“Be afraid of the unknown!”, we are constantly told. How did this message seep into so many of our minds? A couple of weeks ago I looked up to see clouds in the shape of two elephants – I saw a mother elephant walking behind her baby elephant. The baby’s face was full of curiosity and wonder as she was running ahead to explore the unknown. The mother’s face was full of fear, mouth open as if calling out to tell her baby stop moving forward into the unknown. The mother elephant was teaching her baby to replace curiosity of the unknown with fear of the unknown. These elephants in the clouds are a beautiful parable for what we are all constantly being taught by our culture.

We live in a culture that controls us by keeping us in a constant state of unease, repeatedly telling us that something scary might happen if we stray away from what we already know. In this toxic culture we are taught to always feel the sense of fear nipping at our toes. Paradoxically, in my experiences it is the people with the most physical safety and financial security who are often the most afraid. Fear is no longer an emotion reserved for occasions like being chased by a bear. Fear is now an emotion associated with things like peering into our own minds, or – even worse! – allowing others to know who we really are. Fear is even an emotion that arises for many when they even consider giving themselves permission to relax. My friends, this is not a natural way to be!

Many of us have lost contact with one of the central features of being human – to be curious, to find happiness in the journey, to grow new possibilities by exploring the unknown (both inside and out). Part of how our culture lures us into feeling a constant background noise of unease is by tricking us into believing that we can find safety in our lives. If we just cross every “t” and dot every “i” then we can finally relax and get to know ourselves, having arrived at the finish line of knowing everything is going to be okay. We lose contact with our drive to be curious each time we believe that the oasis of security exists just beyond the next ridge in our life.

Here is what I can assure to you. Life is indeed not safe. You are definitely not going to make it out alive. Everything is not going to be okay. As a mentor used to say, “We are all pre-diagnosis.” We will all move through times in our lives where we experience grief and loss and uncertainty. That is unavoidable. But if we are protective of our natural drive to be curious, we can also experience awe, gratitude, enoughness, connection, and contentment. We must – at least occasionally – allow our curiosity to lure us into running straight ahead into the unknown (possibly with eyes a bit wider than usual and hands held over our heads to eradicate the last traces of fear in our hearts – at least that is my preferred method). Lucky for us, we are surrounded by examples of how to honor our curiosity over fear. If you don’t have a baby in your life to show you the way then a quick internet search for videos of your favorite baby animal will provide you with an equally wise guide.


be a skeptical consumer of science

Scientists Are Not Soothsayers or Truth Sayers

I love behavioral science, I love how many people it can help, and I am grateful to have been trained as a behavioral scientist.  I want to start there, because for the rest of this post I am going to trash on the way behavioral science is presented in our culture.  Our culture confuses knowledge with wisdom.  In this knowledge-heavy culture, we have started turning to the scientists as keepers of knowledge about our souls.  This habit of seeing scientists as experts on our souls makes for a culture that is completely FUBARed.

Here is a current favorite example of this bad habit.  UCLA is publicizing a recent study that has found women show fluctuations in their attractions to masculine characteristics over their menstrual cycle.  The headline reads “What do women want? It depends on the time of the month.”  We are reassured:

“Women sometimes get a bad rap for being fickle, but the changes they experience are not arbitrary,” said Martie Haselton, a professor of psychology and communication studies at UCLA and the paper’s senior author. “Women experience intricately patterned preference shifts even though they might not serve any function in the present.”

I am going to give three reasons why this study description should make you skeptical.  In truth there are at least three dozen reasons why you should be skeptical.

1.  Be skeptical of how scientific studies are summarized in the media.

Who said women are fickle?  I didn’t.  Did you?   And why are changes in some women’s attractions over the month getting a bad rap.  And who said fluctuations in desire is appropriately described as fickle???  That’s a can of worms that I shall leave closed for now.

We are told that “women” get a bad rap for being fickle, and are then reassured that the bad rap is false.  Hooray – the changes in attraction over the month are “not arbitrary”! Rejoice!   But what the heck does “arbitrary” mean?  That word is just a judgment from someone playing expert over another person.

