The Loving-kindness Meditation for the Holidays

by Monica A. Ross, LPC

There is a meditation that I came across once in a church service here in Austin—The First Unitarian Universalist Church on Grover Avenue where Rev. Meg Barnhouse is senior minister. I love Meg’s style of ministering with her emphasis on humor. 

It surprises me that the Metta Meditation or Loving-kindness Meditation is not one that I had come across before, especially with all that time that I lived out in California and read about Eastern religion and philosophy. 

But then I sometimes catch myself saying that about other things, as if living in California one is supposed to get exposed to all there is that is alternative, enlightening, and well Buddhist or Eastern oriented. It’s built sometimes as some kind of training or testing ground for tuning out and tuning in and all things experiential.

I guess I got in and out of there with what I was able to. Or maybe this meditation is one of those hings I did come across and just don’t remember coming across in all that time, but at any rate, it’s now one of my favorites. 

You can find a link to it here with the extended guided practice of it. 

And here is the gist of the recitation. It starts with “May I” and then moves to 1) a person with whom you feel unconditional love, 2) a person for whom you feel neutral, 3) a person for whom you have hostile feelings towards, 4) then it extends to everyone and everything else.

May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I be safe and protected.

May I be free of mental suffering or distress.

May I be happy.

May I be free of physical pain and suffering.

May I be healthy and strong.

May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.

What I love about this meditation and what I feel every time I sit and practice it is immediate peace of mind. I feel a kind of a letting go of things and an acceptance of what is. But it’s also a wish, an intention, a hope that gets to be expressed for others. 

At the end of the day it’s also a way of re-centering—that despite all the miscommunications, misperceptions, mistakes we or others make in life, that at base these are the things that I hope for myself, for the person I love, for the person I feel neutral about, for the person with whom I feel hostile or irritated towards, and for everyone and everything really.

There’s not always the time or opportunity or maybe even the need in life to go to these individual people directly for whom we have all of these feelings. When there is that time and opportunity, great take advantage of it. 

In terms of repair there are so many people who go back to those they love and ask for it and for whatever reason, the repair never happens. I mentioned in another post Judith Viorst’s book Necessary Losses, which also deals with this topic.

I’ve dealt with this myself and it’s sometimes painful to sit with others as they go through the dealing with it.

But there is something in the opening of your heart to this way of being and allowing the space for the time and opportunity to happen for the repair, and to extend this intention to perhaps a someday face-to-face meeting, whether it materializes or not.

Why do this? Why set this intention? And why set it even for the people with whom we truly have let go of and have no goal of reunification?

I had a stepfather from the age of about 6 to the time that I left for college. I think that he attempted to do the best he could as a father for the time that he parented myself and my two younger siblings. 

But what ended up happening after I left for college and when both of my younger siblings were still in middle school is that he left. 

He left to start a new family and literally cut all contact with us, his former family. And for the past 20+ years he continues to cut contact with all of us. So, here is an example of a person for whom someone could develop hostile feelings or even by this time perhaps neutral and a little numbed feelings, right? 

But the point of the story is...the point of letting go is...that we do this for ourselves not for the people who have left.

And that’s maybe why with this meditation it starts with “I.” It’s a kind of a “May I” and by extension because I care for and value myself so highly “May everyone else.”

Maybe I’m thinking about this now because the holidays are coming up and they’re such a hard time for so many for some of the same reasons. Let’s keep our focus on that maybe, on good intentions, on well wishes for the well-being of others? 

Not so much for others, although there is that, but also for ourselves.

 

Advice From a Close Relative

by Monica A. Ross, LPC

I got some recent relationship advice from a relative, an aunt actually. We were speaking on the phone, but I could envision her turning towards me in real life, staring me down in a “Hey look, I’ve known you your whole life. At some point, accept some of the feedback I’m giving here” kind of way. 

Getting feedback from someone isn’t always a pleasant thing.

