Brene Brown: Listening to Shame

I encourage you to watch her first Tedx speech “The power of vulnerability” I posted earlier…

Shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behavior. Brené Brown, whose earlier talk on vulnerability became a viral hit, explores what can happen when people confront their shame head-on. Her own humor, humanity and vulnerability shine through every word.

Vignettes Of The Past

I sit at the end of the bar,
A tattered copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley before me,
An ashtray overflowing with Camel Straight cigarette butts,
The fifth double Vodka-Tonic of the night resting upon a stained coaster,
Three shots of Jamison Irish Whiskey in a rocks glass,
I down a swallow of the whiskey, followed by a gulp of the Vodka-Tonic,
And finally a slow drag from my cigarette,
Silent pleasures of a life already lived.
~ Mark Bere Peterson (2009)

Trailhead

I gasp through the blood-caked lips of the sins of my past,
I wince reliving the same nightmare dreamscape,
The nightmare haunts me – over and over, I relive the visions,
The visions of my past indiscretions, visions I cannot deny –
They are who I was, who I am, who I will become.

A gasp, night sweats, daydreaming,
The knife blade caresses my throat,
The weight on the small of my back makes me wince,
My head jerked back, fingernails dig into my scalp,
My hair Entwined amongst grating fingers.

The foulness of his breath permeates my senses,
Nightmare tears of my consciousness cascade down my face,
His breath bathes my skin…filling every pore,
The breathing becomes short and rapid,
My mind preoccupied with pulsating groans.

My jaws are locked open in a silent scream,
A call for help which is destined never to be answered,
The sweat of my shame permeates my soul,
The tears of my horror drench my face,
The sins of my past conceived and made flesh.

A procession of nightmares flood my tightly clenched eyes,
Acquaintances of my past occupy the room,
I inhale deeply melting into the chair,
The room spins and liquefies,
Visions of my friends melt from my consciousness.

My eyes strain to conjure the acquaintances of my past,
A nightmare gaze fills my senses with the scene,
A close friend, a needle impaling her vein,
I strain as she fades from my sight, my reality,
A slap of the face, tears well in my eyes.

I scream into a silent non-listening void,
Wake up, I cry panting for breath,
My tears soak her cheeks during a final embrace,
Her pulse slowly fades in my arms,
Stop please wait, don’t fade away.

The sins of my past weigh down on my soul,
Each day I fight through the memories,
The reality of my past makes up who I am,
I clench my eyes tightly shut,
A sigh, a breath – moments from my past.
~ Mark Bere Peterson (2011)

Cutting: A Love Story

Long ago you made the choice, that first cut,
You found the pain incredible, the blood a release,
The cuts were shallow, hardly scratches really,
They healed quickly, not even a scar left behind.

A choice, a choice to isolate, a life in constant shame,
You lie to those closest and dearest to your heart,
Sometimes now they take months to heal,
Scars carved into your flesh for all to witness.

You’ll define your life as before and after cutting,
Terrified you’ll fear the touch of a friend,
Skin burning from the sweet release of your blood,
Wincing you’ll fear the tender touch of a friend.

The cuts spread, no longer constrained to your arms,
Deeper they grow week by precious week,
You’ll realize you’re losing all self-control,
Fear your next cut, love it, how deep will it be?

Your life revolving around the next chance to cut,
A razor blade hidden away in your wallet,
Will today be the day you cut too deep?
A day when the blood won’t stop, gasping, shaking.

Blood won’t stop flowing, ever down your arm,
Fearful, terrified a panic attack chokes your heart,
Alone, always alone, you’ll swear you’ll stop,
A sweet lie as the blood pools in your hand.

This is just the beginning of the romance,
You’ll learn to take care of your one true love,
Antibiotic cream, bandages, medical tape,
The cuts will grow wider, grow deeper.

Watching, hoping to find someone who understands,
Searching, the signs will be everywhere and nowhere,
Long sleeve shirts, bracelets, wristbands,
But their skin will be untouched, perfect, and flawless.

Isolating more and more, alone, always alone,
Your last cuts deeper, burning through the shame,
The relief doesn’t last nearly as long anymore,
You know you need to cut deeper, wider.

You dream of cutting, or just letting one person know,
You love, you hate the day you made the first cut,
Each time you pray for the strength to push harder,
Rolling up your sleeve, face-to-face with your one true love.
~ Mark Bere Peterson (2013)

A Guilt That Consumes

The criss-crossing clash of tiny dishes echo in my mind,
The self-orchestrated visions of my past resurface,
Times of glory, times of disgust and hate,
I scream in the darkness of my mind,
As the ether mask is placed over my mouth, choking my protests.