People, we live in a cause and effect universe. (At least our perceptions live there.  Let’s leave quantum physics aside for now.)  In this universe, using the word “arbitrary” in a scientific context is usually just a word meaning, “I think I can understand everything and I don’t understand that pattern yet so I am declaring that there is no pattern.  I decree that your behaviors are arbitrary.”

2. Be skeptical of someone scientifically validating your experiences.

In this UCLA article, no one is claiming to have said the changes were arbitrary.  We are only reassured that “the changes they experience are not arbitrary.” That word “arbitrary” only serves to prime our minds to believe we need a scientific explanation for our experiences in order for our experiences to be valid.  In this case, it’s “fickle” for a woman to have fluctuations in attraction without a scientific explanation.  But don’t worry, “women”!  Scientists have saved the day!  You may now accept your fluctuating desires as scientifically validated!  Well, your desires are scientifically validated so long as these desires are for masculine characteristics that shift predictably with your menstrual cycle.

3.  Be skeptical of how scientists hide the true variation that exists in the humans around us.

I don’t know you, but I am guessing that you have some pretty varied personalities in your family.  What if I came along with my measuring stick and measured every single person in your extended family on their musical preferences?  I could then publish a study declaring that your family has a bad rap for being fickle in your changing desires for music but I can disprove this misunderstanding with science.

For my family the headline might read, “The Ulman family gets a bad rap for being fickle in their musical tastes, but their tastes aren’t arbitrary.  They listen to electronic dance music with a predictable pattern linked to the winter music festival schedule.”

I could scientifically validate this finding as true because my sister and I like EDM, but this study would hardly capture my father’s tastes for Barbara Streisand.

This UCLA study is doing this same error when describing “women” as if such a varied group can be described so easily.  Who the heck are these “women” who are all so similar to each other? I know women who are attracted to feminine characteristics, or who are asexual, or who are attracted to folks who identify as neither male or female.  I know some women who don’t have a uterus.  And I know a lot of women who have had shifting attractions over time.

Martie Haselton seems to have selected studies that only look at women with similar bodies and similar desires.  My guess is that she was limited in the data she could consider.  I bet if we looked at the original studies we would see that many women were disqualified to participate, thus narrowing group variation.  Haselton’s study actually found considerable variation even with these biased samples, as acknowledged when the article says ‘The strength of women’s preference shift proved to be statistically significant, although “small” to “medium” in size, relative to most findings in the field.”

Be skeptical of studies that are summarized in ways that suppresses true group variation.  The scientific research might even be sound, but by the time it reaches our eyes and ears the findings have become greatly skewed.

Be Skeptical of the Science of You

I am not critiquing this scientist. Dr. Haselton is not being sinister in her actions. She is just doing her job, and probably doing it well. But that does not mean we should not still be skeptical of the story that is being painted for us.

I am not anti-science.  I love science.  I am critiquing how science is misunderstood in our culture, particularly as scientific findings are described in the media. You are actually thinking like a scientist when you develop the habit of being skeptical of the numbers being presented to you.  Question them, question the assumptions behind them, and don’t confuse numbers on a page with a truth about you.

Always remember that scientists know numbers.  They don’t know you.  It doesn’t matter if you find yourself sexually attracted to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches once every 3-7 years.  There is no study to explain why that might be, but it is valid because it happens to you.

Looking to scientists for validation in WHY you are can slow down your journey in learning WHO you are.

You are the Only Expert on You

We live in a culture that has told you and me that we can learn about ourselves by looking outside of ourselves.  This myth has profoundly impaired our ability to do the hard work of learning who we are by looking inward – with curiosity and without judgment.  Some of us can barely stand to sit still for one minute and look inwards.  This difficulty looking inward does not come from what is there to find. This difficulty looking inward comes from living in a culture that has told you comparison is a method of learning about yourself.  Comparison turned inward becomes judgment.  And there is plenty in there to judge if you think judging is the thing to be done.  When we judge what is inside we can become overwhelmed and so we have developed the habit of looking outside of ourselves to learn who we are.

