and anxiety provoking. We become frozen in our lives, afraid to make a decision one way or another, uncertain about the right choice.

But sometimes that thing that doesn’t feel good or right within us, is ourselves. Is there something inside which you are avoiding by trying to change something outside of you? Perhaps the question you might as is:  Am I in right relationship with myself?

To be in right relationship with yourself means to honor and respect yourself. If you are constantly judging and belittling yourself in thought or word, that is not self-respect. You may have been told so many times by others that you are not good, smart, attractive or talented enough, to the point that you believe if yourself. It can be difficult to stop our mind from eating away at our self-esteem if we’ve trained it to do so for twenty-plus years, but it is possible to change our patterns of though. The first step is learning to observe our thinking mind and begin to challenge those self-defeating beliefs.

To be in right relationship with yourself also means to take care of yourself first and foremost, before others. This may sound selfish but I firmly believe that it is most ethical to fill your cup first before you can fill another’s. Think about what you are instructed to do on an airplane in case of an emergency: secure your oxygen mask first before helping others around you. If you are not at your best, you cannot help others with all the care and attention you may want to. Similarly, if you not are in the best relationship with yourself, you cannot be in the best relationship with others.

These are simple ideas, yet they may seem like daunting tasks. Take your time and be gentle with yourself. A dear friend of mine teaches that we will not succeed unless we are gentle with ourselves (remember honor and respect?). Being in right relationship with ourselves is a life long task, as we are ever changing and ever evolving. Be patient with all the new parts of yourself that you discover as you open up to yourself, and then be courageous to share those parts with others in your life.

I seem to be on a self-expression kick lately, as my last post was about dancing away depression. Well now I’m going to tell you a story about the power of sound, voice and singing.

Recently I was invited to officiate a wedding for the first time. I was honored and excited to be asked, especially because it was for my older brother and his fiancee. I traveled a few days early for the rehearsal and to visit with family. However a few people began to get a little sick and the bug began to wander. I felt fine until the night before the wedding, so I went to the market and picked up my favorite natural remedies and immune boosters: vitamins, herbal elixirs, a neti pot, etc. The wedding wasn’t until 3pm the next day, so I rested a lot and took my healing medicines.

The next day I awoke feeling worse than before and I began to worry. Breakfast did not help and I just stayed in bed all morning, worrying about what I might do as th nausea set in. I seriously began to consider getting a substitute as my face paled and my energy waned.

Just after noon I decided to take a shower and get ready, as I was going even if I wasn’t able to officiate. The shower helped a bit and I started to sing a little to try to lift my spirits. Then I put on some of my favorite music and began to sing even more as I dressed in the hotel room. I felt my nausea and fatigue melting away, so I sang louder and louder, feeling my guts shift and move as I breathed deeper in my belly for more air and volume. Waves of emotion washed through me as I sang more, and it felt as if my immune system was following the waves of sound moving through my body, rinsing away germs and toxins.

By the time I put my shoes on, the color was back in my face and I felt good enough carry on with my duties for the day. I realized that my anxiety about conducting the ceremony and my sickness were feeding off of each other. The sound allowed the anxiety to transform and my body could heal itself as long as my mind was in a state of joy from the musical sounds moving through me. The sound waves of healing and joy continued throughout the ceremony and reception, which all went beautifully.

This was a wonderful reminder for me to remember the healing power of sound and singing. Our bodies are mostly made up of water, which sound easily moves through, carrying the quality of the sound waves and influencing all it touches. Next time you don’t feel well, sing your favorite song out loud for your entire body, mind and spirit to hear. It doesn’t matter how well you sing, but that you feel the joy of that song washing upon the shores of your organs and bones, nerves and cells.

Many people are getting ready right now to settle into their couch or favorite recliner for a long evening of red carpet interviews, flashy fashion viewing and celebrities – tonight are the Academy Awards! But you may want to take some time to go for a walk with the dog or hit the gym for a quick work out before you veg out in front of the boob-tube. Moving your body is not just good for your body, but good for your mind!

One of this years hot nominees is Silver Linings Playbook, starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro. At the core the plot is your typical boy meets girl romance, with a twist – the two main characters are believed to be bipolar, which makes for some unusual and entertaining chemistry. However, one of the ways these two people primarily connect is through dance. Lawrence’s character has entered a dance contest and needs a partner, and gets Cooper to assist her in this endeavor. It’s interesting to see both their verbal and non-verbal communication during their rehearsals, which at times seems to be contradictory. But what I noticed was how through their daily rehearsals they were able to forget about their worldly troubles by getting into their bodies and have fun dancing and creating choreography together.

