Safe Places

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I remember when I was a kid in Illinois there was a pond that a couple of us guys would ride our bikes to. It was called Old Man Hendricks pond. He was a retired farmer who had this private pond that he wouldn’t let anybody into. It had a row of high bushes surrounding the pond so you couldn’t see it except from the inside. He had a gate with a big padlock on it and a sign that said “No Trespassing”. The fence surrounding the pond was covered by the bushes. We had figured out that if you go two sections down from the gate, the fence was broken and you could climb through the fence and the bushes and get to the pond.

There were so many times that I rode my bike out to the pond and would sneak in through the fence. Hendricks never knew I made his pond a safe place for me. I would bring a garbage sack with some Susie Q’s or Twinkies and a transistor radio. I would swim out to the dock which had been built twenty yards from shore. I remember laying on my back, looking up at the sky and watching the jets streak across the horizon leaving a vapor trail. The planes looked like little matchsticks. I would wonder where they were going and dream about being able to go somewhere on a plane. If old man Hendricks had caught me trespassing, I am sure he would have run me off.

Hendricks pond became a safe place for me to escape. During those days there was a lot to escape in my young life. There was physical and sexual abuse, family chaos, and a lot of abandonment and neglect. Hendricks pond became a sanctuary for me. Later in life, I revisited the site of the pond which no longer exists. The bushes were cut down, the pond had been drained and made into farmland. However, I carry the memory of this pond and made it a safe place for me in my mind. 

Throughout the years of addiction recovery, I have gone to this safe place in my heart and conducted many conversations about a host of issues with those I needed to address. There were many conversations with myself and my addictive rationale. I had some knock-down, drag-out type conversations with my understanding of God. There was a long discourse with my dad and mom about why they insisted that we attend a cult-like church. There was the rage about the abuse and everything around it. There were times at the pond when I shed a lot of tears about the deaths of my dad, mom, and brothers. It became a place in my heart where I have retreated throughout my adult life to settle my soul create calm and poise and bring myself back to center. 

This is what I know about recovery. Life will blitz you with concerns, pressures, and chaotic moments. If you are not proactive, you can get caught up with reactivity about the smallest of things. A blue funk will descend, your partner will say something that triggers you, your kids will act immaturely, an old act-out partner will reappear out of the blue without an invite, and suddenly you get ramped up with worry, anxiety, and susceptibility to addictive response. It happens almost at the snap of a finger. 

Everyone needs to establish a safe place to sort out the events of everyday life that trigger and create life imbalance. Sustained life imbalance is a dangerous high risk for addicts. As an addict, you can’t just sit with anger toward an experienced injustice. You can’t just blow up at someone over nothing and forget it or expect them to just get over it. Toying around with “eye candy” on the internet is not something that can be minimized or normalized if sex addiction is your drug of choice. Flirting with high-risk behavior, no matter what the addiction, is high risk. Clearly, when you are engaging in these behaviors, you need to retreat to a safe place and have honest conversations with yourself about what’s going on. 

Safe place conversations are where sobriety and serenity are hammered out. This is the place that you forge clarity and certainty to do the next right thing. The challenge with safe place conversations is that they need to be conducted daily, with rigorous honesty and commitment to care for yourself. All of these are simple but really difficult whether you are an addict or not. A safe place is the experience you create to grow yourself up by confronting mistaken beliefs, victim posturing, and addictive rationale. As an addict, a safe place is the place you best nip in the bud and build up behaviors toward destructive actions.

Here is a list of suggestions to make safe place experiences effective:

1. Establish a time and place in which no one interrupts you. The biggest challenge is your own thought life. Typically, it is a battle to keep from distracting yourself with a host of diversions. Once the safe place is established people avoid grounding by checking E-mail, texts, latest news from the internet, X, TikTok, Snapchat, and on and on. Before long you will have distracted yourself from the purpose of getting grounded. Many people leave the safe place experience without addressing what needs to be faced and not grounded. To do this work, you must be intentional and purposeful. It’s a commitment to emotionally grow yourself up by holding your feet to the fire in order to create life balance and centered poise.

