When Pleasure Fails

Dr. Scott Baum, in his paper “When Love Avails Not” has written about anhedonia in the person whose mistreatment at the hands of others has resulted in the death (and dearth) of love.  That is, in people who have been so badly abused that all love, all capacity for experiencing the general goodness of the world, has been drained or squeezed or ripped out of them.

“People use the word pleasure to cover a broad spectrum of feelings. We could break it down into many categories: relief, gratification, satisfaction, enjoyment, joy, fulfillment—and surely there are more. Not all these meanings are tied to goodness—for example, sadistic revenge can be gratifying, and we ignore that fact at our peril. However, I choose to use “pleasure” as I think Reich and Lowen intended—meaning the capacity to feel connected to the benevolence in the universe. Surely this is related to love….Pleasure’s opposite, anhedonia, is a complicated psychosomatic phenomenon. … One aspect of anhedonia is that the person’s capacity for love — to feel the cushioning, warming envelopment of the energetic field, which I am quite sure exists on some physical level—is destroyed. This can, of course, be a temporary state. In grief, for example, or in the aftermath of a catastrophic event, a person may lose the capacity for pleasure or hopefulness. This loss may be intermittent or persistent, but it is a transient state, and eventually the person’s underlying capabilities to experience pleasure are reinvigorated. This can happen with the passage of time or because of more direct intervention, such as psychotherapy, where this restoration of function is a directly intended outcome.”

Fortunately, most people experience anhedonia as a temporary situation, one in which the capacity for pleasure has become limited.  Focusing on the body’s language helps people to notice both their lack of enjoyment (pleasure, gratification, joy) and also the tiny light that appears as one begins to regain that capacity for feeling.  Often, there is an obstacle that lies in the way of pleasure.   For many of us, it can be our practice of avoidance.  That is, we may believe we have a need to avoid our unpleasant thoughts, memories, images…any of the mental content that generates big unpleasant feelings.   It seems paradoxical:  in order to get back our capacity for enjoyment, we need to dive right into what many people consider the opposite: our rage, our terror, our horror, our despair.

frightened child

In simple terms, when you work to shut down emotional experience in one realm, you effectively shut it down across the affective area in general.  Specifically, suppose I was terrified as a child, spent my very early childhood fearful of parental anger, and subsequent years trying my hardest to keep my parent happy, or at least avoid getting him or her angry.  In order to get out in the world and survive, for example, in order to manage school, I  had to figure out a way to function without being frozen, so I learned to numb out that fear. I  also avoided ever feeling angry, because that would trigger my angry parent.  I probably didn’t feel much in the way of sadness, either, and happiness was a very light surface skim of a feeling, mostly relief because it went with avoiding punishment.

As an adolescent, I might have found places to go where there was a bit more safety, or I might have just assumed that all places were as unsafe as my home.  As an adult, I might actually begin to look at my childhood and realize that everyone didn’t have terrifying parents, and that maybe there are lovely people in my life and I could perhaps learn to be a little trusting.  But feeling good….well, that might not actually be possible.  It might be far to frighterning to feel good….and I certainly don’t want to go into feeling that terror from childhood.  I grew up so I didn’t have to feel that, right?

credit:  http://ttactechtuesday.pbworks.com/w/page/7857889/AT%20Solutions%20for%20Writing
credit: http://ttactechtuesday.pbworks.com/w/page/7857889/AT%20Solutions%20for%20Writing

Unfortunately, that model isn’t reflective of how people actually work….If I want to feel the joy that I think is probably available to me, then I need to let my body feel that terror, that rage, that despair that are all stuck in me somewhere.  Saying yes to pleasure means I have to say yes to all of my feelings, not just the ones I think I’d like to experience.

Mark Nepo, in Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, says “…there are small pressure points of residual feelings that live in our bodies, small pockets of trauma that hold the sediment of the stories that have shaped us.  We carry these residual feelings like emotional time capsules……” and sometimes those time capsules open right up.  We try out best to shut them down, to close them up, and we do it using our bodies.  We tighten, we cut off our breathing, clench the jaw, tense the shoulders, do whatever we can to not feel. But then we miss out.  Nepo goes on to say about those emotional time capsules “… whose small doses of healing are released when we bump into life unexpectedly.  It is natural to recoil from the rupture of those potent feelings but it’s the meaning carried in them over the years that begins to heal us…” And once we have allowed those feelings, actually felt them, allowed the body to open up, expand and integrate the feelings and the meanings we make of our experience, then, THEN, pleasure can become available again.  Baxter State Park, Maine, 2010

We can start the process of feeling pleasure by tuning into sensations. Notice the warmth of your coffee cup on your hands.  Notice the way that the warmth moves into your hands and begins to move up your arms.

