Opening Up to Learning

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Image from PNG Mart

Take a habit, tweak it a bit and open your world! When my habitual evening iPad crawl lost a regular haunt when the NBC News Breaking News app was put to bed for the last time on New Year’s Eve, I found some new haunts and my eyes opened anew.

A favorite haunt I still enjoy is Recolor. Here’s an image I colored this week, using my Apple Pencil:

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Recolor image colored by Shielagh

Recolor isn’t totally, freshly creative if you use their line drawings, but you can upload your own drawings and color those. The color palette in the free version is quite extensive, many with gradient effects such as those above. The creativity is in which colors you choose to put where. There are extra metallic and pearly ones, and more, that you can buy, but I haven’t wanted to buy any so far. I’m not a great one for in-app purchases for anything.

I still enjoy the daily New York Times Crossword and credit it with helping to keep my aging brain more agile than it might otherwise be. And I torture myself with “hard” level sudoku, usually resorting to “medium” and I soon lose interest.

But, back to the learning of new things!

I’ve been capturing interesting articles and saving them on Google Keep, which by the way is an amazing tool. This week I found the following:

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Photo by Todd Hido, New York Times

A feature on Dr. B J Miller in the New York Times Magazine fanned an ember in my being of working with death and dying, as I did for several years in an outpatient HIV-AIDS unit. His own painful life journey has formed the foundation of a most unusual and giving human being. This TED Talk with Dr. B J is worth checking out.

Not all my finds are as profound as the amazing work of  Dr. B J. Some are just delightful in their own right, or useful, or fun, or seriously instructive.

Now-13-year-old Grace Vanderwaal wowed me with her performance of an original composition on “America’s Got Talent.” Watch this one! She’s already on a rocketship to stardom.

On the blog Style by Emily Henderson I found her style quiz. She nailed me! How about you?

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Photo: Kaylyn Messer

Photographer Kaylyn Messer happened upon an exquisitely perfect circle of ice in a river.

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Blogs abound with how-tos but this one really intrigued me. Nika Rouss shows us how to paint a still life using a combination of stencils, sponged on colors, finger treatment, markers and more. Very cool!

As a psychologist who treats anxiety disorders, I found this short video on social anxiety to be very clear and even fun as it addresses this painful problem so many struggle with. In fact, I have found that for many alcoholics I’ve treated, disabling social anxiety often preceded their addiction. So when they get sober, that social anxiety may return with a vengeance and therefore needs to be understood and compensated for. It’s okay. Even though we believe ourselves to be in the spotlight, usually we’re all just bozos on the bus.

And now, because you’ve been so good at wading through my week’s discoveries, here’s a treat for your ears and those stompin’ feet!

Namasté

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Revisiting Compassionate Listening

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In the two years since I first published a post on compassionate listening, I’ve had many opportunities, both personally and professionally, to experience how very essential to our wellbeing and our relationships compassionate listening truly is.

Whether our listening involves another person face to face, on the phone, or via text or email, or just watching a speaker on TV, we can miss a lot if we aren’t giving what we hear (or consume electronically) our full attention. True wisdom mandates we really attend to the other person openly, empathically and with kindness.

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I have encountered two more potential impediments to compassionate listening and both relate to aging that I experience in my work as a psychologist practicing psychotherapy. Because I’m now a Medicare provider in an area with fewer such providers, my psychotherapy practice embraces more older men and women than ever before. As I and those around me get older I’ve had many personal experiences with these listening impediments as well.

The first impediment is impaired hearing in which the listener mishears or fails to hear all our words and “fills in” what they think we said, sometimes getting it very wrong. Later someone one tells us emphatically that we said thus and so, perhaps something very contrary to our intent or even tragically so, creating a conflict we must now try to resolve, a potential distraction to the potentially sensitive work at hand. It can be extremely frustrating to both speaker and listener for the communication to break down simply because one or both parties can’t hear as well as they think they do. While it can be amusing, as the photo below illustrates, usually communication failure due to hearing problems is far from funny. It’s embarrassing and frustrating and interferes with friendly interactions.

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The second impediment is the increasingly frequent word-finding difficulty most older people experience. We all do this from time to time, and as we get older it happens with greater frequency. Speakers may pause as they search for certain words or familiar phrases, creating gaps in the narrative. A frustrated listener might quickly offer suggestions, and this can be perceived as a failure to respect the speaker’s competency or autonomy.

