Tuesday, October 18, 2011


I was on a walk the other day.  The sun was out after many days of rain.  The creek along which I walk so often had become almost a river.  For the very first time, I noticed a white egret standing motionless  by a man-made waterfall on the creek.  The elegant bird looked as if she were trying to figure out how to navigate the cascade.  The creek had been but a trickle all summer.  But this fall had been unusually wet and stormy.  And the water was high and fast.

Strangely the bird was still there in the same spot, standing like a statue, unchanged, 30 minutes later when I passed on my return trip.  I raced home for my camera, sure he/she would be there when I returned.  In the meantime I had an elaborate fantasy (the kind of fantasy only a psychotherapist would have!) about that poor bird.  It went something like this:  The bird, probably young, had adapted to the stream at its lowest ebb during the summer.   Growing up beside a trickle, it was well adapted to those conditions.  When the stream swelled, her/his adaptation style no longer sufficed and he/she could not figure out what to do.

Of course, this reminded me of the essential human dilemma.  We adapt as children,  with brains, nimble and flexible,  to the conditions of our environment:  the family we are born into,  the emotional surround be it one of privation or abundance.  We are veritable geniuses of adaptation.  Problems arise latter when our brilliant adaptation styles no long suffice.  When the floods of later life come, we are often at a loss.  The tools of the earlier years are more than likely useless.

The child Holocaust survivor who starved and had to scrounge for whatever food was available in order to live,  may well have trouble at the dinner table as a middle aged adult now seated at the groaning board of American abundance: obesity and diabetes II ensue. The woman who has witnessed the suffering of older siblings who resisted a controlling parent only to be vilified, and rejected by that parent, learns submissiveness at home and fails to develop the assertiveness she needs to succeed in adult life.

I returned with my camera,  maybe 15 minutes later.  Mr. White Egret was gone.  There goes my theory.  Somehow he had navigated the falls.  Maybe he was just a patient fisherman all along.

Days passed,  no egret.  No egret, but another lesson came my way.

A week or two later, I had the good fortune to reconnect with a client I had known over many decades.  She was in her mid twenties (I in my mid thirties) when we met.  We worked together for many years and then just on and off thereafter.   She was in tough shape in those early years, nearly mute in our sessions for probably two years.  I did the talking, guessing at her pain, her shame, her fear.  She cancelled more often than not.   But often I could talk her into coming.  She had adapted well to an early environment in which it was dangerous to speak up,  it was dangerous to be noticed at all.  From a very large family, dominated by alcohol, violence, including sexual violence,  she was denigrated, humiliated, unprotected.   She felt insignificant, unsafe, and unworthy. 

Most significantly she was separated from herself—to survive  her childhood her essential self had gone into hiding.  What was left was a child hovering in fear, whatever strength there was seemingly defeated.   She was the only one among 17 children who had managed to finish high school,  but there was very little evidence of pride, and certainly no accolade from the family.  Any sign of independence, strength, intelligence was seen as a negative not a positive by her family.

Fast forward 20 years.  In the interim this woman went to college, gave birth and raised a child single handedly  and successfully without a father. She bought a home,  rose in her profession to a role of leadership,  survived a life threatening illness through sheer grit.  On and off she used therapy to help her navigate these crises, at times I was the second parent to her daughter, but for long stretches of time she did not call or come in to see me.

The one longing unfulfilled,  was the inability to sustain an intimate relationship with a man.

Now in her 50’s we are again back in touch and this time because she is in an intimate connection with a man, someone who sounds mature, loving, and accepting and who wants to marry her.  She knows she needs a little extra support until she decides what to do. 

The white egret has adapted to the falls.  A sustaining relationship with me over the years was certainly part of that critical adaptation.  But the real wonder here,  the awesome reality, is that she had the capacity to use that relationship and all other positives in her life, the terrific child she gave birth to,  her teachers in school,  friends, neighbors,  a few members of the extended family that did not put her down—whatever came her way she used to grow and change and reconnected with all that was positive in her. 

She herself has described it as the child within, the one I saw cowering in the early days mute and frightened, has grown up.

