Sunday, June 1, 2008


Every Sunday morning I have breakfast with a friend. I first met this friend when I was 19. We generally talk about the challenges of being human. We implicitly look to each other for help.

Sometimes help comes in the form of an insight. Sometimes it comes as a personal anecdote. And sometimes it arrives as a question from the dark, a flash of lightening for an instant illumining the sky. Whatever the form, the help has been valuable. At least in my case, it has shed needed light.

One day, however, I had a new experience. I had been feeling alone, and I described this to my friend. Rather than attempt to make me feel better, my friend replied that this seemed about right. He didn't try to take my experience away. He acknowledged it. He normalized it. He stood by me while I had it.

Just after this exchange we got up to leave and walked a half block in the direction of my car. I found myself filled with gratitude and love. A powerful image seized hold of my mind. I felt like I was standing at the edge of an abyss, looking at a red sky that signified death, and right next to me, simply present, was my friend. I told him the image, and he immediately grasped it. Then we quickly parted for yet another week.

Soon after this experience I came to understand that I now had a new definition of a friend -- someone who stands by you whatever you feel. The paradox in my case was that I'd been feeling alone. And while I was feeling alone my friend was with me. He was a witness to my aloneness and yet not an antidote. Like a loved one at one's deathbed. Present but distinct.

Eventually I recognized that what my friend did for me is very much what I try to do for my patients. To be with them while they share their most painful feelings. To do nothing to try to take these feelings away. To acknowledge them. To normalize them. To stand by them while they have them. In this way, I realized, I try to approach them as a friend.

To my surprise, this led to the unorthodox conclusion that friendship forms the cornerstone of good psychotherapy. Not the friendship of broken boundaries and needless self-disclosure in which therapists use the treatment for their own gratification. That is exploitation masquerading as friendship. But the friendship of emotional courage and unbroken presence in which therapists stand by their patients whatever they feel.

Of course, this is easier to say than to do. And no one is always so skillful a therapist. But knowing what it feels like to experience such friendship certainly makes it less difficult to achieve. And for this I am deeply grateful to my friends.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Good Relationship Redefined

I recently came to an unsettling conclusion. That my definition of a good relationship has been out of whack. I used to think that in a good relationship:
  1. You have the same values -- you fundamentally agree on what's right and wrong.
  2. You have the same goals -- you are equally interested in wealth, family, education, health, and leisure.
  3. You have the same vices -- you both do or do not drink alcohol, do drugs, look at pornography, overeat, under eat, overwork, under work, overexercise, or under exercise (to name but a few).
  4. You have the same sexual fantasies -- or at least ones that are complementary and mutually exciting.
  5. You have the same body rhythm -- you like to get up, go to sleep, and relax at similar hours.
  6. You are equally neat -- or equally messy, as the case may be.
  7. You have the same thermostat -- you like the window open or closed.
  8. You have the same politics -- you vote for the same candidate or at least the same party.
  9. You have the same aesthetic -- you like the same art, the same music, the same furniture, and the same clothing.
  10. And you have the same past times -- you both do or don't like going to the movies, reading books, listening to music, visiting museums, and traveling to exotic places on your free time.

In essence, I used to think that in a good relationship you're both the same. It certainly made finding a good relationship very difficult. There was only one person who fit my requirements: me. This narrowed my chances of finding a partner considerably.

My recognition that a good relationship doesn't mean you're the same gradually took shape over a number of years. Though it was painfully slow in coming, three insights pushed it forward. Insights from friends who shared their wisdom with me.

The first insight was that the challenge in finding a partner is not to find someone who won't disappoint you. It's to find someone who'll disappoint you in ways you can handle.

The second insight was that you'll be disappointed in ways you can't handle. When this occurs you won't dream of leaving the relationship. You'll decide to leave the relationship and will start to plan your exit. This will go on until you remember why you're there. Why it is you chose the relationship with this person to begin with. At this point you'll unpack the valise in your mind. Nonetheless, the same thing will happen repeatedly as long as you continue to stay in the relationship.

