The Power of Experiential Psychotherapy in Nature

15FF1A18-BDC2-4478-9899-7B86CC300D43

Written by Diana Justl, MA, MFT

I’m often blown away by my sessions in nature. Therapy sessions in the office are powerful, but something about taking time to connect with the natural world opens the client to a larger perspective that heals in a more powerful way. Here is a recent session I led with a client. Permission has been granted to share his experience, no identifying information is included to protect his confidentiality.

We have been working on issues of addictions. Meeting at the trailhead, we walk into the beautiful valley outside of San Francisco, tucked into the rolling hills near the rugged coast. I always explore these terrains beforehand, asking the land to reveal places of healing where I can do my work with others. We walk down the trail we’ve been many times before, off the beaten path to a tucked away spot away from the main trail that draws the activity of others. We walk in mindfulness, listening and opening to the land and its inhabitants, their unique messages guide our journey. On journeys before, we have met baby coyotes, a tranquil bobcat, families of quail, hawk, Merlins and other animals revealing messages as we open perception to the vast natural world and its teachings.

This time quail and bird-like clouds in a vast azure sky stand out. A rabbit that reminds of anxiety and working with fear. We check in as we walk along the trail, stopping along the way to listen and see what unfolds in the natural world. The client speaks of his recent work with addictions, what has worked for him since our last session in moderating alcohol use, and what blocks him from advancing to the next stage of change. We name his ancestors and family history of using alcohol to numb but also to celebrate and bond. A mixed purpose. We speak of intentionality, working with alcohol like a sacred sacrament to satisfy this historical thirst, to quench what he feels is insatiable inside of him.

We find a spot to settle into, held in a meditative meadow in the containment of the rolling, rugged hills. There are picnic benches, but no other signs of humans. I guide him into a meditation, honouring the spirits of the land, the elements and the directions, a blend of ancient earth based practice to “call in” support. I ask what is most important for him, what wants his attention today? We use this as a meditative inquiry, not as a question that the mind can answer, but a question that is dropped into a vast well of knowing and unknowing. Like a zen koan, this question is presented as an offering to pure awareness, inspiring some message from his depth of being. He says slowly with purpose, “I want to know what’s good for me…and to practice listening to my inner knowing.”

We move into a Hakomi session to explore his addictive impulses and what his psyche wants to reveal about them to bring healing.

In a deep state of mindfulness, he feels a tightness in his throat. I immerse him in that sensation; what are it’s qualities… it’s temperature, texture, what is it made of and connected to? He feels it as molten metal, seeing a part of himself holding the rod that grips his own throat. I ask to “take it over,” a Hakomi intervention in which the therapist takes on the mechanism that occurs in the body so that the client no longer has to do it. They can bypass this habit and begin to study what’s at its source, creating distance from an unconscious, maladaptive action or behavior. My hands become the gripping as I place them gently around his throat. I tell him he doesn’t have to hold this grip anymore, my hands can do it for him. He breathes a huge breathe of relief as he lets go of holding his throat in this way. He says he sees the part of himself that holds the rod, crying. He embraces that part. As he feels a part of himself reach out and accept this grieving part of himself, a memory surfaces. He goes back to college where his first girlfriend cheated on him. The grief and feelings of betrayal and rejection were so great, he felt he had to numb them with alcohol. He feels those feelings and sees this as one of the first imprints of using alcohol to avoid.

After riding a wave of grief and insight, I ask if his throat has any impulse to express, if any sound wants to be heard. This is intuitive, as I feel empathically into what wants to happen next. He nods immediately and takes some moments to connect with an impulse to sound. He begins humming quietly, slowly building to more raw tones. I feel this wave of impulse and guide him to connect to the source of it in his body. The place where the body knows what to do to heal itself. He continues sounding, it becomes more and more gentle and vulnerable. This beautiful, raw sound that wasn’t able to be expressed before is now heard by him and me as a witness. I slowly take my hands away as we both feel it’s time to let go. This leads to another impulse. He says, “I want to walk to that other picnic bench over there in the sun.” I guide him to walk with his eyes closed, listening to his inner guidance.

