I was honored to be invited by “Frontlines of Freedom” host Lt Col Denny Gillem, U.S. Army (Retired) to appear on his weekly radio show for the “Shootin’ the Bull” segment. We discussed some of my story and experience as a U.S. Navy SeaBee veteran, what I have done since my time in the military ended, some ways in which I practice counseling, and some general “best practice” approaches to counseling individuals and veterans who suffer from PTSD.

My appearance was in the 2nd hour of the August 30th, 2014 broadcast which can be found here. The segment begins at the 19:38 min mark.

There is a somewhat famous equation developed by Shinzen Young that illustrates how we commonly experience suffering. The equation is as follows: Pain x Resistance = Suffering. I love the simplicity and the empowerment of this format to explain that pain is a part of being human, but suffering is often a product of our resistance or desire to avoid that inevitable pain.

I am often asked by friends, family, or in consultations with prospective clients what to expect with the process of therapy. I struggle to answer this question directly as it ultimately is a very personal experience based on the therapeutic relationship developed by two imperfect people delving into deep content. What therapy looks like for Jane, will most likely look very different for John. However, with that being said, I do believe there are some themes that tend to show up fairly consistently. To illustrate this, I am going to stand on the shoulders of Shinzen Young and extend the equation metaphor into the therapeutic relationship.

If Pain x Resistance = Suffering, then I submit that Pain x Acceptance = Insight. Now, I am assuming that pain is an inevitable part of the human condition; however, acceptance of that pain does not mean to give in to it or to become enslaved by it. For the purposes of this equation, “acceptance” means a couple of things. First, it means to be at peace with the fact that pain will happen at points throughout life no matter what you do. Coming to terms with this takes a lot of pressure off of constantly being “on guard” and gives yourself permission to be less judgemental (either good or bad) towards yourself for simply being human. That alone can often be very difficult, but yield powerful results. Second, it means that when pain does show up, you allow yourself to experience it fully and work through it. This is in contrast to what we often do by working to minimize, avoid, or resist it. Get curious about why it is painful for you, when did it come about, where does it hurt (physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually), how does it hurt, what judgements and rules are you holding about it? These examples for curious questions about your pain are just a few and there are many more, but the point is to get very familiar with it in a non-judgemental way so you can intimately know the pain from all angles. As you step into this process of acceptance, you begin to see yourself, others, circumstances, etc. more clearly. Paradoxically, the pain often lessons during this period as well. As one begins to take honest and purposeful steps into this process, the fog begins to lift which is the critical insight that is needed.

Once you allow yourself to really work the previous equation and begin to gain insight you have (at least to some degree) the variable necessary for the next therapeutic equation, which is Insight x Dedication = Transformation. Change requires consistent dedication in order to replace habits, thought patterns, and automatic reactions with newer and more life giving options. The old saying that you never forget how to ride a bike is true. However, it can be unlearned with a consistent dedication to undoing the neural pathways (the well practiced habits your brain defaults to) created by years and years of your body and mind working in tandem to ride your bicycle (see here for an interesting video on what I mean). Having the dedication to change habits, use new neural pathways, retrain your thinking, outlooks, your relationship with emotions, etc. is most effective when you have a “why” to motivate you. This is why insight is so important. Typically, we don’t know the “why” behind the reason for what we do; regardless, we usually are getting some kind of reward for continuing the behavior. The reward may be internal, external, conscious, or unconscious but it’s always there. Insight gives us a very clear view as to what these rewards are and if they are truly what we want. If they are not what we want, then transformation requires us to have dedication to forego the familiar rewards and find new ones to replace them. This is much more likely if you have further insight into the “programs” you have developed, why you developed them, and what causes them to activate, and if you have something that you truly want to work towards.

Ultimately, therapy is a relationship that acts as a kind of scratch paper for the above equations. Use it to purposefully and deliberately show your work to get the outcomes desired. My high school Calculus teacher never gave full credit unless we were showing our work. The same requirement is true in the therapeutic relationship, as the solution can only be found in the process. There are rarely shortcuts and there is never a “back of the book” that has the answers to all the odd problems, but there are people who are ready to dive into this with you.

