Thursday, December 31, 2015

Music As Medicine

Two central passions have always moved through my life: music and heart-centered healing. Early in my life, the two passions seemed to be separate and hard to combine. And in order to make a living, I had to focus on one, without much room for the other. Mind-body medicine seemed easier for me to carve a niche in than music, since people seemed to naturally gravitate towards the heart-centered work I developed, and my ideas were welcome and valued at professional conferences and in professional forums. As a 20 year old singer/songwriter, radio dj's loved my songs, but in a world that liked to put musicians in genre boxes, I did not neatly fit in any one box. (I still don't!)

Over time, however, my musical passion kept bubbling up, demanding my attention. And I realized how much music was not only a deep sense of expression and connection, but also a healing force. In fact, when I led personal growth workshops, I always brought along an eclectic collection of songs that touched many facets of the heart. Sure enough, moments would arise when a very specific song would be just right for the healing work a person was doing at that moment. And I would find myself joyful and grateful I had followed my intuition in bringing that very song along. Sometimes I would find myself playing the piano and singing one of my own songs in one of those special healing moments. And sometimes I would invite the whole group to sing together to co-create a healing moment. I became aware, whether in an intentional healing context or not, music itself was medicine.

I know that songwriting has given me a voice for some of the deepest felt experiences that words could not express. And that songs written from that soul-deep place touch the hearts and souls of others. There is a power in the energy and spirit conveyed not just by a singer, but by the words and music of a song. Giving voice to some of the most difficult moments has allowed movement and healing to take place for me. And I have received feedback from listeners that they too have felt movement and healing as their hearts have opened and been touched. Likewise, joy can be shared through music, and when listening to music with others in a live performance venue, the joy multiplies through the communion of our collective hearts.

This reminds me of a comment a cardiologist colleague of mine made many years ago when we both taught at a behavioral medicine conference. While sharing his thoughts about what healing really does take place during open heart surgery, he reflected, "I don't think it is the cutting open of the chest or the technical procedures we perform that allow healing nearly so much as the act of physically holding someone's heart in your hands, literally 'touching the heart.' For many of my patients, whose hearts are well-defended, it takes the act of pulling back the ribs to actually touch the heart. Might it be the intention and energy of my heart conveyed through my hands that allow the healing process to take place?" That reflection always stayed with me: we heal when our hearts are touched. And music is a powerful force that magically and poignantly reaches all the way in and touches the heart.

I was talking with a friend and fellow musician about "music as medicine," a few weeks back, and he shared an extremely touching story from a gig he had just played with Alzheimers' patients. When his trio arrived, the effects of Alzheimers' were very sadly present. The patients stared down at the floor. They did not talk much or interact. As my friend and his trio started to play, the patients began to respond. They became more alert. They became more alive. And then as my friend and his fellow musicians began to sing songs dating back to when these older people were young, the room started to echo with many voices singing along. What a miracle that familiar music could literally transform a group of advanced Alzheimers' patients to a joyful and alive state of being! Stories like this make it clear that music can reach deeply into the soul and evoke a part of our core humanity, even in apparently dire situations.

I have always loved creating musical benefit concerts both to give visibility to organizations doing important work, and to create a magical, healing community environment, where all are touched because of the music that is shared. I am delighted to be supporting Hildy Grossman and her UpStage Lung Cancer organization in producing "Singout! For Cancer: Music As Medicine," a musical evening designed to raise money for this important non-profit's work to raise awareness of lung cancer, and to encourage screening, prevention and research. Last month I wrote about my very special college friend, Art Olivas, who very sadly is suffering the end effects of metastatic lung cancer. Art, like far too many people diagnosed with lung cancer these days, is a lifelong non-smoker. In the face of such large and catastrophic illnesses like cancer, there is healing in taking whatever action can be taken to try to help other people. And feelings of love, grief, anger, overwhelm, hope and desire to make a difference become a well that fuels music to heal and transform. No wonder so many messages are best shared through song. "What the World Needs Now Is Love Sweet Love." "We Are the World."

Music is medicine and it is available to all of us without insurance snafus or medication side effects. And its healing power is vast and timeless.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Living As A Friend Is Consciously Dying

"Why oh lord do we feel abandoned when we are in pain? Are you not present in the form of our family and friends who tend to us and offer us comfort? Is their love not enough? What more do we desire, need? We desire an end to our suffering and yet it persists and even the most tender care can not take away the presence of profound pain in our minds and bodies. Modern medicine can help but it too begins to fail. What then do we do? Is it at this point of failure that our true mettle is challenged, revealed? And what if we are found wanting, weak, even when we have been encouraged to "be strong"? What is this suffering , then? A Greek race of endurance? The strong win the race and demonstrate a superior character than those of us who stumble, fall, and cry and no longer desire to stand and run again....Or is there compassion for those who can not be strong, for those who do not "suffer" well or virtuously. Is God present even to those of us who can no longer bear it anymore, or at least think we can't." --Arturo Olivas

I have a very special friend from college who I fondly knew as Art. He bravely faced some challenges in college, and I was peripherally aware of them. He went on to become an extraordinary educator, a talented artist--a santero, a painter of santos, religious images in a Southwestern Spanish tradition, and at age 50, a secular Franciscan brother.

