loving kindness

Fall Backward: Honoring the Call to Rest

When autumn first starts to yawn it is contagious and I begin to feel the invitation to slow down, unwind, retract my energy and attention. I start anticipating the sheer, bare stillness of winter solstice with relief. My body takes cues from the yellowing tips of leaves, the morning’s snappish air, the sunlight slipping away just slightly. The planet twirls and spins and this is why seasons change and when I am in resonance with these natural signals to decelerate, I typically find myself busier than at any other time of year. In past years, I’ve dreaded winter, resisted adjusting my pace and ended up SAD! This year, holidays and all, I’m resolved to claim my quiet space, to have meaningful inner dialogues and rest in the verdant dark.

Fall flew by for me. I had been intending to neatly wrap up my summer writing project. It was late October when I mentioned this to a friend who said, “Summer is over and so is that project! What’s next?” That last part was nice to hear. It told me she is confident that I will keep finding new inspiration, especially if I set that intention and keep it with me like a compass.

I visited Capitol Reef National Park in Utah shortly after that conversation. I spent three days hiking the dry washes of slot canyons, my attention merging and twisting through towering white and orange sandstone cliffs. In those narrow and silent spaces, I felt contained and safe. The dense yet luminous surfaces existed as a boundary between my need for solitude and the pressing demands of my life. I let the canyons do their formidable work of sentinels as I soaked up the last of the season’s warm sunlight.

While hiking Cohab Canyon I rested on a flat surface of a ledge. Sounds were unapparent, only slight movements now and then in the environment, which I was able to perceive only after settling into a deep inner stillness. It seemed absolutely essential to meet that motionlessness, something I couldn’t resist doing and had to honor. So I sat in meditation, blessed now and then by a nimble, easy breeze as it travelled through the sandstone corridor. That light wind was full of a coolness that felt like a blessing or a grace.

A ladybug (in the desert!) landed on my hand and when I put a drop of water from my bottle there, she drank it. She stayed for a few minutes in my palm and for a moment, she and I were both the center of the universe and nothing at all. The slight weight of her was a focus in the immense vacuum of the canyon, an anchor in the transcendence and transparency of self. She then walked to the top of my finger, spread her odd shell-like wings and flew off.

Remembering that moment calms me still— has imprinted a sense of safety and connection in my consciousness just as the waters and time engraved these strange spaces in the land.
After my meditation, I found a pool of rainwater, hidden beneath the ledge where I had just rested. It explained the increased activity of birds, lizards, chipmunks and ladybugs I had begun to notice in this part of the canyon. Tiny tadpoles were gestating in the leftover rain and I wondered at how we had all intuitively constellated around that tiny pool of life-giving water.I mostly marveled at how I ended up in the mix— grateful for some wisdom in the body that resonates automatically with the elements and the seasons— amazed again and again each time I realize I am wholly interconnected and alive and aware.

a pool of rain
 
—hidden—
but sensed by all
the pressure of the desert
<an arid lack & willfullness of water>
……..
yet here are hundreds of tadpoles
a flurry & commotion deep in the silence
where my eyes have adjusted
to this unperceived world, now
……..
I am swimming in a puddle
in the bottom of (what was) the ocean
in the galaxy at night
……..
from my dark and spacious winter dreams
I’m gathering words
reminders of our connection,
of our past and our future
together, friends
(and all beings everywhere)
-Renee Podunovich, 2015

Oranges or Rain: Choices in Perspective

When it rains, it pours. Or so the saying goes. Life gives us too much sometimes. When it rains, I’ll go to the garden anyway. I’ll sit indoors at the Orangerie, a light filled space housing walls of plants and potted citrus trees and which is filled with the scent of Neroli from the orange blossoms.

In the rain, the fragrance garden smells divine. The bees sleep on petals, their business slowed by the cool, damp air. In the rain, an umbrella becomes a miracle of invention, colors saturate— the hues and shades are pop art. Light reflects on puddles and dances freely.

Today in the rain, I contemplate silver linings. Did you know that beyond its sharp, biting leaves, thistle flowers have the most amazing fragrance? Like this, is there meaning to our suffering? Is there an opportunity in crisis?

Famous psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl states, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms— to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” –Man’s Search for Meaning

He witnessed first hand the unusual and cruel circumstances of Nazi concentration camps, and describes how some people would still choose kindness, compassion, dignity. For example, giving away already inadequate rations to help someone perceived as worse off. They refused to be dehumanized by inhumane acts. They chose a different storyline than despair.

“But is there really any meaning or do we make it all up?” ask you postmodern thinkers. Creating narratives from the events of our lives, including finding meaning in hardship, is a defining feature of being human. Whether they are “true” or not, choosing what course that narrative takes, especially during difficult events, is empowering and shifts us away from hopelessness and despair. It is the choice that is empowering.

Resiliency means “to bounce back” and one way to do this is to keep finding a way back to what we do have control over: our thoughts, feelings and actions in any given circumstance.
I believe the silver lining in hardship IS our ability to find one. For example, I have been most open-hearted during times of immense grieving and clients tell me the same. Suddenly I am aware of the fragility of life, of another’s pain, or the delicate and fleeting beauty I may tend to overlook.
There are so many cliches about getting through bad times; what doesn’t kills you…, when life gives you lemons…, adversity is your friend, etc. These cognitive strategies are meant to keep us going. We can also ask, “Where do I have control? What can I change? What can I accept and let go?” And can all the rest of it just remain a mystery—unknown and fantastic?

