The age old dynamic of spirituality versus organized religion… Another Book About It

If you’ve been waiting for a book on this topic, it seems like Harris has synthesized it all, and that his book is a mixture of memoir and non fiction, which in itself is an interesting genre (I found a great book about insects by a naturalist that did this mix well), but none if it will seem new to anyone who has dropped whatever organized religion or religions they were surrounded by in favor of spirituality as the more inclusive and non violent non excluding of parts of the human race which all religions love to do (we are right and the others are wrong. Therefore we will force every in else to believe what we believe or we will consider ourselves “chosen” in some way and better and more worthy than everyone else…) that the term “spirituality” embraces. Spirituality has become a slightly meaningless word, or maybe a word that gets thrown around a lot especially in opposition to “organized religion”, but I like to think of it as a combination of the ideas of mindfulness, which leads to appreciation of what is in and around you in the moment, and the practice of loving kindness towards all other beings, ultimately with the goal of not arranging people and beings in some kind of hierarchy of importance, which all religions seem to do. The bible is filled with stories of getting rid of groups of “bad people” and saving others, even killing innocent babies born to the wrong people. So many stories of wiping out lots of groups of people and starting anew with a few, the Noah story repeated endlessly. Genocide it turns out, in the bible, is practiced by the character “God”.

Before I go on into more related topics and meanderings, here is the link to the description of this book and quotes from it: The book is entitled “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion”

Neuroscientist Sam Harris on Happiness, Spirituality Without Religion, and How to Cultivate the Art of Presence

Mindfulness is not religious; it works well with science as it involves the practice of basic detailed observation of the world around you, as well as observation of your own mind and noticing what your senses are perceiving. It also involves observing your own breathing and even your heartbeat, all of which are quite obviously agreed upon types of realities. You need believe in nothing to practice mindfulness. And not magically but probably due to something that occurs in the brain that neurologists will be able to explain, loving kindness towards other creatures will eventually follow mindfulness practice. It has already been well documented that empathy and compassion when practiced release some kind of endorphins and make the person practicing it feel good, which is why it has survived alongside human beings’ great interest in ways to destroy themselves and others and the planet. So science is taking an interest in certain topics that are also entertained by spirituality. If you go at it from the point of departure of spirituality, which could be defined as some kind of meaning seeking or meaning making that humans engage in and basically through the perspective of individual experience, basically engaging in mindfulness type activities, versus the scientists working on ways to map the brain and observe what goes on in the brain and rest of the body during mindfulness activities, you can choose to try to engage in the actual experience or in the observation of it and mapping of the brain. In some way those two activities do intersect, as the scientist who is mapping the brain is probably engaging in mindfulness while observing someone else’s brain engaged in it…

I am not sure about the mysterious connection between being more awake and aware of the world around you and your presence in the world with the practice of compassion and loving kindness. Harris describes the discovery of this kind of compassion towards all creatures as something he observes feeling after taking the drug exctasy. Luckily you are not required to take any drugs to feel this kind of equanimity mixed with compassion and a melting of the concept of self and others. Ironically, the practice if mindfulness will eventually take you there, but it’s a slower more annoying and boring path. Mind altering drugs have been documented as the quick ticket to this kind of awakening and awareness of really taking in the present moment and feeling your mind and consciousness expand. There are other documented ways to go this route by depriving the body of food and/or sleep or exercising to an extreme point of feeling this expansion at the expense of your health. People have starved themselves and stopped sleeping to achieve a mind altering state of consciousness, probably since the first humans were around, just like there have probably always been some kinds of substances like peyote, magic mushrooms, extasy, LSD found in nature that humans have ingested and noticed a mind altering state of consciousness experience.

Anyway, the cheap, challenging and not fun but healthy route to experiencing a real awakening to regular old reality is to practice disciplining the mind through mindfulness exercises which can range from simple meditation (following your breath, noticing when your mind has run away, returning to the breath) or meditation in action which simply involves being as aware as possible of your present environment and of your mind and body in the moment. According to this practice of “observe and describe”, you can really have a “spiritual” experience. Look at Harris’ words, which are similar to the new “Positive Psychology” and Psychology of Happiness that has become a flavor of the moment:

“Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.

Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.”

This is nothing new, it’s similar to what is said by Marsha Linehan in her writings and practice of DBT, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which combines the dialectic of total acceptance as the route to change, and which has a big mindfulness portion as part of its “practice”, as DBT is ultimately a practice that is not limited to teaching people with BPD, but a practice that all of us can benefit from. If you read about the mindfulness aspect of DBT, it will probably sound a lot like what Harris is talking about, with more specific types of exercises to help the individual become more mindful and aware of self and environment. Ironically, by listening to our senses and perceptions in our minds, we are observing both what is in the present moment and what is going on in our minds in the present moment.

In the end, all of this stuff is very simple, but very difficult to achieve. Try, for example, testing your ability to experience time in the present. Unless you are very super aware of seconds, you will either be living faster or slower than real time. You start a stopwatch, or look at a second hand, then sit and wait until you think a minute has passed and check the stopwatch or second hand. Has a minute passed? Did you think it passed and only half a minute went by or did a minute go by and more? I knew I would be the former, as I am aware that my inner motor goes too fast, so when I first tried this, only half a minute had gone by, no surprise! You would think that as therapists we have a good sense of time, at least in 50 minute chunks, but it is not true!

Roald Dahl wrote a great story called “The Marvelous Story of Henry Sugar”, which is all about the use of extreme mindfulness and concentration exercises which he originates with yogis. In this story, you can see how this type of exercise can be used for personal gain versus for helping others. What is so great about this story, is that he captures how the practice of mindfulness type exercises leads to a natural change in a human from selfishness and obliviousness of others’ suffering to great compassion. He takes the character of Henry Sugar, who is wealthy, lazy, bored and completely oblivious of himself and the world around him, and transforms him. What is truly great is that Henry Sugar reads a story that convinces him to try the practice of yogic concentration in order to see through playing cards so as to win at the casinos and make money easily by in essence a kind of “cheating”; he spends many months training his eyes and mind to see through playing cards. Because he changes his actual daily experience from one of wealthy meaningless pursuits spent with other wealthy people, to spending a lot of time alone, meditating and focusing on the middle of the flame of a candle and then focusing on a playing card and concentrating for hours every day until he starts to be able to see through the cardboard of the card and see the number and suit.

As he is practicing this and becoming obsessed with spending his waking hours basically in yogic training, he is changing a lot more than his ability to focus and concentrate on a playing card. I was very excited when he was ready to go to the casino, to see if he would right away have a weird response to the casino and the people there, which of course he did, as he had a heightened sense of observation and taking in the present moment, so the world he had been used to inhabiting was now transformed into something he was observing from the outside. Even more excititng, once he had carefully won a lot of money but sometimes lost on purpose so as not to draw attention to himself, he noticed that he did not feel the way he had anticipated. He was almost disappointed, and definitely not that excited to go winning more wads of money for the fun of it. The rest of the story was splendid; in the morning he woke up and started throwing twenty pound notes on to the streets and caused a huge commotion. A police officer goes up to his apt. and has an interesting encounter with him, basically telling him he is causing a public nuisance and that this is a stupid careless way to give away money. It turns out the police officer himself grew up in an orphanage and suggests to Mr. Sugar that he give his money to an orphanage. The rest of the story involves Henry Sugar engaging in a focused plan to travel the world’s casinos, winning Black Jack with his yogic powers to see through cards and starting orphanages in every country with all of his winnings.

Besides the fact that this story with a story within the story, the story Henry randomly picks up and reads, is so well written and engaging, this is a great story about how the practice of mindfulness techniqhes leads naturally to compassion, and Dahl takes an extreme example of a very limited uninteresting, selfish uncaring man who becomes transformed by simply engaging in exercises of focus and concentration, simple exercises that require a lot of discipline and patience though, into a totally different compassionate and purposeful human being. There is some connection between midnfulness practice, compassion, and the experience of meaningfulness or “purpose driven” living. This explains how Marsha Linehan helped many extremely suicidal individuals with terrible BPD illness go from a state of constant emotional pain, self harming, suffering, suicide attempts, to not just being able to get through the day without engaging in unhealthy coping choices, but eventually transforming their lives and finding meaning beyond the terrible pain of their illness.

