Happiness :)

On Friday while taking my sick toddler for a walk I bumped into a friend from the neighborhood who I have known from my original days in 2003.  We garden together, have been known to play scrabble, used to drink red wine together (she is now in AA), and have heart to heart discussions.  Eventually after walking down to the nearby beach and back we got to the topic of the purpose of life for us, and for most people.

I said most people want to live the good life, that is be financially secure (ideally earning increasingly more money), have a house, a family, be respected and admired by others, and experience frequent times of fun and happiness (often in the forms of vacations, hobbies, music, entertainment, etc.).  Nonetheless many are unhappy.

While we strive for increasing achievement and “happiness” people around the world are in economic slavery, are raped in wars, die violent deaths.  I think of the case of Tori Stafford- I have read the chilling accounts in Canadian newspapers about how this elementary school aged girl was brutally murdered.  What a horrible way to end such a beautiful life.  With the Kony 2012 campaign I have read how young girls are used as sex slaves in places of war- what kind of short life is that? Likely not one filled with happiness, especially with our culture’s definition of happiness.

When bringing this up in our discussion we also noted that our being or feeling unhappy or despair over the injustice in the world isn’t doing the situation any good.

For years my friend had engaged as an activist against gentrification in our neighborhood, and against war around the world.  It didn’t seem to matter how much frustration and angst she directed towards these issues- it felt as if the world continued in its ways.  What she and I reflected on was that being unhappy and up in arms about a situation and denying ourselves joy in life didn’t advance our causes anymore than those who still managed to speak up for those who needed justice but actually stopped to enjoy life.

Today my friend earns a very modest income but is content with the small things of good she does: mentoring a sponsee, speaking words of encouragement and wisdom to those who are seeking it, spending time in the wilderness up at a cabin, and tending our shared garden.

She reflected that in years past she inherently thought that to live out the gospel it had to hurt (being persecuted for righteousness) and if it didn’t than she wasn’t truly living it out.  Today she allows herself simple joys of life.  She is not chasing after bigger and better but is looking for meaning where she is at.  Bigger or better either in a material/financial realm, but also in the realm of living out Jesus’ teachings.

I, too, often can caught up in trying to live out the gospel so much that it hurts.  And then I stop and think- oh when did I last truly take time to do something that helped me feel joy.  It can be quite hard as a mother of a toddler and a full-time student. Because each moment I have free I have to make choices between school work and relaxation and also being there for others.

However, happiness is not always found in “me” time.  For example, tonight at home group my husband was looking after our little girl and for I truly got to listen to the thoughts of others on what it means to be a child of God from a number of people: an older nurse, and an older lady with mental and physical disabilities and I felt truly humbled and honored both at once.

There is a lot of emphasis on achieving happiness in our culture and in psychology.  There is an idea that to be happy everything in life should be going right (i.e. the above noted recipe for the good life).  However, this definition of happiness does not coincide with a gospel definition of what a life in Christ looks like where we face persecution, and are willing to give up everything for the cross.  But living out life in difficult circumstances (i.e. not being upwardly mobile) does not mean that we must face sure unhappiness or that we should not seek joy and happiness in whatever lot we find ourselves.  I have to remind myself- especially in my predicament of juggling a number of different roles- that I do not have to wait until my life is all “together” to enjoy it but can decide to seek out happiness in the moments and life path that God has given me.

Intentional Christian Community, i.e. “New Monasticism”

About 9 years ago I first moved into a christian intentional community in the poorest postal code in Canada.

It was a house teaming with children, singles and marginalized folk.  Dinners happened almost every night and anybody was welcome who made it up the steep flight of steps. The leaders were radicals in many ways, trailblazers, visionaires.  The nightly conversation was contentious, debates heated, and friendships deep.  People visited who were addicted, mentally ill, curious Christians from the local seminary, young high school students stunned, and regular anybodies. 

 I can never forget being blessed by a crack-addicted friend with schizophrenia while having coffee. 

 I scavenged their bookshelves for the likes of Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and the like.  I also fell in love- sort of – well that love story happened after I moved out- and yes, I’m married to him now. 

This inspired me to start my own little Christian community in university, not quite as intense- but with some spiritual commitment to each other and to welcoming others. 