The third insight was that you must accept your partner as they are. You cannot accept only those qualities you adore. You must also accept fully those qualities you despise. You don't have to like these qualities. Nor do you have to share them. Nor do you have to collude in their enactment. But you can't make your love contingent on change. You must be prepared to take the good with the bad.

This was a long way from where I began. I had always assumed that I'd find my other half. Someone with whom I would form a perfect whole. Then it turned out that this was a myth. That disappointment is part of the DNA of relationship, written into the double helix of human attachment. Not only would I not find the mirror image of myself. I'd find someone who was different in all the wrong ways and would have to accept them without qualification.

Yet to my surprise this came as a relief. Because it freed me from the pursuit of an imaginary relationship. A relationship that exists only in movies and ads. I finally understood that it's okay to love someone even if they failed to live up to your dreams. I finally understood that it's okay to stay with them even if they never attempted to change. The goal isn't to find a perfect relationship. The goal is to find one that's just good enough. And there's lots of room there for disappointment of all kinds.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Psychology of Yoga and the Yoga of Psychology

[The following essay first appeared as an article in the March/April 2008 issue of The Los Angeles Psychologist, the bimonthly publication of The Los Angeles County Psychological Association. This publication is geared to mental health practitioners, and this particular issue focused on creative approaches to psychotherapy. As editor Meghan Moody states in her introductory comments, "This issue . . . offers a look at a few creative practices that go beyond traditional talk therapy, inviting you to color outside the lines" (5). As a psychologist and yoga teacher, I was asked to contribute.]

The challenge for me is how to be present. To my sensations, my feelings, my thoughts, and my actions. It's an awful lot to ask and very hard to achieve. But yoga has helped by providing a method. Its has given me a safe space in which to practice showing up.

One reason I love yoga is because it's concrete. I attempt to work my body without getting distracted. Without trying to escape the intensity of the moment. Bending forward, bending backward, twisting sideways, and lifting skyward. All without losing a smooth, balanced breath. All without losing a smooth, balanced mind.

But we invariably do yoga the way we do life, and the same unwholesome habits inevitably plague us. For some, it's overworking. For others, it's being distracted. For still others, it's not managing to get onto the mat. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says in the title to his book, "Wherever you go, there you are."

And that's how yoga works. We start with a posture and end up with ourselves. Increasingly aware of our distractions and habits. It's hard to see our weaknesses in all their florid glory, which is why practicing yoga takes so much courage. But the practice also encourages us to be kind, to practice ahimsa or non-violence on every level, to discern with compassion instead of judging with harshness. This makes it possible to tolerate others. This makes it possible to tolerate ourselves.

The great thing about yoga is that we get to keep practicing. And the longer we practice the more we can grow. Of course, it's always tempting to avoid growth at any cost. All we need to do is reinforce our old habits. But if we really want to change, yoga's a good bet. It gives us a chance to see what we're up to.

By revealing in living color our unconscious habits, yoga helps us cultivate non-attachment and presence. Over time, we can learn to optimize our practice. We seek sensation and avoid pain while maintaining our breath. We get stronger and more flexible and assume harder postures. We notice with greater speed when we're becoming disregulated. We think about why we are getting overwhelmed. And we change what we do so that it feels better.

Gradually, we're more able to observe our experience, to reflect on our observations, and to act on our reflections, all of which enables us to become much more present -- to maintain our homeostasis under stressful conditions. In essence, the practice helps us achieve quiet mind, which, more or less, is the definition of yoga.

And then there's psychotherapy. Being a patient is hard enough. But being a psychologist is infinitely harder. Especially when it comes to encountering yourself.

A thousand times a day, I'm challenged with feelings. Frustration with this patient for coming late again. Anguish for that patient who's binging and purging. Fear for this patient who's feeling suicidal. Sadness for that patient who's just lost his father.

Every session is another chance to be overwhelmed by the torrent of feelings that threatens to flood me. Every session is another chance to push the feelings away - by getting sleepy, becoming directive, or spinning cogent theories. These are some of the ways I unknowingly create distance, from the patient, from myself, and from the relationship between us.