A guilt that consumes,
A guilt that devours,
Reaches down wrenching out my soul,
I shudder, my legs tremor,
My back stiffens,
A gasp released from my lungs.

I stare in disbelief at my guilt,
As it actualizes before me,
It twists, it turns and swirls,
Taking a perverse form before me,
I drop to my knees, body rigid,
Offering myself in prayer to my guilt, to my soul.

Do I deserve what I desperately require,
Is it fair to ask this of the world,
My mind spins to the ringing chorus of answers,
To each of my pertinent questions,
I cringe straining to make out their replies,
Is this my personal hell?

I formed and molded my private hell,
Out of each decision along my road,
Stretching back as far as I can remember,
“No,” I don’t deserve what I seek,
The voice echoing in my mind,
Whispers with a mocking laugh.

A laugh I shall not be soon to forget,
Mockingly the voices swirl within my mind,
I stumble from question to question,
All the while the laughing echoes,
Into the recesses of my vacant soul,
Tears flow down my ashen face.

My jaws are pried wide open in horror,
The ceiling spins, the walls melt away into darkness,
My eyes blink as the needle impales my vein,
Insecurity washes over and through me,
Will I succumb to the voices, will it wash hope away.
~ Mark Beré Peterson (2012)

Harvard Square

Alone in a crowded Harvard Square he once again is made flesh,
The fractures of my mind allowing this assault,
Frozen, trembling, submissive I stare into oblivion,
I choke, swallowing, sweating, gasping for breath,
Humanity rushes past me, around me, and over me in a mob,
No longer I stand in the present, but awoken into my nightmare,
Washed away twenty-three years past eroding my reality,
Grasping at the shreds of my sanity, it slips through my fingers,
The edge of the knife relentless, my focus, my reality,
“Throw yourself into it,” the voice screams in my mind,
The world before me melts, swirls and rises back up to greet me.

Time lapses, I rush into the oncoming traffic,
Clamoring for certainty I dive into the coffee bar,
Frantic my eyes dart back from the door to my hands,
Unable to breathe freely, all eyes burrow into me,
These unnamed souls know my every weakness, every secret,
Surrounded by strangers, overwhelmed by my passions,
The moments blur into minutes crawling ever forward,
My body violently tremors mixing with time and space,
I want to scream for it all to stop, for it all to end permanently,
Awash in the confusion of my eternal nightmares made flesh,
“Stop!” I sink into the unending cycles of my paranoia and psychosis.

~ Mark Bere Peterson (2013)

Night Terrors

Struggling to sleep – the night is an all too familiar refrain,
The ceaseless conversations overwhelming my mind,
His voice always piercing, always breaking through the din,
The laugh always mocking who I was, who I’ve become,
That face ever taunting, ever gloating, always judging,
I blink imploring for some release, some distraction,
Alas the eternal vision persists, mocking my sanity,
The eyes glaring, judging, satisfied at what I’ve become,
“Shut up!” The laugh, never allowing me a moment of solitude,
Clenching my eyes the eternal vision persists,
Failure, pathetic, weak – the labels swirl in my unquiet mind.

Lurching my body upright I stare through the blackness,
My breathing is short, shallow and tight in my chest,
My hands trembling, my eyes consumed with horror,
Swallowing hard I sense the ever present knife,
This time not a razor-edge between life and death,
But a choice between life and his domination of my sanity,
Why do I let him control my decisions, make me so weak,
How is it I make choices simply to defy the bastard,
Why am I overwhelmed with guilt and shame,
Every time I ask for help, set foot in the therapist’s office,
How is it that I believe he has won over me.

~Mark Bere Peterson (2013)

Schizoaffective Disorder, DBT, and Mindfulness

The day I sat there in my psychiatrist’s office the words that I had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder was both one of the scariest and best days of my life. Hearing schizo anything is frightening, it is one of those mental illnesses you are brought up to fear by our society. Schizophrenia is bad enough, but knowing I had those symptoms (hallucinations and delusions) as well as a mood disorder (major depression) seemed like the end of my life yet a relief at the same time. I finally had an answer to what those voices were that had plagued my head and living nightmare for years. Thus I began on my long journey to discovering the right cocktail of medications, the most effective form of therapy, and the support structure I needed. It was a long struggle which ended up leading me to a cocktail of three medications, additionally a combination of meditation, mindfulness, and DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) before I found true beginnings of progress. Before this occurred I would spend two six weeks sessions of partial hospitalization an all day outpatient therapy at a local mental hospital in a little over a year.

