Quiet, cared for, and free

I’m on my way out for a solo retreat this weekend. I’ve been going to the same place every year since I turned 40. It’s a perfect setting because there are hardly any other guests around, and I get to enjoy delicious homemade meals without having to cook.

When I was younger and lived alone with much more time to myself, I still went on my own retreats. Back then, I would instill the self-discipline of fasting, meditation, prayer, yoga, and so on. This stage in my life is different though, with three kids, teaching, and a private practice. More than spiritual discipline, my soul longs for a respite from routine, responsibility, and technology. My solo weekend is about unwinding and re-wilding now, following natural impulses to do whatever I feel like doing in the moment. Usually, that means I spend a lot of time sleeping. Last year, I counted and actually napped five times in a day, while still going to bed early. I also wander the hills, read a lot, and write in my journal on and off all day. Then take another nap.

Have you noticed how restorative it feels to turn off devices, schedule nothing, see no one, and go nowhere? If you haven’t had a day like this in a while, I highly recommend it. These open-ended solo retreats with all my needs taken care of and no striving for anything have been just as profoundly healing as the time I’ve spent in spiritual intensives with masterful teachers. Living in a city in this busy middle phase of life, what brings me back to who I really am is… a whole lot of nothing at all. 

Solitude isn’t all blissful refuge though. All kinds of feelings arise in spaces without distraction. For me, the quiet usually brings deep emotional release and a reckoning with any uncomfortable truths that currently need facing. Next weekend, I’ll be hosting sixty friends and family for my son’s coming of age ceremony, so some centering beforehand seems like good timing.

Silence, nature, nourishment, freedom. It’s a simple recipe, but it takes some prioritizing and commitment to gather the ingredients. It requires turning away from a culture that says, “Keep going! There’s more to do! People need you!” All that is never going to stop. So I have to. 

I know this kind of quiet retreat isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I hope you too gift yourself lavishly with whatever fills you up and speaks to your soul. The more people taking care of themselves on this planet, the better off we’ll all be when we get back together! 

Hope you have a lovely weekend wherever you are,

Julia

When things get real

PhD’s are doing research on vulnerability. Does that not strike anyone as sort of strange? Have we all been hiding so well that we need scientific studies to prove it’s better to be real? I’m not suggesting everyone walk around talking about their troubles all the time. It’s nice to ask if people are available before we unload. But being vulnerable is also about letting go of pretenses in general, not participating when something doesn’t feel right, and asking honest questions. 

Part of what I loved so much about hospice work was there was no room for posturing. No one can pretend to have all the answers about death. People are real at the end, both the ones leaving and the ones staying behind. Masks come off, and anything that has been avoided rises to the surface, urgently asking for resolution. 

Sometimes big life changes are what shake us into authenticity. The breakup of a significant relationship, quitting an addiction, watching a loved one die, getting a scary diagnosis, or even leaving a job can set the soul into a dark night. These little deaths are opportunities to be real with the most important person in your life: yourself. The darkness is a ripe place for inquiries of the heart and soul.

What do you truly care about? 

What do you need to let go of? 

If you were looking back from your final days, what story would your life tell? 

What story do you want it to tell? 

If you’re at a crossroads right now, and it’s throwing almost everything into question for you, it may be a good time to be asking those questions. Gently, though. If you push a butterfly out of its cocoon too early, it will die. Sometimes we need the darkness for incubation. We may not get answers to our deepest questions right away, but we can be real about where we’re starting from. It’s a great place to be reborn.

Wishing us all the courage to be just who we are, and plenty of love and forgiveness in the process,

Julia

PS- If you’re looking for ways to face the hard questions and be with the discomfort of change, some of the tools I work with in session are things you can practice on your own too. Some clients come for weekly psychotherapy and others come on and off as needed. It depends on the level of support you’re needing, and that’s totally up to you. Just fill out this form and we can talk more about it.

What is a Coming of Age Ceremony?

Some of you have asked me about the coming of age ceremony we are planning for our almost 13-year-old son Kaleb. There were a couple different reasons to create this event. As a ceremonialist, I wanted to continue the tradition common to many different cultures, including my own Jewish one, of marking the passage from childhood to adolescence. I knew our process would need to reflect a more homegrown choose-your-own-adventure spirituality, one that would remind our son of his roots, while also giving him the freedom to follow his own compass and know his own heart. 

