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

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.

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!

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

I was interviewed on September 9th, 2012, by HiC Luttmers of Firefly Willows LIVE on Blog Talk Radio. I discussed my therapy practice and how I use Hakomi, expressive arts and hypnotherapy with my clients. We also talked about the role of doubt and uncertainty in our lives. Enjoy!

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What does it mean to have mixed feelings about something? How can I love someone and fear them at the same time? It can sometimes be confusing to have both a negative and positive charge for something at the same time. Often times this occurs when our true self wants something, but our family, spiritual community, or other group to which we belong, says that we shouldn’t want that thing. This dynamic is especially apparent when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity: many people still live in fear of being rejected and persecuted for moving toward their true nature.

This confluence of polarities inside of us is also commonly seen when different parts of the self are in conflict: the head and the heart, the mind and the body, etc. I recently had an experience where my heart and my will were in conflict. My heart wanted to open and move forward to connect, but my will and my body did not feel safe; wanting to retreat out of a perceived danger. From this place of fear, anger or aggression can easily arise as a natural defense mechanism. Our biology as human animals is programmed to respond to fear and danger by fight, flight or freeze; and the fighting brings out anger and aggression to keep us safe. This mixed signal of attraction by the heart and repelling by the will can often be difficult for us and others to comprehend.

Recently someone told me they often have urges to pick fights with their partner–that there was something gratifying about it, but they couldn’t quite put their finger on it. I wondered if they just wanted connection, contact, and engagement with their partner. I remembered back to my childhood when my older brother would pick on me, tackling me to the floor for a quick wrestle. I did not like this at all, but there was something satisfying about it for him. It could have been about power, but I also think there was an aspect of connection and intimacy in the play which my brother enjoyed and wanted to have with me as his sibling. There is a way in which the body speaks that the mind may not understand, and the self tries to get what it wants: connection & intimacy.

Connection and intimacy are necessary for life, but they do not have to be verbal – in fact, they largely are not. I commonly hear one part of a couple say they want more intimacy or emotional connection from the other. This usually comes from the partner who might be more verbal about their feelings, expecting the other to reciprocate in the same way. They might not be “hearing” how their partners body is “speaking” to them – how they are patting them on the back, caressing their cheek, or petting their hair can speak volumes about how they feel about their partner.

What do we do when our body language gives off mixed messages? It’s important to cultivate self awareness of our own. There are a variety of somatic (body oriented) therapies that can promote and build this understanding and self awareness. Hakomi is one modality I use with clients to help them listen to what their body is saying, which their conscious mind may miss. This understanding can help us have more patience with ourselves and our relationships. We can also begin to help our partners understand the mixed messages programmed into our bodies.

The dance of intimacy is a constant unfolding to the self and to the other. It’s important to listen to the rhythms of our body and our heart to keep the dance of life exciting.

As I have recently started teaching classes on a variety of mindfulness aspects, I realize that I continue to refine my definition of mindfulness. But what is it? I begin to explain it to others, and after ten minutes of discussion I say, “Why don’t we just practice, instead of talk?” Then I lead the group in a body scan. But what is it? I can only tell you of my experience.

The origins of mindfulness come out of Buddhist ideas and practices of awareness and meditation. Through the practice of attentive awareness the individual learns to have a clearer comprehension of their experience and their reality, by slowly clearing the lenses through which they view the world. The goal is to attain a liberating wisdom, which allows the “illusions” of the world to be identified and lifted. As this occurs, life experiences begin to change because of the way they are perceived and interpreted.

Mindfulness became more popular in the realm of psychology in 1979, when Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts, to treat the chronically ill. It soon grew to be used by many people for a variety of reasons.

Over the last century, various forms of mindfulness have evolved in many other psychotherapeutic practices. “Awareness” (though slightly different) has been a keystone of Gestalt therapy since 1940; Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) uses mindfulness as one of the four core skills taught to students and clients; and Hakomi also uses mindfulness as a foundation for increasing awareness through experiential practices. I use mindfulness tools in my practice in all of these ways, and also to teach clients to relax their mind and body to more easily access deeper parts of themselves in hypnotherapy.

And still you might ask, but what is it? My definition of mindfulness is, the practice of quieting the mind, slowing the breath, and focusing your awareness on your internal experience of yourself. The experiences you perceive through interacting with the outside world and your inner world are both equally important. The goal is neither attachment nor detachment to your thoughts or feelings, but to notice. Notice how your mind, body, heart and spirit react. In the noticing and the slowing down, we can choose to respond instead of react, and make a new decision about how we interpret and proceed from that moment.

