Sunday, October 15, 2017

Love Is Thicker Than Smoke: A Personal Reflection on the NorCal Fires

When I see the footage of the devastation, it is unbearable. After only a few seconds, I turn away.

 A wildfire has obliterated whole sections of my city, turning them into desolate places of charred black. An elderly German friend who survived WWII says the area looks like it’s been bombed.

I have questioned my grief, wondering why it has hit me so hard. After all, I haven’t suffered any personal losses—my apartment and my partner’s house have been spared (so far). And I have never been crazy about Santa Rosa, having moved there mostly for financial reasons when my bohemian self couldn’t find an affordable rental in Bolinas. But still, over the last five years it has become my home. I have taken in its beauty from atop Taylor Mountain and come to rely on its subtle everyday communions: visits to the post office, the grocery store, the library; daily drives past neighborhoods and vineyards—a steady stream of ordinariness steeping my psyche in a sense of familiarity that I didn’t even realize I needed. Until now.

The loss is shocking. I feel it in my body as each image of place, imprinted on grey matter and tied to spirit, is burned from my being. With fires continuing to scorch Sonoma County, my shoulders are heavy and my stomach tight with sadness and fear. Worried about my safety and my asthmatic lungs, I flew to Los Angeles to stay with my partner’s family while he gathered our valuables and drove them here. Even though we are now out of harm’s way, I have been racked with stress, unable to comprehend the level of destruction of the land and its people.

Initially, the fire took everyone by surprise, with flames, fanned by high winds, devouring the landscape at hundreds of feet per minute. My boyfriend’s friends, a married couple in their 60s, found themselves fending off thick smoke and falling burning branches as they struggled to make it out of their driveway. They barely got out alive.

Others weren’t so lucky: My heart circles around the older couple who sought safety in a pool, only for the wife to die in her husband’s arms just as the last flames engulfing their house went out. The man who was caught off guard and perished while the rest of his family was sent to the burn unit at UCSF. The couple, 98 and 100, who left this world together as their home filled with fire.

How do we go on, when the lives we have built can be incinerated at any moment? When the walls that have contained us are turned into ash?

It’s no secret that impermanence is an uncompromising fact of life. I know I’m in good company when I say I have a difficult time embracing the fleeting nature of existence. At the risk of sounding like a flaky New Ager or an old hippie (I am neither), over the years there has been only one thing that has offered me any solace or sense of mattering as I ponder our existential abyss: love. It transcends earthly life, connecting this world to the next and us to each other. Love attaches me to place and community. And even though it opens me up to pain, it is also the key to developing the resilience necessary to heal.

Fortunately, Sonoma County has plenty of love to go around. There have been more than $2 million in donations made to the Redwood Credit Union, which has an excellent reputation for putting money directly into the hands of the people who need it. Volunteers are working at shelters, sorting through donations, organizing files, and connecting people with missing relatives. Firefighters are saving lives everyday, working round the clock in unimaginable conditions. And last, but not least, neighbors are offering each other simple comforts—an empathetic ear, words of hope, a gentle hand or embrace.

 At some point, I will have to leave my safe haven and face the decimation I cannot right now bear to see. But knowing that I will go back to such a compassionate community helps me feel less alone. Whether we suffered personal losses or not, this fire happened to all of us. And I know that it is our unity and collective strength that will see us through.

 For ways to help survivors, see http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/How-To-Help-North-Bay-Fire-Relief-Efforts-450142573.html.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ears Wide Open: Nine Tools for Better Listening

Are you having trouble connecting to someone you care about? Does a friend refuse your attempts to fix a situation that is upsetting her? Do your employees seem to constantly do what you tell them not to do? Listening may be the answer.

Really listening to someone is the key to successful communication, whether with coworkers, friends, lovers, or even a customer service rep. But what does it mean to truly hear someone?

Some people think that listening involves not saying anything at all. This approach reminds me of a romcom I saw several years ago about an ex-con who successfully convinced a town he was a psychotherapist simply by staring blankly and saying nothing when people shared their woes with him.

Despite the fact that he was a fraud, the guy was onto something. Sometimes remaining silent is exactly what people need to feel heard. But at other times reflective or active listening, in which the listener speaks, too, is the necessary medicine. This may be especially true when folks are actively seeking a solution to a problem, want to figure out how they feel about a situation, and/or want to feel connected to the person they are talking to.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Set your intention to carefully listen. Don’t underestimate the power of intention to influence any interaction.

