Sunday, December 9, 2012

And So This is Christmas: an Unbeliever's Guide to Believing

And So This is Christmas: an Unbeliever’s Guide to Believing

It’s hard to write anything original about Christmas. Holiday self-help advice gets about as original and moving as the countless bad renditions of any number of holiday songs playing non-stop from the first of November until the New Year.

So why am I compelled to offer it?

People try. It’s charming really, the effort made by everyone from the smallest tot to those most advanced in the art of grand and great-grand parenting, to observe the weeks called “The Holidays” with glee and hope for renewal and connection. Why?

Who really knows?  But it goes deep, even deeper than how many of the world’s spiritual traditions invest those weeks around the North’s winter solstice with significance, doesn’t it?

In reality the holidays aren’t easy.

Often they aren’t nearly as fun as they are made out to be. Many years we are left with the feeling that we have failed at the true test of the holidays, failed at being “happy”.

The Holidays as they are promoted are like a giant pressure cooker: the pressure to be happy, to spend what one may not have enough of… money, time, love, friends, family…  the pressure of the idiotic idea that material gifts can buy or even symbolize the complicated and multifaceted nature of connection and love.

The fact is, however, that at a more deeply felt level there can also be the pressure to put aside what may be the more realistic innate and symbolic structure of the time of the year, the passing of precious time, the losses, the introduction of the New.  This passage will happen even if we aren’t ready for it and may not, at any conceivable level, be able to “afford” it, “afford” to be somewhere New when what is Old seems to be slipping away or being taken from us, even stolen.

We count what passes. People, homes, friendships, age, health. What else? This is something that seems unavoidable as the world spins and tilts us away from the light, and we get ready for the long stretch into longer days, the growing season, the hope… the hope FOR hope.

We measure change. It is in our DNA; packaged in these things we call holidays. And sometimes I think they have been almost completely co-opted by a materialist perspective that tries ever so diligently to rob us of our connection to the deeper meanings in the season, the sobriety of it, the losses, the potential and its tentative hold on what we wish the newness will grant us. The fact that the holiday’s truest visions have been so powerfully denied only accentuates their power over us. In that propagandized denial of the full range of the nature and meaning of the turning of the darkest darkness to the gradual rebirth of the light, we are forced to deny our own inner revolutions… the necessary changes of living.

Even if we are fearful about what is ahead; even if we read in the dreams of the turning of the world the coming of storms and droughts, the potential for poor harvest. 

It is easy to be led away from the truest observations of the season through the propaganda of a hoarding mentality that gets reflected in a make-believe over-abundance, a release of endorphins through a compulsive purchase that shields us from very real trepidations that we are required to feel to be fully human.

How do we rescue THAT? How do we rescue that when THAT is the reason for the season, that teeter-totter balance between what we love the most and what we fear losing the most or may have already lost? The yin-yang of what is new and why it must come and that which must be left behind?

We may cut a tree down. We may take out the heirloom ornaments and lights. We may contemplate each sparkling story as we hang it from the tree. We may laugh with others, we may walk quickly into another room to shed deep tears, we may hold on to whom ever stands near and feel the real warmth of how we could not go forward into an unsure future without that kindred heart beating… beating, beating….

All this empty buying! What does it signify actually? What does it mean?

This season I think I will vote to suspend my disbelief in the sacredness of the turning of the year and how this time of the year is the most appropriate for that deep observation.

I think I will give in to all the tribal and even pre-tribal wells of genetically imprinted deep knowledge that these darkest days have always held for me and for my predecessors, the so-called primitive ancestry that could not know that the great dragons and Manitous that lived in the blustery winter sky were even more frightening than they could imagine, more frightening in the reality of their random emergence and arrival; that they could just as easily snuff out me and my entire world suddenly and too quickly for that blinding flash to be seen by me or anyone like me.

I will believe in the season’s magic as if I had never used a wheel or made a loaf of bread.

I resolve to reject happiness and joyfulness uninterrupted or undefined by great sorrows and fears as anything honorable to be achieved, as anything healthy, normal or human.

We are a species of connection at the same time that we are a race of lonely seekers. We live in a space of simultaneous opposites as a premier fact of our phenomenology of being and always have. We are different enough from one another that we require some ongoing and concrete recognition of our hard won similarities in order to succeed as an organism on a similarly interwoven galaxy of a planet full of other organic and inorganic forms that must live in some kind of harmony, even through destruction by one of the other… the shit of fear ripening and fertilizing the birth and sustenance the other’s hope.

