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Surrender to Love

Many of you who have worked with me know that A Course in Miracles (ACIM) and 12- Step Recovery principles continue to play a huge role in my personal healing. Growing up with an alcoholic father means that I’ve always been wary of alcohol and drugs, thus avoiding “ingestive” addictions that involve swallowing a substance like whiskey or cocaine. My parents taught me that I had to compete to get ahead, and I learned that my value was based on tangible achievements like grades, money, and home ownership. Most importantly I believed that I needed LOVE in my life, and without that certain someone to complete me I was nothing.

When I first saw ACIM at on a friends book-case I was at the height of my love addiction, which showed itself primarily as attachment to sex, romance, and relationships to provide me with the mood alteration that I craved. Like any true addict, there was never enough of the love that I needed, and I never felt like I was enough. I opened the thick blue book to read: “Tolerance for pain may be high, but is not without limit. Eventually everyone begins to recognize, however dimly, that there must be a better way…” I was hooked, and became ACIM student that very night.

About this time I experienced a revelation while attending a 12-step meeting for codependents. I realized with a jolt that I had made my partner into my “Higher Power”….yikes! For the first time I was able to introduce myself whole-heartedly at those meetings. “I’m Jill, a relationship addict .” (Now I say, “a recovering relationship addict“) I admitted that I‘m powerless, and stopped searching outside of myself for someone to reassure me that I was lovable, that I was enough.

The Course tells us, “You must have noticed an outstanding characteristic of every end that the ego has accepted as its own. When you have achieved it, it has not satisfied you. This is why the ego is forced to shift ceaselessly from one goal to another, so that you will continue to hope it can yet offer you something.” The ego (also identified by some as Satan or the silver-tongued devil or logical, mature thinking!) constantly tells us that we are never enough, not smart enough, not attractive enough, not “in love” enough. I had been buying into this hateful message. I desperately needed another way of looking at the world and I was determined to find it!

The 12 step meetings had provided friendship, fellowship that provided the real life experience, strength and hope that I needed. ACIM gave me a course of study that taught me to live in love instead of fear, and advised me to surrender to God rather than pursuing the path of my own misguided ego. The words of the Course soothed me, and the message felt right, but “surrender” was terrifying. I believed that I had been controlling all aspects of my life, so I couldn’t imagine releasing any part of it to God. Better for me to be in charge!

My years of experience in 12 step meetings introduced me to the fact that I am powerless over people, places, and situations outside myself. I had worried that a surrendered or powerless life would seem passive, defeatist, and lacking in passion. As I continue to study the Course I am learning that surrender is not about defeat; it’s about acceptance, joy, and faith. As the 12 Step Big Book says, we will feel our serenity level rise as we let go of attachment to outcome. Acceptance is the key.

Surrender is about ending the struggle in our lives when we admit that we’re not in control, get ourselves (and our egos) out of the way and trust God (as we understand God) to guide us. Those of us uncomfortable to the “G-word” can substitute, Love, Universe, Divine Order – whatever terminology works One of my early teachers used to mutter “Trust the process.” when life became difficult. “Release your mind, and you will look upon a world released.”

Whatever we are clutching most tightly is probably the exact thing we need to let go. Whatever we’re most afraid of losing, may be what we need to release to make way for something better. As I look at my life I can see that life flows abundantly in the areas where I’m not attached, not clinging As Marianne Williamson has written, “The True Abundance of the world is magnetized to the serene presence.” In the areas of my life where I am most spacious, as Buddhists say, I can experience relaxed receiving. My hands are open.

Surrendering to Love means letting go of the barriers to love in our lives. It means perceiving only love and giving only love. Sometimes it seems there is only hopelessness, sadness, grief, or tragedy. Yet, when we choose love and act with love we receive love and peace in our lives – all ways, and even in the most unlikely circumstances. Sometimes this peace won’t arrive on our timetable, but it always arrives.

Spiritual surrender frees us from fear and anger and points us in the best and highest direction for all concerned. It leads us to a life that is more joyful and abundant than we ever dreamed. Practicing spiritual surrender enables us to release our attachment to the illusions of this world. By surrendering our will and the logic of our rational minds, we can experience power much more potent than magic. We can experience miracles.

Service Your Relationship

What do television and divorce have in common? They’ve both increased rapidly since the 1950s. Is there a correlation? Maybe. Did you know that the average American family has the television on for seven hours a day — that’s 49 hours a week, but the average American couple spends less than on hour a week talking one-on-one to each other?  It doesn’t take a psychotherapist to tell you that something’s out of whack.

When did you and your partner last sit down together to talk about the things that are important to you, not just your plans for the weekend or what to get Jimmy for his birthday? I’m often amazed by the number of couples I see who don’t seem to talk to each other outside of therapy sessions. It’s not surprising that they end up needing marriage counseling; every relationship needs maintenance and a good degree of TLC.

