Blog reflections by Elizabeth Shoop, LPC
Q: What matters most in my life this week?
A: Sacred work.
My work is not simply CBT or "talk therapy". I have been called to sacred work and somatic work. This week's affirmation: "I am equipped, experienced and qualified uniquely for this work, and I am being gifted and guided with all needed resources."
Most often, my counseling clients arrive outwardly focused, consumed with unbounded thoughts about accomplishment, productivity, evaluation, and judgement. They are following unconscious drives and interpretations that they blindly accept as truth. That's not to say that this is a wrong or disordered way to be; we all live this way to some extent (particularly in this country) because we've been conditioned by meritocracy and a narrow definition of success driven by consumerism, greed and acquisition. (Don't get me started.)
My greatest hope, desire and invitation to my clients is to settle in, and let this hour be different from the rest of the day. (And then perhaps, the rest of their day may be different as well. Or maybe not, and that's OK too.)
My invitation is to lay aside worries and burdens and take a deep dive inward, where the real machinery resides that determines the direction of our lives.
The self talk
The conditioning of past experiences
The subconscious beliefs that are either limiting or expanding
The Soul; the space where we connect to something larger, our source, or whatever that means to the client.
When we dwell in an outward-focused, cognitive, behavioral approach to life, we neglect these all-powerful, unseen drives that motivate us, and often hold the insight and instructions needed to solve our problems.
Trust the process.
Once I've issued the invitation and offered some quiet time to fully land, all I do is trust the process. I believe that each client comes fully equipped with the answers they seek. My job is to set the scene and circumstances that will allow their innate wisdom to surface.
Some clients will indulge in my mindful moment as a kickoff to the session, and then pop back up to the surface level of thinking and talking about problems. That works too; I can hold space for that. And if they did accept the invitation to get still and quiet, to turn inward, even for a moment, I will have held space for something special and unique from the rest of their day. Perhaps I've planted a seed.
Then, my work in that sacred space is to provide safety, privacy, warmth and unconditional acceptance. Doesn't that sound luxurious, like something we all long for? It is very rewarding to provide that needed nourishment to others. Research shows that the active ingredient in effective counseling is not technique, theory or skill, but the quality of relational connection between client and counselor.
As I observe and witness the client's moment by moment expression, sometimes I have insight based on what I know about psychology, human development, and neuroscience, and I share that insight. I might offer a book recommendation, website or podcast for further insight between sessions.
Other times, I receive a download of intuition, and I've come to trust that enough to share it too. It may be a thought, image, diagram, story, metaphor or vision. I have learned to honor these downloads and offer them as a gift to the client, to do with as they wish.
What is the body saying?
Besides observing, witnessing, and offering insight and intuition, I also pay keen attention to the wisdom of the body; both the client's and my own. (An umbrella term for this is Somatic Therapy.) Overt or subtle, the body is always speaking.
A stiff neck
A dry throat, asking for water
Jumpy legs that seem to have somewhere to go
A spine that wants to curl in for protection, or stand up tall and strong
Even yawns and stretches are acknowledged as the body sending a message.
[A side note about yawns... they don't mean that you're bored or sleepy. Yawns happen when the lower lobes of the lungs are filled with stagnant air and the rib cage needs an extended expansion, and the airway needs extra openness to expel it. The body does this reflexively, often adding outstretched arms and a lovely arch in the back to engage muscles that have been dormant.]
Anyway, back to somatic awareness.
So, what's my work in somatic awareness? I simply note my observation and state it to the client, for their interpretation.
"Did you notice your hands made fists when you said that?"
Or I ask an open-ended question.
"What are you noticing in your body as you tell me that?"
Sometimes these moments of awareness are doorways to new insights I call "light bulb moments". Or not, and that's OK too. The client has become aware of their embodied state for that moment, and that matters a lot. Another seed planted.
So, what matters for me this Monday? Here are my takeaways:
I encourage you to ask yourself,
"What matters most for me today?"
And observe whatever happens next in your mind, body or soul. Write it down or tell a friend.
Settle in, and trust your process.
I learned something new yesterday from the Huberman Lab podcast. (Highly recommend, by the way.) The episode was about gratitude practice. I already know that gratitude is a powerful healing agent for the body and mind, a fact that is supported by scads of solid scientific research.
But here’s what I didn’t know…
The power of gratitude is not in “counting your blessings” or naming 20 things you’re grateful for this week. The real healing power, according to research, is in RECEIVING gratitude.
