For years I was scared to buy paint. One of my college roommates was an art major, and it captivated me to watch her paint. She had the capacity to create such beautiful, museum-quality pieces with her amazing talent. I loved to watch her work her magic! To this day I am proud to have several of her pieces and prints in my home, as I’m reminded of those beautiful memories of watching her in-the-zone.
Like many people I’ve worked with through the years, my barrier to painting and to most visual art came from a sense of “I can’t do it,” or “I’m not good enough.” I never seemed to have this issue with music, dance, theater, or writing where there was at least some evidence of my competence, usually in the form of compliments or accolades received. I never had a problem calling myself a writer, for instance, winning many awards throughout middle school and high school. And then came the books…
But to call myself a visual artist? To call myself a painter? Hell no! After watching my roommate work, I still felt you had to have a special artist license to even buy paint…
There is one visual form I felt reasonably comfortably approaching: collage. Born out of my love for making travel scrapbooks, collaging spoke to me because there didn’t seem to be competence involved. And I very much enjoyed the process of taking scraps and allowing them to develop into something meaningful when put together. As I began working with my own expressive arts mentor Christine Valters Paintner, I began to get braver about working with visual arts. Sure, I’d long kept some basic drawing materials in the office for my clients and out at Dancing Mindfulness retreats. Yet when I began working with Christine and realizing just how much Dancing Mindfulness as a program connected with the all-of-the-above nature of the expressive arts, I got braver about exploring my edge as an expressive artist.
I continued with collage and ventured into working with pastels and markers. I quickly found that visual arts had even more to teach me because I didn’t approach them with any kind of expectation about the quality of the product. There’s something to be said about being the worst kid in art class who was never chosen for any shows. Because competence was never my focus in visual art, I was naturally more open to just enjoying it, to being in process, and learning from what making just for fun revealed.
I credit crossing the paint threshold to my ex-husband after he saw how much I liked coloring and pastels. When I was going through an especially rough patch in the Fall of 2016, he bought me a paint-by-numbers kit. Although initially skeptical, I soon found that I enjoyed it even more than coloring books. There was something soothing and containing about having lines in which to work, yet my hand responded to the sensation of moving paint along a canvas. I loved everything about it; the colors, the smells, and yes, even the feeling of accomplishment when I saw the final product. There was some leftover paint and while at my local craft store on a run for some other supplies, I bought a small canvas and decided to use the leftover pain to express something original. I painted a mandala and it spoke to me very much.
I continued with this process for the next few months—finishing paint-by-numbers kits and then using the leftover paint to create something original. After a couple rounds of this process, I got brave enough to order some of my own paint off of Amazon and continue with my explorations. I approached it as something fun to do, something that let me play with color and texture and sensation and not be bound by the shackles of outcome.
A few months into this journey is where the painting that graces the cover of my latest book Process Not Perfection: Expressive Arts Solutions for Trauma Recovery revealed itself to me. And in this revelation came what is perhaps the greatest lesson that I ever received about the power of process: be open to where the unexpected, even the failures, may guide you. A pleasant surprise may blossom when you shed these expectations.
I laid down a foundation in gauche, the first time I ever experimented with this unique form closely related to watercolor. I also played around with using some shimmery paints that you can apply with a spray bottle. I liked the mystical ocean of color that was coming into existence! Then the idea came to me—paint a Hand of Fatima! This blue magic would certainly be an ideal backdrop for this symbol I’d come to adore. I printed out a copy of the hand online to follow. This unique pattern, sometimes referred to as a Hand of Hamhsa, seemed relatively easy to copy or trace, even for someone as unskilled as I. When I looked at the lopsided result of my attempt to paint the hand in white acrylic with a fine brush, I was disheartened.
“See, I ruined my cool blue background,” I huffed in frustration.
In the spirit of process, I rolled with that frustration, angrily ripping away a paper towel and I just started rubbing. I hoped that enough of it would come off so that I might be able to salvage some of the base. What emerged was the cool, rather mystical white outline of a flower that you now see on the cover of the book.
“Wow, the hand now looks like a cloud, or a flower,” I said.
I noticed that my raging by paper towel maneuver also made some very interesting patterns on the canvas that I just began filling in with gold… and then with green. And then as I noticed the flower take shape, I finished off the core image with some of the pinkish-magenta that now composes the flower itself.
I stood back in amazement, declaring, “I did that! It’s beautiful!”
And it was totally an accident, the fruit of staying in process and not being fixated on outcome.
From the moment I began writing Process Not Perfection, I knew that this image would be my book’s cover. For being in the process that birthed this painting is when I truly fell in love with the magic of expressive arts. I adore how the practices of expressive arts therapy invite me into a focus on process rather than perfection, and I am so grateful to be surrounded by a community of other expressive artists who inspire me to carry this lesson into all areas of my life.
To the process, my friends! And to the inevitable magic that will unfold from living a life in process…
True of false: Hinduism is a polytheistic religion.
If you grew up in an Abrahamic, Western context, chances are that you answered “True.” I was certainly taught that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion all the way through grade school and high school. Let’s set aside the word “religion” for the purposes of this piece because many would argue that Hinduism is not a religion at all, and the word itself is a rather new invention influenced by British colonial rule. Hinduism is a spiritual path best described by the teaching of sanatan dharma: truth is universal, timeless, and unchanging. A Hindu saint who influences me, Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji) taught Sub Ek, or "all one." The precepts that all major religions have in common is the essence of this truth, and followers of this teaching do not hold their path in supremacy above others. The rest is really just details, for we know that truth expresses itself in myriad ways. And in the tradition that we generally refer to as Hinduism, there is only one supreme God—the various “gods” like Krishna, Shiva, Sita, Ram, Ganesh, Kali, and Hanuman are simply manifestations of God; different threads through which Divinity is expressed. As scholar Eknath Easwaran explains in his commentary on The Bhagavad Gita, “From the earliest times, Hinduism has proclaimed one God while accommodating worship of him (or her, for to millions God is the Divine Mother) in many different names” (p. 22).
I adore this teaching, as a humanitarian whose heart breaks to see the devastation caused throughout history in the name of religion and fundamentalism. I also adore it as a person with a dissociative mind who sees the world through multiple lenses and angles. In this piece I hope to demonstrate how getting familiar with the Hindu gods can offer a beautiful systemic metaphor for people to explore their internal world. Yes, there is one God—in the Hindu tradition, God shows up in roughly 330 million ways (the approximate number of major and minor gods). Raised primarily as a Roman Catholic, it always seemed plausible to me that the Almighty could choose to manifest in human form, born of a woman, in the person of Jesus. And I do love Jesus the social rebel and adore that many people find God’s love through Jesus. I could just never get behind the teaching, at least with my whole heart, that Jesus died for my sins and that professing belief in him is the only way to salvation. So it’s safe to say that even as a child, sanatan dharma was alive within me.
I still hang out in Catholic circles, even though I dislike mainstream Catholic social teaching. I draw strength from many aspects of Catholicism and similar Christian paths, and I have a particular fondness for the saints. I adore the saints for a similar reason to why I love the Hindu gods; the saints represent the different ways that God shows up in the world. There are many saints whose lives and teachings have spoken to me, saints like Therese of Lisieux, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Benedict, Anthony, Jude, Augustine, Ignatius, Maria Goretti, and St. John of the Cross. Not to mention those who are not officially “saints” according to the Vatican yet whose lives and writings inspire me, specifically Fr. Henri Nouwen and Fr. Thomas (Louis) Merton. I love them for their humanity and for the overcoming of struggle, owing all glory to the Divine.