Making matters worse, if you have lost the ability to look inward with curiosity instead of judgment, then you have been disconnected from your emotions.  You might therefore live only in your reason mind, trying to Figure-Things-Out rather than stay open and curious about what patterns might arise in your mind and in your life.  You have succumbed to our cultural demands to hold reason on a pedestal, while avoiding emotions like that one relative who is always saying just the wrong thing at the wrong time.  This over-attachment to reason and discomfort with emotions makes for a very wonky internal compass.

Without this compass, we look outward to try and Figure-Things-Out.  We seek reassurance that we are “normal.”  And in a culture that confuses knowledge with wisdom, we have started turning to the scientists as people who can tell us if we are okay as we are. 

The truth is that you are okay right now AND you are a ball of contradictions and hopes and dreams and fears and desires at the same time.  You have a complicated story that gets minimized each time you try to tell it coherently to one person at one time.  That’s what it is to be human. We are complicated beings.  People who have developed a habit of looking inwards with curiosity (not judgment!) learn to grow comfort around this paradoxical truth.  And they learn to love the mystery of the journey, largely by celebrating the fluctuations along the path.

alternative to a new year's resolution

New Year’s Resolutions Often Create the Opposite of Change

The tradition of setting New Year’s Resolutions has taken many different forms since it began over 2,000 years ago.  Today’s resolutions seem inevitably to address some perceived personal flaw or imperfection.  The underlying message is often, “Next year I will do better.” Setting a goal to do “better” only continues a cycle of not feeling worthy or good enough in the moment.   It perpetuates the habit of scanning yourself for ways you are failing.   Only two outcomes are possible with this kind of resolution:

  1. You reach your goal and believe in the notion of a temporary feeling of worth for yourself (meaning you believe you are okay now that you reached your goal of becoming “better,” but this worth could be lost as soon as you perceive evidence that you aren’t maintaining the “better” you.)
  2. You don’t reach your goal and continue to feel bad about your perceived “imperfections”

In short, many New Year’s Resolutions only serve to reinforce our habits that keep us feeling lacking in some way.

Rebuilding our Foundation: A New New Year’s Resolution

Such New Year’s Resolutions also perpetuate what I call the Home Improvement Myth.  When we view our bodies and our lives as something that needs constant improvement and upkeep, we miss out on how we humans actually learn and grow.  The truth is much more complicated and beautiful.  Just as a tree is complete in the moment and still continues to grow, so too are you complete and growing at the same time. To see beyond the Home Improvement Myth try this:

Replace “better” with “growth.”

Replace “goal” with “intention.”

These small changes in words can create large changes in how you view yourself and your life.  By swapping “better” for “growth” you can let go of the idea that you aren’t okay in the moment and have somewhere to go, yet still hold your dreams of continuing to develop who you are.  By swapping “goal” with “intention” you can let go of the threat of failure, yet gain a guiding star for more skillfully navigating each present moment.  By swapping these words you gain a kinder more comfortable existence in the moment without giving up any of your ambitions.

Building A Tree House By the Light of Your Guiding Star

For the last couple of years I have celebrated the New Year by choosing an intention rather than a resolution.  The intention acts as a guiding star to move towards rather than a measuring stick for judging myself.  My intention is a word I take with me for the next 365 days.  To keep the word safe and shiny I usually don’t share it with anyone.  Choosing a word has been an interesting and rich experience, leading to a lot more change than I would have expected before I tried this myself.  Here is what has happened when I have carried a word with me for the year:

  • I’ve gained new insights into how the mind works over time.  Deep meaningful change occurs on a different time scale than we usually acknowledge in this culture.  Holding a single word rather than a to-do list of change gave me to a deeper appreciation for how humans grow.  We can’t rush change.  But if we are lucky we can observe it.
  • I’ve gained new insights into how knowledge slowly matures into wisdom.  Reflecting on one word for the year, I can look back and see how the meaning of the word is so much deeper and layered than I ever could have guessed at the beginning.
  • I’ve gained new insights into the power of priming the mind.  We see what we look for.  When looking for evidence that we aren’t good enough, we will always find it.  But this “evidence” is actually just an illusion.  It no more true than saying our skin isn’t green enough. Choosing a word can help us reorient what we look for, and help us see the moments when we are already accessing the wisdom we carry within us.
  • “Fall down nine times, stand up ten” says a Chinese proverb. I’ve deepened my understanding that we can’t fail.  “Failure” is just a judgment.  Saying we have “failed” comes mostly from two bad habits. First, we say we failed when we carry an expectation that things should be different than they are. Second, we say we failed when we have given up.  Having a word as a guiding star can help us create new good habits of always standing up and moving forward, no matter how many times we fall down.