Art, who I now know as Arturo, was always thoughtful and sensitive. Just over four years ago, he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, and a profound journey began for Arturo and his partner of 30 years, Chris. Arturo, like too many people who get lung cancer, was not a smoker. So, his diagnosis came as a total surprise, when he went to urgent care for chronic bronchitis. He was given 6 months to live.

Only a very small percentage of people with Arturo's diagnosis live as long as he has lived. While it is overwhelming, to say the least, to receive a stage four cancer diagnosis, and an act of courage and strength to live through all the treatments and surgeries and tests that follow, the way Arturo has lived with cancer, and beyond cancer, is a testament to the depth and strength of his spirit.

I have rarely met anyone as sensitive, humble, eloquent, caring and creative as Arturo. His art is highly regarded, and exhibited in museums and galleries in Albuquerque, where he lives. His care for young people as an educator emanates from his spirit. And just this month, a long campaign he spearheaded, to have a banner addressing lung cancer hung along the University of New Mexico Medical Center pedestrian bridge, encouraging early detection, has finally succeeded! For someone who lives with profound pain, and the fear and mystery of death as a closer companion than most of us, his energy and creativity are beyond inspirational.

Arturo is a gifted writer, and because he has been generous enough to share vignettes from his journey on Facebook, I have had the opportunity to be touched by his thoughts, feelings and words, almost as though he is giving me the chance to accompany him on his very personal journey.

One can say that it is true that because life as we live it each day is a temporary gift,as we live, each of us is also dying. For most of us, however, we have no idea how long the gift of life will be extended to us, and little inkling of when our final days will arrive. When someone is given a terminal diagnosis, like Arturo was four years ago, the reality that life is finite becomes much more present. By virtue of facing life and death each day, Arturo is not only consciously dying, but more importantly, consciously living. The compassion and authenticity with which he lives is incredibly touching to me and many others who know him.

The following are a small sample of his reflections:

"The greatest thing we can do for those who are in pain is to hold their hand...just hold their hand."

"Severe physical and emotional pain challenges all the things we cling to most in this life: our faith, our trust, our relationships. if the pain doesn't completely destroy all of these, then perhaps we have a chance to endure for a while longer and eventually, die in peace....."

"I have never intended to be strong in the wake of cancer..I am weak and vulnerable and subject to pain...some people do not want to hear that, especially from a man....I understand that, but it is not "me". perhaps I am more like my mother than I realize in the sense that when asked how she felt, she told it like it was - "I feel sick!"....It taught me to listen to the litany of complaints and not to try to make her say something that she did not feel. Of course I would have wanted to hear mom say, "Oh, today I feel great!" - that would have been a great comfort to me. But ultimately the question was about the patient and not about making the person asking the question feel good."

As I read Arturo's reflections over time, I found myself deeply called to go visit him before it was too late. I am very grateful that the week before Thanksgiving, I flew out to Albuquerque to visit even briefly with my special friend. Our time together was beautiful and poignant, so characteristic of Arturo.

"A key moment in the life of a "terminally" ill cancer patient, and for all living beings , is the moment we decide to stop living in anticipation of death and we begin to live now, in the present, in gratitude for the life we have....we know we have made this decision when we make plans to be engaged in the lives of others....and not just plan, but do!"

These are words that very accurately portray Arturo's full engagement with life. He is living more fully than almost anyone I have ever met. Though his cancer metastasized to his brain and spine, and the very day he and I were to get together he wrote to me concerned that he might have bronchitis again, and might be coughing, though he very much wanted to get together, his spirit seems to be so much stronger than the disease process he is living with.

I know that life is finite, and there will come a day when Arturo's spirit moves on to the other side. But I have to believe a part of him will always be here on the side of the living, a side he has embraced with passion, gusto and love. And when his spirit rises, a magical rainbow of love will provide a bridge of connection for all of us who have known him.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bridging the Gap Within: A Key to Connection

"I love you just the way you are, there's nothing you need to do. When I feel the love inside myself, it's easy to love you." --From "I Love Myself the Way I Am" by Jai Josefs

A client of mine recently shared with me a reading from a book that pointed out that the greatest cause of pain in relationship is disconnection. When we open our hearts to intimacy, we seek to stand in a space of connection. What we often don't realize, however, is that in order to stand in a space of connection with another person, we need to first stand in a space of connection with self.

