Meditation teacher and psychotherapist Ralph De La Rosa, author of Don't Tell Me to Relax, offers advice for living fully through difficult times.
If a global pandemic, climate change concerns, systemic racism, and the hundreds of other large and small issues that are glaring at humanity are leaving you ... less than relaxed, you will benefit from the latest book by psychotherapist and meditation teacher Ralph De La Rosa. As a survivor of PTSD, addiction, and depression, he brings personal experience and integrates trauma theory, mindfulness, and somatic psychology into his work with patients and in his writing. S&H caught up with De La Rosa to talk about his latest book, Don't Tell Me To Relax: Emotional Resilience in the Age of Rage, Feels, and Freak-Outs.
S&H: Was your manuscript completely finished before the coronavirus pandemic and the recent protests against police brutality? If so, it seems almost eerily appropriate for our current time.
Ralph De La Rosa: We finished this book and sent it to print the very week coronavirus was intensifying and lockdowns began in America. It is indeed quite eerie, and heartbreaking, that this work is all the more relevant now. Yet, I continue to see these times as more of an unmasking than an escalation. The situations we are met with are exposing ugly cracks in the foundations of our society that aren’t new—they’re simply staring us down in a very raw and unmistakable way.
Fortunately, the well-studied and time-tested underlying principles of emotional resilience I offer can be adapted to meet any situation. The truth that we can heal—that we can awaken, even as we meet the complexities and difficulties of our lives, this is a sturdy truth. It holds up. Even now.
Could you talk a little about how your own life experiences informed this book?
I grew up in a Mexican family where there was love and laughter but also immense pain. My father left the cold imprint of abuse and abandonment on my mom, my sisters, and me. At school, my gender nonconformity and neuroatypical traits were apparent to everyone else before they were to me. The constant name-calling and humiliation at school gave way to outright violence as I got older. Once considered gifted, I dropped out of high school due to acute PTSD.
This was right around the time third-wave feminism and Riot Grrrl were being birthed in the punk scene. This opened my teenaged eyes to the reality that the violence I experienced didn’t happen in a vacuum. I wasn’t alone, and others had it much, much worse. I became politically active as a response to the violence in our world but also because it simultaneously gave me a way to relate to my own trauma.
I call this my first spiritual awakening in my book because it was the first time I began asking serious and deep questions of myself and others, and taking responsibility for what I discovered as a result of that questioning.
I was taken out of that awareness by my trauma, though. My pain and anger were then exacerbated by life events (including the death of my father) until I found myself at rock bottom with heroin addiction. In residential rehab, I undertook Buddhist meditation alongside trauma-focused therapy, psych meds, and yoga. The confluence of these absolutely saved my life, and so my life is devoted to offering these tried and true methods to others. Don’t Tell Me to Relax offers an integration of all these threads: psychology, spirituality, and sociopolitical activation.
[If you need a way to let go of all the intensity in your body, read “Releasing Trapped Emotions.”]
What was your initial exposure to Buddhist insights? Why did they appeal to you?
I was taken to a group in San Francisco called Urban Dharma, now called Big Heart City, that was exploring Insight Meditation. I had done bhakti yoga, mantra, prayer, reiki, and the like before (all of which I still value so much,) but this practice was different. It was so stripped down. There were no rituals, no visualizations. There was nothing fanciful or romantic to it.
For 40 minutes I was left stranded with nothing but my body, breath, and mind. I couldn’t manipulate the practice into an escape route. I couldn’t exoticize it. Frankly, I hated it. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t follow the breath for even one second. But I was captivated by the fact that I couldn’t do it. Why couldn’t I just be with myself? Why was it so agitating to be left there plain and bare? Why couldn’t I do something as simple as be present?
Embodied mindfulness practice was over my head, and I had to find out why. It turned out that the missing link was self-love. Good, old fashioned friendliness, curiosity, and the willingness to be on a journey that offered no quick fixes. That’s what was being asked of me in the impossible realm of Buddhist meditation. Somehow this was more transformative than anything I had encountered previously. I had reached for God one million times without a willingness to be human first. Insight Meditation gave me an in-road to seeing and building these things—one sitting at a time, one breath at a time.
Could you talk about what “parts work” means in Internal Family Systems?
Parts work picks up where mindfulness and metta (lovingkindness) meditation leave off. It’s the central process in the Internal Family Systems model of psychotherapy and coaching. It’s rooted in a basic truth about humans that I find very powerful.
As Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large. I contain multitudes,” pointing to the vast complexity of our inner life. Parts work is about getting to know our own personal multitudes. It offers a powerful set of techniques for processing our habitual defenses (such as compulsive behaviors, rage, anxiety, and numbness) and healing the source of such patterns (internalized pain, shame, and fear).
It’s different, though, from other forms of therapy in that the goal is to experience increasing compassion and curiosity in our daily lives through the transformation of our wounds and defenses. Other approaches might teach us to override parts of ourselves, go around them, or to cope better.
Parts work, rather, centers on an open-hearted integration that honors the truth that all aspects of our being contain wisdom—it’s just that the wisdom might have gotten tangled up in the messiness and difficulty of our complex lives. Parts work offers very direct methods of self-inquiry that can disentangle our divine spark.