That’s out of my control. How can I practice gratitude consistently if I have to wait until someone else decides to tell me something they appreciate about me? I will unabashedly admit that appreciation is my rocket fuel; to know I’ve made a positive difference in someone’s life is what keeps me going. So, these findings didn’t surprise me at all, but I was left with the question, how?
Huberman went on to explain the power of STORY; a fundamental way we as humans hold the meaning of past or even imaginary scenarios. We all know a good story when we hear one, and we know that stories have the power to make us feel, to take us “right back” to a meaningful time.
This morning I went to a notebook on my desk labeled “Sacred Connections”, the repository where I keep records, content, information and feedback from the retreats I facilitate. At the last retreat, we offered the opportunity for attendees to express gratitude by placing note cards in envelopes throughout the weekend to capture a specific trait, act or example of how another person had impacted us positively.
I delved back into the envelope with my name on it. I am deeply moved and overwhelmed by the affirming words of these beautiful souls. But it didn’t stop with the words on the cards. I remembered the stories. They came back so easily, so vividly, refilling my tank with rocket fuel to continue the work.
Hopefully by now your brain is starting to search for a story or two that causes you to feel gratitude for another person. Don’t keep it to yourself, please share it with another person who will be blessed to hear how they’ve made a difference. It’s not just words or sentences. It’s a story that will bring healing and restoration to their mind, body and spirit.
It is medicine.
“Hey I was just thinking about you, and I remembered that time when… “
Let’s bring a wave of healing medicine to those around us today, and tomorrow, and as much as possible.
“What’s in a name?”
If you’ve been following my work for a while, you may notice some new branding and a new practice name; Rivers Way Counseling.
Naming is a big deal. Names hold tremendous power, meaning, and intention for that which is named. I guess that’s why I took my time with discernment, inspiration, and becoming clear about my business name. In this blog, I’ll share the personal, vocational and spiritual layers of meaning behind Rivers Way.
Rivers Way pays homage to my background; the headwaters that formed me and started me flowing on my way.
Rivers was my first last name, and it feels fitting to weave in honor for my parents, without whom this Little River would not be flowing. I honor their currents: twists and bends; rapids and banks. And of course, the ancestral springs, streams and environmental factors that spawned their journeys as well.
“I’m carried along like a leaf on the river of faith, and
I’ll float… all the way home.”
Andrew Petersen, Carried Along (Lyrics)
The hours and days and nights spent adventuring along the Little River in Montgomery and Floyd Counties were formative. This time cultivated my spirit of adventure and courage that ultimately fuels the fires of leadership and entrepreneurship within me; which has enabled me to start my own business.
There are so many profound moments in my life that have occurred near flowing waters; way too many to mention here. But, from those first splashes on the pebble beach, to my most recent retreats held in a nourishing bend in the North River; the Rivers Way has marked my course.
Now that you have some background from my personal life, here’s how the river theme flows into my work as a counselor and facilitator of change.
Two key literary passages encapsulate my course of therapy and my passion for offering retreats. The poem “Fear” from the book The Prophet by Khalil Gibran provides symbolism that allows us to visualize the journey of life, but also aptly describes the journey of counseling or therapy for myself and many of my clients.
by Khalil Gibran
It is said that before entering the sea
A river trembles with fear.
She looks back at the path she has traveled,
from the peaks of the mountains,
the long winding road crossing forests and villages.
And in front of her,
she sees an ocean so vast,
that to enter
there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.
But there is no other way.
The river can not go back.
Nobody can go back.
To go back is impossible in existence.
The river needs to take the risk
of entering the ocean
because only then will fear disappear
because that’s where the river will know
it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,
but of becoming the ocean.
This poem visually and viscerally represents to me what the therapy journey is like; the juxtaposition of fear and courage it takes to become something new, and yet original. It is my privilege to take this voyage alongside my clients for a stretch of time and witness their courage to continue moving and progressing toward their destination (counseling goals), which is symbolized by the river entering the sea. At the same time, therapy recognizes their oneness and completeness on their own, while also fostering that oneness within the shelter of each other, and back into the ultimate Source.
The second passage, from Secrets of the Heart by Khalil Gibran, adeptly captures why I do retreats. This passion began in Girl Scout jamborees and riverside campfires, and meanders through a long history of attending retreats as a participant. Then, in 2018, I stepped onto the Holy Ground of facilitating nature-based retreats for others. In this passage, Gibran describes what happens at these retreats…
“Your Truth shall meet my Truth
And blend together like the fragrance of flowers
And become one whole and eternal Truth,
Perpetuating and living in the eternity of Love and Beauty.
