How to treat the Back of your Mind

I work with many people who have  chronic back pain and we talk a lot about avoiding pain triggers – no twisting, no heavy lifting, use good body mechanics.  Recently, one of my clients told me that he had to avoid triggers of his mind.  He was talking about how he avoids depression and stays clean despite his physical pain.  And he’s been very successful.

So how do you avoid triggers of your mind?  You can take a few lessons from your back.

  • Don’t reach while you’re standing on a ladder. Always start where you are, and pick the fruit that’s within reach.  Don’t try to stretch to the inaccessible just because you see something you want over there.  Move the ladder if you have to – meaning you find a new approach.  Or find a new tree.  But don’t overreach.  If you do, you’ll either get frustrated or have a fall.
  • Wear good shoes. I talk to so many people who’ve gone for all kinds of back care – physical therapy, massage, trigger point injections, you name it – only to discover that the problem wasn’t really in their back.  They were walking funny, and the foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone and the ankle bone’s connected to the knee bone and the knee bone’s connected to the hip bone and the….well, you get the idea.  A little foot problem can throw the whole shebang out of whack.  When it comes to your mind, it’s a matter of checking out what you are standing on – What’s important to you?  What meaning have you found?  In other words – what’s your foundation?  Does it keep you in a healthy alignment?  Or do you need a new pair of shoes?
  • Pay attention to what you’re doing. Some of the biggest acute pain episodes I see happen when people just do things without thinking. They’re off in their minds somewhere while their body is doing something else until – WHAM!  You can’t avoid triggers if you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing.  You have to be present.  You have to be bring your awareness to the present moment and make choices about what you can and can’t do.   You have to define some healthy boundaries.
  • Intervene when the pain is small. Another good reason to be fully present.  You’ve got to be paying attention to how you feel to be able to notice pain when it’s still small.  Then, you’ve got to be willing to interrupt what you’re doing and make some changes before the pain gets so bad that whatever it is you’re doing screeches to an abrupt halt and puts you into spasms.  And it’s much easier to change direction when the momentum is small.
  • Get distracted. It’s a paradox, I know, but getting distracted and paying attention can work together.  It’s called focus.  Getting distracted isn’t the same as ignoring pain or pretending it’s not there.  And it’s not numbness.  Getting distracted is making a conscious choice about where you want to put your attention.  You choose to focus on what feels better.  One of the most effective strategies for coping with pain – in your back or in your head – is to put your attention on something else.
  • Don’t push through the pain. There are teachers and coaches who will tell you to “push through the wall”.   We know some of them. We’ve studied with some of them.  But we don’t agree with them.  Pain is a signal.  Your body (or mind) is flashing a red light, yelling “STOP!”  If you try to push through back pain, you make it worse – much worse.  You do more damage.  It’s no different with your mind.  If your mind is screaming “PAIN!” don’t keep pushing yourself down that same line of thinking.  You don’t undo pain by causing yourself more pain.  And if your mind is screaming “FEAR!” maybe it’s because you’re not ready to do whatever it is you fear.  It doesn’t mean you should stop there, immobilized.  But we don’t believe it means you should just “push through the wall.”  Fear can signal two things – REAL DANGER! or the need for more preparation.  Listen to which of these it is.
  • Pace yourself. This goes a long with “don’t push through the pain.”  Don’t keep pushing when what you need to do is pull.  Have a balance in your life.  Make sure you’re having some fun.  Take time for relaxation.  It really puts things into perspective – Let’s you step back from whatever is troubling you and just give it a rest.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. If you don’t allow yourself enough time to sleep – or if you’re not sleeping well – your pain will seem worse than it really is because you’re more sensitive to it.   So skip the midnight snack.  Quit falling asleep in front of the TV and just go to bed.
  • Don’t go there. Ever see those wide black elastic belts for back support?  They actually have long vertical “spines” in them, called “bones,” that poke you in the ribs if you try to bend too far.  If a thought hurts, don’t let your mind go there.
  • Use support. Those elastic belts also give support where your muscles may be lacking.  To avoid triggers of the mind, it helps to have support.  Somebody to remind you (and maybe even give you a gentle poke) if you’re going too far in the wrong direction and give you a little extra strength until you  build up your muscles.

Anyone who has lived in chronic pain knows – you either find a way to live with it and manage it, or it controls your life.   It’s a choice that has to be made every day.  You may have to exercise self-management moment by moment, but when you do, the pain yields.

And when all the strategies you use to cope become habits that serve you without any conscious effort on your part, you’ve begun to adapt – to learn a new way of living.  The pain may still be there, but it’s not who you are.   It has no power over you.  It may even disappear.

“Lift Correctly” Photo by Anders Sandburg on Flickr Creative Commons


Your glass isn’t half full or half empty

A few years ago, an engineer I was coaching told me, “The glass isn’t half full or half empty – It’s the wrong size container.”  I love it.

I’ve been getting some help the past few weeks from Ray Ortega, a web engineer.  We’re  preparing to make a few upgrades to the Kai Chi Do website.  The thing that has been so enjoyable about working with him is that engineer way of thinking.   I send him a long rambling list of questions and he gives me back a workflow.

“Do this.”

Not an explanation of why it works, which is something that 1) I don’t really need to know, 2) would only confuse me, and 3) would take me off track from what I really want – which is to fix the problem.

I think most of us could use a little more mental engineering.

“Do this” because it works.