If we look inside and find a disconnect in our relationship with self, we may unearth the root of an experience of disconnection with a loved one. Bridging the gap within through exploring what prevents us from being fully connected to self is the foundation for creating space for sustained connection with another person.

Our culture teaches us to look outward to others to make us happy, to take care of us, and often to define ourselves in relationship to them. There is a place for this in moderation, but if we don't first learn what makes us happy, learn how to take care of ourselves, and define ourselves on our own terms, it is hard to be fully present, happy and grounded in our relationships. When things get messy or go awry, we are quick to blame rather than point the finger internally and ask what we are contributing to the mess.

Relationships are a system. There is my relationship with myself, your relationship with yourself, and the "we" which is a living entity, like an oversoul, that both you and I are responsible for cultivating. If any one of these three parts is not fully attended to, a sense of disconnection, and often pain, can result. If we are not aware of the three players in the system, it is hard to identify where a sense of disconnection originates. If we have an internal gap within ourself, then it is hard to sustain the connection with you or the "we."

How do we learn to bridge the gap within? Here are some important practices:

1. Learn to develop an introspective practice. Meditate. Journal. Draw. A practice that encourages you to dig deeper into your senses, thoughts and feelings, allows you to become more aware of your inner experience and connect more deeply with yourself.

2. Make time for introspective work daily. Introspection is part of self-care. And if you develop a daily introspective practice, you are making space for your deeper self. Just as asking a partner "how was your day?" builds relational connection, asking yourself, "how am I feeling today?" builds connection with self.

3. Slow down and look within as you go through your day. If you find yourself moving through your day with a fast pace, it is valuable to slow down and look within. If we go too fast, we may factor self out of the equation as we do for others and focus on what needs to be done.

4. Become more familiar with your internal landscape and create space to presence and experience whatever you are thinking and feeling. Being able to just "be with" whatever we are sensing, thinking and feeling without judgment, helps us "be" with ourselves. This creates more internal space, which then gives us more space to be present with others.

5. Remove judgment of your internal experience. We may not like feeling scared, sad, vulnerable or angry, but all of these feelings are perfectly human. For us to be whole, it is important to embrace of just "be with" whatever we are sensing, thinking or feeling without judgment. Being able to be scared, sad, vulnerable or angry allows us to embrace more of our full humanness, and have space to embrace these qualities in others. 6. Become more conscious of when you feel connected to yourself and when you feel disconnected. When you feel connected, how does your body feel? What do you feel in your heart? What are your thoughts like? When you feel disconnected what do you notice in your body, thoughts and heart?

7. Learn how it feels when you are spacious and grounded. If you are aware of how you feel when you are spacious and grounded, it is easier to notice when you are not. Learn what helps you stay spacious and grounded, and what distracts you.

As you develop your interior landscape, and experience more spaciousness and grounding, you will feel more connection and wholeness within. And this internal spaciousness and connection will help you experience and sustain connection with others you care about.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Finding Your True Voice

We live in a culture that teaches us to be quiet and not speak up from an early age. Children are taught to "be seen but not heard." When a parent or teacher feels a child is taking up too much space, they are often told to be quiet or more crudely, to "shut up." These kinds of messages stifle our hearts and souls and keep us from growing and evolving into a true, purposeful and happy self.

In reality, not only do we need to find our voice to fully express and connect with self and others, but also others need to hear what we have to say to connect with self and others as well.

Here are 8 things we need to find our true voice:

1. Emotional safety: When emotional safety is present, we can feel and access our deeper sensations, emotions and thoughts. Emotional safety allows us to drop our defenses and dig deep into the root of who we are. When we are in touch with that deeper sense somatically and emotionally, voice, including words, follow.

2. Awareness that voice is a key capacity--something to find and have: Kids need to hear the message that voice is a critical capacity. Adult women and men need to be encouraged to find their voice and speak it out loud. Learning to find and use your voice is at least as important as learning to use a spreadsheet or read and write.

3. Patience: It takes time to find our voices and patience to be present with what is there. Patience creates spaciousness and relaxation which helps us feel our deeper thoughts and feelings.

4. Introspection: Learning to slow down, meditate, go inside, journal and reflect help us connect with our deeper self and what we really have to say.

5. A climate of non-judgment: When we judge ourselves or feel judged, we often censor our true feelings and thoughts. This leads to suppressing our true voice rather than expressing it.

6. Focusing on what you feel, not just what you think: Our deeper voice lies in the heart, including feelings, sensations and deeper experiences that the mind or brain may not be able to access.