Then the social pressure cooker of middle school started happening in earnest. I won’t go into details because I want to protect his privacy. But the idea of gathering family, friends, teachers, and mentors that have truly appreciated Kaleb started to feel essential. I want him to remember there are people out there who see him and who have his back, especially on the darker days. As much as possible, I want him to understand that this next phase of life really is a transitional bridge. No one can give a kid this kind of context. When we are young, we can’t imagine the current dramas ever passing. But ceremony creates a context, as well as a deep memory of community acceptance. 

To prepare for the coming of age, we’ve included some  elements of the traditions we come from as well as some borrowed and new ideas. There are aspects of physical preparation, spiritual study, self-reflection, creative play, and community service. The ceremony itself will be a coming together in community to acknowledge and support one of our young people as he develops into the man he will someday be. So far, the process has been a fun experiment in life preparation homeschooling, for lack of a better word. 

Here is one of the study projects Kaleb has been working on. I pulled out some of our best wisdom books and asked him to pick five to read and reflect on. As you may imagine, he’s been choosing the thinner ones. So far, he seems to have liked The Alchemist best, judging by the fact that he read it in one evening. Definitely one of my top ten favorites too. 

Kaleb is our first child, so he’s getting the trial run. I’m looking forward to spending a weekend with family we rarely see and friends who have taken the time to know our quiet, earnest boy over the years. It’s a lot of attention, for sure. But hopefully the good kind, the kind that stays with you through the lonelier days and reminds you where you come from. 

Maybe you’re going through something important in your life, whether it be a marriage, a divorce, a death, a birth, or parenting a child transitioning into another stage. In addition to individual counseling, which can be really helpful during big changes, I work with people in creating personalized, meaningful events that reflect who you are and what you value. If you’re not sure exactly what you need, you’re welcome to set up a free call. Changes can be rough, but they are also ripe for growth. I hope you give yourself permission to receive all the support that’s available to you. And may that be true for all the children as well!

Some of the books he’s choosing from

Why I think Valentine’s Day is best celebrated in elementary school

It’s my middle child’s last year of elementary school, and I have been watching him write valentines for all his classmates. It’s a bittersweet time for me, knowing that Valentine’s Day will never be the same again for him. Soon enough, valentines will be for lovers, and he will know the same idol of romantic love that his culture bows down to. If he is lucky in friendship, he may exchange loving messages with friends or family too. But the form of human love overlooked on Valentine’s Day is one that we could all use more of, and it is the spirit behind elementary school valentine exchanges. 

Community love. 

Community love is appreciating the people we are on this crazy earth ship with, whether or not each individual is our favorite person to be around. It’s the sweet librarian who always says hello and the neighbor across the street who calls everybody in on code violations. In elementary school, you make a valentine for everyone, whether or not you know them well or enjoy their presence. Some kids grumble about having to make them, most bring store-bought candy, and the majority ignore hand-written notes. It can also be a hard time for the kids being bullied, shunned, or overlooked. Community love is messy like all other forms of human love. But there is an opportunity here, a teachable moment for us all. The spirit behind the practice is to look for something you can appreciate about the people around you. Even if it’s that they are making you stronger and more resilient by being your adversary. It’s about gratitude for the whole, even if all the parts are imperfect on their own.

Community problems need community healing. We are each responsible for our own well-being, but we can only go so far alone. When we come together to support ourselves in community with each other, the power of our individual work grows exponentially. 

If you feel a bit disconnected from community love, I am happy to share one of my communities with you. Community Wellness Hour is *free*, and it is an ever-evolving group of people who take time out of their lives to slow down, center, and relax each week. We come from all kinds of backgrounds, but we all come for peace. 

Community Wellness Hour is drop-in, but regulars rotate in and out. When you first arrive (on time or late), you’ll sit down and receive ear acupuncture called the NADA protocol. This protocol is commonly used for addiction as well as general stress recovery. If you aren’t comfortable with needles, we have some cute little beads to wear for acupressure. We sit in silence for the first half hour, meditating or letting the mind go wherever it needs. Then we all go on a little imaginary journey together through a guided meditation. We end with a brief sharing circle, which is all the more authentic because of the quiet we just shared.