On a trip to Boston I was spending the afternoon at Harvard Square waiting to meet up with a friend. I was eating, having coffee, and visiting various bookstores all while admiring Harvard. A man mistaking me for a friend wrapped his arms around me from behind. I lost it. I don’t know any easier way to put it. The next thing I would know I was in a crowded Starbucks, a latte in front of me, and a gap of over an hour missing from my life. A blackout. To this day I have no idea how I got there, what I did for that hour, what had transpired. Piecing that hour back together is not what would truly frighten me though, that was my racing mind jumping from one delusion to the next each one a little more fantastic. In a matter of moments I went from being convinced that my friend had been in accident, then murdered, then all the patrons of the coffeehouse could read my mind, to implanting their thoughts and desires in my head. I had a conversation with someone who wasn’t there. A new kind of therapy was needed. I couldn’t go on living this way. That’s when I told my therapist I wanted to up my meds and try DBT.

First question first, what is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is no longer just for practitioners of Zen and Buddhism but has moved into the mainstream Mental Health counseling. It has become one of the primary techniques employed among many therapists and coupled with meditation has shown tremendous amounts of improvements in otherwise non-responsive patients. As science furthers more and more we are seeing them recognize the benefits of Zen in daily practice. As NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) describes it, “While the combination of therapy and medication is crucial to recovery, the addition of self-awareness tools and skills can also be beneficial. Whether you are just beginning your recovery or are further along on your journey, the holistic practices can be an excellent complement to therapy and medication.”

While many treatment programs employ the use of mindfulness, I will focus on DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) in my analysis. So what is DBT? “Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), is a comprehensive cognitive-behavioral treatment that was originally developed to treat chronically suicidal individuals suffering from borderline personality disorder (BPD). DBT has been found especially effective for those with suicidal and other multiply occurring severely dysfunctional behaviors. Research has shown DBT to be effective in reducing suicidal behavior, psychiatric hospitalization, treatment dropout, substance abuse, anger, and interpersonal difficulties,” (behavioraltech.org). So what exactly does all that mean? It is a non-judgmental way of the patient accepting that they have a problem with how they think, and rather than judge it, they can make changes to make their thinking more balanced using mindfulness as one of the primary techniques.

What is mindfulness within this context? The best and simplest definition I have come across is, “doing one thing at a time, in the present moment, with your full attention, and with acceptance,” (DBT Made Simple). This can be further broken down into two parts for the patient. First, awareness and focusing on the present moment. The second part is acceptance, and this is the part that seems to be overlooked. This requires not judging what you are doing mindfully. A large percentage of patients respond well to this primarily, in my opinion, because they are taking control of their mind. Most patients, as is the case with most people in general spend far too much time in the past reliving negative things and mindfulness is a way to put a stop sign up to this harmful cycle.

How is mindfulness employed? There are a multitude of ways this is employed in your everyday life, but I will briefly cover seven of them:
1. Counting breaths. Count your breaths up to ten. One on the inhale and two on the exhale and so on. When you find your mind has wandered, simply return to counting your breath without judgment.
2. Observing sounds. Sitting silently focus your mind on any sounds which you hear: the sound of your breath, the traffic outside, the air-conditioner, etc. When you catch your mind wandering, take note of it without judgment and return to observing sounds.
3. Observing an object. Pick an object, any object. Examine the object with all of your five senses. Touch it. Smell it. Take note of any sound it makes when you move it. When you mind wanders, simply bring your attention back to the object.
4. Observing your thoughts in a cloud. Also could be called labeling your thoughts. You imagine yourself lying in a field of grass looking up at the sky. In each cloud is a thought and as it floats by you label what kind of thought it is without judging yourself for having that thought. For instance if you think this is a stupid exercise, that would be an anger thought. If you think how will I pay my house payment next month, that would be a worry thought.
5. Focusing on a thought. Pick a meaningful thought or short sentence and focus on the thought as you breathe. For instance if you think wise as you breathe in and think mind as you breathe out. When your mind wanders return to your thought without judging yourself.
6. Being the gatekeeper to your mind. This is more simply observing your thoughts. As a gatekeeper would watch people coming through a gate, you will simply experience and observe each thought as it passes over you without judging it. Experience thoughts and emotions as they come to you, do not try to block them. When your mind wanders or you feel yourself trying to stop thoughts simply return to the practice of observing them without judging the thoughts or yourself.
7. Being in your body. Quietly sitting, focus on the different sensations you experience in your body. For example, the feel of your bottom on the chair or your arms against the armrests. Take notice of any emotions you might be feeling, such as worry over a presentation you have at work next week. When your mind wanders simply return your thoughts to your body without judgment.

