C is for Calm

Jul 8
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

C is for Calm

I lay on a beach towel on the warm, white sand and let the sun glaze my skin. Waves wash ashore gently, and I am in a state between waking and sleeping—totally serene, totally at ease. Nothing in my body is activated and ready to defend because THERE IS NO DANGER, real or perceived. This is a state of calm.

I remember these few moments while traveling to Panama. We had taken a side trip to one of the Bocas del Toro islands and I was committed to total relaxation for a few days.  That moment on the beach when, surrounded by nothing but warm air and the sound of palm tree leaves rustling and ocean waves lapping, is the safe place I go in my mind after my therapist and I do deep work to heal painful memories.

The opposite of calm is where I’ve lived most of my life. Oh, I know how to look centered (another “C” word) on the outside, but much of the time I am fighting to keep my equilibrium. Don’t get me wrong, my inner life isn’t utter turmoil and writhing, but my set point has been a certain amount of constant vigilance. Why? Well, not to blame my parents, but the truth is that I was born into a very, very, very activated context. I can imagine how scary life must have been for two teenagers foisted into parenthood before their brains were even fully developed.

My earliest memories were of screaming matches between my parents. Father drinking, mother flailing her arms and throwing things across the room in desperate anger. Chaos. In one fight, my mother threw a full glass of milk at my dad’s head. He ducked, but was doused by the splatter when the glass hit the wall. Then, my usually passive father came after her with a whole carton, set on dumping it over her head. My mother screamed at all of us to run into the laundry room, where we huddled, holding the door shut by shoving the massive piles of dirty laundry up against it until my dad calmed down.

Moments like that—especially when many such moments are strung together over a childhood—change a child’s brain, you know? Her emotional thermometer will be set for “watch for anger, stay out of the way of danger.” And CALM becomes illusive.

Since my first foray into a therapist’s office thirty years ago, I came to understand that my neuropathways were formed around fear. Never mind blame, okay? I don’t blame either of my parents for their unskillful approach to childrearing, and I know they did the best they could, but that does not change what happened to the brain. The brain doesn’t calm down just because we forgive. The parasympathetic nervous system learns its lessons young and, though we consciously make efforts to gain insight into the past, insight does not change the body’s clenching when someone throws something or when an angry face scowls at you.

What then? How to gain calm?

Picture yourself on a beach with the sun glazing your skin. Nothing to be afraid of. No place to go. See the serenity of your surroundings and direct the shoulders, chest, forehead to relax.

Calm, I am FINALLY finding out (bummer I didn’t learn this in therapy school), comes through the body, not the mind. Polyvagal theory explains this: that perceived danger first activates fight/flight, then shutdown. But if we can regulate the response of the nervous system through self-soothing or what is called “co-regulation” with a trusted other person who is present to support, then calm is the result.

Nowadays, I am regularly taking time away from everything (even if it means some things don’t get done) and regulating my breathing, relaxing my muscles, and lying on the beach.

Try it. Can you feel the calm?

B is for Beliefs

Jul 7
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

B is for Belief

I used to be a person of faith. There was a time when I knew what I believed: The Four Spiritual Laws, the Five Points of Calvinism, the Apostle’s Creed. My beliefs were assents to doctrines I was told would save my soul. And I believed those who told me this.

I believed because I was young when I encountered these doctrines and because my heart was broken with my parents’ divorce, my father’s easy slip into addiction, and my mother’s quick remarriage to someone who was a stranger to us. I believed because I wanted someone to be present for me and to love me and to give my life structure. God did that for me, as did His Bride, the Church. I had a family with them for many years.

And then I lost my ability to believe. What happened was that I lived with a constant pall over my head about hell. Not believing the doctrines properly would mean my soul would be in hell for eternity. And I thought this was true for all of my friends who didn’t believe them too. Every day for almost twenty years I vibrated with a quiet terror that my beliefs might not REALLY be up to par, and certainly that some people I loved were guaranteed to suffer forever in a lake of fire. The pressure to proselytize was a constant stress. I couldn’t sink into restful appreciation for my own salvation while everyone else was facing eternal execution. I couldn’t even hold a “regular” job spending 8 hours a day doing tasks unrelated to bringing my “good news” to the world with terrible guilt.