It seems that it is really true that the only way to overcome or go through suffering to something on the other side is to truly embrace the present moment and accept all that it contains, being in it while observing it as neutrally as possible. A whole new post could be devoted to the connection between finding a neutral position on the moment and self acceptance and acceptance of others…

Skin Picking: The Freedom to Finally Stop by Annette Pasternak

This is a great post about a disorder that even many therapists need to learn more about.

The Pluviophile Writer

5/5 stars.
ebook, 148 pages.
Read from January 17 to March 07, 2014.

This book is by far the most comprehensive, supportive and positive guide out there right now for Dermatillomania. I can’t say enough good things about this book!

For those that don’t know, Dermatillomania, orExcoriation disorder, can be defined as:

…an impulse control disorder characterized by the repeated urge to pick at one’s own skin, often to the extent that damage is caused. Research has suggested that the urge to pick is similar to an obsessive compulsive disorder but others have argued that for some the condition is more akin to substance abuse disorder. The two main strategies for treating this condition are pharmacological and behavioral intervention.” – Wikipedia

This is a condition that I have personally struggled with deeply. I can safely say that through my own methods I was able to battle this condition…

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Movie: “Back From the Edge” – Borderline Personality Disorder

I just recently watched this video on Youtube. I highly recommend it to everyone: other clinicians who work with BPD or who want to learn more about it, people with BPD, people with loved ones with BPD, and those who know nothing about it.

The good news is that there is finally scientific evidence that Borderline Personality Disorder is actually a biological even hereditary illness not that different from diabetes or bipolar disorder. Those suffering from it are relieved to find out what is “wrong” with them and that it is not their fault that they suffer so much, that there is a name for and description of what they struggle with and they are not alone with it. I am especially glad to see them cover the whole issue of diagnosis and show how people who find out they have BPD are so relieved and also feel that they are understood and that they now know what is going on with them and because it can be explained very precisely and all their “symptoms” are mentioned and described in a way that they resonate with the whole diagnosis, there is great hope for them to recover fully and lead happier, more satisfying lives and have better relationships and hope for love with others.

I think this is a great example of the usefulness of diagnosis and the DSM 5 (the diagnostic tool for people in the mental health and substance disease field). It argues against people’s beliefs that some diagnoses are not good and make a person feel worse or sentenced or that having BPD and being told you have it means you are “one of those crazy sick people”. It also helps people encountering BPD in themselves and others have more patience and understanding of the terrible self harm behaviors and very extreme amount of suicidal thoughts, wishes and attempts.

In terms of treatment and hopes for recovery, the movie shows how people benefit greatly from the most documented and researched treatment: DBT, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, founded and invented by Dr. Marsha Linehan. There is also brief discussion of other treatments, especially psychodynamic, however, they leave out a newer treatment called “Mentalization”, maybe because it wasn’t well known when the movie was made. I still don’t understand much about Mentalization, except that it was founded by a psychoanalyst but is not psychoanalysis. I believe it focuses on cognition and accessing the reasoning part of the brain to get the patient out of the amygdala, which is the “fight or flight” response; people with BPD have different brain chemistry from people with “normal” brains. The reason they are so highly reactive, sensitive and emotional in response to interactions with others that other people do not react to or receive as hostile and dangerous is that their brains are wired differently and thus, while ill, people with BPD spend a lot more time trapped in the amygdala. With mentalization, I believe there is some emphasis on learning about responses of other people to the patient’s behavior or reactions and learning to look more neutrally at interactions with others.

Anyway the basic principles of DBT therapy are explained and patients describe how it helped them to learn to self regulate and decrease their extreme symptoms. The movie is not an exhaustive description of DBT as it empasizes the experiences of people with BPD, before effective treatment and after as well as their family’s experiences before and after.

Valentine’s Day Post: Be Your Own Valentine!

