Friday, 29 November 2013

Its a Gratitude feast

As I woke up this morning and said my prayers, I had this overwhelming feeling that I should be happy and grateful. Wonderful memories started to flood into my head bringing thoughts of all the wonderful parts of my life.

I have been studying recently about mental strength and those who have it. One of the aspects in common between mentally resilient people is gratitude, even in difficult circumstances. I had a client recently in the grips of anxiety and depression who looked at me as if I had two heads when I talked with him about changing the way he viewed his circumstances. I suggested that he had a great deal to be grateful for in his life and that even his challenges were opportunities to gain strength and confidence. He just couldn't grasp the concept because he was in victim mode. He wanted to dwell on past, hurtful events and stay in his misery.

It was not appropriate for me to talk about myself but I am so grateful for ALL my experiences in my life, the good, the amusing, the challenging and the downright anguishing moments.

A great article on millenials recently defined happiness as expectations minus reality. If expectations are greater than our reality than we are miserable and frustrated. If our reality reaches higher  than than our expectations then we are happy. Given that life is never easy or straightforward for the majority of us, it is a marvel that we are not all unhappy. Not many of us lead fairy tale existences. And yet, I am happy.

Gratitude is a panacea for my discouragement. Discouragement and gratitude do not make comfortable companions. Beginning from a point of gratitude enables me to view the world with enthusiasm and excitement because I am already in a good place.

“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” 
― Eckhart TolleA New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose

If I am able to view the world from this positive place there is little room for anger or frustration because I am focussed on what I have instead of what I don't have. Gratitude allows me to trust more because I am able to look at whatever happens as a blessing, a means to grow and progress. It softens the blow of disappointment because I can be thankful for the very experience itself and its teachings. Speaking of teachings, gratitude makes me more teachable too because I am more open to the learnings and less focussed on that to which I am entitled. I am working to approach every situation from a point of view of finding something wonderful, inspiring and edifying. Gratitude does that for me.

When I have an attitude of gratitude it is also very hard to blame others. It is almost impossible to express gratitude for someone and to be on the attack at the same time. It is my expectations that lead me to blame others for things that go wrong or for goals that have not been met. When I begin by looking for those aspects for which I am grateful then I am less focussed on what they did not do and more focussed on their positive aspects. Sometimes, when someone has been particularly difficult with me or even nasty, my gratitude might be more about what personal characteristics I am developing because of this relationship but it still means that it is much harder to be angry with people in my life. I get a real thrill when I have succeeded in not letting a particularly nasty incident get to me.

Gratitude is not something I had naturally in me but was something I have needed to consciously develop. I am still not there by a very long margin because I keep falling into the "O woe is me, I wish things were different" mode at times. I think about missing my children in NZ rather than dwelling on an incredible husband who loves me. I get homesick for my old country instead of being grateful for the opportunity to learn a new culture. I wish I had more money instead of being grateful that I live in a lovely home and all the bills are paid every month.

Gratitude is about switching my thinking around and beginning from the positive rather than from the negative. And when I express that gratitude out loud, it begins to develop a life of its own and to grow. I just love my new country's tradition of a Thanksgiving Day when I literally get an opportunity to voice my gratitude about those things that matter most. I am grateful for a Heavenly Father who loves me enough to guide me every single day. I am thankful to find out that soulmates really do exist because I found mine. I am deeply grateful to have six beautiful children, 4 gorgeous granddaughters and the men in their respective lives. I am thankful for my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and all of the experiences that brings me. I am surrounded by beauty and music and love.

This past year has brought challenges of a hurricane, severe snow storm, a malicious court case and an IRS audit as well as estranged family members that I love and miss. But those very experiences have built my resilience and helped me realize that I am part of a team that is my husband, the Lord and I. I have learned to trust Alan with all my heart and to trust the Lord even further that all these things are for my good and growth. Life is good and I am grateful!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Dreams come true in all kinds of ways

I was watching the General Conference meetings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently and as always I admired the music of the Mormon Tabernacle choir. I have a confession that ever since I joined the church more than 34 yrs ago now I have longed to sing with that choir. While I can hold a pretty good tune and I make a loyal member of our stake and/or ward choirs, I am pretty realistic that I don't have the musical expertise to make it through the audition processes of the Mormon Tab choir. For those who don't know this choir well, to gain entry there is rigorous auditioning process that involves demonstrating sight reading, knowledge of music theory as well as obviously having a good voice. Choir members are usually very accomplished musicians.

