Words Matter

Do not assume you know who I’m writing about. Because I’m writing about us all. The acrimony I see coming from both sides of the political isle motivates me to raise my hand and say “stop.” Words matter. And the words we hear prominent political figures and surrogates use to describe their opponents is creating a dangerous energy field that will result in horrific consequences if we’re not careful. If the fallout from these words merely increases the amount of hatred in the world, that would be bad enough. But, eventually, words turn into actions. Thoughts and words motivated by ignorance and malice lead to violence. Two days ago we learned that the FBI foiled a homegrown terrorist plot to blow up an apartment complex that is the home of Somali immigrants. CBSNews reports “The men are members of a small militia group that calls itself “the Crusaders,” and whose members espouse sovereign citizen, anti-government, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant extremist beliefs, according to the complaint. The complaint alleges group members chose the target based on their hatred and out of a desire to “wake people up.””

At our core, we’re all good people. Yes, even the person you KNOW is the antichrist, is at the core, good. That said, every one of us, 27484886630_234db35e7c_b-donald-trump24005922924_04bf7e287b_b-hillary-clintonwithout exception, carries a shadow. I’m not talking about the shadow cast by a bright light. I’m talking about what Carl Jung described, the unconscious part of ourselves that we disavow, but, see so clearly in others. Shadow is the primal, law of the jungle aspect of us that we still personify. Our shadow steps in front of others when it sees a friend at the front of the line. It wants to pay as little tax as possible but rails against anyone else’s loophole. It fights for its personal freedoms while working hard to limit the freedoms of others. It judges others mercilessly but is the first to rationalize away its sins and beg for leniency. It is outraged by what others say but doesn’t pay much attention to its own dark views. That’s shadow. So in this respect, Donald Trump is doing us a great service by teaching us to recognize our collective shadow. If we remain objective and hold the widest possible perspective, he’ll help to quicken our collective evolution. We’ll all take a lesson in what not to do, which will result in a more inclusive, humane, respectful and fair society. If, however, we take the bait and start hating from our side, no telling how far down we could spiral.

The following is an analogy I use to teach the concept of shadow to students. If you have ever watched a Nature program and observed a pride of lions devouring their kill, you may have noticed that the pride organizes itself around rules over which animals get to eat first, and which ones have to wait their turn. The dominant males eat first, followed by the subdominant males and females. 27165434772_62df7b24ce_b-fighting-lionsThe cubs are often the last to join in the feast. Those are the rules. But, many times, members of the pride jump in, out of turn. Disregarding the social hierarchy is always met with a harsh rebuke, with teeth and claws. The dominant animal meeting out the punishment feels utterly justified when a subordinate jumps the line. But, hypocritically, if it were given the chance to do exactly the same, and eat before its turn, it would take that opportunity in a guilt-free second.

Shadow embodies the attitude: ‘What’s good for me is good for me. But you, we have a different set of rules for you.’ We see this in politics all the time. Shadow is on full frontal display. And what do most of us do when we see it in another person? Yeah, just like the self-righteous lions, we punch down. We project our unconscious shadow outward, onto other people. Sure, that person may fit the projection perfectly. That is mostly the way it goes. There is something in that person that you recognize, that the projection can stick to. But what goes unnoticed in our superior finger pointing is that three fingers are pointing back at ourselves. We mostly spot it because we got it!

So what triggers that vehement charge to vent on someone else? Down deep, we care. We want things to be better. We care ST-labrynthabout personal freedoms, social justice, family values, the right to protect ourselves, to make our way in the world, environmental sustainability, national security, sovereignty, religious freedom, and fairness. And as Americans, we especially care about fairness. We don’t like it when we perceive that the deck is stacked in someone else’s favor. Working out the agreements that create a fair society is what politics is all about. It’s not easy to be compassionate, to try to understand what stirs the emotions of others. But in this election, and going forward, there is a real opportunity to start to see the humanity in other people, especially others with whom you disagree. When we see their humanity, and privilege their rights, as much as we do our own, we’re on the right track. Opening our hearts that way would transform our politics. We could negotiate competing wants and needs within a civil discourse, full of empathy and compassion. By seeing ourselves in another we would develop the widest, most inclusive and fair perspective possible. All problems are solvable once we learn to dial down the hateful rhetoric.