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I used to have a very jaded view of Valentine’s day as a marketing ploy for chocolate, flowers, stuffed animals with hearts and other stuff, as well as this idea of high expectations and not a great day for single people, of which there are many in NYC.

Even when not single, I thought this holiday was tacky and so mainstream boring; every day challenge is to be loving and celebrate love and give gifts that are not expected. However, since having a child age 3 and up, my point of view has totally changed. I see how the day can be fun and a celebration of love not between romantic partners, but for family, friends and the idea of inclusion in terms of school age kids’ making valentines for everyone in their class, especially age 4 to at least 8 or 9, when gender is not so important and children are excited to make valentines for their friends and family. Of course being an artist and art therapist, I have used the day as an occasion for making art with my child and patients. 

The idea of making your own valentine came from my child when she was 4 or 5. We were cutting out little hearts to decorate for each person in her class. The first one she made she liked so much she asked if it could be for herself. “I like this too much; I want it to be mine!” she said, excitedly. How cool was that. From the same person who said, “of course you have to love yourself,” when we were talking about who we loved the most. What a great idea, while making valentines for others and focusing on who you love, to make one also for yourself. I think she ended up keeping two of her own. We always make one for the teacher and she makes me one and I make her something extra special each year. All home made with art supplies.

This year was no different. Valentine’s Day happened to fall on a Friday, one of my busiest days in my practice. I went to work thinking, I want to make valentines’ cards with my patients and invite and challenge them to make themselves a card. I had a few phone sessions which worked out well for this directive too.

The main idea is to make yourself a Valentine’s Day card and in so doing , remind yourself to love yourself. WIth each patient who did this, I asked them if they would be comfortable for me to make them a card. Nobody refused! For adults this was definitely more oriented toward female clients, or it might have been that everyone I did this directive with was comfortable already with making art in the session, so they happened to all be women.

Anyway, for the people who came in person, I had lots of materials out all day, including: colored cardstock paper for the card, sharpies colored and metallic, decorative paper, foam heart shapes and other shapes, jewels, rhinestones and lots of fun stickers… I had fun in the session making each patient their card, and discovered a new kind of card — the triple decker card. I had cut a small peice of colored paper for a card and realized it needed to be bigger, so I added another card and glued it on top. Sort of like a stacked cake. 

This directive is a simple example of how great art therapy can be for helping people appreciate and accept themselves as they are right now, not who they have been or want to be. Also, accepting a card from me seems to be a sort of connection to their own therapy process and their appreciation of their work on liking themselves in art therapy. The card from the art therapist functions on many levels; as a “transitional object”, as a concrete object to represent the therapeutic relationship, as an indication of the trust that has built in the relationship with the therapist, and as a positive kind of statement about being in therapy and feeling good about it.

Making Valentine’s cards all day long from 8am until 8pm was definitely a fun and different way to spend Valentine’s day. I think throughout the day about 6 of the 8 sessions I had involved making Valentine’s. With the phone sessions, there was a fun part of the process involving knowing what we were making and having a surprise email afterwards, emailing back and forth photos of our cards and knowing that the patient would be getting their card next week.

I also made a Valentine for my colleague during our peer supervision and she made herself a birthday card. At the end of the day, I realized I had not had time to make a card for myself! As an art therapist I am a firm believer in doing the art you ask your patients to do always, so I knew I would be making one for myself. Yesterday while drawing with my daughter, we ended up making Valentine’s for each other; I had already given her two on Valentine’s, but as I started my own one, she asked for it, so I had to make a whole new one for myself. I had fun doing it, especially enjoying writing the phrase: “Happy Valentine’s Day to Me”, with the idea that anyone can look at my image of my valentine and say it to him/herself!

I am happy to be less jaded as I age, and a convert to all things childlike: hearts, rainbows, glitter, beads, Valentine’s Day, stencils, coloring pages, mosaics, all of which I had much disdain for when in art therapy school. Thankfully, I now know better and have a much more broad view of art making and art therapy.