This is not the only story I have of the awe-inspiring nature of our ongoing, life-long capacity for change.  It’s just the latest.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mourning into Dancing

The other day a Debbie Friedman song popped up on my ipod shuffle. I had no idea it was even on my ipod or how it got there. Debbie Friedman was a singer and composer of songs, many in Hebrew, often reworking prayers from the Jewish prayerbook.

“Mourning into dancing” is Debbie Friedman’s riff on Psalm 30, a song of gratitude.

It was a day or two after I had some terribly sad, shocking news and I took it as a sign. Somehow I needed to transform my mourning into something like dancing, a creative expression of gratitude. I did not get the chance to do this before she died. She failed to give me notice.

The woman who died, suddenly, unexpectedly was my compass for over 25 years. Eda Goldstein was alternately my supervisor, or rather I was her apprentice, she was my teacher, my mentor, a model of professional accomplishment, my guru. She helped me negotiate a good bit of my professional and personal life. I was not in continuous contact with her over those 30 years, but she was always there when I got into trouble and I needed help in sorting things out. She was without peer in both her loyalty and in her wise guidance.

I think I need to say “thank you”

When I first started to go into New York City to get supervision from her, in the early 80’s, a friend and colleague noted that I was awfully quiet about what was happening there. Well I was quiet because it was a humbling experience.

I remember my  brief case was new (now scruffy, battered, ripped and repaired). The children had reached an age when I felt comfortable working more and my priorities were getting re-shuffled. I was determined to learn from a master. So I cheerfully schlepped into NYC to sit at her feet. And it was overwhelming.

She was a tough task master, she never sugar coated her counsel on cases and frequently I would smart from her observations. Later, much later, she observed that most supervisees just want to be admired, not taught. I’m sure I was one of those, but I stuck it out, nonetheless and ultimately her toughness gave me confidence.

I discovered Eda at a lecture in New Jersey. She was a annoyed with her sponsors.  Nonetheless she was a brilliant presenter at that meeting. My friend E. agreed that she was special. I decided right there that she was to be my mentor

That friend and colleague loved her too. The supervision group of which we both were a part, shared her in a way, even if they never schlepped into New York to see her, they shared her with me, her wisdom, her depth, her clear-eyed respect and compassion for clients. Among her more notable qualities was that clarity. There was a kind of laser-like quality to her thinking (and her writing). She effortlessly peeled back, down right ignored, what was extraneous, not central to the issue at hand.

Social workers all have inferiority complexes. No matter how advanced their training, no matter the length of their experience, no matter their academic credentials they feel and often are regarded as “less” than their clinical colleagues, psychologists and psychiatrists. They are paid less and related to as less, despite the fact that their training may be equivalent or even surpass other mental health professionals.

Being associated with a star like Eda Goldstein did a lot for my own professional self esteem. She is described by the Dean of New York University, School of Social Work where she taught and led faculty and students in many roles for decades: “ Eda was, and remains to the day of her death, the foremost social work scholar of contemporary psychoanalytic theory and practice. Her loss is a great loss for our community and for the field.” This scholar and brilliant clinician thought I was okay, maybe even bright. That helped a lot.

For decades I was comforted by the certainty that any idea I had, plan of action, or major move I contemplated could be run past her. I could and actually still do comfort myself with that, even though I can only do it in my imagination now. Mostly I know what she would say. But when my imagination runs aground, I am bereft.

I wish I could just send this to her. I would love her feedback. And more importantly, I would want her to know how much I loved and will miss her.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

There is really an interesting "chat" on huffington post (link below) on a piece on "inner wisdom" that I wrote for this blog some time ago.  If any are interested, see the comments section.  Others have chimed in with helpful suggestions for deepening the inner conversation.


Friday, August 19, 2011


Franz Kafka, the story goes, encountered a little girl in the park where he went walking daily. She was crying.  She had lost her doll and was desolate.
Kafka offered to help her look for the doll and arranged to meet her the next day at the same spot.  Unable to find the doll he composed a letter from the doll and read it to her when they met.