We hold the spear of terror as we approach one another; we grope for signals that we belong with one another, walking into the New Year together. With food. With a drink of cool water.

Now, right now, we are woven tightly, ever more tightly, into the drama of our miraculous planetary configurations. It was always so, but as the ice unleashes astonishingly beautiful and terrible torrents of waters due to the melting of our polar caps, as our most intricate and life-infused population centers are threatened with inundation by the by-product of that great melt, we cannot ignore how we are woven into this great miracle of chaos and order, all at once interpretable, documented and at the same time completely misunderstood, far out of our concrete grasp of understanding. Just as we have only begun to understand our own brain’s workings, our planet and its cradle in the slurry of space is only starting to be fathomed while it is simultaneously moving into an era of the unfathomable.

And so this is Christmas. And what have you done?

I promise to make a study of remembering during this solstice. To remember and work to allow tears and gratitude. To relax the automatic tightening of the well of my throat that keeps the sobs from rising up.

I want to miss those who I have loved who are no longer here. I want to hold on to the visages of those who walk with me still...  as they are and as they have been and may be.

I want my gifts to always be in hand, those things that leap from the soul to the soul and still know these metaphors do exist, these metaphors for the hot liquid core of why we remain a treasure. They exist even when we are so completely inconsequential to the order of things as it moves on, as it covers us in darkness, blinds us in dawn, as it grows incredible Sequoias and fills the hot vents at the bottom of the sea with the soup of our ancestors.

And I want to laugh. It would good if you could join me. Because no matter what lies before us, we are here now, and it is good.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

5 Things to Remember for Those Starting Coaching (and 5 more for Coaches)

5 Things to Remember for Those Starting Coaching, Therapy or Counseling (and 5 More For Coaches, Counselors and Therapists)

For Clients:

1) Have some instructions for how best a coach or counselor should work with you. Write them down and take them with you for your first session. Know your learning style. Have examples/anecdotes ready to illustrate this.

2) Ask about professional credentials, experience and client references.
Ask questions about them when you get them.

3) If the coach/counselor insists on doing it his or her own way, find someone else. Give a professional at least two sessions if you think it may be workable in spite of misgivings and only three if you continue to have serious doubts. Let them know you are doing this.

4) Regardless of the feeling content, much of your first session will be concerned with creating a kind of business contract. Your job is to make sure your prospective counselor/coach can fulfill their end of the contract. Have a time period in mind or how many sessions you think will be necessary to accomplish your goals. Avoid those who seem unable to make at least a preliminary plan for how long you will be seeing them. You can always reset the goals and time at a later date.

5) Never let your fear of hurting someone's feelings prevent you from asking questions about the direction of your work together, the purpose of time used on something that seems peripheral, or how anecdotes from their own life relate to the work you are doing.

For Coaches, Counselors and Therapists:

1) Listen first, listen long, listen by asking for more and clearer information. Reflect reflect reflect.

2) Use silence as a friend to revelation and mindfulness. Listen to it.

3) Moving into problem solving or advice-giving too soon does not work. In fact, I would say advice-giving is rarely advisable and most effectively used only when sought (even then, eliciting reflection about why advice is being sought may be more effective) and rarely. If you are moved to give it without it being sought, ask for permission first.

4) Be aware of cultural norms and ways of communicating. Ask questions about cultural norms before evaluating speech patterns and nonverbal communications according to your own norms. It might be good to have a routine set of queries about cultural norms as a part of your intake interview/s. Remember that your own norms, regardless of how familiar you are with them, can remain so prevalent that they are invisible to you. Differences in cultural communication norms are innumerable and vary from family to family, neighborhood to neighborhood.

5) Be patient and wait for indications of an entrance into spontaneous problem solving initiated by the client. Amplify and build on that. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Communication Styles and Family Systems, All a Matter of Every Day Business? How Coaching Can Improve Your Small Business

A year ago I had the great pleasure of working with the leadership team of a small, progressively run, manufacturing company. The following is from an email response to a final assessment I requested from the CEO.

The primary goal, set early in my preliminary work with the CEO, was to open and facilitate communication between the four men on the leadership team. Our conversations primarily revolved around improved communication flow and efficiency. Once established and practiced by the leadership team the hope was that it would “spill over” into the way communication was handled in the workplace in general. We identified this workplace as a good place to work and do business, with a great product and an efficient system of production and delivery. It was a good company that wanted to be better.