You may be familiar with the concept of patron saints. For example, St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost objects, St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes, and while she’s not been officially labeled this, for me St. Hildegard of Bingen is a patroness of the holistic and expressive arts. Catholics pray to saints who they feel most connected to or who most get their struggle, asking them to intervene before God. For me, the Hindu gods hold similar appeal; the major difference is that they are not intermediaries, they are actually parts or aspects of the One Divine presence. Ganesh, the mighty elephant, is known as the remover of obstacles. Sonu, one of my drivers on my pilgrimage to India shared with me, “Pray to Ganesh first; he removes the blocks that keep you from getting to everything else.” Like many people keep a rosary or medal hanging from their car mirror, he keeps a little Ganesh on his dashboard. Ganesh is an expression of the God, the Divine remover of obstacles.
In Hinduism, gods are often paired by their masculine and feminine qualities to represent the union of consciousness (masculine) and energy (feminine). For instance, you often see Krishna and Radha together, Shiva and Parvati, and my favorite holy couple, Sita and Ram. One of the most meaningful stories in the Hindu tradition is that of Sita (energy), Ram (consciousness), and Hanuman (the monkey god representing breath and the ability to shape shift. Once, the demon Ravana (who represents the ego mind) lured and captured Sita (energy) to exploit her for his own benefit. Ram called upon his devoted servant, the beloved Hanuman. Hanuman mustered the forces of his entire monkey army and they found Sita at the southern tip of India (symbolic because in our lower chakras is where we expel all of our life energy that we waste through worry and fear). They rescued her so she could be reunited with her beloved. Hanuman’s role in this story represents the power of the breath to reunite energy and consciousness. In this powerful fusion of energy and consciousness made possible by the breath, order is restored and we are deeply healed. It is amazing to me how Hanuman took on a large, angry form to destroy Ravana and the city of Lanka by fire; and yet he was able to assume a small, gentle form when he came to rescue mother Sita so she would not be afraid.
If you’ve read my work before on this blog, you know that I have a thing for Hanuman. To use Catholic language, I have a great devotion to him. Yes, his qualities displayed in the Sita-Ram story are a big part of why I love him. I am also drawn to the teaching of Hanuman as a bridge—because he is a monkey, he is the bridge between the human world and the animal world. And in my work I aspire to be a bridge. As a woman living with and healing from a dissociative disorder, all work on myself requires that I bridge the aspects of myself to live in wholeness. As a trauma survivor I draw great strength from Hanuman. As a miracle baby and incarnation of Shiva, born through the intervention of the wind God, others were threatened by Hanuman as his powers began to manifest in the form of a rather naughty toddler. The monkey king, Bali, threatened by Hanuman, devised a poisonous concoction of five metals to kill Hanuman. When Hanuman ingested the potion it only made him more brilliant, graceful, and powerful. A better metaphor for post-traumatic growth I have never heard. Jai Hanuman! Victory to Hanuman and victory to the Hanuman spirit within me.
Just like there are many parts of me, there are many gods that speak to my various parts. In addition to Hanuman I have great devotions to Saraswati, the goddess of music, art, and knowledge. Indeed her quality of knowledge, or Pragya, is the origin of the spiritual name I was given. I cannot think of a better goddess for an expressive artist to serve! Many other feminine expressions like Kali, Sita, Durga, and Lakshmi also give me strength. Just like Christianity uses the term trinity, Hinduism also makes use of a similar concept with the holy trinity of Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer) governing the necessary functions of life. On the feminine side, Parvati (fertility, love, beauty), Saraswati, and Lakshmi (wealth, fortune, and prosperity) compose a Tridev, or trinity. Whether you embrace these stories and qualities as spiritual teaching or as myth, there are numerous opportunities to notice where you experience resonance. Whether you are doing parts work for your own healing or with clients, the Hindu gods offer rich opportunities for helping one describe their own internal system with these metaphors and allegories. The stories are numerous and if you can step outside of your spiritual comfort zone and explore some of them, you may discover that they lead you closer to the oneness that is God because they can meet you as you are right now.
And isn’t one of the goals of parts work in healing trauma to honor and recognize the parts yet let them lead us to a sense of wholeness or integration? If the word integration is a sticking point for you—don’t use it. Indeed, many of us who’ve struggled with dissociative issues over the years can equate integration with a therapist’s desire to smash out or ignore what the parts have to say. So while the word integration may work for you, consider replacing it with wholeness or totality. This idea works similar to how the Hindu gods operate—many awesomely beautiful parts that compose one, unified whole. Even from this place of wholeness, the parts can be called upon when they are needed. And like in my internal system, one god/part (like Hanuman for me) may be the key to establishing balance and peace in the system.
There is one final aspect of Hindu teaching I wish to discuss here that you may also find useful in your own path of healing as it relates to parts. In the Hindu system the gods are constantly interconnecting and incarnating as other gods (e.g., Hanuman is an incarnation of Shiva, Ram is an incarnation of Vishnu, etc.) and this vibrancy serves the whole. A demon, like Ravana in the Hanuman story, is a part that thinks it is the whole - a part that tries to override the system for its own desires or survival. So the next time you talk about your demons, remember that you are not your demons. Like Ravana the ego mind, they are just an aspect of your experience that’s trying to overtake your entire system. Instead, consider learning to call upon other warriors to help you understand sanatan dharma--that truth is one. That we are not separate. And the largest most healing truth I’ve learned from studying Hinduism is that I am not my demons. I am not even my singular parts. Rather, learning about, connecting with, and healing my parts has allowed me to uncover the truth of who I really am, never separated from Divine presence. Even if working in the Hindu system like this doesn’t do it for you, I hope that you find something in your own faith tradition or in other areas of life (e.g., mythology, pop culture) that helps you to explore your internal world. May we all ultimately live in wholeness, honoring how every part is connected.
To read more:
Achuthananda, Swami (2013). Many many many gods of Hinduism: Culture, concepts, and controversies. Reliant.
Johari, H. (2016). Spiritual traditions of India coloring book. Destiny Books.
Markus, P. (2015). Love everyone: The transcendent wisdom of Neem Karoli Baba told through the stories of westerners whose lives he transformed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Easwaran, E. (2007). The Bhagavad Gita—Translation and commentary by Eknath Easwaran (2nd ed). Tomales, CA: Blue Mountain Center for Meditation.
Sometimes You Get Stuck in Chicago: 5 Lessons From My Life as a Pilgrim by Dr. Jamie (Pragya) Marich
I detest Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. As a frequent flyer for business, I’m usually good for several stops at O’Hare each year—and the busy-ness, disorganization, and delays that come with it. At least one major delay at O’Hare goes down each year, and I’ve even slept on the airport floor in a makeshift sleeping bag constructed of airline blankets. A few year’s back I even nicknamed Chicago O’Hare the mouse trap of America. Since it’s so busy, if there is a delay or nuisance at O’Hare, travel throughout all of North American can get clogged up big time.
Oddly enough I managed to go a whole year without my routes running through O’Hare. Then, when I received my opportunity to go on my first spiritual pilgrimage to India, a work commitment in Chicago necessitated that I fly out of O’Hare. I thought little of it when I booked as I was simply overjoyed that there was a direct flight to Delhi! The night before I was scheduled to leave, I received the notification via text. My flight would be delayed... by 16 hours! For a moment my head started to spin into the hysterics of “This isn’t fair! I’m going to lose more than a whole day from my plans, just when I cleared the space to go to India. See, the universe hates me after all!”
My breath quickly found me and I realized—this is spiritual pilgrimage. Expect the unexpected. It’s supposed to be challenging and yes, the pilgrimage goes through Chicago. You know what that means; another change to cultivate patience through the art of waiting. Another chance to curse life for not working and being inconvenient, only to take that breath and realize my gratitude for even being able to go to India in the first place, especially when so many people are suffering there and in the world over. And maybe that’s what pilgrimage intends to teach us? Patience. Patience with ourselves and the process...
