This weekend I attended the March for Our Lives rally and march in San Francisco. The speakers I heard in person, as well as in the news media across the country, were brave and inspiring youth. I felt motivated by their voices and encouraged by their spirit. Many of them bravely shared their fear and boldly expressed their outrage about the series of mass shootings this country has experienced in the last decade.

What struck me the most was not only the huge amount of vulnerability they had in stating their fear and anger, but also their grounded ferocity to take action and demand action. This new voice is refreshing, hopeful and inspiring.

art: Micah Bazant

Lately I’ve been speaking with others about my work and projects to facilitate healing for marginalized peoples (victims and survivors of traumatic of abuse, LGBTQ folks). The feedback I’ve gotten on my messaging is, “People don’t want to do healing work, they just want to feel better,” or, “Admitting they have trauma is scary for people.” These ideas may be true, and I believe that our culture has enabled people to stay powerless in these places of fear and dissociation. Our systems of “support” encourage us to take prescription medications that mask our ailments, instead of doing the hard to work to heal. They support us to forget about what made us sick, instead of confronting and addressing the origin of the cause.

But these teenage activists are shining a light on this, saying, “Wake up! No More! #NeverAgain! #EnoughIsEnough!” They are showing us how to take courage in the face of fear. They are proving that strength comes from being vulnerable and brutally honest with ourselves.

Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” This new movement is inspiring me to be brave and powerful in my vulnerability.

It’s also important for us to be vulnerable with ourselves — to face our own inner challenges, be honest with ourselves and find the courage to heal our wounded hearts. Once we have done our own inner work, we are more able to do the work for our community, our country and our planet.

~ Nick Vengoni

If you are a LGBT/Queer person who is ready to heal your wounded heart, check out my workshop, “Reclaiming the Magic of Your Queer Power.”
It will next be offered for gay men in Los Angeles, April 13-15th. 
Future dates for ALL queer people are coming soon.

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

When was the last time a stranger struck up a meaningful conversation with you in public? Well, it happened to me last night at 10:30PM on a crowded bus, rumbling through the rainy streets of San Francisco.

I was on my way home from my weekly dance practice in Berkeley, when the young man sitting in front of me turned around and hesitantly asked me, “What are you passionate about?” It took me a moment to register the experience, as I was listening to a podcast and that was the last question I expected to hear from a stranger at this time of night. Considering the question briefly, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Music,” I said, and he smiled knowingly. He shared that he, too, was a musician of sorts, “a poet.” We shared why and how we felt passionate about music for a bit.

A few stops later the passenger sitting next to me exited the bus, and the young man quickly got up and sat down right next to me. “Tell me about a profound experience you’ve had,” he says. Again, not expecting this second question, I took a moment to ponder.

Just about a year ago I was part of a ceremony celebrating the life of the recently deceased David Bowie. We chose his song “Changes” as the theme of this ritual, and my friend who gave the sermon encouraged us to, “Turn and face the strange” in both our lives and inside ourselves; to not hide in fear from that which we don’t understand or are unfamiliar with. Little did we know then, that 2016 would get more and more “strange” with each passing month. We faced many challenges and losses. The “strange” hiding in the shadows came out into the light and took reign center stage, unbridled and unafraid.

Back on the bus, I was impressed by my companions unbridled courage to turn and face this stranger—me—and ask such poignant questions. I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on the experiences in my life which have brought me joy.

“Profound experiences have usually been in a group of people where we are all in sync, in the flow of life and feeling connection to the divine in those moments.,” I finally reply. Again he smiled in agreement, and we exchanged more stories and ideas. We introduced each other, shook hands, and a moment later I exited the bus at my stop, as he sailed over the hill toward the dark ocean.

Thank you, young man, for reminding me that turning and facing the strange can bring me joy and a full heart.

~ Nick Venegoni, MFT



Most days I walk to work through a small park with a patch of grass and a children’s playground. There are a few  large pine trees there, shedding their needles and cones on the grass. One particular day on my walk I spotted a small immature, “closed” pine cone. I picked it up, enjoying how it looked and felt in my hand. I stuck it in my pocket and brought it to my office, where I put it on my altar with other objects which remind me of the natural world outside my window.

I returned to my office a couple days later to find the pine cone had begun to open, flaying out about half of its bottom scales, while the top half stayed closed. I was completely surprised to see this had happened off the tree, let alone in my office. I wondered if the rest would open on its own in the next few days. I waited, yet nothing occurred — it had stopped opening the rest of the way. So this left me wondering, how did this transformation occur and why did it stop?

This feels like one of life’s many mysteries: What is the process of initiating and completing transformation in ourselves and in our lives?

pineconeThe reason most people seek therapy is because you want something to change. You want to change the way they feel about yourself, your relationships, your lives, etc. Those who are new to therapy often think that I have a secret formula to give them, and if they follow it they will transform their experience. The truth is, I don’t have any formula to give you. BUT I can support and guide you on your inner journey to find that formula. The truth is the secret formula lies within, and you have to find it.

That pine cone didn’t open on its own, but the potential for it to open and transform is part of its natural essence. Through the contributions of heat from the sun and water from the clouds above, it was supported to open. The cone didn’t last long enough on the tree to fully open and mature. I don’t know if it ever will fully open, but I accept that it has done what it could with the resources it had. When I look at the pine cone it helps me have patience for myself and those I support, that we will transform to the best of our ability when we are ready.

~ Nick Venegoni, MFT

Mindfulness in the Electronic Age: Part 2

Recently on This American Life, Ira Glass interviewed some teenage girls who gave him the rundown on how interacting with their friends on Instagram is crucial to their social standing. They basically explained that in their circles, if a friend did not respond to a photo posted with the expected type of response (ie. “You’re so pretty!”) AND within the expected period of time (ie. within 1 hour or less), this was possible grounds for ending a friendship.

