Monday, March 23, 2015

Meditation Monday: Stepping Out of the Drama



By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC

In an effort to take the “manic” out of “Monday,” this weekly post explores techniques, issues, latest research, and other thoughts on meditation. Nancy facilitates a weekly meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or nancyhalltac@gmail.com

Living in this world means having to be among people. And people are stressful. They are also wonderful, kind, and compassionate, but, boy, they can get on your nerves. And we can’t always avoid the ones who rile us up the most. So what do we do?

  1. Accept that we don’t have control over others. Most people are motivated by good intentions and even the rudest person probably feels his or her behavior is completely justified. But we often hold on to the hope that the individual will change—and we get upset when that doesn’t happen. Maya Angelou said “When someone shows you who they are, believe them—the first time.”Accepting that we have no control over another person’s behavior does not mean that we approve or that we have to allow ourselves to be abused. Accepting allows us to assess how we are affected so that we can then make changes needed. This is where a loving kindness meditation might be helpful. 
  2. Take a step back. Sometimes everything can feel so immediate and right in your face. We have a hard time seeing the big picture or remembering that it’s a big universe. Taking time to connect with the expanse of our world can give us a little perspective and might open up other avenues for coping. For example, a meditation that guides your awareness to yourself, the room, the city, state, and continuing outward not only gives your mind a break from the intense emotion of a conflict but also reminds you that you are part of larger experience. You have control over what you want your life focus to be. You can’t avoid conflicts and emotional upset, but you can control how much energy and mindspace you’re going to rent to them.
  3. Allow for self-compassion. When we react emotionally to another person, we often make the situation worse by beating ourselves up for getting upset. “Why do I let him get to me?!” Your response is what it is. Allow yourself to be curious how you’re reacting. Stay in touch with your body—are you tightening up, clenching your jaw, breathing shallowly? Notice those things with compassion. A physical or emotional response is not a sign of weakness or failure—it’s simply information, data to help you determine how to deal with this situation or person.


Allowing for acceptance of ourselves and others along with inviting in some objectivity can also help us see how we might be making situations and relationships even more difficult. And while you can’t change or control another, a change in your response will affect the dynamic and potentially alleviate stress for both of you.


Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and co-leads the Somatic-Experience-Informed Trauma Healing Group. Check and subscribe out her blog “All Shapes and Sizes,” which appears on Chicago Tribune’s media partner ChicagoNow.com.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Meditation Monday: Spring Renewal



By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC

In an effort to take the “manic” out of “Monday,” this weekly post explores techniques, issues, latest research, and other thoughts on meditation. Nancy facilitates a weekly meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or nancyhalltac@gmail.com

It finally happened—spring arrived in the Midwest. Most of the snow has melted and flowers are beginning to pop up. It is so exciting to see the first crocuses bloom. But as spring progresses and bigger flowers bloom, the smaller blossoms might get overlooked.

That is the subject of William Cullen Bryant’s poem “The Yellow Violet.” 
When beechen buds begin to swell,
   And woods the blue-bird’s warble know,
The yellow violet’s modest bell
   Peeps from the last year’s leaves below.

Ere russet fields their green resume,
   Sweet flower, I love, in forest bare,
To meet thee, when thy faint perfume
   Alone is in the virgin air.

Of all her train, the hands of Spring
   First plant thee in the watery mould,
And I have seen thee blossoming
   Beside the snow-bank’s edges cold.

Thy parent sun, who bade thee view
   Pale skies, and chilling moisture sip,
Has bathed thee in his own bright hue,
   And streaked with jet thy glowing lip.

Yet slight thy form, and low thy seat,
   And earthward bent thy gentle eye,
Unapt the passing view to meet
   When loftier flowers are flaunting nigh.

Oft, in the sunless April day,
   Thy early smile has stayed my walk;
But midst the gorgeous blooms of May,
   I passed thee on thy humble stalk.

So they, who climb to wealth, forget
   The friends in darker fortunes tried.
I copied them—but I regret
   That I should ape the ways of pride.

And when again the genial hour
   Awakes the painted tribes of light,
I’ll not o’erlook the modest flower
   That made the woods of April bright.
Poetry is that lovely art form that allows language to reach the parts of the brain unencumbered by logic. The experience of reading or listening to a poem is meditative in and of itself, especially when we’re able to let go of our natural tendency to want to interpret or analyze the poem.

In poetry, we can get bogged down in asking “But what does it mean?” While there is joy in discovering themes and layers of meaning, the experience of allowing the images to simply wash over us has a great deal of value.
Attending to the metaphors and language can help ground us in the present. We can orient ourselves to the sounds of the words and the colors and textures of the images. One simple phrase or stanza can take us on an unexpected meditative journey.