Pilgrimage comes from Latin meaning “to cross a threshold.” The art of pilgrimage has played a vital role in my life in a way I never could have expected as an American elementary student who first heard the term in reference to English colonial Separatists with funny hats. I worked in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Hercegovina—a major pilgrimage site in the modern Catholic world— from 2001-2003. Traveling there as a pilgrim myself first brought me to this sleepy town that would transform my life. I’ve also been drawn to major sites and pilgrimage-retreat experiences in the Catholic world and in the traditions of other faiths in which I take refuge. India was long on my wish list of pilgrimage sites and in the weeks leading up to the trip, I was giddy with excitement that I would be exploring a place that long felt like a soul home!
Oddly enough, the intention I set for this pilgrimage was to receive further help with patiently relaxing into the uncertainty. I’m in the midst of two separate struggles in both my personal and professional life; the epic stuff that may end up in my memoirs someday. The common denominator in both situations is waiting with uncertainty for an outcome to unfold where I have no control over the workings of other people, places, or moving parts. I know that being outcome-focused is futile; enough spiritual study has certainly revealed this truth to me. Yet relaxing into the uncertainties and trusting in the true nature of Self is a challenge to my still healing limbic brain. I am still a human being with human desires and frailties, which is why I continue to practice, work on myself, and yes, make pilgrimage. So naturally the Divine started on me before I even got to India.
An additional three hours of delay with boarding and tarmac issue, plus the fifteen hour flight, gave me plenty of time to reflect on what the pilgrimages of my life have taught me thus far. First, although pilgrimage may involve any crossing of a threshold that requires you to step outside of your comfort zone, travel if you can, as the ancients did when making pilgrimage. Travel is the ultimate metaphor for life. Travel reveals and builds character as you are challenged to deal with things like global events, the weather, delays, and everything that comes with stepping outside of your normal routine.
Which leads to the second lesson—pilgrimage is supposed to be challenging. To intone the wisdom of Jimmy Dugan, one of my favorite characters played by Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, “If it were easy than everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” Dealing with the hard, the obstacles that life throws at us, builds our spiritual muscles and forces us to rely on the spiritual resources that many of us hope to strengthen by sitting in the temples or praying in the shrines. If you allow it to, getting there may strengthen you more than what happens when you actually arrive.
In the Croatian language the word for pilgrim (hodačašće) comes from the same root as the word to walk (hodati). That is why for many faithful in a variety of traditions, walking is vital to the journey. Think of El Camino de Santiago, probably the most famous pop culture reference for this phenomenon. While certain destinations are made more accessible as technology develops, one can still embrace travel with the step-by-step, slow pace that walking engenders. This means accepting the delays as part of the process. This is my third lesson learned in my life as a pilgrim.
There is a saying in recovery that expectations are planned resentment, a lesson that’s been instilled in my life as a pilgrim. Number four—drop your expectations and you’ll be opened up to a whole new world of gifts. My India pilgrimage began with this lesson, as I was originally supposed to go for a training. When the dates got moved and I was unable to change my schedule around, the inner-prompting was to still go, especially because I’d already arranged the time off. With this being the first trip to a country that means so much to me and my spiritual development, it makes more sense to build my own pilgrimage than to be in training with little time to see anything else. I’m in the middle of a process unfolding exactly as it is meant to.
Even on my bonus day in Chicago I got to visit one friend/colleague I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to see otherwise due to her schedule. I had more time to visit with another friend and former student. Plus my hosts and dear friends, Jeff and Bradd, attended to my every need. Not only did they introduce me to a new series that has me rolling on the floor laughing, when I woke up on my bonus day in Chicago, Bradd put out many of his art supplies for me with a note to help myself. Even in the delays, I was given the needed message to rest, to create, and to appreciate connection in all of its forms. And when I finally arrived to India, specifically to my first pilgrimage site of Kripalu Samadhi Mandir in Malav (Gujarat), I appreciated the day I had there with renewed vigor instead of grieving the day and a half I lost.
The grand lesson in all of this is that life is the pilgrimage. We are sometimes called to make pilgrimage so that we can be reminded of the skills we need the most as we navigate the journey of life on this plane. I trust that the pilgrimage that I am on presently is nourishing me for the most important pilgrimage of all—the journey to go deeper within. This pilgrimage is constantly revealing the true source of my nature and my pilgrim soul—the Divine fusion of consciousness and energy, the only love story that really matters. When I am fully aware of this Divine presence within me, I can more fully let go of life’s stressors because I know that I am releasing them to this timeless source.
Am I still a work in process with all of this? Until this human brain of mine is fully healed, until the Arjuna within me realizes that he is really Krishna on the field of battle in The Bhagavad Gitaand until I can fully relax into the uncertainty of life, I continue to be a pilgrim. I continue to learn, I continue to grow, and I continue to release more and more of what weighs me down. I travel much lighter than I used to, and I travel joyfully.
When I first started to use EMDR with my clients, particularly with more complex cases, there seemed to be more that needed to get done before trauma processing. There needed to be more resourcing but also something that is able to touch a deeper trauma that is inside of our clients. Shame is usually the culprit.
Mason (2013) stated that, “shame safeguards the spirit.” When shame is our reality, we don’t feel good about ourselves. Shame is generally learned from experiences in our most vulnerable developmental years. However, since memories can be moved/restored through the process of memory reconsolidation (Ecker, Ticic, & Hulley, 2012), our reality is subjective to the meaning we give it. This teaching may question our foundation of what composes our reality. Even more to the point, it calls into question the very essence of who we are.
In the Institute for Creative Mindfulness EMDR therapy training, we explore the client’s trauma targets using a thematic approach. Addressing traumas in a thematic way allows the client to address what they believe and how they feel about themselves in order to rewrite, renew, or own their story. Because of this, anything can be targeted with EMDR, if it holds adaptive or maladaptive value and the client can emotionally access it. However, what about the experiences that are there but not recognized consciously or that started before narrative or declarative memory developed in the brain?
Let me first acknowledge the difference between what I am presenting and Paulsen and O’Shea’s (2017) “When There Are No Words” protocol. Paulsen and O’Shea’s stance is that their protocol “reset the hardwired neuro-affect circuits” and this is done in Phase 2 Preparation. What I am presenting here is an option for clinicians who are not trained to do “When There Are No Words” (or are having difficulty following the nuances of protocol they downloaded off the web). Paulsen and O’Shea’s protocol can be helpful for clients; however, I also believe that accessing implicit memories through what I am suggesting holds additional value on two levels. One, it is a good and safer place to get “buy-in” from a client, and two, if it does not go as we would hope, it can be “diagnostic.” I want to gain access to my client’s earliest wounds. What I am proposing is more of a “Phase 2.5” intervention that links Phase 2 and the reprocessing Phases 3-6 (Marich, 2019). This intervention allows clinicians to address our client's preverbal schemas with any and all thematically shame-based core belief clusters because this is actually where the cluster begins.
Shape and Color Set-up: While taking clients trauma history (Phase 1) and assessing core beliefs (Phase 3), I am looking to put their core beliefs in two categories: shame-based (i.e., I am bad, I am worthless) and fear-based (i.e., I am in danger, I am powerless) core beliefs. Before floating back on a core belief I will ask, “Do any of these shame-based beliefs just feel like they have always been there?” (I will either ask this during Phase 1, Client History or Phase 3 Assessment.) Nine times out of ten, clients will identify a shame-based negative cognition. If the clients pick a fear-based cognition like “I am in danger,” I stay away from it because it is most likely linked directly to an event that can be directly recalled and I am not trying to have them start reprocessing a direct memory. If this happens, I will guide them towards a shame-based core belief.
