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Portland Therapist Stephen Shostek Counseling Services

These Things: 443

In Praise of Grief

I’ve been sitting with loss and grief this week.

The western portion of the Columbia Gorge went up in flames this week. As I write this, more than 33,000 acres have burned, the fires are 7% contained, hundreds of homes have been evacuated (including several friends’ homes), and my beloved trails and a climbing area have burned. Oregon State Police tell us that the fire was likely caused by a group of teenagers playing with fireworks along the Eagle Creek trail.

Earlier this week I was overtaken by waves of sadness and grief. Beyond recreation, the gorge was a place of spiritual replenishment for me during my 31 years in Portland. Walking there fed my soul. There were some dark times when I found respite among the trees and waterfalls and returned to town restored. Like many Oregonians, I’m grieving this loss.

I’m struck by how hard it can be to simply grieve. The “show stopper” nature of grief came into focus for me this week. Grief stops us in our tracks. It asks us to stop what we’re doing and come to terms with the loss that precipitated the grief. It reminds us that no amount of action can reverse some losses. Much of the healing power of grief comes during that slowing down process. We need that time in order to come to terms with loss. By slowing me down, grief gives me enough time to feel the important feelings and to work the loss through to a conclusion. The conclusions I reach after grieving are generally more life affirming than those I reach if I refuse to grieve a loss.

But we live in a culture that doesn’t want to slow down and that values action and movement, rather than stopping. Additionally, the public opinion pendulum has swung toward taking swift and decisive action anytime we feel wronged. And it’s all the more satisfying if the action has finality in it. We love absolutes. Anything less, we’re told, is woefully soft. It’s a social offense in some circles to be soft.
But grief is a soft thing, and it softens you up for a time. Ask someone who’s lost a parent, a child, a love about that. Or, like this week in Oregon, a special place.

We seem to have lost our bearings about things that we judge to be soft. Grief isn’t popular, it just isn’t cool.

Consider too, that we have the capacity to convert the energy of one strong emotion into another. For example, we often see this happening with shame – some folks become adept at converting the emotional energy of shame quickly into anger. Gershen Kaufman makes this observation in his book, “Shame: The Power of Caring.” I see a similar conversion phenomenon at work regarding grieving the loss inflicted by the Eagle Creek Fire. The burning of our beloved gorge has been a tremendous loss. We feel that pain when we see the images of burning trees and deal with the smoke wafting through our neighborhoods. The sadness of that loss should queue us up to grieve, but over and over I see appropriate grief being cut short, converted into the only action that seems available – looking for punishment and retribution.

It appears that slowing down enough to feel the grief and to complete its important work just isn’t a publicly celebrated option. Discussing our loss could evoke sadness and grief – and slow us down. But instead, I hear people and even journalists jumping immediately from discussing loss - to defining retribution and vengeance. The teenager(s) who are accused of starting the fire are de-humanized as “assholes,” “idiots,” and “schmuck” in the local media; and much worse out loud. Our shared loss is briefly mentioned and then prison sentences, lifetime public service penalties, and let’s take down their parents too, are the quick and ready reactions. Instead of grief we go to anger. I found myself going there on Monday as the fire grew.

Really? Is this how we’ll make a better world?

Let’s slow down. We’ve lost something beautiful and important to this fire, and the loss is terribly sad. We could come to terms with that loss by grieving, and then get on with the next steps, including justice and rehabilitation. Skipping ahead to anger, retribution and punishment bypasses the grief process. And if we refuse to grieve, then the process of acceptance and moving on is truncated and incomplete. When loss isn’t worked through, then the aftermath is less rich and less life affirming.

So first, let’s come to terms with this loss. Let’s grieve the loss and let grief do its good work in us. Slow down, and resist the message that slowing down is weakness. It’s a strength, and our lives will be richer by working through the loss.

Additionally, let’s use this situation as a means to promote a more thoughtful, non-absolute, social process for dealing with harm, loss and negligence. Let’s get the fire out and take care of the people who are affected by it. And then, let’s count on the best and the brightest from our Department of Justice juvenile division to deal with the accused. DOJ has been down this road before. Let’s reserve the call to quick angry action for those circumstances where it makes sense as the best option for our safety.

I’m sad about the Columbia Gorge fire and I anticipate missing some special places. I plan on grieving my loss – I’ll slow down and let grief do its work. I figure that I'll come out on the other side of grief with the same wish for special places in nature. I’m confident that I’ll find those places on the other side of this loss and grief.