To the CEO the most difficult aspect of running the workplace had become the varying interpersonal styles of those involved. He was frustrated by how different personalities meshed and created friction, impacting productivity and morale. The CEO ( who preferred to remain anonymous for this presentation of our work together) often repeated that he felt very competent in running the business end of the operation, and he felt he had an excellent crew, but he felt out of his element and his ability to be patient when it came to the interpersonal aspects of problem-solving and interacting with his partners and workers.

This is a family-owned and run business, and the size of the workforce is also family-sized, so our discussions often revolved around how family systems and small business systems function similarly. It was made clear that the stress was on a self-improvement strategy and NOT therapy. We worked on educating and empowering the leadership team in ways to self-identify communication styles and how to more seamlessly interact with those who have different ways of communication. We discussed identifying how people inadvertently bring their own family roles into the workplace, particularly in the unavoidable periods of increased stress and duress. Basic systems theory as well as psycho-education about communication styles was provided and integrated into our sessions to assist in making each person responsible for self- identifying potential friction points. In this way each person in the operation could become more adept at facilitating less problematic communication in the shop as well as implementing ways to fold in acknowledgement and incentive at all levels of the operation.

Another result of our work was a more fine-tuned tool to define roles and job descriptions in all levels of the operation. This was helpful in maintaining the informal and essentially non-hierarchical nature of the vision the owners had about how their shop should function by reinforcing and defining limits of roles and how they interfaced and overlapped in the day-to-day functioning of the workplace. The concrete result was a more practical and less subjective way of measuring on-the-job performance and expectation.

The aspect of this work that was most satisfying, I think, was the degree of self-motivation and pride I witnessed over the course of the year I worked with this company. I was also proud to work for a leadership team that was so concerned with the whole-person well-being of its workers. In spite of the CEO’s concern about his own feelings of inadequacy in dealing with the interpersonal aspects of his company, his desire was clearly focused on making his shop a pleasant and productive place to work where everyone could feel like a productive and important part of the whole operation.


 - I’m definitely glad that we went through the exercise of meeting with you several times in order to better understand communication issues and how they relate to our company on a day to day basis.

- As a direct result of working with you I have a much better understanding of my own personal communication style and how it can positively and/or negatively affect the success/outcome of any communication.  My personal communication style has changed some…  it may have become even a bit more direct as before, but also a bit more calculated and with a different tone if possible and appropriate. 

- By the way, “YES” our first annual, formal and documented performance reviews were conducted as a direct result of our working together.  It seemed to be the best way to convey to our employees that management believes that poor communication is a problem at our company and often the root cause of interpersonal relationship issues and conflicts.   Though it took most employees by surprise, when presented with specific instances and examples, I think they kind of got the point.  Furthermore, I can definitely see a significant improvement in everyone’s efforts to communicate more/better.

- The biggest most positive change by far, I see in my brother [a co-owner of the business and a co-member of leadership and ownership team]. Not necessarily from a communication standpoint but more on a personal level.  He appears to be more actively engaged and interested in being part of the company’s ownership team and seems to have grasped the concept that as long as he does something productive he feels better about himself and as part of our operation.  (Priceless)

We will continue to monitor and evaluate communication and will definitely call upon your services if we deem it necessary to take additional steps to improve communication within our plant or if poor communication continues to lead to problem situations.

Thanks and Kind Regards…..”

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Human Sexuality is Complicated

Here's a great little video that, very quickly(!), reviews the nature, range, spectrum and overlaps between human sexuality, gender, intimacy and desire.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Two-Sided Mirror: Healing From Deep Family System Wounds and Ongoing Sibling Rivalry.

The following is an e-mail exchange I recently had with a client of mine.

The struggle presented in the exhange is a common one: how to come to terms with the innate and strong wish to have and maintain family relations while enduring the ongoing, long-term results of damning and damaging family secrets and the visceral memory of deeply felt childhood harm, even if only partially remembered or not remembered at all.

I thought it was informative and worth sharing here because of the common-ness of such circumstances between siblings even, and perhaps especially, after the death of both parents. It also asks and reviews many questions that are common to those who struggle with life-long patterns of unresolved and hurtful sibling rivalry:

  •           What do I do if I remember hurtful things from the family’s past and      my siblings do not?
  •     What if my siblings remember circumstances that involve me and I do not?
  •     How can I best cope with sibling behaviors that seem to be a result of occurrences in the distant past, especially if they deny those behaviors or claim they are my fault and a result of my own unwillingness to come to terms with the past?
  •     When do I, and can I, let it all go and recognize present behaviors on their own merits and refuse participation in a damaging, hurtful, pattern of behavior? How do I do this?
  •      How do I recognize when I am re-entering the pattern of hurtful interactions and see the warning signs so that my innate hope of reconciliation isn’t turned into co-dependency or re-emergence of the patterns that result in the opening of old, deep wounds?
  •      If I can’t remember specifics of how I was wounded how can I manage the unsettling and difficult feelings my family members bring up in me? Is estrangement the only answer?

