Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Have you ever noticed how much time we spend in our heads replaying bad memories and worrying about future "calamities" that haven't even happened yet?

And if this isn't enough stuff to be constantly wrestling with in our minds, we actually let all this stuff influence how we act in the present ... right here, right now.

For example, we begin to think about an upcoming meeting with our boss and start ruminating about previous meetings, especially the difficult moments of those meetings. This in turn gets us to project similar difficult moments onto the meeting we are about to have and relate to those moments as if they are actually happening right now.

Pretty soon we are cooking up a strategy to avoid similar difficult moments in our upcoming meeting with our boss based on these projections. It's as if our mind is some kind of crystal ball that sees into the future. And we rely on this magic crystal ball over and over. Maybe that's where the term "magical thinking" comes from? Who knows?

Have you ever stopped to wonder how accurate these projections actually turn out to be? Anyway ... hold that thought.

Here is another way of looking at this. It's as if your negative thoughts, emotions, memories, etc., are passengers on a bus. This is a very important bus. It's called OUR LIFE. We spend our time trying to drive the bus in the direction of those things we value in life; e.g., having a loving relationship with someone, being a good parent, enjoying time with our family, having a fulfilling career, feeling spiritually connected to life, etc., etc.

As we drive around, we pick up passengers in the form of memories, images, thoughts, feelings, etc. There is just one little hitch though ... these passengers we keep picking up ... they get on the bus, but they never get off ... they kind of remind me of that line from the Eagles' song Hotel California ... "you can check out, but you can never leave" ... we wish these passengers would check out AND leave but they never do ... you get the idea.

Ok, so we are driving through life in our bus, moving in the direction of those things we value and we have all these passengers with us. Now, everything would be cool except for one thing. Some of these passengers we pick up try to intimidate us into going where they tell us we need to go rather than where we want to go.

For example, let's say we want to ask our boss for a raise. Just as we begin to drive our bus in that direction our negative thoughts, I call them "thugs," run up from the back of the bus and say something like, "what are you crazy ... don't you remember how you screwed up last time you were in a meeting with your boss ... you can't ask for a raise you fool ... don't be such a putz!"

All too often, we actually listen to these "thug-thoughts" and avoid going where we want to go. We also start to become increasingly caught up in our struggle with them. The more we listen to them, the more they bully and cajole us. At some point, we may get so fed up with them that we even try to throw them off the bus. But that doesn't work either.

Why? Because the rule is that once they get on the bus, they never get off. Remember? And besides, stopping the bus to deal with them takes us away from the valued direction we were trying to go in the first place.

Over time, things start to get out of hand and the bus route becomes narrower and narrower. Before long we get to the point where we seem to just be driving around in circles. Why? Because the "thugs" don't want us to go anywhere other than where they tell us to go. They really don't have a desired direction of their own ... they just don't want us to go where we want to go. Why should they? ... they're just thoughts.

However, if we are lucky, we just might notice that in spite of all their threats, they never actually do anything to take direct control of the bus or where it is going. Why? Because they are just thoughts ... how can something as immaterial as a thought move matter; i.e. the bus. All they can do is scare us into driving the bus in the direction they think it should go.

In fact, we might notice that the only one who actually has control over the direction the bus is taking is the bus driver ... that would be US!

Once we get it that we are the only ones who can actually drive the bus regardless of what our thoughts tell us, we are free to go wherever we want to in life.

Will the thugs still try to influence us? Yes, of course ... that's their job. Do we have to listen to them? Nope ... not if we don't want to. Can they hurt us in some way? ... No not really although we will have to put up with their whining now and again.

So come on thugsters ... everyone on board ... we are going for a ride. Where to you ask? Oh don't worry about that ... unless of course you want to ... just sit back and relax ... if you behave yourselves, I'll stop and pick up some cake and we'll have a little snack together. Why not ... it's time to celebrate this journey called MY LIFE.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


I recently had the privilege of being trained in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, otherwise known as ACT, at the Togus VA Hospital in Augusta, Maine by Dr. Kevin Polk and his colleagues. Dr. Polk and his staff provide a five day, 13 session group treatment program for veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

ACT is a mindfulness and acceptance-based form of psychotherapy based on a contextual understanding of language and cognition. The basic idea behind ACT is that human psychological suffering is largely due to our tendency to fuse our identities with verbal descriptions and evaluations of our behavior. We come to believe that we are what our verbal descriptions and evaluations say we are. For example, when we experience the feelings, thoughts and related images of a depressed mood we fuse our identity with verbal descriptions of those feelings taking them to be the literal truth of our identity. So rather than saying that we are having a depressive thought, feeling, etc., we conclude, "I am depressed."