I’m thinking about this: As the years go by, the burned forest will be green again; new hiking trails will be built if the old ones erode out; the waterfalls will continue to run; everything will grow and continue on. May we all do the same.

And those teens with the fireworks? I don’t have adequate information about them to understand their character or their motivations. Any conjecture I make about them at this time is guesswork. A fantasy. When the time is right I’d like to hear from the insightful professionals in our juvenile justice system about the appropriate course of action. In due time.
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These Things: 442

I've seen a wave of interest lately for mindfulness practices.

Social and behavioral research scientists have studied the beneficial effects of mindfulness practices. They catalogue a long list of beneficial outcomes for mindfulness practices, including increased attention span, increased compassion, and empathy. It’s been shown to be helpful for insomnia, and helpful in reducing worry and levels of stress-related hormones. In Rick Hanson’s 2009 book, “Buddha’s Brain,” Hanson writes about research that showed elevation of mood, increased resilience, and strengthened immune system attributed to positive feelings facilitated by mindfulness practices.
I can understand that wave of interest given so many benefits. I’m passing along some resources to support mindfulness practices.
It can be helpful to begin a mindfulness practice by using recorded scripts. There are lots of sources for such scripts. I can recommend the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA for their collection of mindfulness practice scripts, available at no cost -

Books and reading? “Buddha’s Brain” by Rick Hanson is a rich resource about mindfulness practices and its benefits. Hanson also has a weekly blog/newsletter about mindfulness -

Other articles and video - articles from Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley:
A short article about mindfulness might give you ideas of other related topics to read -
A survey of several therapies based on mindfulness -
A video from Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction -

And I have a longer blog post you might enjoy -

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These Things: 437

They’re Back!

The drab look of winter around here is starting to explode into color. Enjoy the changeup! Go for a walk, eh? Some thoughts about the power of awe on this spring day – Awe in the Time of Dr. Suess Trees,
3 Photos - View album
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These Things: 435

Love and the Politics of Care

Last week I posed the question of how far are we willing to extend our love? I had in mind extending love (or at least care) to a group of people who may seem unlikely – frustrated formerly democrat voters who sided with Trump.

I was intrigued by James Livingston’s 2016 book “No More Work” because it explores the intangible necessities that we get from our work. And it got me thinking differently about a collection of displaced workers who were desperate enough to vote for Trump in the hope that he could make good on his promise to give them meaningful work again. It’s clear that it’s not just a living wage that they need, but the intangibles as well – meaning, identity, belonging, fulfillment… those personal things that we derive from our work.

So, if progressives are to extend care toward “those other guys” too, we’ll have to come to grips with their real needs. Helping them to get what they actually need will be as Livingston wrote, “a practical economic necessity.” There’s no other choice if we’re to share an economy and a nation, and thrive. The alternative, leaving those needs unmet, will leave us all exposed to further hopeless attempts and acts of desperation.

Find my review and critique of “No More Work”, along with some personal observations in my blog at
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These Things: 434

Love and the Politics of Care

It’s great seeing these signs popping up all over my neighborhood. I’m psyched about the solidarity of love and the politics of care.

Here’s a question for us to ponder - how far are we willing to take this love?

In his 2016 book, “No More Work”, James Livingston writes, “Can we love our neighbors as ourselves in the absence of work that supplies a living wage?” Livingston answers his own question after a review of economics and labor history, “But if we want to survive, we have to love each other, as ourselves – we have to be our brother’s keeper… this is a practical economic necessity. There’s not enough work to go around.”

I wrote a review and a critique of “No More Work”, along with some personal observations at Check it out, leave me your comments.
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These Things: 433

A Paradigm for Understanding

Yesterday I traveled to Salem in the afternoon to testify about a bill – HB2361. When I arrived at the capitol building, a protest rally was underway, filling the steps and sidewalk in front of the doors. I wondered how I was even going to get to the doors? Would I miss the hearing in spite of my best efforts? The crowd was big and loud - a little worrisome to me as I approached. But they were peaceful even if loud, and the cause was immigrant rights, which I support. I passed through and into the building.

The experience reminded me that caring people are stirred up and some of them are worried or scared. I can understand why as I follow the news. But being scared and worried for too long without relief takes a terrible toll on our bodies and minds. A means of refuge and comfort for the long haul is a good idea for wellbeing. It’s clear that we’re in this for the long haul.