In graduate school, something changed. I encountered the term “social construction.” Stay with me here; I know this is heady. A socially constructed “truth” is an idea that a bunch of people agree on SO much and SO hard that everyone begins to believe it and accepts it as real. Money is a great example. Money runs our world, but only because we all agree that paper stamped with our government’s symbols (or numbers on a bank statement) are valuable.  It serves us to construct a reality that allows us to buy and sell using money exchange instead of making direct trades (a therapy session for a basket full of veggies from your garden, for instance).

I started really, really thinking about the things I believed and began to understand that the doctrines I held were literally decided on by groups of men sitting down to agree on what was true (hello Council of Trent and thanks).

And I lost my beliefs (not my faith, you understand, but more on that when we get to F).

Over the ensuing years (about 15) I’ve wished I could believe specific things about divinity, intelligent design, the afterlife, etc. But I’ve remained largely agnostic about these things. Why pretend to know something that isn’t knowable? (I have my suspicions, you understand, but they don’t rise to the level of beliefs.)

I’m ready now, however, to reclaim a creed. And the last three years of loss and death and grieving have given me some experiences to base my beliefs on. So here’s my new doctrine. I call it the Five Points of Cami:

  • Real friends who know you well can and often will make space for you to be messy, crabby, and confused. Don’t take advantage of this, but be grateful when you f*ck up and they let it go.
  • Dogs are the only real source of unconditional love but some cats and some people can provide supplemental connection, support, wisdom, and cuddles.
  • The practical stuff you need for living can always be replaced if you need to start over, but self-respect is something a person must never walk out on.
  • “Salvation,” if there is such a thing, ONLY exists in this present moment. Being alive to what is true RIGHT NOW inside your body is the only eternal aliveness there is.
  • Kindness, compassion, and curiosity about the experiences of others are sacraments. Even practiced imperfectly and infrequently, they will expand a person’s capacity for connection with others and for joy.

So that’s it. My new set of beliefs. And when I re-read them, I don’t feel a vibration of anxiety that other people might not agree with them. I only feel relief. Like, “Yeah, these beliefs can guide my life and inform decisions I may need to make. Good enough.”

Do you have a creed? Would love to hear it.

 

 

A is for Adventure

Jul 5
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice

For the past several years in April, my friend Pam has blogged through the alphabet. I’ve usually followed along with admiration that she’s been able to crank out a coherent piece of writing for 26 consecutive days. Even in my most prolific blogging days while I was running all over the world, I only averaged one or two blogs per week. But I was out for a run yesterday and had a train of thought that has made me decide to blog through the alphabet. Let’s say it’s certainly my intent to finish A through Z, and I’ll do my best to crank these out before the end of July.

Here’s what I thought about on my run that led me to this commitment:

The past three years have been hard years for me. I mean f*cking super hard, like the kind of hard you hope doesn’t happen more than once in your life. I left a relationship that meant a lot to me but was not working for me; I moved away from my home and my community; my grandmother who helped raise me passed away; grandpa died of a brain tumor shortly after she passed; my cat of 16 years, Bronte, died a few months after that; I started two meaningful but time-consuming and expensive businesses to get myself back up to my earning potential and to support my life in Seattle; I got shingles; my little pug Jane was sick for a year and then died; my remaining pet, Fuji, has had a series of expensive and painful illnesses that has left her bladder leaking everywhere, plus she’s a basket case after everything we’ve been through and she has panic attacks when I leave her alone.

You see what I mean? It’s been a hard three years. Some of this I’ve had control over, obviously. Some of the choices I’ve made have felt like the best choices I knew how to make in difficult circumstances, but they were my choices. Other items on this list are things that just happened. Old people and animals get sick and die. The fact of this doesn’t make the loss hurt less, but it does mean I had a reasonable expectation that those deaths were likely to happen sometime soon. Maybe that helped alleviate even MORE pain than I might have experienced. I’m not sure.