How many Facebook posts have you LIKED in the last week? How many Instagram photos did you give a HEART today? On the flip side, when was the last time you left a scathing Yelp because you got bad service at your regular cafe? Or, have you publicly flamed someone because their post upset you? Engaging with one another online has become as natural as scratching an itch, and we can easily forget that there is a real person on the receiving end of our reactive click.

Now, everyone has an opinion, and opinions are important. Opinions help us discern our wants and needs. Opinions help us navigate through our day. However, it is when opinions turn into judgements that they can cause suffering. These thoughts and ideas — these strong opinions — can be the seeds of suffering for both yourself and others.

A growing concern which has had a great deal of press in the last couple of years has been online bullying. The ease with which you can direct judgment and negativity at someone, and often without being held accountable for it, is astonishing. Yes, most of us, including myself, have had nasty thoughts about another person — usually when we are hurt or angry. We can take a breath, let the moment pass, and go on with our lives. Or we can let the flood of emotions blindly encourage us to post a rant or smear a person instantaneously, creating a digital record of it “forever.” Thankfully you can delete a post or a tweet, but you cannot unsend a text message.

There is a lot of bad stuff going on in the world today. And if you’re on social media, it is everywhere: innocent people being shot and killed, politicians throwing each other under the bus, displaced immigrants seeking asylum and being turned away by entire countries. It’s hard stuff to face, and being constantly bombarded by it hurts our hearts and triggers all sorts of feelings. It’s important to monitor our inner landscape and take care of ourselves, even when we are just catching up with friends online.

Here’s your challenge: Notice when using social media leaves you feeling good about yourself and others; OR when it leaves you feeling depleted, angry or hopeless. Notice what you want more of and what you want less of — LIKES or hugs, FaceTime or face-to-face time. Now, can you sit with it all in a place of being grounded and present, engaging in a kindhearted way without preference? Without pushing or pulling? Without loving or hating, but simply being? This is the beginning practice of equanimity.

My teacher Isa Gucciardi, defines equanimity as the practice of “engaged presence without preference.” Without the preference to pull toward you for more, or push away and ignore. Another translation of the Pali word for equanimity is, “to stand in the middle of all this.” So how can we stand in the middle of all this love and hate, and just be present and compassionate? It takes practice, and this is what it means to be a human today. It’s wonderful and beautiful — it’s heart wrenching and challenging.

We are here to experience it all. As my good friend Uncle Bear says, “Feel your feelings.” Then take a breath, don’t push, don’t pull, and be here now.

~ Nick Venegoni, MFT

Mindfulness in the Electronic Age: Part 1

How many times have you checked your phone today? It seems that we have all become Pavlov’s dog and immediately respond to our phones alert bell, ding, beep, chirp or buzz without hesitation. Our brains salivate with each notification of a text or LIKE or HEART — and it feels good! It’s nice to connect and engage with others around shared interests and beliefs. No big deal, right?

As a therapist, when someone asks me if they are addicted, they tend to see the situation in black or white. But I think the relationship can move along a continuum of interaction. I see addiction on a scale — something like this: use, abuse, dependence, addiction.

Webster defines ADDICTION –

: a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble)

Do you have a strong need for your phone? Well OK, phones aren’t drugs, and Instagram isn’t gambling. Webster continues…

:an unusually great interest in something or a need to do or have something

SO, maybe your interest in your phone might be considered “unusually great”?

I’ve noticed for a few years now, this strong need, this unusually great relationship some people develop with their smart phones. And it’s not really the phone itself that people are obsessed with, but the content and connections their phones provide them. Or the salivation — the chemistry our brains release with each notification and interaction.

Let me say, I find social media to be a great way to gather information and connect with community, especially for those who may be isolated in some way (such as queer teens in small towns, disabled folks, home bound senior citizens, etc). However, I also see how it can generate isolation and degenerate authentic connection and intimacy. By spending such considerable amounts of time engaging with your phone (liking, retweeting, commenting, reviewing, texting, chatting), the technology starts to become an extension of oneself. When someone has lost or broken their phone, I’ve heard many say it feels like withdrawing from a drug or like they’ve lost a limb. In some ways this is true — you do lose a particular ability to communicate, and there are particular chemicals in the brain that cease to be released when one loses this form of communication and connection with others.

So, what do you do about it? Easy — discipline. Moderation. Cut down. But, we Americans tend to have difficulty with moderation since we live in the land of bigger, better, louder, brighter, Super-Size Me! So even though discipline is a challenge, bringing awareness to your relationship with your phone (and other portals to social media and digital communication) is the first step to solving this conundrum.

In the world of mental health and dealing with substance or behavioral abuse (remember the scale? use, abuse, dependence, addiction), there’s the harm reduction model. Harm reduction is a way to evaluate level of use and level of “harm”, and then reducing use to reduce “harm.” An example of the harm reduction model is working with food addiction. Someone addicted to food can’t just stop eating or they’ll eventually die, but they can reduce their intake and change their relationship to food. The same thing can be done with your phone. Consume less time on your phone and use your newly found free time for other things — visiting with friends and loved ones in person, engaging in hobbies and physical activities, or all the other things you’ve been putting off (laundry, dishes, paying bills, etc.). The commodity is time and connection, not the phone.

The important part to remember is to start small. Maybe it means only 30-minutes less a day for a week, and then increasing to one hour, and so on. You want to stretch yourself without stressing yourself. And know that you maybe have cravings and that’s OK.

– Nick Venegoni, MFT

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.

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.