Don’t come up with all the reasons why the glass is not full.  And all the reasons you can’t fill it.  And all the reasons why it’s never been full.  And how someone else’s glass is more full than yours.  How someone told you that you don’t deserve to have it full.  Or try to trace it back to who made this rotten glass.  Or even all the reasons that half full is good enough.  How this glass is all you’ve ever known and using it has become something of a habit.  Or why you are fortunate because there are so many thirsty people who don’t even have a glass.

Give up the judgment and analysis and just use the right size container.

Skip right past all the emotional charge.  Neutralize it.

Dissolve the avoidance and the procrastination and the internal debate.  Make a new container.

Think of your self-care as a workflow.

Ask yourself  “What works?”  (to take precious care of your mental, physical, social, emotional, financial, spiritual well-being).  Design the workflow.  And then follow it.

Don’t know what works?  Contact us!

Half full Half empty photo by William Burnett at


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Spiritual high

When I was writing our last post, I came across this audio-video montage of Ram Dass talking about Attachment and Addiction.  Charles’ approach to recovery is so similar and aligned with Ram Dass’ comments on this subject – and Ram Dass is such an elegant speaker – that I thought you’d enjoy watching it.

There’s one point Ram Dass made in this recording, that I’d like to focus on.  He says you don’t really get immediate gratification from a spiritual approach to recovery –  you get something bigger than the rush you get from drugs, but you have to wait for it.

There are tools that will give you an immediate gulp of pure Life Energy that goes straight to your head, with no detours.  Let’s face it:  Kai Chi Do gives you a spiritual high. That’s why we say it’s a metaphysical workout for body, mind, and spirit.  The high comes from recovering your connection – what Ram Dass calls healing the separation.

But the challenge is learning how to keep the high – how to live your connection. Not just while your doing Kai Chi Do…or yoga, or meditation, or doing breathwork, or whatever works for you… but all the other hours of the day.   In your relationships, in your job, in your thoughts.  That’s the part you have to cultivate and savor over time.

That’s really our work.  That’s what Charles teaches.

It goes beyond recovery.  It’s just about having a full, vivid, and deliciously satisfying life.


7 Things to Look For in a Teacher or Coach

photo © Wong Sze Fei

To really benefit from a teacher or coach, you need to be able to give them your trust.  Not everyone deserves that gift.  But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between form and substance.  And when you are in pain or personal crisis, you could be willing to try anything.

Here are some our ideas about what to look for in a teacher or coach (and how to be a good one):

They help you to become more powerful, rather than fostering dependency. There’s a subtle trap that healers can fall into:  They need you to be sick in order for them to have someone to heal.  This is why we don’t believe in people being “patients”.  We don’t believe in the sick role because we know that everyone is powerful.

They know that you are the expert in what you need. You don’t need any more people in your life telling you what to do.  This is the trap of the expert role.  It’s an “I know something you don’t know” or even “I’m the boss of you” attitude.   That’s arrogant; It’s condescending.  And it’s controlling.  But don’t think it’s always obvious.  Well-meaning people can fall into this trap when you ask them to make decisions for you.  Don’t do that.

They know they’re a piece of God, but they also know that they’re not the whole enchilada. Steer clear of anyone who wants you to worship them.  Remember the first commandment – Thou shalt have no other God before me – and choose a teacher who wants to create leaders, not devotees.

They can make a mistake. Beware of people who are too holy. We already mentioned the teachers who encourage you to worship them – the ones who create a holy hierarchy with them at the top.  But there’s another type of phony holy – the hypocrites.  The ones who don’t practice what they preach.

On this subject, you might want to read a book called Meeting the Shadow.  It explores, for example, the achievements and the death of Chogyam Trungpa.  Trungpa Rinpoche started over 100 Meditation Centers including the Shambhala Meditation Centers and Retreats and he founded Naropa Institute, the first accredited Buddhist University in North America.  He also died, at the age of 48, from complications of alcoholism (as well as cocaine and Seconal).

The problem is not that he was fallible – The problem was that his secrets and hypocrisy were an abuse of power and a betrayal of trust.

You feel safe with them.  Avoid a teacher who evokes fear.  This often shows up in the message that there’s only one Way and you’ll suffer if you don’t follow (their interpretation) of it.  But leading by fear can also come in the form of criticism, disapproval, and group pressure to conform.  It is thinly disguised in the teaching to “accept 100% responsibility” that really delivers blame. Listen to your inner guidance system and don’t allow anyone to lead you with fear (or anger or intimidation).

They encourage your growth.  The first time Charles went to India to see Sathya Sai Baba, the people who led the group were upset that Charles and Sai Baba formed a bond.  They said to Charles, “If Sai Baba is your spiritual teacher now, who are we to you?”  We didn’t hang out with them too long after that.

You want a coach or teacher who loves it when you find a whole truckload of supports, resources, and tools.  They get a thrill from your path of exploration and discovery.  They’re not competing with anybody else and they’re not competing with you.  They’re not jealous.  They celebrate when you’re happy.  They don’t own you, and – as much as they love you and care about you – they don’t need you.

They help you problem solve. We’ve seen therapists and gurus who are completely non-directive.  It’s the opposite of the expert role, but it’s still a kind of condescension, like they’re above it all and they’re just waiting for it to dawn on you that the solution to every problem is to transcend it.  Stuff matters!  If you’re hurting, it matters to you.  Find a teacher who shows compassion and will actually give you constructive suggestions.  They don’t drown in your pain but they don’t just sit in the I.T. (the Ivory Tower) either.

Most of the cautions about teachers boil down to someone having a “Big Me – little you” attitude or trying to possess you.  Don’t buy it.  Give your trust to people who respect you and can help you to find the best in yourself.

Interested in coaching with Charles?  Click here.