It’s not to say that it can’t be a pleasant thing. And I think there are times certainly when we’re more open to feedback than at other times. This time though I was intently listening...hanging on every word and desperately hoping that the advice given would resonate with me and save me from impending disaster. 

This is a person in my life who for the better part of my life I avoided taking advice from because I was determined to live out my life very differently than she. So for me to stop and pay attention suggests that the time had truly come to seek out alternative options. 

My aunt has maintained a romantic relationship with the love of her life for virtually her whole life. The relationship started in her 20s and she is now with this same person over 40 years later. So I ponied up and with ears intent asked, what is it you have to teach me about relationships?

Granted, I have a degree in psychology and I could pull a book by John Gottman or Stan Tatkin down from the shelf. But here was a unique opportunity from someone who in some ways shirked all of that or perhaps came to some of the same wisdom via an alternative route.

Her advice? I’ll summarize it here and add some thoughts of my own.

#1 Do not, and I repeat, do not ask “What’s next for us?” from anyone you want to continue to see but have known for less than 6 months. It’s a tendency that can be hard to fight against because you meet someone new and you think right away this person is incredible! You immediately want to know, where is this going or where could this go? 

The impulse to ask stems likely from being hurt over and over again—and the desire to prevent that happening yet again. To do that though can put pressure on the new connection, let’s not even call it a relationship at this point, while it’s in its infancy stage of exploration and play. 

It’s like introducing this dark cloud of doubt right from the very beginning—calling into question the legitimacy of what might not have a “next” but is at the same time just as valid, just as important perhaps as those relationships that do.

#2 Do not take anything anybody says literally. Every word that comes out of a person’s mouth should be taken with a measure of skepticism, she explains. At first glance this seems a bit cynical—like the point being made is that people on the whole aren’t honest. But that’s not the point being made.

People may very well be honest when they tell you how they feel and what they think. But people don’t always often know themselves very well, do they? So their being honest is really an attempt at being honest, at best. It’s a way of characterizing how they feel, which at any moment can also change as the person gathers new information.

#3 Resist the urge to fill up space for other people with the fear that if you don’t fill it up they will find someone else who will. This really stems from a fear of losing them. But space is a good thing. 

It’s one of those paradoxes of life in that you would think it would be the opposite—spend as much time as possible with this person and they won’t have time to think about anything else. But often in those moments when they are doing other things and they’re mind is focused elsewhere, their thoughts drift back to you. We all, I think, can attest to experiencing that.

It’s the “not everyone in our lives can fill every role for us, nor should they,” philosophy.

#4 The only thing that leads to the next level in a relationship is TIME. Don’t be afraid of that either. The closer we get towards the later parts of our years, the more the tendency to want to conserve and preserve time. 

There is the fear that time is running out. But truly we never know how much time we have. We assume in our younger years that we have plenty of time ahead of us, but then I think of those I knew from my youth who passed away at a young age. So, no. We don’t know any of us, how much time exactly we have on this earth.

#5 There are times when you don’t need to do anything. This is an important one. I’ve mentioned this one myself elsewhere. Sometimes simply doing nothing can be very effective. For one, it gives everyone a break and the time and space to think. Again—time. Space.

#6 Keep the connection fun and keep as much as possible from emotional reasoning. That’s another one covered in an earlier post and it is a hard one to learn for those of us tagged as highly sensitive or intense.

When I’ve had couples in my office, I’ve witnessed emotional shifts in energy taking place between two people firsthand. It’s an interesting thing to observe happening via body language, tone of voice, word choice. 

One person appears to be pushing and the other is pulling or vice versa. When that happens it’s as though the couple has entered into Plan B Mode. We want to avoid stepping into Plan B Mode. Plan B is when fun ceases because anxiety and worry and doubt are introduced. 

Things start to feel all around uncomfortable for both parties. There is a disconnect. And you know it and can feel it as a couple when you’re in that mode.

#7 Intimacy does not always mean commitment. You can achieve intimacy with someone with whom you are not in a committed relationship. Let’s go back to the definition of “intimacy” or “intimate.” 

