Marissa Engel LCSW

Learning to be alone in your own head

Meditation is wonderful for finding peace, clear the noise and training your brain to stay focused.  So, if it so wonderful, what keeps everyone from doing it?  Well, first it takes work.  I’ve been practicing for years, and I still struggle at times to stay focused and not get lost.  Second when you start to quiet the busy monkey mind, the emotional hurts and pains you’ve been ignoring start to get louder. 


Meditation is focus.  We meditate all the time.  When you think about how excited you are about your next vacation, you are meditating.  When you think about how frustrated you are with your partner, you’re meditating.  Meditation creates an energy and this energy is what we are working to learn to use.  When you meditate on pain and hurt your body responds to that.  When you meditate on peace and calm, your body responds to that.  It starts to let go of the weights that you carry around with you, allowing you to be lighter in your daily life.


Sometimes these weights were put in place for a reason. We placed them in an effort to keep pain from past trauma at bay, and when we let go of the weight those past traumas can come roaring to the front.  This isn’t the case for everyone by any means.  For most, meditation is peaceful and calming, allowing greater focus.  For some, it can open up pain that has been hidden for years. 


Meditation can help with this pain.  Meditation can allow those that have suffered from trauma to let the pain flow through and away in small controlled doses instead of all at once.  It is important to actually allow yourself to feel the pain.  Once you actually let it be it will move through and empty out, leaving room for joy and happiness.  It takes a lot of strength to be present with pain, especially after it’s had some time to build up.  It takes a good deal of strength to keep up the walls that hold it back as well, and the longer you hold them up the heavier they get.  


When using meditation to slowly let the pain go, the best advice is to get the help of a therapist.  If that isn’t feasible, get some CD’s on meditation or listen to a podcast as sort of an “how to”.  There are some podcasts here as well.  Set some limits around the meditation.  Create a place where you can sit quietly without interruption and where you feel safe when vulnerable that isn’t used for other things (the office or where you do your homework isn’t the best place).  Set a time limit around the meditation, creating a beginning and an end.  This isn’t a race, and you can set a 5-10 minute time limit so you have permission to draw back from the intensity.


When closing a meditation, always close by reminding your heart that you are safe.  The feelings can become intense, and the feelings of fear, anger and hurt that were present at the time of the trauma can feel as intense as they did then.  The parts of you that feel raw and scared need to be reminded by the adult, current you that you are safe and taken care of right now.  


Meditation is a fantastic way to find clarity and peace in life, when used correctly.  If you find that it opens up feelings of pain and hurt, work to allow the feelings to move through you, as water flows through a damn, releasing some of the pressure.  It is best to have help when you do this but is absolutely possible on your own.  You were strong enough to live through the trauma of the past, strong enough to survive to today, and you’re strong enough to let go of the hurt and pain. 



Listening to our friends

Our friends know us better than anyone.  They often know us better than we know ourselves. This means though that sometimes they see the uglier parts of us.  There is a double-edged sword within this.  We get to have someone that knows us and still loves us for who we are. We also have someone that will probably call us out on our crap.


There is a part of us that doesn’t want to be seen as anything other than perfect and loveable.  This part is afraid that once we are seen, really SEEN, the person doing the seeing will walk away.  We hate the imperfect parts of ourselves, why wouldn’t they?  And why on earth would they stay once they see how horrible we are?  Well, they see you just as you see them, and they take you for who you are. Just as you take them for who they are.  Once we come to understand this, we can start to be OK when our friends see us for who we are and call us on some of the parts that aren’t as beautiful as we would like them to be.    


No one is perfect, and there are times that we need someone outside of use to help us stay on the straight and narrow.  It will rarely feel good when someone we care about does so.  It makes it even more difficult when their feedback is dead on.  Learning to swallow a little bit of pride will let us listen to those that care about use the most give feedback.  We all have room to grow.  Letting the people that know us the best give feedback will help.  It takes a level of willing vulnerability to let your friends be honest with the areas they see that aren’t that great.  It takes a really good friend too. 

Letter from the broken hearted

Almost everyone has suffered a broken heart.  We share in the feelings of loss,  feeling like the light of the world has been extinguished.  I like the message of this poem.  Losing love isn’t the end of light.  It takes time, it takes grieving, but the light always comes back.


