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by Nathan Chua
All of us have had that feeling of being sad, despairing, lonely or empty. These are moments when we don’t seem to have any purpose and meaning to go on with our brief experience of being alive. It can be frustrating, making us feel that we are left alone in our “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau had described. We have always longed and searched for that one key to lasting happiness that will take us to an elevated sense of being. It is something we seem to always just see in others, but not in ourselves.
I for one, am no exception. It has been a lifelong search. Until I stumbled upon what has now become somewhat of a craze: mindfulness. Ronald Siegel is an expert on mindfulness. It was wonderful to hear him point out one big reason for our feelings of emptiness. He used the metaphor of the sine wave to drive his point.
Most of our struggles stem from keeping the low points of the sine wave up. Like other experts that have found the reasons for our neuroses, it is not just the feeling bad that gives us trouble, but it is feeling bad about feeling bad. Siegel explains that like the sine wave, it is when we fight the lows that our highs become lower. The wave turns flatter; hence we experience that feeling of being flat or empty. Mindfulness tells us to fully accept those emotions as our friend, who tells us there’s indeed something to be concerned about. It helps us acknowledge the emotions and experience them in parts of our body. We resist the temptation to interpret these emotions with irrational statements. Thoughts like, we are failures for feeling sad, or that we should always be liked by everyone, every time, or that we should be happy all the time.
Here’s how one source defines what mindfulness is:
“[Mindfulness] changes your stance from being actively involved in the drama to being an impartial observer. It encourages you to become a witness to the unfolding of your thoughts and emotions – less critical, more accepting.”
I have a couple of instances in my life that I am fond of relating to my clients. One experience was when I was forced to stop work for three weeks by a former employer, right at Christmas time. Since it was a contractual arrangement, it meant no income for three weeks, just when everyone was celebrating for the holidays. I stopped making interpretations to my feelings, and just started to stay with them, and see in which parts of my body is this sad and worried emotion manifesting. Slowly, like a leaf coming down the river, the emotion goes away. I also used my feelings of sadness and hurt to reach out to friends and seek company.
The second and perhaps one of my favorite things to do, happens when I come home. I have two small potted shrubs in front of my house that bloom what probably are some of the most fragrant flowers I have ever smelled in my life. These blooms do not last very long and appear just a few times a year. You can say I stay in the moment, to stop and smell the flowers. This is probably what Marilyn Peterson referred to when she wrote, “Spirituality has nothing to do with organized religion. Instead, I view it as our reverence for life and our activities in behalf of all that is life affirming.”
Yes, mindfulness has taught me to affirm life, both in its worst and best moments. The key to leaving that emptiness is in living, laughing and crying each moment with acceptance and affirmation. Life is short, stay mindful of each moment, and witness the real colors of living.
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Let me start this post with two points.
If there was one thing that cuts across all forms of helping activities in the realm of mental health, it should relate to learning. Counseling is no exception for me, as it involves learning, the same way we learn from lectures, talks, workshops and even church sermons. In that case, why then is there a need for personal therapy?
People frequently mistake counseling for seeking advice. It is seen as sort of a lecture or public forum, only that it is done in private, and advice would come as personal to the client as no other medium can provide. This means they don’t have to worry about guessing if the advice they heard from a lecture or a talk, is personal or applicable to them or not. This in part answers our question about the need for personal therapy from point number one. However, the reasons are much more complicated than this.
I have always contended that counseling is a process of discovery. It is a journey through life with someone who’s dedicated to helping clients find a way to themselves, or their real selves. This is what makes it special and different from all the other approaches to learning.
Secondly, and more importantly, it is experiential. How many times have we heard it said that the longest we keep information from a long-drawn-out lecture or sermon, can only be retained in our memories for the next 20 minutes.
Counseling is an avenue in which the lessons are long-remembered after the experience. It is analogous to experiences in life that we find unforgettable. That awesome trip you had in a place that you just ticked off from your bucket list…That brush with a life-and-death situation that you will always remember to tell in intimate gatherings…These are but a few examples of how experiential learning can be remembered so much more vividly, that a lecture or a talk can find hard to duplicate.
In my experience, I have at times been tempted to offer advice to people who see me. Clients would often come after numerous people have given them advice that made sense, but somehow they could not believe will work for them. This only goes to show that decisions that are offered from the outside, will be difficult to apply, until those same decisions come from the very person who asks for it. It is at times only in experiencing the learning process through counseling, that decisions can be made with courage, and new wisdom can be proudly owned, by the one who seeks it, and eventually lives it.