Saturday, November 28, 2015

Take Your Soul to Work

“We had a new employer….” That passage from the big book turns out to be quite literal for people in long-term recovery. We do have to practice the principles of recovery in all of our affairs and our workplaces are full of practice material.

So the good question is “How?” What does rigorous honest translate into business politics? How do we integrate kindness and good boundaries? How do we lead with out a big ego? And how do we lead with humility but also strength and courage?

I know that I crave advice from great leaders and I like to have some reminders right on my desk that I can use as daily touchstones.

So I was thrilled to get an early copy of “Take Your Soul to Work-- 365 Meditations on Every Day Leadership”—by Dr. Erica Brown.

While intended for all leaders—business, nonprofit and community leaders as well—Browns examples of leadership wisdom—translate beautifully into recovery terms. Brown is an educator and author of five other books all related to spirituality and leadership. 

In “Take Your Soul to Work” she divides the year into themes: Detachment, Courage, Busy-Ness, Action, Goals, Trust, Discipline etc. and each days meditation can be read in less time than it takes your computer to boot or your coffee to brew. 

And, of course, at this time of year, what a perfect holiday gift for the leaders in your company or the staff who aspire, one day at a time, to become leaders. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Step Three for Fashionistas

Ok, as we all know Step Three says: ‘Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” And all of us who have been around a bit know that even though this says “made a decision” it really is a process of many decisions made over a period of time.

In early recovery we may have a ceremony or make a formal ritual and we “take” Step Three with our sponsor. That is a brave act of considerable intimacy. Later, often when life is hard, we take it again. Spiritual maturity teaches us that sooner or later we’re gonna turn it over so why not sooner rather than later. I like to say that instead of waiting to hit the wall I like to take Step Three when I see the wall coming.

So it’s a process and our spiritual growth deepens with each layer—each area of our lives that we eventually surrender. I have taken a Third Step on relationships, money, work, jobs and even cars. I learned this great phrase form a spiritual teacher: “Give yourself to God. Surrender your whole being to be used for His righteous purposes.” 

Note: It says your whole being.

This year I had a revelation about a new layer of surrender in front of me: What I look like.

I have always cared about my appearance. Clothes, face and hair. Superficial? Not very spiritual? Maybe, but in early recovery  when I was getting very very spiritual and perfect, and when I had taken that first ceremonial Third Step, I decided that I was too spiritual for hair color, make up and such, yes superficial things. 

Luckily I had a sponsor who was tall and blonde and stylish –and very sober--and she said, “God does not want you to wear sackcloth and ashes, God loves you, now go get some highlights back in your hair.” Turns out I was just using the “I’m too spiritual for makeup” as another way to impress and people please and try to convince God to like me. 

My sponsor said, “Cut that out, this is about attraction rather than promotion. Do you want new women to think they have to look awful?”

But flash forward 25 years and I am daily surrendering work and my artwork and my marriage and money and most aspects of my life. But also on most days I am agonizing over my hair. I still can’t find that gamine cut that leave me looking pretty and smart all at the same time, kind of like Susan Sontag in a bikini. 

So it hit me: I have turned over everything else so why not how I look? Does that seem weird? I thought so too. But it was just a wild enough idea and worth a try. So I’m doing it. Like most other surrenders there are two parts: God’s and mine. Like getting a new job I have to ask for God’s will but then I still have to go and rewrite my resume. In this case I have to do a modest amount of self-care and then let go of the rest.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Steps Six and Seven and a Run with the Wolves

Today I found an old copy of a favorite book: “Women Who Run with the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Maybe you also read this when it was new, and you too underlined every page and passed it from friend to friend? Yes—it had that kind of power. Pinkola-Estes is a Jungian, a psychologist, an expert of myth and languages and a storyteller and feminist

On the page I read today I saw all of my old scribbles in the margin and I marveled at what I read so long ago and wanted to absorb.

Here’s one section that stands out in the chapter on Vasialisa/Cinderella/the wild power of a woman’s intuition and libido:

Can a negative aspect of psyche be reduced to cinders by being watched and watched? Yes, indeed it can. Holding any part of ourselves in consistent, consciousness can cause the thing to dehydrate. Focused attention can reduce an aspect of the psyche we struggle with to cinders—they are deprived of libido.”

When I read that so long ago I was marveling at the exegesis of Pinkola-Estes with fairy tales and myths. I was just a few years into recovery and still not grasping the bare beginnings of steps six and seven. But today when I read that I thought, “Of course, we need but pay attention, bring our focus to defects of character—or better, characteristics that are harmful-- and they can dehydrate.”

And isn’t “dehydrate” the perfect word? We can remove the “juice”—the power from these defects/aspects of character…and they can be cinders.

Steps Six and Seven ask us to ask our Higher Power for help but we are expected to do our part as well. Bringing conscious awareness is our part. We do that through doing inventory, talking with a sponsor, making lists, identifying the opposite behavior and the practicing. That is paying attention, bringing “consistent consciousness” to that “negative aspect of psyche” as Pinkola-Estes said so long ago.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

On April 6th 1917 the US Congress declared war and we entered WWI. It was our first full-scale entry into armed conflict on European soil. War has changed since then and we have changed but there is one constant, which is the sad fact of psychological injuries sustained by soldiers in war.  