2. Quiet your spirit with silence in the moment. This is a compelling assignment. Most addicts are dominated by monkey-brain thinking. Their mind goes on and on constantly thinking about everything and essentially about nothing. It just races incessantly. A safe place will help you slow things down and focus. It will not happen all of a sudden. It will require conditioning, not unlike other aspects of your life that you have conditioned. I believe that developing recovery skill sets requires that we reach out to other aspects of living that we have accomplished through conditioning and apply that skill set to quieting your spirit. For example, you do not run a marathon just by saying you will, as you are running your first run. Rather, you condition yourself and in time you are able to complete the marathon run. To be able to quiet your spirt in safe place, you will need to condition yourself. Start with 5 minutes. Just focus on your breath. Each time your mind goes to some other thought just bring yourself back to focusing on your breath. It doesn’t matter how many times. Just do it. In time, you will condition your mind to think about nothing except your breath in that 5-minute period. Of course, mindfulness meditation really helps with this skill set. As long as you allow your mind to give way to monkey-brain thinking, your thoughts will thrive. You must develop the capacity to quiet your spirit in silence. Safe place is the work-out room to develop this skill set. 

3. Determine that the last truth you want to face is the first truth you will embrace. Most likely, whatever it is that has triggered life imbalance is not the first thing confronted in your safe place. Usually, there is resistance to go there. It will take discipline and conditioning like so many other areas of life. Yet, safe place becomes powerful and sacred when you face yourself with what you do not want to look at. If you have a bad attitude about a situation or person, are resentful, discouraged or overwhelmed by shame, you must begin your safe place conversation there. It helps to verbalize what you are feeling, regardless of how irrational it might be. It can be helpful to write your thoughts and feelings on paper. If you are an addict, you will then need to sit with the part of you that wants to act out and hear it out. It is helpful to say it out loud as clear as you think it on the inside. To go back and forth—addict thought—recovered response—until you see clearly what  you must do. Here’s an example for a sex addict. “I want to screw my neighbor” So, in my safe place, I put my addictive rationale in a chair and let that part of me argue for me and lay out the case for acting out in this way. Then, I respond to each point made in addictive rationale with recovery response. Like, “yeah, that would be exciting and the rush would be overwhelming. Yet, the hurt of ruining my committed relationship with my partner would be crushing. I would not only tear up my relationship but end a good relationship in the neighborhood. The result would be catastrophic for a short term thrill.”At some point, the power in recovery will need to override addictive response and create a pathway back to centered living. Then, reach out and connect with support people who are willing to hold your feet to the fire of sobriety in order to follow through with your safe place conversation.

4. Anchor yourself in affirmative thought. After you quiet your mind, sort your thoughts, and clarify your steps back to poise and centered living, you must bathe yourself with affirmation. This too is a difficult skill to incorporate as a lifestyle. Yet, my experience is that unless you create a mindset that actively lives out what you dream of becoming, you never get there. As an addict I have learned that what you think about is what will expand. It’s the very property of thought. So, if you think about what is missing then that is what expands. If you focus on what you have that is what expands. Affirmations about the tools for recovery and my positive reality of employing them are a secret to successful sobriety that leads to serenity. Yet the skillset of affirmative thought is underemployed. It is a simple yet difficult habit to cultivate. However, those who experience long-term serenity, not just sobriety, engage in this practice regularly.  Deprivation always fuels entitlement to act out. Practicing affirmations becomes so helpful toward shifting out of a deprivation mindset and takes what is and makes it enough. A safe place is a great place to accentuate recovery muscle through affirmative thought once you have determined your way back to center.

    Some people struggle with the idea of going to a safe place to recreate centered living. This place can be a literal place or in your mind’s eye, like I do. The litmus test is if you talk to people, addict in recovery or otherwise, while they may not use the language of “safe place”, clearly you will find that these folk have learned to create a way of bringing themselves back to center that inspires living from a higher self. A safe place can take many forms, but, I don’t know of any serene people who live without it.

    Footprints That Connect Spirituality

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    “What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

    The human body is magnificent. The more we learn about the intricacies of our bodies, the more clear it is that there is an amazing life force that creates and connects all of life on this planet and beyond. Some people believe that as phenomenal and amazing as the physical body is most of who we are is spiritual, not physical.

    Volumes have been written about the spiritual world but it remains a mystery. Many who decry religion reject the concept altogether.  Those who believe and talk about the intangible nature of spirituality accept that discussion about its properties can be like trying to nail jelly to a tree. 