He stands with eyes closed and I direct him to the bench, using just his hand, index finger outstretched to point the way. I guide him to take this in, his body knows how to get there even though his eyes will remain closed, disorienting his sense of sight to guide the direction. His finger acts as the needle of his inner compass to lead the way. He walks slowly, mindfully, I ask him to check in along the way with the “inner compass” he says is located in his solar plexus. When he gets off track, I slow him down, ask him to check into the solar plexus compass. At one point he’s heading in the opposite direction. I tell him to slowly circle around to find the correct direction. He raises his pointer finger again and it raises straight to the sunny picnic table end. But then spins it in another direction. I say, “your body knew the way initially, follow that first impulse.” He follows the direction of his hand as it first raised and gets back on track. He finally approaches the picnic table, I tell him he is close, to walk very slow until he feels the energy change. He stops a few centimeters short of the table. We arrive.

He tells me of the journey, the feelings, emotions, sensations that arose. What he saw inside. He said just before I told him that he was about to get to the table, he saw the energy of his closed eye vision change to something more solid, as though he were approaching the solid object of the picnic table. He was grateful to have me as a guide to help facilitate an experience of listening to inner guidance.

Experiential psychotherapy offers something that talk therapy cannot. It goes beyond insight and understanding into creating a new experience that has the power to alter neurological rewiring. It is through new experience and wise, compassionate awareness that we find lasting change. I am so grateful to be part of this change in others. I’ve seen my weekly therapy clients go from being quite stuck and debilitated by recalcitrant patterns and behaviors to new and lasting change in their lives through these experiential methods.

Advertisements

What is Somatic Psychotherapy?

tibetan_medical_tangkas1

Somatic Psychotherapy, also known as “body centered” therapy, cultivates awareness of how body, mind and spirit are linked. There are many forms of psychotherapy that address only the mind, including the more mainstream Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Psychoanalysis. If we take a more holistic view of the human being, a more integrated approach would be to also include the body and the spirit into the healing process to create an Integrative Psychotherapy. Current Trauma research indicates that a body centered approach to healing trauma is most effective. For many people a positive resource is a feeling of connection to something bigger than themselves, so the role of spirituality can be a very powerful and unexplored territory in our healing.

With the latest advances and discoveries in neuroscience, we are realizing that we can’t separate the body and mind. We know know that the body and mind are inextricably interwoven into one system. The awareness of this system can allow us great freedom or at times, overwhelm, depending on our relationship to our emotions. The more we resist our experience, the more difficult life can be. Surrender to whatever we’re experiencing with a kind, loving presence, can allow for true yoga or union.

Somatic psychotherapy can help us cultivate a healthy relationship to our emotions, seeing them as opportunities rather than something to avoid and repress.

One of the other fascinating discoveries about neuroscience, is how the brain and body store memories, especially traumatic ones, and how those memories can stay with us and affect many aspects of our lives, especially relationships. They can produce intrusive memories, anxiety over small things, nightmares, inability to concentrate, seemingly unfounded fears, hyper vigilance, and psychosomatic complaints.

Somatic psychotherapy is an extremely effective way of dealing with old traumas that we store. Traumas get lodged in a portion of the brain that has very little neural connectivity from the “thinking brain” to the traumatized area of the brain, and therefore, getting access to them through thinking is difficult; although there are many neural nets between the traumatized brain to the thinking brain, which is why old, disturbing memories can intrude on us and are resistant to cognitive efforts to stop them. However, there is a close relationship between the area of the brain that holds trauma, and the body. By accessing the body, we have a far greater ability to access the area where trauma is stored, and hence, a greater chance of unraveling the neurology of the trauma.

Somatic therapy will include body awareness, so paying attention to those little (or big) sensations and impulses  are useful. For example, if we listen closely to our bodies, we may notice that our jaws get tight if we are angry, or our stomach will turn into knots when we recall painful memories. We can track these sensations and begin to work with breath and relaxation techniques to calm the entire nervous system, giving space to choose how we respond to our emotions.  Working with the body is a very quick and effective method to overcome trauma and create empowered choice.

How Mindfulness Can Soothe Troubled Times

chenrezig_thanka

Mindfulness practice is defined as awareness of the present moment without judgement. It is a direct route to staying grounded, empowered and connected in these chaotic times.

There is so much currently presenting itself as unsettling and uncertain. To stay engaged and informed we must also be skillful in order to bring about sustainable change. The application of mindfulness can soothe ourselves and others. whenever life delivers a blow, we can regain our balance.