Letter to ____________


You have broken my heart

            Just as well.  Now

                        I am learning to rise

                                    Above all that, learning


The thin life, waking up

            Simply to praise

                        Everything in this world that is

                                    Strong and beautiful


Always--- the trees, the rocks,

            The fields, the news

                        From the heaven, the laughter

                                    That comes back


Mary Oliver


Being present with pain, letting go of suffering

Our emotions are a river moving through us. When the river is filled with joy and happiness we have no problems being present with the emotion and letting it move through us. When the river is filled with hurt and pain we don’t particularly want to flow through us, and we tend to damn it up.  The stronger the pain and trauma and the more resistance we have to being present with it, and the more we store up over the years. After a little while the pain starts to all mix together, and even starts to bleed in to the other parts of our life, including joy and happiness.  We are placed in a difficult conundrum where we have to be present with the pain to allow it to flow through and be gone, but there is a lot of it and it feels overwhelming.


We all have the strength to be present with our most difficult experiences.  We want to shy away from pain, and think that feeling these kinds of emotions are a kind of weakness.  We think that because we are in pain we are weak, that feeling pain means that we don’t have control of our emotions.  This isn’t the case at all.  Our pain is what makes us human.  To feel it keeps us connected with each other and our own humanity. 


It takes great strength to be present, and even embrace pain.  Pain can only come when we care about something.  It can only come when we open our heart to something or someone, and even when it causes pain being able to have an open heart is a thing of beauty.  Having an open heart allows us to see the beauty of the world around us.  It does make us open to hurt and pain, and it creates space for love and the amazingness of the world around us.   It is worth a little pain to be able to have those. 


Hiding from the pain, ignoring it and refusing to manage or cope with it creates additional problems.  Pain is a natural part of living life.  It takes strength and courage to actually feel pain. When you find the courage and allow yourself to be present with the pain, you will find that you struggle and suffer less and less.  The pain will flow from you along with the resentment, anger and bitterness. What will be left will be a freeness that leads to strength, peace, and happiness.   


The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”



Love is opening your heart to another person and trusting they won’t stomp all over your hurts and fears with cruelty and their own pain.  The longer you live the more bruises your heart accumulates and the more protections you create.  When we create more and more protections we keep not only the things that will bruise us out, but the things that are kind and loving as well.  We put walls and cages around our heart, isolating it from everything and everyone.  It becomes very lonely. 


If we want to feel connected with others, if we want to be present with the beauty of the world, we have to be open to it.  That means letting go of some of the walls, and creating healthy boundaries.  Instead of steel reinforced concrete walls, brick walls with doors that we can open. 


There is risk with an open heart.  We see more of the pain of the world, and we sometimes misjudge and let people in that aren’t save and don’t deserve access.  We also see the greatness and the beauty of the world and find the people who’s hearts shine with love and beauty. 


Love isn’t about worth.  There is not one person on this planet that is unworthy of love, and I say that knowing that there are some truly horrible people out there.  There are some people that aren’t safe to open our hearts to, and at the same time every one is deserving of love.  That includes you.  It is up to you to be safe enough to be let in to someone’s heart and to believe in yourself enough to be vulnerable.  Love will find you when you drop the barriers that you have created against love; loving yourself and others, and letting others love you.

Why ask why?

The word “why”  is the ultimate in inquisitiveness. Why is the sky blue?  Why did the plane crash?  Why does my cat start yowling at 6:00 in the morning every day?  The purpose is to find information to an unknown. 


The word “why” is also the ultimate in confrontation and judgment. Why did you break that window?  Why did you get in that accident?  Why didn’t you turn in that report?  Why did you go on and email girls when you’re in a relationship with me?  The purpose isn’t to find answers to the question asked, because we won’t like the answer we get.  What we want is something deeper.   We want to know why they hurt, shamed, or embarrassed us.  Why did you think it was OK to do what you did, because I sure as hell don’t think it was. We want to make them think about what they did, and come up with how wrong they were.