My distance from Salt Lake City while living in New Zealand was of course a natural excuse for why I would never be able to participate either. I want to share with you however, that dreams do come true and sometimes in the most unexpected of ways. I have learned to look for the unexpected and to take real pleasure in the simplest of things. Let me explain:

It was announced to us that the Mormon Tabernacle choir was going to tour Australia and New Zealand in 1988 (boy does that make me feel old!). As part of their agenda, it was requested that the choir be given a tour of the city of Auckland by bus shortly after they arrived in the country and prior to their concerts. I was excited to have been recruited as one of the "bus hostesses", one per bus, so that we could answer their questions as they drove around a few of the sights.

We began this tour from the Auckland museum. The choir and entourage were escorted into this slightly cramped room in the middle of the museum so that we could have a opening service before heading off: including an opening and closing hymn and prayer. It was here that my dreams took on a new dimension because the presiding priesthood authority invited me to conduct the opening and closing hymns and my good friend, Kim was to play the piano. As I got up to conduct the opening hymn, "I believe in Christ" I looked down and it suddenly hit me that before me was the greatest choir in all the world and I was about to wave my hand in front of them and we would all sing together.

I had not completely understood the attraction in being a conductor of choirs or orchestras prior to that moment but that wonderful day the spirit of this magnificent choir almost blew me off that little podium. There was a power in their voices that I had never experienced in all my life. It pierced my very soul and it almost physically moved me. It is a moment that I will never forget. If I get very amused with myself then I tell myself that I had an experience in conducting the Mormon Tabernacle choir but that would be presumptuous. I waved my hand but they were the ones teaching and leading me. While I may never be an actual member of the choir itself, the Lord blessed me with a wonderful experience so that I could strike that one off my bucket list.

What a blessing this choir is to us as a church but also what a blessing they are to the whole world. It is the Sabbath day today and I will be doing my usual thing today at some point and will be turning on some Mormon Tabernacle choir music to uplift and edify my day. I love being a Latter-day Saint!

Friday, 30 August 2013

In Defense of Difference!

I am fascinated by people. On a recent flight I was surrounded by such a variety of people in age, look, culture. In front of me was a young mother with a very chatty 3 or 4 year old girl. I was touched to hear her squeal with delight when her mother received a text from her Dad, "I love you" in reply to her little love note she had sent him while we were stuck on the tarmac.

As a single mother for many years, I recognized the importance of fathers in the lives of not only boys but also for girls too. There is a completely different interaction that goes on between children and their mother and children and their father. It is not very politically correct to talk about these differences at this time in our history as if we have become androgenous somehow. Somehow wiping out differences between the way children relate to the different gendered parents is meant to wipe out discrimination, make us all "equal".

My problem? I can never understand at what point "equal" became synonymous with "same." We have come a long way to ensure that women have access to the same rights as men and I for one am a huge proponent of those rights. While living in France in the past few years I realized just how far my home country had come in this area. I was shocked to find women in France had only been given the right to open their own bank account and to own property in the 1970s. I was further shocked to discover that there is still a law in France granting conjugal rights to a spouse which didn't seem to take into account the desires or agency of each spouse. I am grateful that we have made strides in these areas.

So we do need to keep pressing forward to grant more equality for us as women. However, in our haste for equality, I also believe I want the freedom to be different, to choose my own path. I am a woman and I love
all that entails for me. Would it not be depriving me of a right to be who I want to be if equal meant that I had to be the same. Would it not be depriving me of my right to self-determination if you made me believe what you believe? Is this what our feminist sisters fought for?