Anger is a very tricky topic. Could you distinguish between anger that is not helpful and anger that is?
There is the kind of anger that intoxicates us: It takes over, eclipses our reasoning capacity, and causes us to act in ways that cause harm. We literally go into a different mind, become a different person. Many people try to rid themselves of this kind of anger in all kinds of ways, but it doesn’t really work.
We are hardwired for anger. Evolutionary, it’s designed to protect us in situations when we perceive we’re too vulnerable or in harm’s way. Anger gets a bad rap but it actually has a tremendous amount of logic to it. We’re almost never angry without a reason.
Thus, we can make a conscious shift when we’re angry. We can pause, breathe, take a step back from our anger, get curious about it, and listen inside to what the part of us has to say. When we do that, we enter into a conscious relationship with our anger. We can then allow that angry part of us to inform our actions without it being in the driver’s seat, calling the shots.
For example, instead of saying to our partner in the heat of an argument, “You’re never there for me!” (which will only perpetuate the argument), we can say, “Hey, when you did that, it made a part of me really angry because I sense you’re not there for me. I don’t want to feel that way around you. Can we work on this so I don’t feel this way with you anymore?” In IFS, this is called “speaking for your parts but not from them.” It takes some practice, and it helps a lot if you have a solid meditation habit, but it’s a skill that can save us heaps of trouble. In the example above, it could mean the difference between a relationship falling apart and a relationship becoming a vehicle for immense healing.
Likewise, could you distinguish between ego that is not helpful and ego that is?
The concept of “ego” is just that—a concept. There’s no such thing as ego, really. What we call ego is actually a cluster of defense mechanisms: self-aggrandizement, self-interest, paranoia, and so on. It’s helpful to discern that “defense mechanism” quite literally means, “thing I do to recover a sense of safety and stability.” Now, our defense mechanisms can become quite twisted up and extreme in a way that causes harm, but at their root, this is their nature—to keep us safe. Therefore, defense mechanisms have inherent wisdom contained within them. There’s nothing neurotic or wrong about wanting to feel safe.
The difference between a sense of ego that is helpful vs. toxic lies, again, in our degree of awareness and conscious relationship to these energies within us. As with anger, do we let a contracted sense of “I, me, and mine,” take us over (in IFS, this is called “blending”; in neuroscience, we call it “cognitive fusion”), or have we cultivated a skillset of noticing we’re caught up, pausing, and nurturing that energy within us?
Ultimately, there’s a wounding at the core of every defensive pattern. Underneath every “ego” part of us there is a vulnerable part of us that needs protecting and healing. Seen in this way, being in an “ego mindstate” ought to be a cause for self-compassion as opposed to self-judgment and self-shaming.
In the book, you talk about “privilege guilt.” What is it, and how can we overcome it?
Privilege guilt is the remorse-plus-shame we feel about having it better than others in some way. I say, “remorse-plus-shame” to elucidate an important point. Remorse is great, actually. It’s information we get from within that something needs to change and that we ought to be motivated to take action. Shame, however, is demoralizing and demotivating. It won’t serve us to stay in shame. Much better to tune in to the remorse aspect of privilege guilt and let it motivate us to act.
It does the world no good for us to be stymied by our shame. Much better to take a moment to appreciate that there’s enough in my bank account this week and then give some of that away. My personal go-to organizations are the Loveland Therapy Fund which provides therapy for Black girls and women, and G.L.I.T.S., which helps Black trans folks dealing with housing crises. Much better to enjoy a nourishing day in nature and then, while there, make a plan to contact my senator about an important policy issue, reach out to offer support to friends who identify with a marginalized population, or use social media to amplify the voices of the oppressed.
What’s important is that our actions to offset our privilege offer concrete support directly to those who are experiencing the incredible violence of the system. And it should sting a little to do it. Generosity isn’t true generosity if we’re not sacrificing anything. Balancing privilege necessarily means we give up some of our security so someone else can gain some security.
As a therapist and meditation teacher, what advice would you give to those of us (probably everyone!) who are experiencing special anxiety due to the coronavirus pandemic?
First, tend to the basics. Without a solid foundation, the building that is your life will not stand. Nutrition, exercise, meditation, breathwork, sleep, relationships, community, and lots of breaks to check in with yourself. Second, allow. Allow yourself to go through what you’re going through and to feel what you’re feeling.
There are times where I can process what’s going on intelligently and there are times when the only thing I can do is weep and grieve the atrocities before us. It’s important, though, to allow moments like that so the energy can move through us. Repressing only freezes it to thaw later, which is no good.
Third, and most importantly, act. The stressful emotions many of us are feeling right now are evolutionarily designed to provide us with the energy to address the perceived threats in concrete ways. Pour your anxiety into a letter-writing campaign, anti-racist work, or something else. If you are at a loss for what to do, my friends Ethan Nichtern and Sharon Salzberg have started a campaign called DharmaVote.org, which is an effort to get unlikely voters to turn out in November.