Privacy, closeness, familiar experience, personal connection, warm friendship.

Some people think that commitment is a means to achieving intimacy because it fosters feelings of security and safety. But I suppose the opposite could be true—intimacy fosters commitment. At any rate, you can have one without the other. The two are not permanently linked.

So take it for what it’s worth. I’m just passing along wisdom that was passed along to me. This isn’t an academic discussion by any means. This is just a testament to a close relative’s personal experience on the topic of connection.

Zen versus Fear

by Monica Ross

I’ve observed this about some people, including myself. We might be going through several life stressors and then maybe just a couple rise to the surface as say the top two.  Maybe we lost a job and so being able to pay the mortgage is of primary concern. Maybe a loved one, like a caregiver came down with a terminal illness and so the primary concern is spending as much time as we can with that person in their last days.  Maybe the concern is meeting a new friend who lives long distance and whether or not there is anyway to make the friendship work.  Maybe there was a breakup and then the concern becomes how to move on and find a new best friend.

What I see is that there is a lot of work and effort and mental energy at times spent on making the thing that we don’t want to have happen from happening. We don’t want to lose our homes as a result of job loss, or lose that caregiver or friend, or former lover.

It’s like a dichotomy becomes set in our brains—that which we hope will happen and that which we fear and dread. Sometimes it helps to back off from all that thinking and look at it like this...even if the dreaded thing happened--that thing that signals some kind of downfall or demise, even if that thing happened--you, me, we’re all going to be okay.

It’s hard in the moment or thick of it to shift perspective, but it’s so true. There really is absolutely nothing to fear because whatever that thing is—we can handle it. So that even something that looks on the surface like failure is really just something that moves us further along and makes us stronger.

This shift in perspective relieves pressure and makes all that time spent in between events much more pleasant.  It's amazing the amount of time people will spend clenching fists or teeth or digging heels and living in anxiety, as if all the worrying itself is a way of working on or through things.

I agree that the worrying and mental space that thoughts sometimes take up make as feel as though we're working on or through something.  And I'm a firm believer in problem solving, but there is a difference between problem solving and rumination which is getting stuck thinking about the causes and consequences of events and the what if's instead of the what to do about it.

If we didn’t make mistakes, we’d have no experiences to learn from. I see most people as really just trying to do their best in life. And at each moment we’re acting within our level of awareness and consciousness at the time that we’re making a decision--whatever that decision may be.  And so we can also forgive ourselves for making bad decisions.

Sometimes we think we won’t be able to sit with whatever uncomfortable feelings we’re going through—the anxiety, but we actually can. I had a close friend once, a professor who I rented a room from in San Diego for several years in my 20s.  He taught Sociology at San Diego State University and was a family friend.

Every morning he sat for at least 30 minutes and meditated.  Which I know is every stereotypical thing you might think of a Southern Californian.  But there was a koan that he liked. And it's stuck with me over all these years.

A koan is basically a Zen riddle or puzzle to reflect on. It goes like this...

“The story I’m about to tell you, originally told by the Buddha in a sutra, concerns a Zen Master who, while out walking one day, is confronted by a ferocious, man-eating tiger. He slowly backs away from the animal, only to find that he is trapped at the edge of a high cliff; the tiger snarls with hunger, and pursues the Master. His only hope of escape is to suspend himself over the abyss by holding onto a vine that grows at its edge. As the Master dangles from the cliff, two mice – one white and one black – begin to gnaw on the vine he is clutching on. If he climbs back up, the tiger will surely devour him, if he stays then there is the certain death of a long fall onto the jagged rocks. The slender vine begins to give way, and death is imminent. Just then the precariously suspended Zen Master notices a lovely ripe wild strawberry growing along the cliff’s edge. He plucks the succulent berry and pops it into his mouth. He is heard to say: “This lovely strawberry, how sweet it tastes.”

