When was the last time a stranger struck up a meaningful conversation with you in public? Well, it happened to me last night at 10:30PM on a crowded bus, rumbling through the rainy streets of San Francisco.
I was on my way home from my weekly dance practice in Berkeley, when the young man sitting in front of me turned around and hesitantly asked me, “What are you passionate about?” It took me a moment to register the experience, as I was listening to a podcast and that was the last question I expected to hear from a stranger at this time of night. Considering the question briefly, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Music,” I said, and he smiled knowingly. He shared that he, too, was a musician of sorts, “a poet.” We shared why and how we felt passionate about music for a bit.
A few stops later the passenger sitting next to me exited the bus, and the young man quickly got up and sat down right next to me. “Tell me about a profound experience you’ve had,” he says. Again, not expecting this second question, I took a moment to ponder.
Just about a year ago I was part of a ceremony celebrating the life of the recently deceased David Bowie. We chose his song “Changes” as the theme of this ritual, and my friend who gave the sermon encouraged us to, “Turn and face the strange” in both our lives and inside ourselves; to not hide in fear from that which we don’t understand or are unfamiliar with. Little did we know then, that 2016 would get more and more “strange” with each passing month. We faced many challenges and losses. The “strange” hiding in the shadows came out into the light and took reign center stage, unbridled and unafraid.
Back on the bus, I was impressed by my companions unbridled courage to turn and face this stranger—me—and ask such poignant questions. I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on the experiences in my life which have brought me joy.
“Profound experiences have usually been in a group of people where we are all in sync, in the flow of life and feeling connection to the divine in those moments.,” I finally reply. Again he smiled in agreement, and we exchanged more stories and ideas. We introduced each other, shook hands, and a moment later I exited the bus at my stop, as he sailed over the hill toward the dark ocean.
Thank you, young man, for reminding me that turning and facing the strange can bring me joy and a full heart.
~ Nick Venegoni, MFT
Most days I walk to work through a small park with a patch of grass and a children’s playground. There are a few large pine trees there, shedding their needles and cones on the grass. One particular day on my walk I spotted a small immature, “closed” pine cone. I picked it up, enjoying how it looked and felt in my hand. I stuck it in my pocket and brought it to my office, where I put it on my altar with other objects which remind me of the natural world outside my window.
I returned to my office a couple days later to find the pine cone had begun to open, flaying out about half of its bottom scales, while the top half stayed closed. I was completely surprised to see this had happened off the tree, let alone in my office. I wondered if the rest would open on its own in the next few days. I waited, yet nothing occurred — it had stopped opening the rest of the way. So this left me wondering, how did this transformation occur and why did it stop?
This feels like one of life’s many mysteries: What is the process of initiating and completing transformation in ourselves and in our lives?
The reason most people seek therapy is because you want something to change. You want to change the way they feel about yourself, your relationships, your lives, etc. Those who are new to therapy often think that I have a secret formula to give them, and if they follow it they will transform their experience. The truth is, I don’t have any formula to give you. BUT I can support and guide you on your inner journey to find that formula. The truth is the secret formula lies within, and you have to find it.
That pine cone didn’t open on its own, but the potential for it to open and transform is part of its natural essence. Through the contributions of heat from the sun and water from the clouds above, it was supported to open. The cone didn’t last long enough on the tree to fully open and mature. I don’t know if it ever will fully open, but I accept that it has done what it could with the resources it had. When I look at the pine cone it helps me have patience for myself and those I support, that we will transform to the best of our ability when we are ready.
~ Nick Venegoni, MFT
Mindfulness in the Electronic Age: Part 1
How many times have you checked your phone today? It seems that we have all become Pavlov’s dog and immediately respond to our phones alert bell, ding, beep, chirp or buzz without hesitation. Our brains salivate with each notification of a text or LIKE or HEART — and it feels good! It’s nice to connect and engage with others around shared interests and beliefs. No big deal, right?
As a therapist, when someone asks me if they are addicted, they tend to see the situation in black or white. But I think the relationship can move along a continuum of interaction. I see addiction on a scale — something like this: use, abuse, dependence, addiction.
Webster defines ADDICTION –
: a strong and harmful need to regularly have something (such as a drug) or do something (such as gamble)
Do you have a strong need for your phone? Well OK, phones aren’t drugs, and Instagram isn’t gambling. Webster continues…
:an unusually great interest in something or a need to do or have something
SO, maybe your interest in your phone might be considered “unusually great”?
I’ve noticed for a few years now, this strong need, this unusually great relationship some people develop with their smart phones. And it’s not really the phone itself that people are obsessed with, but the content and connections their phones provide them. Or the salivation — the chemistry our brains release with each notification and interaction.