I believe that it is our right as men and women to choose who we are and how we express ourselves is a fundamental principle that I fight for. We each have a right to our personal beliefs and it is a sad state of affairs that we are having to fight for that right, no matter which side of the equation we are on. I have noticed so much lately that some who fight for the rights of non-discrimination are now in turn discriminating against others because of differences in beliefs. I get it that the pendulum has swung from conservatism to liberalism. If truth be told, neither side has the right to impose their viewpoints on others.

Society is made up of so many colors and hues. It would do society an injustice if we try to make all of us the one color with a single set of beliefs.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Ode to Hummingbirds and Squirrels

One of the best things about moving to a new country is seeing completely new places and new things. I have come to realize that we are often blinded to the beauty around us because we become too familiar, we have seen it all too often.

When I first arrived in New Jersey, Alan and I would take these walks around the neighborhood. Jackson is beautifully wooded and almost feels like being out in the country. On one of these walks I happened to spot a squirrel and I started to jump up and down. "Look,sweetheart it's a squirrel!!!" He looked at me as if I had two heads because for him squirrels were just a regular part of life but for me they were a fascination. In my country of New Zealand they just don't exist.

I know that I am belaboring the point but last night and this morning I was able to have new firsts. On our walk through this trail in Freehold I heard the sound of a woodpecker and got super excited again when I finally spotted it in the trees.  Sheer joy flowed through my veins. The picture I took does not do it justice but it will remind me of my first ever woodpecker sighting. On the way home, as if to emphasize the point, two magnificent deer bounded over the road in front of us, right through the front yards of these homes in Freehold. Yes, there are deer in New Zealand but I have never seen them in an urban setting the way they are here.

This morning, Alan yells at me to come real quick! And there it was hovering at the front door window, a tiny hummingbird. I didn't have time to capture him on film but what a thrill! It was worth it to rush away from what I was doing to capture this moment.

I hope that I can always see things with new eyes and stay excited. Life is too short to get so wound up on the mundane things and to miss the magical events. Keep your eyes peeled everyone!

Friday, 3 May 2013

Brambles and Dinner goodies

Which do you eat first on your plate: the nicest bits and then leave the less tasty until the end? Or do you save the best food until last? How you eat your food may say a great deal about your approach to life. I was wondering whether our food order preference could reveal whether we have a tendency to procrastinate in our life. I can definitely remember as a child that I put the food I didn't like to one side of the plate and concentrated on the good stuff. Eventually however, I was forced to face the food that was not my favorite, not so enjoyable! This habit has now been reversed as an adult and I leave the best bits until last.

I thought about this principle again in the weekend in another context. Alan and I were out in the back garden on Saturday where there is quite a forest of trees. Over the years in successive storms, limbs have fallen off, whole trees have crashed and the floor of the forest is littered with logs hidden under the very thick carpet of fallen leaves. I had begun to drag some of the logs into one corner of the forest for eventual disposal when I kept getting struck by masses of brambles that attached themselves to my legs and arms.  They were all over the ground and then they had created a curtain as they climbed up some of the living trees. I had a decision to make. Either I continued to drag those logs through the obstacles or I stop and take care of the brambles first. The brambles didn't seem as fun as the logs. They were a twisted, horrible mess of prickly vines.  I made the decision that the brambles had to go so that I had an obstacle free path to achieving the rest of the work.

I was right in that it was not a fun experience with my scratched arms and lower legs evidencing that the brambles put up quite the fight. There is still more to do to clear them completely but by the end of the day there was a real sense of accomplishment as I saw the obstacles begin to melt before my clippers.
There was also some sense of team work that came into play as Alan suggested we work on them together. We pulled the brambles out of the trees first and then Alan pulled them away from me with the rake so that I was able to cut at the roots quickly. In the end the very defense mechanism of the bramble became its own means of destruction. Once the roots were cut, it was easy to pull all the brambles out with the rake because they became entangled in their own thorns. Working like this enabled us to speedily clear a large section and it looked great afterward.

