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

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

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.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Think, Before Acknowledging

By Michel Harris, RD, LDN, CDE

 One of my clients, who recently achieved her goal weight, arrived to our session looking defeated. She explained that her attempt to donate blood turned humiliating when the receptionist commented on her thin appearance and then announced to the entire room how much she weighed. A second client, who is close to her goal weight, endures hurtful comments from her co-workers on a daily basis. They cannot seem to stop reminding her of how lucky she is to “eat anything she wants and stay so thin.”

The way in which these people behaved towards my clients reminds me of a scene from the movie “Splash.” Darryl Hannah is in a department store purchasing underwear, and the saleslady, while trying to sell her something fancier, commented on her appearance, then said “My daughter-in-law, on the other hand is lucky, she’s anorexic.” For both of my clients, the remarks of others sting because having an eating disorder makes them feel anything but lucky. Just like the saleslady in “Splash,” these comments seem to equate underweight and thinness as a status everyone desires. While they wouldn't be expected to know the circumstances that my clients have faced, they have acted disrespectfully by assuming they enjoy being recognized for their appearance.

You may think that underweight and thin have the same meaning, but to clarify, underweight refers to someone who is not at his or her desired weight for health. A thin person is at a healthy weight but is often viewed as underweight by those who are dissatisfied by their own appearance.

As a dietitian, I have heard just as many stories involving humiliation of underweight and thin clients, as I have of those who are overweight or obese. However, since the media promotes underweight and thinness as the appearance everyone strives for, it is assumed that weight-related comments are welcomed by this population.

When you are about to ask your friend why she is eating yogurt or exercising because she is so thin, stop and remind yourself that she may be struggling with accepting her own body or maybe she is very confident with living a healthy lifestyle. Remember, you don’t know her life story or how she came to her current appearance.

I will close with a line from one of my favorite songs by the artist Monica: “Just one of them days a girl goes through.” While this song is about a relationship in which the girl apologizes to her boyfriend for wanting to be alone sometimes, I used to play this song in my college days when I was having a poor body image day. All of us, despite our body size, have days in which we are uncomfortable with our body. Let’s support each other and acknowledge our non-physical attributes.

Michel Harris is the staff nutritionist at The Awakening Center. She counsels clients individually and in group. Check back on the Calendar page for updates on new groups in 2015. Michel is accepting new clients, so call 773-929-6262 for more information.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Finding Your Tribe

By Erin Diedling, M.Ed, LCPC

Recently, I was invited to a retreat. I didn't know anyone attending, including the hosts who invited me. I knew very few of the details, and after I booked my travel arrangements the dates were changed. It was getting weird. At that point, I thought about not going. But my gut said “GO.” I checked in again and considered the outcome of going versus not going. It still said “GO GO GO!” Now I know why. Something about this group of strangers gathering to focus upon spirit and to heal together pulled at me.
            This group of healers were from around the globe, and each brought a special unique healing gift. All the gifts were different. We exchanged modalities and taught each other. At the meditation center, we sat under the majestic redwood trees and exchanged stories until late at night. It’s still unfolding. The relationships, transformation, and the experiences that were shared. The sense of belonging and connectedness. It was profound. My spirit got giddy to be around this group. We stay in touch and feed each other with strength and connection. It’s like push pins on a globe that light up when we video chat.
            Then I came home and was so excited to share the transformation with my colleagues and clients. I realized I had a work tribe. I get to work with a crew of unbelievably talented practitioners. We get excited to see each other in the halls and trade stories and support each other’s work. It’s kinda magical.
            I’m blessed. I have a tribe. I have many tribes.
            So often in our work at The Awakening Center with complex trauma, eating disorders, high anxiety, and so forth, clients are isolated. The biggest difficulties many of my clients face are loneliness and isolation. People can experience that in a crowd or at home alone. I know that seeking company is risky for some. It can be uncomfortable. And I’ll admit, I can be an extrovert when I want to (or when I need to be). Introverts can have a tough time taking advice from an extrovert because their fear is overlooked. I want to acknowledge your fear. It’s risky. You can get hurt. There’s a deep longing to connect without the means or the understanding of how.
            So I will ask, where are the invites? Is there an interest you have that pulls at you. Is there and alumni organization, cultural club, business group, and on and on?
            I urge clients and friends to seek out their tribes when they’re feeling lost. Author and spiritual leader Rob Bell said, “If you’re feeling your world is too small or if you’re feeling stuck, then make your world bigger.”
            Is there a tribe that is inviting you? Is there a tribe that calls you? If you have to convince or campaign for it, it’s probably not your tribe.
            Or, consider the tribes that are inviting you. Are they appealing to you? Do they freak you out and make you want to run? Probably not your tribe. Sometimes it’s like the Hans Christian Andersen tale of the Ugly Duckling. He can’t see its own beauty. He thinks he’s a duck who looks different from other ducks. It takes a couple of mated beautiful swans to initiate the naïve swan into the tribe. “Look at you at your grace and talent, where have you been, we’ve missed you, come swim with us.”
            Sometimes our biological families are our tribes. Other times we create a family out of friends, coworkers, places of common interest, the art studio, volunteer organizations, places of worship, or institutions of learning.
            Please respond, and let people reading this blog know where you find and have found your tribe. Where do you get a sense of belonging? And how do you invite others to join in? Thanks for reading this. I’m grateful for your participation.

