Cartwheels across the room.

When I was little, I spent my weekday evenings in my parent’s room while my Dad lay on the bed reading. Usually his face was hiding behind a newspaper or magazine held up between his clutching hands. I tumbled around as he read, doing handstands at the foot of the bed and cartwheels across the room. I said silly things and asked questions every now and then to get his attention. This was how I spent most of my childhood with my Dad, desperately trying to get him to notice me and make a connection with him.

This yearning for his attention continued and has haunted me throughout my adulthood. As a child, I was able to playfully insert myself into his space, and I wasn’t developmentally aware enough to think to myself, “Hey, my dad’s not paying attention to me. That sucks. He’s my dad, he should be doing what parents are suppose to do!” As I grew into my teen years, my playfulness turned into an anger and frustration that my dad was neglectful and non-responsive. My mom was too, in a different way. Neither of my parents reflected back my feelings or asked what I thought or felt about something. Anything. It’s no wonder that, as a young adult, it was difficult to identify my emotions, much less describe or communicate them aloud.

Through years of therapy and learning Buddhist teachings, including mindfulness, I have explored my inner landscape. I have learned the language of emotion and learned to connect emotion to physical sensation and thought. I wonder how different my growth would have been if I had received therapy as a child. What if I had Cognitive Behavioral Therapy treatment? I would have started drawing my thoughts/emotions/physical sensations map at a much earlier age. In this way, I have been grieving my childhood. I developed a rage around what my life could have been.

I could have dealt with my depression and anxiety earlier in my life. I could have avoided the starts and stops in my life. It probably wouldn’t have taken me 10 years to earn my Bachelor’s degree. I would have applied to graduate school in my twenties instead of my thirties. I could have avoided all of those messy and painful relationships.

These are some thoughts that circled in my head for years. I held on to them, as I held on to my anger toward my parents for not connecting with me in the human way that every child needs from a parent or caregiver. Allowing these thoughts is fine, it’s good to let them flow, but, as Epstein (1998) wrote, “Isolated in our heads, we yearn for the kind of connection that our own thinking guards against” (p. 59). It’s the clinging to the thoughts and not working through the associated emotional and physical sensations bit that keeps us stuck in the mud. “This is…the heart of the Buddha’s teaching: that it is possible to cultivate a mind that neither clings nor rejects, and that in so doing we can alter the way in which we experience both time and our selves” (p. 62). This is also true of therapeutic work. By assisting clients with exploring, identifying, and describing their emotional experience, we guide them in literally changing their brain chemistry. We hold a space in which they can unfurl into themselves and feel more grounded in who they are.

This has been my experience. Through the combination of therapy and meditation and mindfulness practice, I have observed and felt my perspectives change. I have witnessed the growth I have made from emotional reactivity to an emotional regulation based on awareness. I have experienced the shift in relationships and how I view, understand, and connect with people, especially my parents.

I don’t talk with my parents very often and when I do, there is a specific purpose behind it, a question that needs to be answered. Also, I’m not a fan of talking on the phone but a couple of weeks ago I had the urge to call them just to say, “hi.” It was perhaps one of the best conversations I have had with them. I felt as though I talked to my parents for the first time as an adult and as myself. I didn’t trudge through the conversation distracted by the disappointment that my dad didn’t ask about me. I listened to him talk about his fishing and tennis playing. I really listened and I responded with curiosity and playfulness. And I interjected to tell him about my internship not because I was looking for a particular response from him or as a passive-aggressive way to tell him that he was a shitty dad for not asking about his daughter’s life. I told him because I was proud of myself. I am proud of myself. I know that I would not have gotten to this point if I had not tapped into and worked through the unpleasantness of my childhood. Getting in touch with that pain was difficult, torturous at times, but it also motivated me to work through it so that I could let it go. My pain was “an invitation to change” (C. Matsu-Pissot, personal communication, August 1, 2015). It’s an open invitation that I will continue to accept, as I know that this work is never done.

Begin to swing the wrecking ball.

A few years ago I discovered Bikram hot yoga. It is a teacher-led 90 minute series of postures and breathing exercises that take place in a room set at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s intense, to say the least. After my first class, I recall texting my friend who had suggested it to me: “I felt like I was slowly dying.” The combination of the heat, discomfort of contorting and holding my body in ways that felt impossible, and my inside voice trying to talk me into leaving or giving up – wow.

I practiced Bikram yoga for a few years but it fell of my schedule when graduate school began two years ago. Eventually, I made excuses for why I couldn’t go – it’s too much money, I don’t have time. Really, I was scared. After falling out of the rhythm of the practice, I feared facing the discomfort, the discipline, and the internal and external work that the practice demands. Yet, these are exactly the reasons why I was drawn to it, which is why I have integrated it into my life again. I did so while taking this course, so I was especially keyed into the meditative aspect of the practice.

