Respect Our Elders

We have an old maple tree on our land, one of many actually, it’s got some dead wood on it and probably some internal disintegrating rot. If it falls, cracks, breaks, it might damage our fences, or maybe our barn, or maybe not. I’ve lived closer to big trees before, even awoke one night to a doug fir 2 feet thick landing a few feet from the cabin I lived in. I have friends who have cut trees in fear of property damage and know people who have sustained damage to their homes from tree fall, but fortunately I have not. I regularly thank the trees that live near me for gracing my life, and providing wild habitat and beauty. Magical thinking tells me they are willing to stay alive amid the air pollution, night time lights and noise, and they will try not to fall on me. Time will tell. My respect for their right to life is greater than my fear of the risks. Some day that may change.the giving tree

But the phrase respect our elders more frequently brings to mind an old wrinkled man in a tribal culture or a grandmother with a twinkle in her eye recounting stories of long ago to a clutch of grandchildren. Old people we can turn to for advice wisdom and guidance. These elders are easy to respect they ask for little and give much, quietly supporting the upcoming generations.

Not all our elders look like this, many are cranky, confused, demanding and irrational. My Mother who is 95 walks into the kitchen at 5:30pm and disdainfully says ”is there any thing for me to eat?”. There is always food in our house, lots of food. We cook three hot meals a day for her, but because she can’t cook for herself she feels at the mercy of our whims. And we feel confined by her expectations “everyone puts dinner on the table at 5pm”.

My mother does not have raging dementia. She forgets I told her she needed to come to town with me this afternoon, and she forgets that she can ask for what she wants. Giving her a hot chocolate and cookie at 3:30 in the afternoon for a snack is met with “oh does this mean there will be no dinner?” She runs anxiety around meals and getting to the hairdresser on time, or that the ladder left against a tree in the yard might invite a thief to lean it against her balcony and enter her room. She worries when I leave the house and tells me I should stay home more. My Mom doesn’t hear well and says “thank you” or “I know” to anything you say to her and so she also initiates conversation (sort of) when others are deep in conversation. We are lucky my mother is not combative, she dresses and feeds herself, spends most of the day reading and listening to music in her room and she can be quite with it and pleasant at times. But there is a big emotional pull, she tracks me with the neediness of a toddler.

I’ve never had a very close relationship with my Mother, in some ways that makes it easier. I know I will provide her with a safe warm home, good food, some sense of control and when I have the energy, social opportunities. I cope with the strain on my primary relationship, the inconvenience, the annoyances because she and all elders deserve the respect to live with some dignity and with people who are there not just because they are desperate for a job. (I do know many work in elder care with love and respect.) My life circumstances allow me to do this, I work from home; my partner and our children chip in all the time. So I get to sit in the sun at the water’s edge on this frosty day as I write.

What does it take to respect our elders? Not just the wise, active one but the sick ones, the ones who’s nervous systems are disintegrating unseen under their wisps of fine grey hair. We must learn to respect our elders not for what they give back to our culture (although that can be considerable) but because each human deserves to live their life out with a sense of belonging just the way the trees belong. Right now I can do that, someday that may change.

image from Shel Silversteins the Giving Tree













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I hate that song!

Nothing is more frustrating than pain that comes back again when really you know you have to be healed by now. Yet so many of us find that ever since we hurt that foot or shoulder or back we now have a “bad” back. We are sure It’s never going to be the same or it flares up when I’m tired stressed and can’t afford to stop.

When we get injured the tissues heal in about 6 weeks, each body is different but repair is pretty quick and efficient. That’s the muscles and skin and tendons etc. the physical nerves and bone might take a little longer. But the nervous system can keep on singing that pain song for a long time. Like the insipid radio jingle from years gone by it pops up again when you’d least expect it.

I found the analogy of a pain song so useful. I read it in my new favorite book Explain Pain (by David Butler and Lorimer Moseley). If the brain is an orchestra it can make an innumerable number of sounds. The art is combining those sounds to make recognizable music. The more a song gets played the more accessible it is, it becomes a tune we know so very well that we can’t seem to get away from it.saxophone-hd-wallpaper-background-3yp

The brain is using input from the body and from itself and forming neuro-sequences, the sounds of the orchestra. Input from the body that sends injury messages will usually make the brain come up with a pain song.