What motivates me to write this blog today is the desire to hear from people who are earnestly trying to see themselves in others. I want to fill my consciousness with stories of people who are negotiating win-win agreements, reconciling long-held disputes for the greater good, cooperating in order to make a business or a relationship work out in a good way, or in any other way making this a more humane world. That goodness is happening right now too. It’s just drowned out by the vitriol. So, let me hear from the do-gooders today. It’s their positive politics that I want to energize. What I don’t want, is to hear from anyone who is angered by this article. If you’re are reading this, and you want to give me a piece of your mind, feel free to write out a full-throated and cathartic response and then scream it into the void.screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-11-51-37-am

Dr. Mark Pirtle
Dr. Mark Pirtle
Dr. Ann Marie Chiasson

I wrote this blog for myself as much as anyone else. The shadow side of me has played all the parts of the drama triangle–perpetrator, victim, and rescuer. I’m doing my best not to breathe life into those limiting personas, but they still exist within me. It’s hard work to confront and integrate one’s shadow. But the work is its own reward. What you get from shadow work is you get to keep the passionate energy that the shadow offers, plus, more and more, you get to enjoy the freedom from its limiting perspective. Dr. Ann Marie Chiasson and I are holding a Shadow Work Retreat February 19th, 2017. If you think you might be interested, click here for more info.

If you gained any perspective from this article or found it otherwise helpful in any way, please share it. The sooner we all learn about our shadow the closer will be the day when we’re not ruled by it.

Wishing you well,


About HSP’s — Highly Sensitive People

My wife Lynda and I just watched a fascinating documentary titled: Sensitive – The Untold Story. It turns out, the genetic trait of high sensitivity is found in 20% of the population. It is found equally in men and women and in over 100 animal species. The scientific term for the trait is SPS or Sensory Processing Sensitivity. This trait is not a disorder, but it does pose challenges for people who possess it, as well as those with whom they live.

What SPS means is, certain people are more tuned into subtly of words, emotions, environments, threats, meaning, sounds, beauty, loss, poignancy, world events, human suffering, the list goes on. On other words, the brains of highly sensitive people (HSP) not only process more information, but they also process it more deeply. High sensitivity can be a blessing or a curse. Because practically speaking, HSP’s feel more. So their emotions are not only more keen and profound, sometimes they’re more gripping. For this reason, HSP’s can get easily overstimulated in environments that are chaotic, loud, or otherwise intense. Overstimulation is the challenging aspect of this trait, both for the HSP and for those with whom they live. I imagine many stress-related illnesses – addictions, depression, chronic pain, anxiety disorders, and more – are correlated with HSP.

Mark as a babyI am a highly sensitive person. I even joked about it in my guided meditation booklet when I wrote:

“When I was a kid, I don’t remember people thinking that I was spoiled, but I do remember being overly sensitive. I would throw a fit if there were wrinkles in socks when my mom put on my shoes. I’ve always liked things to be just so. I can recall my Dad even telling me to “unfuss myself.” So I guess that’s my life’s journey, learning to accept and allow.”

Being an HSP has been a journey – an educational one – where I’ve had to learn about myself. Learning to meditate and be more mindful has been a big part of that journey. Since I started meditating, my sensitivity has not toned down. Rather, it’s even stronger than ever. But the remarkably positive difference now is in the quality of my sensitivity. I’m no longer reactively sensitive, throwing a fit when I get tired, hungry, uncomfortable, or otherwise when circumstances don’t go my way. Instead, now, I can sit for extended periods of time, experiencing relative discomfort with composure. I’m still sensitive, but now, I’m groundedly sensitive. That’s the blessing that makes all the difference. I now know how to open up and have complete experiences, riding the waves of energy around me. In this way, I can experience the fullness of my gift for sensitivity without it throwing me into an emotional tailspin. The blessed gift of grounded sensitivity heightens one’s senses, and that, in turn, makes life more precious. If you are an HSP, you have the potential to make the shift from reactive to grounded sensitivity yourself. If you need support, I’m here to help.

If you think you’re an HSP, let us know. Add your comment to this post. We want to hear your stories. Also, if you know other HSP’s, share this post with them. They want to know they’re not alone.



