“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.


This game is like Pong meets Paintbrush!  What a great game to help keep your mind company as you hunker down as a big emotional wave rolls through:


Not sure what I mean by distress tolerance tools?  Click here to learn more.

Want some more suggestions of distress tolerance activites?  Click here for more suggestions.

Smile File, part deux

April 29, 2013

Completely unrelated to my earlier post, I just came across this little guy today.  So adorable my toes ache watching this!

In times of distress, it is helpful to remember that we live in a world much bigger than ourselves and our current state of suffering.  Visiting nature webcams is a great strategy for shifting our attention onto something other than our distress.  Beach/ocean related webcams are my favorite, as there is always something going on.

Here are two good sources:

Surfchex (largely NC) web cams

Monterey Bay Aquarium web cams

(I particularly like the kelp forest.  I find the constant shift and flow of fish and kelp to be very soothing.)

Plenty of other web cams available from around the world so search until you find some that work for you!


Not sure what I mean by distress tolerance tools?  Click here to learn more.

Want some more suggestions of distress tolerance activites?  Click here for more suggestions.

Don Miguel Ruiz will appear on on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday this morning at 11 am EST.  I can’t wait!  Click here for Oprah’s webpage for the this episode.

This color matching game is my newest addition of activities to my distress tolerance tool kit.  It is just enough of a challenge for my mind that I can rest my attention on it, but it’s not so challenging that I get frustrated play it.

Not sure what I mean by distress tolerance tools?  Click here to learn more.

Want some more suggestions of distress tolerance activites?  Click here for more suggestions.

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.

Game Time

August 15, 2012

What I Did with My Summer Vacation

Y’all, I am not exaggerating when I say that a few days ago I had the biggest scare of my adult life.  I was about a fifteen minute swim from shore in a floating raft (the kind more commonly used in pools) with my boo and two others.  Being that far from the waves, it was peacefully quiet and people on the shore looked like little Fisher-Price figures.  Each of us had a hand on someone else’s raft so we wouldn’t float away from each other.  We were making jokes that we were like otters who hold hands when they sleep at night so they don’t drift apart.  Adorable times.

Most people were facing towards the open ocean while I was facing the shore.  And then…  oh, goodness, my stomach knots up and my throat gets tight even now…  I saw a huge black dorsal fin rise up from the water about 150 feet away and cut past us, parallel to the shore.   It stayed up for a few seconds and then went back underwater.  This fin was huge – way bigger than my head.  And this was no dolphin fin.  I know a dolphin fin when I see one and this one was bigger and definitely not attached to a mammal.  There is no doubt in my mind that there was a shark attached to that fin, and that shark was freaking huge.

Ugh, it’s hard to write this post because it’s reminding me how scared I was.  I can now feel myself sweating and typing is getting more difficult because my arms are tensing up, causing me to make more typing errors.  My heart is also beating faster.

So back to the ocean.  I really couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it.  I looked around and no one else in my otter pack had seen it.  My boo reports that I said something like, “Guys, I just saw something in the water that looked like a shark.  I’m going to head in.”  He reports that I sounded fairly calm.  I can tell you from inside my body that the following thoughts were occurring, “Remain calm.  If you freak out then everyone will freak out.  If everyone freaks out then they will leave you behind because they can swim faster and you will be eaten by that shark.  Whatever you do or say, remain calm.  Just remain FReakING CALM!!”  As they were busy telling me that it was just a dolphin (and I repeat, that was no freaking dolphin) I saw the fin rise up again.  I got a really good look at it.  And there was no doubt in my mind that it was a shark fin.   I thought to myself, “I could direct everyone’s attention over there and they will realize that I am right.  And man to I love to be right – I’m not proud of that fact but I have to admit it’s true….  But if they realize that I am right then they will FREAK OUT AND LEAVE ME HERE TO BE EATEN BY THAT NOT-DOLPHIN!!”

Please allow me to pause my typing and unclench my jaw.  Funny that I didn’t even notice that sensation until now – how long has my jaw been that tense?   Inhale through the nose.  Exhale slowly out the mouth.

And Now It’s Time to Freak Out

So I decide to not say a thing about the reappearance of the fin, and instead tell my boo as calmly as possible that I want to go in.  NOW.  I had told the others that I saw something that I thought was a shark.  They weren’t taking me seriously.  I felt like I had done my due diligence and it was now time to get my still intact body to shore.  Now the only way for me to maneuver this raft is to lie on my back, put my head in the direction I want to go, and propel myself with my arms.  And so I did that with gusto.  I was flapping like a chicken on a hot tin roof.  My boo was doing the same motion in his raft right next to me, although more smoothly and less flailingly.  Things quickly went downhill for me.  Within less than a minute of heading back to shore I was in full freak out mode.  I was a maniac.  Whenever he got even ten inches ahead of me I would apparently say something like, “PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME!” And in between this plea I was adding, “WE AREN’T MAKING ANY PROGRESS!!”  I said that second phrase a lot.