Many say that mindfulness is about being present in the moment – “be here now.” Choosing to respond to the moment based on what’s happening now, and not based on what happened last week or what may happen tomorrow, can liberate us from pain and suffering. It may sound easier said than done, but that’s why it’s called a practice. We succeed in our practice every time we remember to be aware and notice, what is happening now.

by Nick Venegoni, MA

Take a moment to consider: When you experience something for the first time, what is your reaction? What happens first? For example, walking into a retail store your body may react to the smell, lighting, or color of the décor. Do you expand or contract? Your mind may respond in judgment to the sales people, the music playing, or the prices. One thing I first notice is the way a space is set up – if it’s crowded, cluttered or unorganized I may not stay long. I notice that my mind becomes overwhelmed by trying to understand the order of things. Other people might enjoy the amount of items to look at and enjoy the stimulation. We are all a little different.

This awareness is a muscle I ask people to exercise from time to time, through different mindfulness practices. The same way we can learn to study the ways we perceive and how our mind and body respond to something like a grocery store, we can learn to notice our response to more emotional situations that may cause us pain or suffering.

We all are a little different. Many people tend to fall into two categories: thinkers or feelers. Thinkers like to live in their heads, solving problems, looking for answers, philosophizing, tinkering with gadgets, and so on. Often thinkers can get tangled in thought and spin around and around, generating tiresome anxiety. Feelers tend to be more heart or body focused, becoming enraptured with their emotions, enjoying the intensity of an experience, often creating as an expression of their emotions. Feelers can be more susceptible to depression as they gorge on the intensity of a negative emotion, simply for the experience of feeling. In general we are all a little bit of both, with a stronger leaning towards one.

Practicing awareness of the ways we perceive can be very helpful in finding balance. Figuring out if you tend more towards the head or the heart can be helpful by moving in the opposite direction in difficult times. For example, if you consider yourself more of a thinker, getting caught up in cycling thoughts of worry, you can experiment with moving your awareness to your heart. Do something that feelers do: draw a picture, read a poem or story, move your body and go for a walk or take a yoga class. You may find the thoughts in your head begin to quiet and clear. If you are more of a feeler and flooded by emotion, you might try journaling, talking with friends, working on a project that involves following directions such as cooking from a recipe or building something. This allows the feelings to disperse as you move your awareness to your head and distract yourself from unpleasant feelings or thoughts.

There are many ways to learn to regulate your thoughts and emotions when you become distracted or flooded. The first step is to notice that it’s happening and mindfully respond, instead of mindlessly reacting. Next time you become aware that you’re heading down the same path of reaction, which you don’t like, pause – and mindfully move in the direction which will feel most liberating for your head and your heart.

By Nick Venegoni

Many of us have heard the praises and benefits of mindfulness, from workshops in the style of John Kabat-Zinn and mindfulness-based stress reduction, to DBT and Hakomi practices. I have been exploring and playing with these tools and ideas with my clients for four years now and find they are helpful in reducing stress, anxiety, anger, etc.

Before that I had been exploring other kinds of altered and trance states (or what Stan Groff calls Non-Ordinary States) through meditation, journey work, ecstatic dance, and breath work. I discovered that in these Non-Ordinary States (NOS) anxiety, fear and anger simply melt away, and underneath is an innate wisdom residing in that peace. Moving forward, I wanted to find a way to clinically justify bringing my clients to these deeper places inside themselves and to tap into their own resources for growth and healing. Neuroscience research on brainwaves supports this hypothesis.

Our most common (or predominant) waking state of consciousness puts our brainwave frequency in beta. When we shift our level of consciousness, we move into (or add) other brainwave frequencies such as alpha, gamma, theta and delta. Mindfulness and meditation practices are an excellent entry into these various states of consciousness for clients. The state of hypnotic trance can cause a person to be in beta and other frequencies concurrently, allowing them to consciously process the information they might be attaining from the deeper parts of themselves. This is just what I want to bring to my clients.

I have discovered that through various mindfulness practices, some of my clients were naturally slipping into these deeper places of uncharted territory by the conscious mind. It was fascinating to see what emerged from these places and this is key in my own drive to learn more and bring deeper understanding to clients.

