In Honor of the Mother

“Ah to sing the song of you, my matron mighty!
My sacred one, my mother.”

—from “Delicate Cluster” by Walt Whitman

“There was a child went forth every day, And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, that object he became, And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day…or for many years or stretching cycles of years.”

—from “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman

Many refer to the operation of the universe as “mother” nature, the mastermind behind all that exists; mother is the being through whom all life springs. In honor of Mother’s Day, I reflect on the deep debt of gratitude that each and every one of us owes to the well-intentioned mothers across the globe and throughout time, for their immeasurable sacrifices.

In their pioneering efforts, psychology experts, such as, Melanie Klein, Donald Winicott, Ronald Fairbairn, and Michael Balint all contributed insight which eventually led to the development of a new paradigm in psychology referred to as Object Relations Theory. This framework essentially operates with the understanding that interactions with caregivers early in an individual’s life significantly shapes the manner in which that person relates to other human beings from childhood on through the rest of her or his life. Particularly important to note, is the critical importance of the role of the mother in shaping that individual’s psyche. The broad volume of contemporary research into the principles of attachment builds upon the contributions of those pioneers from decades ago. Looking beyond the, sometimes, painful and frustrating everyday tasks of rearing children, it is clear that the gift of life is incredibly precious. Without mothers, none of us would be allowed to experience the profound treasure that is consciousness.

It has been determined that the first three years of a child’s life, often referred to as the “critical period” or critical developmental years, are especially important in shaping the psyche of the individual. Surely, with the awesome responsibility of growing a human being from scratch comes much toil, and, this period of time is especially fraught with challenges. Because of the incredible attention paid to the well-being of the child, this early period represents a particularly difficult time for any two caregivers in a romantic partnership. It is at this time, in particular, that virtually all of the mother’s physical, emotional, and spiritual resources are exhausted in devoting her utmost attention to the care of the child. Understanding that the task can indeed be incredibly burdensome, at times, such as those sleepless nights, when nobody but the mother can comfort and soothe the child, often, one cannot help but find humor in the role of the mother that is both a blessing and, at times, a curse. For example, I’m reminded of the moment, this very morning, when my wife was trying to eat her breakfast peacefully on the only day of the year that truly honors the essence of her being and the important role that she plays in the universe, yet my children hung over her like a pair of monkeys. The moments have rarely been dull, and, it seems, there has never been a moment of peace for the mother of my children. Despite the difficulty, however, nearly every experience has been immensely rich and rewarding.

So, what is it about the relationship between mother and child that is so integral in shaping the human being? Some of the research on the subject of attachment focuses on a quality referred to as “maternal sensitivity.” This represents a set of qualities adopted by the mother which she brings to her experience of relating to her child. Acclaimed expert in the field of psychology, particularly as it pertains to matters involving the development of the child, adolescent, and young adult, Dan Siegel notes that adopting these qualities of presence more than likely will help produce secure attachment. Secure attachment, considered the ideal, is a type of “psychological immunization,” Siegel claims. This element serves as a protective factor, helping individuals ward of the detrimental effects that can typically result from significantly challenging life circumstances. Considering all of this, certainly, it is not to say that if a mother demonstrates an inability to follow-through on effectively rearing a child, that that child cannot go on to live a fruitful life. There are countless stories of resilient individuals who have overcome difficult childhood experiences, to go on to become successful and, sometimes, profoundly influential human beings, but those examples represent the exception not the norm. This, of course, begs the question, “what is success in a life?” What, ultimately, is the most meaningful aspect(s) of our experience, in the grand scheme of things? That is a discussion for another time. At the end of the day, we are relational beings. We exist in connection with other human beings, and the more adept we are at interacting healthily and effectively, chances are, the more content we will end up being. Interpersonal Neurobiology, the branch of psychology that explores the manner in which a human being’s brain is shaped over time according to her or his interactions with other individuals, is gaining increased traction, and is of profound value. This science is cementing the idea that we are social creatures, by nature. We cannot go at it alone.

Among the many stories about people, at the end of their lives, in reflecting upon their experiences, it seems apparent that what is ultimately deemed important are not the accomplishments, accolades, or financial gains, but rather the people that have been important to them throughout their years. That all begins, according to the Object Relations theorists, with the manner in which our primary caregivers, particularly our mothers, interact with us, early in life. Here’s to all the mothers, and the profound and priceless influence they have on each and every one of us. Today, the world honors you and the awesome responsibility bequeathed to you, in caring for and guiding the individuals of the future. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.