When you buy a car it comes with a manual that tells you how often to change the oil, check the spark plugs, flush the radiator and so on. When you start a relationship no-one gives you a manual telling you how often to talk to each other, go out for a romantic dinner, or spend a weekend alone. There are many different books on how to create a good and lasting relationship but none of them can tell you how to make YOUR relationship the best it can be; only you can find that out. There are books of questions that you can use as springboards for getting to know each other better if you need something to get you talking.

Most of the couples I see have plenty to talk about; they lacked the time and energy to do it. They just didn’t get around to the most important job in their relationship; communication. However well you know each other, unless you’re mind readers, you don’t know what’s going on in the other person’s head and they don’t know what’s in yours.  Unless you tell each other.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the movie Fargo was seeing the policewoman and her husband in bed sharing the events of the day. Even though they lived very different lives, they shared the highlights of what had happened and what was important to them. But it was only the highlights. They must have taken time between major crimes to deepen their knowledge of each other so that they could survive on a comfortable debriefing before nodding off.

Personally, I recommend a three point maintenance plan for spouses:
•   Every day find a few things that you are grateful for in your life together; things you especially love about your spouse, things that you enjoy about your home, your family, shared friends or hobbies, and share them with each other.
•   Every week spend at least one hour talking about how you’re doing as a couple. Start by appreciating each other — it’s all too easy to take your mate for granted. What has he or she done this week which you’ve especially enjoyed? Then take it in turns to talk about things that have not worked so well for you. This is not a time for blaming – there is never a time for blaming. It is a time for each of you to speak about the things that are difficult for them and to have the other one listen carefully. When you’ve both got it off your chest you may be able to find some creative solutions. Even if you don’t knowing that your partner has listened and heard what you had to say can make all the difference.
•   Once a month take at least an evening, a whole day if you can manage it, to have fun together. Do whatever brings you both a lot of pleasure. Be silly, be romantic, be daring, be yourselves and have a ball!

Communication can be fun and exhilarating; it can also be hard work and demanding. Unfortunately it’s not going to magically happen without effort on your part. Here are a few ideas that can make it easier:
•   set aside a time in advance and put it on your calendar.
•   turn off the TV or radio; look at your partner and give them your full attention.
•   if something sounds weird ask for clarification; never judge, demean or belittle each other.
•   remember that you’re both doing the best you can.
•   empathize with the speaker; let them know you understand their feelings.

Giving your relationship regular maintenance will certainly help, and sometimes there are bigger problems. If it gets tough, don’t be afraid to get professional help, after all you take your car to a mechanic when it needs fixing. Your relationship is worth at least the same treatment!

Happily Single

For most single people, finding a life partner is top of their list of priorities. Whether or not they’re actively dating, a great deal of time and energy goes into that important quest. Susan, an attractive woman in her mid thirties who had been single for several years told me, “I’m desperate to find someone I can love. There just don’t seem to be any good men around anymore!” I explored with her a bit further what she was feeling and why finding a mate was so important to her. “Oh”, she said, “My life would be so much fuller and more meaningful.”

That set off warning bells in my head. Susan shared that she felt lonely, needy and despondent without a partner. It seemed to me that these very feelings might be creating a roadblock to her finding the elusive relationship she yearned for. When I mentioned this to her she was puzzled; how could wanting something, especially something so important for her sense of well-being get in the way of finding it?

I asked her to tell me more about how being single effected her life. As she talked I developed a picture of someone with relatively few friends who spent quite a lot of her time alone at home feeling sad. She didn’t have a feeling of being supported by her community and rarely reached out to other people apart from a few friends at work. Would she, I wondered, consider dating and committing to herself as a lifemate?

Susan laughed at that idea. No, she admitted sadly, she wouldn’t pick herself across a crowded room. I requested that she look at the steps she would need to take in order for her to attract people to her because of her energy and her fun-loving passion for life. Once Susan has developed herself so that she is building a sense of community and friendship with people she loves being with, it is far more likely that without her doing anything different or making a special effort, the right person will come into her life.

We began to look together at her talents and abilities and how she could incorporate these more into her everyday life, building on the strengths she has. It’s surprising how many of us think we’re no good at anything, when in fact everyone has skills and abilities that can be further developed. Over the next few months Susan’s desperation and neediness began to dissipate as we identified her needs and how she could meet them herself and help the other people in her life to support her better.

As Susan worked on strengthening herself and building a fulfilling life that used her abilities independent of the availability of an intimate relationship, she became more animated, more alive and more enthusiastic about what life has to offer.  As she developed more friendships and met more people she also became clearer about the people she wanted to share her life with; which relationships were satisfying for her and which were not. This helped her to get much clearer about what she wanted in a partner; instead of being desperate for anyone who would take her, she began to see herself in a
new light and realize that she too could make choices and decisions about her relationships.

