Double Rainbow

by Gretta Keene from her forthcoming book, A Practical Guide to Being Human,  with illustrations by Bill Murray

That morning, land was far away and the water, deep. Wind was whipping up peaks as ominous dark swallowed pale sky. Thunder rumbled. Guiding my slim, spring-green kayak into the four-foot waves of Lake Champlain reminded me of days as a young teen diving into hurricane surf. Scary? Yes, but doable. I was brave. Bill was up ahead in his red kayak. His curly, white mane streamed out from under his floppy hat. We had spent the night camping on an island. Other campers had warned us of the approaching storm and told tales of the treacherous lake. But we had stayed, and now we had to get back. We had no choice. We couldn’t be late for my elder daughter’s engagement party. Better to face an actual storm rather than an emotional one.

The week before, I dubbed my gleaming, newly purchased kayak, “Greenie.” Humans turn objects into symbols by naming them and connecting them to an idea or an object that had symbolic weight in the past. “Greenie” was a subtle reference to “Bluebird,” my childhood bike, vehicle to freedom and adventure. Kayaking was a recent passion, a symbolic “yes!” to feeling strong and capable, choosing to seize life rather than retreat into the limitations of sickness and old age. Bill and I are not ancient humans but since the amount of years we can possibly live is less than the years that are behind us, we are not exactly “middle-aged” humans. We are experienced humans. That day, we were not experienced kayakers.

As a therapist I often use the metaphor of “heading into the waves” as a way to encourage my clients to go towards what is painful and consider other interpretations and responses rather than react with one of The Big Three, deeply embedded defenses: Fight, Flight or Freeze. I know how to touch the tender, terrifying places, how to dive into the high waves of hurt and trauma. I understand the healing that happens when those emotional waves are faced. Unfortunately, confronting high waves was the opposite of what I needed to do. Where we were headed on Lake Champlain was in the same direction the waves were headed, which meant I had to maneuver the seventy-pound piece of Kevlar so that the waves would first hit the side and then come from behind, surprising me with every lift. Every fiber in my being told me, “Not safe!”

“You have to turn!” Bill yelled.

“I can’t!” I wailed. In the grip of fear I chose “flight,” avoiding what I didn’t want to face, and “freeze,” beginning to numb and shut down. All the paddling techniques I had learned in lessons seemed vanished from my brain. I was in what Bill and I refer to as an “activated state.”

Illustration by Bill Murray

Illustration by Bill Murray

My mind became flooded with images of all the terrible things that would happen if I turned my boat. I imagined waves whacking the back of my kayak, dumping me into the churning, deep, cold water. The headlines would read, “Grandma Capsizes in Kayak and Drowns!” The subhead would reveal, “Husband watches, unable to save her.” I envisioned Bill calling the kids, family and friends to tell them the tragic news. How awful to cause such a mess. My daughters would never forgive me.

“It was her own fault!” others would cluck. “Gretta was never athletic. Just like her crippled mother. She should have stuck with crocheting.” Images of my failure in childhood sports played like a cheesy TV-movie montage. My identity was still attached to the gawky girl who couldn’t catch or hit the ball, who no one wanted on their team.  “How could I be so stupid as to think I could kayak in a big lake?”  My body further stiffened in response to my inner, damning judgment.

Fear had pushed the alarm and activated my unhelpful beliefs about my athletic inadequacy. My defenses, those loyal, hyper-vigilant Bodyguards, seemed to shout in my brain. “Stay with what you know!” they yelled. “Keep the waves in front! Then you’ll be in control, safe.” A sneakier Bodyguard whispered, “Be helpless. Then you’ll get saved. Someone else will take care of you.”

Bill, suddenly much farther away, called again: “Gretta! There is nowhere to land in that direction! You have to turn!”

Greenie and I lifted and slapped against the water, lifted and slapped, lifted and slapped. A gust of wind had yanked my hat off my head. The hat strings tugged at my throat. My face and hair were wet from the spray. I resisted the urge to cry. Where was the fast forward button that would instantly change the scene to safe and cozy, Bill and me cuddled in front of a toasty fire?