2. Repeat back what you heard, but in your own words, being careful not to insert or infer your opinion about the issue. It is very important to set aside your own agenda and just focus on what the person you are listening to is actually saying.

3. Use what are referred to as “listening sounds”—“Ah,” “Hmm” etc.—to let others know that they have your attention.

4. Name the emotion. “You sound sad.”

5. Be curious about what is really happening. Ask clarifying questions. “Was it what he was doing or why he was doing it that made you uncomfortable?”

6. Use your intuition to flesh out what is being said—and not said. Trust your gut. Don’t be afraid of letting people know what you are sensing about an issue. It gives them the chance to get clearer about what they think and feel. “I hear that she really irritates you, and what I’m also sensing is that you don’t trust her.”

7. Be willing to be corrected. If you take a guess at perceiving someone else’s reality, be open to receiving feedback: “No, that’s not it. It’s more like this.”

8. Tune in to grace. If you are helping someone find a solution to a problem, make space for unexpected insights or inspiration to emerge.

9. When you hear “Yes, that’s it!” or “Exactly!,” you know you’re doing a good job.

Listening is not a cut-and-dried affair. Like any art, it takes practice. Most people will appreciate that you are trying. If all else fails, take a note from the ex-con (and Elmer Fudd): Be very, very quiet.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Living Life Out Loud

Do you have the sensation that life is at “the tip of your tongue,” but you can't quite reach your goals? Jungian analyst Marion Woodman says that this feeling of almost-thereness points to unresolved trauma. Often during a conversation, the awareness of something being at the tip of our tongues refers to words or ideas that seem to reside just beyond where our memory can take us. In the same way, repressed feelings of anger, grief, and fear can exist just beyond our memory, but their presence still affects us, and not being able to fully express and release them can result in the frustration of the full expression of our creativity. Being stuck is uncomfortable, but it also provides an opportunity to free ourselves to pursue the lives we want. And one of the keys to realizing our potential is to connect our psychic selves to our bodies, where both our creative energy—and the blocks to it—live.

Here is a technique I learned about some years ago in the pages of O (yes, the Oprah) magazine: Take a moment to breathe and center yourself, and then think about a situation or experience in which you are stuck—a feeling, a job, a relationship. Ask yourself: "If I could place this sensation of being stuck in my body, where would it be?" Then just sit and focus your attention on that specific point in your body, and see what thoughts and feelings arise, tracking the movement of the emotional and physical energies. It's a simple technique that can bring awareness to the unconscious feelings and thoughts creating the sense of stagnancy, and so bring you one step closer to animating the life that is waiting to be fully articulated.

When our psychic energy is freed from the grips of painful old emotions and ideas, our lives will no longer be at the tip of our tongues, but rather lived “out loud,” our bodies serving as a vehicle for the words, actions, jobs, and relationships that reflect our most authentic selves.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On the Other Side of Fear

Not too many nights ago, I was weaving my way through a winding, cliff-lined piece of Highway 1, awed by a shaft of moonlight shimmering on the placid face of the Pacific. I was contemplating the wisdom—or lack thereof—of my recent big move to California, when out of nowhere appeared —a deer! There it stood, smack dab in the middle of the road, jolting me out of my circuitous thinking and into a quick stop. Graciously, it left me plenty of room to hit the brakes.

While the deer did not hit my car, it did impact my consciousness. I felt like it was a bit of a cosmic whack on the head, the Universe asking me to sit up and take notice. It was not the first time I had been spooked by a deer since I moved to this neck of the Redwoods. Several nights prior, I was frightened by a deer rustling in the bushes near my house, an admittedly far less intimidating experience, but for someone who takes clues from the Universe, noteworthy, especially when taken in the context of the more recent roadside encounter. I intuitively felt that both events were signs. But of what? To find out, I worked with the deer as I would dream images, and contemplated the feeling that they triggered—fear—as well as the symbolism attributed to them. For the latter, I consulted Jamie Sams’s Medicine Cards, a divination system that draws on Native American ideas about the spiritual teachings of various animals.