The lesson here is twofold. The first is that by getting into our bodies and moving we are able to be present in the moment, releasing worry, depression and anxiety. Despite what people think about multitasking, the brain can only focus on one thing at once. Forms of artistic expression such as creating choreography force us to be present with that one thing and letting in our thoughts of suffering (not mention the exercise and increase in oxygenation of the body). The second lesson is that creating and communicating with another person is extremely rewarding and builds a strong foundation of trust and collaboration in relationships.

So if you struggle with emotions such as anxiety or depression, or you want to build connection in your relationships, step away from your screen and move your body. Have a spontaneous dance-break with your partner or family, and dance those blues away!

Winter is probably the most challenging time of the year with cold and flu season upon us, as well as the mental and emotional stress the holidays may put on us; in addition to the common occurrence of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which frequently goes unattended. SAD is actually one of the best examples of how the seasonal changes can effect us, simply through the decrease of sunlight we receive due to fewer daylight hours, cloudy weather and staying inside to avoid falling temperatures.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Elson Haas at his practice, Preventive Medical Center of Marin, where he and his staff support people by employing integrative and preventive healing systems such as nutrition, body therapy and herbal and homeopathic medicines. Dr. Haas is the author of “Staying Healthy With the Seasons,” first published in 1981, one the ground breaking guides on keeping oneself healthy by staying mindfully attuned to the natural rhythms of the Earth.

 

With a little discipline and some simple tips, we can stay on top of our physical and emotional health during the winter months. In “Staying Healthy With the Seasons” Dr. Haas uses the model of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which associates winter with the element of water, as one way to guide us in making healthy seasonal choices. The chapter on winter begins by discussing its connection to the element of water, which makes sense, as it is the rainy/snowy time of year in many regions. However winter can also be very drying to the human system because of the cold air, so it’s important to stay hydrated with warm soothing teas, soups and broths. When we are sick and run down, our physical well-being greatly effects our emotional well-being.

The element of water is also associated with the emotions in TCM as well as many other healing systems. Winter can be emotionally challenging for many reasons, such as the aforementioned SAD and holiday stress, as well as loneliness for those who feel isolated by family or community during a celebratory time of year. Making time for self-care and reaching out for support is paramount now. Taking baths, exercising and getting extra sleep and rest are all ways to support your mood and body.

The cold, dark months are also a time for inner reflection. Many people take inventory of their life in the last year and make resolutions on January first, letting go of old patterns and starting afresh. So take some time to reflect upon both your past and your present, making changes where necessary for staying healthy through the season.

Happy New Year!

*Here’s a little bonus list of 7 Foods for Winter Blues.

Over the last twelve years I’ve been on a journey which has significantly changed my relationship to my body, the food I consume and my personal and spiritual practices. (Read Part 1 here if you missed it.)

Eating Habits & Digestion: About eight years ago I began to notice that my body was not digesting food in quite the same as it used to. I thought I was becoming lactose intolerant and after talking to friends, it sounded like a common occurrence among my peers in their late 20’s – but why? I was pretty upset because I enjoyed my dairy products thoroughly: cheese, ice cream, yogurt, milk on my cereal, etc. I grew up being told on TV every Saturday morning about milk – “It does a body good!” (Little did we know then about the possible dangers of rBGH.)

I decided to go visit an Ayurvedic Practitioner, per the suggestion of a classmate who had seen big changes in her digestion after working with one for a few months. In the first visit I filled out an extensive questionnaire about my current state of health, lifestyle and history. I then met with my practitioner who spent an hour asking me more questions about my symptoms and goals, and explaining the possible treatment plans. I returned the following week after she had analyzed the data from the questionnaire and we came up with an outline of how to begin revitalizing my digestive system.

Over the next year I visited my practitioner ever 3-4 weeks for an hour visit. She was very attentive and I felt very much cared for during those visits. We started by looking at what foods supported my constitution and which weakened my digestion. I also learned new habits to cultivate around my eating, particularly the quality (organic being best) and preparation of the food and myself (including my state of mind while eating). I discovered that I would mostly eat for the sake of refueling and often in a hurry or while anxious.It is very important to use all of your senses for optimum digestion, and to create the best environment for the mind and body while eating. The quality of most food in our modern western culture is not very high; and for some it takes extra time, care and money to eat things which are healthy and nourishing to our whole beings. Also, the fast paced and digital world we live in does not help those of us with a weakened digestion or constitution. We often don’t take time to be present with our body and food, and that is paramount. It is foreign for many to sit and savor our food, fully chewing every bite and allowing our body to absorb all the nutrients that food can bring us. (I have co-lead a couple of workshops using mindfulness to help people become more attuned to their bodies and cultivate a harmonious relationship with food.)

