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No Turning Back

July 2, 2013

My previous post focused on my work with a large corporation and an employee accident that resulted in the tragic death of a healthy young man. He left behind a wife and children and there were multiple individuals who were traumatized by the loss. It was a tragedy that required me, the onsite psychologist, to organize a large scale CISD (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing) effort for senior level executives and their work groups. In my previous column I described my anxiety and self doubt when faced with this extenuating circumstance; a situation that challenged my outer limits of training and expertise. In sharing my story about how I ultimately managed to bust through the paralyzing shackles of self doubt and fear and rise to the occasion I stated the following:
I abandoned my agenda of formal professionalism and instead I found an inner light of love and compassion. I was just me; human and flawed and ready to help. Instead of concerning myself with outer appearances and superficial acceptance, I rolled up my sleeves and prepared to connect. I reached out to embrace people and hold their hands. I looked into their eyes and tried to know them; everyone from the entry level worker to the highest paid executive. And I noticed a striking difference. My fear and self consciousness and internal doubt were gone. I was focused more on them than I was on myself. As my fear faded into an ascending light of love and compassion, I was transformed. In that moment I experienced an emotional and spiritual shift. A shift I believe has changed me forever.
Without a doubt, I am forever and irrevocably changed. When I reflect back now on the events that led to my emotional/spiritual transformation, beginning with the grand implosion of my personal life and culminating with the magnificent expansion of my professional career, I can see it all with such amazing clarity. It was only when I finally learned to love and embrace my own fantastically flawed humanity that I was truly able to connect with others in deep and meaningful ways. When I released myself from the emotional burden of my own past mistakes and vulnerabilities and shortcomings, the world seemed much brighter and the future appeared more promising. The guilt, shame and regret I once harbored finally diminished and faded from view. Through the grand implosion and the vast expanse of grief that followed, I emerged on the other side with a solid and unshakable sense of self.
I reflect back now on a pivotal moment when I found myself facing a senior level executive; a man of confidence and poise and years of authority. He asked me for guidance on how to better connect with his employees; how to truly know them and earn their trust. He longed to use his grief and despair as inspiration for helping others through his personal growth and change. At first, I was stuck inside my head and doubting myself; frantic for some type of logical roadmap or formal response. What if I sound stupid or panic or make a total fool of myself? What if I am not qualified to show him the way? My internal voice of self doubt and fear threatened to paralyze me and lead me astray. In analyzing the situation through the fog of intellect I nearly missed the entire spirit of this important exchange. For as long as I intellectualized the experience and doubted my competence I was completely and totally unavailable to help.
And then I knew I was faced with a choice. I could offer reasonable and logical answers based on the years of education that resulted in my advanced degree. Or, I could roll up my sleeves and prepare to connect. I could sit alongside him instead of rising to the podium. I could reveal my fantastically flawed humanity and display my battle scars with pride. Fortunately, I recognized this in time and in doing so, I transcended the limitations of my own ego. The conversation expanded, the universe applauded and since that moment I have never looked back.
I am convinced that the key to all success in life; the true path to emotional and spiritual wealth; the secret to authentic and unshakable joy; the answer to all of these things is the inner light of kindness and compassion and love. It all starts with self love and acceptance and the courage to be human and it radiates out to the world from there. And so it goes like the wise old expression, when god closes a door he opens a window. Through the tragic and untimely loss of one precious life; through my grand implosion and the grief that followed; through a senior executive’s desire to make a positive difference; I am enlightened and transformed with compassion and love.

