A Story: When I was 23 years old. I was on total emotional overload and breakdown. Thirty years ago. Wow. I had just moved from New York City back to SLC after receiving my Master’s Degree in Developmental Psychology from Teacher’s College, Columbia University. I took a job working at community mental health. I quickly starting seeing clients hour after hour. The clients were diverse. There were people who had chronic mental health conditions that were managed primarily with medication and social support called Day Treatment back then. And there were youngish women who had trauma, depression and suicidal ideation and men who had depression, bi-polar disorders, and histories of violence. There were lots of people with chronic trauma from childhood onward who were trying to feel better, work, and raise families. An average caseload at that time was 80 people and we had to spend 75-80% of our time doing face to face therapy. Usually I spent 32-38 hours a week doing therapy. How you ask? I have no idea. I am not sure how I got the job. I had no experience beyond working in a psychiatric hospital as an undergrad. The stories I heard and felt in my office were bone-chilling at times.
I had no idea how to deal with all the emotions that came up in me and that came toward me during those sessions. I don’t think I came to the job knowing how to work with my own emotions, let alone the emotions of other people who were suffering greatly. I shut down, I got depressed, I had uncontrollable crying spells. Did I mention I was a crisis worker too? When I couldn’t stop crying to go do my job as a crisis worker, I knew something was wrong. OK then. Therapy and 12 month course of meds and I began to be able to focus on learning how to work with my emotions in ways that lead to more heart opening and happiness. I have not had a depressive episode since that one I described from 30 years ago.
The Big Picture: I have spent the last 9 years translating what I learned in the 25 years I spent providing therapy; practicing meditation; studying neuroscience, attachment theory, and psychology; and pulling it all together into a simple but substantive program for personal and relationship healing. By healing I mean moving forward. Healing means improving our ability to live each day in alignment with our values; to build and sustain healthy, collaborative relationships; and to contribute to people and life around us in an uplifting way. All this positions us to attend to and solve the problems we face together in creative ways. I am passionate about all of that stuff. And I am overwhelmed with gratitude off and on throughout each day that this is how I get to spend my precious life. This does not mean that I am not grumpy sometimes and flawed (consistently). But I am doing exactly what I want to be doing and that is amazing to me.
For the first many years of my adulthood (ages 21-41) my life was very divided between two worlds: my meditation practice and my student and subsequent professional life. I would wake up, put on robes, go to the meditation hall and sit for 2 hours. Then I would take off the robes, shower, put on regular clothes, and go to school or work – and often do the same thing before bed at night only in reverse order. Sometimes I lived at the meditation center, sometimes I lived around the corner or a mile or so away.
Amazingly, my meditation practice and my work as a psychologist continued to feel quite separate – until one day when I was living in Taos, NM. I was living with my friend Joanna and her son Jan. We had a very small television set (14 inches maybe) that we pulled in and out of a closet when we wanted to watch something. I walked by it one day and I stopped in my tracks. I heard the voice of the Dalai Lama and saw him sitting in a chair surrounded by psychologists. It was a clip from one of the early years when he started meeting with psychologists to hear the results of their research about human emotions and brain functioning. In that clip, on that small TV screen, I saw and even felt my two streams coming together. The Dalai Lama had challenged psychologists to study positive emotions like compassion and happiness and empathy instead of just the negative emotions of sadness, aggression, depression, etc. And there he was on my TV screen in Taos, NM, meeting with psychologists to hear and discuss their findings.
This group is now called The Mind and Life Institute and meets every two years to report current findings in psychology and multiple other disciplines around contemplative practices (meditation, yoga, body awareness practices for starters). I have attended the last two conferences. Some 20 years after seeing that clip on TV, I have started to offer my version of integrating my two streams (meditation and healing) together in the form of teaching the Cultivating Compassion Training, of which I am a certified teacher. I believe in a simple, practical method of healing and growth that anyone can do in the context of their everyday life, and I call this Healthy Mind.