    Religious practice helps many to chart a course toward the meaning of the spirit world. From a macro view of the world, the influence of spirituality is undeniable…

    Today, I would like to suggest a less macro and more micro understanding of spirituality in the common experiences of everyday living. 

    1. Spirituality is found in the connection of you to the world around you. Addicts live disconnected. They pull the plug on connection to people and the world around them. Their addiction becomes the organizing principle in life. The affair that is created with addictive behavior has been described as a warm blanket more than once. However, spirituality is about the opposite. It is a connection to all facets of living both organic and nonorganic. Meditation is a recovery discipline that connects one to the world around you in the present moment. Being able to connect to the world around you—the birds, trees, plants, animals, rocks and human energy has been described by some recovering addicts as an explosion of meaningfulness where there was once emptiness. I like to think metaphorically that your feelings are the Voice of God.

    When listened to, feelings will tell you essential needs that need to be met in a healthy way. The tendency for an addict is to disconnect from feelings of discomfort. Yet, if you sit with uncomfortableness it will tell you what needs to be addressed in your life. You will need to marshal mature actions by utilizing your wise mind to meet those needs in healthy self-fulfilling ways. This requires mentorship and endless practice. It is not magical.  So you might say spirituality is about mature adult living and you don’t have to even use the word spirituality to capture this life experience. For example, you may find yourself angry. Rather than emotionally throw up in someone’s lap or stuff the experience and pretend it doesn’t exist, take time to listen to what anger is trying to say to you. Feelings are experienced in clusters. Withanger it is often tied with fear, sadness, loneliness, shame, or other feelings. If you take time to sift and sort each attached feeling they will clarify what you are experiencing and when connected to your wise mind you can better address your needs. This is why I suggest that your feelings are the voice of God! Listen to them and they will serve you well. This is a spiritual experience.

    2. Spirituality is found in the experience of vulnerability. Vulnerability is the process of being exposed to possible harm. It is about embracing the fear of rejection, of being taken advantage of, and of embracing your human limits. It is not taught, it is practiced. If you do not practice it, you will not learn it. It is about becoming emotionally naked to another. It is risking rejection. It engages a willingness to remove yourself from the center of your universe for the purpose of sharing another’s energy and making space for someone else knowing that they may flatly reject your efforts. 

    Vulnerability is accepting this possibility and courageously exposing your heart anyway. It doesn’t make sense to always/only be vulnerable. But when it does it is pursued against all odds no matter what the price. It is a shift from intellectual reason and protection to opening your heart and sharing raw feelings that expose hypocrisy, incongruence andfailed behavior in hopes of finding connection and acceptance. This requires courage but when manifested multiplies meaningful life experiences. Vulnerability is spirituality and counterintuitively creates connection.

    3. Spirituality is about the experience of uncertainty. No religion can prove that it is the one true way. Outside of religious experience, no philosophy or experience can prove its methodology of living as the one correct approach. There are many opinions and beliefs. Likely, they are all correct in different ways! You will need to sort out what you choose to think and believe. Ignoring this reality is a choice in itself. For sure, spirituality is a belief plunge into uncertainty. None of us like the experience of free falling. When I was young I would take junior high kids to a cliff at a lake in Wyoming to jump in for a swim. The cliffs were between 50 and 60 feet high! It was far enough to consciously experience the free fall. When free falling you experience total helplessness. There is literally nothing you can do to counter gravity but to fall. This is what it is like to plunge into the uncertainty of spiritual belief. It is having the confidence that in free-falling into your belief, your confidence is not that you will control the outcome but that your spiritual belief will bring you back up. This means that with bravery you are willing to live with the uncertainty that surrounds you every day because of your belief in the basic goodness of who you are and/or the power you choose to trust in your daily free fall.

    4. Spirituality is about velvet steel. I call my blog Velvet Steel because of my deep conviction of this spiritual principle. Spirituality is about connection which engages the principle of velvet steel. This concept embraces the word “consideration” which can describe a parent who practices when to apply the strict letter of the law to a misbehaving child and when to back off and go easy. There is no formula. It’s all about cultivating sensitivity to the spirit of another. Sometimes you need to be willing to walk to hell and back to stand for conviction and principle and other times not. It’s about being velvet steel. 