I went through a litany of excuses each week with my therapist as to why I wasn’t applying what we went over in our sessions. Throughout this period my symptoms were getting worse, I was in partial hospitalization programs due to my poor coping techniques including among other things self harm – slamming my head against the wall and routinely cutting myself with a razor blade, suicidal thoughts, ideation, and plans. Eventually though due to my therapist’s dedication and persistence things began to slowly improve. It’s now been over two years since I employed any of those negative coping methods and I owe a great deal of that to finding a therapist I trust, have a connection with and was dedicated enough to believe in me. The practice of mindfulness takes patience and dedication and the litany of excuses not to practice are endless, but I will attempt to debunk a few of the more common ones.

“It makes me more anxious”

Some people, especially people with anxiety issues, find practicing mindfulness increases their anxiety. This is an understandable reaction, but not enough to give up on the practice. It is often found that the exercises focusing on breathing cause the most anxiety. Simply focus on the non-breathing focused exercises to begin and once you become comfortable with mindfulness practice come back to the breathing exercises.

“I just can’t do it”

What exactly does the person mean by this? Is it just too hard? Are they having difficulties concentrating? Do they believe to be successful thoughts and feeling never intrude? Many people say they can’t do it when they just mean it is really hard. Truth is practicing mindfulness is a hard skill and the only way to get better is to keep pursuing it.

“I don’t have time”

This is one of the simplest problems to fix. You can practice mindfulness anytime, doing anything. If what you mean is you don’t have time for formal practice, let me remind you some of the exercises only take a few to ten minutes. It is better to spend 10 minutes fully dedicated than an hour half-heartedly. Try setting aside 10 minutes in the morning to practice mindfulness.

“I can’t stay focused”

Mindfulness is simply about staying in the present moment with acceptance. Please throw any other expectations out the window. The object of practicing mindfulness for many is to feel better. It is with this in mind that we reach a paradox. To feel better you must practice mindfulness, but if you focus on feeling better you have trouble staying focused on mindfulness. So throw away the goal while practicing mindfulness and you will achieve that goal.

“I fall asleep”

Some people find they drift off when they practice mindfulness. If the person has trouble sleeping this can be a good thing, simply practice mindfulness of part of your preparing for bed routine. There are several factors to consider if this is a common issue:

~ Do you need more sleep? If you are sleep deprived your body will want to take advantage of this quiet time.
~ Is there a better time of day to practice? If at the end of the day you are always exhausted, simply begin practicing in the morning.
~ Did you eat a big meal shortly before practicing? Watch out for a food coma!
Is there a different position you can try? If you practice mindfulness lying down, simply try it is a sitting position.
~ Are you closing your eyes? Keep your eyes open while practicing.

“You have to plan for the future”

Some people believe that practicing mindfulness means you never consider the past or the future. This simply is not the case, but you may be able to do those things mindfully whereas you do not currently. Often planning for the future isn’t planning at all, but instead it is worrying. Mindfulness actually helps you in planning for the future by keeping you grounded in reality of the present moment.

It’s been a long journey for me over just a few years since I came to the conclusion that self-care was my full time job. I no longer look to find blame for this condition, but accept this is my reality. I now meditate for a minimum of two hours a day, and if I miss a session I notice it the next day. I came to the acceptance that I need a maximum dose of an antidepressant, a high dose of an antipsychotic, and anxiety medication. I periodically meet with my therapist, but not nearly as often as I used to. She saved my life and I am grateful. I keep a gratitude journal and pull it out when depression is rearing its head. I attend support groups as much as I feel I need them to keep grounded and help others who are where I was a few years ago. I now have a core group of friends who understand my condition and I lean on them when I need to. Am I cured? Absolutely not, but I am no longer ignoring my condition or looking for the answer in the bottom of a bottle of whiskey. Daily I remind myself how far I’ve come and damn it I’m proud of the hard work I’ve put in. The other day the friend I’ve leaned on the hardest, the one that was there through my partial hospitalizations, he’s seen me at my worst and he sent me a short note, “You knew what, the guy you are today is way different than the guy we all met. Congratulations, you overcame so much. I’m so glad you’re enjoying life.” He’s absolutely right for I am enjoying life. Finally after all those years I’m living, as opposed to merely existing.

Zen Glossary

Bodhisattva – An awakened or enlightened being who renounces the experience of nirvana in order to remain with unenlightened beings and work for the liberation of all.

