Heartfelt Poetry. Literally!

I’ve been to hundreds of poetry readings over the past 15 years. Some have been amazing, some boring, others rabble-rousing. So, I was interested to hear from fellow poet Cathy Wagner that there was an actual clinical study conducted in Germany in 2002 that tested the effects of “guided rhythmic speech” on heart rate variation. And the results of the study indicate that reciting and hearing poetry read out-loud modulates the blood flowing in and out of your heart.

According to Heartmath (a team of cardiologists and doctors who research emotional physiology and stress-management) the heart is more than just an essential organ. It’s an “information processing system that communicates and sends commands to the brain and the rest of the body.” In other words, the heart  activates neurological activity, releases hormones, and produces “an electromagnetic field that permeates every cell in our body and extends beyond the skin out into the atmosphere up to 3 or 4 feet.” Woah.

Henrik Bettermann, the lead researcher of this study, writes that heartbeat & respiration are “vital and integrative to rhythms of life”; they are “border posts” between consciously controllable and non-controllable physiological rhythms.

Bettermann’s study suggests that rhythmic patterns in speech affect physiological time signatures in your body –which I surmise means that a poetry reading can activate much more than thoughts and emotions.

Granted, Bettermann’s study was on traditional verse written in hexameter, and the participants in the study were reading this verse out loud. But I’d be willing to guess that it’s not the meter that matters, but rather the tone and groove of the language. In other words, it’s the “guided speech” that’s important — so wouldn’t rhythmic prose have a similar effect?

Regardless, next time you’re at a poetry or prose reading, try this: relax by noticing your breath. As you listen to the writer, don’t feel any pressure to grasp for meaning. Instead, listen to the rhythm of the writer’s language and pay attention to how the writer is guiding you into the tones and grooves of the poem/prose piece. (The meaning will find its way to you, don’t worry.) And as you listen to that language, imagine that you are breathing into your heart. As you do this, imagine the language circulating in your blood, and permeating every cell in your body.

This might be one way to release the “psycho physiological” effects that put the mind/body integration into activation mode.

Or try this: the next time you’re bored listening to someone read or speak, close your eyes and imagine the cardiovascular regulation that your heart rate modulates simultaneously with your breathing. You might get more out of it than you think!

*The study, called “Effects of speech therapy with poetry on heart rate rhythmicity and cardiorespiratory coordination” is technical. I’d be interested in hearing whether or not my more general application of this study correlates to the statistical results of the study itself.

Fred’s Diary

Change doesn’t always happen quickly. It often starts as a thought way in the back of your mind. So far back, there are no words to express it. Perhaps because there is a fear that expressing it will make it disappear. But oddly enough, sometimes people and objects materialize that speak for that submerged thought. That bring it into the world, without you knowing about it.

Three years ago – when the submerged thought that I wanted to work more directly with people in a therapeutic context was shifting around a bit (like an octopus at the bottom of the ocean) – I found a brown leather Eddie Bauer diary stuck between random books at a thrift store. I picked it up and quickly flipped through it. It looked blank, so I excitedly paid $5 for it.

I love fancy notebooks and have quite a collection of them. I put the diary on a shelf, forgetting about it.

Fast forward two years. The submerged thought about becoming a therapist was now out, and actionable. I had enrolled in the certification classes for hypnotherapy and mental health coaching, and needed a notebook that I would use especially for this course. A notebook to represent this transformation in my life.

So I went to my stack of fancy notebooks and grabbed the diary I had found in the thrift store. When I got to class, I opened the diary to the first page, ready to take notes in my fancy leather notebook and be a diligent student.

It wasn’t blank after all. The first 10 pages were quite occupied. They were occupied with notes and a few diary entries that a man named Fred had taken at what must have been an AA meeting. Fred must have bought this fancy diary to represent the major change he was making in his own life.

After a few moments of bewilderment about what I should do (try somehow to track Fred down? Tear out the marked pages?) I decided to go ahead and use the remaining pages for my own notes and diary entries. Fred and I were on parallel tracks: his anxieties, fears, and doubts mirrored my own – although from a different place, time, and set of emotional circumstances.

And Fred’s intense struggles with addiction gave me courage. If he could get through that, certainly I could get through this.

The last page of Fred’s diary reads, “To have something you’ve never had u have to do something you’ve never done.”

And to do something you’ve never done starts with a thought, at first submerged, and slowly realized.