When you are asking why of another person there are a couple things you need to look at.  The first is what kind of answer you want.  When I was 16 I got in a car accident in which I took a turn too fast.  I thought I was cool, passed someone to fast, and ended up sliding on sand left over from the last snow storm; ping-ponging between the curbs of the two lane street breaking the axel of my mom’s station wagon.   The question I got was “Why did you get in that accident?!”  The answer was that I got in the accident because I was 16 and an idiot.  Do you think that answer would have appeased my mom?  Was that what she wanted to know? 


Before I knew how horrible the word why is, I would ask the kids I worked with why the did whatever dumb-ass thing they did.  It was truly an effort to get them to find within themselves the reason they chose to do what they did.  In general a teenager isn’t quite ready for that kind of introspection.  If I am truthful I also really wanted to know if they understood how wrong they were.  I wanted them to show some shred of understanding of how what they did didn’t get them anywhere near where they wanted to be.  I wanted things that they couldn’t give. 


As a boss, partner or a parent asking the question why, we usually want to know if they know what they did was wrong.  Or we want them to give us their excuse so we can rip it to shreds and tell them how wrong they were for whatever they did.  The kid, partner or the employee knows this and immediately goes on the defensive.  This results in either panicked attempts to find whatever answer will appease you or anger and resistance. 


If you are faced with a situation in which you want to ask the question of why, you first have to figure out what your motivations are.  As a parent or a partner;  what do you want to hear from the person and what do you want them to hear from you?  Do you want them to hear your frustration?  Do you want them to hear how hurt or ashamed you are? Do you want them to tell you how wrong they were?  Are you wanting them to fix the hurt, frustration or shame that they may have caused you?  If so, then the question of why isn’t going to get you what you want.  Knowing the why isn’t going to take away the hurt, frustration or shame.  They also aren't going to all of a sudden tell you how wrong their actions were. 

Instead of asking why,  tell them how their actions affect you and what the consequences are.  Instead of asking why did you get in that accident;  “I’m really frustrated that you got in an accident with the car. You need to identify what happened and how to not do it again, and because you caused so much damage you aren’t allowed to drive for 2 months and you have to find a way to pay me back for the cost of the repairs.”  Instead of asking why they went on Match and cheated on you, you tell them; “When I found out you went on a dating site my heart broke.  I don’t feel like I can trust you anymore and I don’t know that I can stay with you if I don’t trust you.  I’m so angry, and I hurt because I feel like I’m not enough for you. I just don’t know what to do, and I don’t know that you can make it better”. 


This requires a level of self-identification that some people find uncomfortable.  In some cases it requires vulnerability that we don’t want to have when hurt.  Ultimately it causes fewer problems than the question why.  It leaves less room for defensiveness and justification.  It also leaves room to ask questions like “what were you trying to accomplish” when you truly want to know the answer, because sometimes, especially with teens they were trying to do something legitimate just in unhealthy ways.  If you can figure out what they were trying to do, then you can help them find ways to do it in a healthy manner. 


When we ask the why question about our own motivations it is because we have judged our actions as wrong and bad.  This judgment serves no purpose but to add to the shame and shame serves no purpose.  Instead ask “what” questions.  What did I want to have happen?  What do I want in the future?  What can I do differently next time if I don’t like what I did this time?  When you can look at what you want in the future instead of beating yourself up for what happened in the past shame won’t wear you down and it will be easier to be the person you want to be. 


The question why comes with judgment and doesn’t help the situation.  Why is a great question when we actually want to find out factual information.  If our goal is different than that purpose we have to really figure out what we want.  Ultimately why is confrontation question that will generally result in some kind of defensiveness.  When you want to ask why, either find a way to ask what instead, or just identify your feelings and what you need.  Let go of why. 

Letting you follow your own path

"I lovingly release others to their own lessons. I tenderly care for myself and move with ease through my life"


I think this is the quote that has had the most meaning in my life.  Especially as a therapist I find myself becoming invested the change other people make.  I am lucky enough to be able to watch a lot of people make change in their life. Sometimes though I watch people get stuck, and I struggle with letting them be stuck.   Many of my clients, as they do change and see a difference in their lives, want to help their friends and family as well.  Then comes a new level of frustration and helplessness as they begin to find that others aren't ready or interested in hearing all of their words of wisdom. 