Humanity, which you and I together share,
Is a brilliant river singing its way,
And carrying with it the mountain’s secrets
Into the heart of the sea.”
These two passages help keep me anchored to my vocational calling. And I cannot speak of calling without exploring the Source of the call…
The river is a strong symbol of the spiritual path woven throughout many religious traditions and sacred texts. But also, the word “Way” comes into play here as a very intentional and significant part of the name I chose.
In the Christian tradition (also my headwaters), the early church was originally known simply as “The Way.” Jesus identified himself by this term, saying, “I am the Way, the truth and the life…”
The Taoist tradition emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao, the ultimate source of everything. While the Tao is famous for its indescribable essence, the closest symbolic translation is “way;” the proper way to fully come into being, using practices that lead toward spiritual perfection or enlightenment (Perhaps, what the Christian tradition calls salvation.)
Maybe these two different traditions refer to the same “way;” the way of living water which flows from source to Source, within the riverbanks of form, along the tumult of currents and surges, soft but strong, giving but unrelenting, passive yet determined to reach its destination.
Perhaps there is only one Way to the source of existence, as the Christian scriptures suggest. Jesus was the embodiment of the way, demonstrating the right Way to navigate the tenuousness of being an earthly body in divine flow; while the Tao describes the very same Way in more symbolic, mystical, archetypal language and imagery.
Of course, many world religions and ethnogenic traditions refer to water as a divine representation of spiritual truth. I enjoy the innumerable ways I see these paths converge into a ubiquitous Truth, which is good news for all.
Yes, Rivers Way Counseling seems to be the most succinct way to convey the many layers of meaning and purpose of my practice of counseling and creating sacred spaces for growth and transformation. Three words that come together to convey why I do what I do; personally, professionally, spiritually.
Rivers Way can be an analogy for all of us. We’re all on our own journeys, with wild rapids, easy currents, and moments where we need to bring the boat ashore so we can take a break. Every journey has meaning and purpose, and each one is unique - just like each of us, our backgrounds, our beliefs, and whatever else makes each of us. But, ultimately, every one of our rivers leads into the source - the sacred Oneness.
I’m here to help you on your journey, and to share tools, resources, and support to guide you on this great adventure. I hope that Rivers Way Counseling can be a part of your journey in some way.
Remember that time at the beach when you got knocked over by a huge wave? I think most people can relate. I sure can.
One minute you're wading happily along or swimming peacefully, somehow instinctively knowing when to tread water, jump, or plant your feet so the waves just roll on by.
But, this next wave seems different. As it swells and builds muscle, you get the ominous feeling you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. First the crest, and then the crash!
The next thing you know you're off your feet, underwater, in a swirl of sand and bubbles. You're unsure which way is up, until you become all too familiar with the ocean floor, collecting sand in strange places. Finally, you're tossed up on the beach like a salty rag doll, with hair askew, eyes red and sinuses stinging.
I've been there! The lesson is seared in our memory; stay out of the the white water. As long as we avoid that unmanageable zone where everything moves fast, chaotic and unbounded, we can simply ride the waves and enjoy a day in the sun (without sand in strange places).
Our thoughts are like waves on the seas of life.
When our busy minds build momentum, wayward thoughts gather strength, crest, crash, and become chaotic. We can be emotionally up-ended, disoriented, battered, scathed, and spent. I can certainly relate to this scenario too.
I want to share a lesson that I've found tremendously helpful. If we can learn to observe our thoughts, we can carefully choose our position in relation to them, navigate away from the tumult, maintain our emotional footing, or simply float as the surge gently swells and ebbs away.
Daily mindfulness practice helps me stay out of the mental riptides that can carry my focus and attention away from where I want to be. Through regular use of mindfulness skills, I've learned that if I am aware of my thoughts, I'm less likely to be carried away by them. The more I practice paying attention to my mindwaves without getting caught up in them, I can stay on solid ground cognitively and emotionally. Gradually over time, I can say I experience peace of mind more often, don't get thrown off course as easily, and I can fall asleep faster during times of stress.
Of course, I still get knocked for a loop occasionally when I'm not paying attention. Thought surfing takes a lot of practice, but it is well worth the effort.
"You can't stop the waves,
but you can learn to surf."