“Please do not mourn me,  I have gone on a trip to see the world.  I will write you of my adventures.”  This was the beginning of many letters.  When he and the little girl met he read her from these carefully composed letters the imagined adventures of the beloved doll.  The little girl was comforted.

When the meetings came to an end Kafka presented her with a doll.  She obviously looked different from the original doll.  An attached letter explained: “my travels have changed me…”

Many years later, the now grown girl found a letter stuffed into an unnoticed crevice in the cherished replacement doll.  In summary it said:  “ every thing that you love, you will eventually lose,  but in the end,  love will return in a different form.”

There are many versions of the story of Kafka and the doll.  I heard this one from Tara Brach, psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher in Washington DC.

Only after many tellings am I able to relay this story without crying.  And I have found that when I tell it to others young or old,  my listener is invariably moved, occasionally bursting into tears.

When I went online to find confirmation for the story,  I found one source that referred to it as a “healing story.”  That seems right.  For whether this actually ever happened the story is real and true and provides a template for healing.

For me there are two wise lessons in this story:  Grief and loss are ubiquitous even for a young child.   And the way toward healing is to look for how love comes back in another form.

 I think there are advantages to viewing grief as omnipresent, an inescapable part of being a human being.  Grief encompasses far more than the loss of a loved one,  although that is perhaps its most profound manifestation.   The loss of  the doll in the story is devastating to the little girl. This is what moves Kafka to create the wonderful stories of  travel and adventure.  He perceived the depth of her pain.  It is reported that he put as much time and care into creating these letters for the little girl as he did in other writings.

Holding the  perspective of  the universality of loss,  helps us with shame and loneliness.  If a profound grief reaction to divorce or children leaving home or the loss of a pregnancy,  or unemployment, or retirement,  or having to confront the limitations of our children, or aging, or the loss of health is something I share with my fellow beings, I am less alone.  And I don’t have to be ashamed that I feel the way I do,  for shame is part of the legacy of isolation.

And love coming back,  in  a different form?  I believe it was Kafka’s letters that were the real gift of love, and what was ultimately healing for the little girl was the relationship that that was the balm.  Someone cared enough for her pain to write her lovely stories of the lost doll’s adventures.  A great writer at that. 

How healing it is to hold this conviction, that love will return. It is our job to recognize it in its new form.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


 Last October I wrote a post on listening to your inner wisdom (Oct. 1, 2010

The post was based on experiences from my practice with a visualization technique that seemed helpful to people and furthered the ends of the psychotherapy treatment.  It often helped us cut through confusion, obfuscation, denial, and conditioned thinking and got us quickly to the heart of whatever matter we were wrestling with.

This work was especially helpful with and for individuals who relied heavily on “dissociation”  a coping mechanism we all resort to at times, but is particularly important for individuals who have experienced childhood trauma.  I have experimented with the inner wisdom technique with others whose “traumas” were less obvious or less extreme or even non-existent and found it useful in a lot of situations.  Inner wisdom is wise and I think universal.

I’m revisiting this issue, after reading an article by Martha Beck in this month’s Oprah Magazine,  (yes, Oprah) on a very similar topic which reminded me of some other issues related to implementing this practice which might be useful to comment on.

The existence of “inner wisdom” is based on the assumption that there is something in all of us that, unimpeded, will right us when we wobble.  Maybe “inner gyroscope” is more accurate.  A gyroscope will always get us back in balance if we just let it.

I think of inner wisdom as right-brained, body-based, nor necessarily verbal.  It’s that still small “voice” within which may not be a “voice” at all, but arrive in the form of images, kinesthetic sensation, or even sound. 

I sat with a client once on the same morning I had received some awful news about a dear friend.  I tried to set this aside and set to work with this client.  I thought I had. Very quickly, I got drawn into a confusing, chaotic, tumultuous session.  It wasn’t until she reported “hearing”  a loud bang that we began to get some clarity.  The bang, it turned out, was the dreadful memory of the sound of a car hitting and killing her best friend, an event that she had witnessed decades past.   Her “inner wisdom” was telling her something very similar was happening to me.  And it was.

