Sagely Mentor

I am blessed to have a wonderful mentor who I meet with once a month for supervision consultation. It is great to receive professional support and much wise teaching. He is older than I by about fifteen years and resides not far away from me. I am undergoing an apprenticeship in the truest sense. After our meetings, I drive a short distance to my office to start the work day, feeling full inside with this man’s guidance and care. In my own ways, I then pass this on to my clients as best I can.

Recently, my learning from this sagely man has extended outside of our supervision appointments to attending shamanic journeying and healing classes that he started teaching here in the city where I live.  I have always been interested in shamanism.  It is incredible, when I think about it, the synchronous series of happenings in which I met a wise, kind spiritual teacher, both professionally and personally, right here in my own backyard.

And while I have had some challenges to face of late, the bigger life picture remains beautiful, full, and wondrous. Among many people, places, and things, I have a terrific sage of a mentor to remind me how this is so.

Sitting with Humanity

I sit with humanity one person at a time, but humanity nonetheless. The universality of feelings, sensations, thinking, beliefs, and efforts at loving grows ever-more deeply familiar and beautiful to me, while simultaneously remaining somewhat mysterious. And that too is beautiful. I take much comfort in being with this lovely paradox and my clients seem to as well. The multidimensionality of the human experience is fascinating. After all this time, I still feel awe-struck with wonder and gratitude at the gifts these people bring to me through just their sheer ever-opening presence of Self.

Vessel for the Self

Sitting with people as I have done all day, five days a week, for the many years I’ve been doing this sacred work has helped me to better see, and then assist in bringing forth, the essential Buddha/Christ/Divine/deeply good nature in people, all sorts of people. On increasingly rarer occasion, I haven’t been able to do this with someone.  It’s clearly been because I wasn’t the right vessel at the time to allow an individual’s core, good Self to come through, sometimes due to my own blind spot(s) I still need to address.  However, more frequently, it’s because of their own issues, or parts, somehow clashing up against the image and sense of me they see and hear before them.  But, often, the person is simply not yet ready to allow this healing process to happen the way they so badly need it to.  At those times, I turn over trust to the universe that these folks will find the right healer(s) and place to finally arrive more into their true Selves. And to that end, I offer them other names of colleagues and other supports as indicated.

Canvassing for Democracy

I walked up and down flat and hilly streets near my home yesterday, canvassing for an at-large city council candidate.  I thoroughly enjoyed this, especially stopping to talk with people.  Here and there, I managed to convince a few individuals to vote for her, a local church minister who, like me, cares deeply about the city where she and I both live and work.

At one house, I struck up a conversation with a retired, widowed social worker.  She identified herself as a complete supporter and I duly noted down her wish to have a sign for the candidate placed in front of her house.  Her squinting right eye behind glasses and yellow-white hair conveyed for me the sense that she had seen a lot in life.  Her strong, clear voice kept my attention on everything she said– that and our mutual concerns and interests from training and working in the same field.  I learned some history about social services in my newly-adopted hometown, things President L. B. Johnson had said concerning Civil Rights, and a lot of this woman’s personal background.  Her father had also been a social worker and was involved with a settlement house somehow.  (Already, details elude me here.)

I was tangibly reminded how I am part of an ever-shifting, but persisting historical movement of similarly concerned people.  This sagely yet lively woman shared names of other engaged citizens with whom she had been closely networked one way or another, such as through church or past work.  She had known this city council candidate’s family well–“before she was born,” she declared, her voice going up a few notes.  Her right hand shot upward for emphasis.  She smiled for what seemed like the thousandth time.  This candidate is now a minister at the church she has attended for decades, the widow stated happily.  This brand-new friend (to be) of mine– for I really could not help but like and respect her– had sat on the local school committee for about ten years or so.  She has three grand children, “my only grandchildren,” she said, “But I have to fly down South to see them.”

Meeting an elder colleague who had been in local electoral politics felt invigorating and affirming.  My mind raced along to make all the connections she was describing, work-wise, family-wise, community-wise.  Intermittently, I felt like I was back in graduate school, listening to a seasoned professor excitedly share some anecdotes before returning to her lecture notes.