But anyway, lately I’ve been telling my therapist (um, yeah, for SURE I’ve been seeing my therapist through all of this) that I think I’ve forgotten how to be happy. Even the travel I’ve done during this time (England once, France twice), the support I’ve had from good friends (a ton), the marathons I’ve run in the past three years (2), and the fact that my businesses have been successful have not led to much relief from my grief and acute anxiety. And I’ve been grieving for so long now, that I’ve started to get worried I forgot how to feel anything nice. Worry, rumination over my choices, sadness, and strategizing to get back on my feet have taken a toll on my energy (and my weight—I gained 15 pounds, which I’ve never done in my adult life before).

Two weeks ago S__ (my therapist) and I made a list of the feeling states I can’t seem to muster. Things like joy, calm, optimism, playfulness. And we started to hatch a plan for me to generate these states of being in my mind/body experience through meditation, thought-stopping negative trains of thought, self-soothing, and visualization. Unfortunately, the “vitality” emotions go underground when you experience a lot of trauma. There seems to be some evidence that the part of the brain that generates joy, for example, takes a backseat when fight/flight/freeze is repeatedly stimulated by sustained adrenaline.

Yesterday while I was running, something that used to give me enormous joy, I thought, “How could I get this to make me happy again? Maybe I could focus on one vitality state a day for the rest of the month—really drum it up in my memory, thoughts and in my somatic experience.” And then I thought of Pam’s blogging through the alphabet, and I realized I could share my process with you, dear readers (are you still out there?).

I don’t mind being vulnerable with you because I know you’ve had sh!t times in your life too. I know you’re on this metaphorical marathon with me. That you’ve lost a lot, failed at love, wished you could feel happy, and wondered how to get yourself back from tough circumstances.

There are 26 letters in the alphabet, so let’s call this 26.2 States of Vitality. Are you with me?

I’m reading through a book right now with my therapist that I’ll share from as I go (Relational and Body-Centered Practices for Healing trauma: Lifting the Burdens of the Past by Sharon Stanley). I’m sure I’ll add ideas from other books I’ve read, too, since I’m a bit of a self-help junkie. And maybe you’ll share what you know with me and together we can generate widespread somatic experiences of vitality—otherwise known as happiness.

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (From the Bible, Ecclesiastes 3.)

I’ve had enough of the die, kill, weep, mourn, lose, rend, keep silent, hate, war business, haven’t you?

Let’s start with A.

A is for Adventure. Throughout my entire adult life, adventure has been crucial to my sense of well-being in the world. Next to “being of service,” something that I’ve been committed to since I was small, seeking adventurous experiences through travel and risk have given me immense joy and have made me feel expansive.

I remember the trip I took with my dear grandmother to Norway in 2002. We planned it during my divorce.  She wanted to get my mind off my sadness, and I wanted her to see Norway. Her father came over to the new country as a young man, and she had done a bunch of genealogy to find family she hoped to connect with. I was 35. She was 75, and I knew we ought to get this trip done before her mobility failed her. I also knew I was the most likely person in the family to take her since I was the person who had done the most international travel, and it was already like second nature to me.

When we got to Norway, we settled in with a cousin of hers who graciously agreed to host us. Each morning I took a long walk through the countryside in an area outside of Oslo while Gram talked with her cousin and recaptured her ear for the Norwegian she’d heard spoken as a child.

Maybe the elders were worried I would be bored, because our host arranged for me to take a motorcycle ride with a friend of his.

Ingar showed up dressed in leather and riding a sleek crotch rocket. I was VERY reluctant to don the red leather suit he handed to me and to climb on the back of his motorcycle for a zip through the Norwegian mountains. But I’d recently promised myself that I would embrace new opportunities put before me as much as possible, so I tried on the suit. It fit perfectly.

I’m not going to lie to you. That day on the back of Ingar’s motorcycle was an uncomfortable day for me. I didn’t want to wrap my arms around a stranger’s waist, so I held onto the little bar behind my seat all day and made the muscles in my arms ache with gripping as we swerved left and right through the countryside.