It is interesting that in life we often seem to come across obstacles in our life and we do all we can to avoid dealing with them. Our society tells us to play hard, enjoy life at full speed, self-satisfaction is king.  More than ever before I believe that people are looking for the easy way out so that obstacles can be avoided or at least we put off dealing with them. Addictions are one example where we put off dealing with the obstacles or the difficult bits in our life. ‘Let’s numb out and focus on the fun bits rather than confronting our challenges head on’.

Like the brambles however, the longer that we leave certain challenges the more difficult that they become. What started out as a few minor difficulties in the beginning can end up being one large tangled mess that is hard to unravel. Relationship problems between family members, for example, often grow in significance if not attended to as soon as possible. I have witnessed so many people seek help for their relationship issues once the entangled mess is just too large to manage and they are being wounded at every turn.   How much easier it would have been to have attacked the problems when they were small.

I also learned something else from my bramble encounter. It is so much easier to deal with challenges in our life when we enlist the help of someone else, when we work as a team to resolve them: someone in our community circles, a friend, a parent, a family member, a spouse. Facing challenges with someone makes the job that much easier and frankly so much more fun.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Just Keep Swimming-Dealing with Emotional Pain

I heard this wonderful analogy many years ago that has always impressed me. This is how it went:

There was an experiment with this fish tank. At first the fish were given free reign of the whole fish tank and happily swam round and round having no restrictions. Then one day the experimenters inserted a glass wall right in the middle of the tank. The fish were shocked to discover that their movement was restricted as they butted their noses against the new obstacle. After having crashed into the unfamiliar glass wall a few times they began to register that their circumstances had changed and they changed their swimming patterns to suit the smaller space accordingly. They avoided the pain of butting their noses by carefully turning just before reaching the new barrier. 

The experimenters then did something interesting. They removed the glass wall in the middle of the aquarium. Predictably perhaps, the fish did not realize that the barrier was no longer there and that they could use the entire tank again. Bizarrely they continued to swim in the same restricted way as if the glass barrier were still there. If those fish had just tested their boundaries regularly and taken the risk for a little temporary pain they might have discovered that their territory had expanded so much further.

This concept impressed me. Although it was intended as a message to never give up, to keep pushing boundaries in achieving our goals, I have seen other insights in this metaphor. I have watched people who have been emotionally hurt who have placed the equivalent of the glass barrier into their lives as a form of protection from being re-hurt. These barriers have been important ways of self-preservation at the time, to give the body and the emotions time to heal and to adjust to new realities: a divorce, abuse from a loved one, the death of someone close, the loss of a cherished job. So many reasons for emotional pain exist in our lives and often we react with building a protective barrier around ourselves.

A problem occurs when we keep living behind these walls that we have created for ourselves, long after they need to exist. We find ourselves swimming in our smaller tank and losing out on the opportunities of enlarging our lives, trying new territories.  

Emotional pain can feel very physical at times and certainly can be frightening in its intensity. Our initial reaction to run or hide from it, while understandable, can trap us and halt our personal development.  The very walls that we have built to protect ourselves from being re-hurt become our personal, self-inflicted jails. We hold people at a distance from us as a form of self-defense but that also means that we have lost the opportunities for connection and intimacy. When we suppress our negative emotions we also suppress all our positive emotions. 

What to do? When we allow ourselves to sit in our emotional pain, to express our negative feelings clearly and safely, when we give ourselves permission to be angry or sad or frustrated then we will walk through the emotional difficulties and we will find ourselves on the other side. Each time we allow ourselves to do this we become strengthened emotionally. We can rightfully say to ourselves, “You know what? I survived the last heart wrenching time and came out OK. I can do this again!” Learning to express our negative emotions and not sit on them allows us to gain personal confidence and emotional self-reliance. By contrast, when we self-medicate to avoid feeling that emotional hurt or we run away, we paradoxically take longer to heal. In other words, we feel the pain less intensely but it will last so much longer and will begin to affect the relationships around us.  

