Monday, November 3, 2014

If today was your last day.

“If today was your last day and tomorrow was too late, could you say goodbye to yesterday?”  
Maynard Family/AP Photo
- Nickelback

By now most of us have read, seen, or heard about Brittany Maynard, the 29 year old woman who completed physician assisted suicide in light of a diagnosis of a severe brain tumor.

But this is not about physician assisted suicide nor is it about if she did the right thing. It’s not about death either. This is about life.

When Ms. Maynard heard about her diagnosis she chose to fulfill some of her bucket list items seemingly telling herself that while she still had time left in this world she committed to making it count by enjoying the world and spending time around people with whom she shared love. So too she posted on Facebook shortly before she died, “The world is a beautiful place, travel has been my greatest teacher, my close friends and folks are the greatest givers.”

Brittany Maynard chose to live her last days with intention.

In the Talmud it says that an evil person, even in life is called “dead”; and a righteous person, even in death is called “alive”. What’s the difference? How does one join the ranks of the righteous and avoid those of the evil?

The truth is that I don’t know. 

I can tell you this though… Love and beauty have a way of perpetuating themselves ad infinitum. So I would recommend if you want to associate yourself with something that will last long after you leave this world try love and beauty.

What would your life look like if you said, I realize I have a finite amount of time in this world I choose to live that time with intention toward love, beauty, and making my world a better place?

What would look different?

How much time would you spend on the computer or watching TV? How much time would you spend spreading love to your family, friends, and people you don’t even know? How much time would you spend protecting your ego? How much time would you spend looking at the beauty that surrounds you?

I am not for a moment suggesting that we all quit our jobs and start a commune. 

I am, however, suggesting that we increase, just a bit, the level of intention in our daily lives.

One of my favorite music videos is the song where the lyrics above come from, Nickelback's "If today was your last day" Check it out on youtube here.

Yours Truly,

Ari Hoffman MA LPC

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Catharsis @ 12,000 ft

The following piece was inspired by a story I wrote a number of months ago called, "A Semi-epic on Rosalie Peak". Murray Nossel, of Two Men Talking, challenged me to rewrite it from 15 pages down to 2. I thought it would be impossible but I did it and what came out was a new creation altogether. Enjoy.

It’s 9:15 on a November evening in Denver, Colorado and I feel an urgent need to get out. I need to challenge myself in a way that makes me feel alive, vibrant, graceful, and strong. I need to go to the mountains. I gather my map, compass, extra clothes, and some food and I check the weather. There is a snow storm expected tomorrow evening but I’ll be back before that. My wife reminds me that my good friend’s son will be circumcised tomorrow and I must make it back for the party.

I was late getting to the trailhead of course but that is to be expected as I was alone and not beholden to anyone’s more sensitive approach to punctuality than my own. I had enough food, clothes, and first aid equipment to spend a couple days out in the wilderness. That was not my plan, however. My plan was to climb to 13,757 feet, the summit of Rosalie Peak, and then hurry back to Denver for my friend’s party.

I am walking. No. Hiking. Hoofing. Maybe they call it ‘hoofing’ because that’s the sound of my breathing as I continue higher and higher on this mountain trail. The hoofing is appropriate because the oxygen saturation here is noticeably lower than in Denver so I intentionally breathe as if I am hyperventilating. My stride is strong and consistent as I let the rhythm of one step at a time lull me in to a trance. The muscles in my body work in beautiful harmony as I climb foot after foot and mile after mile up the trail. This trail twists and turns, crosses streams, and goes up steep switchbacks. Periodically I stop and look around noticing landmarks and looking at the beautiful views. Each time I stop I am higher than the last time and I am rewarded by feeling accomplished and the sight of even more mountain peaks below me as I strive for the great height of this summit.

What is a trail? A trail is a defined path made by others who went down (or up) this same way. I have always been quite compelled to hike on the trail and not to leave it. I didn’t even consider leaving the trail as an option until I went hiking with a good friend who said, “Ari, let’s just walk straight and see what we find.” A few years later I found that facing my fears and going off the trail would be and still is requisite for my personal and spiritual growth.

Photo Credit: Ari Hoffman
In what areas of your life do you walk on the trail? Do you feel compelled to keep the trail even though there may be other opportunities if you try your own path? Do you have a friend or a therapist that can help you create your own trail?