Thanks to Katie Huffman, of Looking at Life through Agreeable Hours
Thanks to Katie Huffman, of Looking at Life through Agreeable Hours

Notice where you are blocked, and where you are holding on tightly, so that you cannot feel.  Allow warmth and softening to enter those tight places and notice what else is present to you at this moment.  Notice any sensations of movement within your body, or desire or intention to move in some way.  Notice whatever sensations and feelings arise for you without judging or turning away from what you experience.  Let your experience happen;  let your life flow bringing whatever emotions are present for you.  Feel whatever it is and let it flow.  The path to pleasure can be circuitous, especially if you have cut off the pathways for many years.  But getting back there is so worth the effort.

Many thanks to Dr. Scott Baum, Video of Dr. Baum on bioenergetics

And to Mark Nepo  Mark’s website

Simple pleasures

 wpid-img_20150215_170132.jpg

There is not much more important than experiencing pleasure for us human-type beings.   Pleasure is a label for certain types of sensory experiences: some things we do are pleasurable.  Sometimes, things that once were pleasurable do not seem to evoke pleasure any more.  When I hear that from people, I take note.  Anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure, often accompanies depression, and sometimes is the most difficult part of depression.

Pleasure is an enormous motivator for us.  We’ll do a lot of things because the consequence is experienced as pleasurable.  These things can range from preparing and eating gourmet cuisine to climbing up rock faces.   And when pleasure as a motivator is not available, due to depression, stress, or preoccupation, then it can be difficult to do some of the things that we need or want to do.

Pleasure is a body experience.  That is, we have an experience of pleasure through our sensory systems. There is also a cognitive component, as there is for many emotionally-based experiences.  We’ll have words or images to reflect our pleasure (“Mmm, mmm, good..”).  We savor pleasure.  Pleasure requires our sustained attention, and when we cannot give our attention to our experience, we have a dearth of pleasure in our everyday life.

When people present in the office with symptoms of depression, I ask a lot about what they enjoy….have they been having any fun lately?  Lots of times people are taken by surprise by this question.  First surprise, then a sudden realization and often sadness….no, no fun lately.  In fact, often people cannot think of anything at all that would be fun.

Finding the pleasure again is essential.  When depression is the diagnosis, we look at shifting thinking, motivating activity, and regulating sleep, appetite, and attention.   Simultaneously, I ask people to start to notice where they can feel pleasure, even the most limited little bit of enjoyment, or even just relief of negative symptoms.   This is a mindfulness task, requiring attention to sensory experience in the here and now, and is a very useful marker for getting better.

Pleasure is our birthright.  We are creatures who have a wonderful and awe-inspiring capacity for pleasure….what will you enjoy today?

Workshop offering!

Postpartum poster (5)-page-001 I am pretty excited to be able to tell you about a two-workshop series I am offering this spring.  It is for people who work with postpartum moms, or who want to work with that population.  The first day, on Friday 17 April, we’ll focus on the background information needed to effectively work with women who’ve experienced reproductive trauma.  The second workshop is more specifically focused around clinical skills used within therapy sessions, and I hope you’ll bring your experiences to share.

For more information you can click HERE to go to the page on this blog.  There you can download the flyer, and get the registration information.   If you have questions about the content, let me know!  Looking forward to seeing you in Fredericton this spring.

Leslie

Anticipation of joy? Or joyful anticipation?

PEI

We leave tomorrow for the week-long bioenergetic retreat in Prince Edward Island.  We have spent a year preparing, with more active preparation going on since January, and accelerating toward tomorrow.  The program begins on Friday evening and runs through the following Friday at mid-day, and each year it draws a diverse group that somehow becomes a community during our time together.   And I can imagine that the people who are joining us from all over the world are preparing, packing, and anticipating.

I have been busy with getting ready, looking after details, checking in with the rest of the team, and preparing myself for the work of therapy.  Body psychotherapists use their bodies in their work, so part of my preparation has been to be sure I do my bioenergetic exercises, to be aware of my sleep and nutrition, to work through any internal logjams that may get in my way.

And now, today, I am feeling that lovely anticipatory excitement that comes up when you are heading off for an experience that is new and also likely to be challenging and deepening and supportive and connecting.   The closest comparison I can get is that feeling I had when I was maybe eight years old of expecting Santa to come and bring presents on Christmas Eve.  There was an element of surprise but also the expectation was that things would be pretty good.

I am looking forward to seeing what gifts the next week brings.  Gifts are not always in bright packages:  in fact, the gifts of the retreat often arrive in the form of difficult feelings, ones we prefer to avoid.  I guess maybe the gifts come when people are offered a time and space to be themselves, bring their struggles, challenges, and their joys, express whatever their bodies need to express, and then see what happens.   Part of my anticipation is that I don’t know what will come up;  part of my joy is that I do know that things will happen, people will have opening experiences, and we will become a community.

