Sunday, April 11, 2021

15. Do You Want To Be The Leaf Or The Tree?

Madison Square Park
I have had the historically unique experience of living through two major hurricanes passing through New York City.  Both storms Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012) wreaked havoc on our metropolis.  Wind howled, electricity rattled on and off, there were leaves scattered everywhere.  But the older trees outside my office in Madison Square Park stayed upright, strong, and firm during both ordeals.  Sure, some bent it a bit, swayed a bit, but the trees that were firmly rooted in the ground remained standing tall and confident through the turbulent weather.  The leaves, however, were scattered everywhere.  I looked around and was reminded of one of my favorite spiritual metaphors: Do I want to be an emotionally reactive leaf (flying any which way the weather takes me) or a tree (stable, centered, able to withstand challenges).

Earlier in my life I was much more leaf-like then tree-like.  I was easily swayed by fears of the world, emotionally reactive to the words of others, stressed out by external events I had no control over.  I could start the morning feeling good and then have my whole day ruined by a boy who didn’t return a phone call.  I could start off feeling grumpy and then swept into a euphoria by a compliment from a boss, and then crash down again if a someone cut me off in traffic.  I could feel at ease and calm in my job but then easily triggered to get upset and scared about getting fired in the future.  My moods were up again, down again;  my anxiety was completely determined by people, places, things, outside my grasp of control.    

I was an emotional leaf in a hurricane of drama, often of my own making.  And although I wouldn’t admit it at the time, for much of my twenties I preferred it that way.  I liked creating conflict, having an uphill mountain to climb, facing an epic tidal wave of emotional obstacles like the heroines of the soap operas I loved so much.   It was existential in many ways, I didn’t know who I was or what my storyline would be without strife.  After all, it wasn’t Maggie Horton or Myrtle Fairgate getting the airtime, it was Marlena Evans,  Erica Kane, and Reva Shayne who were falling in love, having grand adventures, fighting adversaries, staring down bears, jumping naked into fountains, coming through one crisis after another, year after year, stronger than before with more glamor and higher hair.  

Stress, fear, and drama made for some interesting stories, but eventually the head writers in my mind ran out of stories.  By age 32 I was burnt out on drama and completely bored with my own narrative.  I just didn’t find chasing charismatic narcissists, getting into conflicts at work, and overcoming life crises very engaging anymore.  I was told you have to get sick and tired of being sick and tired in order to create real change.  I was ready.  

In mid 2003 my friend Chris Bender told me he was attending a Monday night lecture series in Palm Springs about a book called, “A Course In Miracles.”  I was worried for him and told him, “You know that’s a cult, right?” He laughed and said if I wanted to protect him I could go with him.  So we attended together and listened to a teacher named Jacob Glass describe psychological-spiritual ideas that resembled Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Buddhist tenets, Christian metaphors, with a little Charlie’s Angels mixed in for good measure.  It was a very non-cultish presentation since there was no group identity,  no membership, no insiders or outsiders.  You either read it or you didn’t.  One of the first things that impressed me was when Jacob said, “Being peaceful doesn’t get rid of the drama in your life, it just gets rid of the cheap drama.”  Oh, so I could be peaceful and stable but still have my Dorian Lord moments from time to time? Sign me up!  

A Course In Miracles has 365 cognitive lessons to practice, all different kinds of “reps” for the muscles in your mind, all intended to help you access inner peace.  The tacit premise is that our everyday world is going to constantly distract and mesmerize you into choosing drama, conflict, anxiety, and attacking others, so beginning to resist that is going to take some commitment.  I knew I couldn’t do one lesson a day for 365 days but I knew I could commit to myself to engage with one lesson a week for 365 weeks.  So from 2003-2010 I wrote down and practiced one lesson every week.  Slowly but surely, my mind started changing, my attachment to high stakes drama was releasing, and I felt more and more like a steady stable tree navigating my life’s weather instead of an anxious leaf blowing every which way. 