I don’t remember everyone’s name. I even forget faces, which I am trying to do better at. But I do feel the love in the room each and every time. It’s different than romantic, family, or friendship love. It’s just humanity, sitting together, doing the best we can. I am grateful for all of it.

Whether you join us one day or not, I hope you feel the love of your community today. You are not alone here. We are here.


Trapped in the Head and the Doorway to Freedom

When I was 21, I discovered Buddhism and vipassana meditation. I was often anxious and worried, so it wasn’t about seeking enlightenment; it was about finding a way to actually enjoy being a person. In learning how to compassionately witness my over-stimulated nervous system, I didn’t change who I was as much as I became much better at being with myself no matter what was going on inside. 

In the fall of 2000, I traveled to Thailand and Nepal because I wanted to dive deeper into meditation practice closer to its source. I spent 9 days of my first 10 day silent retreat in complete resistance. I wanted to get out of there so badly. I loved the silence. I could have happily lived in silent community for months. But everything hurt. My body loves to move, and sitting still in the half-lotus position was killing me. My mind was also obsessing like crazy. All I could think about was (1) my pain (2) how I could possibly escape early and (3) why coming here was my worst idea ever. These thoughts led, of course, to many other miserable thoughts of past mistakes and future worries. I continued trapped in this mental prison for 9 days without distractions, as we alternated sitting and very slowly walking from 4am to 10pm every day. 

On the 9th day, the teachers announced that we would only be having one meal instead of our usual two. It would be a 24-hour fast, and it would give us more time for sitting. Pushed to the limit, I finally landed at the bottom of all that fierce resistance. What I discovered there was absolute, pure joy. I had fought a losing battle through every dark feeling there was to feel, and when I finally gave up the fight, all that was left was bliss. All the more so because nothing on the outside had actually changed. I still had to sit in this uncomfortable position for 18 hours on and off all day. But I was happy anyway. This was freedom.

Anxiety, worry, and overwhelm can be a doorway, as can all the things we struggle with. When we’re stressed out enough, we are often more open to trying new things. Meditation is, of course, only one of many tools that help. I am profoundly grateful to have been exposed to so many wonderful teachers and practices over the years. I love to share them because I know they’ve helped me. 

These times are full of struggle, and that is why they are also ripe for awakening. Have you experienced your own suffering as a doorway to freedom? What’s helped you? I don’t believe everyone needs to learn how to sit still for hours. That’s not the point. The point is to be willing to experience everything that this human life has to offer. To stay with it all, as it comes. To surrender, one little moment at a time.

What’s the best therapy?

Recently one of my students asked a question that deserves some honest attention: “What kind of therapy works?” There are a lot of modalities out there, and the popularity of each lasts about as long as a fashion style. Most even have their own acronyms: EMDR, SE, IFS, DBT, and so on. Pretty much every modality works for some people and not so well for others. No one wants to talk about this because it seems to devalue the years of education, training, and supervision it takes to enter the counseling professions and become certified in different techniques. But I see it differently. I think it shows just how important the people are to the process. What works in therapy is something much more personal, both simpler and more profound.

Good therapy has to do with presence. How deep is this person’s awareness, how full is their attention. If you’ve ever been around a person who is completely there with you, who sees you as you really are, that’s presence. So if you’re looking for someone to support you through a difficult time in your life, I’d say, look for someone you naturally click with and who can bring their whole being into the room with you. 

As for what modality they practice, what’s most important is that they’ve made it their own. The most influential therapists have been the ones who have developed these tools, after all. Before a technique becomes a model, it is raw intuition and creativity. So whether someone has five credentials or just one, what matters is that they use their particular tools in a way that feels natural and genuine. A lot of different methods work, but beneath all of them is the essence of the person using them. 

And of course, no one can do your work for you, no matter how interesting and complex their process is. There is no magic fix. We heal when we are ready and in our own time; it’s not something someone else does for us. Having someone who sees your strength when you can’t see it can be a missing ingredient, the one that opens up the real possibility of something new emerging. And then, when you’re ready to let go of the old ways, you step into that possibility. There are many wonderful processes that facilitate change, but in the end, you and only you can put those changes into practice day by day.