After resourcing in Preparation (Phase 2), assessing targets (Phase 3), and establishing some kind of stop signal, I then have the client create a target of the core belief felt-sense by asking, “What shape and color would represent this ‘has always been there’ belief?” Once the client has the image (and negative cognition) then it is standard protocol time (i.e., Phases 4-7 and Phase 8 in the next session). Future template can be done but I feel that because I am priming the pump and that there are declarative memories still to go, I wait until I see how the client responses to the process and do future templates with memories that are able to be recalled.
Rationale: I am trying to see what is going on under the hood and also preparing their memory system for reprocessing shifts. My reference to the shape and color or image comes from Mark Grant’s work on pain management (1995). Paulsen and O’Shea also use this strategy; they do not, however, want you to activate the client. My position is that if we are addressing the client’s schema, that they are feeling all the time, they are already activated. Again, I suggest doing this on shame-based themes and not fear-based ones because I believe it is safer and the client is less likely to activate actual memories. However, activating shame-based memories does happen. In this case, I will guide them back to target or go back to resourcing. If the client has too much shame then the standard practices of creating some distance between the client and image, having the client pendulate, or taking only doing a fragment is advised. To further support my position, if the theme carries a high SUDs, which it normally does, Shapiro (2018) suggests doing a more intense early memory first because if they can do this, then they can handle whatever else is to come. Lastly, and for obvious reasons, this is actually the start of the cluster.
Buy In: Starting with a shape and a color allows the client to test-drive reprocessing. When clients open up to reprocessing they are opening themselves to their own healing. When that positive shift happens, they have experienced something that is effective and they will have more buy-in into their treatment. When, as the clinician, we express that it is a more indirect way of reprocessing EMDR, it implies that we are starting someplace safer. Clients appreciate this. Also, since their core beliefs are something that they already feel and live with on a daily basis they are familiar with it and okay talking about this more than their traumas. Once they have seen a shift in this, then now know and have direct experience that EMDR therapy works for them.
Diagnostic: Doing this is also a good test run to see if the person is able to do the deeper work and can be diagnostic in the sense that you get a feel for the clients protective/dissociative system and their level of preparedness on an unconscious level. Ideally, this is assessed in Phases 1-3 of EMDR but it is not always apparent on an unconscious level. Obviously, we need to have rapport, do assessments like the DES (at a bare minimum), and use our clinical judgment but it is not always obvious how someone’s unconscious will respond. If the client picks a shape and a color that goes from dark to something light and has freed something in them or they feel lighter, then chances are they are ready to do the deeper work that they are coming to us for. Additionally, they now have direct experience with feeling a shift in their emotional body, particularly with something that feels like it has always been there, again, we get a lot of buy-in.
As clinicians, we also get a lot of information regarding diagnostics if the client cannot remember their early childhood and/or by seeing if the client can do calm/safe place or container. If they cannot do this effectively then there is more going on in their dissociative process that is worth discussing with them (Paulsen, 2009). I started doing the Color and Shape Set-up before having the Dissociative Table (Paulsen, 2009) as a tool in my EMDR toolbox. I now will start with the dissociative table, O’Shea and Paulsen’s “When There Are No Words,” and then this Color and Shape Set-up, when appropriate.
Observations: The shame color/shape/image is usually dark. When reprocessing goes well, people get to a bright and lively color and/or translucent image. Sometimes, it just disappears. When it does not go “right” the image usually stays the same and clients will say, “it does not feel like it is going to move.” This is clinically telling and potentially diagnostic so more psycho-education and resourcing may be needed. Yes, some clients will have the wherewithal to identify that “it has always been there” or “I just feel it.” This insight may indicate where they are at in their readiness to do deeper reprocessing. This suggests to me that they are highly attuned to their body and are already primed to do EMDR or trauma reprocessing.
Generalization: Generalization is when the client starts to reprocess all of the thematic memories in a cluster (Ecker, Ticic, & Hulley, 2012). This happens because once a core belief is resolved in an earlier memory the lesson learned is applied to other similar situations. Since the brain works through making associations, any association can connect to the neuro-network that rides this theme is going to be impacted, hence has the opportunity to be reprocessed. If the client is consciously and unconsciously open to healing then they are going to do a great deal of work starting in this way.
Populations: I particularly love doing this with people are addressing their addictions because they are usually living in their right-brain processes. This also goes for people who are creative and children between the ages of 2-12 respectfully. Highly motivated adolescents respond well but other adolescents find it weird. Similarly, I like doing this with personality disorders as well because it gives them the opportunity to allow shifts to happen, and/or challenges them if it does not. It provides experiential material to work on. For more left-brained people, it can be a challenge but it gives them the opportunity to connect to their more emotional side.
Healing Light: Also, consider that this can be done in combination with healing light. I will have clients get their SUDS down to a like 2-3 and then I will perform the healing light or Light Stream on the remainder. I have witnessed some very spiritual and religious experiences by doing this.
Target Order: When I do a floatback and get the earliest memory if it is not between the ages of 2-5, I have my client’s try and float further back. Because of what I am purposing, with regard to schemas and shame-based beliefs, it is implied that the earliest recall memories are going to be represented around the chronological ages of 2 to 5. Our expertise that tells us that the schemas started before the age of 2.
Clients are coming to us for our expertise on the therapeutic process and trauma etiology, which can conflict with letting the client lead or decide what memory to do first. If I have a client who wants to address something more recent or only one specific memory then I will have them try the Color and Shape Set-up first as a test run. Similarly, if there is no discrete memory (Greenwald, 2007) or test run memory to do, I also do this. There are times when having the client lead or pick a memory that they want to work on can be effective. Allowing the client to lead the selection of targets without any guidance, however, can be what creates more work later. So, we have to have a good case conceptualization in order to maximize the outcomes of healing and our conceptualization has to be based on trauma-informed care, which means to me, safety first. What this writing ultimately comes down to is that traumas are compounded in the memory network because our neuro-networks are associative and by previous traumas so starting off at the earliest is the safest and will be more likely going to produce better outcomes (Greenwald, 2007).
Feel free to contact me for individual consultation or attend my weekly group on Friday’s 12-2pm EST.
Ecker, B., Ticic, R., & Hulley, L. (2012). Unlocking the emotional brain: Eliminating symptoms at their roots using memory reconsolidation. New York, NY: Routledge.
Grant, M. (1995). From https://emdrtherapyvolusia.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Mark_Grants_Pain_Protocol.pdf Retrieved on 2/8/19
Greenwald, R. (2007). EMDR: Within a phase model of trauma-informed treatment. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, Inc.
Marich, J. (2019). EMDR Therapy Phase 2.5: Honoring a Wider Context for Cnhanced Preparation. [Blog Post] Retrieved from https://www.instituteforcreativemindfulness.com/icm-blog-redefine-therapy/emdr-therapy-phase-25-honoring-a-wider-context-for-enhanced-preparation-by-jamie-marich-phd-lpcc-s-licdc-cs-reat-ryt-200
Mason, M. (2013). Women and shame: Kin and Culture. In. Claudia Bepko (Ed.), Feminism and addiction (pp. 175-194). New York, NY: Routledge
Paulsen, S. (2009). Looking through the eyes of trauma and dissociation: An illustrated guide for EMDR therapists and clients. Bainbridge Island, WA: A Bainbridge Institute for Integrative Psychology Publication.
Paulsen, S., & O’Shea, K. (2017). When there are no words: Repairing early trauma and neglect from the attachment period with EMDR Therapy. Bainbridge Island, WA: A Bainbridge Institute for Integrative Psychology Publication.
Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): Basic principles, protocols, and procedures (3rd ed). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
EMDR Therapy Phase 2.5: Honoring a Wider Context for Enhanced Preparation by Jamie Marich, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, REAT, RYT-200
As an EMDR educator, people are constantly asking me what I think of the latest trend in EMDR therapy. In the last year or so, Phillip Manfield’s Flash Technique has become all the rage. My students will tell you that I am not easily impressed by the latest spin on the standard protocol or twists on time-honored strategies for resourcing and regulating affect. I’ve long maintained that if you learn the standard protocol well and have a sense of how to mindfully modify with respect to special populations, dissociation, complex trauma, and the art of embodied resourcing, you have what you need. To be clear, I do not oppose use of the Flash Technique if it makes sense to the therapist using it and the technique helps the client. I also want to make my assessment clear that the Flash Technique, like many other trends that have captivated the attention of EMDR practitioners, is not a panacea or a quick fix. Indeed, it can prepare more complex clients for full reprocessing. Yet Flash is not the fullness of complete reprocessing and it is not a substitute for EMDR Phases 3-6. Indeed, there are many other strategies, especially from the tradition of embodied mindfulness, which can also engender more active preparation for reprocessing. Explaining my assessment of flash in this larger context led me and several colleagues on the Institute for Creative Mindfulness faculty to coin the term EMDR Phase 2.5.
Interventions that are more robust than traditional EMDR therapy preparation (Phase 2) that get a client fully ready to handle the affect that may emerge in Phases 3-6 belong in this critical middle ground. Many others and I have long taught that in working with complex trauma and indeed with most clients, doing one Calm Safe Place exercise is grossly insufficient. While the popularity of Resource Development and Installation or RDI (Korn & Leeds, 2002) and Resource Tapping (Parnell, 2008) inspired EMDR therapists to expand their scope on how to conceptualize preparation, many trauma-focused EMDR clinicians see that there are still other needs to be addressed. Namely, how do we help clients not just to stop, pause, or return to equilibrium when they abreact or when a session is due for closure; rather, how do we help prepare them for intensity? The intensity of affect release and shift that can help EMDR therapy to be so effective can also make it so scary for clients who have long been phobic of both affect and mindfulness.
This phobia of both affect and mindfulness develops as a legitimate response to unhealed trauma and dissociation (Forner, 2019), especially if a person was imprinted with negative cognitions such as: “I cannot show my emotions,” “It’s not safe to show my emotions,” “Showing emotions makes me weak,” among others (Marich, 2011; Marich & Dansiger, 2018). I’ve long taught trainees that even though their tendency may be to get nervous when a preparation skill like Calm Safe Place or container doesn’t seem to work, the client is still getting something valuable out of the exercise if you handle it well. These traditional preparation skills, if you follow the textbook, are supposed to bring about pleasant and resource-worthy experiences. Yet if they “go bad,” you now have an opportunity to guide a client through an experience in distress tolerance. For me, teaching a client that they can sit with unpleasant experiences for a time and/or use other resources to shift the focus is the best possible preparation skill that we can give clients in advance of moving into the reprocessing Phases (3-6) where discomfort will happen. For me, this is the essence of EMDR therapy Phase 2.5.
Our program and my approach to EMDR therapy is known for its focus on mindfulness. While Dr. Shapiro herself was a practitioner of mind-body healing modalities and studied with renowned west coast meditation teacher Stephen Levine, many EMDR therapists are not sufficiently grounded in the fundamentals of mindfulness and embodiment. Having these fundamentals is just as important, if not more important, than knowing an advanced preparation technique like Flash. Especially because Flash is not full-proof; many students and consultants have reported to us that it can “go bad” or open up into full reprocessing before a client is ready. As my colleague Dr. Stephen Dansiger and I explain in our 2018 book EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness for Trauma-Focused Care, the standard EMDR protocol is filled with invitations to mindful awareness. Use of questions like what are you noticing now? (Phase 4), when you scan your body from head-to-toe, what are you noticing? (Phase 6) and prompts like Go with that give us all the evidence we need that Shapiro developed EMDR therapy in a mindfulness context. Often defined as the practice of coming back to non-judgmental awareness, many have posited that mindfulness is one of the potential mechanisms of action in EMDR’s success (Logie, 2014; Shapiro, 2018). Yet if the first time a client is asked to be mindful or embodied is during their first run through the protocol, it may be too late.
As Christine Forner (2019) explains in her brilliant new article on connections between dissociation and mindfulness, dissociation is essentially a state of missing mindfulness. Mindfulness is about connection and dissociation is about surviving disconnection. Thus, many individuals who have spent their entire lives dissociating are literally phobic of mindfulness, and in the standard EMDR protocol we are asking them to be both mindful and embodied. This request is not necessarily a bad thing because learning to be mindful and processing mindfully is a major component of what can help us heal. As EMDR practitioners, we must do a better job of preparing clients for what the standard protocol expects.
Mindful and embodied EMDR therapy preparation requires more than just reading a script out of a book on mindfulness or showing a client a video. While I make several video resources in this area available online, I urge that EMDR practitioners must have a personal grounding in mindful and embodied practices to help clients deal with difficulties when the scripts don’t flow as planned for the client. Complex trauma and dissociation is messy and while we can do our best to give you a step list of what to follow for teaching these skills, drawing from your own personal experiences will help you to respond in the moment and guide clients through distress tolerance as safely as possible. In the Institute for Creative Mindfulness curriculum, we teach trainees to offer skills in all of these areas as part of Phase 2 preparation:
While we are not alone as a training program in teaching this widened scope, we see active exploration of these resources and the problems that they can bring up for the client as real opportunities to work with distress tolerance and engage in EMDR Phase 2.5. If a skill “goes bad,” we work with it to help a person notice the affect it creates or return to the present moment from any shut down that it caused. If a client protests, “I can’t do it,” we ask them how we might be able to modify a skill, which can include shortening the length of time that we spend in a skill.
A particularly strong skill from the mindfulness tradition that, in my view, should be taught by every EMDR therapist as part of EMDR Phase 2.5 is Mindfulness of Feeling Tone. Mindfulness of Feeling Tone is the second of four primary foundations of mindfulness. In this meditation, we ask the client to bring up their present-moment experience, scan the body briefly, and ask them if what they are noticing is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Too often we have to orient clients to the language of what are you noticing now and if you’re doing it once they are activated in Phases 3-4, it’s too late. Many of our clients lack the vocabulary and practice with feeling or sensation to begin to even answer this question. This exercise is an elementary yet vital start to the process for it gives them three words to start with that are similar to the EMDR therapy constructs of adaptive, maladaptive, and neutral. You can take Mindfulness of Feeling Tone a step further by deliberately asking a client to bring up some association they would describe as pleasant and then guide them through noticing how they experience pleasant in the body. Do the same thing for unpleasant, which will be more challenging, yet ultimately more preparatory for what is to come in later Phases of EMDR Therapy. They don’t have to sit with the unpleasant experience forever; thirty seconds may suffice. Then you can move on to neutral and if needed, shift back to pleasant, strengthening that adaptive resource with DAS/BLS if appropriate. To watch a video demonstration of me guiding this exercise, please click HERE.
A resource such as Mindfulness of Feeling Tone is similar to the processes of titration and pendulation that Peter Levine actively calls upon in his creation, Somatic Experiencing®. I’ve trained many individuals well-schooled in both Somatic Experiencing and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy® and indeed one of the biggest criticisms they have of EMDR therapy is that we can blast a client in too quickly to the heart of the trauma without easing them into it using processes like titration and pendulation. Titration calls for a slowing down and only working on small pieces of a trauma at a time and then retreating into resources. While this process may go against what many EMDR therapists believe, stringently following Shapiro’s (2018) teaching that “preparation is not processing,” (p.36) I argue that for some complex clients titration is warranted. To me, this is where the Flash Technique is filling a gap in enhanced EMDR therapy preparation. For many years I have addressed this gap, if it appears with a client, by asking them what part of a target memory are they willing to work on first, even if it’s not necessarily the image or worst part. If needed, in the spirit of titration, we retreat into resources and then go back into this gentle test of processing. Sometimes the process of going with what we set up leads us to the worst part, other times it does not and we have to go back and set up the target again to address the worst image or worst part. My modification is another example of an EMDR Phase 2.5 that can lead into full Phase 3-4 that may be appropriate for complex clients. Yet in and of itself, the modification would be incomplete for optimal resolution of the memory.