This is where the yoga comes into play (not to mention the years of therapy, supervision, and classes). Because is a glacial sort of way yoga has changed me. It has helped me to notice when I'm not showing up, and it has helped me to figure out how to come back. It has also helped me notice when my patients are absent. They may appear to be there, but it's really an illusion. They're a million miles away -- angry, silent, or distracted. It's thrilling to bring them back. To guide them toward their core. To help them stay present to the pain they uncover.

How astonishing it is to be able to be present. If only for an evanescent moment now and then. Though the presence comes and goes, it's amazingly deep. It brings with it an indescribable feeling of intimacy. I can see it in my patients. I can see it in myself. It is thrilling. It is transformative. It is scary. It is sublime.

This is the hope that keeps me alive. To go deeper. To get closer. To stay longer. To be more present. To move nearer and nearer to a state of quiet mind. To move nearer and nearer to the essence of yoga.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Choice and Necessity in Life Truly Lived

My senior year in college I spent a semester studying the novels of James, Ford, and Conrad. I was dismayed to discover that this coterie of writers believed that the definition of a well designed character is one whose actions are finally inevitable. It seemed untrue to life that one's destiny is sealed. That one is locked into a fate with no chance of change. As far as I could tell, one always has options. One just needs the courage to deal with the consequences.

Six years later I found myself grading blue books in grad school. It was a beautiful day, and the window was open. I hated grading exams. It filled me with dread. I was never sure who was right, the student or me. And calculating points was a tortuous process. Suddenly, as if an angel had landed on my shoulder, I heard a voice say, "You don't have to do this." I got up, walked out, and never looked back. From that moment on I knew I'd never be a professor. I made the choice to change the story line of my life.

This was a transformative moment for me. I recognized that I had a choice in my career. I didn't have to follow the plot I was given. Or even the one I wrote for myself. I got to change the narrative whenever I wanted. As long as I was ready to handle the fallout.

The fallout was massive but utterly vitalizing. I finished my doctorate, took accounting and finance, temped to support myself, and moved to California -- in hopes of pursuing a career in entertainment. I had little savings, no job, few friends, and a rusted car. I was starting a career from scratch at age 30. But I was chasing what I wanted and leaving behind what I didn't. That alone was worth the losses incurred.

It took a decade from my moment of epiphany in the library to settle on a career that made sense for me. In the interim I was a Kelly Girl, a would-be producer, and a developer. I learned what it felt like to work in an office, to option a script and pitch a movie, and to buy land and build apartments. I discovered the exhilaration and anxiety of doing deals. I got a huge dose of the reality I longed to experience. Then I was ready to explore something new.

When I realized that I didn't have to be a professor, I discovered that what seemed necessary was actually optional. This freed me to ask myself what truly felt good and on the basis of this feeling to change my career. Though I didn't realize it at the time, my paradigm had shifted. I stopped following my head and started following my heart. Not only in what I did but also in how I did it. And not only professionally but personally as well. It was only an illusion that my destiny was sealed. Once I saw the illusion it ceased to exist.

Over the years I have come to the shocking conclusion that very little in life is actually necessary. We don't choose to be born, and we don't choose to die. But much in between, within absolute limits, is in many ways within our control to negotiate. The challenge is to be mindful in the choices we make -- while recognizing that at best they're no more than good guesses. As long as we can accept the consequences of change, we can continue to exercise our option to choose. To choose lives that feel right despite our thoughts and fears. To choose lives of courage, and freedom, and change. To choose lives that continuously surprise and confound us with the unfolding mystery of who we really are.

Friday, March 7, 2008

From Loving Perfection to Perfecting Love: A Matter of Acceptance

Many years ago, out of the blue, my girlfriend asked me if I liked her . . . body part. This created an immediate dilemma. I had never really thought about whether I liked it. As far as I was concerned she was a beautiful woman. But once she posed the question, I didn't know what to say. I looked for some standard by which to measure its quality. On a scale of 1 to 10, how did it rate? Should I compare it to a model's? To an athlete's? To an actor's? Needless to say, I made a mess of the moment. Only now do I understand what she was asking.