I wish you all the gifts that freedom of expression can bring.

 

Morning lupins
Morning lupins

logoblu

 

The meaning of anxiety

More and more, I am thinking that anxiety is about trying to cover up your feelings.  You don’t want to feel whatever it is that you are feeling, so you try everything in your arsenal to stop feeling.  You tense your muscles, constrict your breathing, start thinking obsessively, focus on external sensations or fill your body with too much food or alcohol or other chemicals to numb whatever is happening.

But the body doesn’t buy it.  Instead, it sends you a message that something is wrong.  Tense muscles, upset digestive processes, shallow breathing, racing thoughts, pains in gut and head, shakiness or trembling….all of these body experiences can connect to anxiety.   Anxiety isn’t exactly fear.  Fear is cleaner, has a more specific focus.  But fear can be one of the emotions we try to cover up…and that can result in anxiety.

winter trees
winter trees

How can you recognize anxiety?   It can show up as body symptoms:   tensions, pain, nausea or other digestive upsets, headaches.  It can show up as shakiness, foggy thinking and an inability to concentrate.  Or it can appear in disguise.   This is what happens when our defenses against anxiety are working to keep us from feeling it.  So, for example, I tend to make internal lists, develop complex plans for my future, create diet and exercise and frugality hell for my body to live in.  I have learned to recognize that my mind uses these tools to defend against my anxious feelings.  When I am doing a lot of rigid planning and programming for myself in my mind, I know (in some other part of my mind) that I need to look deeper.  This is one way that I manifest anxiety.

You might have racing thoughts.  Or worrying.   Or obsessive ritualistic behaviour such as around cleaning, or working out, or making contacts with people. Or avoiding contact with people.  Many different behaviours can be manifestations of anxiety because we learn very quickly to make associations.  That is, if we engage in a behaviour and experience a lessening of the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety, then we are pretty likely to engage that behaviour again.  Sometimes it is almost as if the behaviour IS the anxiety;  so we think our racing thoughts ARE anxiety.  But really they are an attempt to cope with the body sensations that are unpleasant.

Learning to live with emotional discomfort is just as useful as learning to live with physical discomfort.   We don’t have to happy, contented, or relaxed ALL of the time.   Allowing ourselves to feel what we feel, experience what our body is experiencing, and just being present to it….well, that’s a great way to be really alive.

How do you do that when you have only ever run away from your feelings?   Yes, that’s the hard part.  It helps to remember that you are just going to be FEELING something…and feelings, like thoughts, come and then then go.   And it helps to remember that nobody ever died from just feeling something.   Watching out for catastrophic thinking helps too….thinking thoughts like “I can’t stand this” won’t make it easier to actually stay right with that feeling.   So when you feel a bit anxious, see if you can give yourself some time and space to just ask what might be there under the anxious feeling?  What else is there?  Allow yourself to breathe into your belly, and feel your feet on the ground, and ask….what is this about?  What do I notice in my body?  Oh, yes, this sensation in my belly, and this one in my chest….oh, THIS…this is sadness….(or anger, or fear or whatever…).   Then watch that felt sense with kindness and compassion and some curiosity…oh, yes, this is what I am experiencing right now….THIS is it.  And watch it as it shifts and changes, and notice what that is like for you.   Giving yourself time and space and permission to have feelings can make a big difference.

Stone bridge Vaughn Woods Lee Ann McPherson

The huge benefit to allowing ourselves to fully experience our uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or unpleasant feelings is that ALL of our feelings become more accessible.  When you experience your own integrity, where you are not hiding, covering up, or showing off your emotions, you feel yourself more solidly on the ground, and more real in your body.  And that’s what life is about…being here, in this body, in this moment, right now.

You are a human being.  You have a whole range of feelings as your birthright.  Don’t live your life halfway:  feel them all!

 

 

Finding the deep desires of your heart

What is your heart’s desire?  What do you REALLY want?

Thanks to http://www.djrichardsdesign.ca/2011/11/16/hearts-desire/
Thanks to http://www.djrichardsdesign.ca/2011/11/16/hearts-desire/

Notice what happens inside you as you sit with that question.   What is my heart’s desire?  What do I really, really want?  Watch your mind generate all sorts of answers, excuses, plausible reasons not to even consider the question, and perhaps even responses that are socially appropriate.

Maybe you were taught that it is rude to WANT something.  Maybe you had many experiences of disappointment in your wants, to the point that you stopped WANTING.  Or you told yourself you didn’t have any WANTS.   Maybe you are very busy trying to make sure other people get what they WANT, and your own little wants have lost their voices.

Watch your thoughts as you start to consider this question.  Notice if you resist the question itself (“I don’t need to read this stuff.”)  Notice if you reject your ideas about what you might want.   How do we get past the mind’s pattern of criticizing itself?   It is hard to know what you really want if you have an inner critic telling you to shut up all the time.

