Written by Julie Terraciano, MFT
I have recently returned from my first trip to Africa. What strikes me after a few days of readjusting to our time, is that this was my first real voyage out of my comfort zone. Inspired by friends, who had ventured to this distant continent in a volunteer capacity, I felt drawn to a similar experience. My discomfort began the moment that I started to consider such an adventure for myself. I know now, that the simultaneous feelings of being called as well as the anxiety, and excitement, that I might experience, can point the way to something that I will ultimately find very satisfying.
After considering Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Mali and Senegal, I settled on the latter. A neighbor described, in glowing terms, her semester abroad experience with a lovely family in Dakar. I saw her pictures, considered my own long relationship with the French and France, of which Senegal had been a former colony, and wanted to explore further. Through a cultural center in Dakar, the Baobab Center, I became aware of the 10,000girls.org program in Kaolack, in the center of Senegal, and its director, Viola Vaughn. When I learned that she had been born in Detroit, as I had been, I felt that something was, indeed, calling me to this locale.
Like many volunteer programs abroad, 10,000girls.org offers volunteer possibilities in teaching English, supporting health education awareness and helping with small businesses, which, in this case, is a pastry shop. I was open to helping where they might need me. Upon my arrival, I learned that I would be assisting the woman from whom I would rent a room, in the organization of computer clubs for the girls in the program. The girls were willing to make a time commitment during the summer and into the school year, to learn skills vital to communication in our world.
When I told the last check-in person in Paris my destination, she replied: “Vous avez de la chance, Madame!” Five hours later, when I heard Bass, one of the family members of my only connection in Dakar, say my name, I knew that she was right. Pulling away from the airport, I saw, felt and smelled a different world. Beaten up cars filled the narrow road that led into town, where I would spend the night in a hotel, before heading out to my worksite. People were everywhere, by the side of the road, walking, standing, hanging out, next to or on other broken-down cars….and we were listening to Senegalese music…a music that would soon begin to fill my soul.
During my ten-day stay in Senegal, I felt a continual sensory overload. The numbers of people, along the roads, in the marketplace, selling mangoes, asking for small change, speaking to me because I was foreign, reminded me to turn to a very helpful meditation! The heat, typically around 100 degrees with high humidity, left me perspiring, profusely at times, all day long, and very ready for the cold-water-only shower. The absence of garbage cans in this town of 200,000 staggered my sensibilities. The eternal bargaining for anything in the marketplace, including taxi rides, left me frustrated and in admiration of the Senegalese who so skillfully navigate their way through one of their own forms of socializing.
At the same time, my heart was overwhelmed by the openness of all of those people whom I encountered in my daily life in this Muslim culture. The large family with whom I lived, consisted of a mother, originally from Morocco, several sisters, brothers, and their families. They described their family relationships, reveled in being photographed with my digital camera, and laughed heartily as we discovered commonalities in our humor.
The women who run the 10,000girls.org program have found their way there for a variety of reasons. Some were married unwillingly or with little awareness of the implications at a young age. Some have families. Many had little training in running a school or being involved with a bakery. All are determined to create better lives for the girls whom they are helping stay in school and for themselves as well.
Now, when I look at my photos of the girls who came to the computer club meetings in those far away towns and villages, I see their beautiful smiles, the lovely vivid colors of their summer clothing, and the sweetness in their souls. They are fortunate to have this program as a way to connect to the world and I am fortunate to have spent the time that I did with them.
The opening that my voyage to Africa has created for me is already apparent in profound and small ways. My heart aches when I notice….almost all of the time right now…how clean our sidewalks and streets are. It seems unfair that we have a milder climate than our fellow planet-dwellers do. I am more tuned into what is happening and where it is taking place in our world. While family has always seemed important to me, it seems even more so, after my experience. The friends whom I made during my journey reminded me of the importance of friendship, at home and across the world. So I am grateful, for the opening that I followed with my heart, and want to share that with family, friends and the wider community.
Written by Elaine Chan-Scherer, LCSW
I am writing this article close to Lunar New Year, Year of the Water Snake. It is supposed to be a year filled with connections, transformation, and discerning what choices need to be made. To me, it sounds like a recipe for a lot of emotional turmoil. So I thought I would share with you my thoughts on dealing with emotions.
Many of you know of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the neuroscientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. She gave a very popular TED talk, and wrote the book, My Stroke of Insight. In her book, she talks about how any emotion needs 90 seconds to be triggered, to cause a response, and then to be flushed out of our bloodstream. This means that when you are angry the physiological response occurs, and after 90 seconds the automatic response is over. After 90 seconds you CHOOSE to let that emotion continue. Some of us allow the emotion to continue for decades, for a lifetime. But the automatic response is actually physiologically over in 90 seconds. According to Dr. Taylor, we choose to hang on to our feelings of misery!
I found this information to be fascinating. I first learned about it when a friend shared about her father who had had a stroke. He told his friends that if he cried, they should just let him cry and it would be over in 90 seconds. And sure enough, it worked. I know so many people, myself included, who hold back feelings, instead of allowing them to flow for 90 seconds. If you allow those feelings to be fully felt, it is easier to release them. After the 90 seconds, if you choose to hang onto the feeling, then you are in the past instead of in the present.
Okay, so here is my recipe for dealing with those unwelcome, difficult feelings:
When we grasp onto a feeling and try to keep it there (such as joy or outrage), or wrestle with it to try to get rid of it (such as sadness or embarrassment), we are stuck. We are most alive when we can experience our feelings and then allow them to dissipate. So fully feel your joy, or fully feel your sadness, or fully feel your embarrassment for 90 seconds. Then notice how it dissipates. Notice how after 90 seconds, you are feeling something new. Clinging to one feeling is static; it dampens our ability to fully experience the present.
