Trees and Me

treeIt’s now 21 months since I left my marriage of 54 1/2 years. Usually I write about the freedom and the pleasure in organizing my life to suit only me. That being so, it wouldn’t be fair to hold back on telling you about a strange sense of mourning in my belly. I don’t understand this queasy, uneasy feeling of loss. After all, the externals of my life are all in place. I’m doing exactly what I planned. Nobody else is responsible for my choices. I get to do pretty much anything I want. For example, I am now preparing to leave for a holiday in Arizona. I’ve always wanted to see that amazing part of our world. You’d expect me to feel totally elated, wouldn’t you?

Of course, we humans are a mix of emotional as well as rational responses to life. Rationally my life makes perfect sense. Why am I feeling this belly full of sadness? We feel what we feel and feelings aren’t necessarily rational.

I decided to take my issue into my morning Focusing time.

Dropping my awareness down inside my body I asked, “Everything’s just fine, isn’t it?” “NO!” screamed the answer. In the next Focusing step I asked my body how it felt physically about my predicament. Over the next few minutes, an image of a folded over, unbaked batch of bread dough appeared. I could feel it in my lower abdomen. (This is the sort of thing that happens in a Focusing session.) I stayed with it, concentrating on the felt sense of dough. The dough gave way to the physically felt image of a huge oak tree. In this visual image, the tree roots spread out solidly all through my belly. Then something awful began to happen.

A huge force started knocking over the tree. Its deep strong roots were being pulled right out of the ground. I felt the roots give way and the tree fall. I was left with upturned earth. I stayed with the image and the physical feeling until, at last, images of tiny little shoots emerged where the big tree’s roots had been. These seedlings were not oak leaves. Some other species, maybe a birch was trying to take advantage of the newly cleared territory.

I asked into my body what all this meant. The oak tree was clear to me. But what about those little shoots.

Oh, it’s about my post-retirement life.

Focusing guides us in how life should go forward. The message to me is clear. I need to plant new and different seeds in my life as a retired person. I’ll never again have a big tree with massive roots. I’m past that stage in my life. It won’t be a big tree, but I need to do what I can to grow some little saplings.

So, how do we move on to a new meaningful life after retirement? Libraries are full of guides for seniors. Many people talk of how much they enjoy these “golden years.” Maybe they didn’t love their jobs. Maybe their work meant only a paycheque. For me, I would no doubt be feeling the way I do today even if I’d stayed in Toronto. It’s not Kingston: it’s my sense of rootlessness when I’m not fully occupied with life beyond my personal concerns. I also know it’s a mistake to try to hang onto the old ways in this new developmental stage of aging. How do we find meaning and contentment when we’re finally free to do what we want?

What’s your experience with retirement? Do you share my rootlessness? Or are you having the best years of your life? I hope you’ll leave a comment below.

Saying Goodbye to Gene Gendlin

gene_teaching_1It was June 12, 2017 and I was in New York City for Dr. Eugene Gendlin’s memorial service. It was important for me to be there. Gene, as we students called him, was the teacher who changed the course of my life, personally and professionally.

At the memorial service, those close to Gene told heart warming stories about their time with him. One of the most moving talks was his son’s story of growing up with Gene as his father. I especially liked his story of being small and crawling into his father’s lap, looking up at him and saying, “When I grow up I want to be just like you.” Gene replied, “Oh no, you want to be just like you.”

I first met Gene nearly 40 years ago. I’d just completed my Masters degree in Social Work at the University of Toronto and dreamed of somehow combining what I knew as a yoga teacher with the western psychology I’d learned at university. As a yoga teacher, I knew  that people don’t really heal unless change happens in their bodies. I needed an approach that worked with the body.

On my very first trip to Chicago to learn from him I was a yoga practitioner in search of a guru. I needed a way to weave the wisdom of the body into western psychology. Focusing offered a blend of east and west and, at the same time, was psychologically sound in terms of western psychology. 

In those days, none of the current western psychologies recognized the role of the body in healing. That’s different now.  Many therapies have learned from Dr. Gendln, usually without going him credit. Maybe it’s intellectual theft or maybe it’s that mysterious phenomenon where different people simultaneously “discover” the same approach, story or solution to a problem. 

Gene started life 90 years ago as a Jew in Vienna Austria. His father left a meeting to discover swastikas everywhere in the town’s centre. It was 1938 and the Nazi occupation was underway. He knew not to return home and gathered his family to make their escape to Holland and finally to America. Gene was eleven.

At the University of Chicago Gene earned Phd’s in both philosophy and psychology. Inspired by Carl Rogers, he developed the model he called Focusing, a six-step system that teaches people to access their unconscious knowing through learning to read their bodies’ physical responses to life’s situations and problems. 

Gene always made it clear he was nobody’s guru. In spite of the fact that we, his students looked up to him in awe, he made it clear he was an imperfect being. Someone once asked him how he avoided becoming a guru figure. Gene replied that a little honesty went a long way. For me, the fact that he smoked was jarring. After all, for yogis the body is the temple.

In those early days we students were mostly from North America. Today Focusers belong to a worldwide community.  The memorial service was the end of a remarkable life but it also marked the current state of a blossoming approach to life.

Don’t Wish Things To Be Different??!!


You know how Facebook posts your memories from a year ago, three years ago and five years ago? Well this morning my blog post from a year ago popped up to tell me what had preoccupied me a year ago. The title of the blog? “A Frightening Diagnosis.” I’d just been diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, formerly known as “emphysema.”

Looking back, I remember how angry I was. It wasn’t fair. I’d stopped smoking 50 years before the diagnosis and since that time I’d been a yoga practitioner and, for many years, a long distance runner. You get the picture. I took good care of my body. Fitness was important to me.