I had to pull myself away from our conversation, there being so many more doors to knock on and people to kindly persuade.  While I walked away, this woman declared for about the third time, “I think you’d be great on our ward’s Democratic committee!  We’ve only got six members and there’s supposed to be thirty-five.  We need to get you on there.”

I said I’d seriously think about it and we agreed to keep in touch.

This is what being part of a neighborhood feels like, I find myself thinking as I write this.

A short while later, I struck up a conversation with a ginger bearded, mustached man who was probably in his early thirties.  Bluntly, he stated right away that he doesn’t vote, but has concerns about the environment, such as “getting recycling right.”  I explained how my candidate J.F. is concerned as well about this issue, the environment overall, and is open to ideas around streamlining and improving local recycling, in addition to having some possible solutions for it.  The guy softened and engaged further, expressing a wish that small businesses could be given tax breaks somehow to make it easier to start up here, particularly for his friends who are into micro-brewing.

“Yes, S. [neighboring city] shouldn’t have all the microbreweries around like it seems to,” I remarked.  I agreed with him whole-heartedly about the diversity of products and individuals small businesses can bring to a city, not to mention such places of commerce being far more interesting and personable than corporate, big box stores.

He expressed an openness to consider actually voting next month and most likely for J.F.

My third and final conversation of substance was with a man walking his dog, a white, curly-haired creature with deep brown eyes.  In between puffs on his cigarette, this forty-something man spoke animatedly from a long, thin face with bright blue eyes. “Don’t get me started….This street here is set far in from [C. and R. Streets, the downtown’s two main thoroughfares].  They do a lot over by C. and R., but the road here hasn’t been repaired in years…There needs to be a stop sign down at that corner…I don’t think they’re thinking about the congestion we’ll have from all the big condo. developments going up on R….There’s a lot that needs to be done.”  The man rattled off a few ideas.

The dialogue eased along into sharing about our personal backgrounds.  I remarked on his last name Cushing being rare and how he looked a lot like the late British film actor Peter Cushing.  “The resemblance is uncanny actually, with your eyes and long face like Peter’s.  I’m sure you’re related.”

He knew of this thespian and explained that he probably is some distant cousin of his. “There’s the Cushing’s in Ireland and then there was the English side.”

“Peter was clearly on your English side,” I added.

“Yes.”

I asked if he was descended from Justice Cushing, one of the very first judge’s to sit on the U.S. Supreme court.

“Yes, Caleb Cushing.  I’m descended from him.”  He explained how, but I’ve already forgotten.  “My family goes a pretty long ways back here.”

I encouraged this Mr. Cushing to contact J.F. and tell her all of his concerns.  I stressed how she is open to hearing from residents.  Handing him a slip of paper with our own Ward 3 councilor’s name on it, I stated how the official– our own neighborhood representative– really needs to hear from him, given all his valid concerns and ideas for solutions.  He expressed interest in calling the council member and agreed to find out more about J.F. and her platform before possibly voting for her.  I thanked the man for all his time and walked on ahead while he moseyed along with his slow-moving white dog.

Sweating from the warm day and brisk walking, my heart pumping with enthusiasm to connect with my neighbors and spread the good word about a local office candidate, I engaged in our representative democracy on the ground, literally.  This felt like being truly American, at the grassroots level, the base of it all: house by house, street by street. I was breathing, thinking, walking, speaking– living– democracy.  Democracy is me, my friends, my neighbors.  Democracy is us.

Some Thoughts on Monogamy

I am heartened to read and hear about women catching up to men in the arena of “cheating” and, frankly, glad to see this finally getting explored by some through a lens of curiosity instead of from a pathologizing/stigmatizing agenda.  I think monogamy is more a spectrum phenomenon and not something that “cookie cutter” fits every single person or couple.  It’s also a very heteronormative concept that doesn’t fit large segments of the GLBTQI communities, let alone a share of the heterosexual community either.  I think about polyamorists too; they’re living a (still) daring paradigm of consenting adult partnership arrangements that seem to work for some well enough (and, obviously, not for others, as is also the case for strict monogamy).  I worked with a male-female polyamorous couple and they were very serious and mature about their arrangement, dedicated to maintaining open communication.  They came for help with another matter, but were glad that I supported their polyamory and didn’t somehow judge them in any way for it.

