When I was a tiny queer child, I had some issues at school, like most of us queer kids do. I didn’t connect or identify with the kids in my grade. I knew there was something different about me, and so did they. A professor of mine in undergrad called queerness, “that thing about you that just doesn’t fit.” A family friend’s kid, who also had that thing that made him “not quite fit”, had just built a chicken coup in their backyard, and I was instantly intrigued. Did you know there are so many breeds of chickens? That they have enormous personalities? That there is nothing more magical than waking up to your first egg, or first hatched chick?

In the years I kept chickens, I had a security in my life. A way of managing any kind of feelings I was having about being different. These chickens served as a transitional attachment as I moved between the liminal spaces of puberty and finding oneself. They greatly improved my mental health, and contributed to my sense of self. I had a job, I had a beating heart to regulate with, I was always welcome.

I have countless clients who look at their animal companions as absolutely vital to their health. These animals are family members, caretakers, reasons to get out of bed in the morning, a reason to stay alive. To go outside. To clean the house.

One of the best parts of having part of my practice remote is getting to meet client’s wonderful animal companions. I can just feel the difference in their nervous systems when their companion is with them. They feel more grounded, calm, secure.

For so many of us, living in this weird late stage of capitalism, we are disconnected for a number of reasons on a daily basis. Emphasis on the individual versus the collective. Working all the time. Living alone during a pandemic. Struggling to find people we can fully be our authentic selves with.

Having these companions creates daily opportunities for co-regulating our nervous systems with living, breathing beings. This isn’t a replacement for human connection, but simply another avenue that is also available to us.

So what if you don’t have an animal companion?

Another story. In my early 20’s I was in a difficult relationship. Weren’t you too? It was very hard for me to regulate in that relationship, and one of the only ways I could fully rest and recharge during that time was to be by the ocean. The waves cresting and falling would lull my nervous system into a deep state of co-regulation and relaxation. I felt such a deep resonance with this enormous natural entity. When the water held me as I floated on my back, I felt an expansive state of ventral vagal deliciousness. The ventral vagal nerve being the part of your nervous system that invites a feeling of safety and connection. You can learn more about that here.

We can co-regulate with most parts of the natural world. We can have a secure attachment to nature, or a specific part of or place in nature. While I never knew how my girlfriend at the time was going to act, I always knew how I would feel with the ocean. I felt secure in my relationship, held, and loved.

It’s different for everyone where they feel the most secure. For some of us it’s an open field, for others a dense forest. For some of us, we live in big cities and have to build relationships with the breeze, sunshine when we can, clouds, plants between the side walk cracks, any tree we can find, and always, birds. The promise of birds is everywhere.

We can always return to a calm place in nature in our mind's eye. Remembering how a place we have visited feels in our body, what it smells like, looks like, feels like. We can hang pictures on our walls of the natural world, which is scientifically proven to ease our bodies.

When we are rushing through our days (because capitalism makes us rush, or makes us feel like we have to rush) we miss these chances for regulation. We only pet our cat for 1 minute instead of a nourishing 20 minute cuddle session. We miss that the goldenrod is blooming on the corner of our block. How delicious the sun feels on our skin and the rain smells on the pavement. It is incredibly recharging to stay at home in our nests, and also, it can be so helpful to make time to really spend long periods of time outside co-regulating with nature.

Some ideas:

Take a page out of How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell and buy a bird book for your area. You can also download the Merlin Bird ID. Learn the names of the birds on your land and greet them as you start to recognize them.

Practice deep breathing outside. Notice the temperature of the air. How it smells. How it feels entering your nose. Feeling the wind on your skin.

Spend the same amount of time you might spend scrolling on an app or on a TV show giving your animal companion your full 100% attention.

Plan to spend the whole day outside in a calming environment. This could look like a hike, a day by a body of water, at the park on a blanket in the grass, snowshoeing or sledding in the snow. Check in with yourself, how do you feel after this day? How is different or similar to a day spent resting indoors? How does your body feel?

Make a list of all the animals and parts of nature you can connect with and next time you need that co-regulation, return to it.

