Friday, June 12, 2009

The Flame of Love

The Flame of Love
Payam Ghassemlou Ph.D.
On a daily basis, many of us spend a lot of time thinking about our life challenges. We think about all sorts of difficult situations, like financial problems, and make ourselves believe we can’t handle them. Catastrophic thinking about our lives bombards us with anxiety and contributes to our feeling of insecurity.
Many of us tend to project our past disappointments and failures into the future and make ourselves believe they are going to happen again. Consequently, we are going to feel paralyzed and unable to come up with creative solutions for our life problems. It is very difficult to feel confident, creative, and brave while we are intensely anxious. Obsessing on our life problems will not solve anything especially if we approach them with the same thinking pattern that created them. Thinking alone is not enough to cope with life issues.
As a psychotherapist, when I listen to people’s life struggles, I notice how much of their life suffering has to do with their habitual negative thinking. A common-sense approach might be to recommend positive thinking and offer people tools to challenge their pessimistic attitude. There is nothing wrong with that except we are being lead back to our thinking and having to deal with more thoughts in our heads. The never-ending battle between positive and negative thinking, which keep us in our heads, is not the only option.
We can learn from different spiritual teachings including Sufism on experiencing life through our hearts and less through our limited thoughts. These teachings can allow us to be in our hearts and not in a battle with our thoughts. Our thoughts need to be experienced in the field of the heart. In other words, thoughts must obey the heart because whenever the heart rules fear disappears.
One way to enter the realm of our heart is by activating our capacity to feel love. We can do this by remembering something or someone we care about. By using our imagination we can remember and picture anything that we love and open up our heart. We can meditate on that love in our heart and stay away from conflicting thoughts in our head. Each time we notice any of our thoughts we can embrace it with the love we feel in our heart. The flame of this love will burn our fearful thoughts and transform our anxious state of mind to a peaceful and loving state.
The goal is not to stop thinking, but to let ourselves feel more love in our heart. A good example of this is my patient Chad, a 34-year-old man who used to worry a lot. Every time he stayed with his thoughts about his stressful career or his relationship problems, he felt worse. He often anticipated and believed his painful past experiences are going to be repeated. After encouraging him to share about his life concerns and providing empathic listening, I encouraged him to try something different. I asked him to remember any loving situations and feel that love in his heart. He imagined and felt his love for his pet, and that love became the key to his heart. After entering his heart, I encouraged him to stay in that loving place. Any thoughts could be experienced in his heart. By practicing this simple meditation, he was able to let go of his worries. Throughout the day when he found himself lost in his catastrophic thoughts, he would remind himself that the place to be is “in my heart and not my head.”*
Chad was able to heal his anxiety provoking thoughts through meditating on the love in his heart. He realized the content of his mind can be experienced and filtered through his heart.
This type of healing can happen on a collective level as well. Not only can we make personal changes by coming from the heart but also collective changes. The mind has not been able to solve issues like war, disease, poverty, racism, homophobia, or violence against women and children. In fact, these issues have to do with destructive thoughts patterns and behaviors. As we learn to open our hearts and let the love flow in our hearts, we can pour that love into the universe and let it be used for the good of all people.
It is easier to trust what happens in our heart than in our busy mind. By being in the service of the heart, we have a better chance to resolve our personal and global problems. By letting our hearts work with our minds, we can change ourselves and the world.

For more articles by Dr. Payam, please click on the following link:

© Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist), in private practice in West Hollywood, California.

*Names and other details have been changed in respect for privacy and confidentiality.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Transforming Loneliness into Golden Solitude

Transforming Loneliness into Golden Solitude

By Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D.

Loneliness has the potential to be transformed into meaningful solitude. When lonely, you might experience yourself as empty and void of vitality. You might long for someone to come into your life and save you from the isolation that people often feel with loneliness. This is why many people get into unhealthy relationships as a desperate way to not feel alone. The pain of being alone can cause you to have superficial ties to others and can put you at risk of becoming needy and clinging. You might also try to get rid of your lonely feeling with activities like excessive drinking, drug use, overeating, and overspending. Even though our extroverted culture encourages you to get rid of your lonely feeling with superficial activities, you can pay attention to your experience of loneliness with the intention of growing from it.