The path to… negative capability

Negative Capability (Skill in the midst of chaos)

I spent New Year’s Eve at the NYC Insight Meditation Center listening to a Dharma talk about the “path to happiness” which is, according to Peter Doobinan, achieved by “skillfully” thinking about our actions — both those that were well executed and those that were not. This “skillful” approach is quite simple to imagine:

It is inevitable, because we are human, that we will continue to behave in ways that hurt ourselves or other people (for example, reacting to someone by unnecessarily yelling at them, or [often worse] behaving passive aggressively). But instead of dwelling on our behavior and starting down the “I suck the world sucks what’s wrong with me” path (which often results in even more lashing out), the “skillful” approach is to stop, take a breath, and think: “well, that didn’t go so well. So I’ll try to do better next time.”

And the same “skillful” thoughts need to be put to actions that were well executed. Instead of doing something cool and just letting the moment slide away, think the words “it felt really good when I _____.” Or, “that’s me in the spotlight” (riffing off R.E.M.). Noticing when you are who you want to be will ensure that you continue to be that person. And what better New Year’s resolution could there be than that?

I’m not sure that “skillful thinking” is the path to happiness because I don’t believe that happiness exists as a permanent state of mind. The circumstances of life are too damn fluctuating for happiness to exist as some permanent entity — and the word “path” suggests that there is an end to the rainbow.

However, there is something that these skillful thoughts can bring, and that’s the ability to be non-reactive when in the midst of uncertainty and doubt. Keats, reflecting on a conversation with a man who annoyed him, called this “negative capability”: “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

To be negatively capable isn’t necessarily to be happy. When you don’t have health insurance, are in the midst of a divorce or any other confrontational situation with another person, aren’t secure in your home, and choose to confront the barrage of environmental, health, and political screw-ups rampant in the world as we know it — there’s no “happiness.” But there is the ability to be who you want to be in spite of all this.

So take some time now to think about all the times in 2010 when you were who you wanted to be in spite of whatever chaos was happening in your life. And then say the words, “that’s me.” And smile.

And take that smile into any uncertainty you will inevitably confront during 2011.

ouilpo: a procedural therapy

One of the interesting things about hypnosis that might appeal to those who are seeking a more theoretical analysis of how/why it works is to consider the difference between confessional and procedural poetry. If a confessional poem is “an expression of intimate, and sometimes unflattering, information about details of the poet’s personal life, such as in poems about mental illness, sexuality, and despondence” (nice nutshell description via Wikipedia), then a procedural poem is the opposite: a poem that arises not from the poet’s personal experience, but from a method designed to generate the language of the poem (like throwing dice.)

I was struck reading Lytle Shaw’s interview with Harry Matthews (one of the motivating forces behind the procedural movement called Oulipo) that he framed his work psychologically. In response to Shaw’s question, “do you still find some kind of political liberation in the idea of readerly participation” Matthews replied:

“I’d like to say at the beginning that the approach that I found in Raymond Roussel — getting to material though arbitrary, game-like procedures — was primarily a way that allowed me to get myself out of the place where I was stuck — feeling and thinking certain ways about the world, confronted with the huge difficulty of working directly from that into the production of the text. The playful procedures gave me something completely different to do and moved me onto another terrain from which I could come back to the material, whatever that might be. I also found very early on that using such procedures allowed me to be much less censorious of myself, of my own experience, because the work of the super-ego, the work of the critical consciousness, shifted from worrying…. to solving the problems of the procedures.”

What Matthews is describing here –finding that his world-view changed when he shifted his focus from writing “about” his thoughts/feelings about the world to solving “playful procedures” — is exactly what can happen in hypnosis. Like the language-game procedures that entices Matthews and other writers/artists, hypnosis is a playful way to distract the mind from it’s habituated patterns of inner-reflection, which often have the tendency to run amook in confusion and doubt.

So it is in shifting your mind from repeating the stories that got you stuck in the first place, to exploration and play that can access the  forms, forces, and dynamics of your experience at this moment. And just noticing this will change your mind.

Olson’s Project

In October 2010 I was invited to the Charles Olson centennial celebration in Gloucester, MA and participated on a panel called “Olson’s Project.” My comments relate to my work as a hypnotherapist in that they attempt to articulate the “big picture” – the driving impulse I am following as I pursue this line of work.

I’m aware of the tendency to read in Charles Olson whatever one desires to read in Olson.

Whether it be to find metaphors embedded in his work that seem to convey the whole of his world view:

Mappamunde –
Human universe –
Reality as process: space myth fact object

Like the coastline of Gloucester’s harbor (which Olson saw from his window), with its deposits of moraines and drumlins formed by glaciers that scoured the region during the last Ice Age, the mappamunde of passing time and its geological impressions is remarkably like the mappamunde of perceptions that shape our experience of the world.