Happy Valentine’s to me and to you and your Self! Make yourself a Love card as a reminder to love yourself every day…

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Photos: Top, my own card to myself, Sharpie on collaged paper cut out heart
First on bottom: Triple decker pieced together card for a patient, mixed media on cardstock
Second on bottom: detail of above
Third and fourth: other valentine’s cards made by me for patients
Fifth and Sixth: front and back of a card I made for my daughter
Last photo: Part of a Valentine made for a patient

The Relationship Map: A Great Art Therapy Intervention!

The Relationship Map is very simple in structure: it is a mandala (sacred circle) drawn on a colored square piece of paper with a smaller circle inside it.

I have found it very useful to do this “intervention” with many adults patients, especially people working on their relationships with other people and learning to set better boundaries. The goal is to build/establish a balance between rigid and loose boundaries, thus “flexible” boundaries. If you imagine a barrier that feels like a brick wall, that is a rigid boundary. An overflowing puddle is an image of a loose kind of boundary, whereas a flexible boundary would be some thing that can move and tighten and loosen based on the circumstances of the here and now, so it is a balancing act, and we all have challenges working on our boundaries. The people who seem to find this exercise the most helpful and useful are those whose boundaries are too loose. They merge easily with others and have a hard time setting limits and saying no. Things like giving people money with no consideration of their own finances, overly caretaking, doing things that later make them feel resentful and upset, but caught in a bind where they feel they have to be “nice” and saying No I won’t do that, or I don’t like when you do that, or I disagree with you, feels like they are being “mean”.

We all have had challenges at crossroads in our lives where we look around and question our relationships and sometimes “weed the garden” and get rid of anything toxic, which could be very deeply rooted.

The first step is to pick a colored square piece of paper and put a paper plate about the size of a face on it and trace a circle. Right away you have a symbol of the self, a mandala. Then I invite you to write your name in the middle with the colored sharpie of your choice and put a heart or other shape around it. Then you write down qualities about yourself such as kind, creative, optimistic, good friend, compassionate original,adventurous, kind or whatever you come up with. It’s a time I will observe to my patient, “You forgot such and such” and give then additional qualities I know to be true about then that they overlooked.

Next, you draw a smaller circle with isn’t the big circle. The big circle can be conceived of as a barbed wire fence with xs in it and then the area outside it you write toxic zone. That is the area to put the people you can’t interact with at all anymore who have become poisonous. It is very therapeutic to have your therapist witness you place bad abusive people in your life in the toxic zone. I am not a proponent of the theory that forgiveness frees you. I actually believe there are people who are so damaging to you that you cannot forgive their actions unless that person realized how terrible s/he has been to you and take responsibility and apologize which, is not a frequent thing. So putting even your own parents in the toxic zone and bring supported about setting a form bound site of no longerletting them into your life is a very powerful aspect of healing.

Another dimension of this relationship map involves, what you start with, whom you put where, and whether you include your therapist herself in it. I also give people an opportunity to suggest people include dead people or animals as well with a different color or shape around them. Some of the nuance of the use of the circles is where you put the person. a person could be right on the line, meaning they are going in one direction or another soon but you’re not quite sure, or someone you just met would be appropriate to put in the outer circle. When someone puts new people in the inner circle, it provides a great opportunity to discuss their patterns of trusting right away and letting people in too quickly perhaps.

The other great thing about this relationship map is that you put the date on it, and make a new one a few months later. I usually have the patient do the whole thing and then bring out the older one and we can see what has happened, who has moved where, who has disappeared altogether, who has appeared, etc.

Below are images of an example of how to make a map like this.
Having a visual diagram is actually a very powerful way to take a good look at the relationships in your life and re evaluate what you want from others and, most importantly, who deserves to share your good qualities that you wrote in the beginning…

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Multiple Blog Topic Disorder!