Finally, near the end of the day, Ingar said to me, “Do you want to see how fast my bike can go?”

Um. No, I thought.

I should mention that Ingar was not a young man. He was twenty years my senior and someone I couldn’t peg down with a clear judgment. Was he an older man who wished he was still young or a kindred spirit who enjoyed taking calculated risks? The answer to that question would help me decide whether or not to see how fast his bike could go. Was he foolish? Or fun? I took the chance he was the latter.

“Sure,” I said.

“Well, you’ll have to put your arms around me so the center of gravity is right. Then we’ll go as fast as we can on this straightaway.”

I did. And we did.

Ingar took us from zero to one hundred on a mountain road while I hung on for dear life.

And I felt my heart open.

At the end of the day, I knew I’d let life happen. I’d started out controlling it. Deciding I could keep myself back from full engagement, that I might give myself away too much (which I certainly have a habit of doing). But by the end I’d felt something new. Adventure had crept inside me.

So what’s this feeling in my body I want to experience now, informed by that memory?

Open.

Deep breaths.

Awe of beauty. A sense of bigness in my heart cavity.

A letting go into the possibility of death. An absence of a pressure in my forehead that I usually carry around when I’m trying to protect myself from bad things happening.

Heart flutters.

No thoughts of the future for one beautiful moment of time.

Can you feel it my friends? I can. I can feel the openness. For one day, let’s live here. I will if you will.

 

Ragnar and Second Wind Seminar

Aug 2
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice, Conversations, Race Reports, Read This, Reflections, SHINE

How Do You Know When It Is Time to Make a Change?

“If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.” –Abraham Maslow

The weekend before last I participated in the Northwest Passage Ragnar Relay. This is a 192-mile relay run that snakes its way mostly on back roads from the Canadian border down to Whidbey Island, where teams are rewarded with pizza and beer for being crazy enough to stay awake and on the move for nearly two full days. I was runner number twelve on our team of twelve—the last runner, a position I’m used to and comfortable with.

On one of my legs (the second one of three), the one that started at 5:30 on Saturday morning, I ran for nine miles alone over rolling hills on streets surrounded by evergreen trees. I watched the morning gently emerge and appreciated the coolness in the air even as I was beginning to feel the heat the day promised to burn down on the runner who would take the baton from me.

22389948_race_0.9799319939245625.displayBecause I hadn’t slept for twenty-four hours and was addled with fatigue, my attention was hazy. There wasn’t much traffic, so I didn’t fear a run-in with a car, but I did worry about getting lost. Runners were spread out so far that there were several points on the course when I couldn’t see anyone in front of or behind me. I was grateful that Ragnar had placed signs at every turn. This meant I could do the work of running—placing one tired footfall after the next in a rhythm that echoed the beat of the music playing in my ear—without pulling up the map of the route on my phone. I could focus on the task at hand until a three-foot high blue sign with a red flashing light and an arrow appeared on a street corner.

I never lost my way.

Only later, after a couple nights of good sleep, when I was reflecting on the race during one of my morning meditations, did I realize that those big blue Ragnar signs were a terrific metaphor for something I’ve heard many of my clients talking about in therapy sessions lately. At least five different people have recently said something like this to me: “All of a sudden, when my child left for college (or when my spouse died/when I received this diagnosis/when I got divorced), I realized something had to change. I can’t keep on in this meaningless job (or this cement jungle/this lifeless relationship/this breakneck schedule).”

Follow meMy clients are naming something really important: Life sends us signs when we need to make a change. Events, be they crises or normal life-cycle transitions, are very often signals meant to tell us that it is time to up-level our commitment to life, that it’s time to turn a corner and change directions. Our circumstances call us to re-evaluate our approach to our activities and to our relationships (with self, significant others, work, the body, etc.).

Though change can be anxiety provoking, it’s also an opportunity to upgrade your self-image and renew your vision for your future. It is a chance to catch a second wind for the miles ahead.

I’d love to share with you what my clients are discovering in our work together about how to follow the signs to change direction.