After a couple hours I am at 12,000 feet above sea level and two thirds of the way up Rosalie Peak. Now I choose to fail. I learned about failure many years ago on a flight in to LaGuardia Airport during a storm. Instead of completing the landing, the pilot chose to abort and go around for another try. The lesson was that sometimes I have to let go of what I expect reality to look like and accept it for what it really is, i.e. not landing or in this case not summiting. I chose to turn around because not doing so would mean missing the party.

Where in your life would it be healthy to fail?

There is a moment in every fall I’ve taken where I let go and just wait to see what happens, it is both terrifying and peaceful. So too here as I slip on a patch of ice and suddenly I notice everything happening in slow motion: the pop in my left ankle, my right leg unnaturally high, the branches on the pine trees assuming on odd angle, and my body falling to earth.

The trapped feeling of being in crisis is like pushing against the tight corner of a box with the belief that if I push hard enough I’ll get out. Proactive thought is benched during a crisis and the reactive parts of our brain have full control of the field. What, in your life, gives you this feeling?

“How do people die in the wilderness? They die of shame” (Anthony Hopkins, The Edge). I am sitting in the dirt, my ankle feels wrecked, and there are six miles of dark and icy trail between me and my car. My internal prosecutor jumps at the opportunity and starts yelling at me, trying to shame me in to emotional paralysis and then death. I refuse. He forgot who signs his paycheck and I shut him up with a deep breath and a long look at the dusky beauty of my surroundings.

Does it ever feel like your internal prosecutor is running the show? Whose voice is it that you hear shaming you? Next time he or she starts yelling try looking at something beautiful or funny or interesting. Never abdicate.

Place the hiking poles. Test the stability. Step. Place the poles. Test. Step. Place the poles. Test. Step. I take a moment to wiggle my toes to make sure the ace bandage is not wrapped too tight. I look around twice. Once to notice how dark it’s getting and the second time to notice the beauty. I am being pragmatic about the darkness but refusing abdication to panic and shame by focusing on beauty. The hours go by and I get in to a rhythm. Poles. Step. Poles. Step. Poles. Step. Poles. Step. It’s getting really dark. Poles. Step. Poles. Step. I wonder what’s wrong with my ankle. Poles. Step. Poles. Step. I can hardly see anything now. Step. Poles. Step. Ha ha, my friend’s party is happening as we speak and I’ve still probably got another two hours on the trail. Poles. Step. Poles. Step. Beauty. Pain. Beauty. Pain. Beauty. Pain. Deep breaths. Poles. Step.
I strongly consider asking G-D to save me but then I realize this is an opportunity, not for begging, but for thanks. So I thank G-D for giving me the passion for the wilderness and the interest in the study of survival psychology so that I have the tools to get through this challenge.

I’m lost. I know I’m near the car but in the darkness of night I have missed a turn. I know this because the trail, my beloved trail, has ended. I’m lost. Brilliant. I stop.

I often hike at night and sometimes I feel afraid. I have noticed that when I feel that fear I walk more quickly and then I feel more fear. So I force myself to stop, take a deep breath, and look around. The fear dissolves. What causes you fear and then what causes you more fear? What is your antidote?

I have two options now and both are reasonable. I could stop and go to sleep here. I would make a fire, put on some more warm clothes and go to sleep with my head on my backpack. I am tired anyway and I’m sure I’ll find my way to the car in the morning light. Or, I could back track to where I missed the turn and risk getting more lost. I choose option two out of consideration for my wife and 10 minutes later I am touching the hood of my car. My grateful smile warms the night.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tight Spots and Good Babies

The fog swirled around them rendering sight impossible except for their immediate vicinity which was a steep slope covered with large rocks and scree. To the left and to the right were not options and they were stuck. The small ledge at 13,500 feet which was now their reality seemed to shrink as fear grew. The two men on a day trip up a 14’er in Colorado now found themselves trapped and desperate to get down to the safety and warmth of the car and then to the comforting embrace of home and family. But today that was not to be. Rain began and then hail soon after and as they got colder they thought more and more about how to get down. Finally one of them said, “forget it, let’s just try to hike down” but he was stopped by his partner who explained that it just seemed too dangerous. As the fog cleared they saw a Search and Rescue group at the bottom of the mountain and again they were compelled to climb down but did not because it seemed impossible. 