Choosing Your Word

Take a few quiet moments and close your eyes.  Take a few slow deep breaths.  Allow your mind to wander over the past year without judgment.  Some memories may be wonderful.  Some may make you wince.  No need to linger on any one memory.  Just allow thoughts and feelings to arise.  Now gently open to the deep part of who you are (it’s there, even if you’ve never seen it before) and allow it to share a word that could be used as a guiding star for the next part of your journey.  The word may first come as an image or a color.  Stay present, breathing slowly and deeply, for whatever arises.

Now this is your word so chose whatever your heart desires.  But I suggest you push yourself to have a word more substantial than “Fabulous” “Glittery” or “Fierce.”  (Lovely words, of course!  Perhaps just not what is best suited for a New Years Intention.)  My favorite intention words or phrases are descriptors instead of directives, although some directive phrases are also wonderful.  Descriptors create good habits of gently reorienting us to the present moment rather than harshly jerking our mind to the present.  How we do something is as important as what we do.  So for example:

     Directive    Descriptor

     Be Still    Stillness

         Pay attention    Paying attention

Be grateful    Gratitude

Here is what I have seen.  You may have found your word when you think of one and then feel a twinge of dread around it.  I have seen that happen many times, to myself and to others.  I think this happens because there is a part of you that already knows your word – that’s your wisdom and inseparable goodness that lives within you.  And there is another part of you that wants to choose ANYTHING other than your word – that is the part that’s fearful of change and challenge.

So choosing a word may take a bit of bravery.  But remember.  This activity is the opposite of a goal.  You can’t fail.  This activity is creating a guiding star to have with you for the rest of the year.  If you have having trouble finding your word, here are some you may want to consider:











This too shall pass

There is no right answer

Mind Clear, Heart Open

Back to the present moment

Letting go of what is ready to be let go

Fearlessness means going through the fear

In this moment I have everything I need

Observation without judgment












Lean into life

Lean into fear

Relax, Relate, Release

Harmony instead of resolution

My body knows things my mind does not

Will this next action expand or shrink my horizons?

Choose one and be done

Be with what is







Always move forward

Once you have your word or phrase, just hold it with you.  Consider how it might apply in different situations.  Be curious about it.  Consider how you might act differently depending on whether you are thinking of this word.  There is no right way to use a guiding star.  For one of my words I made a little doodle so I could just draw it in front of me when I was bored or feeling a bit lost.  Just observe how your mind moves when you bring your attention to your word.  The good news is you can’t fail.  But you can grow.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Emotions on Vacation

May 21, 2013

Flight Risk

Much to the endless amusement of my sister, I am afraid of flying.  It’s gotten a lot better over the years but on a recent flight I was more nervous than I have been in a long time.  Before we pushed back from the gate I kept hearing the wings make a jarring mechanical sound followed by an alarm sound.  Over and over.  And over.  I did what I needed to do to keep myself from jumping out of my seat and running out the door.  Eventually I was able to convince myself that the pilots had figured out whatever was triggering the alarm sound.  No more alarm and we were ready to push back.  But then just as we were getting ready to take off the sound happened once more.  All efforts to remain calm were lost.  I looked over at the middle aged man sitting next to me to see if I might be able to make some comment and have something reassuring said in reply.  Instead I got a brush off as he returned to reading his men’s magazine.  I glanced down to see what he was reading.  The article featured a photo of a man’s cut torso from neck to just below the hipbone.  From either side of his chest a woman’s well-manicured hands were caressing his body.  The accompanying article was explaining how to get the abs women swoon over, which apparently took precedent over acknowledging the person in the seat next to him.