    In recovery meetings, there is usually at least one person who sees themselves as the hammer—the steel—and gives feedback from that standpoint. It is common for others to consistently be velvet, being easy toward others hoping they too will be easy with them. It is rare that you experience velvet steel blended in feedback. This is because it is difficult. Often it takes a certain degree of steel to be velvet as well as it is important to share a certain amount of steel while being velvet in feedback. That said, spirituality is not all about rules and regs (steel) but it also includes knowing the rules well enough to know how and when to break them (velvet). Velvet steel is a dynamic applied in many different ways and requires integrity and honesty to the practice for it to be a spiritual practice that heals and transforms behavior. Spiritual practice must include a mature application of velvet steel. In truth when applied with sensitivity it reflects an art form. 

    There are footprints of spirituality in common everyday places that are mostly overlooked by those who are in a hurry or a frenzy of everyday living. Take time to notice the footprints of spirituality that will help right-size your everyday walk with meaningfulness and connection.

    Confessions and Memories

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    “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” ― Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    I am sitting in front of the home I grew up in my hometown. Memories flood my mind like a rolodex that won’t stop turning. The memories are very real. The current reality makes me question whether or not the past could have ever been true. The house I grew up on 17th Street is dilapidated. It needs painting and a major overhaul. Our neighbors, Mr. Hill and the Selbys are long since dead and gone. Their homes are an absolute disaster. Selby’s house used to be the nicest on the block. Mr. Hill was forever doing upgrades to his house. He was always painting the gutters, the trim or something else. Now his home is in such disarray and decay it is hard to believe anyone actually lives in the house. Both his and the Selbys’ houses should be demolished. As I assess the current existence of decay of my home, the memories just keep flooding in. 

    Things I remember: 

    ….I remember throwing a rubber ball against the wooden steps playing a make-believe baseball game with my favorite team in mind, the Chicago Cubs. I threw the ball so many times against the steps that the wood broke and began to collapse. 

    …..I remember the bare spots in our front yard that formed first, second, and third base from playing baseball with my brother and friends in the neighborhood. 

    ….I remember the upstairs window my older brothers would hang me out by my ankles, threatening to let me drop, just for the hell of it. 

    ….I remember the early days when we had to walk across town to go to church because we didn’t have a car. 

    ….I remember the boredom that came with Sunday church. Three hours in the morning and another 2 hours at night. It ruined watching the start of NFL games in the Fall and MLB on Sunday afternoons in the Summer.

    It’s amazing how things that happened over 50 years ago can be so real in the here and now! Sometimes the bad memories wake me up to be relived anew. They roll around in my mind like a dryer that never turns off. Experiential therapies have been helpful. Hypnosis, EMDR, Regressive therapy, Somatic experience, guided meditation and music have all eased the compulsion of thought. Yet, the experiences that I have absorbed from home to church and everywhere in between are part of my blood and bone. Misbeliefs, abuse, theological brainwashing, patriarchal domination no longer rule or control my behavior. However, they are forever etched in my psychological DNA and color my everyday experience. I have learned to sit in a room experiencing life in the present while being aware of the cycle of past experiences that constantly spin and roll in the background of my mind. 

    Here are some things I have learned from nostalgia:

    1. Nostalgia helps me to embrace feelings. Going home to the place I grew up in reminded me to come home to myself. Yearning for yesterday once more produces feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and wondering what might have been if things then were different. Living in feelings of the past can trigger a desire to focus on the future and never really be present in the here and now. However, I have learned to shift the experience of nostalgic feelings and come home to my present mind where loneliness can disappear. Sitting with past nostalgia is an invitation to enter the suffering of present struggles in the friendly safe confines of your own heart. Home is your island of self within which you can practice being gentle and kind. You do not need to fix or change anything—just be.
    1. Memories are best managed through mindful meditation. You may feel discomfort from the vacuum that exists within. There is a tendency to fill the vacuum with activity and attempts to connect to others through electronic devices. Yet, being busy to connect will not make you less lonely. You can be surrounded by people and immersed in activity yet experience intense loneliness. Meditation slows your life so that you can notice what you feel inside.
    1. Sitting is a revolution that connects nostalgia to the present moment. When you are not in good relationship with your romantic partner, family, friends, and the world around you, practice sitting. Bring relaxation to your body by noticing the in-breath and the out-breath. Observe your feelings without trying to change them. Notice your thoughts and let them be as they are. Recognize your true self as the sky and your feelings and thoughts like the clouds. They will come and go but your true self remains the sky. It will bring calmness and connection to yourself.
    1. Memories point to the reality that the way out is in. Memories have taught me that when my mind races about past abusive experiences or current suffering, the best way to work through unwanted thought is to go inward. Your body is your home. Your body is your feet, your lungs, etc. Slow down your busyness to notice your lungs through the in-breath and out-breath. Notice what your body is feeling or experiencing. You won’t be able to connect with others if you cannot connect with yourself. So embrace your feelings with tenderness. You will find yourself when you feel lost not by going outside yourself but by going within.