Since getting married we found a rented place down the street- we have always had people living with us although our house has never reached full community state.  We continue to open up our house to those who want to talk, have coffee and join us for dinner although it is no large scale endeavor.  Our rhythm of prayer and shared meals has fluctuated.  However, as I’m nearing a close on my schooling we want to renew our vision towards community.  Towards committing to pray and meet together and support each other in the teachings of Christ to welcome those to dinner who can’t invite or pay you back (we still do invite those who do reciprocate and do love when anybody helps with dishes or anything around the house). 

 It can be a hard life to live and sometimes I wonder if it would be best just to live as a little nuclear family.  We actually did that as a family this past summer while travelling in the Middle East- and it was quite quiet and a bit lonely actually.  I think it is our passion to life this type of radical life in the inner city and we would like to continue with the support of others. 

In the past number of years Christians have come up with tons of new ways to describe this way of being a Christian including New Monasticism (Shane Claibourne, etc.), missional churches /living, etc.  I haven’t done too much reading on these terms but I do think our life and church life may fit those descriptions. 

In this modern age with extended families being so spread apart we need each other in the body of Christ more and more.  In that way living in cooperation with others make sense (although it more often fails than succeeds and people can get hurt this way- warning!).  It’s definitely not all easy and exciting. But it is highly reccomended if you want to welcome marginalized people in your personal life- you need support, you need help with saying no sometimes, you need people for safety – just in case.  It’s a practical reason why us inner-city christian folk live together.  We also need each other’s prayer and friendship to keep Jesus at the centre and make sure we are remembering to take joy in life.

A Vision

Today I had a vision/idea. I have had this idea in my head for some time, but it is now taking shape.

I’m very interested (like most social workers) in the influence of trauma in a person’s life.  The ACE study (Adverse Childhood Experiences- http://www.acestudy.org/) found that adverse Childhood experiences correlate with negative long-term health in generally, poor mental health and even a shorter life expectancy.

In the Downtown Eastside it is hard to find a person who has not experienced trauma.  It seems like drug addiction has become an ingrained coping method that effectively masks the emotional hurt of the past.  We have many health clinics, and outreach teams, and church missions in our area.  However, I wonder how much treatment for trauma is actually taking place.  Pharmaceuticals help with the pain, but I think there is more that can be done.

One of the obstacles in providing any kind of help here is the chaotic nature of people’s lives- which begs the question how much healing can take place within an environment that often recreates trauma (like our neighborhood).  I have a neighborhood friend who I have spent time on and off for the past 4 years.  It is hard to even make an appointment with her to do something fun like go swimming.  How hard would it for her to go to counselling, or even focus in a session?

I wonder about clinically skilled, but harm reduction outreach counselling for those at the margins?  Also: I would love to do this from a Christian perspective as I believe that God has an amazing unpredictable power to heal and comfort that even the best counsellor cannot provide.  I will have to do some research but for now I’m getting in touch with friends who are knowledgeable in this area of work in the neighborhood, and researching online.

I think especially the integration of horticultural and art therapy would be really neat to accompany first stage trauma treatment. When I say first stage trauma treatment I mean teaching skills like grounding, containment, and journalling (see Lori Haskell’s book http://www.camh.net/Publications/CAMH_Publications/first_stage_trauma_treatment.html).  This step is one that some suggest to provide a sense of safety and self-awareness  before they are ready to tackle intensive therapy for trauma like Cognitive Processing Therapy or EMDR with a skilled therapist.

An idea.  Let’s see where God takes it.  I love dreaming.

The Dialectics of God’s Love and Radical Acceptance (DBT musings part 3)

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy has the aim of teaching people to both accept themselves as they are and at the same time realize their need for change.  It works on shifting a person’s assessment of themselves (and the world) from one of dialectical thinking (either all good or all bad) to one of non-judgement, and acceptance.

In the previous post, commenter Sean challenged the view that Christians can be non-judgemental in all circumstances and clearly differentiated circumstances which warranted  refraining from judgement (being judgemental) and those that warranted judgement (i.e. to identify sin.).  This is a dialectic in itself and merges well with DBT’s aim to encourage its participants to both accept themselves and realize their need for change.

This dialectic of acceptance and change is one that is inherent in the Gospel.  We learn through Jesus that God loves the world so deeply that he gave his only son (John 3:16).  However, God’s love requires reciprocation, action, and relationship as the rest of the verse says “whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.