Erin is Director of Trauma Healing and Sr. Staff Therapist at The Awakening Center. She completed an advanced 3 year training with Somatic Experience Trauma Institute (SETI). She does body-centered psychotherapy, teaches meditation, and leads the Somatic Experience–informed trauma group at The Awakening Center. She periodically teaches her signature Design Your Life Workshop. She specializes in treating complex trauma, eating/anxiety disorders as well performers and artists. Erin dances, paints, and writes in Chicago. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Break the Cycle By Using an Alternate Exit

By Annie Felice, MA, LPC
Have you ever felt trapped in a cycle of behaviors? You know the pattern all too well, but you somehow can't find the "exit" and you just keep going round and round. Perhaps you can relate to the following example.
            Jane comes home from a stressful day at work. Her boss had reprimanded her for making a mistake in a meeting with a new client, and Jane had felt embarrassed and ashamed for the rest of the work day. The Distractor Part of Jane recognizes her need for relief from these emotions and turns to binge eating within minutes of walking through her apartment door. Bingeing provides a temporary distraction, until the Critical Part of Jane scolds her: "What's wrong with you? Don't you have any self-control? It's only 6pm, and you've already ruined the night!" 
            How do you think Jane's embarrassment and shame are doing following that criticism? Not so great—in fact, they feel even bigger! Jane's own Critical Part actually exacerbated the emotions that were triggered at work by producing even more embarrassment and shame. Remember that Distractor Part who helped Jane earlier? Well, it now senses that Jane feels even worse. To relieve her from the double dose of embarrassment and shame, the Distractor Part engages in binge eating a second time, which once again infuriates Jane's Critical Part.
            See the cycle? It really can be hard to find the exit. Here's where the concept of Opposite Action, taken from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, can be helpful. Opposite Action means intentionally choosing to act and think in a way that is opposite of your emotionally driven response or impulse.
            It's understandable for Jane to feel upset with herself after she binges because she knows that there are other ways of coping that are healthier and more effective. However, if Jane responds from the place of criticism, she intensifies her original emotions of embarrassment and shame. So, what would it be like if Jane used the tool of Opposite Action?
            After her first binge, Jane notices that her Critical Part is active, and then she thinks about what usually happens when she operates from that place. Historically, it has led Jane to punish herself after a night of binge eating, telling her to spend the rest of the evening in the gym and to avoid eating in the morning. The Critical Part tells her that she might as well just wear her pajamas the next day because there's no way she could look nice!
            Jane identifies that compassion is the opposite of her usual criticism. After bingeing, Jane moves from compassion, instead of criticism, and says to herself, "I know that I was trying to help myself feel better by bingeing. Just because I binged, it doesn't mean the night is ruined. I am going to think about other ways to help myself feel better." 
            Not only does Jane think differently, but she acts differently, too. Jane decides that spending the rest of the night in the gym is not what she needs after a difficult work day. She takes a short walk around her neighborhood to get a little fresh air and to reflect upon what would truly be nurturing and relaxing for her. She decides to take a long bath when she returns home. The next morning, Jane eats a breakfast that will both fill and satisfy her. Scanning her closet, Jane decides to put on her pretty new scarf that she has been looking forward to wearing.
            Did you notice how Opposite Action prevented a second binge? There was no need for it because there was no second layer of embarrassment and shame, and Jane continued to nurture herself in other ways that night and the following morning. Even more powerful is the message Jane sent to her system—despite her mistake at work and her binge, she is still worthy of compassion. When might it be useful for you to "act opposite"? It could be the exit that you’ve been searching for!
Annie is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at TAC. She also leads the Monday night Eating Disorders Therapy Group. She can be reached