If your broken bone has long mended and it isn’t hurt tissues making your brain play the pain song, what is? Thoughts, beliefs, memories, movements, sensations, all the pieces of information (or sounds from your orchestra) coming together in a specific sequence. Bang! There is that tune again. When you know the song really well, you don’t need the sheet music, the first line gets you singing. Or if you’re really good at it, the opening two notes are enough.

Neuroscience calls this phenomena associative networks or neurotags, when just one piece leads you to the whole. That is how the brain can get so much work done so fast. The assembling of memories or movements or pain comes together by relying on past patterns. Little bits of sensation, emotion, thought, or movement that become linked by activating each other.

As you know, your pain song was loud when you hurt yourself so you would stop and get safe. If you didn’t stop and take care of yourself more instruments joined the song building the volume and complexity. But you probably aren’t in the same danger now, yet your brain has learned to associate the thought, movement, sensation, memory, temperature, or your Aunt Hilda with danger. The associative networks are connecting because your brain isn’t going to take any chances this time.

Learning this pain song took a lot of practice, over and over, sometimes loud, sometimes just a single clarinet quietly playing that familiar tune. To keep us safe our brains pay way more attention to danger or potential danger or even it kinda looks like some danger we once knew. And it all happens below consciousness so you can keep doing the grocery shopping, or following the conversation at work or whatever needs your attention. If you brain is convinced there is a real problem it will create pain without cluttering your conscious mind with the details. You can get that song in your head and you don’t even know how it started.

So one of the ways to unlearn the pain song is to mess with the notes. Find a not painful song that starts with the same sound, can you just sustain that one sound without pain? Even for a few seconds? It might be a small but fluid movement. It might be starting a movement and stopping before the pain kicks in. Say you have a shoulder that is prone to pain when you move it in a certain way. Can you think, fully visualize moving it, without triggering pain? Good! that’s a start. How about a shoulder shrug? Too painful? Do it on the healthy side and just visualize doing it on the injured side. It might as big as a shoulder roll. Or you do it lying on the floor or while whistling, finding a way to add novelty so the brain thinks this pattern is different. You want to break up the associative network; find lots of new ways to experience this movement pain free. I understand it takes a while to build a new repertoire of pain free movement before too long you will find yourself singing a new song.

Notice, enjoy, revel in pain free moments, engage full awareness of your body, feel into every cell, and try to memorize what it is like. Can you link this pain free moment to something? Create a memory, a new associative network. Find yourself singing a new song. Learning from danger is easy but learning from pleasure can pack as much power. If you’re a person who is in pain a lot of the time, you might try hold your breath and not notice when you’re pain free, you’d hate to jinx it. But paying attention to moments that are pain free, finding pleasure in them builds associate networks too. Begin to associate feeling the sensations and being in your body with pleasure. I have found that things that used to trigger pain I can now do without bursting forth with the pain song. I’d love to hear about your experiences as well.

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baby gazing



When your eyes meet there is a wonderful magic that happens. I always think here is a little being who has so recently been connected to the onenelily sees silasss. From this access to wholeness  they seem to emanate a kind of wisdom and serenity. It feels so good to connect this way, in part because our brain stimulates the release of oxytocin when we hold or look at babies.

This conversation of the eyes, really the whole face, is lovely. And everyone benefits. Being seen, being held in a calm loving adults attention helps the baby feel themselves. Yes, we get a sense of who we are by being witnessed openly by another. For babies this is critical, childhood is devoted to developing the brain areas involved in communication and connection.

Yesterday I listen to a webinar by Annie Brook, a somatic psychotherapist. I first knew of her work as a dancer and Body Mind Centering practitioner. Her work as a therapist is grounded in pre and perinatal psychology. She helps people of all ages integrate their early birth and pre-birth experiences so their nervous system can finally make sense of why it responses to the world the way it does. If you want to know more about birth psychology here is a 6 minute video

Many of us don’t have access to information about our birth or time in utero. But our nervous system does, our amygdala which develops our implicit or pre-conscious memories is fully functioning very early in life. And that memory helps us create a template for how to navigate the world as we experience it. We are learning from the field of epigenetics that our experience of our environment tells us which genes to express and which to inhibit in order to adapt to the demands of our environment yes, even it utero. I shared this webinar with one of my dear colleagues Zoe Waggoner who has a special interest in Pre and Perinatal Psychology. She has developed a short questionnaire to help you explore what you might discover about your very early life.