The old catch phrase, “Look after Number One because no-one else will” still operates in many people’s lives. There are those who adhere to the first part “look after Number One” and always think of themselves first, and those who hear the second part loud and clear “No-one else will”. Both of these attitudes can be major stumbling blocks which prevent the development of meaningful and rich lives. Susan was looking for someone else to look after Number One and she was afraid that no one would.

She had lost sight of the importance of looking after herself in a healthy way; a way that allows her to develop her own sense of her self and her enjoyment of life on her own or with others, single or in relationship. She was able to use therapy to re-establish her relationship with her self and rediscover her own potential.

Without a sense of connectedness to her own true nature, Susan was desperately seeking someone to come and look after her. She was looking for someone else to help her feel complete and fulfilled. That’s something we’ve all done at different times in our lives, but the richest and most fulfilling relationships are those in which both people are confident and fulfilled in themselves first. Then the relationship can flourish on a basis of mutual enjoyment rather than desperate neediness.

Talk is Cheap

In this article I’d like to take a look at my job – my right livelihood over the past 30 years – talk therapy. And I’d like to suggest that calling it “talk therapy” misrepresents and grossly undervalues what you and I (or we if you’re part of a couple) are doing in my office (or on the phone.)

“Talk therapy” makes it sound as if words issue from our mouths and then dissipate in the air around us. As if, as the saying goes, it’s cheap – common stuff. Not so, says the renowned Mayo Clinic, who recently signed an agreement with Cooper & Lybrand, an international accounting firm, to demonstrate the cost savings of providing psycho- therapy for heart patients. The study will use the data from a 1995 study of 381 heart disease patients in which, over six months, the mean medical costs for emotionally distressed patients was $9,504 compared to $2,146 for the nondistressed.
Makes financial sense, doesn’t it?  In the meantime, it looks like therapists, those low- tech metaphorical heart specialists, will have an important role in the continuing struggle with this and other “dis-eases.”

More recently, New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has been studying the emotional brain. He focuses on fear memories and how they are not just one-time inscriptions in our brain. Instead, they are reconsolidated and rebuilt every time they are retrieved.

Exciting stuff, huh?  This new view of memory suggests a way to obtain conscious control of a powerful but unconscious emotion generating system. “Knowledge of re- consolidation,” says LeDoux, “opens the possibility of re-transcribing memories.” So, deeply engaging psychotherapy is not just talk therapy but involves reactivation of emotion.

Through sensitive, ably guided discussion, or through energy therapies like Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR), emotional memories can be gently and thoroughly processed and, sometimes, reprocessed, to help the anxious person learn new associations around a fearful memory. This way, they are modulated during retrieval so they are not lodged forever under a rock in the primitive section of our brain, where they drive behavior without under- standing or consent.

As Hara Marano writes, “Genes snap to attention, fancy neurotransmitters and nuclear proteins swing into action. Nerve reactivity and circuitry is altered…” Or, as I like to say in more prosaic terms, our wires get uncrossed!

Talk therapy and EMDR provide privileged access to the cortex, the thinking brain. I often utilize cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which teaches anxious people to reframe how they perceive the environment, so they don’t need to emotionally react to everything negative that comes their way. By healing the brain from the top down, as it were, CBT has effects that last long after the therapy is over, protecting against relapse into anxiety in a way that drugs can’t, because pills don’t re-educate the brain.

So privileged is the access that talk therapy has to the brain that sometimes it’s the only thing that works. Last year, a large randomized controlled trial of psychotherapy versus drug therapy showed that talk therapy works in some of the most difficult cases of depression, for example, whereas pharmaco-therapy does not. It is singularly effective for those of us with a history of childhood trauma, physical or sexual abuse, or neglect. The researchers reported that “psychotherapy may be an essential element in the treatment of patients with chronic forms of major depression or a history of childhood trauma.

EMDR is an invaluable psychotherapeutic adjunct, This complex approach combines talk therapy with bilateral stimulations such as eye movements or tones to facilitate the
brain’s natural ability to heal. EMDR promotes the mind’s ability to access, desensitize, and resolve memories and feelings that have been “stored away” or avoided because of the emotional pain associated with painful life events.

EMDR has an extremely broad base of published case reports and controlled research that supports it as an empirically validated treatment of trauma of all kinds. In my clinical experience it’s also been helpful to those suffering from anxiety, depression, addictions, phobias, and a variety of self-esteem issues.

This leads to the obvious conclusion: what you and I are doing, or have done together isn’t just talk therapy. It’s brain therapy. As Joseph LeDoux has pointed out, “It’s all about the hottest thing in neuroscience today – brain plasticity.” And, yes, heart therapy. Emotion therapy – genuine healing of memories.

Thank you for being part of what is right livelihood for me.