The Art of Non-Doing

Lately, I’ve found myself in these incredible states of overall presence, through many moments, of my daily life. I’ve been progressing in, both, the personal and professional arenas, in ways I had not previously thought possible. In the past, I’ve struggled with a critical inner-voice, crippling thoughts of self-doubt, and an incessant fear of failure. If that sounds familiar to anybody, I believe there is a term for that experience, “impostor syndrome.” Recently, however, I seem to have found myself operating in periods of relative ease, where I’ve essentially felt automatic. This is something that I faintly remember achieving maybe a handful of times, in the past. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses this wondrous phenomena in his research, on what he termed the “flow state.” Before Mihaly, the precedent was set two thousand years ago, when the idea showed up in Taoist philosophy. Taoist sages highlighted the principle of Wu Wei as the ideal way of experiencing the universe. In simple terms, Wu Wei, or non-doing, essentially refers to the notion of letting go in all aspects of everyday life thereby gaining enlightenment.

Others have their own methods of achieving peace of mind, but I certainly owe a deep debt of gratitude to Dan Harris’ brainchild. Harris and his team, have put together the wonderful “10% Happier” application, which offers tools to guide individuals through the world of meditation. Through their efforts, I’ve been able to maintain a fairly consistent meditation practice, which has led me to achieve this aim of progressing through life with clarity, freedom, and newly defined purpose, in every aspect of what I do, from being a parent, to mentoring students, to my work as a psychotherapy intern. With that being said, I am, of course, aware of the strange paradox of mindfulness. From the buddhist perspective, the rub is that meditation is not supposed to serve as a means of realizing any particular set of outcomes. Though scientific research points to the many psychological and biological benefits, hardcore proponents of meditation advise us to view mindfulness strictly as a path to experiencing the universe in its purest form, and nothing more. Regardless, I’m sure those same gurus are silently smirking internally, knowing they hold the key to a philosophy filled with immense spiritual power.

Dan Harris jokes that the way he knew that his practice was proving effective, was that his wife, at cocktail parties, would claim that her husband was becoming “less of a jerk.” Similarly, my wife too has noticed that I have been far more attuned than ever before. I show up each day with an overall awareness and presence and detachment from trivial circumstances, especially those that lie beyond the realm of my control.

I finish with these words from Lao Tsu’s incredible work, the Tao Te Ching, a talisman of wisdom: “Truthful words are not beautiful. Beautiful words are not truthful. Good people do not argue. Those who argue are not good. Those who know are not learned. The learned do not know. The wise never try to hold on to things. The more you do for others, the more you have. The more you give to others, the greater your abundance. The Tao of heaven is sharp but does no harm. The Tao of the wise is to work without effort.”

We Are The Universe

Being resilient is being one with the universe. Being resilient is accepting the non-duality of life. There is no separation of mind and body, as body is mind and mind is body; there is no separation of “I” and the Universe, as the Universe is “I” and I am the Universe.

Alan Watts put it best with these profound words, “Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.” And, once more, from the great sage: “It is in the living organism that the whole world feels: it is only by virtue of eyes that the stars themselves are light.”

On Authenticity – Part I

“The time you have left is short. Live it as if you were on a mountain. Here or there makes no difference, if wherever you live you take the world as your city. Let men see, let them observe a true man living in accordance with nature. If they cannot bear him, let them kill him – a better fate than a life like theirs.”

Marcus Aurelius

Do you feel yourself questioning when to abide and when not to conform to others’ ideals? Do you ever wonder whether you are living life true to your own character. To stave off regret, guilt and frustration later in life, I think it’s important to ask now, if we are remaining true to our authentic selves, or whether we are subverting our own character at the hands of another? Brenè Brown notes that “incongruent living is exhausting.” Does meeting the needs of others at the expense of our own happiness, ultimately serve us in the long run? Speaking about trusting our “heart brain,” to lead us down the proper path, Peter Sage, the motivational speaker, profoundly stated: “Do what’s right…If you’re willing to be unpopular, in the moment, for what you believe to be right, you’ve got the genesis of true leadership, right there…”

Why do we need the approval of others? How does that serve us? It’s true that our prefrontal cortex is wired to seek connection. In this day and age however, building a tribe is not as essential to our survival, as it certainly was during a prior period in our evolution as a species. We are no longer forced to conform, to feel part of a community, in order to live a long and fruitful life. The reality now, is that an individual is free to choose those who who she/he wishes to collaborate with, based on who makes them feel valued as an individual. There is a phrase floating around self-help circles that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” This maxim knows no boundaries, as I once had a client utter it in Spanish, “dime con quien andas, y te digo quien eres.” With that, do you want to be associated with people who value you and accept you wholeheartedly for who you are or those that continually make you feel less than. Some of us have been caught in the difficult trap of seeking approval from those whose validation matters most, in particular, our parents. A caregiver’s love can be a powerful weakness, such that we sacrifice who we really are or who we really want to be, in order to meet their needs. Sometimes doing what it is that our parents desire for us is, ultimately, not in our best interest. In this case, their sense of self is often wrapped up in who we are or who we aren’t and what we do or don’t become. Here, the message is often: “If we don’t abide we’re not worthy.” If we don’t follow their path, we’re unlovable. The truth is that, we are worthy of love simply because we exist. So, whether it be friends, colleagues, peers or parents who demand that you betray yourself, in order to substantiate their own sense of self, know that you are enough, regardless of their opinion. Be you, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.