Fascinating, this thing called love and how we humans 1) choose to secure it with another(s) and 2) tell other people how they themselves should secure it because we think we somehow know what’s best for them.  The longer I live and work in my profession, the more I come to see and believe that as one feels increasingly secure in oneself, the more one can be open-minded and open-hearted to possibilities, one’s own and those of others’.  As I’ve recently written in Braced Brain No More on this blog, it’s about releasing old “braced” thinking from one’s brain, those “do’s”, “don’t’s”, “should’s”, and “shouldn’t’s” uniquely and constantly told to us and subliminally implanted in us during childhood and onward.

If only more adults would be more honest about their actual primary relationship arrangements, the stigma of open relationships/other arrangements would surely gradually fade from the general public.  That said, I personally do think that getting married, having kids, and being with only one person romantically is natural for some for at least a certain extended period of time, though perhaps not necessarily for many decades, for example.  It’s the difference between what actually occurs in nature vs. a human-created, socially imposed value on something.  For example, statistically most adult women are not naturally skinny like pre-teen boys, though extremely thin women are still held up as a primary norm of beauty in the U.S.  Most females have some degree of wider hips and body fat than skinny models in magazines.  Yet, a small percentage of women happen to be naturally petite and super thin, just as their genes are coded in them to be.  Now, taking this one set of phenotypes in nature and blowing those up to be the norm all females should aspire to is not realistic, as it’s not natural for the majority of them.  The same can be said for adults being in indefinitely exclusively monogamous relationships. This statistically works for some people but not at all for many more.  It takes all kinds to make a world.  We sure need to live and let live more than a lot of us do.

Braced Brain No More

I.

While my husband and I were enjoying our vacation in Southern CA about three weeks ago, an image came into my mind that has continued to stick with me:  a brain enclosed in a cage of thin intersecting wires.  Each small section of wire represents a “do,” “don’t,” “should,” or “shouldn’t.”  Like all of us, I grew up with people constantly instilling rules and guidelines for appropriate behaviors to exhibit, ones not to exhibit, and thinking patterns and values to internalize.  My parents did this all the time as did schoolteachers and other adults around me.  I needed to be formed “correctly” to then become a good, contributing member of society.

One side of my family of origin was Catholic.  While that worldview was rigorously challenged and explicitly rejected by my smart, creative, feminist adoptive mother in her early 20’s, the rigid style of thinking and disseminating about “right” vs. “wrong” thought and action often was not.  To be clear, my mother did and has always meant well.  I think all parents do.  The “do’s” and “don’t’s”, “should’s” and “shouldn’t’s” needed to be imparted to me, but how they were was often problematic.  I’m guessing almost everyone reading that last sentence can agree to at least some extent.

It is not my intention here to bash Catholicism or single it out as being the only cause of a “braced” brain.  There are many institutions and streams of thought that do this as well and that has been widely written about elsewhere.  Ultimately, it is well-intentioned people who pass on rigidity to a new crop of subsequently constrained, shame-based thinkers, from any number of sources, their parents being a primary one.

II.

Then there’s graduate school.