Silver Thistle
when rain & wind
become a chill on skin,
leave the bees to sleep on purple thistle flowers
& go to the Orangerie
with its potted trees, blossoms & oranges.
the smell of Neroli fills the humid air—
let this fragrance console you.
Find that fragrance now.
Don’t settle for just an orange
with out considering the mystery
of waxy blooms that fill a space with joy.

-Renee Podunovich, 2015

Build Positive Awareness: Remember the Good Feelings

“I’ve been able to show that fear closes down our minds and our hearts, whereas positive emotions literally open our minds and hearts… they really change our mindsets and our biochemistry” –Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology, University of North Carolina

In my counseling practice, I encourage clients to bring awareness to positive states of mind in equal proportion to their difficulties and distress. It is important to draw on all available resources in difficult times, and being able to tap in to inner resources is a valuable coping skill. In this series of blog posts, I will focus on specific, practical skills for increasing awareness of positive states such as happiness, safety, calmness, compassion and connectedness.

In the book “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom”, Dr. Rick Hanson states,“When you change your mind, your brain changes, too.” Brain research shows that “mental activity actually creates neural structures” and those can be formed around positive or negative ideas. Furthermore, we can be involved in that outcome.

One way to feel more optimistic, especially during difficult times, is to Imagine Past Positive States. This means that when we focus on good memories, positive feelings arise and can be enhanced to help us feel better in the present moment. Even if the positive experience was brief, the positive emotional content exists in the memory.

We often think our memory exists in our “minds” but a faster way to access memories and associated positive emotional states is through body memory. Somatic therapies that focus on integrating mind/body awareness, such as EMDR therapy, can be effective in building what I call “inner strengths and resources”.

In fact, an introductory period of building inner resources is an important step in helping people address the more difficult emotional content related to trauma. In order to effectively process distressing emotional memories and not become overwhelmed, it is important that a person be able to experience feelings of safety, confidence, and the ability to relax and calm down when distressed. This is achieved by direct experience of such positive feelings, using memory and visualization, and is enhanced by the bilateral stimulus of the EMDR therapy.

Practice: Imagine Past Positive States & Enhance Them

Remember a time when you felt safe, relaxed and calm. Thinking of a specific place might help conjure these feelings or remembering a past event. With your eyes closed, give your mind time to bring up an appropriate image. Don’t worry about getting it “right” or that it may not “make sense”.

Using visual imagery skills, start to observe the scene in more detail, noting colors, sounds, whether you are alone or if there is a positive presence there with you. As the scene becomes more vivid, start to find a few positive words that describe the place such as “safe, calm, relaxing”.

Using somatic awareness skills, start to notice sensations in the body such as tingling, heaviness, warmth, coldness, tightness or tension. Notice how body sensations change as you focus on the positive memory. You might notice your tension lessening and a sense of relaxation and calm arising.

Once you feel the positive state, enhance it with the EMDR technique developed by Lauren Parnell of “resource tapping”.  To do it, tap your fingertips to your knees, alternating from one knee to the other, to create bilateral stimulus. This alerts both hemispheres of the brain to take note of the positive feelings, thoughts and body sensations and is “a clinically recognized system for tapping both sides of the body to release emotional and physical distress, build resilience, aid in healing, and calm the body on a deep physiological level.”

Find out more about “Boosting Positivity Ratio” at the Action for Happiness website.

The Medicine of Kindness

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” – the Dalai Lama


I encourage clients to experience positive states of mind in equal proportion to their difficulties and distress. In this series of blog posts, I will focus on specific, practical skills for increasing positive states of mind such as happiness, safety, calmness, compassion and connectedness.

I am amazed as I witness again and again, the inner capacity for healing and wellness that my clients discover in their therapy process. Every person has innate inner strengths that emerge when most needed.  It’s as if we are designed for resiliency and this innate quality allows us to process and heal from distress and move forward feeling lighter and less burdened.

Recent research into brain functioning has confirmed we are born with a capacity for kindness because we are hard-wired for love and compassion. Acts of kindness are an extension of this natural compassion. Being kind requires us to notice the needs and feelings of others. Noticing those around us with compassion rather than judgment allows us to feel connected to others. Belonging and feeling connected to others is a basic human need and through acts of kindness, that need is filled.

Practice: A Kindness a Day (kindness toward others)

Our compassion is innate, but we may need to fine-tune it by practicing a simple remedy:  acts of kindness. Studies on the benefits of kindness are numerous and show that kind acts have biological, emotional and social benefits. Acts of kindness can be spontaneous such as smiling or saying thank you or holding a door open for a stranger. The Action for Happiness group recommends that acts of kindness don’t have to be random, we can “plan for happiness” by making a list of small action to take in daily life.

Practice: Find a Success Each Day (kindness toward self)

Directing kindness and compassion toward the self is a tremendous wellness skill, one that takes continual practice. Our self-talk can be incredibly negative. When I worked for the substance abuse prevention program Dare to be You at CSU, this was a skill we practiced weekly in our groups. Parents and their children would report one thing they felt successful about from their day. We were looking for small successes, encouraging the idea that if we wait to feel successful for big things like promotions or a new car, we might be waiting a long time. The practice is to notice the small things such as making it to work on time, facing a challenge, making time for relaxation, etc.

Sometimes this activity would evoke tears from participants whose day had been so stressful that it was frustrating and seemingly impossible to make the shift to the positive. What started happening after a few weeks is that participants would come to group with a success already in mind. This means their awareness habits started shifting from noticing the negative to focusing on events that they felt good about.

Take a minute to listen to this talk by Dr. David Hamilton, author and messenger of happiness. He uses the image of dropping a pebble into a pond as a metaphor for an act of kindness that ripples all the way to the center where it makes a lily pad bob on the water and smile.