Another variation on the word-finding phenomenon is the speaker reaching into his or her vast vocabulary database, as it were, and pulling out a similar but incorrect word. image The similarity may be sound (e.g. tractor for factor). It may be the way the word begins or ends (shrimp for sharp), or relate in some other way we cannot fathom as the speaker struggles to get a point across. The listener then wonders what this is supposed to mean and may ask. The annoyed or frustrated response may follow, “You know what I mean!” Perhaps we do, but what if we don’t?

Compassionate listening involves seeing and feeling the struggle that others are experiencing and giving them time and space to find their way. If they grow silent with overwhelm or discouragement, or say, “Forget it!” we might ask, “Want me to try to help you with what you’re trying to say?” If they ask us to suggest a word, we should do so, but with the tentative deference suggesting we leave it to them to confirm or reject our suggestion. I find it helps to offer something like, “I’m having trouble hearing what you’re trying to say. My fault. Would you please try again?”

As we ourselves get older we probably will do the same sometimes. Our compassion for others with these difficulties will help us be compassionate towards ourselves if we fumble to express ourselves so that our listener understands. And if we have developed compassion towards ourselves by practicing Metta, or loving kindness, in our meditation practice as well as our daily interactions, we will naturally feel more compassion as we listen.

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Namasté

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What is Psychotherapy?

 

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My Manhattan office

In New York City where I practiced for over twenty years, it seemed as if everyone knew what psychotherapy is, even if they hadn’t ever experienced it personally. Occasionally I’d meet with an older patient whose primary physician or psychiatrist had referred them to me for treatment, and they’d say something like, “I don’t know why I’m here or what I’m supposed to do.” A discussion would follow, and soon we’d be “doing psychotherapy” every week. But many elderly people are psychotherapy-savvy, a case in point being a ninety year old woman in New York who had undergone a lengthy psychoanalysis fifty years before she came to me to address a current issue.

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The techniques I have employed throughout my career, including the newer ones I’ve learned along the way, offer the individual an opportunity to explore experiences and articulate thoughts and emotions never before expressed or if so only incompletely. When someone opens up aloud, insights and meanings often become more clear. I also use the session time to offer information, often referred to as psychoeducation, about the science and processes at work with emotion, cognition, memory, identity, consciousness, and perception. Sometimes I explain the mechanism by way certain medications work to alleviate symptoms and why sometimes they cause other problems.

Not long ago, I closed my New York office, after several years of careful planning and preparation, and opened an office in the college town of East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. I’m fortunate to work with an excellent psychiatrist who sometime refers patients to me, and I find myself explaining again just what psychotherapy is. In the early days, I devote session time to asking questions about the individual’s history, family of origin, and what brings them in. The answer to the latter often is simply, “The doctor said I should see you, so I’m here.” When someone relates certain problems, I will administer a questionnaire to clarify symptoms and experiences.

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So these days, I’m explaining psychotherapy a little more often, and helping shed a light on experiences that have baffled, frightened, confounded or annoyed my patients. I’m describing how certain medications treat depression and why they aren’t good for people with the mood swings of bipolar disorder. I’m cataloging symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and helping patients gauge how much those symptoms interfere with functioning and their overall quality of life. Sometimes just asking a question about obsessions triggers access to a deeper emotional issue never before spoken to another. As I was psychodynamically trained, I enjoy helping a patient explore a dream for its value in clarifying issues, past and current. I take my role as therapist and guide along this most challenging journey very seriously.

As we prepared to move out of New York, I considered retiring. For about five minutes. I got a late start on my career as a psychologist so there’s a practical, financial incentive to continue, but there’s an even more important reason I am still actively working as a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy: I love the work. I enjoy meeting new people and sitting down with them to see what we can do together to alleviate their distress, resolve their conflicts, arrive at healthier alternatives to their problematic habits and behaviors, and find greater and deeper meaning in their lives, both in terms of the past, the present, and into the future.

I find it to be a great blessing helping people traverse very intense points on their path, such as dating, marriage or divorce; pregnancy, miscarriage, or birth; seeking, losing, improving or getting new jobs; illness, accident, treatment, death and grief, and as the late death and dying pioneer Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross taught us, acceptance. Acceptance of what has been and of what is, even when we wish it were different. Acceptance of what we’ve done and who we are, and acceptance of our ability to learn and grow and change despite the past, even though it can be extremely challenging and a lot of hard work.

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I alway end these posts with the Sanskrit word namasté, which basically means, “The goodness in me bows to the goodness in you.” And so it is.