Once we have fused with our thoughts in this way we take them to be literal statements of our self identity when in fact they are nothing more than verbal descriptions of thoughts. In addition, the culture is constantly giving us the message that psychological health and well being requires that we get rid of our negative psychological experiences like the feelings, thoughts, etc., associated with depression.

The argument goes like this ... I am depressed. ... I won't be able to function well and be happy unless I get rid of my depression. ... I must find a way to get rid of my depression. ... until my depression is gone, I won't be able to have a meaningful life.

Part of the problem with this view of difficult internal experiences and our sense of self is based on what has been called the RULE OF THE MIND. In the world outside of our skin we can get rid of things we no longer want. For example, if we don't want a jelly donut, we can simply throw it away. However, try to not think of a jelly donut after someone tells you not to. It's impossible. As soon as you say to yourself, "don't think of a jelly donut," guess what? You immediately think of one.

In the same way, as soon as you try to use your mind to get rid of your depressive thoughts, feelings, etc., guess what? You evoke and elicit them. So the RULE OF THE MIND says, if you don't want a difficult feeling, thought, image, etc., you've got it!

So now what do we do? Well here is the good news. Your thoughts, feelings and associated images really can't hurt you. The only thing that can hurt you is your behavior. For example, in an attempt to get rid of depressed feelings you can engage in the behavior of drinking. The effects of alcohol will temporarily suppress those feelings. Unfortunately, they haven't gone anywhere. As soon as you sober up, they are still there waiting for you. You really haven't gotten rid of them at all. The alternative is to simply accept those feelings as "things" that come and go, like clouds in the sky, and move (take action; i.e., behave) in a valued life direction like having a fulfilling career. So rather than waiting for "your depression" to finally and completely be resolved, you start engaging in those behaviors that will move you towards your life value of having a fulfilling career. For instance, you start looking at the classified ads, polishing up your resume, contacting a career counselor, etc., even as you experience feelings of depression.

Yes ... you can experience feelings of depression AND have a valued life. Why, because you can control your behavior and take the steps necessary to move in a valued direction even if you can not control the appearance of your depressive thoughts. You just learn to take those thoughts with you as you move in a valued life direction.

There is an old Zen story that points to the truth of the RULE OF THE MIND. It can be found in the Gateless Gate, a collection of Zen koans compiled by Mumonkan:

Bodhidharma sat in zazen facing the wall. The Second Patriarch, who had been standing in the snow, cut off his arm and said, "Your disciple's mind is not yet at peace. I beg you Master, please put it to rest." Bodhidharma said, "Bring me your mind and I will put it to rest." The Second Patriarch said, "I have searched for my mind but can not find it." Bodhidharma said, "I have completely put it to rest for you."

Monday, February 2, 2009


I worked for 30 years in the field of residential services for children and youth ... these are the kids that are no longer able to live with their families ... many of them had been bouncing around from placement to placement from an early age often averaging 5-6 placements over the span of 10 years ... the so-called "throw away" kids.

It is a known fact that children and youth in residential treatment programs are at high risk for suicidal ideation, gestures and attempts. In one large residential treatment center I worked at in the Midwest, two adolescent boys took their own lives almost one year to the day of each other ... both lived in the same group home although they never met each other.

During my career in residential services, I was in positions of responsibility and on call 24/7 to handle crisis situations which arise almost on a daily basis.

I was often called in to conduct a lethality assessment to determine whether a youth was actively suicidal and needed to be hospitalized for their own safety. I spent many hours of my career looking into the eyes of kids who had given up hope and were on the verge of taking their own lives.

I remember a particular youth I was called in to assess after he was caught trying to swallow a bottle of aspirin. It turned out that I didn't have to hospitalize him and after I returned home from the call, I wrote this verse:

Stay With Us

I spoke with him at home today
To decide if he could stay
He sat quietly and still
Knowing what I would say

He said he never meant to kill
It was for attention and a thrill
Things aren't always as they appear
Ending it all with pills

Within his eyes I saw the fear
A hollow look devoid of tear
Survivor of a dark and painful past
From a childhood twisted year after year

A need for love so vast
So many dreams already smashed
Another chance to make it last
Hold on to us hard and fast

It has been many years now since I last saw him ... he was twelve then so he would be about 37 now if he made it. I am hoping he did.

Teenage suicide is a major problem for the children and youth of this country and the single highest cause of death among our kids. It is important that we know what causes kids to want to harm themselves and how we can respond to them when they become depressed, angry and suicidal. Their lives depend on us.