Learn the name(s) of the tribes whose land you are on here. Research them and what life was like before colonialism. Imagine how that world must of been. Learn what birds and plants are indigenous to where you are and try to find them.

Read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

Ask a stranger if it’s ok if you pet their animal.

Imagine your calm place in nature, or look at pictures of it. Imagine it with your whole body. Notice what happens to your stress levels.

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Updated: Aug 25, 2021

Recently my colleague Tamara Turner, LCSW with whom I’m in a therapist book club with (yes therapists do like to hang out with each other, in case you were wondering) suggested we read a book on the roots of mindfulness and healing from suffering. They offered this after we had looked collectively at our lists of to read as a group, many of whom wrote about mindfulness and transforming suffering, but were mostly straight white cisgender men and women. Many of these books were connected to healing or psychotherapy training modalities that cost in the tens of thousands to fully complete. This feels like a perfect example of the commodification of mindfulness that we are seeing in Western society. Taking cultural or spiritual traditions and making them cost money, or trendy, or turning them into tools to further capitalism.

Tamara's thought behind reading a book on Buddhism was to dig into some of the original thinkers and teachers of mindfulness and meaning making, and per their recommendation we landed on The Heart of Buddha's Teaching by Thích Nhất Hạnh.

In the first chapters of this book, I couldn’t believe how many times I underlined something and wrote in the margins: THIS IS THE CORE OF PSYCHOTHERAPY. I know that many cultures, thinkers, spiritualities, and traditions dig into making meaning from suffering. My people (Eastern European Jews) are even known for a deep fascination with this and have been around for a long time trying to understand why the world is broken and how to heal it, more on that in a second.

I have mostly read mindfulness practices so out of context from spiritual tradition and historical contexts. Mindfulness has always felt important to my own healing and my therapy practice, but shocker, it didn’t mean as much to me until I read more on it’s roots, but from my culture and from others. This is the power of learning the true, grounded histories. Through learning context and honoring and naming it, we can decolonize our world and frameworks.

Mindfulness at times has felt like torture for me, and I’ve heard the same from clients. This idea that we have to sit in silence with our overactive brains, our traumatized nervous systems, feels somewhat impossible for many of us. But as Hạnh teaches, mindfulness is not just meditation, or setting an alarm on your phone to remind you to check in with yourself. It is a deep rewiring of our brains to ask the important questions, like one he phrases as “What are you doing?” Recently I was caring for a loved one as they recovered from a minor surgery, and it was oh so easy to get caught up in the stress of it all. Med management, do we have enough food, am I going to get enough sleep tonight and so on. When I asked myself “What are you doing right now?” I could answer with my heart “caring for my loved one” and I was brought back to the present moment, re-centered on what I was truly doing, instead of being stuck on the hamster wheel of overwhelm. I didn’t need to sit in quiet meditation to come back to the present moment (and if that works for you, great!)

Hạnh reminded me in his book that walking is a meditation, washing the dishes is meditation, doing one thing at a time is meditation. Sex. Hiking. Gardening, Petting your cat. Cooking. The opportunities for Right Mindfulness are everywhere, not just on a meditation cushion.

One of my favorite parts of Hạnh’s teaching of Buddha's knowledge is the Four Noble Truths, which I have put in my own words below:

Step 1: Recognize we are suffering. Being able to say “I am in pain” or “I am traumatized”. Validating for ourselves and maybe with others that this is happening.

Step 2: Locate where that suffering is coming from. Find the triggers, the childhood wounds, the broken heart, and what isn’t working in our life, isn’t serving us. What part of us is suffering, where we feel it in our bodies.

Step 3: Realizing that we can find wholeness and peace, despite our suffering.

Step 4: Making meaning from our suffering. Recovery. Accepting all the parts of ourselves and overcoming self alienation. Reconnecting with a core self. Learning to be in our bodies again. Helping others.

If this isn’t trauma informed psychotherapy, I don’t know what is. Except this is ancient. This teaching is thousands of years old. For those of us who are therapists, it’s not that mindfulness isn’t ours to guide our clients towards, and for those of us who are practicing it, it’s not that we can’t, but it’s so important to look towards it’s original teachings.