Universal Causes of Violence, and a Plea to Guard Our Senses

I was skimming through the Huffington Post last week when I came across an article written by Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D., named to TIME magazine’s 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world, and the founder and president of Give an Hour. Dr. Dahlen wrote a piece on the recent killings in South Carolina of nine African Americans, by 21-yearold, self-described white supremacist, Dylan Roof. In her article, Dahlen implores us all to “pay attention to how he became a killer…” because such understanding may help us prevent other young people from following a similar path. I couldn’t agree more.

Without wasting another moment, let’s explore what are the causes of such hatred and violence. Since Dr. Dahlen already mentioned the abuse Roof suffered as a child, let us look beyond early childhood experiences for more answers. Are there universal features that lie behind every mass shooting or terrorist attack? If so, what are those elements?

To start, I would argue, that in the mind of every perpetrator is a volatile combination of two mental factors: a fixated attention, coupled with a rigidly unexamined self-narrative, the theme of which is injustice. Or, as Dahlen similarly describes, “a distorted sense of purpose in a belief system that fomented hate…” These two factors work the same way in the minds of homegrown white supremacists, Islamic terrorists, and everybody else. Mixing attentional fixation, with a personal self-story of injustice forms an unassailable fortress of views, which makes the world appear as a hostile battleground between “us” (includes me and my tribe), and “them.” The violence comes easily then, because one’s self-story rationalizes and justifies it.

But there’s something more. And this is a big one, maybe the biggest because it provokes and agitates the two already mentioned. It’s the influence of Us vs. Them memes—ideas that spread like viruses through a population—propagated intentionally by outside sources. Keep in mind Root’s views did not arise in a vacuum. He was not the first to imagine a self-excusing perspective that pit him against his victims. It’s vital we acknowledge this reality: there are those who benefit from disseminating Us vs. Them memes. Whether for TV ratings, political power, market exploitation or for furthering a cause or career, carefully massaged talking points, meant to manipulate us, pour out through various media channels.

It never seems like manipulation to the person who identifies with the speaker, however. It just sounds and feels like the “Truth.” That’s because the right ideas, those with which one identifies, make a person feel understood, and thus connected to something larger. And that’s when it happens: when a person feels like he’s found his tribe, he gives his trust, and shortly thereafter, he loses his discernment. Like an invisible puppet master pulling invisible strings, the fixated person then buys things he does not need, votes against his own self-interest, and may even strap a suicide vest to his chest.

Rush Limbaugh CaricatureOne test for evaluating potential media programming that belies a hidden profit, power or political motive is that the talking points make a certain segment of the population mad. Clever programming tells stories that portray clear villains (them) and clear victims (us). Once the programming hooks someone, that person then finds it hard not to tune in. It’s natural to want to see how the fight is going—whether we’re winning or not.

So, please, be careful. The consequence of exposing oneself to such Us vs. Them content is living a life more filled with harmful self-righteous indignation. Ask yourself: Who are you listening to, and what are they saying? How does it make you feel? Is it making you mad, especially at someone else? If you answered yes to any of these questions, please turn away. As Dahlen so incisively points out, “we need to recognize this type of hatred for what it is, a sign of severe emotional disturbance.”

Now, I am not equating us with Dylan Root. He is an extremist. But he was not born that way. His extremism evolved through repeated exposure to harmful and manipulative ideas. Then, he marinated in them, turning them over in his mind. As you might imagine, the “flavor” of his views intensified over time. Lacking awareness, this malignant process can happen to us too! Everything we watch and listen to plants seeds in our minds, which will bear fruit that will become our future. So, let us guard ourselves against malicious, Us vs. Them ideas, for our own sake, and for the sake of our aggrieved society.

If you found this post valuable, please share it. Also, if it feels like the right time to start working with your triggers, thoughts and sensations by learning to meditate and be mindful, I offer a meditation program that may be of interest to you. For more information, click here. We are grateful that all of the Skillfully Aware classes we have held this year filled. If you are interested in attending the next round of classes in September and October, please email info@skillfullyaware.com.


Wishing you peace,




Big Time Drug Pushers

Hey all,

Using his usual wit and satire, John Oliver exposes the disturbing conflict of interest created when pharmaceutical companies spend lots of money to influence your doctor’s prescription writing habits. John is exceedingly funny, as always. He uses his humor to point out a troubling relationship that seems to drive a wedge between you and your doctor’s self-interest. For anyone who takes a prescription, or knows someone who does, this is a must watch video. If you think this information is valuable, please comment, share, tweet, post, pin or any of those other things you do.