It was when we reached about the distance from shore where I had seen the shark that I really went into overdrive.  On a scale of 1-10, I was at 17.  I had the thought that all of my flapping probably looked to the shark like a seal with a broken fin who needed some eating.  And there was no doubt that the shark was smoothly and gracefully turning around to snatch up his snack.  I had one leg out of the water, figuring maybe if the shark went for my legs I’d at least have one good one left to use.  I had just barely enough wits about me to realize that I was about to hyperventilate.  This situation was game time.  I was about to have a panic attack, and I needed to take care of business.

And so I took a deep breath.  I quickly made a plan.  Things I had in my control:  my thoughts and my behaviors.  Things I did not have in my control:  whatever that freaking not-dolphin was currently doing.  I looked up at the clouds and resolved to keep my eyes there.  Looking around for a shark swimming towards me was not helping me with my task.   I observed that there were currently no sharks attached to me.  I took one long, strong pull with my arms through the water.  Way less flapping.  Way less broken seal fin vibe.  I took another long pull.  I told my boo that I was really scared and ask him to talk with me about something else to distract me.  He stayed right next to me and started talking with me about dinner that evening.  I tried, but the conversation about eating local seafood still reminded me that I was at the beach and things eat things.  “Can we talk about something else?”  And so we talked about the Olympics.  Actually, he spoke.  I’m pretty sure I was free associating on words I had just heard.  But he stayed with me and we tried to talk about soccer.  I counted the clouds above me.  I counted the rays coming out from the sun. I noted that I was still currently terrified.  And there were still no sharks attached to me.  I felt terrified but in that very tiny moment I noted that I was in fact safe.  And I kept swimming.

Zen and the Art of Fear Maintenance

Dear readers, there is not some beautiful zen experience coming at the end of the story.  I stayed terrified the whole time.  I teared up a few times.  But I pulled myself back from really losing my marbles.  I made progress in getting towards the shore.  My boo stayed with me.  He asked a couple of times if I wanted to hold onto his feet and he’d pull us both in but I figured that would slow us down so I said no.  When we finally started feeling the rise and fall of the wave swells I felt better because we were close.

And that’s when the second wave of complete all out horror flooded through me.  Earlier in the summer I was on my annual summer family vacation on a west coast beach.  At that beach there are schools of leopard sharks in the water.  They are much smaller than what I had just seen and harmless and swim right past you as you play in the waves.  Those sharks love to hang out around the waves.  Sharks can be found in waves …  sharks in waves!  Bam!  That one thought entered my head and I completely lost my cool.  Tears came back, breathing got difficult.  And so for a second time I realized it was game time and I needed to take care of myself.   Again, a deep breath.  Again, I note that I was in fact safe in that teeny tiny moment.  And this time I accepted help.  I put my raft behind my boo and held onto his feet like they were the only thing keeping me from falling off a cliff.  I took deep breaths and counted the clouds.  And my boo got us safely back to shore.


  • Feelings are real.

    That is easily the most scared I have been since I was 10.  Was I ever really in danger?  I honestly don’t know.  But I do know that I felt like I was in danger, and feelings are real things. It doesn’t matter how other people reacted.  I felt scared, that feeling was real, and I needed to take care of myself in that moment.


  • You must practice coping skills before you need them.

    Once I realized that I needed to take care of myself, the plan arose within me.  It really did.  Honestly, I was very surprised how quickly I was able to gather my thoughts and make a game plan in that situation.  This only happens with practice.  I am reminded of work I have done with many clients.  We practice coping skills in session and they are given homework to practice out of session.  And so often they come back the next week to say that they didn’t do the homework because nothing major happened.  That phrase is like a high diver saying she didn’t practice until the competition.  Bananas!  You must practice coping skills until they are second nature.  You must practice them when you are not too anxious or scared.  Only then does learning happen. There is no “practicing” coping skills when you actually need them.  That’s game time.


  • Handling your fear or anxiety does not mean making it go away.

    I was still terrified after I decided to manage my anxiety in the situation.  But I wasn’t being ruled by my terror.  By acknowledging my feelings and managing them, I then had more resources available to deal with the task of getting myself out of the water.


  • “If you don’t have your feelings, your feelings will have you.” –Rachel Simmons.