Thoughts on Compassion and Love

April 14, 2013

I work for a large corporation and we experienced a terrible tragedy several weeks ago. There was an occupational injury that resulted in an untimely death; a healthy man in the springtime of his life left for work one day and never came home. The man who died was highly regarded as an upbeat, positive and caring person with everything in his favor and a bright future ahead. He was a husband and father of two young children; a hard working man with so much to live for. Events like this call to mind memories of 9/11, the Sandy Hook shooting and similar tragedies that remind us to stop and give thanks for the people we love. With the blink of an eye and for no good reason, life as we know it can irrevocably change.
I was called to the scene as the onsite psychologist . My role was to provide crisis intervention services to the employees and managers who were impacted by this tragic event and organize a team of mental health care providers. There were hundreds of people involved who were grieving the loss, and it was our responsibility as the crisis care team to support and reassure them through this terrible ordeal. In the midst of grief and loss people’s reactions can vary quite significantly. While some are angry or enraged by injustice, others grow sad and tearful or quiet and stoic. There is no particular reaction that is right or wrong; in times of extreme grief we are all the same. Human and flawed. Frightened and vulnerable. Suddenly and keenly aware that our time here is limited.
At the beginning of the day when the sad news was first delivered, I was invited to introduce myself at an emergency meeting of senior executives. They needed to hear about details and logistics; an action plan for how people would be cared for and supported that day. As I rose to address the crowded room, my mouth went dry and my palms started to sweat. I was beyond terrified. My internal voice of self doubt and fear was chattering away at record speed; informing me that I was ill equipped and way out of my league. “I am just a private practice psychologist. These are high level corporate executives. What if they think I seem nervous or stupid? What if they don’t like me or ask me to leave?” My eyes wandered towards a middle aged man seated at the head of the table. A senior executive. A man of power and self confidence and years of success. I scanned his face, the lines around his mouth and the look of deep pain and sadness in his tired eyes. He looked lost and forlorn and my heart ached for him. As my fear faded into an ascending light of love and compassion, I was transformed. In that moment I experienced an emotional and spiritual shift. A shift I believe has changed me forever.
I abandoned my agenda of formal professionalism and instead I found an inner light of love and compassion. I was just me; human and flawed and ready to help. Instead of concerning myself with outer appearances and superficial acceptance, I rolled up my sleeves and prepared to connect. I reached out to embrace people and hold their hands. I looked into their eyes and tried to know them; everyone from the entry level worker to the highest paid executive. And I noticed a striking difference. My fear and self consciousness and internal doubt were gone. I was focused more on them than I was on myself. I felt like maybe I wasn’t doing enough, and I plotted and schemed for a way to do more.
I must have clocked 10 straight hours that day without a break but despite the promise of a healthy paycheck, I would have done it all for free. When I collapsed on my living room floor much later that evening, I could not shake the image of the senior executive with the grief in his eyes and the workers who lost a friend. And I knew I was a better person for having been there. By pushing against my outer limits and facing my fear, I found my authentic self and my spiritual home.
These days, anytime I face a challenge or hurdle I remember the lives that were taken from us way too soon. When I crossed the finish line after the Cooper River Bridge Run last weekend, I remembered them. When I returned to my yoga mat and resumed my familiar poses, I remembered them. And each and every time I press against my outermost limits physically, mentally or emotionally, I remember them. I remember the senior executive with the grief in his eyes, the children who perished in Sandy Hook and the victims of 9/11. When I start to doubt myself and my worthiness and the old voices of fear and self doubt kick in, I remember so many innocent souls who left this world with the all of their music still inside of them. I remember them because they did not have the chance to complete their journey. I remember them because they remind me that time is fleeting and every moment counts. I remember them because I want to be a better person. A person they would have been proud to know. A trusted friend and a devoted companion. A person who sees the good in others. And if I am lucky, I just might make a tiny difference and better this world with compassion and love.

From Grand Implosion to Bird of Paradise

March 17, 2013

I am solitary and still in my life today but I cannot say that I am totally fulfilled. However I can say that I am Grateful and Humble. Restless. Ready to spread my wings and fly. (Me, 2013)

As many of us learn on this amazing journey, life does not always proceed according to plan. What matters more than the hardships we face is whether or not we learn from them and allow ourselves to grow. When we find ourselves faced with an unfamiliar landscape, we must take time to breathe and reclaim our balance. The past several years have been exactly that for me; pausing and reflecting in the space between. It is a space for healing and understanding and quiet reflection. It is a space where anything is possible and new dreams are born.

Life transitions and unanticipated outcomes present ideal opportunities for self exploration and growth. We may encounter parts of the self that were previously buried or not yet discovered. When I reflect back on my younger self, I remember how spontaneous I used to be. Last minute plans and unanticipated adventures were the things that inspired me and brought me to life. But then, somewhere along the way, I grew up. My quest for excitement and intrigue gave way to stillness and balance and practical endeavors. And I suppose my life became more complicated as well. These days I find myself missing that carefree young woman; free and unencumbered like a bird in flight.