That’s all it took.  My judging mind was out of the gate and sprinting down the track.  Here was this jerk face who was happy to objectify women but not talk to them, he has a wedding ring his poor wife must be so lonely, I bet he has a female assistant and he is a jerk to her too, a Guy Like That has never known anything but privilege, and how much time each day is spent working on his body while his poor mind is left unexamined, reading this magazine he is just grooming himself to perpetuate the hurt in our culture….

And on and on.  At least the judging sprint kept me somewhat distracted from takeoff.

Learn To Fly

Once in the air and settled into a good book I could feel the worry begin to fade out of my body and mind.  And with this receding of worry there seemed to be a corresponding pulling back out from my myopic concern with myself to see things a little more clearly.  I was coming home from a trip that had been hard for me.  Here we all were on the plane, coming or going somewhere that is taking us out of our daily routines.  It occurred to me that walking through the airport I must have seen someone who was preoccupied with concern for a loved one who was very ill.  Or perhaps they in fact were the one who had just been given a scary diagnosis.   Or perhaps they were feeling the pain of loving someone who can’t love them back.  I felt my heart soften a bit.  How many people we see every day – at the grocery store, the bank – and we walk past each other completely unaware of when someone might be awash with grief or fear or loneliness.  How easy it is to see someone’s outsides and think we know something about their insides.  What funny illusions exist between the space of what we can see of someone’s external being and their internal experience.

And yes.  Then I made the connection – although much more slowly than you might expect.  I didn’t know the first thing about the guy next to me.  Maybe he just lost the love of his life, maybe reading a men’s magazine is his moment of escape, maybe he really is preoccupied with having a perfect body in which case I only have sympathy for him also being hurt by our culture.   The only thing I can know for certain is that I will never know his story, but I know he is a human with a beating heart and that should be enough for me to see him with my heart soft and my mind clear of assumptions.

Epilogue:  Don’t Mix the Paint

I could stop writing here, but there is an epilogue to this post.  I knew I was experiencing more unpleasant emotions than usual and it was a rookie move to not be frequently checking in and asking myself what I was feeling.  Bringing awareness to my emotional experiences would have let me see my situation with more clarity.   By the time I looked at that man’s magazine, I had at least a dozen emotionally charged experiences coloring my perceptions.  I could have been aware of the dozen different colors in my painting that day.  Instead it was as if all the colors had just blended together into a dull brown haze.  In this haze I became stuck in my own story.

It can be so tempting to ignore feelings when they are unpleasant.  But it is precisely these moments when it is most important to check in with yourself.  Stop and take a slow breathe.  What do you feel in your body?  That thoughts are in your mind?  Pull out a list of emotions if you need to (anyone who works with me knows I do this all the time in my practice).  And then?  Don’t judge.  Don’t push the feeling away – that’s a futile effort anyway.  Instead slow down for a few minutes and give yourself some company.  Perhaps try saying Sylvia Bornstein’s compassionate phrase to yourself:  “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.”  (I highly recommend you read this full explanation of that phrase.)  See the color for what it is, and know that it can just be there.  Many more colors are yet to come.

Smile File*

April 29, 2013

Interspecies Love and Christian the Lion

Have you seen this one already?  It makes me feel all sorts of positive emotions every time I see it.  But be warned if you haven’t seen this before – yes, you may smile but you may also feel your heart swell with love and compassion and awe.  Eyes have been known to get leaky.

We are just one note in the vast harmony of existence but the grind of our daily lives can leave us only hearing our lone tune.  Well-being rests upon the wisdom that we are part of something much greater.  One of the surest ways for me to add some positive experiences to my day – and to help me remember that my note is just one in billion zillion – is to see a story about connection between species.  It almost feels like these stories get processed differently in my brain – bypassing my often annoyingly active reason mind and going straight to the seat of wisdom and compassion.

One mention about the tortoise and young hippo becoming friends or a quick look through this tumblr page and my mind relaxes a bit, comforted in remembering that life is so much more complicated, interconnected, and full of wonder than we will ever be able to see with just our eyes alone.  This story about Christian the Lion is one of my favorites.