Join me for a FREE tele-conference called:
How to Catch Your Second Wind:
Transforming into the Next and Best Version of Yourself

I’ll be sharing with you what I’ve been guiding my clients through:
The three key tasks that you need to complete in order to catch a second wind.
The number one habit you need to incorporate in your life in order to upgrade your Self-confidence.
How to master jumping over the biggest hurdle that keeps people stuck when they hit a crisis or major life change.

When: Wednesday, August 12 at 5:30pm Pacific Time
Where: On the phone. In the comfort of your own home.
How to sign up: Send me an email (clostman@live.com) with “Second Wind Workshop” in the subject line. I’ll send you the conference number and a reminder email.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” –Mary Oliver

(Note: If you don’t want to be added to my emailing list when you sign up for the tele-workshop, let me know.)

The “I” in SHINE

Feb 4
Posted by Cami Ostman Filed in Advice, Reflections, SHINE

The “I” in SHINE

Invest in your relationships wisely.

Investment

Because I grew up in a home with dysfunction and chaos (who didn’t?), I learned early in life that I had to cast a wide net for healthy relationships. My four grandparents were the loves of my life, and I had many teachers and neighbors who took me under their wings and taught me what it meant to feel loved and cherished. Over the years, I’ve intentionally cultivated friendships with people who could show up for me during both good and hard times, people who would let me cry on their shoulders as well as call me to the carpet if I was out of line.

A few years ago, I developed for my clients a four-quadrant model (which I will go over in my 7-week SHINE program) of different kinds of relationships that they were likely to recognize when they were working toward their goals. I’ve taught this model at workshops and in private sessions over the years.

All this is to say that I’m not new to thinking about how to invest wisely in relationships.

But while I was away from my home and all of my day-in/day-out relationships, I had the chance to do something I’d never done before. I started from scratch. Because I didn’t know a soul when I arrived in Concepcion, I had to build friendships from ground zero. And this gave me a chance to observe how I did it—and how others do it, too. Below is just a summary of what I observed and an outline of what we will talk about in depth in the SHINE program:

  1. To build a friendship with someone, you have to BE the kind of friend you would want to have. The number one thing you need to have in place in order to have good relationships with other people is solid self-esteem. You have to know you are someone you yourself can trust. Sounds simple, right? But this is easier said than done. Most of us struggle to believe we are worth the effort we want others to put out toward us.
  2. To cultivate and deepen a relationship, you must choose to commit to time with people before you know if they are likely to turn into life-long friends. In other words, you have to take a leap of faith and be willing to adjust your commitment level as you get to know someone and what they are bringing to the table.
  3. You have to find a balance between being vulnerable and over-sharing. Every level of friendship requires both letting go of defenses in order to build connection and holding back so you don’t give away too much too soon. Figuring out what this right balance is with each person you know is an art.
  4. You have to be willing to fall in love even though you know your heart might get broken. I knew right from the first day in Chile that if I really put my heart and soul into building friendships, I would be crushed when I had to say goodbye. But, “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” as Alfred Lord Tennyson said. Satisfying relationships require that we put ourselves in the way of heartbreak. This means we’ve got to be brave.Now, to be fair, I didn’t learn all of this in Chile. In addition to my own life-long quest to build healthy relationships, I’ve also been working as a therapist for fifteen years with people who often bring their loneliness into the consulting room. What I did learn in my travels is that when you know how to do relationship, you take that skill with you everywhere you go.In the 7-week SHINE program, we’ll be talking about my four-quadrant categories of relationships as well as discussing how to cultivate the four friendship stances listed above (to review: be the kind of friend you want to have, take calculated leaps of faith, find balance in your “friendship offerings,” and open your heart to others). Here are details about how to join in.

    SHINE program details:
    When: Seven Thursdays, beginning February 25. 4:00-5:30pm PST (with an additional 30 minutes afterwards for discussion applicable especially for writers).
    Where: On the phone. Conference call-in numbers provided to participants.
    What: Lecture, opportunities to be coached, homework assignments, bonus writing assignments.
    Cost: $99