As I moved through my thirties and into my fourth decade of life, the stakes were higher and there was less time to waste. I grew to understand better my deepest needs and my urgency to fulfill them and I felt a new kind of pressure that I never knew before. Next came external resistance and a series of rude awakenings culminating in what I now refer to as the grand implosion. When my life veered off course several years ago and my most treasured hopes and dreams rapidly faded from view, my first impulse was to run away and reinvent myself and my life. But I did not run. Instead I remained still and fortified my roots. I dug my heels in deep and committed myself to finding my own special brand of ordinary. I found it through every day simple things like grocery shopping or working outside in my garden. And in doing so, I transcended the grand implosion and I found my way over to the space between.

Memories of my former life now rest inside dresser drawers, storage bins and cardboard cartons. Crinkled photographs and tear stained pages tell the story of a naive young woman who soared high and free until she flew straight into a spider’s web where everything fell stagnant and nothing blossomed or grew. Then there was the grand implosion and finally, the space between. A space where glimmers of promise for a better life and future were found drifting through open windows, hiding inside empty rooms and dancing across golden beams of sunlight. A blank slate. A fresh, clean canvas. A chance to find fulfillment through solitude and stillness.

I recently attended my very first heated vinyasa yoga class, and there was one particularly challenging pose called the bird of paradise. It basically involves standing on one leg while the rest of the body is twisted up like a pretzel. It was a pose that I sensed I could probably master, with a little bit of a struggle and pushing against my outer limits. I can do this; I told myself as I inched my way gradually, one breath at a time, into the pose. When I finally got there, panting and drenched in perspiration, the others in the class started to applaud. It was a beautiful, life affirming moment that I will never forget. My form was far from perfect and there were plenty of people in the class who did it better than me. But it was real and it was mine and it was fantastically flawed.

I have often underestimated the limits of my own strength; the unbridled potential of my physical and emotional endurance. I am both humble and proud; vulnerable and strong. A fantastically flawed woman and a graceful bird of paradise. Through the grand implosion and into the space between; I shed my younger skin and discovered a new way to fly.

My Inner Crock Pot Diva

February 18, 2013

Last month I mastered the art of crock pot cooking. Just like the fine English china my mother carefully selected for me over 25 years ago, my crock pot sat in a kitchen cabinet for over 4 years collecting dust. The truth is I never considered myself to be the crock pot type. When I think of crock pots I am reminded of home and hearth; warmth and balance. As for the type of woman I imagine might own a crock pot, she is a budget conscious and well organized soccer mom who drives an SUV and proudly displays her child’s art projects on her stainless steel refrigerator. One thing I am certain about: That woman is not me. I am a woman with unruly hair who is known to trash coupons rather than clip them. I collect international wines and I favor gourmet French press coffee. When it comes to home cooking, I am more likely to throw a steak on the grill than break out a crock pot.
Through the years I engaged in the occasional crock pot fantasy. I imagined a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon with a fire in the fireplace and the comforting aroma of slow cooked beef chili and fresh baked corn bread drifting from the kitchen. I would be the crock pot savvy woman in the fantasy; my hair pulled into a perfect chignon and my well manicured fingers grasping a ladle. Wait. Cut the tape. I do not wear chignons and I cannot recall the last time I used a ladle. Like so many things in life that slip through the cracks or vanish without a trace, the crock pot stayed hidden like a million forgotten dreams. As did my fine English china and my strand of fresh water pearls and the sexy black dresses that I forget to wear.
It is funny how life can pass us by; weeks turning into months and months fading into years. More often than not, we are so busy with life’s daily grind that we forget to notice the things we always planned to do but kept pushing to the back burner. That is, until something reminds us to slow down and pay attention. Several months ago I planned a small holiday dinner for family and friends. I was standing on a stepstool and rummaging through my kitchen cabinets in search of some holiday decorations when I found what is left of my fine English china. Through the years and multiple life changes and relocations, sadly, much of the china was shattered beyond repair. What remains is just enough to accommodate a party of six and as fate would have it, I was expecting exactly 6 people for my holiday dinner.
Similar to the crock pot fantasy, I suppose I attached fantasies to my china set also. I imagined myself seated in a formal dining room with a solid oak table and sleek high back chairs, candles gently glowing, surrounded by loved ones and the beautiful china dinnerware. As time went by I continued to reassure myself I would use the china set later; next year; when I own my own home; when things slow down; when life feels more stable. However like so many things that truly matter in life, there is never going to be an absolutely perfect moment. The only moment that ever really matters is right now, and if we wait too long we might miss the chance.
My fingers traced the delicately tapered edges of the smooth porcelain as my mind drifted back over 25 years to the European vacation I shared with my mother shortly after my high school graduation. I remembered myself as a cranky 17 year old, growing bored and restless as mom painstakingly selected the plates, cups and saucers that would someday grace her only child’s family dinner table. What am I waiting for; I asked myself in that defining moment of recognition. Several night later we gathered together in my casual kitchen to share our annual holiday meal. We sat on a wooden dining bench instead of the sleek high back chairs of my fantasy. The delicate china coffee decanter held ice water instead of coffee and the table centerpiece was whimsical and festive rather than formal and reserved. The moment was not entirely perfect but even so, the flames on the candles gently danced and glowed and my fine English china, finally free at last, shined brighter than the summer sun.
Approximately 6 weeks after my holiday dinner I placed a raw 4 pound beef tenderloin in the center of my shiny white crock pot. I poured a quarter cup of water into the pot and surrounded the roast with a generous array of baby carrots, shallots and potatoes. Next, I sprinkled the roast with a powdered blend of Italian dressing mix, ranch dressing mix and beef gravy. I placed the lid on the pot and set it on low before saying a prayer and going to work. My hair was in its typical messy pony tail with stray pieces falling around my face; more hippie chic than classic chignon. My nails were badly in need of a manicure and my dated white refrigerator was covered with promotional magnets and photos of my pets instead of children’s art projects. My crock pot moment was fabulously imperfect but it was real and it was genuine and that is good enough for me.
Sometimes in life we just need to stop waiting and take the leap. The most delicious moments in life are the fabulously flawed, imperfect and human moments that define our existence. When we finally manage to stop waiting and start living, we encounter parts of ourselves that we might have otherwise missed. As for me, although I will probably never be a soccer mom or knot the perfect chignon, I finally met my inner crock pot diva and I cooked her a meal that was fit for a king.

