Bonjour! As I sit in this overstuffed chair, sipping my coffee and letting the buttery chocolate croissant melt on my tongue, I quietly observe the bustle of Friday morning in Montreal, where I am attending and presenting at the American Counseling Association’s 2016 annual conference.
I close my eyes and breathe in the café, attending to the local chatter. I am selfishly hoping that by some form of osmosis, my French will vastly improve with the exposure. Although my acquisition of the language may not ensue, the people and culture of this charming and historically rich community endear themselves to me.
Earlier in the day, I embarked on a horse-drawn buggy in exploration of Old Montreal. With the clip-clop of Duke’s hooves against the centuries-old pavement, we passed the enchanting Notre-Dame Basilica, where people lit votive candles, knelt in prayer invoking assistance from the saints and experienced the incandescent light glimmering through the ancient stained glass. We clamored down Saint Laurent Boulevard to Rue Saint-Paul, eventually resting at the Port of Montreal. Passing shops, restaurants, patisseries and cafés, we were offered a majestic medley that tempted the tongue and tantalized the spirit — a banquet where the sensual and the sacred commune. It is precisely in this space of the human spirit that I like to reside personally … and clinically.
Let me introduce myself. I am a connoisseur of life. Not necessarily an expert (though I do freely voice my opinions), but more of a collector. I am a gatherer of moments and memories. I appreciate the complexity of the lived experience. With a researcher’s lens, I seek the wisdom found in everyday experiences and embrace the sacred in humanity.
I am a licensed clinical professional counselor — a keeper of stories that are often tales of pain and suffering. I am a pastoral counselor, trained in the integration of spirituality and psychology. I am a counselor educator, a mentor privileged to co-journey with neophyte helpers. I am a researcher and storyteller, conveying empirical wisdom found in everyday moments.
Every thoughtful thinker, compassionate counselor and intentional teacher becomes a messenger of a message that he or she forever embodies and proclaims. Isn’t that what TED Talks are all about? Thoughts worth spreading!
I believe I have discovered mine. Each component of the message resonates with me as a thinker, a counselor, an educator and, probably of most importance, a human being. My message, inspired by the tremendous contributions of others, is simple: Illuminate the shadow aspects of life while embracing humanity so that one can fully consummate life.
Illuminate the shadow
Carl Jung claimed that the less the shadow is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. Therefore, there is a healing and empowering element in recognizing and claiming one’s shadow side.
Silken Laumann, one of the keynote speakers at this year’s ACA Conference and a former world champion in single sculls women’s rowing, was preparing for the 1992 Olympics when a freak accident shredded the muscles and tendons of her right leg. Silken shared her story of perseverance as she beat all odds and not only performed in the Olympics just ten weeks following the accident, but won a bronze medal. She said her most courageous act, however, took place later in life, when she confronted her inner world fraught with depression and anxiety, residuals from her childhood experience of “chaos, unpredictability and abuse.”
“Asking for help takes courage … and it saved my life,” Silken said. She reminded us that to live authentically, we must learn self-compassion. We must learn to embrace our vulnerabilities as well as our strengths.
The human experience has been the topic of scientists, artists, theologians and philosophers. We have the unique ability to ponder our existence. Yet, we spend a vast amount of time thinking and less time being — being in our bodies, in particular.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book titled Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness, suggested that when we put our energy into experiencing our body rather than judging it, then our view of it and ourselves can change drastically. How magnificent our bodies are in their glorious sensuality. We experience our surroundings by employing our finely honed sensory organs that allow us to immerse ourselves in the delights of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.
Kabat-Zinn continued, “We usually tune out these sensations because they are so familiar. When you tune in to them, you are reclaiming your life in that very moment, and your body as well, making yourself more real and more alive. … Your experience is embodied.”
In addition, human beings are driven to find meaning in their circumstances. Research indicates that the ability to make sense of our situation is associated with overall wellness. This quest for meaning construction is born out of the sacred, the creative. Madeleine L’Engle, in her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, suggested that “we write, we make music, we draw pictures, because we are listening for meaning, feeling for healing. And during the writing of the story or the painting or the composing or singing or playing, we are returned to that open creativity which was ours when we were children.”
Consummate your life
Friedrich Nietzsche cautioned avoidance of the “unlived life” when he instructed us to consummate one’s life and to die at the right time. Although not nearly as eloquent, Nike also captured this concept in the slogan “Just Do It!” Seize the day. Live fearlessly. Live in the moment.
We have only moments to live, one following the other seamlessly. Yet we can spend so much time reliving the past or inventing the future that we remain oblivious to the present moment that (in a flash) is gone.
Irvin Yalom, in Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, suggested that “the way to value life, the way to feel compassion for others, the way to love anything with greatest depth, is to be aware that these experiences are destined to be lost.”
So, how do we help our clients peer into the hidden crevices of self while learning self-compassion and living life to its fullest? Join me here at CT Online as I examine snapshots from life and explore the existential angst, while also identifying the scientifically based clinical applications to address whatever malady may present. Each month, I will explore the sensual-sacred-science of daily life and offer clinical applications that may benefit not only the client but also (wait for it) … the counselor.
After all, we are people, not pathologies, seeking connection to ourselves, others and the sacred. See you next month! Au revoir!
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is visiting full-time faculty at Loyola University Maryland in the Pastoral Counseling Department. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is currently working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices, of which this article is an excerpt. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.