Ch’an – The Chinese word for zen.

Densho – The large bell used to announce services and lectures.

Dharma – The dharma is thought of variously as the Way, the Path, Cosmic Law and Universal Truth. The dharma is often thought of as the teachings of the Buddha, and this is a legitimate view, but it’s important to note that the Buddha didn’t create the dharma; it was always there.

Dojo – Literally: the room or hall (do-) of the way (-jo). Dojo is often used interchangeably with zendo, however, the ‘way’ referred to by ‘dojo’ does not necessarily have to be zen.

Dokusan – A private interview between a student and a zen teacher or master.

Eightfold Path – The Eightfold path was given by the Buddha as part of the Four Noble Truths and as such, as the main way out of suffering.

right understanding
right thought
right speech
right action
right livelihood
right effort
right mindfulness
right meditation
Four Noble Truths – The Buddha’s motivation for leaving his home and taking up a spiritual life was to understand duhkha (suffering) and find a solution to suffering. The Four Noble Truths are the answer that came to the Buddha as part of his enlightenment.

All life is suffering.
The cause of suffering is desire.
Suffering can be ended.
The way to end suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.
Gassho – A mudra or bow with palms together, it signifies gratitude.

Gatha – A short sutra.

Jukai – Taking the precepts, taking refuge in the precepts or taking up the way of the bodhisattva

Karma – The Buddhist doctrine of cause and effect. The effect of an action taken today (or thought or word spoken, etc.) might not occur today. The effect, whether good or bad, may come to pass many years from now or even in a subsequent lifetime.

Kensho – An enlightenment or awakening experience.

Kinhin – Walking meditation.

Koan – Originally: a public record. A zen paradox, question or episode from the past that defies logical explanation. Koans are sometimes thought of as zen riddles, but this is not entirely accurate since most riddles are intended to be solved through reason.

Kyosaku – Wake-up stick or encouragement stick. Used during long periods of zazen (mainly during sesshin) to strike practitioners on the back or on the part of the shoulders close to the neck.

Mahayana – Literally: “Great Vehicle”. One of the three main branches of Buddhism.

Mindfulness – Awareness; remembering that all things are interrelated; living in the present moment.

Mokugyo – The red lacquered drum used as a “heartbeat” for chants.

Mondo – A short zen dialogue between master and student, usually from the past. The student asks a question that is troubling him or her, and the master responds not with theory or logic, but instead in a way that encourages the student to reach a deeper level of perception.

Mudra – A position of the body which is symbolic of a certain attitude or activity, such as teaching or protecting. Although mudra technically refers to the whole body and the body does not have to be that of the Buddha, in common usage this term most often refers to the hand positions chosen for statues of the Buddha.

Nirvana – Literally: cessation or extinction. Although nirvana is the ultimate goal of many Buddhists it should never be confused with the Western notion of heaven. Instead, nirvana simply means an end to samsara. In the Mahayana tradition, the bodhisattva eschews nirvana until all sentient beings are saved.

Oryoki – This has come to mean a certain kind of formal, ritualized eating, but the word oryoki actually refers to the specific collection of napkins, utensils and especially bowls used for this style of eating.

Raihai – Also known as deep bows or prostrations.

Rinzai – One of the two main schools of zen still active in Japan,

Rohatsu – The day set aside to commemorate the enlightenment of the Buddha, which traditionally is celebrated on the eighth of December.

Roshi – Venerable master of zen.

Samsara – In Buddhist thought this is the continuing cycle of birth, death and rebirth. All beings are trapped in this unpleasant cycle until they reach enlightenment.

Samu – Work Practice.

Sangha – Zen family, community or group practicing together.

Satori – A very deep state of meditation in which notions of duality, self and indeed all concepts drop away.

Sensei – A recognized teacher of zen.

Sesshin – Most easily translated as a meditation retreat.

Shikantaza – “Just sitting.” An intense form of zazen where no mental aids such as counting the breath are used.

Soto – One of the two main schools of zen in Japan.

Shuso – The head student for a practice period.

Soji – A brief period of mindful work

Sutra – A Buddhist canon written in prose form.

Vesak – The celebration of the Buddha’s birth, which traditionally is set in May on the day of the full moon.

Zabuton – A rectangular, flat cushion used for zazen, usually found underneath the zafu.

Zazen – Seated still meditation, usually on a cushion on the floor. Unlike meditation done in some other spiritual traditions, zazen usually does not involve concentrating one’s mind on a subject, nor is the aim to blank out one’s mind completely.

Zafu – A round cushion used for zazen.

Zendo – Meditation hall.