“You take it from there” – as Olson said.

But it’s hard to arrive “there” when given only seven minutes to speak on “Olson’s Project.” How to avoid what Olson hates most about panels– that is:

…selecting from the full content some face or it, or plane, some part…For any of us, at any instant, are juxtaposed to any experience, even an overwhelming single one, on several more planes than the arbitrary and discursive which we inherit can declare. (HU,55)

That said, I offer you a juxtaposition to another apt metaphor in which to think about Olson’s project, which is one we might all claim as well:

In the early 90s you might recall the race to crack the genetic code,  and that two groups of scientists – one from a UK corporation called Celera Genomics and the other from the US based National Human Genome Research Institute — revealed a map showing the “structure of DNA: life.” But you also might recall that what they mapped was only (still an incredible achievement)–  but only the 10% of DNA, the code relevant to the building of proteins. The rest they dismissed as “junk” because it was not relevant to this scientific breakthrough. It was – as they said — just random stuff left over from the progress of evolution.

As Olson said: “The egoism of creation is: order.”

But a group of Russian scientists weren’t content with this dismissal of 95% of the genetic code and so assembled a team of bio physicists, molecular biologists, embryologists and linguistic experts.  Here is a quote that summarizes their findings:

“Their research revealed that the supposed junk DNA that has been completely neglected and forgotten by western mainstream science, was no redundant leftover of evolution at all. Linguistic studies revealed that the sequencing of the codons of the non-coding DNA follow the rules of some basic syntax. There is a definite structure and logic in the sequence of these triplets, like some biological language. Research further revealed that the codons actually form words and sentences just like our ordinary human language follows grammar rules.

Scientists have conducted much research on the origins of human languages and the origins of the grammatical rules that are so essential to all human languages; however they have always failed to find the source. But now for the first time in history the origins of language may be surprisingly attributed to DNA. The language of the genes is much, much older than any human language that was ever uttered on this globe. It is even conceivable that the DNA grammar itself served as the blueprint for the development of human speech.”

Let me now jump to yet another juxtaposition, so eloquently written by Don Byrd:

“The connection between the Way and the method are everywhere present…. The inner structure of language recapitulates the inner structure of the world. The poem is a product of vector forces being brought into phase with one another.”

And phase in Hugh Kenner: “the language of science which is the language of poetry”

As we continue the conversation with Olson:

“All that matters moves! And one is out into a space of facts and forms as fresh as our own sense of our own existence…
The mortal makes the measure work.

Robert von Hallberg’s essay on the connection between Olson and Whitehead shows how both thinkers were pressed with the urgency to remap the entire human framework of how we “think” about truth. They wanted to challenge the Cartesian notion that truth is either “out there” in eternity (Plato) or “in here” through self-examination (Socrates).

von Hallberg writes that “Olson envisions a human universe in which man exists feelingly in the same space and time with the objects of his perception.”


In what sense is
what happens before the eye
so very different from
what actually goes on within…

I put this juxtaposition of ideas from disparate sources out there because the integration of consciousness with the material world is central to both Olson, and to my own way of thinking about the permeability of language, thought, action, and genetics.

We don’t need psychoimmunobiology to read Olson (he’s swimming in his own metaphors) but I do think that there is something instructive in Olson’s project –it’s not purely intellectual. It is instructive in how to survive in our own being to the extent that we become an agent of interchanging – and ever-changing forces.

Call it what is “out there” when it is realized that it is “in here.” Or, as Don Byrd writes, call it “God and the World…where God is not a final cause or creator but a principle of continuation which is no sooner manifest than it becomes a new beginning.”

Use self-hypnosis to calm antidepressant withdrawal symptoms

Abruptly stopping the dosage of anti-depressant medications (SSRIs as they’re called by the pharmaceutical industry) is not recommended – and with good reason. When you start taking these drugs (Celexa, Prozac,  Paxil, Zoloft, etc) they start to work by controlling the flow of the neurotransmitter serotonin – an amazing chemical which regulates our moods, anxieties, appetites, sleep, and even our intestinal movements (ever notice how much better you feel after what my grandmother called “the morning constitutional?”)

In any case, the drugs basically work like traffic cops, redirecting the flow of chemicals in your bloodstream so that they produce certain desired effects. That’s why they’re called “designer” drugs. There are millions of people around the world who are taking these drugs – and certainly, they work (especially for those who are severely depressed). But many people are prescribed these drugs because they’re having a hard time coping with tough times in their life – and as soon as they start feeling better, they decide it’s time to stop taking the pills. When they do this, they probably experience startling electrophysiological changes in the brain that feel like “zaps” and electrophysiological changes in the body that feel like the flu.