*To learn about the benefits of introducing positive emotions into our everyday lives, visit Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s lab webpage.   This is just one small example.  Please remember.  I am not suggesting to ignore uncomfortable emotions.   We need them too!  What I am suggesting is that we can seek out experiences that might add a smile, even when we are in pain.


April 19, 2013

what screws us up

Don’t Forget Your Star Player

Okay, I’m not endorsing all the language used here.  But with all the non-official authority I can muster I am endorsing Katt Williams as a self-compassion ambassador!


Remembering the Truth

I have a terrible memory.  Always have, even as a kid.  People who know me in my offline world know I almost always have a pen and small notebook with me so I can write things down that I might want to remember for later.  That’s just one of many tricks I use in my day-to-day life to adjust for my lousy memory.  Generally this truth doesn’t bother me too much since it’s the only way I know things to be.

People who know me in my offline world also know I have pretty bad allergies.  When I finally started getting shots for them, I got eight shots a week for the first eight months.  Thank goodness I didn’t have a problem with needles!  Several years of shots have helped but I still need to take an allergy pill every day.

I recently have become aware that I don’t remember if I have taken my allergy pill.  I try to take it every morning, but by most afternoons I just can’t remember if I actually took it.  I don’t know how long this has been going on but I do know that I have tried to ignore this truth for several months now.  A few weeks ago, after a particularly sniffy day, I gave in to the truth and acknowledged to myself that I need to figure out a way to help myself remember when I’ve taken my pill.  In acknowledging this fact, I had to accept the harder truth that having a bad memory as part of my original software does not prevent me from the typical slow decline of memory as I age.  That pill was harder to swallow.  (If I get to 80, I can’t wait to see what I’m like!  Weeee!)  And so now each time I take my pill I write a small letter for the day of the week on the palm of my hand.  It’s low tech and it works just fine.  Haven’t been sniffy since.

Three of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism

This story, while small, is a succinct illustration of the first three of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.  As Sylvia Boorstein describes it:

  1. Dukkha.  Life is challenging.  For everyone.  Our physical bodies, our relationships – all  of our life circumstances – are fragile and subject to change.  We are always accommodating.
  2. Origin of dukkha. The cause of suffering is the mind’s struggle in response to challenge.
  3. Cessation of dukkha.  The end of suffering – a nonstruggling, peaceful mind – is a possibility.

Looking back I am surprised to see just how much I resisted updating the way I go about my day to meet the reality of the situation.  Once I acknowledged the truth of the changing situation – even if I don’t like it – I was able to adapt to the reality on the ground and reduce my (small) suffering.  My suffering wasn’t coming from my increasingly bad memory.  My suffering was coming from my refusal to acknowledge the truth of my increasingly bad memory.

I see this resistance to accepting the realty of things time and again when I talk with folks.  For some reason our minds seem to believe that so long as we refuse to accept something we don’t like, we are able to keep it from being true.  Taking the leap into acceptance is hard, but it really is the first step out from the suffering you might be experiencing.  In other terms, we are talking about the DBT skill of Radical Acceptance.  If this post is something you can relate to, I’d encourage you to read more about Radical Acceptance here.

What Truth are You Resisting?

So ask yourself:  What is a truth in your life right now that is hard to accept?  It might be small.  It might be big.  How do you struggle against this truth?  And, if for a moment you can imagine accepting this unwanted truth for what it is, how might you be able to introduce a little bit of relief into your situation?

The pain might still be there, but we can control how much suffering we experience around the pain.  Or in my situation, I can at least still control how sniffy I want to be.

We See What We Look For

January 20, 2013

Suffering Exists, And So Does Something Much Bigger

This video shows a crowd spontaneously breaking out into song after being trapped in a tunnel for three and a half hours.  The song, fittingly, is “Lean On Me.”  This video gives me goosebumps.  It is such a beautiful example of human nature. The world is such a complicated place, full of more beauty and heartache then we could ever see in our own lifetime.  When we let ourselves sit in our fears and anxieties then our view narrows to only see the sources of our fear and anxiety, thus causing us to feel even more scared and anxious.