I came to understand that if I wanted to stay mentally and emotionally centered, with a sense of rational optimism, joy, and meaning in my every day world, that it was going to take consistent effort.  Just like working out my physical body— my mental health would also require continuous workout and exercise.  When I finished with the lessons in A Course In Miracles I continued using other tools that helped my synapses get the attention and nurturing they needed so I could continue to consistently access calm, peace, curiosity, and play.  These tools include:  

— Begin the day with gratitude:  On most mornings I plan at least five minutes when I first wake up just to sit on my floor.  I begin at a 90 degree angle, no matter how I physically feel, and begin saying, “Thank you.”  I thank God  for various things:  My health, my home, my family, my friends, my therapy practice, clean water to drink, good pizza to eat, men to have sex with, you name it, I’ve praised it.  Starting the day on gratitude helps to clear my mental fog and allows me to plant down solid roots of a stable tree before the external “weather” takes hold.

— Journal writing:  For most of my life I have kept a daily journal.  It has been a valuable tool for writing all the “leaf” based thoughts going through my mind, especially those that are resulting in some level of tensions, stress, worry, anger, or strain.  I don’t judge the thoughts, I just write ‘em down.  Then I ask myself, “What are you thinking right now that God isn’t thinking,” or “What is God thinking that you’re not thinking,” or “What would Dolly Parton say about this?” I review the Cognitive Distortion list I presented in Rational Relating and gently ask myself, “What kind of thought is this?  All-Or-Nothing?  Catastrophizing? What is the ‘should’ upsetting me right now [and there is always a 'should' involved when I’m pissed off at someone].”  The journal writing, the thought processing, the distortion checking, all help my synapses to operate in a way that enables me to continue to experience more focus and serenity during the day.

— Breathing:  This is our natural cooling system, a way to send calm and relaxation into our minds and into our bodies when it is becoming over anxious and over stimulated.  If we don’t take deep breaths, we can easily become a “leaf” reacting to the people, places, and things that we react to.  Getting into the habit of breathing can do wonders for your natural ability to self-sooth.  This came in especially handy during the early days of the COVID19 pandemic when I was practicing a regular breathing ritual entailing deep inhaling in to the nose, out through the lungs, and saying, “At this moment I am safe.” [Breathe]  “At this moment I am healthy.”[Breathe] “At this moment I am loved.” [Breathe] “At this moment I have enough.”  [Breathe].  It was through this repetition that I found enough solace and calm to figure out what Work could serve. 

— Getting restful sleep as much as possible:  I didn’t need this as much when I was younger, but wow do I feel the difference now.  Rest is necessary to keep up mental and physical strength and stamina.  Because sleep has never come easy to me I do use prescribed medications to help with this on some nights of the week, and make sure I balance that with nights that I do not.

—Take Action: As mentioned in Lessons 24 and 34, service is always one of the ways I take care of myself and access greater depths of joy.  If there is a way to do something, if there is way to help, if there is something I can do to make a situation better, I will actively look for that.  If there’s nothing I can do, nothing I can contribute, then that’s okay too.  As I tell my clients, “There are some days the Universe doesn’t really need me to do anything except sit on my couch, watch Golden Girls marathons, and eat ice cream. That's fine.” 

— Have fun: This cannot be overstated enough.  For me self-care and stability comes from having funtime.  This could mean a myriad of things from sex, to seeing friends, to listening to music, to travel, to taking my jolks (jogging + walking), to watching my soaps, to any of the simple joys I mentioned in Lesson 29, fun is doing something that may not be inherently “productive” but still enhances my experience of living. 

These are the tools I have used not just to cope with COVID19 but for most of the two decades proceeding the pandemic.  I will never be done with this process, just like I’ll never be done exercising my body or brushing my teeth.  But getting older enables me to use different tools and various means by which I can decide to access joy, calm, and remain steady like the trees I see standing tall and confident outside my office building.  

Press here to learn more about Jacob Glass's lectures and practice

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707

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