7. Having permission to feel all your feelings, and embrace them as human: There are no "bad feelings" really. Anger, pain and fear are just as human as joy and happiness. If you suppress some of your feelings, including intense ones, it is hard to feel your wholeness as a human being.

8. Learning to trust your heart: Because our culture often lacks emotional safety, we often become afraid to listen and follow our hearts. It is actually the heart that helps us find our true voice and vision and therefore take meaningful action.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Music As A Personal Growth Pathway

I was very sad to learn of the recent passing of personal growth leader and inspirational writer and speaker Wayne Dyer. His work touched and impacted the lives of so many people. Tonight on Facebook I noticed a posting about a video featuring his daughter Selena, focusing on one of Wayne's 10 principles to live by: "don't die with the music still in you."

While Wayne used this language as a metaphor, there is a lot of literal meaning in the principle as well as symbolic meaning. The music that lives inside of us is a metaphor for our personal gift to give to the world, reflecting a sense of personal purpose. It can take many forms. But what matters is that we each find a pathway to full self-expression, which leads to a full contribution to the larger world.

For someone who is a musician, the full self-expression literally IS the music that is inside of them. And finding one's voice literally or playing the music that one feels and hears internally is the path of full self-expression and contribution to enrich the lives of others. Music is itself a powerful language, a heartfelt gift to give and receive, and a pathway from soul to soul that runs deeper than words.

While personal growth has always fueled my life and work, the process of embracing the depth of my identity of musician has led me to some of my richest, and sometimes most painful, growth. As a shy introvert, the last thing I ever wanted to do was stand on a stage and have people look at me and listen to me. The thought of "taking up space" and even "commanding attention" was a terrifying one. Yet, the music playing within me was not just a spark, but actually a soul-infused fire, that sought worldly expression as a pathway to connect with and touch others.

As a young person, I felt both the warmth of this passion, and the external squelching of my fire by other people, particularly my father, whose mantra was "music is a waste of a good mind." How does a young child reconcile an innate passion with a message from a parent that this passion is bad or wasteful? My response was to feel shame--shame that I felt so passionately, and shame that what I felt so passionately about was judged as wrong.

The threads of both passion and shame extended through many chapters of my life. The passion kept driving me to embrace music in different ways and to different degrees at many life junctures. The shame limited how far I could embrace my passion, and limited my vision of what I could allow myself to do. Yes, I needed to make enough money to support myself and my son. Yes, it felt quite vulnerable to expose myself vocally and musically, and yes, others can be really judgmental in ways that hurt when one exposes ones soul. Yet a creative force, that music that lived and lives inside of me, sought the space to emerge, to create, to connect. And without growing into a person who could transform the shame and nurture the fires of passion, ironically, that would feel like the waste of my life that my father chanted on and on about.

I learned vocal technique very young, but doing the heart work that truly freed my voice, could not be reduced to a series of vocal training skills. Moving into the world of cabaret, where the unique interpretation of a beloved song, and the theatrical skills to paint the picture of the song for the audience, has forced me to not only step beyond my comfort zone, but more so to face and embrace my discomfort zone. Growing into a person who can truly have my voice and share it, has required not only fabulous coaching, but also great courage to grow, heal and transform.

In this case, the gain is well worth the pain. Music is a magical crucible that transforms, and for me, it has allowed pain to be transformed into joy. I am deeply touched by musicians who truly inhabit their songs and for whom musical instruments are an extension of their souls, and literal soul voice. When we let our music out, we fertilize soul seeds, and touch hearts, and help bridge even the deepest divides. Music is magic. And to follow the path it asks of us, is to engage in a life of profound growth and enrichment.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Life's Fine, Fine Line

At the St Louis Cabaret Conference, one very rich element was hearing the songs my fellow singers chose to work on. I had heard the song "It's A Fine, Fine Line" from the musical Avenue Q once or twice. However, I had never really thought about it deeply, until my fellow singer, Meri Ziev, from Florida worked on it during our coaching sessions at the Cabaret Conference.

The lyrics to the first verse are:

"There's a fine, fine line between a lover and a friend. There's a fine, fine line between reality and pretend. And you never know til you reach the top if it was worth the uphill climb. There's a fine, fine line between love and a waste of time."

So much of life is defined by fine, fine lines. Love. Major life decisions. Even life itself. I remember being profoundly aware of this as a child. And I kept writing about it in poetry, songs and eventually my first book.

When I was 16, I wrote some short pieces of verse to accompany photographs in the high school yearbook. "A thin line stands between dream and reality. And only the heart knows the characteristics that correspond to either side," was one of them.

I became aware of how many dimensions of life were literally a matter of being on one side of a very fine line or another. I learned that even when a woman was in her prime fertile time, there is only a 20% chance of conception taking place. One synchronicity in life--being at the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time--can be the difference between life and death. One of my college roommates was originally scheduled to be on the plane that crashed in Chicago that year. But last minute circumstances prevented her from making the plane.