The desire to help others comes from an amazing and pure place.  It is also often easier to see a way out of other's troubles than it is your own.  It is difficult when you see a path for someone to keep from giving your input.  The thing to remember is that you had to find your own path.  Your friends and family were frequently there with ideas and different paths for you.  Everyone has their own path in life.  And ultimately they have to find it themselves.  Being able to let your friends and family learn their own lessons and walk their own path can sometimes be one of the most difficulty thing you do, especially as you watch your friends and family fall and fail.  Think of how many times you had to fall, how many times you had to fail in order to get to where you are.  Keep working to find the way to move with ease through your own life, letting your friends and family learn their own lessons. 

When good beliefs go bad

Just because I believe it doesn’t make it right.  I’ve discussed this before, but it bears repeating.  We come by our beliefs from thousands of ways: our parents, our friends, our religion, even television.  We are essentially indoctrinated to a way of thinking that holds us in a specific world.  This is not to say all indoctrinations are all-bad, but we are all led to a certain way of believing and thinking. 


We are all working toward our own version of enlightenment;  A place of peace that we can’t be pushed out of.  We use our beliefs to guide us, but if our beliefs are full of thinking errors and anger and hatred will be chasing peace without even getting close. 


There are several beliefs that keep us from finding peace.  The first one is the belief that we are a victim.  Some people actually are victims; of crimes, or accidents, or terrible things.  Staying in the place of being a victim leads to feeling powerless and helpless.  Being the victim leads to blaming others for where we are in life.  No matter what has happened to us in the past we still have choices about where we go next.  In order to take power and control over our own destiny we have to stop believing we are powerless over where we go next because of where we’ve been. 


We have to let go of believing there is a right and a wrong way to live life.  There is healthy and unhealthy, and there is safe and save, there is kind and unkind.   Right and wrong are the opinion that what works for me must work for everyone else, and if they don’t live that way they are “wrong”.  The difficulty with this is the path to peace is the same path for everyone.  There are generalities, but no specific maps that lead directly there.  While I do need to protect myself from those that are unsafe, I do need to let go of the concept of right and wrong. 


We have to let go of the belief of being enough for everyone else, or that someone else needs to be enough for us.  They are both traps that we will never escape from.  It leads to comparison to others, and it leads to the knowledge that you will never be the best and there will always be someone better.  And just like us, the people around us are just human.  They can’t be perfect anymore than we can, and we will just find hurt, frustration and disappointment if we set expectations that they be perfect for us. 


We have to let go of the past and the belief that we can make things as good as they were.  In trying to re-create the past we cling to what was instead of seeing the beauty and goodness of what is.    We can’t eat the same apple twice.  We can create new and differently beautiful, if we keep trying to go back to what was we will always be disappointed. 


We have to let go of the belief that we are in control.  I have control of me; my reactions and my behavior, and in general my path in life.  Sometimes I don’t even have as much control of my emotions as I would like, only how I react to them.  When I let go of the need to control the things around me that I can’t control, and accept what I truly have power over in this world I will live happier.  I can take preventative steps in my life; for my car I can make sure that I have good tires, get the oil, brakes, wipers and fluids changed on time, and keep it clean, but ultimately my car is going to fall apart at some point, and I can’t fully control when.  I can eat healthy and exercise, and my body is still not going to do what it is supposed to do at times.  I can make sure I stay away from known dangers, and I can still be in danger.  I will do what I can, and admit that some things are just out of my hands. When I do this I can relax and let go, riding the currents of life and more gracefully come out of the occasional whirl-pools that suck me under. 


No one’s path to enlightenment or is going to be the same. I know Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Jewish that are on their path, some even further than I am toward the end-game of peace.  There is no one way, and yet we do know what doesn’t work.  Holding on to beliefs that hold to prejudice, anger and victimizations lead to bitterness and pain.   When we can let go of these beliefs we can find peace and happiness in life. 


Learning to dance

A Taoist story tells of an old man who accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life. Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive.


"I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived."