The only way to that future moment is from the present moment.

The only one who could get me there was me. I struggled to remember what I knew when I wasn’t brainwashed by judgment and fear. I didn’t need to let old Bodyguards run the show. I could choose a more effective reaction. I could choose to –

 “Breathe!”

I’d been holding my breath, grabbing quick shallow gulps of air. I took three slow, deep abdominal breaths and with a long exhale I imagined myself releasing the fear. I came back into my body, out of the stories of past and future. I would trust Greenie and myself, stroke-by-stroke, to make it home. Concentrating on the physical sensations of the paddle in my hands, thighs pressed against the sides and feet pushing on the pegs, I was fully in the present, in the now. My muscle memory returned and my stroke miraculously improved. Using my emotional and physical core, I shifted our direction, turning alongside the waves. Water sloshed over the spray skirt, but we stayed upright. Paddling with renewed determination, I pointed Greenie in the direction of the distant landing. The waves rose from behind. The urge to tense was strong, but focusing on my breath helped me relax into a different kind of control.

“When going with the waves,” my teacher had said, “find the rhythm and put the paddle into the crest of the wave as it emerges from beneath the kayak.” I turned off the scary movies in my head and got attuned to the lifting swells. As I regained access to al of my senses, I found the connection I needed between water, boat and body. My eyes no longer needed to identify each rising, threatening wave. Instead, I could use my sight to determine where to more correctly place my paddle and hold steady to the point on the horizon where Greenie and I would eventually land.

That evening, on the porch overlooking the lake, we saw a hue-drenched double rainbow. Bill took my hand as we stared at the magical arc of colors. “That was the most fun I ever had kayaking,” he said, turning towards me, excitement glinting in gray-green eyes. I hesitated, looking up at his dear, enthusiastic, expectant face.

It matters how we tell the story. What to say? Already the moment was part of my past. No longer in the present, the series of thoughts, feelings and actions were already coalescing into anecdote. Could I avoid judging what happened as “the worst” or “the greatest?” Could I have compassion for myself and how I reacted, not add more evidence to the belief that I was “helpless and incompetent”? What could I learn by being curious about my inner experience? In my mind, the tale ends with an image of the double rainbow, the ancient symbol of renewed hope after a storm. I kissed him and we gazed out towards the horizon.

Our adventure on that stormy lake taught me that I have a choice in how I meet life’s events—especially the ones that threaten to swamp my metaphorical boat. Looking back, I could recognize that attachments to old, shame-ridden identities, whether self-imposed or laid upon my self-image by the judgment of others, were interfering with what in this case was a life-saving moment. Whether life’s challenges are physical or emotional, we can unburden ourselves of toxic, unhelpful self-beliefs and use what is brave and strong within us. What part will we choose to play in the movie in our mind?  The hero, the villain or the victim?

In Our Own Movie

by Gretta Keene from her forthcoming book, A Practical Guide to Being Human,  with illustrations by Bill Murray

Neuroscientists have discovered that how humans make sense of  “what happened” actually alters brain function. The story we believe and tell about an experience has more weight than the actual trauma. That is one reason why similar experiences will affect people differently. 

We react and remember according to how we interpret a situation. Our experiences with abandonment and attachment, security and fear, pleasure and trauma, love and anger contribute to how we decide—moment-by-moment—our course of action. Each individual has his or her own unique pre-history. Beliefs and behaviors useful to parents and ancestors in their particular times and circumstances are handed down through the generations. Yet their progeny may find those interpretations and reactions no longer useful. 