The Flash Technique also seems to be helpful in the process of pendulation. Levine describes pendulation as the shifting of body sensations or emotions between those of expansion and those of contraction (Levine, 1997; Payne, Levine, &Crane-Godreau, 2015). A key principle of pendulation as practiced in Somatic Experiencing® is that a resilient nervous system is one that can move back and forth between alertness/action and calm/rest without getting caught in the extremes. Pendulation invites a fluctuation between resourced states and activated states as a mechanism for training our nervous system, which can help with long-term integration.
The Flash Technique, as described in this wonderful review by Ricky Greenwald (2017) (click HERE for the link), resonates for me as a practice of pendulation. This makes the Flash Technique a more robust form of EMDR preparation and thus meets my classification of it as EMDR Phase 2.5. I have long felt that EMDR therapists have much we can learn and integrate from Somatic Experiencing® and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy® and I believe that Manfield has given us a way to bring in some of these ideas, especially through the visual channel.
However, Flash Technique is not the only way to prepare our clients more effectively for the intense affect and embodied shifts that will inevitably happen once EMDR Phases 3-6 commence. Some of the mindfulness and embodiment skills that I covered in this article are a mere overview of what EMDR therapists can learn to more effectively prepare clients. I’ve long admired that the flexibility of EMDR therapy Phase 2 allows practitioners to bring in other modalities or approaches that they feel can strengthen the skills a client acquires in preparation. On my team, in addition to traditional mindfulness work, my faculty members and I make use of yoga, dialectical behavior therapy, expressive arts therapy, 12-step strategies, well-established work like Seeking Safety®, and creative interventions offered to us by other leaders in the EMDR therapy community like Jim Knipe and Ana Gomez.
All of these strategies are available to you and to your clients! Learning them and implementing may not feel as simple as reading a script or following a simple set of steps. I know that many EMDR therapists want these steps spelled out and this is natural for adult learners. However, it seems that every few years I talk to therapists who get caught up in the latest trend without learning the context that surrounds it and this is problematic. Even more problematic is if practitioners believe that the latest thing will replace their need to do other, more comprehensive resourcing. There are no short cuts in EMDR therapy; it takes hard work and personal commitment to become fluent and responsive. Committing to the expansion of your skill set using some of the other strategies we described here and your own personal practice with many of these skills means that you will excel at working in EMDR Phase 2.5!
Please, let’s make this an active blog. Share in your comments if this “2.5” concept resonates with you and what you have done to foster this level of preparation other than using the Flash Technique. I look forward to hearing from you.
Special thanks to Institute for Creative Mindfulness team members Amber Stiles-Bodnar, Dr. Stephen Dansiger, Suzanne Rutti, Adam O’Brien, Ramona Skriiko and several others for their contributions to this piece.
Forner, C. (2019). What mindfulness can learn from dissociation and dissociation can learn from mindfulness. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 20(1), 1-15.
Greenwald, R. (2017). Flash! Trauma therapy just got easier and faster. Trauma Institute & Child Trauma Institute Blog. 28 November 2017, available at www.childtrauma.com/blog/flash/
Korn, D., & Leeds, A. (2002). Preliminary evidence of efficacy for EMDR resource development and installation in the stabilization phase of treatment of complex post traumatic stress disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 1465–1487.
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Logie, R. (2014). EMDR- more than just a therapy for PTSD? The Psychologist- The British Psychologist Society, 27 (512-517).
Marich, J. (2011). EMDR made simple: Four approaches to using EMDR with every client. PESI Publishing (Premiere): Eau Claire, WI.
Marich, J. & Dansiger, S. (2018). EMDR therapy & mindfulness for trauma-focused care. New York: Springer Publishing Company.
Parnell, L. (2008). Tapping in: A step-by-step guide to activating your healing resources through bilateral stimulation. Boulder, CO: Sounds True Books.
Payne, P., Levine, P., & Crane-Godreau, M. (2015). Somatic experiencing: Using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy. Frontiers in Psychology, 4 February 2015, DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00093
Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures, 3rd ed.New York: The Guilford Press.
Ancient philosophers talked about the good life.
The good life is a sort of craft – the Greeks used the word techne. A call from and response to the world around us, requiring adaptation and contextual awareness. The blacksmith, for example, carefully integrates understanding of his material’s malleability, the temperature of his fire, and the resistance of his anvil in hammering out metal goods. Crafts, nay arts, are doings. These aren’t things that are thought about in the abstract. They require the thoughtful and active integration of material conditions in one’s world in order to produce an put forth or express a product. Likewise, the good life, is an active process in which one’s life is carefully crafted like a work of art.
But somewhere along the way philosophers began talking about what it means to live morally - searching for the correct set of rules or principles to which ones’ behavior or internal compass must conform. Kant is most famous for this with his categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” It’s a rather wordy command, that suggests that we ought to take no actions that give rise to logical contradictions. For example, the notion that “stealing is acceptable” is immoral, since stealing wouldn’t be possible in a world where everyone was stealing from everyone all of the time – it would result in a logical contradiction. Ergo, stealing is morally wrong. What is wrong is always wrong and what is good is always good. We can determine right and wrong, good and bad without any reference to the conditions in which a person lives.
Understanding morality this way is certainly a tidy way to look at the world. But humans are full of contradictions. For example, in one moment I might desire your approval, while in the next I could care less of what you think of me. Some might even say that the contradictory nature of our desires and thoughts are the distinguishing feature of what it means to be human. It is certainly one of the things that makes human beings such fascinating creatures. Humans grow, change, and adapt. We look back on the past in light of new experiences and rethink what those past events mean to us. We look into the future with the baggage of past experiences coloring what we see in front of us. We very often have our minds made up only to let all our old ideas go in the face of a new feeling, experience, or idea, and reform our minds again and again over the courses our lives. Very often we are confronted with experiences thrust upon us by conditions outside of our control, and we are forced to grow and adapt to accommodate these changes.
If we suppose that a “good” life can be understood in moral terms – that is right and wrong – we run the risk of losing what it means to be human at all. Because as much pain as there might exist in growth and change, there is also a great deal of beauty.
Over the course of my life I’ve had the privilege of mentoring and coaching a number of women through life challenges. Of watching them crawl through suffering, wash out their wounds, and trudge along. Inevitably, I find a moment in which we are sitting across the table from one another laughing about something completely inconsequential. And there she is. A fully realized human being, flourishing in her own right. It’s like a dance, an artform, to watch another person begin to integrate the pieces of their lives and reorganize their own narrative moving from tragic victim to laughing friend. It’s a dance that invites us to participate ourselves, reconsidering our own stories and rewriting our own endings.
Living morally is living abstractly – divorced from the world in ivory towers determining what is right and wrong for everyone. Living beautifully, crafting a good life, is done in concert with the world in which we live and each another, taking the time to integrate life lessons, and opening our hearts to grow. To rewrite our own unique stories and invite others to do the same.