So why is this a framework that resonates so deeply across religion, healing journey, and spirituality? Because this is being alive. Some of us were unfairly handed more suffering, because of our identities, our bodies, our classes, chance circumstances. That needs to be held too, and through the work of Critical Race Theorists like Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw we can learn that the more intersections of identity and/or oppression we sit at, the more oppression and often trauma we experience (and also the more complex and beautiful our lives can be as well.) No matter our level of trauma, we can hold this truth, that what has happened should of never happened, and that liberation from suffering is possible.

People have been healing and making meaning from their suffering forever. My ancestors found rituals, a protective God, connection to the land and harvest, and a promise to do whatever they could to put the pieces of the world back together. This also led to many of the ideas we have around what Psychotherapy is, as many of the first Psychotherapists were Jewish, and many of my wonderful teachers happen to be as well. Psychotherapy isn’t just this clinical, evidence based practice, although it's that too. It’s one of the many ways we can heal. There are ways of healing from trauma, transforming pain into meaning, and finding a higher purpose in all cultures and societies. There are so many ways to heal. We can learn from all kinds of teachers.

These questions also led me to the work of Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, PhD and his practice of Neurodecolonization, which “involves combining mindfulness approaches with traditional and contemporary secular and sacred contemplative practices to replace negative patterns of thought, emotion and behavior with healthy, productive ones'' which you can read more about here.

Yellow Bird takes decolonizing mindfulness to the next level, by utilizing it, along with cultural practices, in his work with his communities of indigenous folks to help them heal from the violence of colonization. He applies mindfulness to the ritual work people are already engaging in, and through awareness guides them to see ways of rebuilding neural pathways in the brain, replacing pathways laid by the trauma of colonization with pathways of healing and culture.

Mindfulness is a tool of liberation in so many ways. From interpersonal traumas, collective traumas, the traumas of everyday living in a pandemic and climate crisis. It can bring us back into ourselves and out of our devices, which demand for us to work 24/7. It can help our bodies feel like home. It can connect us to all parts of ourselves, helping us mindfully observe who is showing up instead of dismissing thoughts and emotions, like Richard Swartz write about in his incredible new book, No Bad Parts. He writes about how encouraging clients or ourselves to watch these thoughts and emotions float by like clouds can sometimes miss the purpose of these thoughts and emotions. That they are often communications from parts that need to be heard, acknowledged, and then as can ask those parts what they need. Or, we can gently ask them to wait in the waiting room of our consciousness until we can tend to those feelings.

When we name and understand where this practice comes from, it honors the original teachers, and makes the practice that much deeper for all of us. We can do this by digging into mindfulness traditions from our own culture, or looking at a way of rooting our cultural or spiritual practices in mindfulness.

I discovered that in my culture, there is a practice called Kavanot. This is a practice of having intention behind your thoughts, actions, and prayers. If you get up everyday and pray or meditate, and you have no intention in your mind and heart, then it is empty. I think this is so crucial in our world today where we are told what self care and healing looks like, often at the gains of capitalism. Wake up, meditate (so you can be more productive at your job) and if you don’t meditate, it's your fault that you’re stressed out. When we wake up and meditate with a different intention, to be kind for ourselves, to show up for our parts, to give ourselves a brief moment of mindfulness before dealing with the various stressors of our day, this practice has a whole different meaning. What does this look like for you? Where can you find traditions of mindfulness in your culture, and/or honor where the ones you use come from?


The Heart of Buddha's Teaching by Thích Nhất Hạnh

No Bad Parts by Richard Swartz

Indigenous Mindfulness, the work of Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, PhD

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Digital Minimalism came into my life at a time when I most needed it. I was still living in NYC (occupied Lenape territory) and was quite literally going to movement classes just to have an hour a day where my phone was out of reach. I was so lost in the Digital Maximalism so many of us, especially those trying to run our own business or hustles, are basically required to be. Posting my work online was serving my career, but it was also hurting my nervous system. I had no time “offline” and it felt like work and my devices ran my life.

