by Monica Ross
I posted a video recently of Brené Brown on my facebook page. In the video she talks about this idea that we look for evidence in the world for those beliefs that we hold to be true about ourselves. The evidence collecting technique is one that we also commonly use in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It’s part of a tool that CBT calls a thought record.
This concept that she is talking about is so core and so fundamental to a lot of this work that we do as therapists. It’s the crux of what we try to convey to our clients—the connection between thoughts, feelings, and actions. It’s the notion that if we go around looking for evidence that we don’t in some way belong in this world then we will seek out the people, places, and things in life that confirm that belief for us.
On the other hand, if we choose to believe that we do belong the contrary is also true. We will surround ourselves with the people, places, and things that make us feel as though we do. In the video Brené ties this search for belonging to our sense of self-worth or value.
When we don’t feel worthy or of value we often attract that which confirms our belief. Sometimes we waste precious time trying to convince others of our worth when it is ourselves that we are truly wrestling with and with our own belief that we in some way lack value. Because if we believed that we had value, that we were worthy, there would be no need to surround ourselves with those who don’t feel the same way.
People come into therapy with these types of questions on their minds—of worth and value. Why? Is a big question that I hear. What is happening or did happen to my marriage which is on the brink of failure? Why am I so dissatisfied with my job? How do I cope with the loss of a loved one? How do I find greater happiness? Why am I so anxious?
I believe that it’s true that therapy can help with all of these questions. I believe it’s true or I wouldn’t have spent so much time both seeking therapy for myself and promoting the usefulness of it for others. There are some truths it would seem whose concepts are so fundamental, so universal, so timeless that people can find solace in them. Some of these truths are personal truths with a “t” not objective truths with a “T.”
And with this collective wisdom if you want to call it that, that can be unearthed in a therapeutic environment, I do believe there is comfort out there for the distressed and disempowered. What I am so grateful for throughout this process of my own becoming is to have had the privilege of stumbling upon some of this collective wisdom for myself as well. Even though there are times I'm still surprised when these things I know to be so fundamentally true are still so seemingly illusive or fail me at times in my own attempt to fully absorb them.
Maybe that's why I continue to voice the prayer--"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." It's because at the end of the day we're all human and these concepts can be difficult to grasp, especially from an inside view. So then there is the need for the prayer for hope of greater clarity in life.
For every client that walks through my door I am an advocate of sorts for this greater clarity. Sometimes I am an advocate for people until they can gain their moorings again and take up the task of becoming an advocate for themselves. As an advocate I hear some of the self-abuse that people will lash upon themselves and in the room I at times act as a referee.
I also hear the abuse that people have had to suffer at the hands of others. Every therapist is a witness for to these types of things. And when we as therapists hear about someone else’s traumatic experiences be that self-abuse or abuse at the hands of others we experience a secondary emotional distress—not one that we aren’t trained to handle or can’t contain.
But we experience a vicarious trauma none the less. Sometimes we hear things that trigger distressing things from our own past. There is a moment as a therapist where you do a sort of self-protection or a guarding of the heart perhaps, just a little, just to be able to the hold the space for everyone in the room.
When you are seeing multiple clients a day there is a lot of stepping into and out of other people’s emotional energy and in a way having to keep it all in balance. We’re taught as therapists and we teach others the concept of putting the oxygen mask on ourselves first before attempting to care for someone else. This is because as health care professionals, if we don’t take a moment to rest and restore then we will exhaust ourselves to the point of having nothing left to give.
I was on facebook this past week and saw a posting from a colleague about an upcoming silent meditation retreat. I see these posts frequently from colleagues—announcing workshops, seminars, continuing education opportunities. I love seeing all the self-growth oriented and progressive activity on my feed.
This colleague and friend was talking about her mixed feelings of apprehension and excitement about the event. It would be her first silent meditation retreat. I hadn’t seen this particular person since graduating from my counseling program several years ago. We just hadn’t yet reconnected since I moved back to Austin this past summer.
But I reached out to her and said that I in fact had met the person who was conducting the retreat last month—Stacy Thrash. A friend of mine, whom I went to undergraduate school with at The University of Texas knew Stacy and had introduced me to her over dinner. Stacy has a meditation space she calls PeaceBox which is a container storage unit that at the moment is sitting on her beautiful property near Lake Travis.
She does these retreats sometimes in partnership with another woman Susan Vichick-Johnson. Susan gives 30 minute sound therapy sessions during the silent meditation. Remember this past year I posted about being awarded a fellowship to go on a mindfulness related retreat through the Hemera Foundation? Well I never was able to pull it together to actually go on the Hemera sponsored retreat.
And then I found myself back in Austin and it seemed superfluous to leave Austin to go on one of these retreats when there is no shortage of Buddhist related meditation activity around here. So this was my opportunity. All signs were pointing in that direction—personal and professional exhaustion, turnover, transition. So, I contacted the friend who knew Stacy and got an invitation to the retreat.
The day was overcast and damp and somewhat cool--the kind of day in Austin that signals to us that winter is just about over, but not quite. We might get one more cold snap. Though this year Austinites seem to have been especially miserable with the unusual damp and cold we've experienced—with not one but two snow days. My northern friends would snicker at this.
When I got to the property I wasn’t sure what to expect but for the people who were there in the room I felt an immediate connection. There was a man there from Iceland who had a very calm and pleasant demeanor—a long time meditation practitioner. There was a woman who had randomly found out about the event on Do512 a local publication that lists events and activities going on in Austin.