According to Sams, deer offer a special lesson on how to handle the very feeling they had recently provoked in me—fear. Deer teach that it is a form of self-love to fully feel your fear. The key is not to hold on to it, but to feel it and (here’s the important part) gently let it all go. You create more chaos by fighting your anxiety, deer say. If you repress your fear or try to just make it go away by force of will, you may find it scrambling for your attention — as I did, on a dark, cliff-lined road. But if you approach it with gentleness, and get it out of your system, it will cause you considerably less trouble.

It was just the right time for me to recall this lesson. I was pushing through two major life changes: the loss of my longtime job and the subsequent move to another state. I needed to remember it was ok to be afraid.

Not yielding to the freak out rustling on the edges of my consciousness was actually preventing me from accessing the energy to create what I needed, such as a sense of stability. Like a deer caught in headlights, I was frozen—by my own resistance to myself. Sitting on the edge of the continent with no certain plans for the future deserved at least a robust “Oh my God!” So I let myself have a good, old-fashioned meltdown. And when I was done, I felt calmer, more confident, and creative. I even wrote this blog post.

My deer-friends made me stop and remember what all the wise ones know: Terror tenderly held eventually transforms into courage.


The next time you find yourself repeatedly running into a certain animal or person, ask yourself “Why is this happening?” It’s a simple question, but the answer to it may carry the power to transform you.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Marion Woodman: Dancing in the Flames

The evolution of Jungian psychology owes a great deal to the work of Marion Woodman, a renowned analyst and author who is a pioneer in the understanding of the role of feminine principles in the healing of the human psyche. Her life and work are chronicled in Adam Greydon Reid's striking documentary Marion Woodman: Dancing in the Flames (Capri Films, 2010), which I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in depth psychology and to Woodman fans especially.

Through dynamic conversations with mystic and political activist Andrew Harvey, Woodman shares the personal and professional experiences that fuel her belief in the importance of cultivating a sacred connection to the feminine—meaning to body and to earth—in order to facilitate personal, cultural, and environmental transformation. She teaches that opening to change requires a willingness to surrender to the archetypal processes of death and rebirth, and asserts that even our very Earth is going through such a process now; it's up to us whether or not the Earth is reborn.

With sparkling eyes and her trademark passion and grace, Marion details how she became intimately acquainted with psychic death through her struggles with anorexia and cancer, both of which she overcame by working with her dreams, particularly by learning to integrate the emotional energy of her images into her body. The story of her recovery from cancer is an exceptionally moving testament to the miraculous healing power of making the unconscious conscious.

Probably one of the most poignant and inspiring aspects of the documentary is its exploration of Marion's 50-plus–year partnership to her husband, Ross. Reflecting on the many shifts that have been a part of their journey to mature intimacy, the Woodmans joke that they have had four marriages. Each stage of the relationship has involved the shedding of increasingly deeper levels of projections—a process their marriage is still undergoing, Marion reveals.

As Marion speaks, her words are at times illustrated by the evocative animation of Academy-Award–winning artist Faith Hubley. Hubley's whimsical, at times surreal, images do a wonderful job of bridging the gap between intuitive and intellectual understanding of Woodman's philosophies, and also reflect the dreamscape from which many of Woodman's ideas originated.

All the elements of the film—dialogue, animation, and music—seamlessly work together to capture the fiery spirit of a woman whose desire to become conscious—to dance in the alchemical flames of her soul—saved her very life. Longtime fans of Woodman may find, as I did, such an intimate portrait simply sublime.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Michael Meade on Fate & Destiny

I wasn’t expecting to get blissed out at a lecture on mythology, but since Michael Meade was the one speaking, I should have known better. A thoroughly engrossing storyteller, Meade made his presentation in part to promote his new book, Fate and Destiny: The Two Agreements of the Soul (GreenFire Press, 2010). He began the evening by using stirring stories from his own boyhood to illustrate the compelling nature of the topics of his book. Here’s an example: When Meade was on the verge of adolescence, he asked his aunt to give him a history book as a birthday present. The aunt obliged, went to a bookstore, and standing on the tips of her toes, grasped for a book on the top shelf of the history section. Her blind reach, however, resulted in a fateful mistake. When Meade opened his present, he discovered not a book on history, but a volume with a flying horse on the cover, and the word “Mythology” announcing itself as the title. The aunt apologized and offered to exchange it, but Meade, struck with wonder, insisted on keeping the gift.