In the summer of 2000, I set out on my first proper backpacking tour of Central and Eastern Europe. For six weeks I would be visiting all of these historical places that I studied about for years, and I was ill-prepared! The cheap $20 rolling duffle bag with pieces of things pretending to be straps just would not do, especially on the trains. During my first stop—Prague—I saw how much easier it was for other young travelers to navigate the trains having proper backpacks. So at my next stop—Krakow—I found an outdoor shop and paid $80 for my first real backpack. She was amazing! Blue with black trimming, she was so easy to pack, and so wonderful to carry on the trains. I feel like she opened up the world for me and the possibilities in it even wider. For the next nineteen years, she would literally help me carry the baggage of my life and my transformation.
The word “baggage” has taken on an interesting emotional connotation in modern times. My mother always warned me not to date a guy with “baggage.” By the time I got to my mid-thirties, I was brave enough to respond, “Um…mother, I got quite a bit of my own baggage by now.” There’s even a Game Show Network series called Baggage hosted by none other than Jerry Springer where dating show contestants evaluate each other by whether or not they can live with each other’s baggage. And as a trauma therapist I’ve long helped people come to terms with their baggage, a word they often use for the burdens they carry. Sometimes I help them to shed the load that’s weighing them down and other times I help them to make peace with their past and how they carry it. Using the backpacker’s metaphor, sometimes we just need to get a more efficient piece of luggage.
Recent events prompted me into some deep introspection about baggage and all of its metaphors and meanings. I am currently on a one-month tour of the U.K., teaching and writing. When I got to the airport, I noticed that one of the last two functional buckles holding my old girl together had cracked and broken. Over the years everything that once made the old girl an ideal backpack went bad—the waist buckle, the chest strap, some chords and zippers. The two back straps were still intact which made her still okay to use. And suddenly that was no longer the case. I checked in at Cleveland for my flight to London. Yet trying to haul a month’s worth of gear into London city from the airport with a broken backpack was exhausting. I gave her one more go as I proceeded up to Scotland last week and the strain wreaked havoc on my shoulder and back. Knowing that there was no way to fix or to replace the buckle, it was time to lay her to rest and get a new pack.
I was surprised at how difficult that was for me. I’m not really the type to get attached to material things, yet there I was, attachment sick over literal baggage.
“Wow, Buddha would have a field day with this,” I snickered.
The old girl was different. She carried me through the healing journey of the second nineteen years that sought to unravel the confusion and pain that tangled me up in the first twenty. Setting out to travel the world was a major component in my recovery for it showed me new perspectives and different energies. When I ended up moving to Europe for three years in November 2000, I carried everything I needed in the old girl. She came with me on every international trip that followed as I connected with these lost pieces of myself.
When I walked into the outdoor shop in Inverness, Scotland, I reflected on just how far that 20-year-old girl who walked into a similar shop in Krakow had traveled. Two marriages come and gone, sobriety, a doctorate, seven books written, a successful business established, major mental health relapses healed and still healing, coming out in various ways, a story of transformation still in process… Most importantly, we’ve achieved liberation by connecting to the certainly of who we really are and what we stand for—we are total and yet continually evolving towards wholeness. Traveling, embracing the journey—both literal and metaphorical—brought me these gifts.
And now the time had come to get a more functional, efficient pack for the next nineteen years and beyond. When Mark, the lovely salesman in Inverness, explained all of the features on the state-of-the-art red Osprey pack I was privileged enough to buy, my first response was, “But the pouches on the new pack aren’t like the old one—I liked that feature better!” I chuckled at myself—realizing how it’s so easy for all of us to do that during the change process. Without a doubt my new pack is better for my body, contoured for a larger woman’s back and hips and full of efficient features. This new pack is 15 gallons smaller than the old girl, which will force me to pack more efficiently. That’s probably a good thing! I knew in that moment that as attached as I can get to the things I’ve gotten used to, they may no longer be what serves me the best presently.
I’ve learned to travel lighter in the last nineteen years, both literally and metaphorically, and this adjustment certainly helps. I am also a human being struggling to make sense of attachment and heal or release the storylines I carry. In trauma focused therapy, working with attachment is a topic du jour. As an EMDR therapy trainer, I often entertain questions on how well our curriculum can help trainees to work with attachment trauma. While it’s clear that many people with complex trauma were severely wounded in early childhood by the caretakers with whom they should have formed healthy attachment, I’ve never felt that repairing attachment is the entire answer. As a mindfulness-focused EMDR program committed to East-West integration, detachment is just as important. I heartily believe the Buddha’s teaching that attachment or clinging is one of the three main causes of suffering. Yet we are human and healthy attachment is a legitimate need—so how do I reconcile this one, Buddha? Contemplating this question in meditation has taught me that acceptance and letting go are vital to the change process. We can do this at the same time as we grieve the childhood we needed and never received. We can also bring healing to the younger, wounded parts that may still live inside of us, modeling healthy attachment for them. Letting go of the storylines and the attachments that no longer serve us in the present is paramount. Letting go clears the path for healing at all levels.
I ended up letting go of the old girl in my hotel room in Scotland with a note for hotel staff to do what they saw fit. It felt appropriate laying her to rest on the international road, especially in a place as magical as Scotland. I was also blessed to stumble upon a teaching from de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo during the days I wrote in Scotland. She advises, “Have gratitude for the things you're discarding. By giving gratitude, you're giving closure to the relationship with that object, and by doing so, it becomes a lot easier to let go.”
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so wise and so applicable for people on any path of recovery. Gratitude is a quality of recovery that directly helps us to let go of unhealthy or unserving attachments, yet in modern times gratitude can become so difficult to practice. We are socialized, especially in the West, to focus on what we don’t have instead of celebrating what we do. Further, practicing gratitude can feel impossible especially when you’ve been so hurt and so wronged by life and the people in it. Hopefully this will not block you from at least giving the practice of gratitude a try in your process of letting go and lightening the load.
I thanked the old girl vocally before I left the room that day, and writing this article is a way of publicly offering my thanks. Yes, it’s to an object, yet think of how much this wisdom can also help us let go of the so-called “baggage” from our past that weighs us down—memories, shame-based scripts, unhealthy coping skills, and the impact of wounding relationships. We can thank those things and those people for the role that they played for us at the time. Even the horrible stuff—if you are willing, thank it for its role in bringing you to where you are today, hopefully on the precipice of a major shift in your continued healing and recovery.
I chant to a monkey.
No really, I do. I chant to a monkey.
There was a time in my life where I never would have put this out there in public, especially as a young professional afraid of being labeled as too fringe or hippy-dippy. The time is now to out myself: Every night for the last year I’ve chanted a 16th century hymn from the Hindu tradition called The Hanuman Chalisa. As a monkey, Hanuman is seen as a bridge between the wisdom of the animal world and the human world. As a symbol for breath, he is the bridge that unifies feminine energy and masculine consciousness. Many devotees of Lord Hanuman engage in this chant as a daily practice; it would be similar to those with great devotions to St. Francis singing any version of a Prayer of St. Francis hymn daily. And I’ve been known to sing to him too. Plus, I pray an Our Father and Hail Mary every morning—in Croatian (my family’s ancestral language)—do Japa meditation (prayer beads), practice yoga in various ways, read from my 12-step meditation books and pray some of those prayers. Those are just my daily practices! On any given week I may also consult with my Ayurvedic clinician, see my expressive arts therapist and spiritual director over Skype, or saunter up to Buffalo for some of my own EMDR therapy. And then there’s the penchant I have for receiving bodywork and energy work…shall I go on?
There is a very important reason why I am going here, letting the weirdness of my daily and other regular practices shine out so directly. These practices help me to stay mentally healthy, especially in being able to navigate the judgment and cruelty of the world at large. In the last several years, and with increasing frequency lately, many friends, students, and folks I mentor have shared with me their concerns about being perceived as too weird. Whether it’s a feeling of self-consciousness about their cleaning regimens, their spiritual practices, or having ways of seeing the world that may clash with the mainstream, people can viciously judge themselves based on the fear of how others will respond. In a recent conversation about weirdness and perception, I blurted out the “I chant to a monkey” response. I’ve found this phrase to be such an empowering anthem that I now use it when clients, students and folks I train come to me with a hesitancy to share, fearing how I will perceive them.
