The Space Between…

Welcome to the Space Between, a blog that I will keep updated Sundays and Wednesdays. You will find a mixture of my thoughts about therapeutically relevant topics and exercises of my own creation. I will also have posts that are designated for other clinicians using more therapeutic jargon that you are also free to view as well. 

Bird Brain

Given that this is my first post, I want to thank you for taking the time to check this out! I appreciate any and all feedback as I tighten up my writing as I go along. I started up this post a couple weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic and stay at home orders in Virginia. While it has now been a few months into these orders, this post is still topical and has broad applications. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has ensured that virtually everyone on Earth is grappling with various forms of uncertainty, which I have been no exception to. The changes I have encountered are a part of a shared river of grief within my community and nation at large. I share concern for the health of my family, friends and neighbors, concern for our financial well being, furlough, 24/7 child care, and how all of this may change the way we communicate and relate to one another for a long time to come. I worry for those who have already been disenfranchised or marginalized long before this crisis. It is a flowing river of loss. Fear. 

In my subconscious scanning the world for stability in my first few days working from home in early Spring I noticed the birds called to me in a way I hadn’t heard before. Their songs sounded sharper, their colors brighter, and their daily activities seemed so…free. Is this the slippery slope of how people become amateur birders? My daughter gave me the nudge I needed to commit to this curiosity with our feathered friends. She was learning about Spring and plants, birds and bugs at the time.  She asked me about what birds ate, where their families were, and giggled about how they are gross to eat worms. It wasn’t lost on me that we were joined in the same exercise of curiosity and learning together. 

In my practice and in my life I try to make myself open to the universe through seeking out and acknowledging metaphors and analogies that pop up in daily life. I love how even chewing on the most simple analogies can be like that first bite into a croissant. Satisfying, buttery, sweet, but most notedly layered, messy, and imperfect. See what I did there? Metaphor about my love for analogies. Super meta. Anyway…

Bird Brain by Vivienne Strauss;

While I would say, at most, I appreciated the concept of birding, I never felt any gravitation to give it a try. During my moments of exhaustion, wondering if I am cutting it as a father, partner, and clinician working with an at risk population from afar, the birds found me. I heard and noticed them in ways that I have never before. The plump, happy Robins hopping around the yard. The large beautiful Blue Jays flying from tree to tree. Even the vultures doing their public service of cleaning our roadways of animal debris. In those moments I was offered a temporary sanctuary from all of the screams of my mind, anxieties about the future, and grief about what has been lost. In those moments it was just me and the birds. They were no longer background white noise of little import. Weirdly, they gave me hope. They just keep carrying on without any regard for the world as we know it shutting down. There was a profound strength in that, which I was witnessing from my own private confines. 

There they were, animals with a brain a small percentage of my own reminding me of what I try to help people discover in my own work, noticing all the parts of our much too complicated brain. All of those emotions and thoughts that flood us and are difficult to track. What if we could step back and observe how all the parts that make up our thoughts and feelings in the same way as I was observing these birds? 

Our grief is the vulture picking at the carcass of what could have been. The unexpected flashes of joy are the Blue Jays that surprise with their unassuming beauty as they bolt by. The Robins going on their worming expeditions is our resilience as we go on about life, seemingly undisturbed by cars racing at lethal speeds yards away. Chickadees, our masked anxiety as we try to sing uplifting tunes that sound all too much like the bird that doth protest too much. Yeah, I’m onto you Chickadee. 

These little birds of our brains come and go freely and persistently, despite any attempt to capture or contain them. So we sit back and be with them. Curious about their movements, their songs, and perhaps their beauty and characteristics. What would it look like if we were able to direct focus and attention to the different parts of us? Is it possible to be able to take a step back, take out our binoculars and look close up at our anger, our grief, our moments of joy, our anxieties, while also acknowledging that we are just observers within the safety of our home? 

Lots of therapists who study and practice mindfulness would tell you that this is exactly what they hope to train people to do. The intention of this process is not necessarily to find better ways of controlling, or changing our emotional experiences. It is to enhance the way we notice our internal and external worlds so that we can be with these experiences in a different way and not feel the pull to do something to change them. In other words, if I can name and notice that vulture over there, I also recognize that there may be little that I can do to influence or control it, but I can get to know what it looks like, feels like, and what its daily patterns might be. I can choose to focus on it, or let it be a part of my peripheral as I also scan for other birds or life experiences that I’m also interested in. So what happens when we put this birdy wisdom into practice? 

Stay tuned for a self-guided exercise based on this analogy. I find that mindfulness guided exercises that are a part of a larger metaphor have a different impact than simple deep breathing, or body scan exercises (not knocking those). Analogy guided exercises tend to go a little deeper into allowing us to understand ourselves.

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