We must take personal responsibility to widen our range of view…  to see more.  I am not saying to deny that pain is in the world.  Of course it is, and denying its presence would be futile.  But look for the beauty that is also there.  So often it is the very sources of human suffering that becomes the soil for the growth of beauty, compassion, and connection.

Buddhist Wisdom From Mr. Rogers’ Mom

Mr. Rogers has said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”  Don’t close your eyes to the truth of the world.  We HAVE to see the suffering that exists in order to grow our compassion and connection with others.  But don’t dwell on the suffering.  Pull back and also be open to seeing the human impulse for kindness that will also be there.  Looking for and finding these kindnesses are like finding glimpses into a warm light shining through cracks in the wall.  That light that comes from the place deep within each of us, who all seek to love, to be loved, to belong to something bigger than just our single story.  The world is full of suffering.  And it is also full of beauty. To be fully present we must be open to seeing both.

The Most Blunderful Time of the Year

I can’t believe Thanksgiving is almost here.  While the holiday season seems to sneak up on me every year, I feel particularly ambushed this year.  Perhaps this feeling is due to the combination of a late summer heat wave, a distracting election, and an early Thanksgiving.  Or perhaps it is because I just feel this way every year.  In any case there is no denying that the Holiday Season will soon descend upon us.

It’s no secret that the holiday season can be tough on our emotions.   As many of us prepare for upcoming visits with family and old friends I thought it might be a good time to talk about the DBT skill of distress tolerance.  Distress tolerance starts with the understanding that some times are just tough.  Our goal is to just get through the moment without doing something to make it worse.

So the “skill” of distress tolerance has two parts:  first we must understand the situation, and then we can do something to make it through the situation.   Now I know some of you eager beavers want to get right to the second part of distress tolerance and talk about what we can DO.  But hold on just one moment.  Let’s back up.  I really, truly, deeply believe that the first part of distress tolerance is 70% of the skill.

Pain + Resistance = Suffering

Let’s look at this first part more closely.  Put another way, the first part is saying some situations just suck.  Now don’t let any judgment sneak in there.  This is just a fact of life.  Drop those ideas like you caused the situation, or you are a victim of the situation.  It just is what it is.  In Buddhism this fact is known as one of the eight vicissitudes of life (see “Basic Concepts” in this link to learn more).  Every life has moments that suck.  Although Buddhism traditionally describes unpleasant moments using words like “painful” rather than “sucking.”  When I hear “painful” I think about stubbing a toe.  Personally, I am better at finding these moments in my own life when I describe them as just sucking.

You aren’t alone if you don’t like the idea that we should accept painful experiences.  That word “accept” can be so hard to …  well…  accept.  Our silly culture has told us that accepting a situation is deciding we are helpless to change it.   But this is just completely inaccurate.  Completely 100% not what I am saying.  We have to rearrange our understanding of the words “accept” and “resist” to understand how acceptance can decreasing our suffering and help us move forward.  Yes – we NEED acceptance to move forward.  It is the very act of not accepting a sucky situation that often keeps us stuck in that situation.

When we fight the truth of painful moments, our struggle sticks us to the pain like flies on flypaper, thus adding suffering.  When we can accept the truth, our body and mind can stop the struggle and find the space needed to help us through the pain.


Observing Our Resistance Un-fuses Us From Suffering. 

So hopefully I have your buy in that acceptance is a critical step in distress tolerance.  But we still are talking in the abstract.  Having spoken with many people on my couch about this concept, I’ve seen that we usually get the fact that some times in our lives are just going to stink.  But when we are actually IN one of those painful times we completely forget that this pain is just part of the journey. When a painful moment is revealed in the form of a tense Thanksgiving meal with our relatives we suddenly lose all wisdom.  As pain arises we reflexively reach for the pie, or wine bottle, or worse to fight the painful feelings that arise.   Right there!  That’s it.  That pushing away of pain is the moment of fusing yourself to it like a fly flinging itself onto the flypaper. Recognizing when that moment happens is where 70% of the distress tolerance occurs.