Namasté,

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Many Changes, Most Good, Some Hard

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We are relocating, sort of. We are transitioning from Brooklyn, New York part time to northeastern Pennsylvania full time. To say this is a challenge, a monumental adjustment, would be an understatement. This moving is a huge challenge, even though the apartment has been sold furnished, as we strain every muscle, mental as well as physical. Living nearly 25 years in one small city apartment, it would seem a cinch for us to pack up our gear and go. Not so. Stuff hides behind every closet and cupboard door, cubbyhole and forgotten cache spot. We probably put this off too long, but ever since we went into contract we’ve boxed, stuffed, toted, schlepped, donated, discarded and given away a ton of stuff. Nearly all of it carried down three flights of stairs ourselves. Maybe our “never” was we thought we’d never move. Or we thought it would never be this hard, or we never considered the result of bringing new stuff home.

It is really freeing to get rid of excess belongings. The issue was having double of almost everything to make shuttling back and forth the 100 miles or so every week less daunting. So we’ve made at least one and often more trips to the Salvation Army with shoes, clothing, dishes and kitchenware, and other assorted stuff we don’t need. Then there is the quandry of whether or not to keep any winter things. We both elected to keep some winter boots and outerwear, just in case we get surprised by an early snowstorm before heading to our winter snowbird nest, or a late one after we return.

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Earlier this year–or was it late last year?–I ordered an assortment of heirloom seeds from the Grommet, produced by the Hudson Valley Seed Library, a small business devoted to preserving and proliferating the wonderful, flavorful heirloom plants as they were before hybridization and genetic modification “improved” them for us. They are awesome seeds, and I can’t wait to see what they yield for me, a gardener who has relied on garden store seedlings for years. I bought seeds for Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomato, Swiss Chard, Italian Parsley, Basil and Scallions. I planted them last weekend in my 4′ x 8′ raised bed plot in our community garden. I also planted a couple of big tomato plants from the nursery near us to get a start on this process. There’s nothing tastier than homegrown tomatoes!

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I am opening a new, spacious psychotherapy office next month in the college town of East Stroudsburg, with Pocono Psychiatric Associates. I plan to offer groups once I get settled. This is awesome and very exciting for me,  especially as one who has paid an arm and a leg and another arm for a very small, high-floor Manhattan office that could barely fit me, a client and one other person. The people there are wonderful and I welcome this new phase of my career. Challenges are terminating with clients I will sorely miss, getting my Medicare provider credentials set up for Pennsylvania, changing my address with a myriad of business and personal correspondence entities, and dealing with people who don’t handle change very well. Even if it is wonderful and exciting.Talking to myself here, too.

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On a brighter note, our local seasonal local ice cream stand has dairy-free vanilla soft-serve this year! How cool is that? I had my first dipped vanilla cone in over 5 years last weekend. I’ve been vegan at least that long, imperfect but sincere. And they offer some 24 different flavors that can be added to it. I can see have some tasty work ahead of me!

So out goes the old, mingled with the newer, in with the fresh, and learning new things every single day! Today it was figuring out how to send a fax from home, not an intuitive effort when the phone line is part of the cable package. It’s raining like cats and dogs, as per usual at this time of year. For the second year in a row, the opening events of the tennis season here have been postponed, leaving game-hungry tennis bums thoroughly bummed.

So just one more challenging change. Blue highlights!

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Namasté

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Scientists Figure Out How to Retrieve ‘Lost’ Memories

To a clinical psychologist treating survivors of trauma, some with repressed or dissociated memories, this article is fascinating. Read on…

TIME

Mice certainly aren’t men, but they can teach us a lot about memories. And in the latest experiments, mice are helping to resolve a long-simmering debate about what happens to “lost” memories. Are they wiped out permanently, or are they still there, but just somehow out of reach?

Researchers in the lab of Susumu Tonegawa at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT conducted a series of studies using the latest light-based brain tracking techniques to show that memories in certain forms of amnesia aren’t erased, but remain intact and potentially retrievable. Their findings, published Thursday in the journal Science, are based on experiments in mice, but they could have real implications for humans, too.

MORE:How to Improve Your Memory Skills

The mice were trained to remember getting a shock in a certain chamber. The scientists then used protein labels to tag the specific cells in…

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Everyone Is Afraid To Do What They Love

What has kept you from doing something in life that enlivens you? Are you dissatisfied with playing it safe? Read on for ideas on how to expand your viable options:

The Truth You Always Knew

Throughout the last few years, as I’ve been contemplating what to do with my life, I’ve realized that everyone is afraid to do what they love. How do I know? Too many people work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, doing something that they don’t love to do.

Why? I think it’s because somewhere down their paths, they were too afraid. I think a lot of it comes from being scared of failure, being embarrassed or being made fun of. People don’t go for their goals because of what people might say or think.