Not too long after this event, Meade got a glimpse of the life-sustaining roles that story and myth were to play in his life: One night at the movie theater Meade was attacked by a bunch of knife-wielding boys seeking retribution for an act committed by one of Meade’s friends. Terrified, Meade found himself weaving a story, the words for which seemed to appear from thin air. He told his attackers about the life of the boy they were angry at, about his troubled relationship with his dad, and other difficulties the boy had experienced. Perhaps because the description of the boy’s life so mirrored their own misery, the gangsters became mesmerized and put down their weapons, freeing Meade.

And so was the beginning of the life of one destined to become a mythologist-storyteller-healer. Via his nonprofit, the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, Meade now uses the gift of storytelling that he once used to free himself to help at-risk inner city youth liberate themselves from the circumstances of their lives. And it was obvious from the wide eyes and dropped jaws at the lecture I attended that his yarn-weaving magic extends beyond the work of his nonprofit to anyone longing to discover the purpose and meaning of their lives.

Go to www.mosaicvoices.org for more of Michael Meade’s work, including a great video of Meade speaking on “Fulfilling the Genius Within,” a topic of his book Fate and Destiny: The Two Agreements of the Soul.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Relational Homeopathy: The Transformative Power of Erotic Energy

“Wherever there is erotic energy, there is also the potential for transformation.” These are wise words said by a therapist I once knew. And she was right: What better crucible for personal growth than intimacy? There’s nothing like a relationship to get things cooking in your psyche’s kitchen. But where does the alchemical power of sexual attraction come from? It all starts in a very innocent place: childhood.

The first people we “fall in love” with are our parents. Our relationship to them programs us for future intimacies. The people we choose to be our lovers often come with the same qualities—helpful and unhelpful—that our parents brought to us. Enter the concept of relational homeopathy, a term introduced to me by the same insightful woman mentioned above.

In medicinal homeopathy, an extremely small amount of what causes an illness is administered to heal it. For instance, there is a homeopathic remedy made from onions (Allium cepa) that treats hay fever’s watery eyes and nose. (It’s not a complete analogy because onions don’t cause hay fever, but you get the picture.) Relational homeopathy happens when you find yourself engaged with someone who reminds you a little of Mom or Dad. Sometimes when you are relating to her or him you feel just like the hurt and powerless child you once were. However, this person’s behavior is not severe enough to cause more wounding or recreate an abusive environment. It’s just really irritating. One way to know that the stage is set for this kind of “homeopathic” healing is when you have a big reaction to a relatively small event. The magic happens when you shine your adult consciousness on the young part of you who feels so sad and angry.

Here is an example: You feel intensely rejected—like a hurt little girl—when your partner doesn’t say hello to you when he comes home. I’m willing to bet that the part of you that is feeling so dismissed is stuck in childhood. Maybe your Dad wasn’t very emotionally attuned to you, and one of the manifestations of his lack of presence was that he ignored you when he came home. But unlike your father, your partner is usually pretty emotionally responsive. However, when he’s stressed out, he does have a habit of not acknowledging you when he first steps in the door. It’s not a terribly harmful behavior, but nonetheless does trigger strong feelings related to an experience from the past. This is the optimal situation for “homeopathic” healing to occur.

And what would that healing look like? Well, it may mean that instead of lashing out at your partner, you have a kind word with your inner five-year-old. This young part of you probably thinks that your significant other’s current aloofness and your dad’s past unavailability is/was indicative of your lack of worth as a person. Now is the time to sit your sweet self down and tell yourself that that idea is a flat out lie!

Remind yourself that:

1) your parents’ inattention had nothing to do with you
2) your partners’ inattention has nothing to do with you
3) you are and always have been inherently worthwhile

Once you’ve eased your inner kid’s sense of rejection, you can respond to the situation at hand from the position of an adult, not a child.

It’s relational homeopathy. Your partner’s temporary inattention, approached with an eye towards self-awareness, functions like Allium cepa: It has the ingredients to make you weep, but it also carries the potential to help you access and resolve the true source of your tears—the childhood experience of feeling unworthy of affection. By using the feeling of rejection to love yourself more—not less—you take another step towards wholeness. Apply this “remedy” to all of the difficult situations in your life, and nothing can stop you from growing.