When we work with couples or individuals, one of the first things we establish is an acknowledgment that we are all, at all times, in different “movies.” Even at moments of extreme closeness – making love, kayaking down a beautiful river, or sharing a spiritual experience – we are each having our own unique set of thoughts, feelings, interpretations of the moment, and we are creating differing memories of “what happened.” The bittersweet truth is that no matter how hard humans try to communicate their inner reality--through words or art or touch or any other means--we can’t “walk a mile in their shoes.” It is hard enough to be aware of what makes us tick, let alone truly know what it is like to be someone else. We will never really know what it is like to be in someone else’s movie.

 
illustration by Bill Murray, PhD

illustration by Bill Murray, PhD

 

However, we can learn to understand our own inner movies as well as change the script. Curiosity about the filmmaking going on in our heads is an essential part of mindfulness-based therapy. The movie we replay of “what happened” at our third-grade backyard carnival birthday party is different from the movies made by our mother, father, little sister and each of the guests. But we tend to assume we were all in the same movie. 

Meditation is a practice we use to strengthen our muscles of awareness. When we communicate what we know about our movie without demanding that ours is the only possible script, we invite dialogue and connection. We tell clients (and remind ourselves) that it is useful to communicate the details of our current movie way more than we think should be necessary. To ourselves, our movies seem so vivid and real, and we are amazed to find that other people’s movies of the same event can be so confoundedly different!

Bill and I act as detectives or anthropologists — not assuming knowledge, but gathering clues and data. We encourage our clients to do the same. We follow the threads of present beliefs and behaviors back to influential family legends and personalities as well as unprocessed traumas. We look for connections between present difficulties and old, out-of-date, distorted, unhelpful maps and methods for navigating life. In session, we sometimes draw diagrams of family histories to identify internalized patterns of perception. A family that values conflict avoidance would likely create scripts where only the safely mundane is discussed. Uncomfortable feelings and certain events remain secret and unspoken because a new script would be required for any expanded conversations. 

Humans evolved not only through mutation and natural selection, but also through mind-to-mind and heart-to-heart connections with other humans. Body language and actions convey much that is vital for human-to-human bonds, but words are our main medium. We have to work hard to communicate, and others have to work hard to understand the communication. When we learn to consider other possible meanings for certain events or patterns in relationships, we are able to change the entrenched beliefs about our life, other people and ourselves. This change impacts how we perceive and react to future events. New insights into the past give us greater insights into the present and offer alternative, more useful responses to common activating situations. When we change the movie of the past, we change the movie of the future.

 

Something Important

by Gretta Keene from her forthcoming book, A Practical Guide to Being Human,  with illustrations by Bill Murray

The argument starts and the panic, anger or sudden urge to switch the dial becomes unbearable. Humans tend to respond with the hard-wired, prehistoric responses to fight, flee or freeze. Bill and I noticed that clients used the word “triggered” to refer to those moments where there is a shift to an emotional danger zone. We wanted a term that did not conjure an image of the person fighting, fleeing or freezing with a gun in hand. We understood that the emotional response we wanted to discuss was much more complicated and could take many forms. We chose the word “activation” to describe this reaction common to all humans. 

Activation represents the combination of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations of a heightened, reactive state. The part of our brain formed back when we were primitive critters crawling out of the swamp is activated and transmits an urgent message: “Attention and reaction is needed – NOW!” Physical sensations are a good clue that someone is activated. There can be a tightening of shoulder muscles, tightness in the chest, or a clenching of jaw or fists. Others feel a shift in the stomach — either nausea, churning or tightness. Heads hurt or eyes squint. Some people get jittery, jiggling legs or fingers. Some get hot and red in the face — or cold, like a block of ice. Some get loud, some get silent, some get belligerent, and some get seductive. All are activated. The activated person believes Something Important (and in some way dangerous or uncomfortable) has either happened or is about to happen. 

First there is the “action.” This can be something said or done or something significant not said or not done.  It can also be an event that is happening or an environment where something might happen. Then there is an interpretation of that action.  Interpretation is the true meat of the matter, the stuff that creates the story and fashions the memory. The interpretation of an action—the meaning—is what requires understanding. 