I’ve been down this line of thought many times, and I’ve realized that beneath it all, the one thing we ALL are, is afraid. It’s our one and only major limitation to do anything. It’s the fundamental thing that keeps us all from where we want to be, from striving to be great.

We…

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Compassionate Listening

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Compassionate listening is an important tool in my toolbox, one that needs to be kept sharpened and ready at all times. When it’s allowed to get dull, I can’t be very effective.

In my work as a psychologist, one of the topics that come up most often is that of communication problems in our relationships. Sometimes it is a wife complaining that her husband misconstrues what she says. Or it’s a daughter feeling manipulated when her mother tells her, or doesn’t tell her, family news. At other times it is a woman in the hospital for a serious health problem complaining that her attempts to make herself understood and to ask for what she needs is seen as her being a difficult patient.

We can fail to get our point across, we can be misunderstood, and our motives for what we say can be criticized by those with whom we attempt to communicate. Naturally these ruptures in a true meeting of minds can be painful and frustrating, and sometimes they can trigger anger responses. Similarly, our loved ones, friends and others with whom we interact experience the same frustrations with us at times. It’s just the way it is. Interpersonal communications are often difficult and stressful, partly because we don’t always speak the same language, metaphorically. We “hear” different things than the other person is trying to say.

If we practice meditation, and if we focus on loving kindness, or Metta, towards and for ourselves as well as for others, we become better able to sit and hear what our loved one is saying to us. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested that we say something to a loved one such as, “My darling, I am here for you.”  You may wish to say it another way, but the point is to be able to invite communication from our loved one and listen as he or she speaks to us. We may be very tempted to reply to something that is said, to defend ourselves, to correct the other person, to fight back against a statement that feels harsh with harsh words of our own. But with compassionate listening, we simply hear, listen and stay aware of what we are hearing.

Later on, we may wish to correct something we heard, but during the practice of compassionate listening, we are fully present to listen and listen only. We may be quite surprised, and often pleasantly so, by what we hear. And even when the thing we hear is not so pleasant, it may be that we need to hear it, let it percolate into our being so that we might reflect upon it, and if it is true, to use the opportunity for growth and healing within ourselves.

To work on our compassionate listening skills, this sourcebook by Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Cynthia Monroe and Leah Green offers many useful exercises to help us do it.

Compassionate Listening Sourcebook

The following from Thich Nhat Hanh offers rich food for thought on this topic as well for those who wish to delve deeper:

Deep Listening and Loving Speech, Thich Nhat Hanh

UPDATE: In the two years since I first published this post, I have encountered two more potential impediments to compassionate listening and both relate to aging in my work as a psychologist practicing psychotherapy. Because I’m now a Medicare provider in an area with fewer such providers, my psychotherapy practice embraces more older men and women than ever before. As I and those around me get older I’ve had many personal experiences with these listening impediments as well.

The first impediment is impaired hearing in which the listener mishears or fails to hear all our words and “fills in” what they think we said, sometimes getting it very wrong. Later someone one tells us emphatically that we said thus and so, perhaps something very contrary to our intent or even tragically so, creating a conflict we must now try to resolve, a potential distraction to the sensitive work at hand. It can be extremely frustrating to both speaker and listener for the communicatin to break down simply because one or both parties can’t hear as well as they think they do.

The second impediment is the more frequent word-finding difficulty most older people experience. We all do this from time to time, and as we get older it happens with getter frequency. They may pause as they search for a certain word or familiar phrase, creating a gap in the narrative. A frustrated listener might quickly offer suggestions, and this is can be perceived as a failure to respect the speaker’s competency or autonomy. Another word-finding phenomenon is the speaker reaching into his or her vast vocabulary database, as it were, and pulling out a similar but incorrect word. The listener then wonders what this is supposed to mean and may ask. The response may follow, “You know what I mean!” Perhaps we do, but what if we don’t? Compassionate listening involves seeing and feeling the struggle that others are experiencing and giving them time and space to find their way. If they ask us to suggest a word, we should do so, but with the tentative deference suggesting we leave it to them to confirm or reject our suggestion. I find it helps to offer something like, “I’m having trouble hearing what you’re trying to say. My fault. Would you please try again?”

As we ourselves get older we will do the same sometimes. Our compassion for others with these difficulties will help us be compassionate towards ourselves as we fumble to express ourselves so that our listener understands. And if we have developed compassion towards ourselves by practicing Metta, or loving kindness, we will naturally feel compassion as we listen.

 

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Namaste

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