Of course, it’s always good to listen to doctors when it comes to pulling the plug on the flow of neurotransmitters in your brain. As all the literature says, it’s best to gradually reduce the dosage over a period of several weeks; it’s best to be in talk therapy with someone who understands how these medicines work. But ultimately, it’s also best to be research exactly what these drugs are doing to your brain because they can deceive you into believing you’re fine without them – and you are – except that you need to suffer for awhile to figure this out.

I’m probably one among millions of people who did not do any of the above recommendations. A long-time sufferer what I know to be hormonal migraines, I was prescribed Celexa not by a psychiatrist but by my primary care physician. And I was impressed. After a week or so I noticed that a long-time anxiety disorder had significantly decreased and everyone in my family noticed the difference. And it did indeed help with the headaches as well. I continued on my merry way for a little over a year, calling my doctor every three months for a refill.

One day, I was in a rush to get to my job on time and I forgot to take the Celexa. To make matters worse, I had run out of refills and was so busy that week that it took me a few days to call my doctor to have her call in the prescription. And this was not a good thing. I started feeling dizzy and slightly disoriented, as if my vision had been altered. It was as if my sense of space was out of alignment;  I kept tripping over things. When I tried to sleep the anxiety was intense – much worse, even, than the “old” anxiety I had been used to. I was woken up at night by an intense coldness – some people call it “brain zaps” or “electricity” – surging through my head. My dreams were intense – vivid colors, red and black, nightmares. I was so freaked out that I was snapping and snarling at my daughter – and then feeling really crummy about it.

I soon realized that I had effectively put the dreaded “cold turkey” into motion. And for a variety of reasons (in spite of my partner’s pleading) I couldn’t force myself to get the Celexa refilled. A process had been set in motion – perhaps it was my subconscious that started it – and I was determined to get off the drug.

Luckily I was in the midst of my hypnosis training when this happened, and so I decided to use the techniques on myself as a test-case. Could hypnotherapy work to counter the unbelievably scary and disorienting withdrawal effects of Celexa? After all, what was happening was primarily physiological – chemicals were unleashed in my blood that were causing these symptoms. But is it possible that my thinking process – the waves of fear augmented by powerlessness — was making they symptoms worse than they needed to be?

The answer is yes. Once I was able to put my thoughts and fears into perspective, the symptoms became manageable. I won’t say that they went away — because they didn’t. I could still feel them happening, and it took two weeks before they ceased entirely. But I was not bothered by them. I noticed them: there I am feeling dizzy. There I am feeling wobbly. There’s that weird “zap” thing. But instead of feeling fear or panic about what was happing, I could stop, close my eyes, visualize, breathe, and watch as the symptoms became much less severe. As if I was watching them on a screen.

Celexa and other “Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors” essentially fire neural signals in your brain which supposedly allow  serotonin to flow more plentifully. When, you decide to stop taking the pills, it’s literally as if you suddenly charged over to the windowsill, grabbed a firmly rooted plant (a fern perhaps, or a tomato plant) and yanked it out of the dirt where it had been growing. Where it  had embedded itself into the soil. Imagine now violently shaking the roots to clean the dirt from them. And now imagine that they are alive (in the sense of conscious, and moving). They would be squirming like worms! Cowering from the sudden rush of cold air. Terrified to be exposed, because the soil was keeping them warm.

Now slow down this picture and imagine how you’re gently removing the plant from its pot. Picture the roots starting to squirm, and as you reassure them that everything is going to be ok, begin to feel a wave of relaxation. Because you know there is another pot – a bigger one – right there. Filled with lots of warm, nurturing dirt. Dirt that is filled with vitamins and other nutrients. Picture yourself clearing a large hole in the center of the new dirt.  And take a breath as you place – gently – that uprooted plant into the center of it. And picture yourself very gently pressing the new dirt all around the roots. Assuring them that everything will be ok. That this is their new pot. And as you feel more an more relaxed knowing how soon every root will grip onto this new, nurturing soil and begin the process of growing. Little by little. Until the roots are once again warm, once again reaching out and growing – in this new, much stronger, much healthier pot.

And just like the roots of this plant your brain — even as this medicine is retracting from it — is growing new neural pathways on its own. And you can help them grow by imagining that they are expanding and that the root system they are creating is going to be so much stronger, so much better, than the one triggered by the medicine. And that surging through your veins – those awful zaps and zings — that’s the feeling of re-growth. New blood pushing aside the old. What you are experiencing is the pain of planting new roots; the electric charge that makes life possible.