In the current social, political and environmental unrest it’s increasingly easy to be knocked off center at any moment. When we’re not in balance, we can become defined by whatever’s happening and get caught in “reactive mind.” Bringing awareness to the present moment, slowing down our reactions and grounding awareness in the body can decrease anxiety and reactivity. When we lack the ability to self-soothe, we resort to using less skillful strategies to deal with difficulty such as escaping into distraction, overindulging in substances, alcohol, physical gratification or food, which usually prolongs our suffering.
Self-soothing begins with softening into your experience and then applying mindfulness to accept this moment as it is. From grounded acceptance we can then act to make positive changes. From within the spaciousness that this softening creates, you can start to investigate the experience and gain access to insight.

Breaking Mindfulness practice into three phases can help:

One: Find Balance
Calm yourself using whatever tools work best for you. Examples of how you might do this include: focusing on your breath, pleasant body sensations, feeling your feet touching Earth. You could visualize a person or place that brings you joy, look up at the sky or soothing objects in the room. You could internally chant a mantra or affirmation, one I teach is ‘Let go’ inhaling saying  ‘let’ exhaling saying ‘go.’ Next, name what’s going on and acknowledge what you’re experiencing. Can you locate the aspect of yourself that is upset? Allow the part of you that knows you’re upset to comfort the part that’s upset with compassion and kindness.

Two: Remember a larger perspective
Once you’ve returned to your center, reconnect with a higher perspective. Some people experience this as witnessing or observing what is happening. Others connect to gratitude, intentions or prayer. I like to speak directly to my higher Self to ask for guidance, internally stating; show me how to be skillful in this situation… or Work through me so I can be of greatest service and consciousness. As you begin to remember this higher perspective, you become less and less defined by the difficult experience. You have more clarity of mind; although it may not be immediately clear on what to do, a greater ease will come. It surprises me how effective this shifting of perception can be.

Three: Redirect your attention
Lastly, as your clarity returns and you re-engage with life from your higher perspective, begin to redirect your attention. What do you choose to focus on? How can your actions contribute to a solution? What perspective can you apply to this difficult situation? For instance, you might reflect on the impersonal or impermanent nature of life. Although you are having a personal experience, there are causes and conditions that create this experience. A sense of curiosity and acceptance helps:  this too is going to change because everything changes. If you’re facing a challenge, you are not alone, can you open to the connection of others who have faced a similar challenge? Sometimes these shifts in perception can lead to gratitude, connection and support and can be a source of great soothing. It is no mistake that you’re experiencing challenges, there is something to learned and strengthened by. Going inside yourself with compassion and kindness will help you gain a new perspective.

How our Bodies Communicate Unconscious Patterns

Rumi Meditation

Beliefs constructed from early experiences and traumas greatly effect our way of life. Most of our beliefs were created before the age of 7 yrs old, before our brains were fully developed. We carry these beliefs like filters; the way we interpret events throughout life depends on what we believe. These beliefs get reinforced like feedback loops and not only is it hard to break out of them, but it’s hard to even recognize how pervasive they are. These patterns can be seen in all aspects of life; in our bodies, emotions, behaviours and relationships.

Becoming aware of the body is a key way to discover what our unconscious beliefs are. They are held in the body, and becoming aware of body posture, sensation and language point towards the beliefs that keep us trapped in unhealthy patterns.

Shifting Habitual ways of being in our bodies can have a powerful impact on our behaviours, mental and emotional patterns. The body both holds the old patterns and is a powerful resource to create new patterns. For example, someone who believes they are unworthy might hold that belief as a collapse in their chest. When they become aware of this body posture it is a cue that the belief is at play. Through mindful awareness of what is happening in the chest and naming the belief that is simultaneous, ways to soften or expand the chest can come about. This will happen on its own through loving, mindful awareness. It is different than just changing the posture.

Dysfunctional patterns are ways our psyches communicate; once they are heard, accepted and seen with curiosity and compassion, new more functional ways of being can develop on their own. It is not enough to impose positive affirmations or posturing. This is known as spiritual bypass. Creating positive beliefs can hide underlying beliefs of insufficiency.

We must first inquire into the underlying beliefs and expose their function. When negative beliefs are seen as coping mechanisms put in place to help us function, rather than truths, we are free to choose more positive or neutral beliefs that better fit reality. We must realize this on a present moment, experiential level, rather than on just a cognitive level. Developing mindful awareness is key to experiencing how old patterns effect us and make space for new ways of being.

Because the body is grounded in the present moment, becoming aware of it creates the possibility for a new experience to occur. For example, if I believe that I need to hide in order to feel safe in the world and this belief goes unexamined, I will look for reasons to hide at any minute sign of danger. This can show up as body tension, avoidance in relationship or undermining ones self in work or creative projects.