Over time I began to feel much better as my digestion improved and I slowed down, listening to what my body really craved and what it didn’t want. This can be a difficult task, as many of us use food to help cope with feelings which are uncomfortable. Creating healthy ways to help regulate those difficult emotions can make changing our relationship to food and our body much easier. This was where my yoga practice (discussed in my previous article) really helped with my anxiety and anger, so my gut didn’t have to hold those feelings and it could properly absorb my food.

My relationship to food and my body around my digestion continues to challenge me to move toward health, and is a excellent barometer for what is happening in my life. I mindfully listen to my body and spirit, for it shows me what is out of balance and how to move toward health every day.

(If you would like to work with a nutritionist and improve your relationship with food and your body, please check out Marnie Northrop & Gina Knepell.)

Over the last twelve years I’ve been on a journey which has drastically changed my relationship to my body and the food I consume. As a kid I didn’t play sports nor was I very active, and as a result I was not in tune with my body and its needs. Growing up in the 80’s there was a lot of buzz in the media about being health conscious, with cartoon campaigns to educate children about their bodies, food, and how to live healthy lives. Now as an adult, I’ve greatly changed how I relate to my body and what I put into it. As a psychotherapist I also understand how our physical health greatly affects our mood, our outlook on life and our connection to the universe. This is my story of that journey.

Yoga: My first step into reconnection with my body began with yoga in 2001. Y2K was a year behind us and the world was happy that all our computers were still working and modern civilization had not come to a stand-still. The dot.com crash was in full force and techies were fleeing the Bay Area like rats on a sinking ship, as their funds were rapidly absorbed by credit cards bills. The twin towers were still standing, but not for long.

I had moved into a new apartment in the Mission after my last roommates got married and ventured north. One of my new roommates told me about a nearby yoga ashram, which he jokingly called a “cult” because many of the teachers lived there and only wore white clothing. I had done yoga with a friend in their home a few times before but I had never taken a class, so I thought I’d check it out. I felt like I should start focusing on my physical health now that I was in my early 20’s, and given that I was exploring a variety of spiritual practices at the time, yoga sounded like a good fit.

Attending my first hatha yoga class I thoroughly enjoyed the calm spirit of the ashram right away, the quiet yet friendly people and the challenge of the asanas. Being someone who is frequently in his head, yoga was a good fit because learning how to get my body into the poses was kind of like a puzzle at first.

A few months later (now post 9/11) I lost my job and started volunteering at the ashram in exchange for free classes. I began to learn more about the different branches of yoga: meditation, breathing, chanting, etc.; I also learned a little about ayurveda, which looks more at diet and lifestyle (more on this later). It felt very comfortable for me to be there, yet challenging for my mind, body and spirit too. I went to the ashram regularly for almost three years until I moved out of the neighborhood. I continued to hold aspects of yoga in my life, but not in the same way again for a few years.

Just over a year ago yoga came back more fully into my life, again with the invitation from a friend to attend a class together. I learned about the new trend of donation classes where you pay what you can, as yoga had become quite popular and expensive. I eventually found an Iyengar teacher I resonated with, which was a good fit for my constitution by focusing on proper alignment and calming the mind. I committed to two classes a week and after just a few months not only did I see changes in my body and energy levels, but I noticed my anxiety and anger levels reduced significantly – two traits which had become more pronounced since my first stint with yoga. Yoga is a great vehicle to learn about the mind-body connection, which I feel is a crucial education in our digital age of disconnection.

I continue to practice hatha yoga as well as other branches, and work to honor the principles of ayurveda which support my specific constitution. I encourage others to cultivate a mind-body practice as well, as I find this can lay a strong foundation for healing dis-ease on all levels: mind, body & spirit.

(Coming soon: Part 2 of my journey I’ll share about my struggles with food and digestion, and how that has colored my self-esteem and relationships.)