“I chant to a monkey… try me.”
For many of us who have survived the trenches of academia or currently hold a professional license as a clinician, the fear of being persecuted for our weirdness or differentness has merit. I and many others in the Dancing Mindfulness community could fill a whole book of horror stories documenting how professors and other colleagues have treated us for taking an interest in Eastern meditation, embodied practices, and anything that is outside of the talk therapy, medical model norm. In essence, we are the weird ones for going back and reclaiming the merits of ancient healing systems and endeavoring to make them work for modern clients, students, and practitioners. Not creative, not integrative…weird.
The professional standards committee of my state’s licensure board has challenged me as an educator three times for offering programs in the area of dance, mindfulness, expressive arts therapy, and yoga. Of course, I’ve been able to support their merit, with literature, of offering such programs for clinicians who will pass the valuable learning on to clients who are desperately needing more than what the field has been giving them. Yet every time I presented before the committees, I have had to address the issues coming up for me about them labeling me as too weird or flaky. Like many of us, my wounding around weird goes back to family of origin baggage and getting bullied by peers in elementary school for being the oddball. Of course, the board challenges made me angry and even sad at first.
Then I learned to embrace the challenge to calmly show them that there is another way to exist as a professional in our field. This involved a great deal of time and effort cleaning out and healing my old stuff and drawing inspiration from the monkey I chant to, Hanuman—be a bridge. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, especially with others who get your weirdness. If someone you work with or interact with in life needs to see an example of weird as healthy and functional, show it. Yet when working with the mainstream of any given field, a good deal of translation may be required. This is always possible when you are not ashamed of who you really are and know how your weirdness (and all the oddities and rituals that may come with it) helps you live and hopefully even thrive in this world.
In working with my latest expressive arts student to have the weirdness conversation with me, some wisdom from the Croatian language struck me like a bolt of lightning. The Croatian word for weird or strange (čudan) and the Croatian word for miracle (čudo) come from the same root. Both imply something supernatural or out of the ordinary. Yet we can think of a miracle as being a gift and weirdness as being a curse. What if we started to view them as one in the same? Would more of us feel comfortable coming out as weird, or more widely acknowledge that we all do some pretty weird things? Can I learn to embrace my weirdness for what it is—a miraculous gift that helps me to see the world in a way that we need in order to smash existing paradigms and bring about some deep healing?
Whenever someone I mentor professionally expresses fear about being perceived as too weird, I take pride in telling them that they are not alone and that there are others of us who feel similarly. One time I referred to the Dancing Mindfulness community as the island of misfit therapists, and that’s a descriptor I use proudly to this day. Connect with the other weirdos out there and before long you may even learn to see yourself as a trailblazer who is in an amazing position to liberate others from the confines of judgment and condemnation in which they find themselves. If you can be proud of your weirdness as a professional of any kind, imagine how inspirational you can be to the people you serve. If more of us learned to embrace the weirdness that we are in our daily lives, regardless of what we do or where we live, that would truly be miraculous, and it will take such a miracle to heal the world.
I chant to a monkey… what of it?
Risks are fucking scary. Even a cursory glance at the most banal dictionary app’s definition makes my spine shudder: to expose oneself to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance. In contemplating a massive risk that I recently decided to take in my own life, I found myself saying, “I fear death less than I fear giving this a chance, even though my gut and my spiritual practice suggests that I’ll regret it if I don’t take the risk.” When I stepped back, I realized the gravity of such a statement. How is it that my journey has allowed me to become so comfortable with my own death, yet so scared of many aspects of my life?
I travel quite a bit for work—I’m on a plane anywhere from 2-3 times a month and I regularly deal with questions from family members asking if I ever get scared traveling so much, especially internationally.
“No, not at all,” I answer, without reservation or fail.
Maybe it comes as no surprise that I have a recurring dream about dying in a plane crash. Perhaps it’s because, with the nature of my life, dying in such a way is a possibility. Yet I always wake up even more excited to travel. Having this dream about 4-5 times a year has never once made me scared of flight. Indeed, they usually make me more excited to see the world. The most powerful version of my recurring dream gave me some insight as to why.
The dreaming state taught me the lesson on the night of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, PA (October 27, 2018). Although I was away teaching in Montana, I went to bed with a heavy heart because of my many ties to the community of Squirrel Hill where the tragedy happened. At some point that day, in talking with a friend, I even uttered in frustration, “Is trying to make a difference doing the things we do even worth it?” And the dream delivered the answer.
I was on a flight sitting next to two veterans who had recently been in Iraq. I was not clear on my destination in the dream, although very likely it was work-related. A few minutes after take-off, as I turned off my music and began to reach for a book, the plane began to take a deep dive. There were screams and wails all around me and I heard one of the veterans say, “Here we go.”
They knew what was coming, and then so did I.
I closed my eyes and surrendered my life over to spirit in a way I never had. I don’t recall the impact because shortly after closing my eyes, I just went blank in the most effortless way imaginable.
A short while later the dream continued. I found myself in a holding space, some type of hangar, with others who died in the crash. I learned that 10 survived and 300 of us perished, mostly from smoke inhalation as we tried to get out. I had some vague thoughts about my best friend Allie and many of my other friends being there to carry on my business, although they fleeted quickly. Instead, I became enraptured by the kinship I experienced with the others in that sacred space. We all started moving towards a ladder at the other end of the hangar.
One-by-one, people started to climb the ladder. A beautiful Indian woman adorned in a gold scarf was in front of me in the line.
She turned back to me and said, “I don’t know if this is the most appropriate thing to say right now but—wow! Wasn’t that the most powerful blast of shakti (energy) ever! That crash was amazing!”
I smiled, knowing exactly what she meant.
“Yup, I get it. I’ve never been so relaxed in my whole life. Pure peace.”
We laughed, kept climbing the ladder, and she said, “So let’s get ready to do this thing again…knowing what we know now.”
“Let’s do it again!,” I responded.
I awoke the next morning with the clearest understanding of karma ever—the chance to do it over again with all the visceral knowledge of what we learned the time before. The chance to make it right. In my case, the chance to surrender into life’s divine flow instead of letting it devour me in fear. The most obvious interpretation of my dream suggests that my death and subsequent transition to the next cycle of rebirth will give me that chance. Yes, such an interpretation is in my personal belief system. And yet when my feet hit the ground to engage in my morning practices in preparation for teaching, I knew that message was meant for me in this lifetime.
What if, Pragya, you could surrender into the uncertainties of life with the same degree of unconditional faith and peacefulness that you accepted your death in the plane crash? What if, every time you were presented with a chance to start over knowing what you know now, you could embrace it with the enthusiasm of let’s do it again!? The same way a faith-filled, resilient child who just fell off of their bicycle might, eager to try once more, equipped with the spirit of their new learning? What if you could embrace each new day with the wisdom of what you have learned and with the faith of what you cannot possibly know?
My intention in this next season of my life is to say yes—resoundingly, enthusiastically, and faithfully to all of these questions. This intention is becoming my daily prayer, as my practices help me to integrate all of these pearls into the grand process of living. Yes, I will relax into the uncertainties of life with faith and peace. Yes, I will meet my new opportunities with a spirit of let’s do it again, releasing the burdens of my past. Yes, I will approach life with the beginner’s mind of a resilient child and yes—I will greet each new day fortified with the wisdom of what I have learned while also approaching it with faith of and in the unseen.
Institute for creative mindfulness
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