It’s a great metaphor for life. In those moments where we may feel like we’re caught between disaster and death, look around and reach out for the strawberries.  Life is too short really for anything else.

 

Existential Psychotherapy

by Monica A. Ross, LPC

I want to talk a little bit about existential psychotherapy since it is another modality I lay claim to operating within. For existential psychotherapists, a primary concern in working with clients isn’t so much about focusing on defects due to mental illness or flaws in character or personality. What existential psychotherapists want to get at in working with clients is to assist the client in uncovering where the client draws meaning and purpose in life and to encourage the pursuit of that meaning and purpose. Existential psychotherapy takes into account the fact that we all exist here on this earth and therefore have challenges in life to face as a result. But for each of us our existence precedes our essence.

That before each of these statements about a person comes the verb “are”—people “are.” We exist. That’s the starting point for all of us.

In a way, we are thrown into this existence.

And because we exist and because human life is finite, the task becomes then to make something of our existence despite all the things that may have been thrown upon us at birth. For example, we may have been born into poverty, we may have been born with a genetic defect, we may have been born male/female, etc.

Existential psychotherapy concerns itself with four dimensions of existence in particular—the physical, social, personal, and spiritual—and each of these dimensions has its own paradox. We break that down like this.

Physical

At some point we will physically die. If we deny that our existence is finite, we run the risk of wasting the life that we have. If however, we keep within our awareness the idea that we will one day cease to exist, we might be motivated to live our lives more fully.

Social

The paradox of the social realm is that we exist on this planet with others. Our option is to either live in conflict or cooperation with them. Because we are aware of our separateness, we can develop the capacity to relate and respect the separateness of others. At the same time we are individuals with a need to be part of a greater whole.

Personal

In the personal realm we discover that there are no hard and fast rules to life and that we all have vulnerabilities. Because of that, taking on personal responsibility becomes of way of creating rules for ourselves. If we deny our vulnerability and refuse personal responsibility we might lose the strength and stamina that come from the freedom to choose.

Spiritual

We develop our own value systems outside of the context of absolute truth and this is where we relate to that which is unknown. We make up our own ideas for the reasons for our being here on earth and determine for ourselves what we believe to be right or wrong. Here, too, is where we create meaning and where we find purpose in life. This is where we get our worldview.

This type of therapy is very future focused. It acknowledges that the past, though seemingly fixed, is in fact changing because our view of the past can change over time. In addition, life presents a certain amount of ambiguity and uncertainty and the goal often becomes developing the ability to tolerate the anxiety that this may produce.

For existential psychotherapists the mind and body are connected and not functionally distinct. In other words, it’s not so much that we have a body but that we are a body. We are also connected to the world we exist in so that how we think about ourselves is often a reflection of our experiences with our environment and how we interpret the outer world.

Because life is in constant flux and ever changing, the meaning that we make of our lives is also in flux, but to be able to make meaning of the life that we are in is an essential thing. The loss of a sense of meaning in life can lead to depression.

We are all born into the world with assumptions and biases that influence our actions. The first step is to become aware that we have biases. That having been said, it is possible to do reality checks to verify our assumptions. This fits very nicely with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which aims to look at evidence for and against negative core beliefs that we might have.

For more information on existential psychotherapy see Emmy van Deurzen’s work. Much of the information contained in this post comes from a class I took on existential psychotherapy with Skills in Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy by Emmy van Deurzen and Martin Adams as the text.

The following are existential authors taken from one of Emmy’s presentations.

 

Another Suitcase in Another Hall

by Monica A. Ross, LPC

There have been times in my life when I have had more money and less. And I’ve worked with clients who have been much wealthier than I and others much more impoverished. There was a time once that I was so low on funds that I stood in line at a church for assistance with paying a utility bill and for help with obtaining food. I can also remember times when I’ve had enough money to take vacations to Miami, Kauai, Tahoe, Europe.