When we reach for our phones, we are often reaching for them because of something we are feeling, or something we don’t want to be feeling. Boredom, overwhelm, loneliness, validation, connection, information, and so on. We want to feel better, or feel distracted, and often those things are the same thing, as most of us are taught in this world that feelings are bad, or that boredom is bad. Our brains have a way out of an extremely normal part of human life, one that is full of color and dopamine and pictures of everyone you have ever known, or videos on how to learn anything you might ever want to learn.

For so many of us, technology has also created a lot of good in our lives. Through COVID we Zoomed to stay connected and for some of us it allowed us to continue our jobs from home. For small business owners, we can get our work out there and find clients. Social media has made it possible for so many people to run their own businesses who could of never before. Movements like BLM and Free Palestine are able to amass huge numbers of people at marches and demonstrations because we can get the word out. Surgerys and memorial funds are created online. It’s not all bad. But what about the time spent online that isn’t for this? Or what about when technology takes over your life, even when you are online to grow your business? What happens when we can’t unplug?

You are not unique in this scenario. Entire books have been written about Big Tech and Big Data, and how they are exploiting our very nature as humans to keep us locked into our devices.

What happens to our nervous system when we don’t get to complete our feelings or our survival responses? When we can always be working? What happens to our lives when we can distract ourselves with something, constantly, instead of sitting with what isn’t working about our life and doing something about it or feelings our feelings, or seeing what gets born from our boredom?

A common phrase in Polyvagal Theory is “Stuck not Broken” (there is even a podcast named that.) This perfectly sums up the beauty of the theory that dictates my psychotherapy practice, and honestly, my personal life as well. We get stuck. In patterns, on our phones, in bad relationships, in toxic jobs, and so on. That doesn’t mean we are broken, it just means that we have to get ourselves, and our nervous systems out of something, and bring them somewhere new. This could be a physical place, an emotional one, or it could be a nervous system state. Leaving sympathetic (fight or flight) or dorsal (numb and collapsed) behind, so we can live in the beautiful land of ventral vagal (safe and social.) For some of us, depression and anxiety are places we get stuck. For some of us, they are places in our brain and body that we will be unsticking ourselves from time and time again for our whole lives, because it’s how our brain and nervous system formed, or responded to trauma. I know for me, that this framework is not a quick fix. I have hundreds of years of trauma encoded into my nervous system, as literally every single one of my ancestors has withstood persecution and violence since as long as I know. I know that for me, getting unstuck is not something that I can do just once. It is an ever unfolding process, with the added layers of trauma from this lifetime. I also know I can’t heal, or get unstuck, when I am glued to my device.

For those of us with trauma, with traumatized lineages, who are neurodivergent, who struggle with pain that shows up psychologically and physically, who live at the intersections of identities that are devalued in this world, our devices are great distractors. If you are someone who is prone to dissociation, the scroll hole of social media provides the perfect highway straight there. For those of us who struggle with hyper arousal, i.e. being keyed up, anxious, stressed, it gives us something to do with all that energy building up inside of us.

But it often keeps us stuck. We may feel momentarily better after a scroll episode, after posting, after seeing messages pile up in our DM’s, but the original stressor is still there. The stress energy in our bodies might be quieted for a while, or we might of numbed out just enough to feel ok for a bit, but it’s what my teacher Dr. Janina Fisher calls, a false window of tolerance. We feel good, or ok enough, but it’s really mostly fake, and it doesn’t last.

There are some expectations to this with technology of course, as I mentioned above. Most of us feel true happiness after a call or FaceTime with friends and/or family. We get to see their faces (which our ventral vagal nerve of connection loves) and/or hear their voices. My nervous system loves tracking the birds I see on Merlin Birding App, or hunting down a little known campground on The Dyrt. Technology is not all bad. We just have to learn how to hack it for our benefit, not have it hack our brains for Capitalism. I am sure I’m not the first to bestow this information on you, but the more we use technology (specifically social media & Google) the more Big Data knows about us, and can market products specifically selected for us, better.