I recently took a course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a secular approach to Buddhist meditation based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. MBSR claims that we are perfect the way we are, but at the same time it encourages long lasting change. Initially this appeared to be a hopeless contradiction. Eventually the contradiction resolved into a paradox when I realized that MBSR redefines the term perfect.

The conventional meaning of perfect is "without flaw or blemish." It derives from the Latin perfectus, the past participle of "to finish," and in this sense means "finished," "lacking nothing," "complete." This definition of perfection is based on performance. Anything or anyone who is conventionally perfect has met the highest standards of possible achievement. They've reached a level of excellence that's as good as it gets. They lack nothing in their capacity to realize their goals.

The unconventional meaning of perfect is "worthy of love." This has nothing to do with the etymology of the term and doesn't appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. But the claim that we are perfect just the way we are means that we are worthy of unconditional love. No matter how flawed or incomplete we may be, we each deserve love because it's a birthright. To be loved, in other words according to this claim, is a right to which we are inherently entitled. We needn't do anything at all to deserve it.

What's stunning about this unconventional definition of perfect is that it quietly undermines an entire way of thinking. It takes a term that describes the performance of the few and revises it to describe the birthright of the many. It takes a term that entails rigorous comparison between contenders and revises it exclude all reference to others. It takes a term that evokes social stratification and revises it to make everyone equally worthy. By redefining the term perfect as "worthy of love," MBSR dismantles the foundation of the paradigm by which value and love are based on achievement.

What it means to be perfect just the way we are is to be worthy of love regardless of achievement. To be worthy, this is to say, of unconditional acceptance, of empathy for our pain, and of compassion for our suffering simply because we are part of humanity. This kind of love is radically inclusive. It holds all people together regardless of difference in a universal embrace of mutual acceptance. This does not however mean that other people must like us, nor does it mean that we must like them. But it does mean that if we could learn to love others we might be able to achieve a depth of understanding that would allow us to live together in relative harmony.

What's true between people is also true for oneself. To accept oneself as perfect just the way one is is to manage to love oneself regardless of achievement. To accept oneself unconditionally, to empathize with one's pain, and to have compassion for one's suffering keeps one together regardless of conflict in a self-sustaining embrace of internal acceptance. This does not mean that one must also like oneself. But it does mean that if one could learn to love oneself one might be able to achieve a depth of understanding that would allow one to live in relative harmony with oneself.

To accept others and ourselves just the way we are is also the best hope for the depth of understanding that makes possible both collective and individual transformation. Only by understanding our differences with others and only by understanding our differences with ourselves is it possible to find practical solutions to conflict. Moreover, when we attend to the differences at play we already put in motion the process of change. This is because attending is a transformative act. By shifting the emphasis from opposition to acceptance, replacing critical judgment with compassionate discernment, the simple act of attending invites new information that generates insight and lays the groundwork for change.

The change that is made possible through total acceptance can lead to greater health, smoother functioning, and more contentment. It can end wars between people and end wars within ourselves. And it can lead to a more vital experience of life. It cannot, however, make us any more or less perfect, at least not in the unconventional sense of the term. Because no matter how much we do or don't change, we are always just as equally entitled to love. This is what it means to be perfect as is. Worthy of love no matter what.

When I look back at that terrible moment years ago when my girlfriend asked suddenly if I liked her body part, I now understand what she really was asking. She was asking if I accepted her just the way she was. Without condition. Without comparison. Without requiring any change. She wasn't asking if I liked her body but rather if I loved her self. I only wish I could have answered, "You're perfect just the way you are." But it has taken me a lifetime to understand what this means.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Hard Work of Love

In my first semester of grad school in English literature at Harvard I enrolled in a seminar in Renaissance poetry. My professor was an elegant man in his 60s known for his vocabulary, intelligence, and wit. The class had two requirements, a book report and a paper. He delivered his evaluations of each student before the class.

My book report on Christian imagery went very well. He called it "exemplary," and I felt like a star. My paper on Ben Jonson went very badly. The details have faded, but the pain lingers on. I remember him suggesting it was more of a draft.