These two gentlemen were looking for a challenging day hike and chose to climb a 14’er whose trail started about 2 hours west of Denver, CO. They climbed hard and reached the summit with satisfaction and pride in their hard work. They had lunch and then using the clear cell phone reception they texted pictures of themselves with miles of mountains in the background. They left the peak to return to the car in high spirits but within 30 minutes of their departure they were lost. After climbing back and forth they realized that they needed help and eventually Search and Rescue reached them and helped them off the mountain. They did so by climbing with the two men back to the top and then having attained the trail, they followed it down, reaching the car at about 3:00am.
Photo Credit: Paul Kehrer

I had the opportunity to speak with one of the men who endured this adventure and he told me simply, “it never occurred to us to return to the top and try to find the trail”.

Tight spots are exactly that, “tight”. They feel limiting, narrow, and seemingly without options.

Often, however, the thing we need to do is the one thing we don’t consider and there are many reasons for this.

One reason is because it’s scary. I don’t consider all of my options, I only consider the options that feel safe or not scary to me. By limiting my considerations I have also limited my options because I might be throwing a potentially good “baby” option out with my bad “bathwater” options. By allowing myself to consider all options I can at least consider them and maintain some space in this tight spot.

Another reason I might not consider an option is because it doesn’t fit with my goals or my vision of what the future should look like. This was the case for our two friends on the mountain. They had a vision in their minds of being at the car. Naturally, the only way to do this was to figure out a way to go down. It never occurred to them that to go down they might have to go up again.

A final reason that an option may not occur to me is because it represents failure. Sebastian Junger, in his fascinating book, “The Perfect Storm”, postulates that one of the factors that led to the “Andrea Gail” being lost at sea was their compulsion to get in to a particular port so they could “set the market” on swordfish. One possible option was for them to stay where they were and wait for the storm to pass. If they had done so then the fish they had caught would rot and they would have returned as failures.

In order for success to occur, failure must always be an option.

We don’t have to be in the middle of an ocean or climbing a 14’er to feel boxed in. Tight spots exist in abundance in relationships with our partners, friends, children, bosses, etc. Tight spots can also easily be found in our own personal development journey.

I urge you, dear reader, when you next find yourself in a tight spot take a moment to step away and consider ALL of your options, even those ones you are scared to let in to your mind. You don’t have to do those options that seem wrong to you but it helps widen your spot on that ledge when you at least consider them.

As most of you know, I am a therapist. Part of my job is to identify ways that you can make your ledge a little wider and to help you find more options and possibilities in your personal and relational growth. Give me a call and we’ll talk about it.

Finally, I would bet that each of you knows at least one person who could benefit from reading this blogletter. Send it on to them, they’ll appreciate it and so will you.

Best wishes to you on considering all the possibilities,

Ari Hoffman MA, LPC

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bravery and the Girls

I had a couple of recent opportunities to learn about bravery: One in the therapy office and another at the pool in Glenwood Springs.

In the therapy office a 15 year old girl said to me, “I want to get off of my antidepressant medication.” I naturally asked why. She naturally answered, “because I don’t think I need it anymore.”

“This is an interesting kid”, I thought.

“Ok”, I said. “Let’s give it a go”. With a doctor in consultation we cut her med dosage in half and we scheduled to meet in a week. Before she left we talked about some of the protective measures to help prevent depression. One of those that we discussed was accomplishing something or learning something new. This young lady’s initiative to go off of her meds seems brave to me, and here’s another story about bravery.

My wife and I really enjoy taking our kids to Glenwood Springs. The drive there from Denver is beautiful and it’s a town with great history tucked right up against the red cliffs of the Colorado River. Occasionally when we go I will take the kids swimming in the hot springs pool. There are actually two pools, a small one which is quite hot and a larger one designed for swimming and playing that is more temperate. The larger pool has a diving board. I don’t swim much but I love diving boards, tons of fun. I asked my wife to watch the kids and I went to jump off the diving board. I did my jump, which probably hasn’t gotten much prettier than it was when I was 10 years old, I swam underwater for a ways and surfaced by the side of the pool. As I went to get out I saw an older man talking to a little girl, he was teaching her how to dive.
Immediately I felt a trigger go off. I think I have dived once or twice in my life and that was more than 20 years ago. I have always wanted to dive though and when I heard this man giving instructions I inched closer to listen.

“Put your hands together above your head and when you jump, kick your feet up.”

“I could to that.” I thought to myself. “I could dive.” The very thought scared me.