We all have to take responsibility for our own feelings, our own reactions, and our own choices. But we are not alone here. Just the act of seeking help is a powerful statement of readiness for change. It’s one of the hardest steps, but it opens the way for many more to follow. With clear intention, authentic support, and practice, growth is inevitable!

Hypnosis?

I’ve been talking more about hypnosis lately, and I am getting responses along the lines of, “You make people cluck like chickens, and that’s therapy?” I mean, these days, I’ve heard of stranger things, so maybe that would work! But hypnotherapy has nothing to do with stage performance or making people do things they don’t want to do. (I promise you, that’s not even in my wheelhouse.) I see hypnosis as a natural extension of meditation and a powerful healing tool that has been used in traditional indigenous cultures since the beginning of human time. It’s all about taking some pathway to a deeper state of relaxation similar to lucid dreaming, where the body, mind, and spirit become more open and receptive to change. 

Doing hypnosis in therapy is really just listening to a deeper, more purposeful, and more personalized meditation, all in the service of some change you would like to see. It’s like going on a very relaxing imaginary journey, where you can feel the change you’ve been waiting for. Oftentimes, people have visions and feel a pretty profound shift in mood and energy. Or you can stay closer to the surface and just enjoy a more restful mind. You are always in control of the experience and can come out of it at any moment. It’s very safe and surprisingly effective. 

Beyond the power of the hypnosis experience, the real point is to learn to access that peaceful confidence as often as you can. They call that self-hypnosis. When we relax our minds and enter a more creative sphere, we find new solutions, and, even more importantly, we find peace in situations that are normally stressful. Because in the end, it’s that moment-to-moment okay-ness with what’s happening that makes just about everything a little easier. 

Running, meditation, music, hypnosis—lots of practices can get you in the flow state. The more you go there, the more you remember to go there often. And if you plant seeds there for the changes you are wanting to make, you’ve got some really fertile ground for growth to happen.  

I don’t use hypnosis with everyone I work with because it’s not what everyone needs, and I feel strongly about working with people in the way that feels best to them. But hypnosis is a great tool for those who want to try something new. It’s especially helpful if there’s something particular you want to shift, or if you are needing to learn how to let go of control and relax more. So far, I’ve used it to help people wanting to let go of parenting stress, to shift relationship conflict patterns, and to quit habits that are no longer serving them. If you’re curious or know someone you think might benefit, feel free to take me up on my free assessment call offer. We’ll see what would be most helpful to you, and take it from there. I have 2 ongoing client openings right now, so just reach out when you’re ready!

Wishing you much peace in this moment and in all the ones that come next,

Julia

Support for Change: Willpower and the Power of Being Willing

I love the forward momentum of January. People are making changes and trying new things, taking action on goals that have often been incubating for quite a while. I look around and see motivation and willpower. The new direction can even feel easy at first. We may wonder why it took so long to make these changes that clearly needed to happen. It feels empowering, right? 

The trouble is that willpower is like kindling in a fire: it can flare up fast and bright, but it won’t sustain the flame for long on its own. After an initial period of success with our best intentions, some kind of obstacle shows up. It can be an external obstacle, like a family emergency that throws everything off. Or the inner rebel busts through and says, “hey, why do you have to be so “good” anyway? You don’t really need to be doing all this. You should back off, give yourself a break.” Wherever it comes from, something eventually challenges the will for its power. 

This is why, come February, all those new gym memberships start getting less use, diets are quit, and people start backsliding with exes. So how do we get out of this push forward/pull back dynamic? The whole process of purposeful change longs to be more gentle and natural, rather than aggressive and eventually running out of fuel. 

It has to do with respecting cycles and receiving support. We learn to balance the masculine energy of focus and action with the feminine energy of receptivity and going with the flow. Instead of relying on willpower, we learn to be willing. We can have less control yet be more in sync, and therefore more effective. 