    Memories managed effectively produce inspiration for you and others who are connected to you. Going home to yourself will allow you to work through nostalgia and accept life as it is. It will help you to be present moment by moment. In this way nostalgic memories will not dominate you. You will engage freedom from past experiences.

    As you provide your own warmth and safety you will be an inspiration to those who are connected to you. Your experience of inner calm and connection will inspire others to go within. You will help others to find sanctuary and warmth in their own “home”. The illusion of nostalgia is resolved when you practice sitting with your feelings past and present. Coming home to yourself merges past feelings with present realities of experience and fosters a refuge of safety and warm connection. 

    An MD’s Personal Take on Meditation

    I will fully admit that I am no expert on meditation. But then again, most of us aren’t. Monks train full-time for years to be good at meditation. Just like I shouldn’t be surprised that Lebron is going to dunk on me when I’m not practicing basketball (okay, he’d probably dunk on me no matter how much I practiced), I shouldn’t be surprised if meditation isn’t immediately yielding monk-like results on my first try—or even my twentieth.

    For real, clearing your brain is difficult! I was focusing so hard on clearing my brain that when a thought would come in, I would be stressed that I was thinking when I was supposed to be clearing, dammit! Then I would think about thinking, and then I would think about how circular it was. Then I would think about the huge pile of laundry waiting, whether I remembered my daughter’s permission slip, and why don’t we know if there is life on other planets and…oops, there I go again. Ugh! Eventually, I realized that my mind will never be clear. Neither will yours! Mediation isn’t about an empty mind, but rather a focused mind. It is about focusing on something specific. Whether it is a mantra, a fantasy, or a goal, the goal of meditation is simply to focus.

    Before I understood what meditation really was, I complained to a particularly good meditation instructor that I found meditation nearly impossible. She smiled and patiently explained said that while we may feel uncomfortable at first and that we may think it’s impossible to stop our “monkey minds” from chattering away, meditation is highly effective for cleaning up old, accumulated stress. The trick is to keep practicing it and trust that you’ll get better in time.

    She also stressed the importance of finding something that works for you. You don’t need to meditate in the lotus position. There are plenty of other forms of meditation that you may find more enjoyable. The goal is to put yourself in a space where you’re not overthinking and worrying. Here are a few suggestions I like:

    • Picture a trunk that holds all your old stressors, dating back to your first memories. Open it up, and put the day’s stress inside. By making this a regular practice, you’re not only shaking off the stress of that day and finding somewhere to put it, but you’re giving yourself an opportunity to let a little bit of old stress out.
    • Or you can use my newer more positive version of the trunk exercise. Imagine putting all of the awesome things about today in a big beautifully decorated trunk. From the way the sun shone through the clouds to the funny text you got to the compliment from a friend, it is a place to store all of your wins in a safe place so you can take them out anytime you need an extra boost of sunshine.
    • Download a guided meditation app. Find a pleasing voice that allows you to focus on their words, listen to the music, and follow along. Many of these apps are designed around progressive guided meditation techniques that take you through a series of relaxation messages to help you unwind your physical tension.
    • Exercise, whether it’s walking, jogging, or lifting weights, can put me in a meditative space.
    • Practice yoga or swimming. Both require you to focus on your breathing and be mindful of your surroundings.
    • Create a soundtrack for your life. Movies tell us how to feel by the background music. You always know when you should be feeling romantic or when the shark is about to sneak up and bite your butt. Make an energetic playlist for exercise, a mellow playlist for bedtime, or a stress-release playlist when you feel like you’re at your wits’ end.