Poetryfoundation.org has numerous recordings of poems—many by the poets themselves. Or, pick a poem you like, record yourself reading it, and allow yourself to be transported. Don’t worry if you don’t understand most of the words or if your logic brain can’t figure out what’s going on. Just take in the sounds and rhythms of the words and let them carry you away.

Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and co-leads the Somatic-Experience-Informed Trauma Healing Group. Check and subscribe out her blog “All Shapes and Sizes,” which appears on Chicago Tribune’s media partner ChicagoNow.com.


Monday, March 9, 2015

Meditation Monday: Meet Sharon Salzberg



By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC

In an effort to take the “manic” out of “Monday,” this weekly post explores techniques, issues, latest research, and other thoughts on meditation. Nancy facilitates a weekly meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or nancyhalltac@gmail.com.

Noted author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg was born in New York City in 1952. She became interested in Buddhism while in college and shortly thereafter traveled to India to begin intensive meditation training. She started teaching meditation in the United States in 1974 and throughout the years has become a leading figure in incorporating meditation into Western culture.

Salzberg co-founded Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Massachusetts where retreats and meditation classes are held. She is also a New York Times best-selling author, which highlights her ability to explain in plain language the benefits of mindfulness in everyday life. She takes an abstract and potentially elusive practice and makes it accessible to everyone.

In a recent Washington Post interview, Salzberg detailed the benefits of mindfulness, emphasizing the distractions we experience in our plugged-in world. She also addressed some of the misconceptions and obstacles to meditation. 
When we realize our mind has wandered off like a monkey, it’s in that moment we have a chance to be really different, instead of reinforcing old habits. Instead of lambasting ourselves that we didn’t meditate perfectly, we let go and start over. And if your mind wanders in the next ten seconds, you let go and start over. And let go and start over. That’s strength training. We’re practicing resilience.
Frequently, clients tell me that they find meditation frustrating because they cannot “turn off” their minds. But, as Salzberg emphasizes, completely shutting down thoughts is not the goal—being aware of distractions and then reorienting to the meditation is a key component of healing and re-connecting to the world.

Meditation does not have to be time consuming and can work with any lifestyle, philosophy, or religious tradition. Learning to quiet the mind facilitates physical, emotional, and mental healing.

In Sharon Salzberg’s own words: 
Each of us has a genuine capacity for love, forgiveness, wisdom and compassion. Meditation awakens these qualities so that we can discover for ourselves the unique happiness that is our birthright.

Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and co-leads the Somatic-Experience-Informed Trauma Healing Group. Nancy also writes for ChicagoNow, a media partner of the Chicago Tribune. Check out and subscribe to her blog All Shapes and Sizes.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Meditation Monday: The Six Elements



By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC

In an effort to take the “manic” out of “Monday,” this weekly post explores techniques, issues, latest research, and other thoughts on meditation. Nancy facilitates a weekly meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or nancyhalltac@gmail.com

The Six Elements Meditation is a systematic practice that fosters connection to everything that composes us but is not from us. Clear as mud, right? Think of it this way, everything that makes up our bodies—solids, liquids, gases—actually comes from outside of us. Food, water, oxygen—we need these from the outside to stay alive. However, we aren’t just consumers. What we take in eventually comes out in some form or fashion.

The Six Element practice helps us get in touch with this process, which then enables the exploration of impermanence. Every element explored in this meditation is ever changing. So this practice is both grounding and dynamic.

Found in the Pali Canon—ancient scriptural text of the Theravadan Buddhist tradition—this reflection enables the practitioner to contemplate the following elements: 
  1. Earth: The solids within and outside the body.
  2. Water: The liquid within and outside the body.
  3. Fire: The energy within and outside the body.
  4. Air: The gases within and outside the body.
  5. Space: That which we cannot touch but surrounds all matter.
  6. Consciousness: That which allows us to contemplate the first 5 elements.

A Six Element Meditation practice typically starts with a period of relaxing breathing and perhaps time to move into a loving-kindness state. Then the practitioner works through each element.

The order is important because each one becomes less concrete or tangible.

As you contemplate each element consider: 
  • How the element comes into your body and how you then return it to the outside.
  • The ever-changing nature of the element.
  • How you experience each element.
  • That each element has its origins in the “not self.”

Allow yourself to feel grounded by this practice but also challenged to let go of the illusion of permanence—like the universe, we are always in a state of flow and always renewing. Notice how this idea makes you feel.


