The Soul of Therapy: Back to the Present

The Soul of Therapy: Back to the Present


A psychotherapist offers some wisdom for a reader experiencing the loneliness and stress of divorce.

After 32 years together, I got blindsided by my husband asking for a divorce. I feel utterly rejected and discarded. He took the best years of my life. I would have been better off if I’d never met him. I worry all the time about whether I’ll be financially okay or if I’ll ever find or trust anyone else. I’m afraid of being alone for the rest of my life. Therapy is helping some, but I wonder if you have any ideas about how I can get through this.

Kevin: I wish I could tell you how to hit a fast-forward button to get through this difficult time, but there is no such button for any of us when we’re jolted by crisis or loss. Three people came to mind as I began reflecting on your situation:

  • Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says that in difficult times we can spiral downward or fall upward, by which he means falling toward God or a higher, more spiritual way of living. I hope you can begin to frame this period of your life that way.

  • The mythologist Joseph Campbell said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” But what do we do in the meantime with that aching feeling that nothing is normal, the constant anxiety, the mix of so many emotions that we can’t sort them all out? And what if we’re in such a fog that we can’t see any life waiting for us? Developing our ability to abide in such uncertainty is part of falling upward, but it rarely feels that way.

  • Your wish that you had never met your husband and your fear of future loneliness reminded me of journalist and writer Fulton Oursler’s words: “We crucify ourselves between two thieves—regret for yesterday and fear of tomorrow.” Unlike the scene in Dead Poets Society in which Robin Williams instructed his students to rip out the first chapter of their textbook (“I want to hear ripping!”), we don’t get to rip out the chapters of our lives. They become part of our story. Falling upward includes bringing respect and self-compassion to our still-unfolding story as we let go of judgment and regret.

In Living Untethered, Michael Singer writes that spiritual growth is about noticing, day by day and moment by moment, where we’re blocked and releasing those blocks so that the energies of our true self can flow. I’ve begun using a simple image with clients to convey the idea of unblocking. “I want to show you an amazing piece of technology, “ I say, and then lead them into the kitchen in my therapy office. “Look at this faucet. When I open this valve it flows instantly, and when I close it off again the flow completely stops!” Then we talk about imagining that God, peace, acceptance, compassion, or love are like the water pressure behind the faucet valve–always ready to flow when we remove what’s blocking them.

To work with my tendency to rehash the past and fear the future, I’ve developed a meditation practice I call “back to the present.” It probably won’t make for a blockbuster movie, but it works pretty well busting up what’s blocking the flow of acceptance and equanimity in me. Here’s how I’ve been describing it to clients:

  • First, sit comfortably with feet on the floor, head balanced comfortably over your torso, hands in the prayer posture over the heart. This represents the ever-present, centered, flowing, true-self energy in you.

  • Rest for a few breaths until a disturbance comes into your mind. As you speak the disturbance out loud—“I can’t believe he stole the best years of my life!”—let your hands spring apart sideways and clench them into fists while tightening your arms and shoulders. Let the tension in your body mirror the tension in your mind.

  • After 10 seconds or so, relax your hands and allow them to float slowly back to the center point while saying something like, “Let go, let acceptance flow, come back to the present.” In letting go, we stop trying to fix the past, figure it out, or make it go away. We cease our attempts to solve future problems. We simply come back to the present to flow with acceptance and self-compassion. This practice reminds me of Jack Kornfield’s words: “Suffering is a rope burn. You need to let go.” Dropping the rope of rumination and coming back to the present breaks us out of the mind loops that characterize anxiety, depression, and other disturbed states.

  • Resting again at the center point, notice when another disturbance comes to mind. Repeat the process of springing your hands apart, voicing the disturbance, releasing tension, and coming back to the present with “let go, let God flow” or whatever language works for you.

  • Each time you return your hands to the center point, ask the crowd of disturbances in your mind: “Does anyone else want to speak up?” Instead of seeing them as interruptions to your meditation, you’re inviting them to have their say. If you allow each disturbance to speak, feel its tension, let go, and come back to the present, you will eventually hear only silence when you ask for any other disturbances. When that happens, remain for a while in the centered posture and get a good drink of the energy that flows naturally when you’re unblocked.

I don’t share this as a technique offering a promise of quick relief from a complex life situation. Joseph Goldstein talks about the tendency to meditate with an “in order to” mindset: “I meditate in order to get relief from anxiety.” This sets us up for wanting fast results and giving up if we don’t get them. I trust the slow boat: daily practice over months and years of unblocking and learning to let higher energies flow. I hope you too will trust that the slow boat of spiritual practice knows where life is taking you better than you could ever see through the storm.

My spiritual path is becoming steep.

My spiritual path is becoming steeped in God like a teabag.

My spiritual path is becoming steeped in God. Like a teabag

I’ve gotten myself in Divine hot water.

My spiritual path is becoming steeped in God. Like a teabag

I’ve gotten myself in Divine hot water and cut off the dipping string.

From Now is Where God Lives: A Year of Nested Meditations to Delight the Mind and Awaken the Soul © 2018 by Kevin Anderson

Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.

The Soul of Therapy Back to the Present

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