    Music is remarkably effective for altering your feelings and mindset. Use it to your advantage. Sing loudly in the car—anywhere else where you aren’t worried about people staring at you. Dance a little while you’re at it. I also listen to a podcasts, satellite radio, audio books, and a comedy channel. Remember to be flexible. Your preferences are likely to change both over time and throughout the course of the day.

    Mantras are another great brain hack! If you only have five minutes of downtime, repeating your favorite mantra can be a great way of calming your mind and relieving stress. Just take a deep breath, say your mantra, and repeat. Here are three of my favorite mantras to help get you started.

    • “Resilience is a muscle!” You aren’t born with a fixed amount that gets used up. Everything you do toward self-care and stress management helps your resilience muscle get stronger and stronger. Make specific efforts to grow this, like a bodybuilder building biceps, so your resilience muscle is strong enough to bear the load of any stressor that comes your way
    • “My brain is my bitch.” Your brain believes what you tell it. If you tell it that everything sucks and the sky is falling, it will believe you and oblige with the appropriate sympathetic response. If you tell your brain “I’ve got this” and “let’s go bring on the awesomeness,” it will believe you and give you the positive energy you need to conquer the world. Be mindful of this and take full advantage of your brainpower!
    • “Who am I not to?” This mantra is the shortened version of a powerful quote by Marianne Williamson, abridged here: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened abut shrinking so other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. As we let our own light shine we unanimously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fears, our presence automatically liberates others.”

    I use the “Who am I not to?” mantra all the time with patients wondering who they are to “health up”—and I used it for myself more than once while writing this book. But that particular mantra connects with me; yours might be different. Whatever mantra you choose, you need to hear it, see it, and say it frequently for your brain to absorb and fully integrate it. Repetition is the key to learning. Write your mantra on a sticky note and put it on your desk, steering wheel, and refrigerator. Write it with a marker on your bathroom mirror. Say it at every stoplight. You can even use your mantra as your computer password so you are typing it every day.

    The above is an excerpt from Habit That!: How You Can Health Up in Just 5 Minutes a Day by Dr. Jaime Hope; Lion’s Crest Publishing, 2018; All Rights Reserved

    Unified Mindfulness: The Meditation Practice That May Change My Life

    When I was a little girl, I used to sit cross-legged in my grandmother’s walk-in closet, close my eyes and chant “OM” to myself over and over. I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but I knew that meditation offered a more peaceful life, and at the age of eight I was already craving serenity.

    My childhood interest in meditation didn’t last very long, and I wouldn’t return to it until decades later. Meditation apps were suddenly the hot thing a couple years ago, so I decided to give a few of them a try. I had no issues with any of the apps I tried, but once again I failed to develop a regular meditation practice.

    If you’re anything like me, you may be drawn to meditation for its well-known benefits, but you find it too “out there,” too vague, too difficult to grasp. Am I doing it right? What’s supposed to be happening?

    This is not unusual. As Julianna Raye, founder, president, and head trainer of Unified Mindfulness, explained to me, “Meditation is tricky because initially results can be subtle, and oftentimes people are confused. There are lots of things that can interfere with your ability to adopt a solid practice. The mind can come up with any little reason to say no, because we’re used to our routines.”

    Through speaking with Raye and going through the Unified Mindfulness online training course, everything finally started to click for me. Or, as Raye puts it, the Unified Mindfulness system “throws the doors open” for people like me. And perhaps you.

    So, let’s dive in…

    Julianna Raye’s Story

    An accomplished singer/songwriter, Julianna Raye has released three albums, toured extensively and collaborated with many big names in the music business. But there’s much more to her story.

    Before she began practicing meditation, Raye suffered from anxiety and depression. At one point, she was suicidal—in the planning stages, even. Therapy was not enough, and Raye didn’t react well to anti-depressants, so medication was not an option. A concerned therapist recommended meditation.

    “When I discovered mindfulness, the big revelation was that it changed me in a physiological way,” Raye told me. “I didn’t expect the rewards to be so tangible.”

    Raye continued: “As I got deeper into it, I began to see a pattern interrupt. For me, I found that the anxiety and depression were conditioning. Mindfulness was the key to breaking through the spell of my conditioning.”

    Two years after beginning her practice, Raye found a life-changing teacher in Shinzen Young, the architect of Unified Mindfulness. She began going on retreats, which took her practice to the next level.