The difficulty underlying all of these questions remains how to manage the competition between the nature of the wish to cultivate and resolve family connection and the equally strong defense mechanism that each of us possesses that wants to keep us safe and loved, worthy, in our world and among our family.

Deep wounds, and perhaps especially the ones that remain stubbornly half in and half out of the box of secrets that we began to fill up and lock when we were very very young, push to be realized and healed. We feel that push even if we do not remember and cannot find the words to describe. Besides, we cannot use language to describe what happens in the more primitive parts of our psyche that have no language, just feeling. We assign guilt and responsibility according to how we translate these occurrences into language, and therefore we often misappropriate wholly or in part.

Perhaps we no longer have the combination, or perhaps we unknowingly gave the key or the combination to others in the family and they have forgotten where it is, what the numbers are, or have other reasons, conscious or not, for with-holding essential information from us. Many of those reasons may have everything to do with their own methods of coping and strategizing their own healing and defense. Unfortunately our manner and skill in actively participating in how that healing can take place co-exists with the desire to bring our degree of safety in the family configuration to the fore and make it work for us and for the others whom we are connected to.

Much happens in the preverbal areas of the human brain. How to trust our ability to interpret the messages we get from those netherlands? So much of how we interpret our world happens in the parts of the brain that also devise and implement ways to protect us from the dynamism that the pre-verbal areas want to subject us to. We must be careful. We must be concrete in how we facilitate the interaction between how we speak about and understand our childhood wounds and how they are presented to us through the Escher-like vagaries of memories, ours and those who share them with us.

Most of all, we must be as kind as we can while we proceed on our way toward fuller integration of our childhood experience as it arises even unbidden and asks us to understand it, as we continue to work to protect ourselves from further harm. We must be kind to the others who share parts of this story, for while it is unnecessary and not worthwhile to place ourselves back in the way of harm. We can realize that they have almost certainly been harmed as well and as deeply. Being a victim and a perpetrator are often, perhaps even usually, both sides of the two-sided mirror. We must be kind to ourselves.

Names in the following exchange have been changed. It is being used with permission.


Hi Bob,

Can you tell me about if a child can have something bad done to them and not remember it??  Does that really happen??? I made the horrible, horrible mistake of giving siblings another chance to blow my life apart.  They didn't disappoint.  Problem is I don't know what's real or what's a lie anymore.   It has taken a toll.  Are their ways to find out your own past??  Thank you!





It might be best before you go forward to do some research about memory itself. Maybe Google "Recent Brain science re: Memory"

The jury's out whether it is of much use to "remember" those things that appear to be forgotten. Every individual and every incident of childhood trauma can be so different... one child is forever altered by the death of a dog and another child manages the death of a sibling without a glitch.  It is VERY difficult to "remember" the specific details of otherwise forgotten episodes of one's childhood.... and some trauma is less a specific event and more the sustained behavior of powerful people around him or her....  so that it may not be a specific incident of cruelty, abuse or neglect, but a pattern of dealing or NOT dealing with the needs of the child. IE: a pattern in a family culture that results in making taboo the discussion of traumatic events that happened to everyone can be just as difficult in later years as other more specifically harmful events... because of the pattern one devises to manage those events. Patterns gets ingrained even after it is not useful and even harmful.

Remember: it is very difficult to give up on one's family. So giving them multiple chances to rectify past patterns and harm is NORMAL... perhaps unavoidable (it seems the mind tricks us into doing it even after we have made firm resolutions to never let it happen again!) so go easy on yourself.

Is that helpful?


Yes, it is very helpful.  I did Google it and read some articles with differing points of view.  Considering what I've read and...  the sources of my questions, it seemingly confirms that I will never know the truth. 