But my earliest memories involved growing up in a family that lived below the poverty line. I had an aunt and uncle who were both counselors and who worked at a nonprofit helping families in need. They helped my family out with food, for instance, in our times of need.

I have to balance these memories with the memories of attending a very expensive private school in San Antonio that my grandparents paid for me to attend from Grade 3 to Grade 9. I sat in class with classmates who talked about their ski vacations while my immediate family struggled, as I said, to put food on the table at night.

I take stock of all these memories and moments. The moments when I was a sixth grader volunteering to open passenger side car doors for other students as their parents dropped them off at the school. I opened the Jaguars, the Porsches, the Mercedes, the BMWs as they rolled in.

And at the end of the school day I had to carpool and commute almost an hour in traffic back to my small hometown and listen to my mother and stepfather complain of money troubles. I moved over 13 times between the ages of 5 and 18 and all of those moves were within a 15 mile radius. And this was because my mother was forever chasing cheaper rent and different scenery and by my observation was forever restless.

Not only were we changing physical locations constantly, I would also come home to a house where the furniture itself was rearranged every few weeks. It was constant change and what for the better part felt like constant chaos. And somehow in that whirlwind of an environment I survived.

We all have our stories of times of ease and times of struggle on varying degrees. And because I know that, I feel completely comfortable sharing a bit about mine here. Today I just wanted to raise the topic, though, of restlessness.

How do we balance the days when we have $4 to our name and the inability to obtain loans or credit cards to the days when we are flying high and taking trips to Europe? I have had clients who have to balance the days of making millions on selling drugs to the days of homelessness—it’s not that much different.

I think one has to develop a strong sense of self and a strong core to weather that kind of change. One way of thinking of it is like tempering metal. Tempering metal is the process of increasing the toughness of metal by heating and then cooling it.

The purpose? It’s done to increase the metal’s ductility. The tempering process makes the metal less brittle and assists with the ability to stretch it.

And that’s my extent of knowledge about that. But the point is, resilience. That came up in the last post too. So maybe resilience is about going through all of those highs and lows in the hopes of stretching ourselves. The more we stretch, the more flexible we become and the greater capacity we have for adapting to differing environments and future change.

But this idea of restlessness, which Merriam-Webster defines as lack or denying of rest and continuously moving, with synonyms like anxiety, disquiet, edginess. What about that—the anxiety and disquiet? When you’ve lived in environments that have been breeding grounds for that kind of thing it’s good to do some work on bringing things to some kind of resting state, if possible.

It’s good to have spent some time doing some work on oneself, and sometimes for some people that means seeking therapy. And that doesn’t mean you have to lose the good things that come with growing up in a restless home like having a sense of drive and thinking on your feet and overall survival skills, but it does mean, I think, that it’s good to have the ability to balance that out with repose, with calm and quiet.

There are a few quotes that come from the Bible that I like and I think one of them applies here. “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10

 

 

For the Mothers who Worry

by Monica A. Ross, LPC

In 1961 Tillie Olsen, who was a writer, teacher, and activist, won an award called the O. Henry award for a short story named “Tell Me a Riddle.” It was the title story in a collection of short stories that she wrote. In my junior year of high school we read one of the other stories in the collection called “I Stand Here Ironing.” In that story the protagonist, who is a mother, reflects on the way she parented her first child. As she is recalling her firstborn Emily’s growing up years, she is talking in her mind to who appears to be Emily’s school guidance counselor.

She is standing at an ironing board in her home as she irons and in her mind is the conversation. She is thinking of the things that she wants to say and address with the guidance counselor once they speak in person or on the phone. We can all relate to those almost meditative moments when we’re doing a mundane task and placing ourselves in a future moment, a conversation.

The guidance counselor has got her thinking because he called her out of concern for her daughter. You hear in this mother’s words as she self-reflects her feelings of guilt. She struggled in raising her children. She reflects on how each child grew up in a different way.