In the Buddhist tradition, suffering occurs when we resist accepting impermanence or when we fixate on how we wish things were, instead of accepting how they are. The Six Element Meditation challenges this resistance. What do you hold on to that hinders your growth? What do you resist acknowledging in an effort to protect yourself from pain? Perhaps this practice can help you answer these questions and more. 

Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and co-leads the Somatic-Experience-Informed Trauma Healing Group.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Meditation Monday: Loving-Kindness



By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC

In an effort to take the “manic” out of “Monday,” this weekly post explores techniques, issues, latest research, and other thoughts on meditation. Nancy facilitates a weekly meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or nancyhalltac@gmail.com

Loving-kindness is a phrase that is found in a variety of faith practices. In Christianity, it refers to mercy and love; in Buddhism, loving-kindness is another way of describing altruistic or selfless love. The concept is used in meditation to create a state of compassion, openness, and love.

Noted meditation teacher Sharon Salzburg described loving-kindness as “a quality of friendship … a cultivation of a steady, unconditional sense of connection that touches all beings without exception, including ourselves.” In other words, a loving-kindness meditation helps us shift our mindset so that we relate to ourselves and everyone with compassion and caring.

Traditionally, a loving-kindness meditation is directed at 5 groups: 
  1. Yourself: Your practice always begins with developing a loving acceptance of yourself.
  2. Benefactor: Someone for whom you feel great gratitude (no conflict). This could be someone whom you’ve never met, like a public figure or religious leader.
  3. Beloved friend or family member: Someone you love unconditionally even though there might be occasional conflict.
  4. Neutral person: Someone for whom you have no particular feelings, such as your local coffee shop barista or your mail carrier.
  5. Difficult person (enemy): Anyone who creates aversion or anger (even public figure)

 There are 3 ways to arouse feelings of loving-kindness for these folks: 
  1. Visualize: See yourself or the person you’re directing the feeling toward smiling back at you and experiencing joy.
  2. Reflection: Reflect on positive qualities of yourself or person you’re directing loving-kindness toward.
  3. Auditory: Repeat an internalized loving phrase.

In cultivating your own practice, ask “what do I wish for myself and others?” Perhaps it’s to be: 
  • Free from danger
  • Happy
  • Free from suffering
  • Dwelling in peace
  • Safe

You can incorporate loving-kindness into your day-to-day life just by changing your mindset. Approach yourself and everyone as if we are all seeking happiness and peace. We are all trying to do what we think is right.

As part of a meditation, you can direct the following phrases toward all 5 groups: 
  • May I [or you] be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I [or you] be safe and protected.
  • May I [or you] be free of mental suffering or distress.
  • May I [or you] be happy.
  • May I [or you] be free of physical pain and suffering.
  • May I [or you] be healthy and strong.
  • May I [or you] be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, and with ease.
These are just examples, but the idea is to systematically work through all groups. You might find that feelings that seem to contradict loving-kindness will emerge, such as sadness, anger, or fear. That is fine; this shows your heart is softening and pent-up feelings are beginning to be revealed. Accept these feelings without judgment.


Approach your practice with a sense of curiosity and compassion. Appreciate your efforts, and remember—kindness is contagious.

Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and co-leads the Somatic-Experience-Informed Trauma Healing Group.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First

By Erin Stitzel, MA, LPC

Have you ever found yourself in situations in life where things just don't seem to be going your way? Perhaps you are in a relationship that is more draining than nourishing. Or, your job makes you feel like a robot who just shows up day after day, not really emotionally or mentally invested. You may have friends or acquaintances in your life who seem to be energy vampires; they are more adept at taking than giving. Why do we tolerate these situations? What is it about our conditioning that keeps us from saying "Yes!" to happiness, joy, and thriving?
            Perhaps we grew up in families, cultures, or societies that value selflessness and putting others first. To be sure, giving and care for others are honorable and valuable qualities. They allow us to have empathy and connect deeply with others. However, a recent conversation with a client of mine revealed the following wisdom: If we don't take care of ourselves first, and cultivate a healthy and loving relationship with our Self, then we have no Self from which to give and care for others.
            "In the event that our cabin loses pressure, an oxygen mask will fall down from above you. Secure your mask first and then assist others." So, how can we begin to cultivate this loving relationship with our Selves? How can we shift our paradigm to one that is inclusive and understanding? The following guidelines can serve as gentle reminders to move you onto the path of taking care of your Self.   
  1. If it feels wrong, don't do it.
  2. Say "exactly" what you mean
  3. Don't be a people pleaser.
  4. Trust your instincts.
  5. Never speak badly about yourself.
  6. Never give up on your dreams.
  7. Don't be afraid to say "no."
  8. Don't be afraid to say "yes."
  9. Be kind to yourself.
  10. Let go of what you can't control.
  11. Stay away from drama and negativity.
  12. Love.