By: Benjamin Reisterer, MA, LLPC

Earlier I wrote about how a life lived on autopilot can be a frustrating experience. I discussed the importance of getting familiar with the intricacies of all of the controls as we purposefully fill our life’s pilot’s chair. I want to stress that this was not to say that autopilot is always a bad thing, it does have positive functions. There are certain tasks that can be automated in our lives that free up physical, emotional, mental, or relational energy which allows us to engage in more meaningful endeavors. The danger is that it is easy to slip into autopilot for too much of our lives. When things start to go bad is when we begin to realize something has to change and we begin to take more of an active role in piloting our day to day experience. But what about when autopilot seems to be running everything in our lives smoothly and things are going well? I believe that this is when we really need to be much more selective in our purposeful use of autopilot and when we can make the most gains in living a more self aware, authentic, and meaningful life.

Here are some things that I believe are positive side effects to limiting the use of autopilot, especially when times are good.

1) We can often see the turbulence before it hits (because it IS coming).

If we are taking ourselves off autopilot and the subsequent reliance on our preconceived ideas based on past experience, we begin to become more aware of slight irregularities before they become glaring problems. For example, you know that same conversation that you have with a significant other, friend, co-worker, or whomever that you slip into autopilot when it comes up? Yeah, THAT one…try fully engaging yourself as if for the first time next time it starts. Did you pick up on anything different this time around that you hadn’t before? Did the interaction go more smoothly. Did you and/or the other person seem to get more out of it this time? Autopilot has a way of messing with relationships, and if done too much for too long will create interpersonal issues. So do yourself and the other person a favor and fully engage, before you have to.

2) We get to experience a much richer life with more enjoyment.

Next time you have errands or an activity that you usually do on autopilot, bring a toddler along. This can be a frustrating yet valuable experience. Children are experiencing many things for the first time and have yet to develop their autopilot in many regards. They are developing their understanding of the world around them, and their lives are constantly full of a sense of wonder and curiosity. This means they are going to make things go much slower and ask a million questions but if you take yourself off of autopilot with them, you can capture some of that wonder for yourself. This is the “stop and smell the roses” concept. We all have an idea from past experience about what roses smell like, but do you know what this rose smells like? Instead of rushing past, take the time to find out and enrich your life in the process.

3) We begin to actively engage in meaningful activities that propel us to cultivate passion and purpose in our lives.

Passion is one of those things that people idealize, but often misunderstand. This makes following it even harder than it already is (for a great write up on cultivating vs. following your passion, go here). As we fully engage and become more present in our actions and thoughts, we begin to become more aware of what really makes us come alive. We can then purposefully engage in activities that stoke these delicate embers into flames of passion.

4) Slowing down and being purposeful paradoxically helps us reach our goals much faster.

Autopilot is the same thing all the time, so we can’t expect different results. Full purposeful engagement requires us to manually makes adjustments every moment. As we begin this new way of piloting our lives, it can often feel frustratingly slow and awkward. However, as we begin to fully engage we pick up on “life hacks” or more fulfilling and/or efficient ways to do things, we catch problems before they arise, and as we become more confident we take much larger steps towards fulfillment than before. We begin to see the tree as well as the forest and can more easily navigate our way through.

These four points are just a start as there are many benefits to living a more purposeful and aware life. I invite you to post in the comments any other benefits you have experienced or foresee experiencing by living a fully engaged and purposeful life. As a psychotherapist I am passionate about helping people become more engaged in their day to day life, looking for meaning in the world within and around them, and cultivating purpose. These things don’t happen on autopilot, they only happen on purpose. Living a purposeful, authentic, and engaged life is hard and sacred work, but it is so much more rewarding than the alternative.

If you feel that counseling would be a good way to augment or begin a purposeful engagement of your life, we would be honored if you contacted us.

This post can also be found at the Mindful Counseling GR blog.