We live in an extremely left-brained culture.  By this I mean we value words, logic, socially conditioned values.  We more often make choices based on “shoulds,” “oughts,” the evaluations of others, negative judgments.   We don’t let the gyroscope do its work.

We also live in a culture brimful of distraction. 
To “hear” your inner voice you have to get quiet, you have to learn to cultivate and tolerate silence.  The blackberry, iphone, NPR, gmail, twitter, facebook all have to go away for a little while everyday.  Processing experience comes more naturally when you are walking in the woods, taking rhythmic breaths in the pool, doing yoga without the radio on (my personal downfall).

Taking note of our dreams, by keeping a log of them,  sitting with them for at least a few minutes every day, increases clarity. There very well may be meaningful cues that are coming through our dreams that can be guiding us.  A patient reports that as she was sifting through old journals she found notes of a dream that almost exactly predicted the location and manner of detection of a malignancy in her breast, a malignancy that would be discovered many years later.

Meditating on a regular basis also increases the accessibility to cues, often within the body, that are signaling us as to which moves are prudent, and which imprudent.

Sometimes I have the experience of feeling upset without really know why.  I know my nervous system is buzzing, my body is sending signals of distress, but I haven’t a clue as to what this is about.  I have to get quiet to have any chance of getting a handle on what is really going on.  More than likely,  sitting quietly, patiently (for it may take awhile) with the question of what is it that is upsetting me,  what is calling for my attention, will yield some clarity.   The upset doesn’t disappear, but its power does diminish and I am less likely to be reactive to it, reactive in a way that will neither benefit me nor those around me.

Cultivating this inner voice yields great benefits.  I think we all instinctively know this.  I wonder what keeps us from actively listening.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Why some people get crazy when their children get married

In 1987, when my children were quite young (nine and fourteen), I had an idea for an article that I wanted to publish in an academic journal.  This was my first foray into academic writing.

Much to my amazement, my article was accepted.  I look back on what I wrote and I have no idea how I knew back then, what I seemed to have known.  Maybe it was channeled.

I was puzzling over a little noted developmental stage of adult life:  “marrying off children.”   Obviously my children were far from marriageable age, but I did have a front seat on my sister-in-law losing her mind as her son was planning a wedding with his fiancĂ©e.   And a good friend was in mourning when her son became engaged to a lovely, completely appropriate young woman, her only flaw being that she was not Jewish.

A client of mine became unaccountably depressed when her daughter became engaged after many years of living with her boyfriend, to a young man who both she and her husband admired and felt close to.  It was in trying to unpack this latter situation,  which was after all my job,  that I gained some insight into the red thread that ran through all these situations.

My client was in a profession wherein she kept thumping her head (hard) against the glass ceiling, which back in the 80’s was both thick and bumpy, particularly in her professional group.  She could rise to only an “associate” position in her chosen and beloved field.  She vacillated between rage at those in a position of power and feelings of inadequacy as she identified with the devaluation that was inherent in the failed attempts to advance in her field.

What became evident after several sessions of work on this issue was that her ambitions had been (somewhat unconsciously) shifted onto her eldest daughter, the one now engaged.  My client had four children, but it was onto this particular daughter that she had placed her hopes for soaring achievement.  Her daughter was very bright, ambitious, and in a profession where her talents could be appreciated.   Her parents had been able to provide her with the Ivy League education that they had been denied and the network of connections that easily flowed from that advantage would help her throughout her career.

What was hurting my client was the possibility that by marrying this particular man, her ambitions might come to naught.  The prospective groom intended to live with his bride outside of the country, far from the network of connections, and in a culture where a woman’s ambition was unlikely to blossom.  This did not worry the bride, she thought she could overcome those obstacles.  But it both worried and saddened my client, for bearing so many bruises from her own career made her exquisitely sensitive to the possibility, she thought probability, that her own narcissistic agenda was threatened.

