Buddhism is not only a religion, but a philosophy, a science and a psychology as well. The Buddha studied the nature of the mind very deeply, the way a biologist studies a cell on the nuclear level. Buddhist psychology is a complete science unto itself, of the nature of the mind and the ways in which the human mind creates suffering, joy and liberation within the mind. Buddhist psychology explicitly gives instructions on ways to support yourself and others to find liberation from suffering and to live in joy and complete bliss. The tricky part, especially for us westerners, is that it is a continual practice, not just a one time quick fix, like taking a pill.

Let us start with empathy: What is it? In his new book on compassion, “A Fearless Heart,” Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D. (former Tibetan monk and principal english translator of the the Dalai Lama) defines empathy: It’s our natural ability to understand other people’s feelings and share in their experiences. It thus consists of two key components: an emotional response to someone’s feelings, and cognitive understanding of his or her situation. So it is a perceived feeling and knowing what others feel or experience. This is very helpful for both parties involved: the one in pain feels understood and less alone in their suffering, and the one who is witnessing has a visceral experience of understanding and relating in their own way to the experience of suffering.

Now, for some people having empathy can be challenging. Many of us grow up not learning skills or knowing how to cope with our own suffering, let alone others suffering. I’ve heard it said that in today’s modern, technology driven society, there is a significant deficit in empathy. Many aspects of our culture have cultivated a sense of narcissism that makes it easy to disconnect from what others might be experiencing.

Then there are others who are overwhelmed by empathy. Some people are quite sensitive and attuned to other people’s experiences, but without proper self care this can be exhausting. Many people in helping professions, such as nurses and therapists, end up leaving their profession because of what’s called “compassion fatigue,” but I would argue that they are really experiencing “empathy fatigue.” These people may believe they have a responsibility to take on the suffering of others because they know how to digest it more easily than the original owner, but this is very taxing on the mind, body and spirit. Hence the fatigue and burn-out occurs, and we have talented helpers and healers who are very much needed, leaving their professions. So, what is the solution?

This brings us to compassion and kindness. Compassion is really quite simple, yet our experiences of empathy can sometimes impede compassion. Compassion is a deep and sincere wish or desire that another’s suffering come to an end. It’s as easy as a wish. Kindness is then the action we take toward the one suffering as a result of our compassionate wish. Jinpa says: Compassion is a more empowered state and more than an empathic response to the situation. Kindness is the expression of that compassion through helping, a basic form of altruism. Compassion is what makes it possible for our empathic reaction to manifest in kindness.

This action of kindness is another place we can get stuck, however. For those of us who are helpers and healers we get stuck in feeling helpless and not knowing what to do to help another person. Sometimes there is nothing to do but just be. Often times simply holding compassion for the sufferer in their presence is enough kindness. It doesn’t sound like much but it can be quite powerful. It can take fierce compassion to stay present with anothers suffering knowing there is nothing you can do about it because only they know the best way through and out of their experience. Expressing loving kindness toward them means they don’t have to feel so alone as they walk that path.

As a therapist, I often think of myself as an old-fashioned, cast iron oven, sitting in the middle of the room and emanating a heat and warmth of compassion and loving kindness. Those who are on their journeys of healing and self discovery can stop by to warm and center themselves before they carry on again. Yes, I have other tools and practices to offer them as well out of kindness. But, as Jinpa said, “compassion is a more empowered state” for all involved, than simply feeling empathy for the sufferer.

– Nick Venegoni, MFT

Daniel Rechtschaffen, a friend of mine from grad school, was interviewed on the local news this weekend and the circulating video clip of it came across my Facebook feed today. While watching my friend in his brief interview, I sensed a great joy growing inside of me and I was very excited for him! How wonderful that his work and passion is getting such recognition! — I thought.

From a Buddhist perspective, I was experiencing Empathetic Joy. This particular feeling (also called appreciative joy) is that which you experience as you witness and become infected by another beings happiness and delight. I’m sure you’ve experienced this before, especially in the presence of children on Christmas morning or chasing bubbles across the yard. They are so excited and full of life that you can’t help but smile as you feel their joy. Or perhaps watching animals at play. (Maybe this is why we’re addicted to cat videos on Youtube.)