I was devastated and went to see my professor in his office. I asked him why he humiliated his students in public-- I wasn't the only one in the class he had shamed. He told me he saw Harvard as a cloistered environment. He said it was his duty to prepare his students for the profession by helping them to build up their scar tissue in advance. My internal response was, "Don't do me any favors."

About 10 years ago I heard he had died. Unfortunately, my response wasn't especially yogic. I was delighted and imagined doing a dance on his grave. I hated him then, and I hate him now.

And yet, the only hope for me is to to love my professor. It's hard to believe that anyone so sadistic hasn't been the victim of sadism himself. I take his cruelty to his students as a gauge of the cruelty done to him. The profession -- or life -- left its scars on his heart.

Loving my professor means accepting him completely, empathizing with his pain, and feeling compassion for his suffering. To the extent that I hate him I begin to resemble him. And to the extent that I resemble him I lose my humanity. The choice is very clear: to cultivate hatred and perpetuate trauma or to cultivate love and generate healing.

This is not in any way to deny his brutality. Nor is it a roundabout way to excuse it. It is, nevertheless, a plea to explain it. And in order to explain it I must understand it. I cannot do this effectively if I push him away, if I resist his perspective, or if I prematurely judge him. I cannot do this effectively without acceptance, empathy, and compassion. I cannot do this effectively without the openness of love.

It is also not to suggest that I must tolerate abuse -- regardless of how much pain my abuser has suffered. On the contrary, it's essential to do what I can to protect myself. But protecting myself from abuse does not entail hatred. To love those who hate me and also to protect myself. This is the way to retain my humanity.

And so the work before me is to cultivate love -- while doing whatever is necessary for protection. To accept, to empathize with, and to extend compassion to all beings no matter how great their capacity for hatred. This goes beyond my grad school professor to include every person who is capable of this feeling.

As far as I can tell, this includes everyone. It includes Hussein, Milosovich, Pol Pot, and Hitler. It includes my employers, therapists, teachers, and colleagues. It includes my parents, sister, partners, and friends. And, most importantly, it includes myself. To accept, to empathize with, and to extend compassion to us all. That is truly the hard work of love.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Meaning of Love: Acceptance, Empathy, and Compassion

In the movie Dead Man Walking, Sean Penn plays Matthew Poncelet, a white supremacist who's been sentenced to death. Susan Sarandon plays Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who petitions the court on his behalf. Though she initially believes that Poncelet is innocent, by the end she recognizes that he's guilty of murder. And yet, she continues to love him completely. He's a murderer, and she loves him. How can this be?

Something changed in me when I saw Dead Man Walking. I saw that it's possible to love another person even if you don't like the terrible things they do. Before I saw the movie I thought you earned love. Afterwards, I realized that love is a birthright.

It took becoming a therapist for me to apply this. I learned to accept my patients completely as they are. I learned to try to see the world through their eyes. And I learned to have compassion for their suffering and pain. In other words, I learned to love them as fellow humans doing the best they can with the resources they have.

This doesn't mean that I don't worry about their actions. I often feel concerned about the choices they make, the harm they sometimes do both to others and to themselves. Undereating, overeating, purging, abusing drugs, obsessing, checking compulsively, driving recklessly, and being promiscuous. But these destructive actions don't make me dislike them. They demonstrate how much my patients are suffering and the lengths to which they'll go in order to survive.

When I think about why I love my patients this way, I realize it's because this is how my therapist loved me. She accepted me, she empathized with me, and she radiated compassion. No matter what I did to keep things together.

My experience in therapy taught me how to love. To love my patients. To love my students. To love my family. To love my friends. It even layed the groundwork for me to love myself. To accept, to empathize with, and to extend compassion to everyone. A task that it certainly easier said than done.

As with Sister Prejean, it doesn't mean we deny the truth. Nor does it mean we don't condemn, convict, and punish. But it does mean that we separate the doer from the deed and remember that we all deserve to be loved. No matter how terrible the crimes we commit. No matter what we're willing to do to survive.