Watch for the moment when you first register that something sucky is occurring and resistance arises.  For example, what usually sets you off about the Thanksgiving holiday?  Perhaps it is the long drive, perhaps it is the pre-dinner conversation with your great-uncle, perhaps it is just being out of your routine (I’m looking at you here, Frances).  Observe the resistance to pain that has become a reflex within you.  It can be hard to find at first because resisting pain can become an overlearned skill that is hard to see (like riding a bike).  But you will find it with practice.  The resistance might come in body sensations like a stomachache, tensing muscles, wringing of hands.  The resistance might come in your thoughts becoming more judgmental or rigid (Thoughts like “Why can’t Aunt Winthrop keep her mouth shut!” or “Why do I come here every year when I know my dad will just ridicule me…”).

Don’t resist these reactions to pain.  Resisting the resistance just compounds our suffering!  Instead, observe.  “My stomach is tight because I am worried Aunt Winthrop will bring up the election with Cousin Patchouli.”  Take a deep slow breath.   That’s not figurative.  ACTUALLY take a slow deep breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth.  And perhaps even allow yourself a little smile knowing you have done the hard work of finding your resistance.   Congratulations! Now we get to the DOING part of distress tolerance.

Distress Tolerance Tool Kit  

Now that you’ve done the hard work of finding your resistance it’s time to choose what you are going to do to get through the moment without making it worse.  Note how I didn’t say, “make it better.”  Distress tolerance teaches us the wisdom that some times just suck and making it better is not in our control.  What is in our control is choosing what we are going to do to help ourselves get through the situation without making it worse.  So this year instead of jumping in to referee between those relatives that argue every year (which never makes them stop and just makes you feel more angry and helpless), let’s review some other things that you can do.

Here are some of my favorites:

  •  Breathe.  ALWAYS start by taking a deep breath.
  • Take a ten minute walk outside, noticing all the scene around you.  Can you see the breeze going through the trees?  What are the colors around you?
  • Play 54321.  Take a moment to:

SEE FIVE things around you. (I generally like to choose a color or shape to direct my attention on something)

HEAR FOUR things around you.

FEEL THREE things around you. (Don’t just use your hands.  What do you feel with your skin?  Feel your toes warm in their socks.  Feel your back pressed against the chair.)

SMELL TWO things around you. (Even just sniffing your shirt discreetly counts.)

TASTE ONE thing around you. (Or at least just direct your attention to your tongue.  Is there any taste to be found?)

I love this game because it can be done around others without them knowing you are doing it.  And this can be done over and over if needed.  And redirecting our attention to the very smallest details of the present moment is a great antidote to getting stuck in our suffering.

  •  Draw a mandala on your napkin.  This is a great activity to keep your hands and your mind occupied.

  • Slip away from ten minutes and use your phone to visit some of these sites:
  • Make your own soothing soundtrack.  Add exactly what you want to hear in your nature background.  Slight rain with some waves in the background, seagulls in the mountains – it’s up to you.

  • Be transported randomly anywhere around the world.  This website randomly chooses street views from google maps.  You can choose which continent or continents you’d like to see.  Even Antarctica.

  • Towards the bottom of this page there are great multiplication games to keep your mind occupied, like flying a plane through the clouds to answer multiplication questions.

  •  Who doesn’t want to look at pictures of cuddly animals – kittens, puppies, and more.

Play around and find what works for you – be creative.  Try to get at least three options that you can use the next time you feel like the pain of a situation is getting too big.

Just One Starfish in the Sea

When we are in pain we can get caught up in our own stories.  So I’ll leave you with this thought.  Remember that you are just one little being on this great big planet.  Every being is just doing their best with what they know.  No matter what you are doing, meanwhile there are starfish crawling over the ocean floor, baby birds hatching, killer whales teaching their young how to hunt, arctic foxes feeling the wind in their fur, and somewhere otters are asleep holding hands.  Each of our lives is just one teeny tiny thread in the great tapestry of life.  And hopefully you now have a little more skill to get through some of the tougher parts of your contribution to the tapestry.