Each child’s critical period marked a different moment in the family’s history—the time Emily’s father deserted the family, the time Emily’s mother worked hard as a single parent. The protagonist reflects on how she got better at parenting over time and with the other children and how that concerns her as well when she thinks of Emily. Perhaps Emily didn't have that same advantage.

The short story ends with “Let her be. . . .There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know—help make it so there is cause for her to know—that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.”

And so, as a reader, one begins to think. Is this how the mother felt about her life—with the iron as metaphor? Did she feel helpless in a way by situation and circumstance and does she want better for her daughter?

Or is this a reflection on the time period overall and women’s rights, or both? The reader begins to think so. The story takes place in the 1950s and the protagonist reflects back to the 1930s and 1940s.

But why this short story is so compelling and the reason for my even mentioning it here is that it is a commentary, as well, on a parent’s circle of influence. The protagonist mother talks about her 19-year-old daughter Emily, the one the guidance counselor called in concern over and about how much of how her daughter appears today is an amalgamation of so many things.

There was all the parenting that her mother gave, but also all the things that Emily came across in her environment, the people, places, and things there were beyond her mother.

“There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me,” she says.

I observe sometimes in parents concern about their children and outside influences. There is the ex-wife who is concerned about how her former husband lets their child stay up until 3 a.m. on a Saturday night when the child is at his house.

Or maybe there is the grandparent who overdisciplines the grandchild and is overly strict. One or the other of the parents may worry over that. There is the caregiver that worries over the experience the child had with bullying in school.

Or maybe there was that summer that the child wasn’t able to go on the high school trip when their band played in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade because they had the flu—and what impact did that have? There was the tragic death that happened in the family when the child was at a young age. These are all fictional examples or examples that I draw from friends and family.

But whatever that thing is that is outside and beyond the parent and exerting an influence—situational factors, people, places, things—those things are there for a reason and for the benefit of the child. And though I see parents in pain sometimes over not being able to exert control, those things actually can work to their child’s advantage.

Even the things that aren’t so pleasant, because what happens is that the child learns how to adapt in different environments. It builds their capacity, for instance, for resilience.

I want to say to these mothers, like the mother so beautifully portrayed in the short story, like my own mother—it’s going to be okay, it’s all going to be okay. Those things your child went through, the traumas of life, they have the capacity for making your child oh so much stronger.

We are mysterious beings—and it’s a wonder how some have the capacity to develop resilience in the face of adversity and how some struggle. Why, for instance, for some does a bad experience contribute to an excuse for continued undesirable behavior, while in others the same experience becomes a reason not to continue in undesirable behavior?

If we as clinicians could just get a lock on how to do that better—how to better build resilience. We have different tools and techniques to try in order to build that capacity, but at the end of the day every person is unique, every situation, every family.

One child grows up with an alcoholic parent and never touches alcohol as a result. Another child grows up with an alcoholic parent and themselves become an alcoholic. I spoke earlier about epigenetic effects and perhaps with this example both children have the marker for alcoholism, but something in the environment triggers the expression of it for one and not the other.

And maybe it is as simple as that.

But that puts a lot of influence and control in the environments we find ourselves in, and I think it takes away from acknowledging a person’s ability not only to be influenced by the environment, but to exert influence over one’s environment.

The goal is to reach a place maybe of being able to respond to what appears before us throughout the course of any given day and not always just to constantly react, react because of past hurts and traumas and automatic negative thoughts and negative core beliefs and the like.

And I really do believe that therapy can help with that. That is the whole purpose of what we’re trying to accomplish here—to alleviate personal suffering, to heal, to prevent people from harming others. This profession that I’m in, it really is a noble one with an ambitious aim. And it’s one of the reasons why I love it so much.

It’s not perfection we’re aiming for, but it is an attempt at improving things—a sometimes faltering and feeble attempt and a sometimes steady and stable attempt. The struggle to overcome adversity—some liken it to learning how to walk.

They say the toddler, when she falls down, doesn’t say to herself this walking isn’t for me. She gets back up and tries it again until she masters it.