If you don’t have a little baby in your life look around for opportunities to connect, the grocery line, doctor’s waiting room, they may be a little someone waiting to be seen, and wondering who is out there in this big world. Happy baby gazing.


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is it an emotion or a feeling?

All emotions have a basis in body sensation. We even call emotions feelings because we identify emotional experience through our body sense. In order to bring emotions into conscious awareness, communicate them to ourselves or others, we label those feelings with words; angry, sad, distraught, joyful etc. These labels can also give us a way to explore our emotions.

As you go through your week pay attention to your emotional states and see how well you can identify which sensations are telling your conscious mind that you are feeling frustrated, happy or whatever. Where do you feel it? How do you identify it? Describe it as texture, image, color, sound, form, etc. Let your different senses have a chance to describe this sensation. There isn’t one right way, but do stay with a description of the experience/sensation rather than using emotional words. Ask “what in my body tells me I’m scared or worried or etc.?” Try to be very specific.

This is exercise will bring you in greater contact with your body experience and provide an opportunity to experience emotion with open curiosity rather than judgment or evaluation. By identifying the sensation of the present moment you will bring more conscious awareness to what is now, as it is. Not the past or what you hope for in the future, but all of you in the present.


Felt sense is the term used to describe the experience of knowing something with your body. People also describe it as a hunch or gut feeling or intuition. You can increase your felt sense through practice. Attending to the inner sensations of emotions and cultivating mindful sensory experiences are both practices that enhance felt sense.

  • Find things that are different textures and explore them with your hands, paying close attention to the sensation. Use your lips or inner arm or other body parts; how do different parts perceive differently than your hand does? Does this exploration change your sense of self now?
  •  Look around the room and notice different objects, you can see their differences and feel differences by touching them but do they smell different? We don’t usually attend to subtle differences in smells but if you pay attention you will notice the differences. After each experience ask; what do you notice now?
  • What other sensory explorations can you do? Try doing something familiar blindfolded. What are your preferred modes of sensory input? Notice if you perceive the world and your inner self more fully after consciously using your senses.
  • Sit or stand outdoors for 5 + minutes take in all you can on a sensory level. Indoors take a relaxing bath, give your self lots of time to feel the water, the temperature, soap or bath salts or oils, smell the fragrances, and notice sounds (you can choose music or silence). Any normal activity can be experienced with a focus on the senses.

When you catch yourself planning, worrying or analyzing, take a deep breath and remember you are just sensing. Lovingly tell yourself to come back to noticing how you experience this moment and congratulate yourself for learning how to refocus.

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Sleep we know it’s important, we probably feel guilty because we aren’t getting enough. We think we should be more disciplined or scheduled or committed to self-cacat asleep in backre or it must be our fault somehow. This week I did a session with someone who has trouble sleeping. I looked for the handout I thought I wrote on sleep basics, but found none. Now it is time, this was reinforced by two different email links to sleep articles in next three days. One is a good piece linking vitamin D levels for good sleep. I am making the link available to you, right here.   My favorite part is the view that; you can’t do it wrong nor can you do it perfect, sleep is an involuntary process. The nature of involuntary is we don’t consciously control it. Sleep is involuntary, you sleep, you wake it, happens to you.

What goes on during sleep? Most of our body becomes paralyzed, but our lungs, heart etc. keep awake to keep us alive. Put simply we shut most everything down for repair.  Repair, replenish, reorganize, re-balance, consolidating learning, memory and emotion. Sleep is actually a busy time for our autonomic processes. Some critters (dolphins) sleep with only half their brain at a time, one side of the brain stays awake to keep an eye (just one) on things. Then they switch sides to get a full brain sleep.