I climbed out of the water and stood at the water’s edge with the hairy toes of my non-cute feet curling over the side thinking, “it’s cute when a six year old does it, what is it when a 33 year old does it? Weird? Gross?”

As if I wasn’t already feeling a little odd I made it even worse when I raised my arms above my head in perfect imitation of an apprehensive 6 year old. Which is exactly how I felt. I almost put my arms back down when I realized how awkward this must look.

Let me take this opportunity to discuss bravery for a moment.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” I fully agree with this quote from Nelson Mandela and have had many experiences in my life that endorse it.

I thought about that idea as I was standing there at the pool, my bald forehead glistening in the late afternoon sun, and I jumped. My brain was a little slow on remembering the “kick up your feet” part but we got there eventually and I entered in to the water without endangering my internal organs with a belly flop.

In that moment my day changed a little bit. We were having a very nice time all day in Glenwood but then I accomplished something that scared me and that enhanced my day on a whole different dimension.

I know some people who, when asked how they are doing, answer, “I’m vertical.” Some people are joking, and some people, like a holocaust survivor I know, are quite serious.

People who struggle with depression are some of those people who can say, “I’m vertical”, and be truly appreciative of that reality.
So I told my 15 year old client that accomplishing something would help her with her depression now that she was taking the brave move of trying life without her meds.

And so I send this message to you, my dear and loyal readers (loyal because you’ve stayed with me even though I haven’t posted for a minute). When you are feeling like the spark isn’t there, try something that scares you a little bit. Accomplish something. Confront a fear. Learn something new. After you've done that, notice where you were before and where you are now, then celebrate it.

If you want more information on taking this step then give me a call. 303-803-4832 
Very best wishes to you my dear readers.

Ari Hoffman MA, LPC

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Clippers vs Mavericks

Clippers vs.

I remember very little from high school biology classes except how badly I
wanted to not be there. There is, however, one image that has stayed in mind since that time 18 years or so ago. It is the image of the cell wall of a leaf. I even remember my teacher telling us about how the cell wall has to be able to take in the good, nutritious stuff like sunlight and carbon dioxide and let out the waste products of photosynthesis and respiration. Not only do they have to let in and let out but they also have to be able to block bad stuff from coming in.

Our bodies are similar. Let in the good, let out the bad and don’t allow entry to anything toxic.
Life is a balance.

Health is a balance too, both physical and mental health require balance.

At one point some genius recommended that people in mourning for the loss of a loved one should be prescribed antidepressants so they don’t feel the pain.

Not good. That’s an example of being out of balance. Just because a feeling is unpleasant does not mean it is unimportant. In case you should feel like arguing I will point out the value of the pain of being burnt. Even though it is unpleasant it also just stopped you from melting your hand to the stovetop.

Most therapists (including myself) agree that a general definition of good mental health is the ability to experience a range of emotions without being taken over (for too long) by any of them. Note that I did not write that the definition of good mental health is perpetual happiness, it’s not.

If you feel like you did not understand the last few paragraphs about balance then read them again. They are supremely important and this concept of balance is the basis of this blogletter and others to follow.

What’s the difference between Donald Sterling and Mark Cuban?

It’s certainly not looks. They’re both pretty ugly in their own special ways.

Let’s take a brief look at what they said:
                The Don: "It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with black people", and, "You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want", but "the little I ask you is ... not to bring them to my games." (Wikipedia)
                The Cuban: “I know I’m prejudiced and I know I’m bigoted in a lot of different ways,” he said. “If I see a black kid in a hoodie on my side of the street, I’ll move to the other side of the street. If I see a white guy with a shaved head and tattoos, I’ll move back to the other side of the street. None of us have pure thoughts; we all live in glass houses.” (The Washington Post)

One of the major differences that we see here can be summed in a popular therapist buzzword: mindfulness. Mindfulness has a few different connotations but has been defined by some as the ability to think about your thoughts.

Mark Cuban is able to think about what he’s thinking and even make a judgment about it by saying “we all live in glass houses”. Donald Sterling just doesn’t want black people at his games. He doesn’t show any insight in to that thought and he doesn’t make any judgments of his thoughts he just puts them out there.