As a Masters level mental health professional, I experienced a second, specialized round of initiation and indoctrination into adulthood via grad. school.  Smith College School for Social Work and the accompanying internships out in two different communities immersed me in an ethos of standards and ethics to work and live by.  The experience was challenging and ultimately rewarding.  I would not be where I am if it weren’t for the theory-heavy, dynamic higher education I had the privilege to obtain.  However, I repeatedly experienced these two conflicting messages throughout school:  “Making mistakes is part of learning” and “You should know better.”  The second one was much more implied, but steadily there nonetheless.  A particularly difficult supervisor during my first internship suggested this repeatedly in her harsh words and tone in response to my insecurity as a novice social work intern struggling with extreme anxiety, which I made it a point to get treated as best I could.  I also witnessed and heard about this message being relayed to some of my fellow students, whether it be by challenging supervisors they also had and/or Smith’s administration.  People dropped out around me, often because of personal reasons resulting in them not being ready for grad. school at that time in their lives, but others because they were not adequately supported in the assorted institutional-political binds and/or personality conflicts they found themselves thrown in at problematic internships.  The political implications for the school retaining field placements had to take precedence, so often it was easy to pathologize the student. Hence, somehow, it was useful to imply they “should have known better,” and/or other related shaming messages.

A culmination of this “You should know better” occurred for all of us students one evening towards graduation.  It was over twenty-two years ago now, but I remember it clearly.  The then brand-new dean of the social work school stood up between the rows of seats in the auditorium, her hard-set pale face framed against shellacked-looking black hair, and angrily chastised us for being overly-critical.  Honoring one of Smith’s many traditions, we graduating students had gathered in a forum to witness a selected handful of us give formal feedback to the faculty and administration about the strengths and shortcomings of the graduate program.  There was general agreement among the students that the presentation was fair and balanced, having included much positive input about the school.  Many of us extended the forum in the parking lot with the dean before she drove away for the night, where we tried to explain ourselves in more detail, with an even more measured, compassionate tone.  Apparently, though, the dean arrived in her office the next morning complaining loudly about “those students!”  For me, it was more “You should know better,” as I think it was for many others.  And while the dean herself should have “known better,” a view shared by many of us students, I remember even then the overarching importance of holding compassion and concern for her.  She was new and seemingly unused to a tradition of students giving feedback so directly.  She was on her own learning curve.  The fall back defense, however, was the recurring message, “You should know better,” all-too-familiar at that point in time for me and others.

III.

We social workers can often be hard on each other (and, hence, most likely, on ourselves), even a bit more so than other healthcare professionals.  The edgier side of the ethos from my grad. school days continues to haunt me now and then.  Working for over twenty years in the social work profession, most of those as a clinician, I find a lot of my colleagues often harshly implying how another of their own among them “should know better.”  It is an interesting, albeit sad and frustrating, phenomenon.  I have not been the only one to remark on it.  A psychiatrist friend of mine who works on an inpatient psychiatric unit remarked about this to me sometime ago.  He explained how he has often witnessed nurses and physicians being more supportive of their colleagues than the social workers are with each other.

I think a lot of us social workers get caught in a brain brace, bound up in our heads around the vitalness of adhering to our profession’s ethical rules and standards, which, of course, are good and necessary.  I’ve seen this brain-braced shaming happen a lot on online professional list serves/forums.  What often gets forgotten and/or lost in translation person-to-person is the inherent trust that one’s colleagues mean well for their clients– just as oneself does– and most certainly so if they are reaching out for help or are sharing their own views on an online forum.  We as psychotherapists always keep this in mind with our actual clients no matter how problematic their thoughts and behaviors are.  At least, that has been the thrust of my own professional training and practice.  Keeping this in mind and holding heart space with colleagues, including over faceless online communications, needs to be practiced more consistently.  Unfortunately, I don’t think it often is.  The tone and wording of the message is so important.  Otherwise, people get polarized and either shut-down/withdraw or act judgmental (the most extreme of this being combative), neither of which fosters learning and growth.  People need to feel welcome to share on a list serve or other professional forum, no matter what, even if they need direction/redirection to share further elsewhere and get the specific help they need to keep doing a good job for those they serve.  It’s always positive when someone dares to reach out to fellow professionals, especially strangers. Judgment of another colleague online is two-layered, the 1:1 shaming and then exposure to a crowd which can bring on feeling humiliated.  It is interesting yet frustrating for me to hear rationalized excuses colleagues make for their harsh tones they speak from, such as “tough love” or, “Tolerating strong affect is part of professional maturity,” etc.  But, it’s often stated to support the message of “You should know better.”  The underlying shaming is then allowed to continue.  We therapists do not intentionally shame our well-meaning clients– and I do believe all clients’ (all people) at their core Selves are ultimately well-meaning.  I certainly don’t shame in my practice, though I repair as best I can on the very rare occasion that I mistakenly, unintentionally do.  I think a sensitivity to being shamed is somehow the case for a good many of us who enter the clinical social work profession, perhaps the vast majority.  It would be interesting to see any studies on this, if they exist.