When you feel lonely, it’s important not to judge or compare yourself to others who seem happier. How you define your experience of being by yourself can impact how you feel about it. For example, if you think being alone means you are not a lovable person then loneliness can feel like a humiliating experience. Having shame for being alone can only make you feel worse. It is important to embrace loneliness as part of life and not personalize it as a shaming experience. Having compassion and empathy for our life’s challenges is an important step toward understanding them and eventually transforming loneliness to solitude.

To do this, it helps to get support from a friend or guide who is mature and experienced in mining the gold found in solitude. Sometimes loneliness can feel like being lost, and having a guide to help you start the journey towards solitude is important. This journey can include working with your inner child, journaling, dream work, and active imagination. It can also involve spiritual practices such as mediation.

Loneliness can be difficult to tolerate when you don’t have a conscious relationship with yourself. Sometimes loneliness can feel as though a small child is crying within you and in need of holding. If you have not cultivated self-compassion, you can’t take care of your lonely inner child, the child you once were which continues to live in your adult body. You might have felt lonely and abandoned growing up. Consciously connecting with these childhood experiences of loneliness and abandonment, and making emotional discoveries about them, are part of the healing process. Your inner child can be helped to feel safe. The key is consistency; you need to take time and reach out to your inner child. You can do this by meditating on the image of holding and loving the child you once were. This loving image can have a profound healing effect on your experience of loneliness and can strengthen your capacity to experience solitude. It can also help you to cultivate self-compassion. Getting in touch with painful, repressed feelings is a very intense process and should be done with the help of a psychotherapist or other knowledgeable guide.

You can examine your loneliness through journal writing. By writing about loneliness while you are experiencing it in the moment, you can bring consciousness to it. Writing in a journal can help you organize the contents of your mind and avoid keeping things inside. You can put your lonely experience in perspective and gain more clarity when you write about it. The writing needs to be done with an attitude of caring and compassion. Blaming and criticizing yourself or others for being alone is not going to help you to grow from the writing experience. With patience, the light of consciousness during the writing process eventually transforms your loneliness to a more meaningful experience.

Psychological inner work such as dream work can help you to open yourself up to messages from the unconscious. Through writing your dreams in a dream journal and making efforts to understand them, you can have a profound experience honoring your unconscious. Dream work can deepen your relationship with yourself. Knowing yourself can help you to become your own caring friend, which reduces loneliness. One of the Sufi poets who have inspired me to pay attention to my dreams is Rumi. In his poems on dreams, Rumi encourages us to pay attention to wonders that manifest in sleep.

Working with the power of the active imagination can transform loneliness. This technique can help you imagine and explore your inner world. You can dialogue with different parts of yourself including your lonely self. Showing curiosity toward this lonely self, and having a dialogue with it through active imagination, are important steps to reduce the feeling of isolation and create solitude. To learn more about active imagination, I recommend a wonderful book, “Inner Work,” by Robert A. Johnson.

Adding a spiritual perspective can move you to a new and higher level. It is like climbing a hill and being able to see the whole countryside. Each of us can find a spiritual path and spiritual practices that feel right.

One of the spiritual practices that I am familiar with is meditation. Meditation can change your loneliness and become a doorway to a sacred place in your heart. In this sacred place is a window that opens up to a field with light and intoxicating fragrance. This intoxication is a divine experience that words often cannot describe it.

During meditation you can be aware of your breath. Each breath can connect you more deeply to your higher Self. You have the potential to be a spiritual purifier by the quality of your breath. Through this practice, your loving thoughts, feelings, imagination, and actions can impact the universe.

The psychological and spiritual work you do can help you grow bigger than the painful experiences of loneliness. Working on yourself can help you enter a vast space of solitude where you can be part of the community of people who are consciously alone for the purpose of enlightenment. Spiritual practice such as meditation can add sweet fragrance to your experience of solitude.

Just like an alchemist, you can turn something like loneliness to something more like solitude. Psychological work and spiritual practice are the fire needed to transform the lead of painful loneliness to golden solitude. What deep and lasting contentment you can find in your life as you enter nourishing solitude.

For more articles by Dr. Payam, please click on the following link:

© Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (Psychotherapist), in private practice in West Hollywood, California.