Sometimes understanding what’s going on can be orienting and calming. I mentioned cognitive neuroscientist George Lakoff a few days ago in relation to the politics of care. In a November blog post, Lakoff offers a way to understand our currently inflamed social/political situation in terms of conflicting worldviews. Lakoff’s neuroscience paradigm even offers caring people a way to make progress through the conflict and mayhem. You can check it out at -

Back to Salem - what from a distance appeared like an unruly mob (Is it dangerous? Scary?) became familiar as I understood what was going on. I could get oriented once I understood what was happening and find common ground within my worldview. Ultimately, I felt safety amidst the crowd. This was something I could make sense of. The politics of care will benefit from understanding what’s going on in the minds of both sides of the debate.

“The mind is physical, constituted by the neural circuitry of our brains and bodies…. If facts don’t fit the worldviews in our brains, the facts may not even be noticed — or they may be puzzling, or ignored, or rejected outright, or if threatening, attacked.” --George Lakoff
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These Things: 432

The Politics of Care

“Communicate care. Teach care.” –George Lakoff

The afterglow from Saturday’s march seems to be alive in a lot of progressives this week. I hear people asking, “What’s next?” The organizers of the march have started an initiative – “10 actions / 100 days” that will certainly be productive.

George Lakoff (Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, and Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society) offers some advice about next steps that I find wise. Lakoff advises us to focus less on what we’re against and more on what we are for. He proposes from a brain science perspective that arguing against anti-social ideas has the effect of showcasing those ideas, thus keeping them in the limelight, rather than highlighting the majority’s positive moral view and positive worldview. Lakoff advises us that, “To effectively fight for what is right, you have to first say what is right and why.”

We have a pro-social message and a message that’s about care. I look forward to showcasing care and pro-social messages in the coming months.

You can read more from George Lakoff on his blog and find his essay, “The Women’s Marches and the Politics of Care” here -
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These Things: 429


Our next circle ‘round the sun has begun. This year,
Cherish and enjoy your life’s unfolding,
Marvel at the beauty around you every day,
Enjoy the bounty and the gifts your life offers you.

“To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle. Every cubic inch of space is a miracle.”
--Walt Whitman “Leaves of Grass”
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These Things: 427

The film “Arrival” felt like a breath of fresh air after the smog of this election season.

The film deals with themes of relating and communicating, understanding the unknown instead of attacking, choosing to love even in the presence of loss and disappointment. Arrival presents violence and war as solutions of last resort, only deployed by desperate, frightened people who can’t imagine another way. The human capacities for compassion, win-win scenarios, and non-zero sum games provide the way forward in this film, which could stand as a reminder to all of us (yes, both sides of the debate) as we pick up the pieces after November 8.

Learning to communicate with an unearthly species seems like an appropriate metaphor and comparison to the difficulties encountered between progressives and regressives, pleuralists and ultranationalists, or populists and the powerful when they try for a meeting of the minds. But the film is about successful understanding rather than frustration. Arrival shows us a world turned disorientingly on its side and shows us characters utilizing the best of human nature toward setting things right – or as right as they can reasonably be. I hope that we will, too.

If you saw the film, I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts about it, whatever they may be. Leave me a comment, eh?
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These Things: 425

Following up These Things: 424. You might be wondering what kinds of exercise are the most effective for triggering BDNF production and neurogenesis – the creation of new brain cells in an already mature brain. I know I was. What’s most effective? My running, bicycling, XC skiing, or the intense training that I do to support my climbing? Researchers were wondering too.

Researchers at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland studied 3 different kinds of exercise – High Intensity Interval Training (HIT), anaerobic resistance training, and aerobic endurance training in rats. They were looking for the effect of that exercise on Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis (AHN). The study was done on 2 lineages of rats that had been selectively bred for their capacity for aerobic exercise on rat treadmills. One group was selectively bred to have a lower capacity for exercise – the low-response trainer (LRT) group, and the other was bred for a higher capacity for exercise – the high-response trainer (HRT) group. Interesting, eh? I have to wonder what exercise characteristics I may have inherited from my own family lineage.

I’ll cut to the chase with the researcher’s conclusions, extracted from the paper:

“Our results suggest that physical exercise promotes AHN most effectively if the exercise is aerobic and sustained, especially when accompanied by a heightened genetic predisposition for response to physical exercise. “

“…compared with a sedentary lifestyle, we report a very modest effect of HIT and no effect of resistance training on AHN in adult male rats.”

So, there we have it. My running and bicycling are forms of aerobic endurance training and are likely to have the strongest effect on neurogenesis and therefore on learning and mood. The HIT training that I do for climbing, not so much. You can find the full paper online in The Journal of Physiology here -
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