I’ve felt some seasoned therapists seem hard around the edges, conveying, “We know and practice our ethics and skills readily and smoothly, so all others, no matter how new in the field, should too (!).”  Translation:  “You should know better.”  Well, yes, but only after one has clearly reached their latest learning curve, whatever that happens to be.  A message to each other in the profession could come back more to this:  “Mistakes are part of learning” along with something like, “I trust you are well-meaning and are continuing to learn how to know better.”  We clinicians reach out and share because we are constantly trying to “know better.”  That’s a given.  “Should” need not apply, if we can only trust the good intentions of our own Self and our peers.  To be clear, many of us already do this well, but others don’t.

IV.

The braced brain image has been a revelation.  No longer do I have to cleave to distrusting my own heart-Self, from which a worldview is based, a perspective of wonder, compassion, and curiosity over people, places, and things around and beyond me.  It involves letting go of old conditioning.

I grew up in a family with a lot of distrust in it, as trust had been broken in all sorts of ways on both sides, three sides actually, since I was adopted by my father’s second wife before I turned six.  A legacy of poverty and hardship was passed down to my father, who grew up in working class Northern England during and immediately after World War II.  He remembers feeling hungry all the time and being beaten by his father.  So many ruptures in trust right there.  Yet, my father went on to live the American dream as an immigrant, bumpy as his life was until it peacefully mellowed and truly blossomed during his third and final marriage.  He now continues to be open-hearted in ways I never thought he could.

My birth mother Gaye was kept close to her mother’s apron strings, not trusted to fully grow up and take care of herself in the world. Her mother, my grandmother Julia of hard-working Irish and Scots-German descended ranchers in Texas, believed she needed someone in her very own corner, all to herself.  She was one of eleven children who then married a career Marine.  He spent years at a time away from home, including fighting in two wars.  “This one is mine,” Gaye told me on more than one occasion when describing the look in her mother’s eyes in a photograph of her holding Gaye as a newborn.  The trust there was clearly very limited, such as the trust that Julia would somehow be okay in life without her daughter close by her side.

As for my adoptive mother, I have said enough earlier, re: her strict Catholic upbringing, which I think she managed to at least partially transcend, just not (yet) completely in terms of style or structure of thinking and communicating.  I will add that there is no true trust in a person’s own well-meaning Self in the doctrine of that old religion, which teaches that we are sinners by nature and God above must redeem us through the teachings of Jesus Christ His son.  Maybe that is changing because of how so many who actually practice Catholicism are finally gleaning the inherent existence, goodness and trust-worthiness of the Self (e.g., through Jesus’s nature being born within us already, perhaps?).  That is from the flock, though, and not really from the hierarchy of the Church itself, from what I can tell, even as comparatively progressive the current Pope seems to be next to his predecessors.

So much distrust, so much believed need for a brace around one’s brain.

V.

I am taking much relief and joy at feeling this brace around my own brain floating away and being based outside of me.  It appears externalized more than ever now, still enclosing many other people’s brains, many institutions’ collective brain, our current U.S. president’s brain (though more braces than brains within that head it often seems).