Or…. How to Wirelessly Sync to Mother Nature

Yesterday I got a smart phone. Not because I wanted to, per se, but because it was necessary. I had a flip phone that was probably four years old and worked great! As a matter of fact, I only charged it about twice a week and it took about twenty minutes to fully charge. It didn’t take pictures or go on the internet, but I didn’t mind. That’s what my lap top is for, right? Well, to my dismay, I have noticed that people don’t really talk on phones anymore – they mostly send texts. (I would call and leave a message, and minutes later I’d get a text. I’d call right back and leave another message. Why can’t you just press TALK?!) And it was getting to a point where I couldn’t read texts I was getting from friends because the technology on my phone was behind the times. But the main reason I got the smart phone was for work, since I don’t have internet access in my office. I’ll stop troubling you with all the details of this wifi puzzle.

Many of the people I work with struggle with a variety of stressors and anxieties in their life. They say their mind spins out of control, their body tenses up with pain in the back, neck and shoulders, or clenching their jaw. And they forget about self care and other supportive plans we have come up with. They ask how to stop or slow this down, and I offer ideas about diet and exercise. But I think one of the best things is to reduce consumption of media and technology. I suggest that people turn off their computers, phones, tablets and TV’s, and get out of the house.

Right now I’m remembering my mom’s voice from when I was a kid, saying, “Why don’t you go outside and play? Go ride your bike and get some fresh air.” I’m sure she wanted some space in the house, but she also knew that moving my body, breathing in fresh oxygen and playing in the dirt was good for me. Which it is!

A new term by Richard Louv, has been coined Nature Deficit Disorder. Essentially saying that as our relationship to nature has dwindled, so has our health and well-being. Hmmm… There is also a new practice/movement called Earthing, which posits that by having direct, physical contact with the Earth we are able to discharge and rebalance the electromagnetic stress we carry in our body. (I imagine the charge increases as we engage more and more with computers and cell phones.) Our bodies, especially our brains, have electrical impulses constantly running through them. Is it a stretch to think that exposure to more electricity affects the electrical current in our bodies? And what is it doing to our brains, thoughts and emotions?

Two weeks ago I attended the Applied EcoPsychology Conference put on by Holos Institute, in Berkeley. The keynote speaker was cultural anthropologist and award-winning author, Angeles Arrien. She spoke about the wisdom of the earth and the people of the lands: the solid and grounded Mountain People; the quiet and introspective Desert People; the flexible and creative Bamboo People, etc.  She also spoke of a counsel of tribal  elders from around the world, who gathered at the turn of the century to discuss what was most important for our planet to focus on in the next fifty years. They noticed the common message they had all been receiving was this: “When the wisdom of the Sky merges with the wisdom of the Earth, and they are braided together through the Human Heart, we will have a Rainbow People.” Arrien proposed that this translated to the weaving together of technology (wisdom of the Sky) with the wisdom of nature in a harmonious way to cultivate the heart of humanity. I can see how this is starting to happen slowly, and I look forward to more. But until that time, I think I’ll take off my shoes and make some mud pies.

During this last winter my friend and I decided to explore the elements in a freeform, guided meditation. When we meditated on fire we both came up with similar ideas and imagery. For us fire was about change and transformation, but also about warmth, sustenance and community. Many images came of communities gathering around a fire circle for a ritual or the hearth of a home, and even around the stove in a kitchen. How many parties have you been to where the little kitchen is full of people and the spacious living room is empty? Humans are drawn to community, connection and contact. By our nature, we are not solitary beings. Science has shown that without contact with others our physical and mental health suffers greatly.

Community and connection is paramount to our well being, and not just any community, but our sangha. Sangha is a Buddhist term, which refers to our community of kindred spirits, like-minded friends or our spiritual community. Your sangha is the community where you can be yourself, relax and find support. For some this is at work or school, for others it’s in your own family or even at the local watering hole.
There are many people who may feel isolated from that sense of community. They may feel like outsiders because of their beliefs or a particular disability. I want to acknowledge that it can be a struggle to find a sangha for some. To those people, I would encourage your to not give up and keep looking. I also offer two other options, the first being the internet. In this day of social networking we can meet people from all around the world, and we are bound to find other kindred spirits out there. The second possibility is the internal sangha, for those with a spiritual practice or believe system. In prayer and meditation we can find a multitude of support networks through a pantheon of gods and goddesses, angels, spirit guides or mythical figures. Even our imagination can create a rich center of support, perhaps by reading uplifting stories or sagas of great heroes who have discovered strength in their wounding.

We seek out these communities when we feel good and want to connect, but also when we want to take refuge from our struggles and difficulties. And even though our community may not have the answers or solutions, we feel better simply because we can rest in that connection with our people.

– Nick Venegoni, MA