When I become aware of the belief and how it is held in my body sensations and posture, I can make a present moment choice; is my environment safe enough that I don’t need to hide? If so, I can reassure myself of this and notice ways that my body feels at ease. By becoming aware of that ease I can have a new experience of the world. I begin to rewire my brain by having a new experience of the world and a new belief system unfolds; I can be who I am and feel safe.

Through mindful awareness, we find the body has an intelligence, a homeostasis that will come about through awareness itself. Like the ancient Chinese observance that energy flows where attention goes, more life force can be cultivated through body awareness.

Continue reading “How our Bodies Communicate Unconscious Patterns”

Feel whole through Lotus Psychotherapy Sessions


Lotus therapy image

Dedicated to the integration of Yoga and Western Psychology, Lotus Psychotherapy sessions offer Eastern and Western tools for well being. Inquiry into core beliefs and emotional patterns help free you from outmoded ways of being. Somatic psychology, trauma healing, and neuroscience are linked to yogic traditions of mindfulness and body awareness.

Lotustherapy.org

Therapeutic Yoga:
Yoga has been practiced for centuries as medicine for many ailments. What is most healing is finding a practice that fits your own unique needs.

Through a small group or one on one, therapeutic setting individual attention can be given to design a healing practice. There is a practice for everyone regardless of weight, energy level or yoga experience. I can work with you to find a practice that can benefit you.

We will explore therapeutic well being through yoga, integrating our whole beings into practice; body, mind, spirit, and emotions. We will begin with a check in where you are welcome to share how you are feeling in the moment and explore intentions for your yoga practice. We will then weave these intentions into an asana (postures) practice using breath, body awareness and meditative movement. We will end with restorative yoga and a short meditation.

Shamanic Integration:
Shamanic Integration groups and one on one sessions explore ways to integrate mystical experience into our everyday lives. I will prepare you for Shamanic Ceremony and work with you to integrate your experiences. This is facilitated by cultivating a highly relaxed state, where the parasympathetic nervous system can be accessed. This relaxed state can be induced through drum journey, ritual, breathwork and guided meditations to give a sense of safety and well being that is essential for healing. This relaxation creates a resonant field for both client and therapist. The client can then find ways to heal themselves and the therapist can be more effective in attuning to a deeper level of the client’s experience, guiding what they need. This engagement with a deeper level of experience can be highly effective in changing the client’s behavior and integrating powerful spiritual experience.

Continue reading “Feel whole through Lotus Psychotherapy Sessions”

Psychological Integration Through Yoga, a free online dialogue series

labyrinth_small

Online Dialogue Series Produced by Lotus Yoga.

YOGA & PSYCHE: Psychological Integration Through Yoga, a FREE online dialogue series. Listen to dialogues with leaders in the field of trauma research, yoga, somatic psychology and neuroscience. Discover how the practice of ancient yoga integrates with the contemporary Western mind and psyche.

produced by Diana Justl

Continue reading “Psychological Integration Through Yoga, a free online dialogue series”

Happy New year! May all beings be mindful.

Rain_practice

With a new year brings new beginnings. I was able to take some inner time this holiday season to incubate gratitude for the abundance of the last year and also reflect on creating new patterns that better serve me. In many of the world’s wisdom traditions, the first step in changing old patterns that no longer serve, is noticing them and creating new ones. That means not letting them just go by on automatic, but becoming mindful of them. We can do this in two ways: getting familiar with the triggers that start the sequence, and noticing the way the habit operates.

Tara Brach has a beautiful way of recognizing old habits and charting new territory with her practice of RAIN:

http://www.mindful.org/mindful-magazine/tara-brach-rain-mindfulness-practice

RAIN stands for:

Recognize what is going on;
Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;
Investigate with kindness;
Natural awareness, which comes from not identifying
with the experience.

This can remind us of cultivating a particular way of paying attention: mindfulness. It lets us notice parts of our mental patterning that typically go by invisibly – especially our habits.

Once we bring these into awareness we can decide how to change them as they are occurring, or are about to.

And finally, we can replace the dysfunctional habits with something that works better for us.

So first, recognize the Trigger Source:

Recognizing how these states, or modes of being, take us over can help us track our habits better.

  • Bring mindfulness to the mode and habit.
  • Replace the old habit with a new response.
  • Practice at every natural opportunity.