Sleep comes in stages. Light sleep is when we check out if it’s safe enough to check out. In this phase we wake up easily, just to make sure no predators are close at hand. A bit of movement might be going on, the full switch to mini hibernation hasn’t happened yet. Deep sleep, has both slow wave (more than one type) and the famous REM sleep. And finally light sleep again as we begin to anticipate waking up, and more parts are orienting to an alert state. All of these different phases come in rhythms though out the night and each have different specialties. REM consolidates emotional information, deep sleep consolidates motor tasks and a combination of both gives better retention of perceptual information. If that’s not enough for you there is the restoring of energy through glycogen increase, the beta amyloid (and other toxic proteins) clean up, turning off stress hormones and probably more that we haven’t discovered yet.

What helps nudge that involuntary process called sleep? The most off repeated advice is routine, routine, routine.

Routine could be:

  • Establish a set sleep time and wake time and stick with it even when you don’t feel like it.
  • Create a sleep ritual, something that tells your brain it’s time to go to sleep. We often do that for our children, brush teeth, read a story, hug a particular toy, finally a scripted goodnight conversation. “Goodnight snuggle buns I love you, I love you too papa bear, kiss, kiss kiss” or something like that. Seems silly but it works, we know what is coming and our body/mind submits.
  • Get proprioceptive input. Proprioception is the firm, deep, pressure that registers in our joints and muscles. It tells us to relax. A good massage can make you feel sleepy but so can bouncing on a trampoline for a child who needs lots of proprioception before they can let go.
  • At least 30 minutes before sleep turn off the computer. The light emitted from screens is especially stimulating. Remember our eyes take in a high percentage of overall sensory input.

Be patient and loving:

  • It can take up to two weeks to reestablish a disrupted sleep rhythm.
  • You haven’t done so well lately? Then be more gentle, loving and kind to yourself, pressure creates stress which reduces sleep, which creates stress…… Interrupt the cycle.
  • Create some sleep affirmations. Our brains really do believe what we say. If you find a negative response pops up after you have said “I am going to fall asleep easily and rest deeply until morning”. Come back with “thank you very much I hear you and I am still going to sleep really well.”
  • Warm beverages are soothing, again can you make it into a comforting ritual?
  • Hot bath can relax muscles and make you more receptive to sleep. What helps you flip the switch?

What else?

  • The worrying brain. Before sleep some people write down all their concerns and then say I will handle this in the morning but now I’m going to sleep. We really do believe what we tell ourselves.
  • Supplements: vitamin D, melatonin, tryptophan are all produced in our bodies to trip the sleep switch. Check with a naturopath about supplements and dosage.
  • Exercise, your body needs to feel (not just think) the reasons to sleep. Exercise alerts us and gets our blood flowing but later our body will need to replenish, the best reason to sleep

Sweet dreams……


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Pain in the brain

I have been working on what I feel is most important information to help people who live with chronic pain. In my search for information on pain processes I discovered a wonderful blog called Better Movement by physical therapist Todd Hargrove.  What Todd has done is synthesized current pain research and findings in a way that is clear and exciting. As I read his recommendations I see how my recommendations to people are supported by the same understanding of how the brain processes pain. About 8 years ago I was told by a neurosurgeon that I wouldn’t last 10 years without surgery because the pain in my back would be so excruciating; but my pain is quite low and I go through periods that are pain free.

Picture: John Lund / Getty Images

The approaches I have taken are varied, as a dancer I believe that movement is primary to health. But at times I chose to restrict certain movements because I thought they were taxing my body. In retrospect I don’t think those restrictions (like no more roll downs) contributed to less pain or better health and they certainly restricted my ability to dance. It was an experiment, a good one because it taught me things about my body/mind.  And yes I didn’t feel pain from a roll down cause I wasn’t doing any but I began to explore what was really happening when I experienced pain. It turns out I could at times do roll downs without negative consequences. And so it turns out there was much more than mechanics causing pain.

One of the great myths of pain is that if it hurts you are re-injuring yourself. Wait, I can’t tell people to ignore their pain. Well I don’t and no one should but we can’t assume pain is caused by injury, injury can cause pain but doesn’t always. Pain can be caused by injury but it isn’t always.