In Search of my Story

January 22, 2013

I call my grandmother almost every Sunday evening. It is a loyal ritual I have maintained since childhood. During the early years when my grandfather was still alive I looked forward to our weekly telephone chats when I would share colorful stories about school and friends and my life’s many adventures. Now over 30 years later grandma’s vision has failed and her hearing is severely impaired. Life is often a struggle for her and our Sunday evening phone conversations have grown difficult and strained.
My grandmother is almost completely blind. She lives in an assisted living facility where she spends the majority of her time sitting in her recliner chair awaiting her next meal or visit from the nursing staff. She anticipates our Sunday evening calls as a break in her otherwise monotonous routine and I strive to amuse her with interesting stories and details about my life. It is challenging yelling into the phone and having to constantly repeat myself and refine my articulation but even worse is my lack of new stories to share. Unlike the dynamic and ever shifting kaleidoscope of my childhood, I am now between chapters and my pages are blank.
The sobering reality of my own middle age feels unsettled and vague as I find myself again at the proverbial crossroads. As a young woman I longed for certain things that shifted and transformed with the wisdom of age. Now in my forties I cannot define a new kind of longing that stirs in my soul. Therein lies my humble submission and the heavy solitude of the space between- A space that separates what once existed from an uncertain future that is yet to be. I am solitary and still in my life today but I cannot say I am totally fulfilled. However I can say I am Grateful . Humble. Liberated and Restless. I am ready to spread my wings and fly.
I recently came across the following Mark Twain quote on a friend’s website: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” I have absolutely no idea which way I am headed as I weave a new tapestry of passions and dreams. When I think about the future and my soul’s steady longing, a word that enters my mind is change. Radical, whimsical, life altering change. I know with full certainly that change now beckons as I throw off the bowlines and prepare to sail.
I was beginning to dread my weekly phone conversations with grandma because they illuminated my longing to follow my dreams. How are things with you Risa? Well grandma, things are pretty much the same. Nothing new to report. Well how is business? Are you still seeing a lot of patients? Yes grandma, I am as busy as ever. Patients and insurance billing and working long hours. And then it hit me. This is my new chapter. This is the story that I have to share. Managing my private practice, working my corporate job, running my errands, exercising and cooking and taking my dog to the beach. Breathing. Understanding. Reflecting. Healing.
There are times in life for writing new chapters and there are times for resting in the space between. There are times for leaving the harbor to explore new horizons and there are times for staying still and remembering to breathe. So here I am in the space between as I hit the pause button and tend to my sails. It is a transitional space where anything is possible and adventure awaits as new dreams are born.