For the past year, Jim & I knocked ourselves out for by brother Hank and his wife Chris.  All while driving back and forth to the Cancer Treatment Center of America for Jim’s treatment.  We painted, repaired, cleaned, moved, installed....a multitude of physical duties.  We brought him a lift chair, a hospital bed, a standing wheelchair, etc...and a list of other things to help them remain in their home.  The second visit together Hank poured out this seemingly heartfelt apology for all he put Linda, Larry and I through [Larry and Linda are Molly's children from a previous relationship --BV].  I just accepted his need to clear his conscience as this stage in his life and I really enjoyed puttering around with him and fixing things for him and giving him some peace of mind.  His ability to walk is lost, his ability to transfer himself was greatly diminished last I saw him.  Chris seemed o.k. around us.  She seemed to make the effort and we just tried to be respectful and not rock her boat.  But from the beginning, Jerry [a son adopted by Molly and Jim  --BV] seemed to follow her (almost obsessively so) while we were there.  (In retrospect, we should have realized his signs of being on point....Lord knows we've seen him do it before.)  Then one Sunday night while I was still struggling to wrap things up at 9pm and head home, Hank didn't want me driving late, he was worried about my safety, etc.  So I was going to stay and we sat there visiting together and he proceeded to tell me how Chris hated me and it was all an act.  He went on to tell me that she "made a big deal" around the boys, but trashed them to others....etc.  I was stunned.  I was there alone and it was my worst fear being realized.  I began to panic.  She had gone to bed, but I just didn't know what to do.  He just kept going on and proceeded to tell me all the things that were wrong about me.  They were stunning.  He was so cranked up I just tried to keep calm.  By midnight I told him that I decided to just head home.  Then he really went nuts.  I stayed calm, calm and steady, but my head was spinning.  I got my tools and played like everything was o.k.  I left and called Jim and woke him up.  I drove the 5 hours home.  I never went back, but I did stay in touch on the phone and online until we received a photo of our boys that Chris had sent on to Larry's biological Dad and his wife.  I didn't have to pop a vein, Jim did.  We decided what we were going to do about it and I was the one chosen to deliver our decision to Hank.  He went ballistic.  He sent a letter (that I did NOT read).  Jim intercepted it and I honestly did not read it.  Jim handled it with Hank from that point on.  He told him that his family was off limits, that he would not stand for any further harm inflicted on me and never would Larry and Jerry know this kind of behavior in their lives.  He told him to stay away from all of us, including Linda.  All our social media was all closed off to them at that point.  Jim told him if there was another contact, letter, call, harassment of any kind, he would be calling the police.  He told Hank that HE was stopping it.  I am grateful for that, I didn't have it in me anymore.  At the time, Linda's wedding was upon us and it really cast a shadow over a part of it for all of us.  But I kept going.

Problem was that Jim did tell me (in a moment of non-thinking...) a couple comments that Hank had said to him.  It's almost as if the poison continues to seep into my life.  He made accusations of someone abusing me.  (My brother David implied that in a fight with my parents many years ago too.)  Since neither of them knows anything about my personal life, they couldn't know my own thoughts.  I've never spoken them out loud to anyone.  I've thought about it all a great deal in the past few months and especially after reading these articles, I don't know that I believe what they are saying, but I also don't believe there is any reliable way to find out.  

Do you have any thoughts on "Soul Retrieval"?  

I won't lie to you.  I have scared myself a few times in the past couple months.  Then a good friend of mine took his own life.  It made me realize I better get my shit together.  But it seems that who I thought I was and who I really am may be miles apart.  I know that my siblings words created that doubt and there are some "coincidences" that seem too close to be ignored.  

Anyway.  Enough of my babbling, I know you already know my family dysfunction.  I've probably put you solidly to sleep....snoring in fact.  LOL! Just trying to find my way through all this.  


This sounds so familiar. I am sorry for you but also admire your continuing efforts to try to make your brother's life more live able.

I think it's important to remember that just because you may not remember specifics of any abuse you may have suffered does not mean it never happened. SOMETHING happened. You live with that legacy... and in some ways so do your brothers, whether they were victims or perpetrators or both. Sibling rivalry in families with toxic secrets is fierce and life long. In my business we would be fools if we refused to treat people for symptoms of PTSD just because there is no substantiated history. The symptoms are and should be enough. Of course, most victims of such secrets are stuck with the de-legitimizing forces that are extremely strong and alive (even if the perpetrators aren't)... the feeling that there must be proof is undeniable and sometimes crushing. Can you let go of that part and focus on taking care of yourself while you continue the fine work you are doing to stop and change the legacy?  Most of these things are multigenerational.

Great that Jim has been so strong for you... sounds like he really came through. Very very cool.