Pain is in the brain. That just means that the brain decides whether to produce pain or not based on all the inputs is collects about the situation. Our central nervous system is there to decide how to best protect us and many factors are a part of the consideration. Does the brain think we are in danger? Will pain increase or decrease the danger to us? We have all heard of times when a severe injury is not accompanied by pain which allows the person to reach safety without being restricted by the pain. The physical pain will come later when the brain decides you’re safe enough and it’s time to restrict movement. Pain can be a response triggered by memory, emotions, beliefs, expectations, attention etc. Pain that is cognitive in origin is a different animal to soothe, and it needs to be soothed not ignored, just as pain from an injury must be treated not ignored. Sometimes the information that it is cognitive in origin is enough to make a difference but not always, sometimes our brain needs more information and a change in the pattern or response.

When I first began to have back pain in the 1980’s I noticed that when I was hurried I was in more pain which gave me the information that it was an opportunity to stop and relax and visualize ease and flow. But I had to really do that to ease the pain, I couldn’t just know it. My brain as the great protector wasn’t going to let up until I did something to change. I can’t just change my thoughts I have to take those thoughts into action.

If you have read this far I hope it is not because you are in a lot of pain, but if so you have my compassion and wishes for a journey of curiosity and hope to bring you more ease in your body/mind.

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the body emerges from mind

The energy of thought, both consimagescious and unconscious is at times incomprehensible.  They are many ways people have tried to define it:  mind over matter; the power of positive thinking; the secret, etc.  I have appreciated the Buddhist view: where attention goes, energy goes.  As I have become more interested and involved with understanding chronic pain I am more humbled by the energy and ability of the mind to change physicality.  Noticing were attention goes does give us some insight into what is so mysterious but it still isn’t the whole picture.
Our unconscious minds are out to protect us, to keep us safe from the wild world, they care not for deadlines, social niceties’, empathy for loved ones, career climbing or even doing good deeds for those who are in need.  Our unconscious minds are childlike in their desires, to feel good, to be safe, to be happy, to have enough for me, for me, for me.

When this clashes with our conscious needs all too often the body pays the price.  And then our conscious minds are boggled; what did I do wrong? How can I get better?  These questions torment us, sometimes we feel relief when a medical professional gives us a diagnosis, chronic fatigue, degenerative discs, carpal tunnel syndrome etc.  Some of these diagnosis have no medical cure, just coping skills and others may have medical interventions that impact the condition, positively or negatively.

This being human in a body is so complex, wonderful at times and devastating at other times. Simply knowing that the mind is fully and completely manifested through the body is the empowering first step.  Bummer is we often experience the second step as; it’s my fault!  I’m doing it wrong!  I invite you to come to step three, self-compassion.  With its no hurry approach, self-compassion allows you the mind space to begin curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love. (COAL is Dan Siegel’s acronym to keep this in mind).  Curiosity, openness, acceptance and love, all elements that can lead to action, from action to healing. When it comes to healing, surprisingly the action is often stillness.

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raising a toddler, caring for an elder

Caring for an elder is a lot like raising a toddler:
• Make sure you begin leaving the house a full hour before you have to get out the door.
• What’s on your plate is much more interesting even though yesterday they said they don’t like that food.
• They believe they are totally capable of making rational decisions, they’re not.
• You have to be creative in finding what they can choose for themselves that is safe and appropriate for their bodies.
• You have to be tolerant of spills, crumb trails, dropped things; they are doing the best they can with limited motor control.
• They want to do it for themselves even though they can’t.
• You marvel when your toddler accomplishes something she couldn’t do yesterday. You marvel when your elder has a lucid moment when you had no idea they had it in them.
• After an hour or two they wonder where you are and what you’re doing, and wish you would be with them.
• They like to have their own box of cookies and carefully watch how many are left. Sometimes choosing them before dinner so they will be sure to get some.
• They feel scared of the dark and hate when you aren’t home at night.
• Sometimes when you give someone else attention they get sullen but might not know why.
• They don’t have much prefrontal cortical activity to modulate their strong reactions. Their limbic brains are in charge. They feel belittled when you try to help, or try to give them accurate information.
• Out in the world they can hold it together and others find them delightful.
• When you kiss them goodnight you really see how vulnerable and dependent they are and you feel the love that is driving you to do this care.child and elder faces

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can you unlearn chronic pain?