The interesting thing about this agenda was that it was mostly outside her awareness.  She knew she had tremendous pride in her daughter and hoped for her future happiness and success as she did for all of her children,  sons and daughters.  What was outside awareness was how invested she was in this particular daughter succeeding where she felt she had failed.

I call this her “narcissistic agenda,”   but I do not mean to imply by this that my client was selfish, self involved and not loving or concerned for her daughter.  Just that her own identity,  her “self” needs you might call them,  were very tied in to the imagined future of this daughter.

Narcissism is part of the package of parenthood.  It comes with the layette.

First, a short exposition on “narcissism.”  Narcissism, self-love, is really key to human survival and healthy development.  It morphs over time, as we grow,  from believing ourselves to be the center of the world as young children,  to something maybe slightly less over-weaning, like being confident of our abilities, and having the instinct for self preservation.  Having a good relationship with our narcissism helps one navigate adult life.

I know a five year old who confides to me that he is “super-good” at soccer, running off to kick the ball to kingdom come.  He thinks he’s great, and this makes him happy, happy.

Over time he will probably come to evaluate his soccer skills in a more modest and balanced way.

Becoming a parent often gives us another stab at satisfying these wishes to be “super-good,” for we do become the center of our young children’s universe and for a substantial period of time, we get to vicariously enjoy their triumphs, their achievements, their incredibly rapid development.  The besotted-ness that is the norm for young parents absolutely in love with their offspring, could be viewed as a very benign form of  narcissism,  the child as an extension of self.

This is mostly good.  It facilitates the kind of adoration that young children need to grow.  It is fertilizer, sunshine, and water.

That’s the good stuff.

The bad stuff comes in when they are just themselves, not us, not an extension of us.  Inevitably they will frustrate our expectations, the ones we are aware of and the ones outside of our awareness.  It is inevitable.   I repeat, this deflation of our narcissistic  agenda is inevitable.  This happens in small ways,  they don’t make the team whether its softball or the debating team,  and later it will happen in larger ways:  their career choices, their choice of a mate, where they choose to live,  how they choose to live.

So, “marrying off children” brings with it a host of challenges.  We can imagine the shape of the future for our children, they are making a choice that is fraught with consequence, where they will live, how likely they will be culturally or religiously like us, who will be in our extended family in the future,  even what our grandchildren will look like (perhaps), or even if there will be grandchildren.  It is a significant challenge to that narcissistic agenda, the one we may not even know about.

This is a moment in which we may feel enormous loss, depression, deflation.  We are challenged on so many fronts,  but a significant one involves having to face something of which we may not have been aware:  the secret plan we never knew we had for these later chapters in our life. 

Plans need to be revised, we may need to re-balance,  re-write that agenda.

We may need to pause and acknowledge the upheaval and pain that this is all causing us, and, just for a bit, be kinder to ourselves and trust that in time we will re-write our agenda.

My sister-in-law found her mind, and even though she has not come to love the daughter-in-law she came to accept her and even welcome her.  My sister-in-law is resilient.

The friend who needed to mourn the Jewish daughter–in-law who would not be, has a wonderful relationship with her daughter in law, decades after the engagement. They have become close friends over the years.

And my client,  who I had the good luck to see again many years after the incident described above,  lived to see that her daughter was right: she flourished in her career despite the transplanting,  although the transplanting itself did become problematic over time.

Like all developmental stages:  “marrying off children”  is challenging, painful, and in the end, an opportunity for growth.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Notice to Readers

I have a new piece in the Huffington Post, on Parenting.
Some of you have seen it before, in a modified form.

If you are someone you think might be interested, please take a look.
If the URL doesn't work, just go to huffingtonpost.com and search my name, it will pop up.


Feel free to share and to comment.

Thanks for reading.


Thursday, June 16, 2011


My friend Dr. D., a professor of social psychology at a very fine liberal arts college, told me that she quoted something to her class that I said a hundred years ago.   She was lecturing to her class on the subject of “cognitive dissonance.”  Wikipedia defines cognitive dissonance as “…an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance.”