Time and time again in the New Testament Jesus demonstrates God’s extravagant love to those considered the most outcast, hated (not loved) and rejected including the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), the woman who lavished him with perfume (Luke 7), the tax collector (Luke 19), etc.  He was accused by the religious of frequenting with “sinners and tax-collectors”.  This likely aggravated the religious folk because they feared that he was accepting of sin, as it seems contradictory that you could both accept and reject at the same time.  Indeed it can be.

The key to handling this dialectic is forgiveness.  God’s amazing ability and offer to forgive to all who seek it provides a true and radical acceptance a bridge between being who we are and changing to becoming more like God/Christ.

When Jesus teachers his disciples to pray he teaches this practice of continually coming to God in for forgiveness, realizing that at the same time we are his beloved Children, we are also deeply fallen and sinful creatures who need God’s love.  Many people get stuck in this process.  They find it hard to let go and believe that God could truly love them and forgive the things in the past that were truly sinful.  Another problem we have is blindness to our own sinful nature- especially as people who have been trying to follow God for a little longer- we haven’t committed some of the “big” sins and so we figure we are “Ok” and fail to look more deeply at the nature of our selves and have come to accept too much of our desires and yearnings that are in fact more worldly (“Me” centred) rather than Godly (God-centred).  So we both need acceptance and forgiveness to engage in the radical acceptance and transformation that God offers through Jesus.

You may wonder how this differs from the “Radical Acceptance” espoused in current psychological treatments.   Radical Acceptance in DBT is based on Buddhist principles that we will endure pain but we have a choice to suffer- radical acceptance may entail accepting a situation or a person as they are rather than striving to change it, or bemoan it.   To stop dwelling on things that we may or may not have control.

There are passages in the bible and whole books (Job) which talk about suffering.  Paul regards suffering as purposeful,cleansing us from selfishness, as a place of joy (Colossians 1:24) and connecting us to Christ’s suffering (2 Cor. 1:5-7). Jesus also admonishes us that those who follow Him will be persecuted for righteousness. In this way Radical acceptance may at times be advisable to Christians.  In addition the reasons or results of enduring pain, for the Christian, may be different from those espoused by Radical Acceptance in DBT.

Enduring pain seems justified for those who suffer apart from their actions, but can Christians advocate radical acceptance when suffering is self-inflicted?

That’s a very good question.

What do you think?

How do I become an effective therapist?

In entering the field of therapy I feel a sense of smallness.

Around me I am surrounded by people who have years of experience, mountains of knowledge, and more training than I. 

I look on internet sites for counsellors advertising their services and I see that they are trained in a dozen different methods and treat clients with a myriad of problems and issues.

I could spend a fortune attending training after training, but should I?

Maybe, maybe not.

I want to become an effective therapist. What does that mean?  I want to be as skillful as possible in doing what therapists do.  As one of practicum supervisors says, what little we do.  In the right time and place I want to be ready to assist someone in making the changes in their life they need, or gaining the perspective that they are seeking.

People say that therapy is part science and part art- many argue for more or less of one or the other.  I tend to agree with the mixture theory.  I do not just want to do what feels like the right thing to do but what has worked positively in the past for others in similar circumstances.  However, I do not believe in a cookie cutter approach and believe in miracles, and intuition and want to think outside of the box with imagination. 

My first obstacle in becoming a therapist is simply experience and supervision.  In my practicums I have had the chance to do general counselling but am only beginning to feel more confident or even versed in few therapeutic approaches (e.g. CBT). 

I originally felt trepidation in pursuing a counselling practicum as i did not feel wise enough; or that I was ready to take on the intimate details of people’s painful lives at this point in my life.  Knowing myself I know I always pull towards working with the most marginalize but realize this must come from a firm place of readiness.

So instead I have had practicums specializing in mental health and addictions, but without intensely supervised counselling experience.  In some ways I regret this, but I also trust that God will open up doors if this is to be a path that I am to pursue and that it will happen at the right time in the right place with the right supervisor.

Now I am beginning to develop the curiosity and passion for therapy that makes me want to learn everything I can.  I take this as a good sign.  I still have my doubts about pursuing this vocation, but I am grateful for my times of self-doubt as they show me my weaknesses.