Digital Minimalism is a radical reclaiming of our time, in the sense that we take our attention away from Capitalism and towards other things, time with loved ones, nature, a good book, cooking, caring for ourselves, but it is also a radical reclamining of our awareness, and in return, our nervous systems, and our feelings. When we are able to stop ourselves from reaching for our phones mindlessly, and ask ourselves “what is happening inside me that made me feel like I need my phone?” , we are taking our power back. We are also learning to pay attention to our inner experience. For example, “I am feeling bored, which is why I reached for my phone. I know I feel bored because my body feels tired but my legs also feel jumpy.” We are watching ourselves, and then we can ask “so what do I really need right now?” Spoiler: it is very rarely our phones.

For boredom, I suggest clients carry a good book with them like they would a cell phone. Or, to learn to sit in the discomfort of boredom, which we often did as children quite often, and let the thoughts just happen. Turns out, many of us were so creative as kids because we were BORED.

For overwhelming emotions, carrying a journal and writing about what we are feeling instead of stuffing it down is helpful. Or, the psychotherapy modality Internal Family Systems, which helps us prompt questions to ourselves like, “Who is feeling overwhelmed?” meaning, what part of our psyche or what age of our many inner children. Then, we are able to give that part of that kid what they really need (love, compassion, kind self talk, food, rest etc.) instead of ignoring them, which is only more triggering!

For loneliness, we can write postcards to friends, schedule a time to see them or talk with them. We find a way to get human to human contact (sometimes through tech, see it’s not all bad!) instead of the shallow interactions that social media brings. Or, we can sit with that loneliness and repeat the skills above. This is what brings us out of that dorsal vagal state.

For anxiety, we move our bodies, or vent to someone or vent to our journal, to get ourselves out of sympathetic activation. We learn to get curious about the anxiety instead of trying to ignore it, all while it just grows and grows.

For dissociation, we learn to bring ourselves back into the present moment, crawling up our Polyvagal ladder. I even use the Oak app on my phone sometimes for a nice gong noise, and some guided meditation. We can orient ourselves to where we are, the time and day, who we are (it can be very powerful to just say your name out loud, write it, or repeat it in your head!), and notice ourselves come back into my body.

This is my version of getting unstuck, gifted to me by the framework of somatic trauma therapy, and deeply informed by Polyvagal Theory. It is obviously more complicated than the example above, and takes a lot of practice, but at the same time, it really is that simple.

As soon as I stopped being on my phone so much, the parts of my life that weren’t working became unbearable. I couldn’t continue on as I had been. I got unstuck. I made changes I would of never made if I had stayed glued to my device. I got to know my nervous system. I started listening to her. “Ok, you hate loud cities, I didn’t know that. Ok, you like cooking almost all of your own food, also didn’t know that. Ok, you have felt stuck in survival mode, that makes sense.”

Being unplugged and in the woods is my nervous system medicine. That, and my own therapy, my feeling of purpose when I get to work with my clients, and the meaning making I do around my trauma, and the trauma of my ancestors. This isn’t self help, this is having a body. This is listening to that body. This is making sense of your trauma, of being honest about the stress levels in your life, and understanding how to support yourself. Life is still hard, horrible things still happen, but when we aren’t lost in our devices, we have our connection to our body, to our feelings, to our lives. This is what guides us. It’s still technology, but it’s deep within us, it’s ancient.

So much of self help or somatic therapy is about “coping tools and advice”. This idea, of reconnecting with our bodies, nervous systems, and feelings, and putting down our phones, isn’t really a tool or a piece of advice. It’s just how we are biologically designed. We are meant to be responding to our nervous system, our body, our feelings, not ignoring them. We are meant to be expressing ourselves, in big, loud, creative ways, not silently scrolling. We are meant to be in deep relationship to one another and to this land, not stuck at our desks alone. We live as we were meant to when we are ignoring ourselves and being manipulated into being online, constantly. Or so disconnected from our ancestors' traditions, or our core needs as humans. Or always working. Capitalism only allows us so much, and we have to take what we can. Technology often robs us of the time we do have for us.

Maybe for you, it's not your phone. It’s over working, or drinking too much, or being in relationships that don’t support your authentic self. Maybe it's all of them. Either way, listening to our body, your nervous system, and being compassionate to all parts of yourself is how you get unstuck.

It’s time to start listening. It’s time to get free.

Resources on Digital Minimalism:

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

My workshop, Digital Minimalism

How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell

How to be Bored by Eva Hoffman

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