Dr, D. recalled asking  me, way back then,  how I reconciled my interest in astrology with my evidence based practice as a clinician.  My answer, she remembers was “I don’t feel the need to reconcile them.”  She told her class this was a good example of someone who could tolerate a fair amount of “cognitive inconsistency.”

I, of course, have no recollection of this conversation.  But Dr. D.’s  example does point to something that separates me from lots of folks I know—and that’s the room I make for “mystery,”  that which makes no logical sense, cannot be seen, touched, tasted, smelled or proven directly or indirectly and yet seems to be there.

A vivid example of something not uncommon but no less mysterious is the testimony of many individuals working in hospice care who report that sometimes up to three days before death, their patients appear to be reaching for someone or seeing someone or hearing someone from  “the other side.”  My neighbor, a women who classified herself as non-religious, an atheist, not even spiritually inclined, reported that her mother, at death’s door raised her paralyzed arm to reach for someone, presumably her dead father.  She had no way to account for how her mother who had suffered a stroke on one side several years before had lifted that arm. But it did happen.

In this culture we lack a paradigm that can embrace, no less explain such phenomena.  But probably almost all of my readers can think of some example of “mystery” in their lives.  If you can’t, perhaps its because you have too rapidly dismissed a phenomena that you could not explain.  Without the paradigm we don't see, we don't hear that which we cannot understand.

For many years I had a client who claimed to be connected to another dimension.  I knew her very well, she was not psychotic, she did not hallucinate nor harbor delusions, but she had been severely traumatized throughout her childhood.  Psychic or paranormal phenomena are not uncommon among individuals who have suffered extreme cruelty.  Clinicians report this both formally and informally.

My patient’s reported phenomena was that she dreamt of spiritual beings in another dimension who had messages for her.  At other times it was during waking consciousness that she received guidance.  They guided her and they chided her.  They instructed her about her life, her therapy, her healing process.  The counsel was invariably wise.  If she followed the advice it led her in the direction of healing and wholeness.  She frequently resisted.  The counsel was difficult to implement and went against the grain, it would cause pain.

Of course one could argue these were her own wise thoughts, or an internalization of my view point.   That, however,  was not how she experienced it, and I had to make room that there really was a mystery here.  More than once I wished I had thought of the counsel, myself.  These beings seemed smarter and more far sighted than I.

My position as her therapist was to be consistently agnostic.  I neither believed nor disbelieved. But I supported these “advisors”.  And I was not above calling on whatever forces were at work here to support the direction we wanted to go.

What was much more challenging, however, was dealing with what my patient knew about me through the spiritual advisors.  I had no  explanation for these phenomena.  She knew things she could not have googled or learned from any another source—news items that only my immediate family had access to.  Sometimes the news was joyous,  sometimes it was profoundly sad.   I could never explain her clairvoyance.  I did not dismiss it as mind reading either.  I could only receive it, and I believe it enlarged my spirit to do so.

It has always seemed to me that dismissing mysterious phenomena,  those that don’t fit our existing paradigms, is rather narrow minded, irrational, and at bottom unscientific.

Dr. D. tells me that people with a higher tolerance for inconsistency are considered more “open and oriented to flexibility in their behavior.”  That seems like a good thing, right?

Being able to live with the mysterious only enriches us.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Huffington Post

You can find a post on the Huffington Post  at  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/may-benatar-phd-lcsw/personal-narrative-healing_b_862285.html    If that doesn't work,  just pop in my name on the website
and it will come up.

Many of you have read this already in other forums.
Just wanted you to know I have not forgotten about blogging altogether
and hope to post more there.  When I do,  I'll let you all know.

Thanks again for following.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Coping with suffering: Lessons from the the Warsaw ghetto

Today I want to tell you a story that I “heard” from Diane Ackerman. 

I read a version of this story in The Zookeeper’s Wife: A war storyhttp://www.amazon.com/Zookeepers-Wife-War-story/dp/039333306X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1299774100&sr=1-1, It was also included in The Best Spiritual Writing of 2010http://www.amazon.com/Best-Spiritual-Writing-2010/dp/0143116762.