I’ve never met Mr. Cuban nor did he agree to be interviewed for this blogletter (I didn’t even ask him). So I don’t know his actual intent but I’m going to interpret his words for you anyway:

(Close your eyes and imagine Mark Cuban’s slightly odd voice speaking the following paragraph)
"There is always a balance, extremes are rarely (if ever) healthy. My balance is my recognition that I have some racist tendencies on one side of the great scale and on the other side of the scale is my full intention to not hurt anyone because of those racist tendencies. I am aware of what I do and don’t like and won’t apologize for that awareness. Nor will I make believe that I see everyone equally without bias but I will be sure to try to stay aware and use that awareness to make myself a better person both for myself and for my relationships."

In sum, this author (me) comes out on the side of the Mavericks. Mark Cuban shows his willingness to consider his beliefs and to own his preferences and his fears which is something we could all benefit from. Mr. Cuban also seems to show his reticence about moving toward extremes.

The great Jewish sage and mystic, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, once said: “the whole world is a narrow bridge and the main thing is to never be afraid.”

I urge you, dear reader to the ultimately brave thing and consider those places in your life that you are out of balance or have fallen. What are you ignoring? What do you need to do to get back in balance or back on the bridge? Who can help you do that?

Your friends and family can certainly help you. And so can I. Just give me a call @ 303-803-4832.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Self Love

Late Wednesday evening I was sitting in a de-icing truck in the middle of Denver International Airport. We sat listening to the radio as one flight after another requested permission to taxi to the runway. We watched the airplanes rolling by and saw the passenger silhouettes in the windows as they settled back to be carried to points across the globe.
Photo Credit: Ari Hoffman
At times like that, in the safety of the small truck cab it is not uncommon for us to wax philosophic.
“Friends, love, and trust, are all very fluid concepts”, my truck mate opines.
I inhale the smell of rain and jet fuel from the open window and reply, “yes, I agree”.
So much said in so few words. I like it like that.

Here are a couple ideas about love:

As we discussed last week, self love is a prerequisite to loving someone else. Notice I didn’t say that narcissism is a prerequisite, just self love.

How do we define love in general? As my truck mate pointed out, it’s a fluid concept. So there are probably a number of definitions. One of my favorites comes from the Hebrew word for love, ahava. The root of that word is the word hav which means to give.

If I love you, I give of myself to you, physically, spiritually, emotionally. I am present to be there for you. I want you to have the best and I want to be the one to give it to you.

 How about if I love me? Same thing. I work on giving myself the best thing for me. This does not mean that I give myself the best cut of meat, the nicest car, or the tastiest spicy Cheetos. This means that I seek out opportunities for me to grow, to be a better person and to increase my quality of life.

How can I possibly know how to love someone else if I haven’t taken the time to love myself? This doesn’t mean that you should become a hermit until you figure out how to love yourself. It does, however, mean that you should watch your relationships improve as you dedicate more energy in to improving yourself.

I wanted to write about this topic after considering the verse from Leviticus mentioned in last week’s blogletter, “you should love your friend like yourself.” I thought to myself, “Ari, if you treated your friends like you treat yourself, you wouldn’t have any friends!” I can be quite hard on myself sometimes so I will extend a lesson that I’ve learned but need to review regularly:

A large part of loving yourself is recognizing your humanity and your inherent fallibility. Be gentle to yourself in your successes and your failures and you will certainly find yourself being more gentle with the people and world around you.

Finally, look at beautiful things and allow yourself to bask in that beauty, if only momentarily. Take 30 seconds and focus on that beautiful thing. Try to allow other thoughts to pass through and go out but focus on the beauty. Just try 30 seconds. I believe in you.


Friday, May 2, 2014

Love. Like you love yourself.

I am going to tell you a little something about love.

As many of you know, in the Jewish tradition we read a section of the Old Testament in the synagogue every week. The Old Testament is divided up in portions so that we finish the entire book every year.

Photo by
Last week we read a momentous sentence, one that most of my dear readers have probably heard in some form or other before.

In Leviticus 19:18 it says, “love your friend as yourself”. Listen in Hebrew

You could translate it like that but it would not be much of a grammatical stretch in Hebrew if you read it slightly differently:
“you will love your friend like you love yourself”

 So maybe it’s a commandment or maybe it’s sage advice: You want to love someone? Learn how to love yourself.

Learning to love yourself is a prerequisite for learning how to love others.

Stay tuned next week for how to love yourself.
Very sincerely,
Ari Hoffman MA, LPC

Do you have something related to personal growth, parenting, or relationships you want to read more about? Let me know. I’m happy to take requests.