    “I discovered just how good I was capable of feeling,” she says. “It meant that I could rely on my own inner capacity to self-generate well-being and pleasant experience, and that’s very freeing.”

    Raye rose above her depression through immersion in mindfulness, including more than 100 weeks of silent retreat training and over 12,000 hours of formal practice. “I recognized that if I didn’t do this, I was going to live life chronically managing my unhappiness and dipping deeper and deeper over time into that pit of depression,” Raye revealed. “So, I gave it everything I had, and it took a lot of time and a lot of focus, but I came out the other side totally transformed.”

    Now Raye is dedicated to empowering as many people as possible with the tools that have been so transformative for her. As a result, she has been training individuals and groups in the Unified Mindfulness system for nearly two decades. Raye’s vision, as she puts it, is “to do everything I can while I’m on this planet to help people help themselves the way I’ve been able to help myself.”

    So What is Unified Mindfulness?

    If you like things spelled out for you, Unified Mindfulness may appeal to you. It’s a perfect place to start if you’re new to mindfulness, but those with established meditation practices can learn from it as well.

    The system defines mindfulness as a set of three attention skills, all working together. These skills are developed through a consistent meditation practice, but they can also be cultivated during everyday experiences. Raye walked me through the three skills using the example of brushing your teeth.

    1. Concentration power: Quite simply, this is the ability to focus on whatever sensory experience you choose. If you were brushing your teeth, you would choose to focus your attention on that action and let everything else fade into the background. Doing so strengthens your ability to concentrate in general, helping you focus on what you consider to be most important at any given time.
    2. Sensory clarity: This is the ability to track and explore sensory experiences in real time. While brushing your teeth, you might notice the texture of the toothpaste and then the tingle of coolness in your mouth. Our ability to detect this sensory information enriches our life. Raye described it as similar to a chef tasting the flavors of a stew. We become the chef of our own sensory experience. When you achieve this clarity, ideas may come to you more clearly, and you can make links of association that you wouldn’t ordinarily make—much like when you’re in “the zone” at work or while playing a sport. Sensory clarity also helps us manage challenging experiences by reducing sensory clutter.
    3. Equanimity: This is the ability to allow sensory experiences to come and go freely, without interfering with them in any way—without trying to hold on to the experience or trying to push it away. Raye explained that we tend to fight with our inner experience, often without realizing it. When we do, we make matters worse for ourselves by expending precious energy. Equanimity allows us to better process unpleasant experiences and gain deep fulfillment from pleasant experiences. When we learn how to permit an experience to come and go, then a little hint of joy has an opportunity to spread and possibly gain momentum throughout the whole body. Like the simple joy of focusing on brushing your teeth for just a minute or two!

    Unified Mindfulness also teaches methods for meditation, such as the “See, Hear, Feel” technique. Raye notes, “Once you understand that it’s about skill development, then you can explore what works for you. We like to lead with See, Hear, Feel, because it’s a great way to show people firsthand that any experience at all can be a meditation. But it’s a very easy leap from this technique to another technique that they might love.”

    Does Unified Mindfulness Produce Results?

    The facts are in: Using more than 50 years of research and testing, Shinzen Young designed an approach to mindfulness that is comprehensive, rigorous and stands up to scientific inquiry. The Unified Mindfulness system is used by leading institutions such as Harvard and Carnegie Mellon for their research on meditation.

    And the American Psychological Association (APA) recently reported on a study where Raye trained employees at a digital marketing firm in the Unified Mindfulness system. This was the first study of its kind to research how mindfulness impacts subjects during their workday.

    According to the results, participants who received the half-day training and practiced mindfulness daily for six weeks “showed reduced work-life conflict, increased job satisfaction, and an increased ability to focus their attention.”

    I asked Raye about the application of Unified Mindfulness in recovery. “Mindfulness is not a replacement for 12-step programs, but it’s a wonderful complement,” she responded. “There’s a vicious cycle that happens when we get caught up in negative thinking and emotions. Being able to manage that is very helpful—you’re less likely to turn to a substance because you’re able to better manage the overwhelm. On the flip side, as your practice evolves and you’re experiencing greater fulfillment, you start to have a virtuous cycle where these pleasant rewards mutually reinforce each other in a healthy, healing way, and that can be really stabilizing.”

    As someone who quit drinking nearly two years ago, I have been longing to institute a mediation practice to sustain and enrich my recovery.