To that end, last year I decided to train in the methodology of Depth Hypnosis, as developed by Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D. Depth Hypnosis combines elements of hypnotherapy, transpersonal psychology, Buddhism and shamanism. The hypnosis practices primarily use regression to access earlier experiences, which affect the client currently. From a psychological perspective this can look very similar to aspects of Psychosynthesis, Gestalt dialogue, Focusing, Hakomi and inner child work. However, doing this work in a relaxed and altered state can allow the client to perceive at a deeper level, a clearer understanding of themselves and their experience.

Over the last year, as I’ve brought hypnotherapy tools into my practice, I find that most clients who have already been practicing some kind of mindfulness exercise, more easily accept the process and move into the work beautifully. A majority of my clients start each session with a simple mindfulness exercise, and as they internalize the changes and see the benefits, they begin to look forward to it. I encourage them to practice on their own between sessions, and many do.  Regarding hypnosis, some clients’ experiences are profound, allowing them to look at life differently; and some simply rediscover important parts of themselves, which were long forgotten. Whatever they find inside themselves, it is deeply therapeutic because it came from them. The deeper parts of us use our own personal language better than anything someone else could communicate to us.

By Nick Venegoni, MFT & CHT

Need to Relax? Looking for Some Guidance?
Talking with Nick Venegoni about Alternatives to Talk Therapy
by Brent Calderwood

My friend Nick Venegoni has been studying and training in various therapies for several years now, and he’s been working with clients for over four years. His website is full of useful information about the types of therapy he offers, which includes everything from fairly traditional talk therapy to guided meditations, hypnotherapy, art therapy, and other transpersonal and integrative approaches. The site even offers a flavor of his work through a free guided mindfulness relaxation exercise.

Having worked as a counselor in the past, especially around issues of gender and sexuality, I talk to a lot of people who ask me to recommend a good therapist, so I thought I’d find out more about the work Nick does. I hope it’s helpful!

Brent Calderwood: “Mindfulness” is a word that’s used a lot by psychologists these days, notably in the treatment of depression. What exactly does it mean? Why do you think it’s become so “trendy”? How does it show up in the work you do?

Nick Venegoni: Yes, the term mindfulness is a bit trendy these days, but it’s nothing new. I believe that it came out of different kinds of meditation practices, and it engages a person’s awareness to the point of noticing their thoughts and learning that they are not their mind.… It’s also extremely effective in the treatment of depression, stress, anxiety and anger…. I think it is trendy because it is so effective when a person commits to the discipline…. A majority of my clients start each session with a simple mindfulness exercise, and as they internalize the changes and see the benefits, they begin to look forward to it. I encourage them to practice on their own between sessions, and many do.

BC: You have training in several types of therapy, including hypnotherapy. Why might someone seek hypnotherapy, and what happens during a typical session?

NV: People seek hypnotherapy for a variety of reasons, mostly for help breaking addictions, phobias or habitual behaviors. But hypnotherapy can be a quick, powerful and very effective way to get to and heal core issues as well. I practice hypnotherapy in the style of Depth Hypnosis as created by Isa Gucciardi, PhD. The kind of work I prefer to do focuses on the former – to sink into a place deep in the psyche which might not be as accessible in a normal, conscious state. Often healing these deeper wounds results in resolution of habits, addictions or phobias, which were simply symptoms of the wound, not the wound itself.

BC: You have a Masters in Transpersonal/Integral Counseling Psychology. Those first two terms may be new for a lot of people. What exactly do they mean, and how do they show up in the work you do?

NV: Transpersonal means across or through the personal – encompassing everything about a person and beyond. It’s a way of conceiving all parts of an individual, not just the parts that are wounded but the parts that are strong and healthy as well…. Integral in this case means the essential core of a person as well as integrating that which is necessary to become more complete – integrating and synthesizing that which supports our health.

BC: What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in the kinds of therapy you do, but maybe they don’t know how to get started or they don’t know what kind of therapist would be best for them?

NV: I would recommend that they think about what works best for them in therapeutic situations, and do research on a variety of therapists. Most have websites or listings which give a taste about their style and strengths. Then make contact – most therapists are willing to have a 10 to 15 minute phone conversation to see if you’re a good fit. It’s also helpful for the therapist because sometimes the therapist might be able to tell the prospective client they could be better served by a different clinician because of a specialty or skill set, and could give the client referrals. And it’s okay if you go see a therapist and decide it’s not a fit – it’s important to feel safe and comfortable with a therapist.