I visualized this metaphor every day, and it really worked for me. But if you don’t have any plants and don’t like the image of roots, think of something else. You can think of an image from your own life. Ask and perhaps your subconscious will give you the image. How about a carburetor –how it works to deliver the correct amount of fuel slowly flowing the perfect mix of chemicals through the engine of the car to make it run so much more smoothly.

Aside from the satisfaction of dealing on my own with the withdrawal symptoms, once the Celexa had clearly left my body (Invasion of the Body Snatchers is another apt metaphor) the anxiety I had experienced for years had also disappeared. And although it certainly rears it’s head and thrashes it’s tail around my chest every once in awhile, it’s no where near as constant as it used to be. And when it comes, I can see it for what it is. Because I just don’t need it anymore. In this new, much stronger pot.

The will to change…

You might already know that hypnosis can help you to work through mental blocks including smoking, phobias, and weight management. But did you know that hypnosis can also help with anxiety, depression, and anger; it can help with motivation, self-confidence, and procrastination; it can help you to cope with loss and grief, and to manage pain.

Hypnosis works for these and a variety of other symptoms because it allows you to access parts of your unconscious that may be stuck repeating certain patterns. And the reason it works for many people is because unlike traditional therapy, a hypnotherapist is trained to teach you a variety of different techniques that are tailored to your specific life circumstances and subjective experience of the world.

I left the world & felt a world” – Brenda Hillman (In The Trance)

One of the key differences between working with me as a hypnotherapist and working with a more traditional talk therapist is that I am not going to ask you to tell me stories about your life, your past, your relationship with your father, your mother, etc. Rather, I am going to ask you what it is you’d like to change, now. Because where it all began is in the past. Instead of thinking about beginnings, it’s how you feel now that is important.

And as you tell me what you’d like to change I’m going to set to work immediately showing you various mental strategies that might (if you’re ready and willing to learn) lead you to a place where you can experience change in how you perceive your life. Because one of the most successful things a therapist can do to help clients navigate difficult and conflicting emotional states is to offer what Melissa Tiers (author of Integrative Hypnosis) calls a “tool belt” of strategies that can be utilized in their daily life.

“What does not change / is the will to change” Charles Olson (The Kingfishers)

And if you entertain certain possibilities, your work with me might be even deeper because you’ll be aware of what’s happening on multiple levels of your somatic(body) and cognitive (mind) experience.

You already know the potential effects of stress on the body because it is repeated over and over again in the news media, from Newsweek to Dr Oz. Here’s a recap from WebMD:

  • Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
  • Seventy-five percent to 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
  • Stress can play a part in problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, arthritis, depression, and anxiety.
  • The lifetime prevalence of an emotional disorder is more than 50%, often due to chronic, untreated stress reactions.

The reality is that the world is an extremely stressful place. And if you’re not in a position to escape from this world (because you’ve got to live in it) then one solution is to change how you think about it. Many people confuse this notion with the mantra of “positive thinking” – “just think positive thoughts and everything will change.” Like Barbara Ehrenreich, this drives me crazy because what this attitude seems to do is lead people to a judgmental position of blaming other people – people who are poor, or struggling, or dying of cancer — for not thinking the “right” way. This is the blame-the-victim America that is causing even more stress and hardship.  The cycle of positive thinking is actually negative thinking and is not at all what I espouse.

So instead, I ask you to imagine the materials:

  • Your immune system and your thought processes are interrelated because emotions have a direct effect on your body and the way it responds at the cellular level. The progressive science behind this is called Psychoneuroimmunology.

And if you can imagine the possibility that you can control stress hormones with your mind, then you won’t be surprised to know that neurobiology has finally caught up to what ancient meditation practices, William James, and poets from Olson to H.D. have said along: the mind does not stay still. And at the level of synapses, neurons, and neurotransmitters, the brain is malleable too.

So if you want to take it one step further, imagine this:

  • There are genes in those very neurons of your brain that are capable of being reprogrammed; so it is possible – controversial, but possible – that those and other genes in our bodies can be activated by input from our emotions. This is called epigenetics and means, as Time Magazine put it, “your DNA isn’t your destiny.”

And now you might now be wondering – so what does this have to do with hypnosis?

Simply this: If you can imagine that all these ideas are possible, then you’re already aware how capable you are of change.  And as you imagine that those neurons are not stuck in some pattern but are susceptible to being rewired in a myriad of different ways, you’ve already started the work. Imagine how easy it will be for you to see that the changes you want to make are already happening.

“I dreamt we were susceptive to language
that care might be agency’s complement
and form never more than condition
passing as body”

Eleni Stecopoulos, from Armies of Compassion