Being proactive about support is key. When we surround ourselves with people and practices that encourage and strengthen us, we will be in much better condition when the obstacles show up. If you’re in Austin, you are welcome to join me at our free Community Wellness Hour every Wednesday at AOMA. It’s a great place to do inner work while in community. I am also offering free assessments to identify what you personally need to move forward in a balanced and sustainable way. We’ll identify next steps to support you, whether we continue to work together or not. I currently have space for 3 individual clients, and in addition to heart-centered counseling, I teach self-hypnosis and other self-healing tools you can use on your own. If you’re interested, email me to set up a call at info@juliaaziz.com or fill out this form.

May you be supported in the changes that serve the highest good within you, and may you find grace in the process as it unfolds.

All my love,

Julia

Writing in the new year

Clarity and Focus, Laughter and Acceptance. These are the words I am feeling so far for 2019.

I would like to write more this year too. Writing has always been one of my favorite ways to synthesize the ideas floating around inside, and I love connecting with you through the exchanges we have. It’s tricky though. It’s not always easy to lead with the heart online, where it feels like a stage full of performers and an audience who didn’t ask to be there. It’s easy for me to get hooked into the old pattern of caring too much about what other people think. It’s really not about performing though. If you are reading this far, it means there is some kind of resonance between us. I would like to connect with you through that resonance, and that means being real and taking the risk of being misunderstood.

The other tricky part has to do with writing in the first person and being a therapist. I have been well-trained since the early age of 22 about the proper use of “self-disclosure” and the “professional use of self.” We are taught to be neutral and compassionate witnesses, only revealing some personal challenge if it is relevant to the client. This makes a lot of sense for one-on-one sessions. People deserve to have a counselor’s whole-hearted attention. But it can become a way of being in all public spheres, and it can create an idealized self-image that no one can actually live up to (find the place where the therapists are letting loose—it’s likely to be pretty private). Here’s the secret that’s not really a secret: people are just people. All sorts of healers, teachers, and leaders have fallen from the pedestals we have put them on this past year. I think it’s about time we drop the pretenses and tell the truth of our individual stories. We’ve all got something to teach, and we’ve all got something to learn. No one needs a pedestal; it’s a long fall from that height. 

When I work with someone in individual counseling, facilitate a group, or teach a class, I give myself some time beforehand to release my personal concerns and come back to my heart. I reassert my intention to be of service, and then I can go out and be fully present to the person or people in front of me, responding to what comes up without an agenda. With writing though, it’s almost like speaking into the dark. I don’t really know who is out there! And this is why it’s such a powerful practice for me as a therapist. It’s a stretch to just express without knowing who is on the receiving end of that expression, after being so conditioned to focus on responding to others’ needs.

So writing is a mixed bag for me, but I am committed to facing the demons of doubt and moving forward. Thank you for being here with me, and I wish you much space in your own life for creative expression, authenticity, and always plenty of laughter!

To Be Whole

Lately, I have been creating some curriculum for my son’s coming of age ceremony that we’ll be hosting in a few months. It has me thinking about what’s important for a young person to consider as they move into the crucible of adolescence. 

One of the first assignments I gave my son is an exercise developed by Maria Nemeth to help clarify your own personal Standards of Integrity. The idea being that what integrity means to me may be different than what it is for you. Rather than following institutionalized morals that tell people how they should behave, it’s about looking at what you personally value and creating your own measurement of wholeness and success.

The exercise involves coming up with names of people you admire and distilling down the qualities they represent for you. I went through this process a couple years ago and made the little integrity card pictured below to keep in my purse. I look at the card every now and then, when I need to. It encourages me to live up to what I believe in, and it reminds me that I get to decide what those things are.

I love the word integrity. It has been a major theme for me this year. I have taken a hard look at the places where I needed to get into better alignment with the truth, and it has required me to let go of quite a few things. Jobs, schooling, relationships, personal patterns, etc. If I was saying one thing and doing another, or receiving clear intuition and ignoring it, I couldn’t hide anymore. While the process has been rocky and emotional, it has made me stronger and more trusting in the long run.

This is what integrity comes down to, for me. If I am being kind, brave, and genuine, I am doing alright. I do my best. I can’t expect perfection; in fact, perfectionism has been one of the first things to go. I care more about forgiveness than getting it right the first time.

I’m asking my son these questions now too. What is important to you? Who do you want to be in this crazy, beautiful, painful, glorious life you’ve been given?