On What We Value

Valuing our experience is not narcissism. It is not endless self-involvement. It is, rather, the act of paying active witness to ourselves and to our world. Such witness is an act of dignity, an act that recognizes that life is essentially a sacred transaction of which we know only the shadow, not the shape. As we attune ourselves more and more closely to the value of passing moments, we learn that we are something of moment ourselves.”

Julia Cameron

What do you treasure most? What elements in your life do you assign the greatest value? Through one of her writing exercises, Julia Cameron advises us to draft a list of the aspects of our lives that we are most proud of. Rising up to take a birds-eye-view of our lives, where we can acknowledge the many victories, large and small, that we’ve accumulated through the years, we will come to realize that we have accomplished much more, often, than we are able to give ourselves credit for. Life, sometimes, races by and the events of a given day get lost without us having an opportunity to account for what really happened, in each moment. There is a running joke, in parenting circles, that, “the days take forever, and the years go by very quickly.” For those of us who find that these words ring true, we will one day arrive at the end our respective journeys and realize that we never really appreciated much of anything. With that being said, where in your life do you feel that you have really won? Are you pleased with the strengths, qualities, or virtues that you embody? Did you achieve profound personal or professional milestones? Do you assign great worth to a specific important person or series of influential people in your life? Whatever and whomever your list consists of, take a few moments out of the day to reflect on what you’ve included. Cherish these, each and every day.

On Fleeting Life

“Imagine you were now dead, or had not lived before this moment. Now view the rest of your life as a bonus, and live it as nature directs.”

Marcus Aurelius

What will you do with the precious gift of life which you have been granted? How will you pass the time, over the course of your life, before you vanish? With that, consider this sage wisdom from Dr. Viktor Frankl, the late influential psychiatrist who wrote one of the most profound metaphysical discourses in history: “…is not this transitoriness a reminder that challenges us to make the best possible use of each moment of our lives? It certainly is, and hence my imperative: live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” Upon examining our lives, it’s critical to consider the fact that we are each given but one chance in this universe–one chance, to leverage the awesome power of our hearts, our minds, and our spirits. Choose wisely.



Lifting The Veil

“The most that one person can do to further it in another, is to create certain conditions which make this type of learning possible. It cannot be compelled.”
Carl Rogers

For me, it is difficult to work in a field in which there is very little that is certain. There is no guarantee that the effort that a clinician puts in will result in a particular change or set of changes in the client. Ultimately, change relies on the capacity and the willingness of the respective individual. No amount of force or coercion is going to influence the client to move in this direction or that. A therapist might come into a particular session with a predetermined agenda for how they would like the events during the session to unfold, but the client often brings something entirely different into the room, desiring instead to address the crisis at hand.

Irv Yalom, in the literature that he produced, cited an occurrence whereby he utilized a specific literary intervention to help guide a client who was experiencing writer’s block. The intention was two-fold—on one hand, he sought to snap her out of her slump, and on the other, he used it as a means to have them each reflect on what they perceived as the most profound moments they had experienced in therapy. To his surprise, he found that what he thought were the most memorable interpretations and occurrences, turned out to have been completely glossed over by the client. Instead, she had identified elements that he had virtually no recollection of. That is why therapy is very much a balance between art and science. Often, what goes on in the room is completely subjective and difficult to quantify.

There’s nothing I want more than to be able to say, “if you come to therapy, commit to the process, and do the work, you will heal and find peace and happiness.” It’s not quite that simple. It doesn’t always work that way. If it were that simple, there would be little need for psychotropic medication. Managing one’s brain chemistry is a truly delicate science, as psychiatrists are aware. In some cases, simply removing one’s self from a difficult environment can allow an individual to thrive in ways, they never new possible. However, there is always the likelihood that no distance is great enough to wash away the pain. “Wherever you go, there you are,” as Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote. Similarly, Michel de Montaigne wrote, “Socrates was told that some man had not been improved by travel. ‘ I am sure he was not,’ he said. ‘He went with himself!’” This brings to mind the age old nature versus nurture debate. The psychology textbooks talk about the diathesis-stress model, which points to the biological predisposition for succumbing to the pains of psychological distress, which ultimately depends upon the volume of stress (acute or chronic) placed on the individual over the course of their life. There are far too many variables to account for, such as the mother’s disposition, the father’s disposition, the amount of stress hormones present in the mother’s body during the gestational period (i.e. the pre-natal environment), the environment surrounding the child during the critical developmental years, the attachment relationship between primary caregiver and child, and the list continues. Whether or not a child is certain to struggle down the road is entirely unpredictable. In that same vein, it’s near impossible to determine whether or not one will be able to heal, based on work done in the therapeutic setting. There are individuals who have been in therapy, from childhood into adulthood, and yet it seems necessary for them to endure a lifelong process of healing, whereas some individuals, after an acute crisis, require only a short-term therapeutic intervention, to reach a place of optimal functioning.