    In other words, if you don’t check in with your body and label your current emotional state then you run the risk of being controlled by your emotions.  We have no control over how long unwanted feelings will linger after a triggering event.  It’s tempting to ignore these uncomfortable emotions.  But ignoring emotions will cause more problems, often by driving us towards unhealthy coping strategies.  I am writing this post three days after the event and my body is still working through the experience.  I was really tense and jumpy for most of the next day.  I continue to have intrusive thoughts about sharks, despite the fact that I’m back in Durham and have a better chance of seeing an alien.   In fact, I just ran into a friend at a busy store after writing the first draft of this post and I was feeling really nervous about all the people walking past.   Thankfully I was aware enough to realize that my body was holding a lot of anxiety that I stirred up in writing this post, and my brain was just reading my body’s anxiety and looking for a reason in the current situation.  I felt so much better once I could say, “I feel anxiety in my body from that darn shark story.  My brain is confused by thinking my body is saying something anxiety provoking is happening now.  I’m not really anxious about anything in my current environment.”

    And finally,

  • It’s probably not the best idea to watch Shark Week if you happen to be on vacation at the beach.

This Can’t Be Good.

This Can’t Bee Happening

I am feeling a deep sadness today for a few reasons.  I shall share one of those reasons here.  Yesterday morning I was sitting at my downstairs desk and heard a buzzing.  When I looked up I saw that the side of my house was being swarmed by tens of thousands of bees, or hornets, or something.  Tens of thousands of them.  It was truly like out of a horror movie.  I have never seen anything like it in real life.  There were so many of them that I could actually hear the steady buzzing of their thousands of tiny wings from inside my house.  I wasn’t sure what to do or even what to feel.  I certainly was trapped in my house. I certainly wasn’t going to risk going outside only to have them chase me like an angry mob back to my front door.

(Funny aside that isn’t relevant to this post:  I really didn’t know what to do so I sheepishly called 911 and explained the situation.  The operator politely directed me to a different entity.)

The next part of the story gets even more menacing. After about 40 minutes of seeing these things in numbers so numerous that they began to cover my window, they slowly disappeared to the point that I felt comfortable going outside to get a better look.  And that’s when I understood the full reality:  those buggers had just taken 40 minutes to take up residency IN MY HOUSE! They had ALL moved in through a slit on the outside wall.  They were building a nest in the walls of my home.  Now I had a better idea of how to feel, and the feeling was not excitement.

I was finally able to have an exterminator come check things out in the early evening.   He got out of his car, took one look, and started laughing in between making comments like, “Ooo, boy!” and “This is like straight out of some horror movie!” and “Hold on, I’ve got to call the office and describe this – they aren’t going to believe it!”  Not the most reassuring words to my ears.  He told me that they were yellow jackets, and they were not here to make friends.  For a fair price he could get rid of them, but they were going to be pissed so I should be sure to not be in my front yard garden for a day or two.

Fair enough.  Just then my boo got home.  He was getting into the drama so I left him and a small gathering of neighbors to watch from the garden while I slipped back inside.  I had seen enough of them while they were moving in.  I didn’t need to be around to see their reaction to getting poisoned.

The Huge and Unfixable Mistake

Twenty minutes later my boo came in with an ashen face and news:  those weren’t yellow jackets.  Those were honey bees.  The same honey bees that are slowly disappearing from places all over this country.  The honey bees that we need to pollinate our garden.  They honey bees that could have been rescued by a local Durham bee keeper so they could have gone on to live peacefully and pollinate for years to come.  WE, GARDENERS AND FRIENDS OF THE EARTH, WERE HONEY BEE MURDERERS.  The horror.

I’m not sure if the shame or the guilt hurts more.  It was a rough night.

This morning my sadness continued to throb as I listened to this morning’s news and drank my coffee.


I found my mind pulled back to a recent episode of On Being, with guest Sylvia Boorstein.  Sylvia describes herself as a wife, mother, grandmother, author, teacher, and psychotherapist.  The full interview is worth a listen.  In an age of lots of opinions she shares the more rare gem of true wisdom.  I’m sure I’ll discuss more about this episode at some point.

In this talk, Sylvia shares with the audience what she always says to herself in moments of fear and anxiety.

“Sweetheart. You are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we will figure out what to do.”

Bam.  Self compassion.

She also discusses the wisdom of GPS devices.  “It never gets annoyed at me.  If I make a mistake it says, ‘Recalculating.’  And then it goes on to say “Make the soonest left turn..”

Bam.  Action.

So this is my plan for this morning.  First, I will take a moment to be compassionate with myself.  And yes, I will most definitely do that by referring to myself as “sweetheart.”  Second, I shall recalculate… observing without judgment the recent events that have made me feel so profoundly sad… and then I shall choose a direction and move forward, with compassion for myself and for others.