A New Year and Something Else

December 29, 2012

With the holiday season now upon us and the New Year fast approaching, I am reflecting on time and the meaning of life. There is so much we take for granted in life by focusing on trivial and irrelevant details. In the midst of the holiday hustle and bustle we must try to remember the fleeting nature of our time here and the importance of making every second count.
For me, the past year has been about pushing hard against my outer limits and challenging myself to grow and change. Several months ago a dear friend invited me to join a meditation group and share in the teachings of a local Rinpoche. One day in class an older woman shared her feelings about the aging process and her sense of urgency to fulfill all of her passions and dreams before her life is over. The Rinpoche’s reply was so meaningful and true. He explained that in reality and despite her advanced age, this woman is not necessarily any closer to death than an infant or a very young child. Death is a certain thing; it is only the timing that remains uncertain.
This truth is most certainly illuminated by the recent tragedy in Newtown, Ct. where so many young lives were abruptly ended . This tragedy reminds us that we simply can never know when our time here is up. Every fleeting moment is extraordinarily precious and we must find a way to strike a healthy balance between the things in life that we have to do and the things we long to do but often tend to push away to the back burner. Several months ago I wrote a post titled “What is your something else” where I explored this very issue about life balance and the fulfillment of dreams and stated the following: When I accepted the offer of a corporate job I knew my life was about to drastically change. I rose to the occasion by facing my fears as I prepared to embark on a brand new journey. I was scared yet exhilarated at the prospect of change and the unfamiliar expectations I would need to fulfill. Before long my days were completely jam packed and the world was moving faster than ever before. The world will always keep on turning. I have to make my time here count. Can there be something else more important than this? It is my something else that inspires me to keep reaching for more beyond just my work and the life that I know. It is a thought that wakes me deep in the night; a lingering question that rattles my soul. What is your something else? Is it a person, place or experience that you long to discover? Is it a fantastic dream or a creative endeavor?
I spent the past year juggling my job as the only local onsite Psychologist at Boeing with my private practice and then on the weekends catching up with exercise, paperwork, household chores and errands. In between these functional pursuits I would occasionally pause to remember my own nearly forgotten something else and the precious hopes and dreams that are slipping away. The demands and obligations of everyday life can threaten to overshadow one’s hopes and dreams to the point where they are lost and forgotten forever. That is, unless we are met with a pivotal/defining moment that impacts our lives and permanently alters our course.
I recently met a man who lost his entire company in 9/11. When the South tower collapsed and took down his entire company along with it, he pulled his children out of school and spent the next several years sailing the Caribbean. He was on the path of everyday life when a sudden tragedy catapulted him straight out of his everyday life and into the arms of his something else- A something else he might otherwise have neglected forever.
On the dawn of this brand New Year we can all learn something from the tragedies in life like Newtown Ct. and 9/11. What better time is there than the start of a brand new year, to honor the path of our something else? As the wisdom of the Rinpoche clearly suggests, Death is a certain thing; it is only the timing that remains uncertain. All we ever really have is the present moment and the eternal flame of our something else. In honor of the precious lives we lost in Newtown, let’s all take a moment to regain our balance and connect with the wisdom of our forgotten dreams.

In Loving Memory

December 18, 2012

Over the past 3 years I have grieved the fact that I am not a parent. Tonight I grieve for those who are. I never did become a mother and therefore I cannot begin to imagine the magnitude of a mother’s love. I do not know how it feels for a brand new life to expand and grow inside of me. I do not understand the fierce protection and devotion that defines the heart and soul of a mother. Holding on and letting go. Protecting and releasing. The dichotomies of motherhood that I never had to master. I do not know this enormous kind of love, or the agony that comes with burying a child. An agony no parent should ever know. I am not a mother so I cannot understand such things but I can certainly reach out in love and prayer. Tonight I pray for the parents in Newtown, Ct. who are forced to bury their precious babies. I grieve the loss of those 20 young lives who died with the music still playing inside of them. There was a special little girl named Olivia Engel and over the weekend I learned she was one of the victims. My father knew Oliva’s parents and grandparents and he shared the sad news with me last Friday night. I searched for Olivia’s photo online and there I found her facebook page: FriendsOfTheEngelFamilyFund. It is one small way to make a difference by honoring Olivia’s memory and keeping it alive. Tonight I grieve for beautiful Olivia and the other 25 lives that were stolen far too soon. I can only hope such a tragedy will lead to positive change and gun control laws that prevent further bloodshed. It is the least we can do to honor the children who slipped through our fingers way too soon.