These sound so simple, but you may find that as you go about working on these for yourself, it feels easier and more natural to extend these principles to others. As with many things in life, just keep at it. Practice makes possible. So what do you think? Ready to put on your oxygen mask?

Erin Stitzel, MA, LPC, is a staff therapist at The Awakening Center. She co-leads the Adult DBT group and the Teen/Family DBT group. Erin is specially trained in Internal Family Therapy (IFS), Person-Centered Therapy, and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Before CBT There Was The Buddha

By Linda R. Winter, JD, MA, LCPC

We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts,
with our thoughts we make the world.
Several years ago, I bought a wall hanging with this saying on it. At the time I was surprised that the Buddha had figured out the relationship between our thoughts and our emotions/reality as described by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck and the 20th-century forerunners and founders of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). The Buddha understood the relationship between thoughts and emotions without relying on research!! The cornerstone of CBT is that our emotions and reactions are derived from our thoughts. If we want to change our emotions or reactions, we start by changing thoughts that are not factual, not balanced, or not otherwise useful. CBT calls these kinds of thoughts distorted.
            The CBT model teaches people how to restructure distorted thoughts into fact-based, balanced, and helpful ways of understanding an event, ourselves, and the world. The Buddha reminds us that our thoughts are powerful. Like the Buddha, many modern scientists and philosophers believe that our mind is the most powerful part of who we are as human beings. Both the Buddha and CBT invite us to be responsible about how we think about ourselves, others, and the world. Because, it is “with [these] thoughts that we make [our] world,” we create so much of our own reality.
Our own worst enemy cannot harm us as much as our unwise thoughts.
No one can help us as much as her own compassionate thoughts.Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, Jack Kornfield (1994)
            The Buddha talks about unwise thoughts in a way that sounds like CBT’s distortions. Specifically, what we say to and think about ourselves profoundly affects us. For those whose thoughts go to harsh judgments and criticisms about who we are, how we look, what we said, what we did, what we should have said and done . . . (you get the picture), life feels small, constrained, dark, and very painful. The Buddha reminds us that that these negative and distorted ways of speaking to and thinking about ourselves and the world cause us more suffering and destruction than our worst enemy can.
            The really good news is the reverse. When we bring compassion and balance into what we say to and think about ourselves and the world, great health and healing occur. The Buddha indicates that no external source can be as helpful and powerful as us speaking truthfully to ourselves with compassion. Some examples of health and healing are
  • Our mood improves
  • Our self-esteem improves
  • We become less irritated and impatient with others
  • We respond to events with more balance

            People just feel better about themselves and their lives.  CBT uses the vocabulary of factual, balanced, and helpful thoughts; Buddhism uses the vocabulary of compassion toward ourselves and others. However we get there it is a great place to be!!
A day spent judging another is a painful day.The day spent judging yourself is a painful day.
You don't have to believe your judgments; they're simply an old habit.Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, Jack Kornfield (1994)
            Judgments are labels we put on things, most often with a pejorative meaning. We use judgments as a way to see ourselves as better than or less than others, instead of seeing the humanity in everyone. Judgments lack compassion and curiosity, a pair worth noting. DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) is a therapy model related to CBT, but it addresses judgments and judgmental thinking. DBT introduces the state of mind—Wise Mind, which is the balance between emotional thinking and rational thinking. DBT specifically teaches that when we are in a Wise Mind state of being, we are being non-judgmental. CBT and DBT state that we are not our thoughts. Our thoughts are separate from us. We experience and can observe our thoughts; they come and go, and we can let the ineffective, not useful thoughts go. 
Words have the power to destroy or heal.
When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, Jack Kornfield (1994)
From our thoughts to our words, the same observations apply. Just as we are encouraged to be responsible with our thoughts about ourselves and others, so too are we reminded to use our words with care when we speak with others. And no hiding behind the defense that anything can be said if it’s “true”! Truth is always to be tempered with kindness, another notable pair. The Buddha reminds us that when we bring together truth and kindness, change to ourselves and the world can occur.

            In the introduction to Jack Kornfield’s book Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are (2012), Daniel J. Siegal, M.D., a well-published neuroscientist, described Buddhism as “a science of mind and method of healing.” Siegal further explained, “I encountered Buddhism as a system of thought and understanding devoted to alleviating mental pain . . . and linking the mindful brain with the wise heart.” I rest my case, Before CBT (and DBT) there was the Buddha!!

Linda is a certified IFS therapist and also has extensive training in Somatic Experienced–based therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy. She has a great deal of experience working with those struggling with eating disorders, depression, trauma, and other life stressors.