A beautiful place to sit and ponder
A beautiful place to sit and ponder

Now try an experiment.   Get up on your feet.  Yes, you, right now, on your feet!   Jump up and down a little bit, get your breathing going.    Now hop around on one foot, then the other foot, and maybe even wave your arms around up over your head.    Yes, get silly and move around vigorously, shaking your head, letting your jaw go loose, maybe letting some sound out of your mouth….
“ahhhh,   ooommmmmm,  raaaahhhhhh,    bbbrrrrrrrr…” whatever sounds come out as you are jumping, jogging, shaking, and waving.

Oh, yeah.  Just let ‘er rip!  Let your body move, let your voice come out, get energy flowing all through your body.   It could be a dance, could be cheer-leading, could be gymnastics or calisthenics  whatever works for you, but it needs to be vigorous, free, and energetic.  Yahoo!

Now let your body come back to a still place.  Feel your feet firmly on the ground, feel the breath in your body, notice your heartrate, still elevated, and notice what is happening in your thoughts, in your mind.   And now, just standing there, let your answer come….What do I really, really want?   What is my heart’s desire?

Let go of any judgment, any self-criticism.  What do I want, now that I have let my body start to have its voice?  Just notice what ideas come up for you, and see if you can make note of them without commentary.  What do I want?  What does my heart want most right now?   Nothing is off limits…whatever arises for you, that’s what you want.

And your job is to let it be okay that you want what you want.   That’s all….you can want whatever it is that you want.  Just wanting is a big thing for many of us.  This  exercise is a beginning. Your heart’s desire is there waiting for recognition.

What did you find out when you tried the little experiment?   I wonder what would happen if you did it several days in a row?  Could you get more skillful at letting the body’s truth come out?  Could you start to recognize self-criticism and learn to just let that go?

Starting over. Starting over. Starting over.

The sun comes up every single morning.  What a gift, what a blessing.   When we conceive of the new day as new opportunity, everything opens up.

Sunrise over Cundy's Harbour, Maine, Dianne Carrick 31 Dec 2012
Sunrise over Cundy’s Harbour, Maine, Dianne Carrick 31 Dec 2012

  Today is just beginning.   That means that my experience of today is also, yes, just beginning.  So I have choices.  I can choose to make this a new beginning or a continuation of what was.   Actually, of course, today is always both of those things.    Taking a leap into something new can be frightening.   We shrink from fear, pulling ourselves inward, like an everlasting snail withdrawing his tiny horns from an aversive stimulus.   But once pulled in, once shrunken into myself, pulled away from the world, I am tight, tense, afraid, anxious, then actually interacting with the world becomes difficult. I am constrained from acting as I might want to act.  I am unable to feel my own experiences of the world because I have shrunk away from them.

What if?    

What if?    If only I realized that I am always and everywhere interacting with the world, actually am part of the world, taking in the world through my breath and my eyes, my ears and my skin, and adding parts of myself to the world just by being alive and being present, well, might that awareness not help me to know that fear itself is an illusion, just as separation is an illusion?

Starting over
Solstice dawn.
Solstice dawn.

Well, it’s a thought, anyway.   I was talking with my friend and body-worker Kathrine Walker about this miraculous interface between the human body (MY human body, your human body) and the world.   We were working with a meditation on the breath, visualizing the lungs right down to the alveoli, the location where the amazing happens:   air from the world interfaces with the body and becomes part of the body.   I recalled the other places where this occurs:  in the sensory organs and within the digestive system.   In each system, there is a specific place, specific part of the body which developed for its particular interface with information from the world….the retina gathers light energy and converts it to something your brain can understand.  The hair cells of the basilar membrane of the ear can take sound waves and turn them into neural transmissions.   Inside your nose are receptors that collect molecules of substances that waft in on the air you breathe, and those molecules are turned into information for your brain to interpret (“Hmm, apples….that reminds me of fall and our trips up river to pick apples.”)   The world is coming to us every moment of every day, and the world is becoming us.

When I breathed into that awareness, when I actively sought to notice air becoming me, sound shaping my mental experience, feeling the sensation of really deeply looking at colours, I could just barely begin to touch this reality.   But it meant something.   It meant that I could let go of a lot of my striving.   No matter how hard I try, I can’t keep myself safe from the world.   No matter how much I try to control myself, my future, my life, things are happening every single millisecond that I cannot control.

The good news about that was this:    I don’t need to set goals, to create rigid structures for Self-Improvement, to follow somebody-or-other’s plan for getting a better body, more spiritual soul, sharper intelligence.  I just need to breathe and to be, and in so doing, I am becoming more part of the world and letting the world become part of me.   

Could be a scary thought.  Or it could be extraordinarily freeing.

On this last day of the year, I think I’ll choose to find it freeing.