We walk a path every day, and in general we expect the path to be predictable.  I keep several calendars to tell me where I’m supposed to be and when, and in general my day follows what is written.  Life doesn’t always work this way,  it isn’t always predictable.  Last month I watched a roll-over accident two hours before I helped the Red Cross with an apartment fire where at least 30 people lost everything except each other and their pets.  While both events derailed the plans for my day, the derailment was minor compared to those in the car or the apartments.  The world is going to throw us curve balls, some bigger than others.  If every time the world would change directions we fight to keep going the direction we want;  the direction we are comfortable with, we are going to fall.   We are working to shift from fighting the change and falling, to flowing with the change and dancing.   


So much of the suffering I see in my clients is attempts to keep the world the way it was or they want it to be, instead of adjusting to the way it really is.  Sakyong Mipham discusses in his book How To Turn Your Mind in to an Ally how we create difficulty for ourselves by resisting change.  Struggling to keep the world in our safety zone where we are comfortable. 


The world is going to shift, often in ways that we don't plan, or even want.  If we struggle to keep the world the same, every time it shifts in a new direction we risk falling.  Consider the world your dance partner, always in the lead. Once we learn to flow with the pattern, we can start to choose some of our own steps. There will always be times now and then the world shifts unexpectedly and we are knocked off our feet.  In general though, if we keep our heads (and our hearts) together we can follow the shifts and keep our feet, hopefully with even a little grace. 


Buddhism believes that suffering comes from wanting.  Wanting to draw closer, push away, or wanting to keep the same. An old saying, possibly over used; "the only constant is change".  The world will shift, time will move forward, and change will come.  When we can learn to follow the changes the world is going to throw at us, we can learn to dance instead of fall. 

What would you do?

 I look back historically at some of the best and the worst of humanity, and I wonder what role I would play.  Would I step out of comfort and risk myself for others, or would I watch from the comfort of my life as others suffer?  Would I actively hurt other human beings in order to curry my own favor as some French and Germans in WW2 did by turning in their Jewish friends and neighbors? 


I would like to think I would stand up and protect my fellow humans.  I would like to think I would put myself out there and stand up for humanity.  What about you?  Where do you think you would stand up for inequity and suffering caused by fellow man, where would you find fear and run, and at what point would you actively pariticate?


I hear you thinking; “Not me, I could never!”  History has proven you wrong.  We are capable of some of the greatest acts of kindness and love and decency.  And we are capable of some of the basest most inhumane acts.  In the Milgram Experiment we studied how far a person would go; violating their own personal ethics, values and morals if an authority figure told them to.  The answer was that we would go pretty far.  In the Stanford Prison Experiment mentally and emotionally healthy students were taken and divided in to groups of guards and prisoners.  The outcome was so unexpected and drastic they had to cease the experiment only a couple of days as it was found exactly how far people were willing to go under certain circumstances, especially under the group mentality.  


If I had been a soldier at Abu Ghraib (article and pictures may be disturbing and contain nudity) would I have stood up to my fellow soldiers, risking emotional and physical abuse from fellow soldiers; would I have watched but not participated; or would I have joined in.  Would I have participated unwillingly just to avoid not fitting in, or would I have jumped on the bandwagon.  I know what I would like to believe I would do, which is stand up to the others. 

All around us there are little moments and sometimes big moments when we have the chance to go against the stream to do what is right.  In France and Germany in WW2 people risked their lives and hid others in their homes and formed underground rescues to save complete strangers.  In the Milgram experiment some of the subjects stood up to the testors and said no, I won't hurt someone.  We are capable of great acts in times of stress.  We need to remember to stay true to our values even when the situation makes it difficult.  It takes true courage to stand in the fact of what is popular or powerful to do what is right.  I know what I want to do in these situations, what would you do?


Harriet Beecher Stowe
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
in response to Uncle Tom's Cabin

She told the story, and the whole world wept
At wrongs and cruelties it had not known
But for this fearless woman's voice alone.
She spoke to consciences that long had slept:
Her message, Freedom's clear reveille, swept
From heedless hovel to complacent throne.
Command and prophecy were in the tone,
And from its sheath the sword of justice leapt.
Around two peoples swelled a fiery wave,
But both came forth transfigured from the flame.
Blest be the hand that dared be strong to save,
And blest be she who in our weakness came--
Prophet and priestess!
At one stroke she gave
A race to freedom, and herself to fame.