In the immortal words of Dory in 'Finding Nemo': 

Dory: Hey there, Mr. Grumpy Gills. When life gets you down do you wanna know what you've gotta do?
Marlin: No I don't wanna know.
Dory: [singing] Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Fallen Trees and Roots

While I was out walking this morning I was reminded of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in my neighborhood in New Jersey. While the homes in Jackson were largely unscathed there was a tremendous loss of trees. As I saw these majestic, very large trees fallen onto the forest floor I noticed something fascinating. Those trees that had not withstood the storm had very shallow root systems, roots that were unable to sustain the size of the tree when the storm hit. I asked my husband why such large trees in this area had not grown significant root systems. His answer was revealing to me. He said that because there was so much rainfall in Jackson, the soil was always moist and the trees did not have to grow deep roots to get nourished.

This made me think about how this applied to us as individually as people, in our relationships with others and in our working life on an emotional level. I could see some parallels and messages. As with these trees, when life is good we tend to forge forwards and upwards without even thinking. Life is good so why question it? The question is, if the storms of life hit us will we be able to withstand them?

It appears from the illustration of the fallen trees that those trees whose ground is not so fertile have had to grow their roots very deep in order to reach the water. Could it be that trials or difficulties cause us as humans to do the same? It is in the face of difficulties that we have to dig deep within ourselves for the resources to overcome, to get through them. Each time that we face and overcome a difficulty successfully, it results in greater confidence in our abilities and the beginnings of a tool box to deal with the next trials. Our difficulties then are part of our preparation for future trials. The ‘roots’ of our emotional self-reliance grow stronger and more secure.

Society is constantly sending us messages to try and find the easy way out of everything, to cushion the blows. We are in a society where we try and medicate all of our pain, not just physical but emotional too. In our parenting, many are trying to wrap their children in cotton wool to protect them from all harm. Are we in fact doing these children more harm by preventing them from having growing experiences; preventing them from learning from their mistakes by trying to create the perfect  environment? How can we, our children, our husbands and wives know that we can withstand a real storm in our lives if we keep protecting ourselves along the way?

I am not suggesting that we allow children to walk freely on the road or place themselves purposely in harm’s way. I am not even suggesting that we invite hard times or difficulties. Life will do that all by itself without our additional help. I am suggesting that we teach ourselves and those we love to walk into the fear, to walk into the trials without turning sideways or running away. Just imagine how strong as a people we would be if we let this happen! 

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Fear and Love

Although I was initally worried about being a therapist again after so many years away from the profession, through the work I did in France I  began to see things with a new set of eyes. It became clearer all the time that there are some common elements in the difficulties people are facing and in the way they are reacting.

A wise friend told me in these past few weeks that there are two main emotions that drive most of what we do: Love and Fear. I have this favorite saying of mine that says "A heart filled with love has no room for discouragement, doubt, fear, hatred, vengeance, envy, lust or greed, because a heart full of love is full." (Elder Spencer J. Condie). 

What I have discovered is that when fear enters the equation then so does the need to control. They go together. For example, when a husband is fearful that his wife is not going to be attentive enough he may demand it and seek ways to control his wife so that she is 'present'. Perhaps there are the parents who are frightened that their teenagers will get themselves into difficulty and so impose a strict amount of control or extra rules in order to soothe their fears. There is the abuse victim who has been the victim of someone imposing an unwanted action on their lives. Often these victims play out their lives in fear from this point, trying to control who can access their hearts and minds to ensure that the abuse does not re-occur. 

And yet it is this very desire to control that destroys relationships and maintains barriers between us. I view the desire to control in some form or other to be at the root of almost all relationship difficulties, whether in the home, at work or in social situations. This includes when we shut others out with our silence or our absence. It is all a form of control.

If we want true happiness then we need to be willing to let go of the desire to control and operate from a different perspective, a whole new paradigm. We trust, we motivate, we encourage, we love, we have faith, we forgive. Those actions are the exact opposite of control and fear. These opposites are spiritual in nature and have been in place since before the world began when the adversary wanted to take our free agency from us. His plan was the ultimate control where we would be forced to be obedient. Our Savior replied with an offer of love and sacrifice and we each replied in trust and faith by accepting the Lord's offer.

And so faith is the opposite of fear. The desire to control others is the opposite of trust and love. We need to decide which side we are on and build upon true principles.