Sometimes we are responsible for which side of that fine line we land on through our choices. When something is challenging, do it give it one more try or give up? When we have a dream, do we start to define and take steps in that direction or do we stay where we are? Many times, a divine force, a higher power greater than us, has a hand in which side of the fine line we find ourselves on.

As a teenager who loved the Red Sox, how did I know that a security guard who saw me often at the games would let me know there was a job opportunity to work there? Or even more special in the divine choreography that led me to work at Fenway Park, that the concession company needed a female employee unrelated to anyone already working there at the moment I walked in the office to apply for the job?

When life's synchronicities open doors for me or even present me with simple poignant moments where I get to be a magical stranger in a simple way, like helping a stranger, my heart is touched and grateful. Learning to be open to synchronicities, recognizing a moment of opportunity when consciously working towards a vision, or having the courage to say "yes" or "no" to a new direction ask us to dance with life's fine, fine lines.

And often we never know the final outcome until after we have made the choice. "You never know til you reach the top if it was worth the uphill climb." Listening to our hearts and guts, and having them help us discern which steps to take or not as we face the fine, fine line, can at least help us find a true path. Sometimes it is easy. Sometimes it is hard. Sometimes it is life changing. Other times it is of smaller proportion. Yet, over time, I have come to cherish those fine, fine lines, that thin line that stands between dream and reality. And I have have come to realize that the very act of facing and walking across those lines is at the heart of being fully alive.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Gift of Glen Campbell's Public Alzheimer's Journey

Watching a loved one fade away through Alzheimer's is mind-blowing and heart breaking. Sometimes the progression is slower. Sometimes it is faster. But over time, the very fabric that made your loved one who they were is gradually stolen by the disease. Yet, as I learned through my own mother's Alzheimer's journey, the qualities most deeply imbedded in the character of your loved one are the last to go.

Glen Campbell, a singer whose songs touched me as a young girl, and still touch me to this very day, and his family, have courageously allowed his sad Alzheimer's journey to be a public one. And in doing so, they have given a gift to all who have lived with Alzheimer's and perhaps an even greater gift to those who have not. By allowing a window into the journey and the uneven way Alzheimer's robs a loved one and their family of core qualities, Glen and his family have put a very human face on this far too prevalent condition.

In a very poignant CNN documentary this past week, I watched Glenn's wife Kim, and daughter Ashley reflect on not only Glen's Alzheimer's journey, but also their own experience walking beside him as bit by bit, Alzheimer's stole their husband and father from them. Even as Glen became disoriented--not being able to distinguish a trash can in the corner of the bedroom from the bathroom at night, his most deeply fundamental quality--singer and musician--persevered on for a very long time. He and his family arranged for him to do a farewell tour in 2013, two years after his diagnosis. Watching Kim struggle with Glen to get him to take a shower before a concert, seeing Glen resist like a young child, only to take the stage and start singing and playing his guitar with the same skill and impact as he has had during his entire musical career was a powerful image.

My mother's great life passion was gardening, and as her disease progressed she went from normal gardening activities to lying on the grass for hours in her pajamas picking sticks from stones to lying on the rug in her condo picking at lint on the carpet relentlessly. Same gestures. Different form. Purposeful when really gardening. Sad and even mind-blowing when reduced to the ritualistic movement of fingers picking at something, anything, like a soothing, repetitive motion.

Watching Glen's disease progress over the course of the documentary, not only at home, but also on his beloved stage was sad and so real. Over time, he could not remember his guitar chords, so he had to watch his daughter's fingers on her banjo, could not remember the words to the songs he knew so well, so he had to read a teleprompter, and eventually could not maintain a focus on performing songs at all. It was when he could no longer stay focused on the performance itself, that Glen's family realized he could no longer continue to do what gave him the most joy in life. If Glen talked candidly, sharing his vulnerability with his audience or ended up singing the same song twice in a set, the audience could easily embrace him. But when he could no longer talk to his audience, begin a song at all or connect with his band who were doing all they could to help him start and back him up, the essence of who everyone had known Glen to be had sadly faded too far into the oblivion Alzheimer's creates.

Reading in the paper that today Glen lives in a memory facility, and has decompensated to the point he can no longer speak, communicates only in gibberish, and is in many ways only a shell of the man his family knew him to me, was heart-breaking. Yet somehow, having the realness of this journey--both for Glen as someone with Alzheimer's, and for his wife and adult children is a refreshing gift. It makes those of us who have known Alzheimer's in our own family feel not so alone. And perhaps it encourages those suffering from or caring from loved ones living with this illness to reach out, to not be in it alone.

It takes a village for so many things in life. And living through the Alzheimer's journey is one of them. I applaud Glen Campbell and his brave family for inviting us to come together as a village.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Reflections of a Passionate Introvert: Why Mission Matters

I always resonated with Garrison Keillor's line about powder milk biscuits giving the shy person the courage to go out and do what needs to be done. Though many who encounter me as I engage in my life passions find it hard to imagine that I am a shy person and an introvert, both are true and have been since I was quite young. The thought of taking up space on a stage or moving beyond overwhelm in the sea of strangers at a cocktail party could send me under the covers or into my turtle shell!

It has taken me a lifetime to find the internal motor, my own formula for power milk biscuits, to allow me to step onto the public stage and do what needs to be done. And the internal motor is fueled by my sense of mission, which is sourced from my heart. Courage has never been lacking in my character. But taking up space and "commanding" attention do not come naturally!!!

My first foray into the public arena came as a child, when my passion for helping people pushed me into positions of leadership that I had not quite wrapped my mind around. Nominated to be class president in 8th grade, I sat on the stage and spoke to my classmates from my heart: not the typical political rhetoric. And to my amazement, I won the election!

Somehow public speaking became a natural thing, just because my heart was moved to share things that might touch other people's lives or make a difference. The strong pull to be of service and make a positive difference in the lives of others has always pulled me beyond my internal resistance to public vulnerability and visibility, no matter how painful it was!!

Being able to consciously take up space on stage as a singer is one of the hardest challenges. Going deep inside and feeling deeply...and then singing from the inside out comes naturally...But a singer can't have their eyes closed all the time and make contact with their audience!! And as I have been learning in the Cabaret world, having stepped away from the comfort of the singer/songwriter with her hands on the piano to the microphone front and center stage, my job isn't just to feel the song internally, but more so to paint the image externally to my listeners. I am grateful to John O'Neil as my coach as I undertake this growth-provoking task!

Last night, as I had the privilege of attending the amazing Gale for the Newton Festival of the Arts, I found myself encountering my lifelong demons once again. As the only member of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists in attendance, I did not have a safe cohort to hang out with. Going solo to a large social event with many unknown others is probably one of the most intimidating activities I could undertake. I found myself wanting to hide under the table with the proverbial cat or dog. But at Mt Ida College, there were no four-legged allies. I was grateful that the wonderful videographer for the festival and his wife were there, since there were warm and I had already established a connection with Larry, the videographer, since he had filmed me. And as it came to be time to find a table, I was even more grateful to see that a poet/writer I had known since decades ago at jazz aerobics classes at the YMCA was there with her husband! Robin is very warm and far more outgoing with strangers than I could ever be. So, being able to sit at a dinner table with someone so ebullient was a joy for me. Those gentle threads of connection allow me to face my internal dragons and take in the gifts of such a special event, even if full of strangers.

And towards the end of the evening, after stunning singing performances by a 12-year old boy and a 17-year old girl, I found myself moved to congratulate these two rising stars and acknowledge their contribution!!! As soon as I see a person to acknowledge, a cause to support or a connection that might plant a seed, I feel pulled out from my natural internal shyness to stretch my social muscles and connect.

I am glad I can find the internal wherewithal to keep facing my dragons and that the universe graces me with just enough guides and teachers that I am becoming more facile at handling the most intimidating of circumstances! The journey never ends!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Health Risks of Loneliness

Loneliness hurts emotionally, but over time, it hurts us physically as well. An article by Karen Weintraub in the Boston Globe on April 25 explored this emotional-physical connection. Weintraub cites a study published in March in the Journal Perspectives on Psychological Science: "Lonely people over 65 run the same risk for early death as those who smoke or are at least 100 pounds overweight."

Those of us who work in mind-body medicine pay close attention to how our mental and emotional state impact our physical health. A person who can create and sustain a positive and relaxed state feels good not only in mind, but also in body. The same applies for when we feel badly emotionally and mentally, whether it is due to our life circumstances, our state of mind or both.

Our emotional state activates our physiological state. Bert Uchino, a Psychology Professor at the University of Utah noted that "a lonely person's blood pressure tends to be higher and change more as they age." He also reflected that lonely people tend to have higher levels of inflammation, and this lead to other health problems.

As our social structure has become more virtual, the face to face fabric that has defined connection has frayed. While some degree of connection can take place through virtual media, if a person's car breaks down, if a person has a health emergency, or just needs a hand to hold, having a person show up physically is essential.

Weintraub points out the loneliness is particularly problematic as people age. She cites J. David Creswell from Carnegie Mellon University. Older people "may have lost loved ones," or if they moved out of a longstanding neighborhood or left the work force, key social connections may have been lost as well. Weintraub notes that professor Andrew Steptoe from University College in London says "more than one third of people 65 and older live alone; 40 percent say that tv or pets are their main form of company, and 23 percent of men and 15 percent of women have contact with friends or family less than once a month."

The kinds of social structures we used to count on for connection, including as we aged, such as religious institutions, extended family, or a neighborhood community are far weaker than they were a generation ago. was created to encourage gathering face to face amongst people with common interests. Yet, as someone who has run meetup groups almost since meetup groups began, I have noticed that the rate of response to events has diminished, and just because someone says they are coming on-line, does not mean they are actually going to show up at the event. We seem to be used to looser engagement in face to face interactions. With so many options, including the option of staying at home and communicating on line, the barrier to face to face connection can be higher.

A huge factor in how loneliness impacts our health is the way we hold it. Creswell did an eight-week study of the impact of mindfulness on the physiological markers of loneliness, and found that those who participated in the mindfulness program "reported feeling less lonely and their genes were producing fewer inflammatory proteins." When a person can hold loneliness as an experience of the moment, and not an overwhelming, gripping force that creates helplessness and powerlessness, loneliness has less detrimental impact on their physical health.

So, developing mindfulness tools as part of our self-care will help our health in more ways than one. However, we still need and thrive when we create meaningful, consistent face to face human connection in our lives.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Being Gentle With Anger

"Anger is the roar of a lion, the cry of a universe longing to be born. It reminds you, when you have forgotten, that the power of life moves through you. That you have a voice."

--Jeff Foster

Anger often gets a bad rap. Sure, when a person acts out thoughtlessly from anger or impulsively without considering the impact of his/her actions on self or other, anger can be harmful personally and relationally. Becoming verbally or physically abusive is not okay. However, we often fail to make distinction between healthy, life promoting angry feelings and destructive expressions that may obscure deeper feelings and experiences underneath the anger.

Anger is a natural response to someone crossing your boundary in a way that is not okay for you, imposing their will on yours, treating you unfairly, breaking an agreement or breaking your trust. In these circumstances, your anger says, "what you are doing is not okay for me." "I matter." "I have rights and needs." Anger allows you to stand in your truth and your worth. And it tells the other person that what they have done is not okay.

If you fail to honor your anger in these kinds of circumstances--pushing it away, labeling it as "bad" or "negative," you do your heart and soul a disservice. On the other hand, if you act out from the anger, you may do yourself a disservice as well, and make the situation worse. Being able to "be with" anger--feeling its intensity, its power, and often the pain underneath it, allows you to stand in the value of your own experience.

Poet Jeff Foster writes, "Feel its pounding, its vibrations, its longing to be acknowledged, held. At its burning core, discover courage. The courage to be yourself. To hold your path fearlessly. To speak for those without a voice…. To roar with love."

Anger can be an affirmation of life. Anger can be an act of love for others or self-love. If we don't care, we don't get anger. What we do with anger is a choice and learning how to respond rather than react is an important skills and lesson.

If we suppress anger, it does not go away. Anger holds a lot of energy. It can eat away at us deep inside. It can haunt us. And it might pop up down the road when something unfair, or confrontational happens again. A woman I know noted that she became like a feral cat as a child to respond to feelings of unfairness and invisibility. Her power was in her anger, like a cat growling and swatting with her claws. So, when something felt unfair, she would get angry and confrontational. There was no room for her hurt and her pain. And sadly, there were things she needed then and now which required vulnerability that she could not access because anger had become her shield. She had never really gotten comforted when she needed comforting. And she had also never been able to express her anger in a way that felt healing, where she got heard. She found herself getting stuff in the growling, when she needed to find comfort. Learning how to hold her anger and pursue what she needed was a critical learning.

Even the worst criminals who act out of anger in unfathomable ways often have a painful context that fuels their unfathomable actions. I read an article in the Boston Globe today about the history of a man who shot a Boston Police Officer. What he did was horrible, for sure. But the author of the article asked, "what kind of life had this 41 year old man had that could have led him to do such a horrible thing?" It turns out that the shooter had a 23 year record with the law, including having been shot 13 times on two occasions himself. One time when he was being arrested, he told the arresting officer, "It's okay, just shoot me." The author of the article noted that this was not a normal response, but instead reflected the level of violence this man lived in and around since childhood. He posed the question: how scary must it have been to live in this kind of environment, and to have a gun in your possession at all times as a first line of self-defense against others with guns?

There is no arguing that shooting the police officer was wrong. And yet, recognizing the humanity in the "criminal" and what led him to behave the way he did is critical. If we found ways to intervene with compassion first, perhaps those most wounded could learn to be more gentle with their anger. And perhaps the difference between being with anger in a healthy embodied way and acting out of anger in a way that is destructive to self and others would be more commonly understood.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Vision: The Fuel for Motivation

"When the soul wishes to experience something she throws an image of the experience out before her and enters into her own image." --Meister Eckhardt

When people are feeling lost, aimless or unmotivated, it is often because they lack a vision of what they want, where they want to be or what activities or work will bring them meaning and purpose. Vision can be like a flame of desire: once our passion catches on fire, there is lots of light and fuel for making it real.

How do we build a sense of vision?

A good place to begin is to ask our hearts what we care most about, what really matters and what gives us a sense of meaning, purpose and connectedness. You can do this through closing your eyes, taking a few deep breaths, feeling the physical support of your seat, the floor or whatever is supporting you, and bringing your focus to your heart, noticing where you feel your heart in your body. Placing your hand on your heart helps bring your focus to your heart. And once you have brought your focus to your heart ask yourself the following questions:

1. If I could create my life the way I really wanted, what would my life be like?

What would I be doing?

Who would I be spending my time with?

Where would I be spending my time?

What would be different than the way things are right now?

2. What brings me the greatest joy and fulfillment?

What kinds of activities can I do that bring me joy and fulfillment?

Are there any activities that are particularly joyful and fulfilling that I really want to do now and in the near future?

Of the activities that bring me joy, which ones would I want to spend focused time doing?

3. What activities feel most purposeful and meaningful?

Of these activities, which ones do I feel most drawing to pursuing right now?

If I were to be pursuing these activities, what would be I doing? where would I be doing them? who would I be spending my time with? What would be different than the way my life is right now?

By meditating on these questions, and writing down thoughts and ideas that arise upon meditating, you can begin to develop a sense of vision that feels connected, meaningful and motivating.

Rather than expecting to get everything complete and clear in one meditation, make it a practice regularly (once a week, at the beginning of the day, at the end of the day…)and note your insights and thoughts each time you meditate. And look for themes and patterns that arise as you continue to meditate on these questions over time. Once you've identified themes and patterns, that will give you the direction you need to put together an action plan, detailing goals, and specific steps you need to take to reach each goal, and first steps you can take today or tomorrow to move towards your goals.

Once you have an action plan, it is good to review how things are going regularly--be it daily or weekly, or at whatever frequency feels right to you. The clearer your vision, the easier it is to take meaningful action steps towards your vision. And if resistances arise, taking time to do a heart meditation being with the resistance, and seeing what it needs, can help you mine the lessons in your resistance rather than being frozen by resistance.

As you make a practice of tuning in to your heart, and building a heartfelt sense of vision, you may find more energy, clarity and direction to help you both identify clear goals, and take meaningful steps towards them.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Apologizing With Grace

We all make mistakes, say things the wrong way, speak too quickly or inadvertently hurt someone we care about. To err is human. However, to make amends when we have erred is important to heal and sustain healthy relationships. To be able to put one's ego or shame aside and truly be accountable for our mistakes is a valuable practice.

Huffington Post writer Jonathan Alpert, suggested 8 ways to apologize and do it well:

1. Own it: Tell your friend, colleague or loved one what you did wrong. Do it face to face. By speaking and owning your error you take responsibility and demonstrate accountability.

2. Don't make excuses: Alpert coaches to "be direct and say what happened." Explaining away your action takes away the opportunity to make something right.

3. Keep it simple: If we say too much or rant, we may be trying to rationalize our errant behavior. Healing requires ownership, whatever the reason for our hurtful words or actions.

4. Be specific: Name exactly what you did that hurt your friend or loved one. If you raised your voice, say "I'm sorry I raised my voice," rather than saying "I'm sorry you did not like my tone of voice." Owning what you did is more powerful than talking about the other person's reaction.

5. Speak from your heart: Sharing your heartfelt feelings makes a huge difference when someone you care about is hurt. Showing that you care about the impact of your words or actions, and that you really understand is a critical part of healing.

6. Put yourself in the other person's shoes: Alpert suggests you ask yourself how the person you hurt felt emotionally. Did your scare them? Hurt them? Demonstrate empathy for the other person.

7. Ask yourself what you could have done differently: Often when your words or actions hurt another person, there might have been another and better way to handle the situation. Might you have slowed down and taken a few deep breaths before you spoke or acted? Did you react and act from a place of reaction? Letting your loved one know you realize you could have handled the situation another way, shows awareness and evening learning.

8. Take action to change your behavior: If you discover you have anger management issues, seek therapy to look at the roots of your anger. If you need help looking at how to say something more respectfully, let yourself get coaching. If you find yourself triggered, learn how to manage your triggers. We don't want to keep repeating hurtful patterns. Better to learn what they are rooted in and learn how to communicate in a less hurtful way.

These 8 points are included in "How to Apologize And Get It Right" by Jonathan Alpert in the Huffington Post.