This over-arching distrust of our own Self’s well-meaning, heart-centered qualities and intentions, what Richard Schwartz labels the Eight C’s of the Self, is naturally part of a growing process, not something to always retain as a worldview.  We don’t keep the braces on our teeth indefinitely.  So, no need to keep our brains braced with distrust-laden rules and standards to try and live by perfectly out of a sense of shame (or sin). The false assumption to keep doing so is, “You don’t know better and won’t ever if left to your own self understanding,” or more simply put, “You’re bad, like a beast.”  If we trust our children to learn, be curious, and do well, then we look for those qualities and intentions that affirm that reality.  If we inherently trust students and professionals in the field of social work– one of the most explicitly well-intentioned professions that exists– to hold compassion and learn from that caring place, including trusting that they are always wanting to find out how to “know better”– and will indeed find out– then we can steadily all relax.  We can let go of the admonishing, over-arching braces, the cage of  “do’s,” “don’t’s,” “should’s,” and “shouldn’t’s.”

How do we let go of this thinking cage and the shame it ultimately holds in place?  Well, it’s a practice, like meditating or brushing your teeth.  Listen to what makes your heart sing, where your curiosity naturally goes.  Allow yourself to notice and enjoy the small things and beings around you, be it a child or that beautiful tree you walk by often.  Do something new and different because you feel like it.  Take risks reaching out.  Listen a lot and share from that listening.  Sing out loud.  Grieve what needs to be grieved.  See a psychotherapist to help heal from constrained thinking.  Love your partner, children, parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors truly and openly, as scary as that may feel.  (This has all been written about by others elsewhere.)  Do this personal practice being in and with your Self a little bit, every day, one minute at a time, one day at a time. Then, the heart opens, the brain brace loosens and falls away.

 

 

 

Singing With the Trees

Yesterday afternoon, in between clients, I took a brisk walk along the pond by the office complex where I work.  The fading light in late afternoon fell gently against the water and trees’ leaves, many now starting to change.  I felt autumn in the breeze, a coolness matching the dimmer sunlight compared to last month’s.  Soon, it would be Mabon, fall equinox, when the day is equal to the night, on the planet’s way to the increasing pull of darkness, angled more away from the sun.  I reveled in these mild moments of September, my favorite month here in Massachusetts.  I did something I haven’t done in a good while; I broke into song:

  I am a circle within a circle, with no beginning and never ending. (Sung 3x)                      You are a circle within a circle, with no beginning and never ending. (Sung 3x)
 We are a circle within a circle, with no beginning and never ending. (Sung 3x)
 This is a circle within a circle, with no beginning and never ending. (Sung 3x)

I felt my energy build as I sang.  My voice grew louder, more confident, quickly softening as I happened to come near another person walking or sitting in their parked car, then rising in volume again as I moved further away.  I soon saw circles everywhere: nearby ripples in the pond, the holes dug for certain trees for them to safely grown within, the arch of the sky to the earth (a part of such a great circle).  With the vibration of my voice and the wind rustling in the leaf-filled branches above me, I felt my chest expand.  I offered the song to the trees and felt joy surging through me as I took in their togetherness, branches intermingling.  The ground beneath their trunks and my feet sloped gracefully upward on the left of the asphalt path.

I started the chant all over again, my eyes taking in the pond on my right, the trees all around, the lightly clouded sky overhead.  This was it, everything before me, here and now, everything connected, including unseen people, places, and things far and wide.  My mind flashed on past moments:  how I’d drawn a flower growing from a human heart back in 5th grade (and whatever happened to that picture?); when I had walked on other trails in woods or mountains; when I had last seen a friend for lunch and looked forward to seeing her again soon; when I had recently sung a select portion of this chant with a client, who I would be seeing tomorrow.  I felt joy and relief in the openness of my heart then and there, relief that this was continuing to happen and not a brief “phase” or simply a giddy mood in response to some great news.  No agenda, just openness.

And then I walked past a woman carrying a cloth bag written on it:  “Warm hearted.”

“Nice bag,” I stated, smiling.  “Thanks,” she replied, returning her attention to the cell phone in her hand.

I finished the song, letting the words flow through my mind, course through me.  Then, I hummed a partial tune to some rock song I’d long forgotten the title of or who originally sang it.

I approached the building where my office is, feeling refreshed and energized, curious and excited about my next client and whatever he would be bringing in to work on that day.