There are many different roads I could take to become a therapist, currently my road is finishing my masters of social work, continuing to learn and process on my own, and to keep my eyes open for opportunities to apply this learning, and look out for good mentors and supervisors.  I would love to take a bazillion courses, but I just don’t have the money right now.  Also the idea of taking course after course makes me feel increasingly confused.  I think I need to digest what I learn fully before going to the next course.  I cannot expect myself to take lots of training and then magically practice all that I have learned.  I want to carefully learn and ruminate on what approaches are not only supported by evidence, but would jive with my personal style, and fit with the type of problems that are coming up with clients I see.

For example, after taking a theory course in counselling I developed an overview of different theories but I’m still on the fence as to what I think of them and how I could apply them.

Ultimately I want to use this vocation to serve God- if it becomes an idol, a way to self-agrandize, or a pure pursuit of money- that I don’t want it, I’m better off-putting my energies into being a true friend to ll those around me  instead.  Ultimately love has to be the centre of this practice, otherwise I’m just a clanging gong (1 Corinthians 13).

This is supported by research in literature that shows more effective counsellors and more affirming and nurturing. However this is not the only element cited, but as well offering a new schema or rationale offered with confidence by the therapist as well as techniques that match the client’s expectations.  Techniques account for only 12-15% of success, more can be attributable to counsellor characteristics than a particular approach. Techniques really rest on the sense of positive alliance with a counsellor. 

In many ways this puts me somewhat at ease as these are aspects I’ve been working at for some time.  Now it is time to learn the details of techniques and theoretical orientations and figure out where I fit in and what I agree with.

Will I learn to be an effective counsellors? With perseverance, I believe and hope.  However, more importantly will God be able to use me as a counsellor through my strengths and weaknesses that I have?  That I am truly hoping and praying for.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) Musings Part One

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy was created by Marsha Linehan, a psychologist based in Washington. It combines cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness principles in a highly structured program to treat individuals with emotional regulation problems, most notably those with Borderline Personality Disorders.

It has undergone a lot of scientific review and now is considered one of the most successful therapies for this diagnosis, as Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is not treatable by pharmaceuticals (although medication can be used to address symptoms of depression, anxiety, and sleep issues).

I was eager to receive training in DBT at my practicum and jumped at the chance as I knew it was one of those therapies that is very valuable to have under your belt as an up and coming therapist. However, I was wary of how much I would be comfortable with it as it relies heavily on Zen Buddhist principles, and I am a Christian.

I have never myself gotten into practicing meditation. In an Anglican church I was part of I tried to engage in centring prayer but did not persist in it nor did attend any training.  I have done meditation on verses or words in the Bible, as there are verses in the Bible that tell us to meditate on God’s nature, his creation, and his word.  However, I was wary of meditation that aims to empty the mind or to be rid of all thoughts.

Why is that, you may ask? I wondered the purpose of emptying the mind, and what you fill it with after it is empty? I experiences of meditation alone form one’s basis for who they are then I would object, because I think we discover that in discovering God’s love for us, not in entering a state of nothingness.  However, it is true that emptying our mind can be good for getting rid of anxious, depressing, or disturbing thoughts which most people struggle with, especially those with Borderline Personality Disorder.

A scripture came to mind when I was thinking of the idea of emptying the mind: Luke 11: 24-36

24 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ 25 When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26 Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”

So the message I get from this verse is to be mindful that after you cleanse or heal the soul/mind that you do not leave it unoccupied, which can be the case with meditation.  But this verse is not primarily directed at those whose lives are cleansed by God but then do not fill it with anything from God afterward.

Needless to say I had my reservations about whether I could teach this therapy given that I have not previously practiced meditation and I wondered if my faith would be in conflict.

What I have discovered to date (within the context of the DBT group that I have been observing) have been very useful concepts, many for which I can see a clear biblical basis which I will outline in my next post.

What is this blog about?

This blog is an attempt to synthesize all the thoughts that I’ve been collecting in my head around social work, faith, therapy, psychology, and the like.

I’m at the tail end of a masters in social work in Canada.  I have had two placements in the area of mental health and addictions.  I also live in a poor neighborhood in our city, and am part of a network of Christians who are wanting to support people around here, creating a new kind of family, and a renewed expression of church.