We know that at least 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.  What is less well known is that almost the entire community of Hasidim,  religious Jews who, among other things, carried within them the oral history of centuries of Jewish mystical teachings, including meditation practices, were wiped out.   Sadly the finer points of this deep tradition may be lost to us forever, for little was written down.

The diaries and writings of one Hasidic Rabbi, Reb Kalonymous Kalman Shapira,  were found in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto after the war.  He died in the gas chambers. 

His writings describe how he led and ministered to the trapped and the doomed.

Reb Shapira  could have left the ghetto, as others with powerful Aryan friend’s did,   but he chose to stay, to teach, and to lead.

Beyond the heroism,  the almost unfathomable altruism of Reb Shapiro, what caught my attention was his method.  He taught his followers what in Buddhist and secular circles today would be known as mindfulness meditation.  His flock were starving, they were beset by illness, constant fear of being shot and deported.  They were unable to properly care for, educate, and comfort their children.  Many knew that their future would hold even more dreadful suffering.  What could he do for them?

He taught them to focus on the moment… to watch the stream of consciousness from a distance.  He taught that noticing negative thoughts and negative character traits  decrease their power and the suffering they could create.  Dispassion and equanimity were the tools he used to neutralize the conditions that could not be otherwise addressed by his powerless flock.  Be mindful when you eat and drink. Be mindful of all sounds, those of nature and those of humanity.    Meditate on nature, a nature that could only be accessed through imagination and memory.  No trees or birds or flowers or streams existed in the ghetto.

For Shapira this was a path to God, to the oneness of Heaven. Knowing who they really are, not their thoughts, not their suffering, their anxiety  but something calmer and divine within. 

Although the teaching of mindfulness in our world today, does not focus on the Divine,
Buddhism is a non-theistic religion and there are many forms of secular mindfulness training that populate our modern world,  I believe the goal is the same.

From Ackerman:
Even when saturated by more suffering that we bipeds were ever meant to feel, by paying deep attention the brain enters a state of vigorous calm, especially if one can meditate on joy, compassion, or gratitude.  In the ghetto meditation helped by tugging the mind from its sorrow and limiting rumination and by giving practitioners a sense of agency that was scarce, allowing them to take charge of their own well-being and to create moments of tranquility and wonder, and occasionally something even rarer: pleasure…. (Best Spiritual Writings, 2010)

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Dear Readers,

Just wanted you to know that

Scientific American posted another essay by me, entitled "How conducting therapy changes the therapist": http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/guest-blog/
(2. 26.11)

 Also  I was very pleased that the New Yorker cited the first essay published in ScientificAmerican.com in a recent article: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/...

Monday, February 21, 2011

My File Cabinet/Myself

In recent days I have learned a lot about identity.   Mine.

As we unpack our belongings: furniture, clothes, files, books, knick knacks, family photos, art,  in our new home,  many months and miles from our old home, I have experienced both the joy of reunion with  my “stuff” and the profound grief over “stuff”  gone forever.

Some of our “stuff” I haven’t seen for 3 or 4 months, some, almost a year.  As we put our house up for sale we were required by various “stagers,” consultants to the real estate industry,  to pack up beloved books,  family pictures,  and even art pieces that told too much about who we were (“too ethnic”).  Though I thought this was highly unscientific advice and was incensed by the implied criticism,  I acquiesced.

My house started to feel like an alien space.  It looked more like a “model home” than my
slightly cluttered, but very personal and, I thought, warm and homey abode. 

Due to a sluggish housing market and some bad luck,  it took many more months to sell our house and move into our new digs here in Maryland. 

The worst was the books,  followed closely by family pictures.  Both tell the story of our lives. I don’t see collecting books as a vanity project but rather a chronicle of where we have been with our intellectual passions our not so intellectual passions and indulgences, our journeys both geographic and spiritual.  Some books go back to college and graduate school.  The pictures and photo albums… well we all understand about the pictures.

What really threw me was my reaction to not having a place to unpack my files,  old patient files,  courses constructed and taught over the years, material from particularly treasured courses I took as a student,  research for academic articles long since published,  ideas for books not read,  projects never launched.