I have decided to work with Howard Schubiner’s unlearn your pain program.  I’ve wanted to recommend this work to clients and what better way than to have experienced it.    I have known for years that my lower back/leg pain was exacerbated when I began to rush and feel that I couldn’t do enough.  I practice noticing it and slowing down and/or acknowledging the emotions that are flowing.   Schubiner explains how nerve pathways that were established when we had tissue damage in an area become sensitized and fire up as pain with very little stimulus.  Or maybe no physical stimulus,   emotions alone can trigger the very real pain sequence.  Most of us don’t like feeling negative things but our bodies have a need to, as self-balancing organisms we try to feel express and transform the energies as they arrive.  An area of pain with heightened sensitivity is a convenient route for the pain to find expression.

On day one I did some inventories of current and old stress and personality traits.  Next I made some idea web clusters and free association writing. My surprise for day one? As I was writing I noticed my left hand began to scratch and pick at my navel; not a habit I have.  Notice something unusual?  Pay more attention.  Then I remembered sitting in the bathtub as a child and picking at the dirt that found its way into the little curved crevice scars of my belly button, my once life line.  I remember trying to make it look clean and perfect.   Yet it was, I was, so clearly imperfect.  Tuning into this feeling gave me a touch of compassion for the child who sat with that experience.  Stopping and noticing awakens the simple messages that our bodies are sometimes screaming at us.  More on this journey to come.

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No scratched paint, some internal bruising

dried-flowers-pink-rose-budsYesterday I had a short interaction with someone in which they got out of their car and asked me to please not bump my shopping cart against their paint job.  We were on a slight hill; I needed to stabilize my cart while I dug around for my bags and empty jars to take into the food co-op.  I was conscious of using their car as a stop and I remember putting my cart there without bumping or scraping.  “Oh I said I was trying to be cautious” and they replied” well you bumped it twice”.  I was so uncomfortable I don’t even remember if I said sorry or what I said next if anything.  Puzzling on what happened I figured I unawares bumped my car door against theirs as I was wrestling stuff out of my back seat.  They were nice enough, calmly giving me the information without being rude.  Yet I felt stung, blamed for being oblivious to others concerns.  This was even a person I have met at some community events,  did they not want to recognize me or just didn’t?  I was too ashamed to recover, connect and use their name to apologize.  I just walked away feeling icky.

In the store began to notice I felt I had to work hard to do everything right, not bumble or spill or misplace anything.  I’m a caring person; I don’t want anyone else to think I am irresponsible.  This background anxiety made me feel small and ineffective and misunderstood.  Not wanting to berate myself, I tried to just get over it,” let it go, no big deal, quit acting like a scolded kid”.  Yet this is a kind of berating, in other words, “what’s wrong with me?”

I wondered “now, what are my options?”  The feelings were bigger than the encounter, shame and self-deprecation; clearly these are old feelings informing my thoughts.  Thoughts in response to body sensations, flushed and prickly; tense shoulders, breath holding, narrowing visual field, difficulty focusing on the task at hand.  “So what can I do?” I often turn to big movement or vibrating and shaking to self-regulate.  I didn’t want to do this in the store, “can’t I just be a grown up and get over it?”  I could find a bathroom stall to shake in.  I thought; “really is it that bad?” (more self-criticism).

Instead I invite my breath to fill me to the edges of my body boundary.  Noticing my safe and whole me, protected from the larger world by my body surfaces.  Now what pleasant smells can I find?  Unlike other sensory input our sense of smell is directly routed to the hippocampus where memory is processed.  I find the herb and spice section and discover a jar of rose petals, I take three long slow inhales through my left nostril.  As our most primitive sense smell in the left nostril simply connects to left brain and vise a versa.     (See smell this)  Oh that is nice.  I experience some muscle release.

As I continue shopping I’m thinking about it all, perception, processing, how we can be hijacked by old emotional realities.  I am thinking about it, not thinking about what was said and how bad I feel.   Later on my way home I notice that the shameful feelings had gone and remembering them was just interesting; not a triggering of the old uncomfortable me that I hate to be with. I stimulated a physiological shift creating ability to connect to my heart, compassion and empathy.  This I know, if we can take care of the body’s need to process, integration will follow.

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