Let me say, I find social media to be a great way to gather information and connect with community, especially for those who may be isolated in some way (such as queer teens in small towns, disabled folks, home bound senior citizens, etc). However, I also see how it can generate isolation and degenerate authentic connection and intimacy. By spending such considerable amounts of time engaging with your phone (liking, retweeting, commenting, reviewing, texting, chatting), the technology starts to become an extension of oneself. When someone has lost or broken their phone, I’ve heard many say it feels like withdrawing from a drug or like they’ve lost a limb. In some ways this is true — you do lose a particular ability to communicate, and there are particular chemicals in the brain that cease to be released when one loses this form of communication and connection with others.
So, what do you do about it? Easy — discipline. Moderation. Cut down. But, we Americans tend to have difficulty with moderation since we live in the land of bigger, better, louder, brighter, Super-Size Me! So even though discipline is a challenge, bringing awareness to your relationship with your phone (and other portals to social media and digital communication) is the first step to solving this conundrum.
In the world of mental health and dealing with substance or behavioral abuse (remember the scale? use, abuse, dependence, addiction), there’s the harm reduction model. Harm reduction is a way to evaluate level of use and level of “harm”, and then reducing use to reduce “harm.” An example of the harm reduction model is working with food addiction. Someone addicted to food can’t just stop eating or they’ll eventually die, but they can reduce their intake and change their relationship to food. The same thing can be done with your phone. Consume less time on your phone and use your newly found free time for other things — visiting with friends and loved ones in person, engaging in hobbies and physical activities, or all the other things you’ve been putting off (laundry, dishes, paying bills, etc.). The commodity is time and connection, not the phone.
The important part to remember is to start small. Maybe it means only 30-minutes less a day for a week, and then increasing to one hour, and so on. You want to stretch yourself without stressing yourself. And know that you maybe have cravings and that’s OK.
– Nick Venegoni, MFT
Buddhism is not only a religion, but a philosophy, a science and a psychology as well. The Buddha studied the nature of the mind very deeply, the way a biologist studies a cell on the nuclear level. Buddhist psychology is a complete science unto itself, of the nature of the mind and the ways in which the human mind creates suffering, joy and liberation within the mind. Buddhist psychology explicitly gives instructions on ways to support yourself and others to find liberation from suffering and to live in joy and complete bliss. The tricky part, especially for us westerners, is that it is a continual practice, not just a one time quick fix, like taking a pill.
Let us start with empathy: What is it? In his new book on compassion, “A Fearless Heart,” Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D. (former Tibetan monk and principal english translator of the the Dalai Lama) defines empathy: It’s our natural ability to understand other people’s feelings and share in their experiences. It thus consists of two key components: an emotional response to someone’s feelings, and cognitive understanding of his or her situation. So it is a perceived feeling and knowing what others feel or experience. This is very helpful for both parties involved: the one in pain feels understood and less alone in their suffering, and the one who is witnessing has a visceral experience of understanding and relating in their own way to the experience of suffering.
Now, for some people having empathy can be challenging. Many of us grow up not learning skills or knowing how to cope with our own suffering, let alone others suffering. I’ve heard it said that in today’s modern, technology driven society, there is a significant deficit in empathy. Many aspects of our culture have cultivated a sense of narcissism that makes it easy to disconnect from what others might be experiencing.
Then there are others who are overwhelmed by empathy. Some people are quite sensitive and attuned to other people’s experiences, but without proper self care this can be exhausting. Many people in helping professions, such as nurses and therapists, end up leaving their profession because of what’s called “compassion fatigue,” but I would argue that they are really experiencing “empathy fatigue.” These people may believe they have a responsibility to take on the suffering of others because they know how to digest it more easily than the original owner, but this is very taxing on the mind, body and spirit. Hence the fatigue and burn-out occurs, and we have talented helpers and healers who are very much needed, leaving their professions. So, what is the solution?
This brings us to compassion and kindness. Compassion is really quite simple, yet our experiences of empathy can sometimes impede compassion. Compassion is a deep and sincere wish or desire that another’s suffering come to an end. It’s as easy as a wish. Kindness is then the action we take toward the one suffering as a result of our compassionate wish. Jinpa says: Compassion is a more empowered state and more than an empathic response to the situation. Kindness is the expression of that compassion through helping, a basic form of altruism. Compassion is what makes it possible for our empathic reaction to manifest in kindness.
This action of kindness is another place we can get stuck, however. For those of us who are helpers and healers we get stuck in feeling helpless and not knowing what to do to help another person. Sometimes there is nothing to do but just be. Often times simply holding compassion for the sufferer in their presence is enough kindness. It doesn’t sound like much but it can be quite powerful. It can take fierce compassion to stay present with anothers suffering knowing there is nothing you can do about it because only they know the best way through and out of their experience. Expressing loving kindness toward them means they don’t have to feel so alone as they walk that path.
As a therapist, I often think of myself as an old-fashioned, cast iron oven, sitting in the middle of the room and emanating a heat and warmth of compassion and loving kindness. Those who are on their journeys of healing and self discovery can stop by to warm and center themselves before they carry on again. Yes, I have other tools and practices to offer them as well out of kindness. But, as Jinpa said, “compassion is a more empowered state” for all involved, than simply feeling empathy for the sufferer.
– Nick Venegoni, MFT