I have so many ideas and so many different topics I am thinking about and wanting to blog about my head is spinning! This happens to me in other areas of life, like my art making: Suddenly presented with even 20 minutes (which is a ton of time to have to myself these days) in my studio I have to make a quick decision as to whether to start something new, work on my graphic novel, get back to my big huge project, do another weird mixed media thing that is newish, or pick up a piece and keep working on it, or just chill out and do a collage in my journal. In a case like this, luckily being alone and in my studio, I just go for it and usually just do what feels easiest. If I am at my home and have a very rare opportunity of being alone with a million choices and a few hours time, I am extra challenged. Either I try to do a little of everything, or force myself to just clean some area or do what I did yesterday: I had a book I wanted to read and just sat on the couch reading that book for several hours. That was relaxing for me. No noise whatsoever, no need to look around at the chaotic apartment or be distracted by other things, just focusing on a fascinating riveting book I was learning something every page.

So I could blog about that book or topics related to it. But I have so many topics buzzing in my brain. In no particular order:
1. choose the easy way out and find a cool cultural ritual to discuss and celebrate.
2. pick something to add to the series I’m doing on society’s view of mental illness and separating fact from fiction
3. Mindfulness and how it is used in therapy and everyday life, prescription for any human suffering from anything or avoiding suffering
4. Basic fundamental of the idea of DBT, the dialectic between acceptance and change…
5. Self worth, liking yourself, self esteem, self love, whatever you want to call it and why it is so difficult to deal with in oneself and others and as a therapist as all patients seem to share this issue…
6. Importance of validation for parents
7. Trauma, a million topics emerge from just that word!
8. A holistic view of what “Recovery” means and how it can be empowered and person centered…
9. Borderline Personality Disorder, the hush that still surrounds it, despelling myths
10. many things you might share wtih someone with Borderline Personality Disorder even though you don’t have it, so why does everyone get so angry at even the name of it and why did people argue about it not existing and not being correct to put it in the DSM5 or changing the wording…
11. 9/11 is creeping up on us downtown New Yorkers, what ghosts still lurk down here and in our psyche and collective psyche as humans?
12. All healing boils down to finding balance, following the “Middle Path”. Why is this so incredibly hard to do???
13. Body image again: how can someone say that their low self worth has nothing to do with their body. Liking yourself starts with liking the form that you are in as a person, your shape and size, the inside of your body, things your body does, things you don’t know it does, what you do to it, put in it, stimulate it with, relax it with, soothe it with etc. what is the definition of negative and positive body image? If our own culture is any sign of our relationship with our body, we Americans have a very distorted image about what a body is and a lot of preoccupation with what shape and size it is and what kind of outside appearance we have, and obsession with food, nutrition, good eating, bad eating, dieting, fasting, extremes and middle grounds, feeding our babies and kids, etc. When you think about that, you have to really look at yourself and see how much you unconsciously on a daily basis participate in these fixations…
14. making assumptions about people too quickly. Learning to go back to the child’s curiosity and scientific investigation of everything you encounter through every one of your senses…
15. I can’t end at 14 as I have a crazy preoccupation with odd numbers. For alarms to wake up I have to set the time at an odd number, 8:01, not 8 for example, so I can’t end this post with only 14 topics. I guess the 15th is also about indeciciveness and making choices.
16. Uh oh I just remembered another. Noticing in your relationships with others, do you have some conflicts that could just be reduced to having totally opposing types of coping skills? This is so common in couples as opposites do attract.
17. “Look before you leap” versus “He who hesitates is lost.” The dilemma of the extremes around decision making and reactivity, ie. the person who spends too much time with a pros and cons list versus the person who can’t tolerate being in the “I can’t decide, I don’t know” zone and goes in the direction of acting on impulses and quickly…
18. The use of dollmaking in art therapy.
19. Systems theory explained simply: we all have many parts inside ourselves and we can get to know them better to help them work together. Often extreme crisis, even psychosis happens when all your parts of your psyche are at war or shouting at you at once. Hearing voices could be related to hearing from your parts… (look at “The Beautiful Mind” as example.)

Ok. I am sure I have a hundred more topics but at least I got some of them out there as things I want to investigate. Usually I veer towards making decisions too quickly, but I guess blog writing is helping me slow down, notice my mind’s chaos and speed and curiosity, wanting to connect many ideas and actually having a hard time making a decision!