But one thing I’ve noticed as I age is that, the challenges of life make it more difficult for me to experience empathetic joy with other adults. When things aren’t going my way or I’m struggling with money, and I see others who are better off, sometimes I feel a tinge of jealousy begin to rise up within me. If I’m not careful I may begin to to judge them to feel better about myself; or I may judge myself to punish my laziness or to motivate me to do better. But none of that feels good, nor is it really helpful to anyone.

What is helpful is to loosen the grip of my mind about my expectations for myself, and rest in the joy that another persons experience brings to me. Being in this place will help me stay more connected to others. It will also support me to move towards my goals in a positive and productive way, instead of punishing myself for not yet having the thing I want.

So many of us walk through the world judging our experiences, the people we encounter, and ourselves — this is exhausting, and it doesn’t feel good! I challenge you make it a game to see how much joy you can find in others and allow it to infect you. Take off those goggles of gloom and doom, and try on some rose colored glasses… just for an hour.

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your hearts longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dreams, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals, or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it. I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own; if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, be realistic, or to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true, I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul.

I want to know if you can be faithful and therefore trustworthy. I want to know if you can see beauty, even when it is not pretty every day, and if you can source your life from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours or mine, and still stand on the edge of a lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done for the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you are, or how you came to be here- I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself, and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

by Oriah Mountain Dreamer
May 1994

 

2013 seemed to be the year of the mobile tablet: Apple iPad, Google Nexus, Samsung Galaxy and more. Technology and its devices are creeping more and more into our bedrooms and living rooms, our purses and pockets, and the rest of our lives. So what does 2014 have in store for us?

For those of you who have been following my blog, you might know that I am not anti-technology but I am a cheerleader for putting it down for a while in order to better connect with our bodies, our loved ones and with nature (check out Put your hands up & step away from the iPad!). My ideas about this were challenged when I recently saw Spike Jonze’ new movie, Her.

Amy Adams in "Her"In the movie, “A lonely writer (Joaquin Phoenix) develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system (the voice of Scarlett Johansson) that’s designed to meet his every need.” I won’t spoil the ending for you, but the writer develops serious feelings for his operating system (OS) which helps pull him out of his post-divorce malaise. The OS gets him talking about his thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, and even gets him out of the house. (Who needs friends or a therapist when you have an OS like this?!)

While I sat in the theater I considered my own ideas about current cultures relationship to technology (social media in particular), and compared it to the messages in the film. I do see how technology and social media help connect people through ideas and common interests, and how it helps isolated people (such as a queer teen in a small town or a house bound person in the city) feel less alone. But I also have concerns about how it can create a barrier to true human contact, intimacy and authenticity. The reports of cyber-bullying and how much time people spend texting instead of talking saddens me. I’ve heard people say “I feel like I’ve lost a part of my body!” when they have lost their smart phone. Jonze did a great job of showing many sides of these cultural ideas about human connection and our relationship to technology.

So ask yourself, Is my relationship with my tablet/smart phone helping or hindering my life? In the end I think my answer to this question is the same to many about addictive behaviors: bring mindfulness and moderation to your use and find out. Bringing consciousness, intention and thoughtfulness to all of our actions is important. And watching our level of frequency or consumption to make sure we are not over-dosing and neglecting other important parts of our well-being is also important. I believe that balance will be different for each of us.

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.)

Have you lost a loved one in the last year and wonder what it will be like this winter holiday season for the first time without them?

In this support group we will share our stories and be held by others in similar circumstances. We will also explore how grief can go unrecognized and that it is an important part of your life experience.

FREE Intro Night: Friday Nov. 9th @ 6 PM
Emergence Healing Arts Studio

4052 18th St. @ Hartford in the Castro
Walk-in’s welcome.

3 alternate Tuesdays @ 7 PM – 8:30 PM
November 13th, 27th & December 11th

Pre-Registration is Required
Fee: $120 EARLY registration received by November 2nd;
$150 November 3rd – November 13th
*All payments are Non-Refundable upon receipt
Register here for Grief & Loss of a Loved One.

Facilitated by Nick Venegoni, MFT

Location: Healing Arts Building
1801 Bush Street @ Octavia
San Francisco, California 94109