Carl Rogers dedicated virtually his entire life to identifying the fundamental factors that elicit therapeutic change in the treatment setting. He came up with a simple formula, namely that the client is entirely responsible for change, but a therapist should always demonstrate genuineness, accurate empathy, and unconditional positive regard in the therapeutic relationship, in aiding the client to tap their innate potential. Michael Lambert developed his common factors theory, which posited that forty-percent of change is due to “client factors and extra-therapeutic events,” thirty-percent of change is due to the therapeutic relationship, fifty-percent is due to models and techniques, and the remaining fifteen-percent is due to expectancy and placebo effects. In addition, there are views on where the client might be, in terms of their willingness to change, or lack thereof. In this respect, there is the stages of change model (Pre-contemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, Maintenance) and the Solution-focused approach, which seeks to determine whether the client is a Customer, Visitor, or Complainant.

I once heard a metaphor about change stemming from within the organism. When a flower is wilting, one does not tend to the flower, but rather she/he treats the environment around the flower, and the flower will persevere. At the very least, the therapist creates and maintains the safe-space, as it is called, which allows the individual to thrive.

Currently, there is a laundry list of theoretical orientations, whereby therapists act as directive agents and non-directive agents. In some cases, therapists take on the delicate balancing act of straddling the two ends of the continuum. Overall, non-directive therapists generally do fewer “interventions” during a session, allowing the client/individual to do most of the “work” in the therapy room. Directive therapists, take a very active approach (Strategic, Structural, CBT, EMDR, etc…) commanding the client to take action toward certain steps in their lives, through a number of strategies:

• Modifying boundaries among members of the family system
• Goal-oriented tasks
• Interventions to alter destructive patterns of interacting with the world.
• Challenge faulty thinking patterns
• Worksheets and exercises
• Sensory exercises to mend the wounds of past trauma

What can a therapist control? Just as a client should place their focus on the aspects of their life that lie within her/his control, in order to minimize distress, a therapist should put forth effort toward controlling the things he/she can: their presence, what they model, how they attune to the client, the physical space of the therapy setting, and the psychological “holding environment.” At the end of the day, at the very least, a therapist needs to trust that there is an innate resiliency that rests within each and every individual. We are brokers of hope. Holding hope is what is absolutely within our control. All else is up to the client.

Stoke The Fire

“…the best wood-pile will not blaze till a torch is applied.”

William James

In what aspect(s) of your life are you willing to get scorched to get what you want or to get to where you want to be? Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Alfred Adler, Rollo May and a host of other esteemed and influential figures in the field of psychology, pointed to the innate potentiality resting within each and every individual. In us is a special something, that represents our authentic self. There is an ability that lies within all of us to push through and overcome the gravest of challenges. In many cases, though this potential lies within, it takes a certain spark to incite a flame.

If, according to Darwin’s theory of evolution, the purpose of each member of a given species is to seek to perpetuate its existence, and that of its lineage, indefinitely, we know that on a primal level, we are capable of incredible resiliency. It’s easy to overlook this fact, to get distracted with menial pursuits and overcome with anxiety in the face of trivial issues, but somewhere, deep inside, the resiliency is there. We are capable. That holds true for all of us. So, why are some so easily paralyzed and averse to the idea of taking action to better ourselves? The human mind is capable of such awesome power, but it can also be our fiercest adversary. It’s not easy to tap our potential when circumstances have gotten the better of us. Any number of barriers might stand in the way. To name a few, we might be hindered by a relationship challenge, rocked by a monumental event, or just generally feeling “down in the dumps.”

The practice of psychotherapy seeks to help individuals reach this potential. Therapists do not aim to force their will upon their clients, but are dedicated to building a sense of connection, so that one can be free to live up to their own expectations. On his role in the therapy room, Carl Rogers stated, “I would like to go with him on the fearful journey into himself, in the buried fear, and hate, and love which he has never been able to let flow in him.” Sometimes, it takes a trusted confidant to help an individual unlock the hidden secret to their own success. Whether the barrier is a devastating event, a difficult relationship, or an overall weight of emotional distress seemingly provoked by nothing, sometimes we are in deep need of a certain spark to help ignite our fundamental capacity for growth and perseverance.

Just as the mythical phoenix is born anew, with a fresh soul, through a pile of its own ashes, so too are we able to break free from our afflictions, to rise above and become the magnificent being that we truly are. Stoke the fire.

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