I searched for reasons. Maybe it was caused by all the stress I’d been under in 2015 and 2016. After all, I’d packed up the house I’d lived in for 43 years and moved to a new city. Then I’d left my marriage of almost 55 years to live alone with Sammy the Poodle in a two-bedroom apartment. I’d never lived alone. Freedom brought with it all the stressors of a broken relationship and the need to manage life’s tasks alone.

A year ago on Facebook I wrote about the “chest cold that refused to leave my tired lungs.” It was summertime, not the cough and cold season. What was going on? Then came what I referred to as “shock and horror” about the “frightening diagnosis.”

Friends tried to comfort me by pointing out that, after all, if you live long enough, you’re bound to get some sort of illness. COPD wasn’t so bad. Lots of people have it and live normal lives. My response? That may be true for other people, but not for ME. I’m healthy. I work out. I do yoga. I eat right. I don’t get sick.

Winter came and things got worse. It turns out that COPD is exacerbated by cold weather. I was miserable. Then, one bright, beautiful winter day in the dog park, my face got very cold. I’d forgotten I had cold urticaria, an allergy to cold that causes my body’s histamine to swell all the tissues in my body. Recent winters I’d avoided the face-swelling, sick-to-my-stomach feeling of this allergic reaction to cold. I’d almost forgotten I had the condition. Now I had both cold urticaria and COPD.

I was feeling sorry for myself. My meditation practice taunted me. DON’T WISH THINGS TO BE DIFFERENT. That was a basic teaching. Under the circumstances, it was hard to watch life unfold without judging it. Nevertheless, I kept repeating don’t wish it to be different, over and over to myself.

In time, I came to the conclusion that I needed to leave Canada for the winter months. I’d become a snowbird. Yes, I could do that. I’d find a warm winter home for Sammy the Poodle and me and just avoid cold weather.

Fast forward to now, the summer of 2017, exactly a year after I was mourning the loss of my healthy body. How am I now? It’s summer and I’m pretty healthy. I rarely think about COPD, but I do think a lot about my solution to the problem. I’ve arranged to rent a house in the desert, a location that’s perfect for my health.

Do I wish things to be different? No way! I couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out. Imagine! If I hadn’t been diagnosed with COPD I wouldn’t be going off to a warm desert for five cold months.

Here’s the plan. Sammy and I will spend the winter in Arizona. I’ve even rented a house there. I’m excited about this new chapter in my life. Do I wish things to be different? No way! If it weren’t for my lung condition I’d be stuck here in the ice and snow.

Choosing Happiness

pexels-photo-320007Do you want to be happy, or do you not want to be happy? It’s really that simple. Once you make that choice, your path through life becomes totally clear (p. 141.)

This quote is from The Untethered Soul’s chapter entitled “The Path of Unconditional Happiness.”

Sounds simple? Maybe simplistic? All you have to do is maintain your determination to be happy regardless of what happens. That’s what spiritual guide Michael Singer tells us.

Okay, I thought, I’ll give it a try. I’ll experiment with a new way of being. For thirty years as a psychotherapist I’ve delved into the underlying causes of human moods. Early childhood’s adverse experiences are known to be responsible for most of our anxiety and depression, as well as our inability to get what we want and need from life.

Here was something totally different, a prescription for disregarding emotions and thoughts. Instead of going into the feeling state to mine its message, I was being advised to breathe deeply, relax and let go of the fear or worry disturbing my peace. It was a revolutionary way of reaching the goal of happiness. Could something so simple really work?

I set out determined to test this new approach. My inner critic voice seized the opportunity to poke fun at me. Oh sure, it was saying, just decide to be happy and wipe out a lifetime of hurts and habits. Still, I was feeling pretty good. I took a deep breath and released the scolding into the atmosphere. Energy is neutral, neither good nor bad. I was releasing energy into the source of the Great Energy that connects us all.

Everything went pretty well that morning as I drove around town grocery shopping and doing routine errands. When I paused too long at a red light, not realizing it had turned green, the guy behind me honked his horn and made a very rude gesture. I was about to get upset. But wait, I had a better way. I could relax, release the emotion into the universal energy and remain happy. I kept him waiting another minute while I cleared my inner messiness. It worked: for me at least.

I was hopeful and surprised at the effectiveness of this new/ancient way of handling stress. Back home, I went to my computer to write about this amazing new experience. That’s when I met with an insurmountable block to my happiness. I could be happy as long as my inability to deal with technology wasn’t exposed. That was a gaping wound, one of those situations I can’t handle.

My internet was not available. Something was unplugged or unpaid for. This sort of technical problem completely disarms me. I was on my own. I became so upset I began seriously questioning the wisdom of having left my marriage. Could I function without a man to deal with technical problems? There was no computer-savvy husband to turn to. I felt alone and vulnerable.

As the day went on, the happiness-threatening situation grew worse. I’d just installed two portable air conditioners in my apartment. One was in the bedroom: the other in the living area. Agitated and unnerved by the internet disaster, I realized my feet were wet. What?! I looked down and saw water pooling on the living room floor. I rushed to the bedroom. Water was puddling there too.

Somewhere I’d got the idea I had to buy little garden hoses to run the water resulting from cooling into white plastic basins. The trouble was, the little white basins didn’t hold enough water. I was completely unnerved.

Breathe, for heavens’ sake, I told myself. Send the hysteria into the universal pool of energy.

It was almost a week later that a technician came to my rescue. Guess what? I didn’t need those garden hoses. Modern air conditioners somehow turn all that water into condensation and spew it out the white tubing vented through the window to the outside.

A husband would have known that.

Divorce at 73

Read about Patricia Kirk’s experience with late-life divorce:

Divorce Photo