I had already wrenched myself away from boxes and boxes of this stuff.  This was the distillation  of all that torturous weeding process.

My crummy metal filing cabinets were sacrificed on the altar of expediency and the knowledge that new housing would be substantially smaller.   After all we were downsizing. 

I was really bushwhacked by how horribly upset I was when there was no cabinet to hold this aspect of my identity.   Where were my ideas, my life’s work,  going to live if not in those battered, garage-sale-quality file cabinets?  What would happen to them?   What would I do?   Who will I be?

This may all sound crazy.  I guess it is a bit,  but  I really think this aspect of my work life
was and is much more central to my identity than I realized.  My file cabinet and its contents  contribute to what makes me feel whole, integrated, and worthy.  Even if I never look at another piece of paper in those files their presence affirms me in a way that I really need.  Still.

I think its worth thinking about what there is in our lives that fulfills this role.  Sure there are our core people that play this role, spouse, children, grandchildren, extended family, good friends. And then there is art in all of its expressions that fulfills this function.  Even pets. 

What is it for you?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Start Where the Client Is At: My Client/Myself

“Start where the client is at.”

Believe it or not that was the defining sentence in my clinical courses in social work school 4 decades ago (yikes!).   It can always be counted on to elicit a chuckle in a contemporary who attended social work school around that time as well.  We all remember this.

As ungrammatical a sentence as that might appear to be—and maybe even impenetrable to the un-initiated, it turns out to summarize a great deal of clinical wisdom, wisdom that has stood the test of time.

What does it mean to start where the client is at?  It means that at least initially the clinician must eschew judgments, must listen carefully to discern what the client is feeling and thinking and not to step either too far away, or move too quickly ahead to where you think the client needs to be "at."

In reviewing my own long career as a clinician I am very aware of how hard this is, and always was, to implement, and how often I failed to do so.  If anything this got harder as I gained experience and thought I knew where the client was going.  I often was too far ahead, not putting enough effort into being in sync with people.

I sit down to write this now,  not because I need to discuss basic clinical social work principles,  but because I have just realized that this principle underlies a certain kind of mindfulness meditation training that I am pursuing with myself.  And in general, I think it is a wholesome practice for all of us

Here in the DC area I have the very good fortune to be attending weekly meditation sessions and talks with the internationally regarded insight meditation teacher, Tara Brach (www.tarabrach.com).  Tara has written a book Radical Acceptance,  and she teaches “radical acceptance.”  By radical acceptance Tara means we must accept where we are at, in order to even begin mindful practice.  Mindful practice is not just about the formal meditation practice,  but it extends to being mindful of other activities,  paying attention to whatever you are doing: cleaning the bathroom,  eating mindfully, taking care of children mindfully, all manner of daily life.  And this extends to where we are at emotionally.

One of my mindful practices is to try to catch myself when I feel unhappy when it is not for any obvious reason.  Just stopping, allowing myself the feeling makes it easier to know where I’m "at."  Once I know where I’m "at,"  I can start the acceptance part.

So I feel yucky becomes,  "I’m really very jealous of so and so,  or angry,  or disappointed or afraid."   And those feelings are automatically judged by me.  You know the drill:  I shouldn’t be jealous, angry, afraid.  Its probably the judgement, more than anything that creates the "yucky" feeling, not being a good person because I have this feeling.  But that's how it is.  And that is where I am at right now.  Its okay.  A gentleness,  a compassionate acceptance is in order.  And then we go from there.
What I found, when I was able to do this, was that my body “sighed”,  there was an easing of my breathing,  a release and a relief.  Maybe I didn’t feel wonderful,  but it all passed by more quickly and was less likely to ruin my day.  And as a little time went on, my understanding of these feelings deepened.  Starting where my “inner client” was and is "at,"  allows a spaciousness and a creativity in problem solving that is otherwise not there.

So once again:  start where the client is at.  And these days,  the client is me.

 P.S.  Dear Readers, 
Come visit  me on a recent Scientific American blog: