Becoming a creator of experience

Life, Self,  God or whatever you want to call the miracle of being exist in a space of harmony between opposites; between female and male; between light and dark; between good and evil; between positive and negative.

The integration of opposites can be seen in the brain’s physiology. Looking at the brain where the survival instincts of fight flight or freeze exist in the reptilian brain in contrast to the emotional and the mammalian parts of the brain whose integration is made possible only by the sophisticated complexity of the neocortex.

This is the part of us that makes us uniquely human and this is the part that provides us with the ability to become creators of experience. Where behavior, feelings and thoughts can become an integrated whole.

It’s not that we are creators but rather that we can develop into becoming/being creators. We are born with the capacity, the potential but the ability is won over periods of development. The integration of experience and the growth of the personality is hardwon; they are far from instincts.

This is the process of life, growth and evolution

Transforming Survival Rules into Life-Affirming Guidelines: Part 2

A water molecule

A water molecule

Let’s explore the process of transforming survival rules into life-affirming guidelines. Last time we were looking at a specific rule: I must never be angry.  The transformational process is preceded by first self-connecting, which is experiencing one’s core Self and the inherent worth of the individual as a human being and second the awareness and articulation of the rule itself. From here we can explore the consequences of the rule.

Step 1: Exploring the consequence of the rule:

The first step of exploring and understanding the consequences of not following the rule,  both real and imagined, help cultivate compassion for the Self and the survival significance that the rule provided at the time.

“I must never be angry.”

With any rule related to feelings, there are two primary levels from which to understand it: 1. What constraint or limit is there on the feeling of the feeling? 2 What constraints or limitations are there in terms of expression and behavior?

What were some of the consequences of expressing anger in your growing up? (For you it might be a different emotion or feelings in general.)  What happened or what did you imagine happening if this feeling came up? What did you see happening between family members when this difficult feeling was expressed?

Looking and exploring from a place of self-connection, try to complete the sentence:

I must never be angry or else/because:

Some possibilities might be:

I must never be angry or else/because: someone might get angry at me

I must never be angry or else/because: I might be shamed, alienated or worse abandoned

I must never be angry or else/because: I might be bullied physically or emotionally

I must never be angry or else/because: people might get hurt

I must never be angry or else/because: no one will love me anymore/ I will be rejected

The exploration of the rules and its consequences bring up the survival energy that underlies the rule.   Any rule is related to life or death consequences which could be physical or psychological. Let’s look more deeply at this rule for its life/death nature.

I must never be angry or else/because...I will be punished or abandoned.

What could punished mean? It could mean physical beaten.  If a child receives physical punishment or the threat of it, it is not difficult to imagine that they would have a fear of death.  In the case of psychological abuse, neglect or abandonment, the same fear of death exists.

Exploring the dark consequences of any rule and its relationship to death anxiety is an important step in understanding the survival significance of rules.  When I witness and support clients in this process and they experience seeing the rule and reading it out loud: “I must never be angry or else/because... I will die/be killed.” It resonates throughout their body. It is painful to realize the depth of the rule. However difficult, it helps them understand themselves and their attachment to the rule since not following it was meant courting death whether psychological or physical death.

In this process, the individual learns that following the rule was a courageous act that was connected to their desire to survive and live.  It is grounding to return to this primary and positive motivation for following the rule.

The intention is to look with compassion and to create a space that can appreciate the logic and wisdom of the rule in the context it was originally created. This can free energy in the individual that is locked into a pattern of sensing, feeling, thinking and behaving that is governed by the rule.

Therapists need the ability to respect the rules of the people they work with because they have enabled the client to survive sometimes in horrible situations. However, the cost of following the rule becomes so great that it results in disconnection from self and others. For example, the cost of following the rules of not being angry and having a voice may be ulcers, heart disease, disconnection, and anxiety. Over time, any rule that alienates the Self from its feelings and needs for the sake of survival will begin to erode the very life that it is trying to preserve.

I have worked with many men who struggled with their anger which was expressed in aggression behavior who followed a rule of “Happy wife, happy life.” or “I must always do what makes others happy” or “I must never express vulnerable emotions”. The consequence of such rules meant that they did not have ways to make their emotional needs known to themselves and others and that they lived in ways that did not value themselves as equal value or worthy of being heard. They were not safe with themselves to look (to acknowledge what they felt and needed) and therefore they were not able to be safe with others until they learned to let go of rules which limited their awareness, choices, and behavior.

The rules we are exploring are taken on unconsciously. They need to be unearthed consciously as the process we have been describing demonstrates.  By creating guidelines from the rule, the price I pay for following them is minimal and the benefits are maximal. The goal in transforming rules is to form guidelines that help serve and enhance your life rather than being a slave to rules which reduce our experience and connection to life.  The unconscious adherence of rules results in a reduced ability to be aware, creative and wise since the rule takes precedence over everything else even when it doesn’t fit to follow a rule. On the other hand, the guidelines we create empower us to be present, flexible, aware, responsible choice-makers.

Step 2: Choicefulness: From “must” to “can”

One of the primary functions of a therapist is to help people learn to be their own choicemakers and to define the boundaries around which they can decide for themselves. Satir liked to say “even when external change is not possible, internal change is always available” Rules that live in our minds and bodies are an example of something over which we have choice.

The power of choicefulness was demonstrated by Victor Frankl in his exploration of meaning. Here we are exploring another form of consciousness, rules, which shapes the meanings we create.  

It is a choice to look and become aware of ourselves, others and the context.

It is a choice to choose and be responsible.

It is a choice to feel instead of denying, ignoring, or projecting.

It is a choice how you act.

It is a choice to listen and see to how others respond to you in the present moment without making it up on your own; that is, really being present with others.

All these choices are examples of choices that empower us. Rules like “I must never be angry”  reduce our ability to look, choose, be responsible, act, and perceive.

Rules appear in the form of I must never/must always/I should always/I should never/I have to such as:

I must never trust others they will hurt you.

I must never forgive others they will hurt you.

I must always think of others and not myself.

I must never hurt anyone’s feelings

Rules can be transformed to guidelines such as:

I can forgive others sometimes when...they apologize and demonstrate change

I can forgive even when they don’t change and I can choose to let it go and keep a healthy space between us

I can forgive when they apologize and don’t demonstrate change and I feel I can accept their limitations.

Let’s return to our example of: I must never be angry.

Reflect: Have you been able to live a life in which you were never angry?

Has it been possible?

Probably not. Any time someone disappoints you or perhaps betrays your trust or threatens or hurts you in some way anger, irritation, frustration are likely to come up. However, living with this rule we try to act as if we could live without anger. So the answer is you can’t uphold the rule but you try.  And so projection, ignoring and denial come into this and we start to twist ourselves to keep an impossible rule in the interest of survival

Reflect: Is there a kernel in the rule that might help you? Even though the initial form of the rule is limited and mostly unhelpful, learning to cope with anger is an important skill for living and

Satir liked to say that she never took anything away from anyone or asked them to get rid of anything they had. Whatever they had were some tools they had in their toolkit. What she liked to think of is that she was adding something like you might add ingredients to a soup. By adding more ingredients you get a richer and more complex flavour.  The transformation of rules is the addition of awareness, choice, wisdom, and courage.

First, change the “must” into a “can”. (Transitioning from compulsion to choice)

This is the transformation that adds the resource of choice. We move from the compulsion of the rule towards choice in a guideline.

I must never be angry becomes:

I can never be angry  (implicit to this is “I can not have my feelings and I can never have an angry reaction.”)

Reflect: is it true that you can never be angry?

We know that because anger is a natural human emotion it is impossible to never feel anger. For the person with this rule to consider feeling anger, they would need to acknowledge the feeling as a feeling and distinct from the behavior that comes as a result.  Introducing the word “can” is an invitation to seeing feelings as a resource as well as introducing the resource of choice regarding anger. The other word that would change is the word “be” since a person cannot be angry -unless they are that red character from the movie Inside/Out with the flammable head! To be angry means to act out behaviorally in anger. It could also mean to feel the anger, but one cannot be anger.  In this case, we need to consider specifically whether the rule is dealing with the fact of feeling anger or how that anger can be expressed in behavior.

Second, change the “never” to ”sometimes”.

As discussed, rules are framed in absolutes.  Changing the word from never to sometimes opens to the door to considering the details of context and of unique individuals.  

So from “I must never be angry “ we now have  “I can sometimes feel angry

Whatever rule you are transforming, repeat these new words to yourself and feel in your body (your head, your heart, and your guts) if it feels true or truer than the original rule.

When the therapist/coach/mentor asks the individual to check in with changes in their body they are grounding the change experientially.  Satir would often ask the individual to state the original sentence and the new one and to feel how each feels and she would observe from the outside any differences in their eyes, skin tone, muscle tonus, breath, etc.  This is an important part of working through the rules in an experiential way and not just as a cognitive exercise.

I can sometimes feel anger ...

Virginia would as the individual to connect to their bodies and breath and read the three sentences and feel their response to each change, particularly in their stomach area.

  • I must never be angry

  • I can never be angry

  • I can sometimes feel anger

One additional element that I would add is the word “choose” making explicit the resource of choice: I can sometimes choose to feel anger.

One could argue that this process is a simple matter of semantics, but our words are tied to our tongue, our limbic system, and our nervous system. When we use words that take us to the choice level we begin to let loose. That is why when I guide people in this process I ensure that they are first connected to themselves and grounded in their bodies. I will also invite them to stand as they express the words so they are rooted.

After transforming rules that restrict the experience of anger, there will likely be rules related to the behavioral expression of anger.  We will limit our discussion here to the rule about feeling anger, but it would also be important for the individual to learn what specific forms of anger are acceptable to them, what boundaries they would like to create, how they would like to communicate about their anger. Some possibilities are:  I can choose to sometimes let people know I am angry when I am able to own my experience and needs as my own and not get stuck in blaming, as long as I know I am responsible for my feelings and am also willing to understand any other emotions that are associated with it. There are many skills associated with being able to express anger healthfully which involve managing one’s physiology and creating expectations, beliefs, and rules that support the congruent expression of anger. Transforming rules is a great initial step but it is not enough.  The rule is a root, but not the whole.

Step 3: Add when you might make the choice. Add at least three specific contexts in which you would feel you could make that choice.

Virginia Satir often said, (paraphrased) “Two is a dilemma, one is the one right way. You need three to get unstuck and to truly have choice and the awareness of many more choices would help you become aware of the many possibilities of choice available to you.”

Here are six examples from the guideline we are working through:

  • I can feel my anger sometimes....when I am grounded in my Self,

  • I can feel my anger sometimes....when a boundary is crossed and I need to learn about what I need to do to cope with a situation

  • I can feel my anger sometimes....when I am prepared to look,

  • I can feel my anger sometimes....when I trust that it is safe to do so,

  • I can feel my anger sometimes...when I have the time and energy,

  • I can feel my anger sometimes...when I have the support I need to look

The magic is not the content or the words, but in the consciousness of choice that the individual moves themselves through in this embodied process as they go from the tyranny of the rule which is either-or, (or the one right way) towards hope and possibilities.

The final step would be to connect to your breath, which is a way of Self-connecting and read each of the transformations with their unique contexts.  

Satir talked about this change occurring at the deep level of the brain, the limbic system. A deep neurological change was important because the transformation of the rule is an opening up of what is humanly possible to experience and do. This was a primary driver for Satir; that is, to help people get unstuck from that which was inhuman to what was human and to move constantly in a direction of growth. The transformation of rules to life-affirming guidelines is one expression of what melting the iceberg looks like: to move from a stuck, rigid, closed-form to an open, fluid, choiceful, flexible form that is deeply connected to Self.

In this writing, we have explored how to become aware of our use of words and thoughts as rules and how this cascades into our feelings, perceptions, expectations, and behavior.  With awareness, we can then add in the ingredient of choice and use our Self to explore all of our possibilities and potential.

On February 8 to 10, I will be hosting a three day Self-connection workshop that will explore the various ideas and practices in this post. A retreat format will provide a supportive context within which to learn and practice the skills of Self-connection. For more information and to register, please visit:


The Teachings of Virginia Satir Series 1/2 Avanta The Virgnia Satir Network. CD collection CD 4: Survival Rules

Transforming Survival Rules into Life Affirming Guidelines part 1

Rules are the explicit and implicit ideas and beliefs that shape how we understand ourselves, others and the world and how we can behave.  They are thoughts, however unconscious, that constrains, dictates or limits the experience an individual can have. If we are unaware of the rules which govern our behavior then the rule is disempowering us because it is occurring outside of our awareness.  These were described by Virginia Satir as ‘family rules’ as we learned them as we grew up in our families. Rules govern how understand and experience emotions (if we experience them at all), if we can comment on what we feel and sense, whether we can ask for what we want/need, how we interact in relationships, what is allowed and what is forbidden.

Rules typically come in the form of all or nothing thinking: “That’s just how it is!”  Often this comes from a specific part of the psyche and relates to survival needs (e.g., the need to avoid rejection, conflict or abandonment). Awareness and choicefulness around rules is an important process for freeing the individual from rigid patterns that are unconsciously governing their lives. Rules are a significant element that creates rigid experiences which repeat.  I call experiences that repeat and which limit our Self-expression icebergs because all the energy, all the water molecules are trapped in a particular form.

For example, a woman I worked with had a rule that he should never do anything to upset anyone.  This meant that she had to hide her feelings from her family and never ask that her needs be met.  This also meant that she was intolerant to others when they had to make choices that disappointed her. The intolerance for being upset as a rule increased her reliance on the defensive coping of denial and ignoring. The cost was she was unhappy in her relationships with her partner and children and overworked as a result of not having clear boundaries at work.  The love that she had inside of her for herself and for others could not be expressed because the rule constrained her voice.

Here are some additional characteristics of rules:

Rules mostly likely direct our lives and energy when we experience threat and stress.

Rules have to do with rigid judgments about what is good/bad /right/wrong and have a survival connection meaning not following them is a matter of LIFE/DEATH at the very least emotional life or death.

Rules create a rigid filter from which to experience the world (all or nothing)

Rules originate from the modeling that we saw going on around us in our family of origin. They are internalized unconsciously.

The rules we take on for ourselves we also expect others to adhere to it.  For example, the woman who had a rule not to upset others learned that she also expected others to not do things to upset her.

How to become aware of your rules

I will describe the process of rule transformation generally here and the further down I will walk us through what the process looks like in its entirety. Rules are one entry point into the iceberg (iceberg being a metaphor for a survival reaction including feelings, feelings about feelings, beliefs, perceptions, roles, expectations, and meanings). A therapist working with a client can join the client with any form of consciousness that seems most available. For some people, these are feelings, for others it is thoughts and for others still it is concrete behaviors. This is why there are so many forms of therapies (EFT, Behavioral, CBT, experiential). The Satir model does not prioritize any one form of consciousness and is flexible enough to engage at any level of experience a person may be having. Part of the effectiveness is the therapy interventions aim at being experiential, which means including many layers of experience (a sense, a thought, a feeling, and action).

A therapist that is helping a person with unhelpful rules would have familiarity with rules and be able to see how they underlie the feelings, behaviors and relationships issues the individual is having.  Often these rules relate to what a person can feel, what they can say, what they can ask for.

Example of a Rule:

Take a person who denies their anger and feels deep shame whenever they react angrily. They may have a rule that says: I must never be angry because people will get hurt.

With a  rule like this, everything you do is always conscious of anger and you will see that above any other thing. Because what you’re not supposed to see, you see it everywhere and energy goes to deny and suppress it. The individual will not have ways of looking at their anger and making conscious choices about what to do with the anger that is present.  I have seen this rule in many men I have worked with who generally push their energy towards being highly rationale and deny their feelings until they are no longer able to suppress their feelings. Anger is usually the first feeling to come up because they have not given their feelings (or more accurately they did not know ways to give) any space to be heard, seen and understood. They need to rationalize it away because it’s not supposed to be seen.  

Another thing to consider is why a rule that suppresses anger needs to exist at all or any negative emotion for that matter.  I believe this stems from a human tendency to attach Self with experience; that if I feel bad, then I must be bad. Our experience must never define our Self, but often it does because the emotions can be overwhelming and all-consuming. In light of this confusion, it makes sense to have rules which avoid or deny the existence of negative feelings.

The purpose of the rule is often our survival, but the effect is often a shrinking of energy, a reduction in self-expression and negative experiences such as anxiety and depression. Rules often involve a trade-off of avoiding experiencing difficult feelings in the present for what eventually becomes chronic states of pain and suffering.

If we have a rule that restricts our ability to feel our feelings, express them and ask for something we need, then the consequence is we shrivel our energy because there is energy in every feeling.  It takes energy to suppress the emotion of anger. Anger turned towards the Self can become depression. The rule disempowers us to see what we see, or at least to comment on what is seen. Rules that interfere with our ability to sense, feel and communicate, will make people less competent in their ability to resolve problems and conflicts.

The foundation of any growth process is Self-connection

There are many techniques in the world of therapy, but the process of transforming rules demands that the person facilitating must be rooted in themselves and engaged in their own growing process.  Since rules reflect a person’s deep beliefs which limit how they use their sense, feelings, and choices, it makes sense a person working to help empower would not just know about the impact of rules but also done their work to free themselves from their own limiting rules so they have access to their own resources of seeing, hearing, feeling, communicating, sharing, and risking.

Self-connection is the basis for any technique and any process. It ensures that if I am in a helping role, I am with you as a Self to Self and not trying to fit you into a mold of a technique. It allows us to follow the present moment and to be creative. To see/hear/feel what is present and to work with that energy which is the fullness of being.

When engaging in any kind of change process, it is important to first root within your Self. This means acknowledging the living breathing, pulsing, digesting, feeling, sensing and thinking being you are with the proper level of wonder and dignity. It can be helpful to engage such a process with a trusted support person like a therapist or a close family member or friend who can be present and witness you as you explore this process.  Close your eyes and experience your breath. The fact that you are reading such an article points to the energy of self-love that exists inside of you. Why else would you want to learn about connection, Self, and transforming rules if you did not have love for yourself? I would go one step further and say if you were not a manifestation of love itself. Whether I am helping someone engage in a process of change or I am doing it for myself, beginning with self-connection forms the base for being able to engage fully and not just intellectually.

Part 2 will explore the specific process of transforming survival rules into life-affirming guidelines.

What is Self-Connection?

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Self-connection is the process of being in touch with the worthiness and wholeness of your Self regardless of form of experience you are having. These forms could be feelings, thoughts, expectations, beliefs, or attitudes.   The Self can only be experienced when there is both rooting in the inherent worthiness of Self and acknowledgment of the experience that is occurring as distinct though connected to Self. By engaging with what is present in experience while simultaneously rooting in the Self, the Self emerges more fully. When connected to, the Self can then engage in the learning process through whatever experience is occurring and transforms the experience to a higher level of evolution.*

Self-connection is a deeply personal, private and even spiritual activity. In the general pace of life, we get caught up in various roles as a spouse, parent, professional, and friend.  The demands of completing one task after the other can overtake all of our energy that we lose touch with our Self since our energy is constantly projected outwardly. The endless pursuit of achievement, accolades, material gain are all temptations to find oneself in these activities as if the Self was out there.  The temptation is always present to find fulfillment and peace in someone or something external to us. These can become toxic and addictive patterns that steal our energy and alienate us from our true nature.

The practice of Self-connection is a combination of insights, concepts, and skills that help the individual access their resources of awareness, wisdom, choice, and trust to transform their experience.

The healthy expression of Self is not in trying to attain worthiness through a role. Though many of us fall prey to the trap of wanting to make more money, be a better parent/spouse, achieve more, exercise more, eat healthier.  The subtext is “If I accomplish all these things, then I will be ok.” External outcomes or the good opinion of others is temporary, conditional; not a solid basis for the Self. To begin in Self-connection, we first acknowledge the worth of our Self before taking any action or making any judgements.  By forming a foundation of Self-connection, we can live and express that worthiness with our feet firmly rooted in the ground. Having this foundation, we are more capable of being honest with ourselves about our shortcomings and the need for growth. The Self-connection process helps contain and lead the ego in its proper place; that is, it is the servant to the Self and not the other way around.  An individual engaged in their Self-connection process creates greater resilience in their lives because their energy is not invested in maintaining a fixed view of themselves (ego); instead they are focused on their learning and growing process.

Early in my career, I worked with children in a residential treatment home. These children experienced terrible abuse and neglect in their families while others had no connection with their parents.  There was one boy ( I will call Kevin to protect his privacy) who became extremely violent while playing games. Kevin found losing absolutely abhorrent. He would quickly go into a rage if he had not performed well, if he lost or if there was any perceived injustice.  Very often other children would get hurt as he would lose control of himself. The youth workers were never sure when he would slash another kid with a hockey stick, start a fight or runaway. Losing was a great trigger for him.

As I watched this pattern unfold, I could see that Kevin was basing his worth on his performance on the basketball court, the soccer field or whatever game he was playing.

I believe in the worth of all people, a worth that precedes role, function, and behavior.  This worth lives in the Self of every person and the source that animates their life and which moves the person in a positive direction of growth. I see my role in helping people to help remove barriers to that inherent Self that yearns to grow and to encourage whoever I am working with to be in touch and to express their Self honestly and creatively.

As my relationship with Kevin developed and he started to trust me more, I decided to sit down and talk with him about his worth.  At the time, I was still thinking about this as self-worth/self esteem, now I realize I was talking to his Self. I said to him, “Kevin, you are an incredible athlete, you practice really hard and you’re strong and fast. You have all the attributes to have a lot of success in sports, but those things aren’t the things that make me like you. They don’t make me think you’re good or worthy. I know you’ve been through a lot and you miss your family so much. You’re not worthy because of how many goals you can score or how much better you are at sports than others.”

He looked at me puzzled and said, “So what makes me good if I’m not good at sports?”

“Do you have a birthmark or something on you that’s been with you since you were born?”

He pointed at a birthmark on his elbow that was the shape of an almond.

I continued, “Your worth is not based on how well you play sports or whether you win or lose, it’s there inside of you. When I am with you, I enjoy you because of who you are and what’s in your heart. You love people, you love your brothers, you’re funny. All these things are parts of you are. You can’t avoid being the way you are when you’re relaxed and you feel trust with people. Just as you were born with that mark on your elbow, you were born with your worth. You are worthy of my and others attention, respect and love by the very fact of you being here. You don’t have to earn it. In fact you can’t earn it because you’re worth is already inside of you. The point is to live knowing that that is true.”

I knew that Kevin felt unworthy because he internalized his mother’s abuse of him and he took her failure to meet the expectations of child protection to be able to see him as a sign of his unworthiness. Disappointment after disappointment, led Kevin to feeling like his only worth was in his talents and accomplishments.

This meant that he approached situations of sports, learning, connection with an attitude of needing to win, to be the best. He was desperate, closed off and stressed.

After this conversation, Kevin calmed down and stopped becoming violent. He came up with his own mantra that helped him let go of his anger when he felt upset, “My worth isn’t in winning. I can let this go.”

I will never know how much my words had an impact on Kevin. What I believe wholeheartedly, is that because I could see and experience his worth beyond his behaviour and because I could connect with him at the level of his Self through my eyes, our interactions and my voice that this became a model for him of how he could relate and connect to his Self.

Self-connection is different from self-esteem or self-worth. Self-esteem/Self-worth describe a person’s feelings, perceptions, or attitudes of themselves at a moment in time.  In other words, self-esteem and self-worth describe how a person experiences themselves and often this is related to their evaluation of their abilities, successes/failures, and roles. How worthy do I feel or esteemable, right now?

The problem with self-esteem and self-worth is if my esteem or worth of self is in how I experience myself then to feel good about myself I might use food or drugs, I might become a workaholic or a tireless parent who gives endlessly to the point of burnout. Emphasizing having a positive experience of self means the form of my behavior might take on unhealthy patterns that harms myself. It might not, but still the basis of my worthiness is always projected onto something external to me; something else to be done. I think many of us experience this as a never ending to do list. The stem of these thoughts sound like , “I can feel ok when I…”

“I can feel ok when I... lose 20lbs/make a million dollars/help the kids grow up successfully.”

Self-connection is a process of living from within yourself not trying to find yourself externally but always returning home to the life energy inside and making choices that express and manifest your unique Self.

The Self-connection process can be described in three stages which all begin with letter A.

Self-connection: Acknowledgement, Awareness, Action

The first phase is acknowledging your Self, your life and your intrinsic worth. Just by being alive you have worth. You have uniqueness and potentials in you that yearns to come out in the world. Just as Kevin learned that he didn’t need to earn his Self, he was already it. The first phase is the most difficult of the three stages because it requires letting go of old patterns, and the habitual projecting of the worth of Self in role, outcomes or other’s experience of us. It can be scary to let go of the familiar pattern of finding worthiness in roles and instead acknowledging yourself.

The second phase is awareness of your experience. After making a connection to your Self, you will have a base from which to look that is rooted in the Self. Being connected to one’s Self creates a context and a container to hold the experience. The aim here is to look at the challenging or stuck experience and to excavate out of it the parts of the experience that are connected to the Self. For example, what does the sadness tell you about what is really important to you? What you want/need/value? When there is only the impulse to do and no awareness or connection to Self, we act from a place of defensiveness, survival and reactivity.

The third and final phase is taking actions that manifest the Self. After acknowledging the Self and becoming aware of the experience you are having, you can explore the question, “What choices and decisions do I need to make that are congruent with and express best who I am at the level of Self?” This stage can be more interpersonal than the others since it might require us to taking risks, use our courage, and communicate our needs.

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There is no Self without Self-expression. This means that in the form of a human being we are all seeking expression from the deep core we can call by many names. I like to reference it with “Self”, but when we act from a place of knowing our worth we move without the burden of constantly proving ourselves. Instead the process is simply uncovering and connecting to what is there and letting that light shine brightly in the world.

*The forms of consciousness become more complex as they move from reactivity to deeper thoughtfulness. The individual does this takes through the process of awareness, wisdom, choicefulness , past/present future orientation and then ultimately trust. A higher level of evolution means that the initial inner experience of feelings, understanding and actions has been transformed into more complex map and better accounts for the complexity of the situation. The Self-connection process offers individuals an anchor from which to look at experience and to adapt to others and their environment more successfully.

Practical Mindfulness for Youth and Families

Mindfulness is the practice of present centered non-judgmental attention.  It is a very practical skill that can be very useful for young people as way of coping with emotions and managing their attention.

In the practice of mindfulness, people often get lost in their thoughts and they are directed to simply return to their breath, an anchor point.  Some specific anchor questions may help in finding grounding in the present moment.

For example:

“What am I doing right now?”

“Where is my focus right now?”

“What is this feeling I am experiencing right now?

These question positions the mind as an observer to the experience and one can simply be curious about what comes up.  The breath is an important partner to the action of observing that helps center and ground oneself back to the body.

At this point after becoming aware of the activity of thoughts and using breath to anchor, one can ask “Where would I like my attention to be?”  This sets an intention for one’s awareness moving forward and allows for focus.

“What am I trying to create right now?” Might be another question that anchors focus.

Children and youth who struggle with their attention have such rapidly shifting thoughts, feelings, sensations and perceptions that they often describe the feeling of being stuck in a tornado.  Having specific questions to help anchor and refocus them is a way for them to practice mastering their attention.

One helpful practice is for children/youth to imagine a situation where they are more able to focus and to have them describe what they do in those situations.  I’ve had a youth describe to me that when they are playing hockey everything gets quiet and peaceful, their eyes are straight ahead, they focus on exactly the next thing they need to do.

From here, they develop their own strategies for how to focus their mind that are based on their experience. This is much more powerful than an adult dictating to them 10 steps to better focus.

When it comes to self-perception thoughts like “I’m worthless.” or “You’re better than me.” It is very helpful to educate children/teens about the nature of thoughts. That thoughts are not facts. That there’s a difference between having a thought and being a thought.  This takes a lot of practice and a lot of support.  It is also helpful if parents can model this as well.

Encourage your child to practice observing their thoughts and grounding themselves in breath everyday for just 1 minute at a time. One helpful image that I come back to over and over again that was given to me by a Buddhist Monk is this:

It’s a picture of a man meditating on the mountain. The clouds represent thoughts and a feelings. A person can come to identify with the thoughts and grab at them, but they are not a part of him and therefore grasping at them is useless.  The image symbolizes the practice of not getting overly attached to one’s thoughts and feelings and instead letting them pass by peacefully.

The idea of practical mindfulness is to try to use the principles of mindfulness in the everyday moments of our lives and not to segregate mindfulness practice only at a time in the morning sitting on seat cushion.  

Where is your focus now as this article comes to an end? Perhaps you can let yourself take one mindful breath before you transition to the next thing.  


Beware of "Yes, Butting..." People

Many of us struggle with giving and receiving compliments. Maybe we did not receive positive messages during our upbringing so it feels unfamiliar to hear positive appreciations from others. I hear positive praise being talked about by many parenting classes as a technique to get children to do what they need to do.  

In general, the idea of using a technique or a strategy with or on a child makes me really uncomfortable. It feels mechanical and manipulative.  It misses the importance of prioritizing connection at the level of personhood and focuses on behavioral outcomes.

So often in therapy, I hear parents trying to give feedback to their child or to their partners in a way that uses something positive immediately followed by the punch of something of which they disapprove.  They might have learned from a book or a parenting class to use positive praise as a way of giving feedback.  Here’s an example:

“Hey mom. I finished all my homework today!”

“That’s good honey, but I hope it can last.”

I put the ‘but’ in there to illustrate the point. Sometimes it’s a silent “but”.

Here’s what happens: the “but” erases the first part of the sentence so the person is left with the lingering anxiety and pessimism of the second part of the sentence.  

We need to be able to give realistic feedback in order to teach and grow as parents and as children.

In the above example, when the child says “I finished all my homework today!” , one might wonder what it is the child is looking for.  

Recognition, validation, approval, connection, reparation.  

It could be any number of things.  Rather than using this as an opportunity to teach or to direct, it might be more helpful to pay attention to where the child is coming from first and what it is they are hoping to receive.

This means that the parent needs to set aside their agenda, their anxieties for the moment and be fully present with their child.

Now it would be easy to suggest telling your child, “Great job! I’m so proud of you.”  Be Positive! And let that be the end of it.


I don’t want to encourage a technique here.  I think people are too complicated to be able to offer singular solutions that are meant to cover infinite possibilities.  

Instead, a good place would be to reach and make contact with the child. Face your child with your body and make eye contact from a place of your own groundedness. Use the internal sense from your body and let your intuition grasp all of what your child brings to you in that moment in time.  Focus on just listening and comprehending.  Hold your goals beside you. No need to abandon them just ask them to wait patiently.

You might feel that your child needs to hear something positive from you because it’s been a bit tough week with homework.  “Great job. I can see how much effort you put into your work. I feel good seeing you try your best.”

You could ask your child how it was for them to hear your comments.  In this way, you are helping them chew and digest the experience with you. They are asking for something and you have given them something and now you are helping them process and grow through this experience.


To go even further, you might ask the child how they feel about what they have done. This is teaching them to internalize the process of self-validation. This way they don’t need you to do it for them all the time -this is unrealistic anyhow.

Beware of the “But...” Trap.  Take a DEEP breath and exhale your expectations and agenda for the time being and be fully present with your loved one (s).

This is not a technique. It’s just a way of clearing a space so we can be present with each other.

Finally, you can do this with you, but I’ll save that for another article;)

Creating Calm in the middle of Chaos

Over the course of a day, we gather so much stuff: emotional content, things to-dos, stress, expectations, judgments, memories, sounds, sights, and tastes. We are in the constant flow of picking up, sensing, being aware, but when do we ever practice letting go of all that we grab onto or cleaning the cache? With the evolution of technology and the proliferation of information platforms, the onslaught only increases.  

I have this image of powerful magnets attached to every part of my body and throughout the day all these things get sucked on and stuck there. Over time, it gets harder to move forward and even to see straight ahead because there’s so much obstructing the freedom to see and to move.

I wonder how this might look in your life. Perhaps you have a family and you have all the worry that fills your mind thinking about their health and safety, how the kids are doing at school, whether you’re spending enough time with them. Or maybe you're worried about finances and the mounting bills and the increasing cost of living.

For whatever reason, many of us confuse stressing and worry about a thing as the same as acting on it. I don’t mean to pathologize feelings of stress and worry. All feelings are our friends and act as important signals from our bodies that something needs attention. However,  it is important to make a distinction between feelings occurring at the level of feelings versus feelings being the choice or action used to cope with a situation.  

I want to share a personal experience of this. Yesterday in the midst of a busy day and busy-ness around me, I felt the need to step outside and to go for a walk to enjoy the sun and to rest. It was going to be a 12 hour work day and I knew that it would be good to do something restorative. There was a strong opposing voice that said “No! There’s too much to do!”  I agreed but I went anyway.

As I walked I felt all the to-dos trailing behind me like a string of cans dangling behind me but instead of a celebration they were a haunting reminder of a future of endless work and exhaustion. I continued to walk noticing the people around me and finally landing on a park bench. In front of me, I could see parents with toddlers chasing after them joy spread across their faces. I saw a little boy running away from his mother. Perhaps this was a newly discovered ability as he sneakily looked back to see the great distance he created. I smiled.

I thought about the gift of children. They have no past really. Everything is new. They move throughout their day present to every moment with no thoughts beyond what is right in front of them. What an incredible gift these little Buddhas are for parents who teaching them to return to the present moment over and over again?  

As I watched, I decided to practice letting go of my thoughts and anxieties about my to-dos later that day. I gave my eyes permission to see everything that was happening in front of me. I had a beautiful panoramic view of the park, the tennis court, the playground, the splash pad, the trees, houses in the distance, dogs chasing tennis balls, and squirrels in trees.

Letting go was not easy. The dis-ease, the resistance, to letting go was palpable, but the wise part of me knew that I could not function well, I could not be present with others, and serve them well if my mind was filled with all of my next things instead of the now thing.

In that moment, like something out of a Disney movie, a giant bright yellow monarch butterfly flitted by bouncing along my eyeline as if to say, “See!!!!”  I smiled at myself not thinking about anything only feeling the momentary joy.  

Later that day, I ran a boys social group. There were many incredible moments. One highlight occurred when one boy took the risk of sharing something deeply personal to the whole group and the children responded with kindness and attentiveness.  Thinking back on it now I can appreciate that taking the time to let go of all that I was hanging onto made me available to see these boys in the group with the same joy of that butterfly. I became less concerned with what I needed to do to run a successful group and instead landed in the space of attentiveness effortlessly.  Letting go allowed for the spaciousness to play, to be present to and to sit back and witness the joyful sharing between the boys and the support they offered one another.

I know you’re busy. I can almost hear you screaming it through the interwebs. I get it: life moves quickly and it’s hard to keep up with everything. I don’t know how we got to this point where spending 15 minutes outside seems like such an impossibility.  There’s no way to add more time, but I’ve found letting go and cleaning out the cache to be a source of strength, joy, and energy.

The good news is the ingredients to this experience of calm amidst the storm are:  

One cup of Nature;

Handful of Breathing;


Tons of Letting go.

The Cost: Free.

See if you can give yourself permission to take a break in the middle of your day in spite of all the chaos.  Share your experience with others and in the comments below. I’d love to hear what butterflies you might encounter.

My way of working with people...

When people or families come to see me they are often feeling stuck; stuck in debilitating emotional states, stuck in relationships, stuck in their pattern of coping. In one way or another, they would like to move from their 'stuckness' to a place of choice where they can feel empowered and free. This is why one of the main principles from which I work is the Freedom of MOVEMENT.  In this post, I will explore the Freedom to Move principle and how people might experience this process of freeing the mind and the body to move to new health and growth in therapy. 

Sometimes people come to therapy expecting the therapist to provide the 'right' answers or approach to problem situations.  They want to be told what to do and offered "good" advice.   Sometimes they experience shame with having to ask for help because they expect themselves to know what is ‘right’  even though they may have never encountered such problems before.  They live by rules such as: "I should never make mistakes." or "I should always know the right thing to do."

The need for the one right way is a trap; it is a trap for the client and the therapist. The expectation that one should know what to do, is a common element that contributes to stuckness because it is a barrier to learning. My way, as Bruce Lee said it, is to have no way. This means that I have no preset ideas of what is right and I leave myself open and able to create the solution that I need at a moment in time depending on the situation. The process of therapy is the client and myself joined in this process of discovery. Not with one in front of the other or behind but both of us side by side.

Using no way as a way; having no limitation as limitation

-Bruce Lee


No one can be force fed right answers.  Even a baby has to do the work of swallowing and digesting what is given. In other words, every lesson must be earned by being experienced through the whole person and internalized through the body.  A technique or a strategy can not be long lasting if it has no roots inside the person and within relationships. This is why reading books is rarely enough to help people change.  Knowing cognitively is only one level of knowing. To learn experientially means to learn with one's senses, mind, heart, body; any and every resource a person has available.   (Ironically, there is a real limitation occurring right now through this writing as we are not able to see, touch or hear each other.)

I admit candidly and quickly with people that I have no right answers for them and there is no way I could ever be wise to their situation as they could be for themselves. My focus is on creating a safe context of mutual learning, connection, curiosity and exploration. From here, people are able to become aware of themselves and others in new ways, to gain motivation and willingness to change, to create new empowering choices and to decide what they will do and to practice these new ways in their everyday life. 

Unfortunately, a large majority of people are caught in the pressure to do the right thing. This pressure makes it difficult for people to listen, to be present and to use all the information available to them including their senses, their intuition and their wisdom.  All human beings in whatever role (parent, child, teacher, manager) who can acknowledge what they don’t know or their mistakes give themselves the gift and the opportunity to learn and grow from their experience.

Living is a learning process. The notion of an expert acts as a barrier to the learning process.  Relating to therapists as simply the holders of the correct answers does at least three things that take clients off their learning course:

  1. It makes them depend on the so called "expert", which means that they will need to be in therapy forever.

  2. It disconnects them from developing their own wisdom/intelligence and decision making ability for their own life.

  3. Both therapist and client stop looking at their present experience because a conclusion is made about what is happening for that particular client based on what happens to most clients with similar behaviour/symptoms/problems.

How does a therapist avoid the above three pitfalls?


Firstly the therapist must be in connection with himself and his learning process. He must free himself from conclusions about and for the client that the client has not participated in. This is one of the dangers of labels and diagnoses; they offer conclusions about a person that creates expectations for the client of themselves and the therapist of the client that may or may not be true.  I have seen many situations where diagnosis have been helpful and I have seen them be very harmful as well.  What is important is that clients engage in their own narratives and develop a deep understanding of themselves rooted in their experience not just a label and a diagnostic manual.

The therapist can model a way of being that he hopes his client will engage in themselves and that is a learning stance. In Zen Buddhism, this is similiar to the idea of Beginner’s mind. It is the willingness to learn about and from the client their experience which includes what they feel, their feelings about feelings, perceptions, expectations, deep yearnings, their sense of self and their current ways of behaving and coping.  It includes learning about their family of origin and some of the ways of coping, creating intimacy, resolving difference that they may have learned from their earlier life. The act of looking and being with a person with fresh eyes can be healing in and of itself. The therapist offers an accepting, non judgmental, caring, genuine, present centered, hopeful, and respectful space for the client.  This stance positions clients as the expert of their experience and empowers them by communicating constantly that they are capable of learning something new when their old patterns no longer help them.

Secondly, the therapist can be more helpful by providing the space, trust and support to move from status quo to something new. This means the therapist needs to work with where the client is starting, not with the therapist’s good ideas about what is right or correct or what the research says. Instead the therapist can give a message through their behaviour that says, “I trust that you have everything inside you that you need to cope healthfully with your life and I am here as a support to you in the process of discovering that healthy coping for you.”

By trusting the client, the client begins to trust themselves more, again or perhaps for the first time.  The therapist creates what I call a Positive Expectancy, which means he anticipates positively directed growth and change.  In time, the client begins to recognize what is right for themselves, including what is right about them (their worthiness) and their resources.

“I am pointing you towards you, not you towards me”

Thirdly, the therapist must work towards being fully present with the client, the situation, themselves and every resource that is available. The therapist models this resourcefulness by guiding the client to do a similar thing with themselves.  One simple way of doing this is helping clients reframing problems as resources and seeing their hidden strengths in situations.

For example, a mother brought her child in to see me because he had run away from his piano lesson because of a dispute with his teacher who had gotten really angry with him.  His 'running away' caused the mother to be very anxious and she wanted a way to resolve this behaviour so it never happened again. As they shared details about the story, it became clear that the boy was running towards his mother because he felt badly about what happened and did not know what else to do. I asked the mother how she felt that her son knew that when he was trouble he knew to run towards his mom!  She started to cry happily feeling a sense of relief and connection to her son with a new understanding of the situation. “Running away” as a problem was reframed as resource of knowing that the boy trusted his mom to help him. They were then able to work out better ways for him to get help but they first had to build on the resource positively and the strength that was already there. 

By becoming aware and connecting to the clients' intelligence, heart, wisdom, creativity, willpower as well as their weaknesses and limitations, both client and therapist can be fully human; making it more possible to engage in the process of change and growth and to live and experience life in a more fulsome way.

There is a big difference between knowing something cognitively and knowing something experientially.  I have learned that the more I let my clients teach me about their experience (not necessarily about their story) and the more I participate in that conversation with all of me, the more I am joined with them in their present experience.  In this way we are able to move much further because we have made contact and I am able to create a context of safety and nurturance.

The process of change and growth is a forever learning process for all of us no matter what side of the therapy room you are seated.  By remaining humble, curious and compassionate, I hope to help individuals and families move towards a deeper and more joyful connection to themselves and others.