Various authorities—military and psychiatric—put the estimate of “stress casualties” between 25 and 60 percent, though the words we use to describe them has changed over time. Terms have included: Battle fatigue, war neurosis, shell shock, military hysteria, trench suicide and  “LMF” or “lacking moral fiber”. These labels reflect the cultural attitudes of each time period, but they are also influenced by military strategy and even demographics.

In 1917 the US population was at an all-time high. In supply terms this meant there were plenty of soldiers. In that war, where supply met demand, it was not uncommon to find that those who broke down, who froze on the field, who hesitated to shoot, retreated or exhibited any other detrimental behavior were considered to have problems of character rather than injuries. 

 By contrast in World War II, with fighting in both Europe and Asia putting more than 16 million Americans in uniform, the condition of a struggling soldier was framed very differently. War trauma became an illness, which could be treated or cured. 

But beyond the words we use, it’s important to note that there has always been a civilian hand-me-down from the military and the psychiatric casualties of war. The need to keep soldiers on the battlefield or to return them to combat in World War II saw one of the United State’s largest investments in psychology and psychiatry. Through the 1940’s the Pentagon spent millions of dollars for psychological research. That has had a lasting impact
on all of our lives.

The research for that war’s soldiers spilled over and into the fields of advertising, education and even design. 1946 saw the first National Mental Health Act; in 1948 The Snake Pit –a movie about shock treatment and psychoanalysis won 7 Academy Awards, and also that year Psychology Today magazine was launched for the general public. In 1949, the Nobel Prize for medicine went to Dr. Egas Moniz, who “invented” the pre-frontal lobotomy. Today our casual talk of “issues” and “processing feelings” has its roots in the Pentagon’s need. And also for people in twelve-step recovery. The concepts morphed right into recovery and treatment.

More than any other war Viet Nam redefined our beliefs about mental health.  Five years after the fall of Saigon, “Viet Nam Syndrome” was identified, which morphed into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which rapidly generalized to civilians who suffered trauma. 

In Afghanistan and Iraq our troops faced guerilla combat with the added stress of suicide bombers and armed civilians. These increase the psychological difficulties, and we are now seeing another reframing of the resulting psychiatric casualties. 

Especially today on Veterans Day--we must remember to factor in these injuries when we talk about the costs of war. We must ask how we will label our broken soldiers, how we will care for them-- and what will be changed, now and later.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Celebrating Day of the Dead

Today I celebrate Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.  It’s not a holiday I grew up with but one I’ve borrowed from the Southwest and Mexico. And it’s become one of my favorite holidays –in part because it’s a good spiritual counterpart to Halloween. Except for the candy, October 31st doesn’t leave much for grownups.

Being scared of goblins and ghoulies lost its sway when I got old enough to lose people that I loved. The dead just aren’t scary in the same way anymore. In fact, I’d welcome a visit from many of them.  

That’s what Day of the Dead is about. There is a belief that on this day the veil separating this world and the next is thinner and so it’s a time we can be closer to those that we love who are dead.

Day of the Dead celebration centers on rituals for remembering loved ones. We can visit
them in our imagination or feel their presence. It can mean prayer or conversation, writing a letter or looking at old photos. The tradition that I use includes making an ofrenda, or altar, something as simple as putting photos and candles on the coffee table and taking time to talk about these loved ones and remember them. We also have spicy hot chocolate as a symbol of the sweet and bitter separation from those we love.

A ritual is a way of ordering life. Whether Purim or Advent, hearing Mass or saying Kaddish, small ceremonies help us sort and reframe our memories. When someone dies the relationship doesn’t stop, it’s renegotiated, literally re-conceived. 

No, this isn’t a very American idea. Culturally our preferences are for efficiency and effectiveness; even with grief we use words like closure and process

I remember my frustration when I was grieving the loss of my brothers and sisters and my truly well-intentioned friends would suggest I move along in my process and they quoted (really, misquoted) Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The simplified version of her theory lists stages: Denial--Bargaining--Anger--Depression, and Acceptance.

 But it’s false to create an expectation of five discrete steps. This listing implies order and that a person can move from point A to point B and be done. That makes grief into an emotional Monopoly game where you go around the board, collect points and get to a distinct and certain end.  This false notion of linearity is apparent when we hear people judge someone who is grieving, “Oh she missed the anger stage”, or “He hasn’t reached acceptance yet.” 

I always thought that “losing a loved one” was a euphemism used by people who were afraid to say the words dead or died, but after losing my brother Larry I know that lost is the perfect word to describe the feeling that follows a death. Something just out of reach, still here, but also gone. 

Though he died years ago my feeling about my brother is that I have misplaced him; It’s that sensation of knowing that my book or that letter I was just reading, are around here somewhere…if I could just remember where I left him.  

I think this is why we can sometimes be so hard on the grieving, and why we want them to go through those stages and be done with it. We love closure and things that are sealed and settled. But death and grief, for all their seeming finality, are not as final as we would like. 

So tonight I’ll make cocoa and light candles; we’ll look at pictures and tell stories. We’ll take family pictures into the living room and we’ll open up the family albums. And we’ll laugh. 

The root of the word grieve is heavy. We carry our dead as a cherished burden. Death may end a life but not a relationship. Who would want to close the door on that?