Birdwings, by 13th century Persian poet Rumi gives us beautiful imagery and lovely guidance for the flexibility we can cultivate in processing feelings:
Your grief for what you've lost lifts a mirror up to where you're bravely
working. Expecting the worst, you look, and instead, here's the joyful
face you've been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small
contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and
coordinated as birdwings.
Written by Tina Smelser, MFT
“I wish I could just have a big epiphany and see everything differently…”. In my work as a psychotherapist, more than once I have heard a client directly or indirectly express frustration about the hard work that it takes to make real, lasting changes in his or her life. I respond that in my experience, it usually takes small, gradual steps over time to really start seeing, feeling, and behaving in new ways.
It is no wonder, in this present-day culture of the “quick fix”, that we expect changes to happen quickly. Glancing through a women’s magazine while waiting for a haircut recently, I see ads that state, “30 seconds to radiant skin”, “5 minute workouts”, and “speedy suppers”. I even heard a late-night radio advertisement claim to “change your child’s problem behavior in one minute or less!”
I have had the fantasy of marketing my work with the statement, “real change takes time”, as an antidote to the dramatic promises of quick and easy transformation. When I half-jokingly mentioned this to a marketing friend of mine, he said, “you’d be wasting your money”. I guess I already knew that.
In pondering the question of epiphanies, I talked to some friends and colleagues about their experience of epiphanies; times when there was an illumination that resulted in a shift in the way they saw themselves, or their world. As I recount some of what I learned, I admit that my findings are not based on a large body of scientific research. I quote the friend of a friend who says, “every generalization that I’ve made in my life has been based on a sample of no more than seven”.
I heard about a range of epiphany experiences. Some people immediately recalled a specific, memorable, life-changing moment when everything became clear and their experience of themselves changed. Others spoke of several, smaller epiphany experiences where there were more subtle, yet very real shifts.
I noted that there were different conditions that seemed to enable people to be receptive to the epiphany; in some cases, being in nature was an important element, in another, being a part of a spiritual group or in the presence of a spiritual teacher. One person had a life-changing epiphany while on LSD. In most cases people were away from their everyday, fast-paced lives; even if only for an hour on a bodywork table or in a psychotherapy session. Sometimes it was during a transcendent period in life, such as the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, or a serious illness. Some experienced moments of deep clarity while walking, doing yoga, or engaging in more vigorous forms of exercise.
In myself and my clients, I have noticed moments of finally “getting” something that one has been exploring and working on for a long time. Perhaps one knows something intellectually, but the shift comes when one knows it on an emotional and physical level as well.
Unlike the “happily ever after” promise of the fairy tale, the changes that an epiphany brings are not just instantaneous and not just positive. Once the clear understanding arrives, it can often take quite some time to integrate the changes based on that understanding. Sometimes the changes may be very unsettling; for example, when one suddenly knows with certainty that he or she can no longer stay in a relationship, a job, or a town. The ripples from the epiphany can involve a great deal of pain and struggle, the type that are a necessary part of growth. It can also be painful to return to the challenges of daily life after having experienced the timeless, spiritually-connected quality of an epiphany.
It was inspiring for me to talk to people about their epiphany experiences; it seemed to bring them to a time of deep engagement with life. It is rewarding as a psychotherapist to serve as a witness to both the occasional grand and the frequent subtle epiphanies in the lives of my clients.
Written by Terry Potente, LCSW
Recently my husband and I took our grand kids aged 9 and 4 to the Academy of Sciences for a lovely day in the rain forest As we were about to leave, grandfather and granddaughter left to get the car and the 4 year old took off to see the penguins He is in a wonderful stage of adventure, going off and coming back to check in to his secure base. He is always in sight after hiding a second or two. But this time, the check in was interrupted. I had no idea where the penguins resided, having never been to that part of the museum. And by the time I found the penguins, the 4 yer old had slipped away to some other exhibit. For the first time, we had lost each other! Round and round I searched. No 4 year old in an orange shirt. I was hoping he was just around the corner, but not this time.
Now, I am not prone to drama and wild thoughts about abduction. He would make too much noise for sure if anyone tried to hijack him in the crowd . However it was a challenge to not panic and to stay focused. Finally I decided it was time to enlist aid and headed toward the security guard that magically appeared, in an orange vest. Just as I headed toward her, there was a flash of an orange shirt. There he was coming toward me. We saw each other at the same moment. What a deep breath of relief! We hugged and his words tumbled out: "I'm so glad I found you, I was just about ready to cry." Many hugs and soothing followed, really for each of us. It was a moment of very secure connection. And of course we talked about it and what to do to be safe.
This was a little trauma. A kind of upset that happens to everyone. Responses to little traumas vary with age and culture. As a child I may have heard much criticism and blame for getting lost, inconveniencing the grownups, being thoughtless or selfish. Or maybe even a: "don't be such a big baby." It took a long time to find the caring in that approach. Often the adults felt shame and self blame when things went wrong and projected it outward on kids. This is a microcosm of what can happen in big Trauma too. Shock, panic, insecure connection, shame and blame.
Therapy is really the process of reestablishing a secure connection. If there are unresolved little traumas or big Traumas, the connection can be restored in the healing of the therapeutic relationship, without shame or blame. When the secure connection is strong, we can explore and discover anew.