The experience of hot yoga is like the ‘extreme sports’ version of meditation. All realms of human experience – physical, emotional, mental – are pushed to the forefront of our attention and awareness. We willingly engage in the discomfort. We mindfully step into the pain and uncertainty of it. We accept that pain and discomfort are part of the process. Using language from Buddhism, we could say that we invite suffering, but we do so in a way that we become intimate with it. We get to know it and understand it in a way that our pain and our fear of the pain no longer hold us captive. Now, when I notice my mind starting to drum up excuses for why “I can’t make it to yoga today”, I remind myself of the benefits. After each class I feel tremendous relief and accomplishment. I feel in tune with myself on an intimate (and very sweaty) level. The feeling is not unlike when I leave sessions with my therapist. I experience a sense of freedom and grounded-ness.

From a therapeutic perspective, this is what we do with clients. We walk alongside them as they delve into their pain. We remind them of their innate strength and ability to free themselves from the suffering of holding on to their pain. Sometimes we help clients to recognize that there is any pain at all. People often don’t realize that they have been throwing salt on old emotional wounds for years, and in not tending to those wounds, they have been perpetuating their own suffering. Their minds act as a shield to ‘protect’ (more like, avoid) their emotional selves when, in fact, their emotional selves need to be unshielded so that they can get the much needed attention and care. As with meditation, therapy “provides a method of getting the mind out of the way so that [clients] can be at one with [their] experience” (Epstein, 1998, p. 53).

As a therapist-in-training, the meditation and yoga practices are irrefutable in terms of my developing sharper attention and a deeper sense of empathy. The calm and grounding that I receive from these practices, in conjunction with going to therapy regularly, will allow me to be more present with my clients as well as in my day-to-day life. “Like meditation, psychotherapy has the potential to reveal how much of our thinking is an artificial construction designed to help us cope with an unpredictable world” (Epstein, 1998, p. 170). Through meditation or therapy, we can begin to swing the wrecking ball at this artificial construction, and learn to step into the uncertainty of the world armed with the awareness that we can deal with whatever comes our way.

Mindfulness and a mirror.

Like a Chinese finger cuff, the more we try to escape or run away from something that brings unpleasantness, the tighter our grip becomes and we end up holding on to it. The finger cuff is made of bamboo strips woven together into a tube, with openings on either end that are big enough to fit the tip of a finger. It is held by inserting the tips of both pointer fingers in each end by a person who is then challenged with removing their fingers, but the more they try to pull their fingers apart, the tighter the finger cuff gets around both fingers. I like to use this metaphor to describe the human tendency to grasp onto what feels uncomfortable, be it feelings, thoughts, or physical sensations. Of course, this grip we hold usually occurs on a subconscious level, which makes it difficult to stop and take the time to ‘loosen up’ and relax so that we can see and begin to work through the unpleasantness.

Much like intimacy or the human connection, the way to escape the finger cuff is to move the fingers inward and toward one another. This allows the finger cuff to ease and expand, allowing the wearer’s fingers to be free. In the same way, creating a human connection, which brings two people closer and allows one to tap into one’s inner world, frees one to identify and observe one’s feelings, emotions, or physical sensations. As writer Gregory Bateson (as cited in Epstein, 1998) pointed out, “It takes two to know one” (p. 102). I love the depth yet simplicity of this sentence. Gaining a mindfulness and appreciation of our inner experience requires the presence of another. Therapists serve as this presence for people. We remain present in people’s presence.

For a while now, I have been thinking of alternate words to describe therapy or counseling, as a way to explain the core purpose and benefit of therapy and alleviate the stigma around it. I have been wondering what other word or explanation to use to sidestep the common association people make between participating in therapy and there being something “wrong” with them. Perhaps this is a word? Presence. As therapists, we are present with our clients, and in a way that the modern world has driven us to forget. Per Epstein (2011), “mindfulness…requires the careful noting of everything that occurs in the mind-body spectrum as it unfolds” (p. 67). As therapists, we help people to “unfold”. As therapists, we assist people to be mindful during this unfolding process. We hold the space with clients in a way that allows them to hone in on their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations as they unfold. We allow people to be who they are. We reflect back who they are.

Modern society incessantly tries to tell us who we are, what we like, what we should or shouldn’t feel, who we should our shouldn’t associate with. The practice of mindfulness in Buddhism and the mindfulness practice inherent in psychotherapy help us to cut through the barrage of bullshit being shoved down our throats. In the documentary, “The Dhamma Brothers,” inmates in a maximum security prison in Alabama participate in a ten-day silent Vipassanna retreat held on prison grounds. One of the men who completed the retreat commented, “We’re not allowed to practice freedom,” when referring to cultural oppression. Societal and systemic oppression have a strong grip that fools and deludes us into unplugging from ourselves. Therapy and the therapeutic relationship counter this oppression and allows us to discover and be who we are.