    After taking the 10-part CORE Training, which is the first step in learning the Unified Mindfulness system, I’m eager to sign up for the 30-day action plan next. I may even do their teacher certification program once my practice is well established.

    I’m also excited to check out the Unified Mindfulness online summit and retreat coming up in March (if you sign up for the CORE Training you’ll receive updates on this event). In addition to interviewing experts in various fields who credit meditation as a meaningful part of their life, Raye and her colleagues are holding an online meditation hall that will be open for 12 hours a day over five consecutive days. Beginners can stop in for a session or two, while those who have been considering going on a retreat may want to try a full day.

    Not since I was a child sitting in my grandmother’s closet have I been so hopeful about the prospect of meditation in my life. But this time around, I have a sturdy foundation providing valuable and proven support.

    Feeling Frazzled this Holiday Season? We’ve Got the Cure!

    Welp friends, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. OR it can be the most hurried, stress-filled and expectation-riddled season of all. I find that it really all depends on my perspective. My sanity and joy during the holiday season hinge on my dedication to self-care.

    Just so we’re all on the same page, I’ll give you my definition of self-care. I believe that self-care includes mindsets, self-talk and actions that create space for us to remain healthy and grounded, throughout various seasons of life. In difficult, stressful or challenging times, we desperately need self-care practices in order to be refreshed and renewed, and to keep us from burnout. In seasons when we are experiencing ease, joy and peace, self-care serves to fill us up to a truly abundant state. Our needs are met and we can generously overflow to others.

    The purpose of self-care is not to become self-focused and certainly not to be selfish. Rather it is to love others as we love ourselves. Did you catch that last part?

    “. . . as we love ourselves.”

    This means that we have to learn how to love and be kind to ourselves before we can possibly overflow with love and kindness to others in a truly unselfish, no-strings-attached kind of way.

    In my experience, honoring my need for self-care chases away scarcity and the resentment that comes from continuing to give from an empty well. As I have love and grace for myself, I am filled up with love and grace for others. Scarcity, resentment and burnout are replaced with abundance, overflow and freedom.

    Just let that sink in.

    Imagine experiencing the entire holiday season from a place of abundance, overflow and freedom. Freedom to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to invitations, without the guilt that people-pleasing often brings. Freedom to give from a loving, generous place, knowing that others may or may not be able to give back in the same way—or at all. Freedom to be yourself among the various groups of family members, friends and coworkers you’ll find yourself with in the coming weeks. Imagine experiencing all of this grace and freedom for yourself and then extending it extravagantly to others. To me, that sounds like the most wonderful way to be any time of the year.

    Here are a few of my favorite self-care practices that I integrate into my daily routine. They keep me from getting depleted during an ordinary, no-drama week and are thus extra necessary during the hustle and bustle of the holidays.

    Meditation and prayer


    Reading a great book

    Taking a walk

    Hugging an animal

    Eating well

    Having a treat

    Time with a loved one

    Time with friends in recovery or other encouraging friends

    During stressful or challenging times, I often add:

    • Counseling
    • Chiropractic care
    • Saying ‘no’ to optional busyness in favor of downtime
    • Additional recovery meetings
    • An extra visit or call with a friend
    • Coaching or mentoring sessions

    Any support I need to process my experiences, thoughts and feelings when I am under added stress is an investment in my sanity and serenity. These resources help me to slow down and choose how I’d like to respond, rather than reacting under stress. They also help me glean lessons from my experience instead of just white-knuckling my way through them.

    The point is, self-care takes lots of forms—from a cozy day of resting, recharging and hugging your pet (possibly against their squishy-faced will), to action steps such as reaching out for support or setting boundaries. All of these choices help to keep us healthy physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

    So, as the official Ambassador of Self-Care . . .

    . . . I invite you to consider being kind to yourself this holiday season, and year-round. The world has only been entrusted with one of you and so I encourage you to take care of your wellbeing accordingly. Let yourself be renewed and recharged and then love others generously from a place of abundant overflow.

    And now let me ask you…Which of these self-care practices resonate with you? What you would add to the list? Which practices are essential for you, even in the busiest times?

    You can start today, with just one small choice or action. It doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated!

    We’d love to hear your thoughts! Please leave a comment and then share the article—and the (self) love.