There was a high school English teacher and a former Franciscan sister. And then there was my friend whom I met in the dorms at The University of Texas--a transplant from Nebraska along with my friend whom I recently graduated with a few years back from our counseling program at St. Edward's, the one who posted about the retreat on facebook.
We started the day in the PeaceBox and set the intention for the practice which was basically to go into the retreat without expectations and with a nonjudgmental stance. The instructions were that we could roam around the property as much as we wanted but that we wouldn’t fill our brains with stimulation in terms of writing or journaling or listening to music or thumbing through facebook on our cell phones or texting friends.
So I ended up doing a lot of walking around the grounds because to me there is something really comforting about motion. There were moments as well of just sitting by the fire or simply sitting on the couch inside Stacy’s beautiful home in silence. I observed what everyone else was doing—a lot of the same.
Some walked out on the three story deck that leads down to the lake. Others walked down to the lake itself muddying their shoes as they gazed out on the water. Some took up yoga exercises in the PeaceBox itself. Others sat in silent meditation with eyes closed on zafus—a word I first came across living in San Diego. We had several in the craftsman home I lived in with my fellow hippie-spirited massage therapist roommates.
Some sat quietly by either the in or outdoor fires and either stared into the fire itself or into the distance. Stacy had snacks out for us to munch on if we got hungry and drinks as well. She also started prepping the vegetarian chili that we would eat in silence. There was something so comforting for me about just hearing the sounds of someone cooking in the kitchen.
One of my favorite nurturing memories is of my grandmother forever cooking. I love the sounds of chopped vegetables, and cans opening, and the faucet running along with the aromatic smells of the food as it nears being ready to eat. Another participant pointed out how comforting this was as well and how well taken care of she felt.
Throughout the morning Susan came to take us one by one into a space for the sound therapy. As part of the practice she placed singing bowls on top of us on various parts of our body. We wrote down for Susan what we had the intention of releasing that day and at the end of our session she gave us feedback—in order to give us something to think about and reflect on, whatever for her came up as a therapist in working with us.
I think part of my fear in going into the day was that I was going to be hit with thoughts that would in some way disturb or distract me—like thoughts of people I have lost in life or regrets that I had about things that I had or hadn’t done in life or friendships or romantic relationships gone awry or other failures that would in some way surface and cause me pain. I thought maybe I would be rapped with thoughts about what I had to get done for the week or year or thoughts about trauma be it my own or others.
And I suppose those thoughts may have come and gone but if they did it was only fleeting. What I was really shocked by was how easy it was to let go of some of those thoughts and just be in the moment. Not everyone shared this experiencing of the silence. For some it was really hard to let go of some of the thoughts that arose. For some the thoughts were more intrusive. Maybe on a different day, in a different time, or in a different place, I would be able to relate.
And it’s not as though I am looking for some kind of award or gold star for not getting stuck on unpleasant thoughts because believe me I have had and do continue to have my moments with that—on the daily. But on that day, in that place, and in that time, surrounded by my friend of 20+ years and by a new friend of 4+ years and even newer friends of less than one month there was something very calming and peaceful about it all.
I was better able to let go. I think there truly is something to being present with people in silence—intentional silence—and not just silence one might get from sitting alone in one’s apartment all day, but purposeful silence.
I noticed things about myself, for instance I noticed that it took me quite awhile before I took a deep breath and settled in. My other senses were heightened—my sense of hearing, my sense of touch, my sense of vision, my sense of taste. My awareness of the sounds of birds chirping, of the fire crackling, the sounds of the wind chimes, and the singing bowls, and of my flip-flops on the floor were all brought to the forefront.
I had the impulse to reach out and touch things in my environment like shells that were collected from the lake and twigs. My sense of vision was heightened as I noticed the detail of the paintings and other decorative objects on the walls in Stacy' s home and the surfaces of the things around me. There was a moment when tears surfaced, but they were good tears—tears of relief and maybe release.
I remembered things that I wanted to do or go back to doing—things that would bring me a similar peace and joy maybe, as I began to think of ways of capturing the feeling that I had in that moment in space and time and bringing it back with me in some way into daily life.
What I gained from the experience was an emptying— a washing away of residue. It was the feeling of being and nothingness at the same time--like being both awake and asleep. The silence coupled with the sound therapy took me to a deeply meditative space-similar to the experience I’ve had from a good deep tissue massage.
This was a half day retreat. Maybe next time I’ll go for a full day, but this was just a testing of the waters for me. After the retreat was over we met again in the PeaceBox and called an end to the silence. People shared their experiences.
A couple of people related how they had thoughts of preoccupation that they had to fight and how it caused them to reflect on some of the issues they have been dealing with and how they want to work through those issues. Another said she experienced gratitude. Another related how the phrase “Be still and know that I am God” came up for her.
Afterwards and for the rest of the day I felt very zen-ed out, very laid back. It was like there really wasn’t anything that could get to me in any way—I had a greater sense that I could handle absolutely anything that presented itself to me. I spent the remainder of the day alone. And I got some work done in terms of the research and writing that I’m doing.
For me that last piece--Be still and know that I am God. The phrase that one woman reflected on during the retreat; it has special meaning for me. It’s one of my favorite Bible verses. “Be still.” To me it means be still and know that in those moments in life when we find ourselves questioning and asking why? to just know that there is purpose and order to the universe.
Even in its randomness and chaos and wildness the universe I believe has meaning to it all. It could be simply that we ourselves are making the meaning. But I find meaning nonetheless. And then there’s that concept of nurturance—I find that too in that particular verse.
It’s the persistent belief that I have that somehow I am and will always be watched over--that perhaps there is someone or something watching over us all. For the mother and fatherless like myself those are especially comforting thoughts.