An activating interpretation often involves a judgment of ourselves and the other humans involved. We label the participants as bad or good, right or wrong, smart or stupid, aggressive or abandoning. The context and history of the action is important. The activated person experiences the activating event as “evidence” that “just goes to show” that the activated person is correct in his or her interpretation of what the action (or non-action) “means” about themselves, life, other people or one person in particular. Big, threatening, traumatic events or chronic judgments tend to produce what Bill and I call Sticky Beliefs (because they stick like super glue and seem all encompassing and “truer than true”). The words “always” and “never” are clues that a person is activated.

illustration by Bill Murray, PhD

illustration by Bill Murray, PhD

A Sticky Belief is an often unrecognized, persistent belief propelling and supporting the interpretation leading to activation. Placing a high value on mutual understanding leads us to utilize the conflicts—whether our own or those our clients describe-- to create greater awareness. We can be curious. “Oh-oh. Humans feeling upset! What is happening here?” We can pause and choose patience, curiosity and compassion. Or we can react with defensive interpretations that are sure to escalate the mounting conflagration. 

It takes effort to do something different from the habitual, defensive response. There is wisdom to the old adage: “It’s the thought that counts.” Activation is a call to understand the thought, the interpretation, the Something Important stimulating a response. Without a commitment to understanding our own inner workings and refusing to even consider what might be going on in the other person (other than what the “evidence” proves in the court of our minds), humans tend to reinforce defensive walls, call on bigger emotional Bodyguards, fuel self-righteous positions and collect more stories of self-pity and self-blame. 

With compassion and greater understanding of the interpretations, the personal movies of all involved, we can negotiate differences and institute more useful behaviors. 

Why Therapy

by Gretta Keene from her forthcoming book, A Practical Guide to Being Human,  with illustrations by Bill Murray

People come to therapy because they are unhappy, because they are dissatisfied, because they are confused.  They find that their life is not what they thought it would be, or should be, or could be. They are disappointed and uncomfortable--maybe to the point of pain. It’s a brave thing to do, to try to find the reason for our unhappiness, because people are afraid to change.  In trying to change we might discover that there are no easy answers, there is no magic pill. What affects us, what males us happy or sad, hopeful or frustrated — is not external, but within ourselves. And changing ourselves is hard. 

We humans tend to ignore problems and make do by sticking to what we know and to what we think others want. We muscle through without admitting that our methods for navigating our voyage through life are not effective. We kick the boat or do something to distract us from the problem, rather than look for the true cause of our troubles. What we don’t realize is that there is a hole in our boat that needs to be found and fixed, and sometimes the boat is leaking so badly we are in danger of drowning. We all need a little help sometimes.

All humans have their own unique, inner landscapes that no one else can ever completely know. As we communicate in relationships, we turn a camera on our interior world and send snapshots to those we love, hoping they will understand our inner landscape. This effort results in a greater understanding of our own complex and ever-changing network of thoughts, emotions, and filters of perception. Actions become more conscious, not just habitual reactions. The impact of our past on our present is changed by that endeavor. 

My husband Bill is my best friend, fellow ardent kayaker, and partner in our psychotherapy practice. On our journey together we try to discover better ways to navigate life’s challenges and savor the joy. As therapists, we provide tools and a safe place to explore what our clients have experienced in past and present, their outer and inner adventures. The effort to understand is key.  

Together and separately, Bill and I have explored many ways of exploring human existence. Personality, gender, genetics and experience formed our basic strategies. Wise teachers and their methods have influenced our paths. Hard work on our own lives and relationships has shaped our ideas and honed our techniques. Each client adds to our knowledge and expands our compassion. 

The process of healing and changing is unique for each person. In our practice we act as guides, encouraging our clients to go towards what is unknown, painful or frightening – because that is also where joy and satisfaction are found. As we accompany them on their emotional expeditions, we add our observations and share useful life skills. The first step in any journey takes courage. To join courage with compassion creates the confidence for us to be curious, and this new awareness increases our ability to successfully paddle through life’s challenges. When we more effectively communicate our thoughts and feelings, and as we work to understand what others communicate, we strengthen our human connections. Through the process of psychotherapy new ways of being are practiced and internalized. People change.

 
ILLUSTRATION BY BILL MURRAY, PHD

ILLUSTRATION BY BILL MURRAY, PHD