Wishing you health and happiness,


Living the Golden Rule Starts with Empathy…

Dr. Mark Pirtle

If we were to explore where empathy comes from, we would discover that it emerges from understanding; putting oneself in another’s shoes. I was not surprised by a new CNN/ORC poll released this week that reports more white Americans believe in the color blindness of police and the justice system than do non-white Americans. It’s disheartening given the overwhelming evidence of bias against people of color.

mark_pirtleThese data suggest that the majority of us still resist broadening our “in-group” to include others of different races and socioeconomic classes. The fact is that most of us reserve our compassion for only those like us. I wonder how this can be when other polls report the majority of people identify themselves as religious, and all of the world’s major religious traditions hold compassion at their core.

There’s a simple explanation for this contradiction. Collectively, we’ve been conditioned by a social Darwinistic dogma that pits us against each other. Ironically, those most antagonistic to Darwinian evolution in schools most embrace the survival of the fittest perspective in their social, economic and political activities. As a result, a person’s values may not align with his/her thoughts, speech, and actions.

The holidays offer us all an opportunity to reflect on this misalignment. Some may dispute this, but I believe the spirit of the holidays is about connection–renewing our spiritual connection to ourselves, our family, friends, neighbors, and more broadly all beings and the planet as a whole. There’s so much we need to fix, and we won’t be able to make progress if we keep our compassion reserved for our narrow in-group.

The challenge then for us going forward is to try to align our hearts and minds more accurately with the compassion-based teachings of our wisdom traditions. If you are one who does not claim a religion or spiritual tradition, you can participate by analyzing this fact. The enjoyments in your life are dependent on others, therefore, the happiness of others also depends on you! So let’s all do as the Dalai Lama suggests, and ‘be wisely selfish.’ Meaning, be kind and help others because it’s good for us.

Should you feel moved to take up this “compassion challenge” for 2015, may I suggest a wonderful book to help you get started: 12-Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong.

Wishing you a healthy and happy holiday and New Year!


PS: If you’re interested in taking up meditation and a mindfulness practice, we’re offering a holiday discount on our 13-month program for stress relief. The program comes with a lifetime membership to our online forum. The forum is where you can ask questions, get support, interact with others, meditate with me, receive teachings and participate in retreats and more. The discount runs until midnight on December 31st. Call 520-981-9911 or email lynda@skillfullyaware.com and mention this “Peace2015” in the subject line.

Robin, it didn’t have to be this way

Were you as shocked as I was when you heard the tragic news of Robin Williams’ suicide? I just stood motionless for a time, wondering why. Of course, people are complicated. I didn’t know Robin Williams. Sure, the comedian and actor that struggled with addictions and depression, but all that’s just surface stuff. His wife and kids knew he was in pain. But not even they knew how much. One’s struggles are so deeply personal. I’m sure they were as shocked as we were, probably more so. My guess is that he hid his pain from them too, out of love.

I’m sad. My heart breaks for him and his family. It breaks for all of us collectively too. The world just lost a unique and wildly creative perspective. Few people ever see the world as idiosyncratically as he did. We need perspectives like Robin Williams.’ People like him help the rest of us open our minds a bit further. His creativity was such a gift. Not as obvious though, but way more poignant now, was that he also carried its curse. There’s a dark side to creativity.

Williams_Robin_USGov_cropI’m reminded of the famous Jack Kerouac quote, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” The burning, that’s what I want to explore. Because Robin, you were a Roman candle too. We all burn out eventually. I’m just wondering if maybe you didn’t snuff out your light too soon? I may be wrong. Again, each of our struggles is so deeply personal. But I can’t help but think it didn’t have to be this way.

I watched Wolf Blitzer interview Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN this week. Wolf astutely hit on this Jack Kerouac theme by asking Sanjay, ‘if the traits that made Williams a great comedian might also have contributed to his deep depression?’ Sanjay speculated this was so, and I agree. It’s easy to imagine how an innately strong, inborn passion could push a person’s emotional pendulum from manic to depressive and back. In fact, it’s so common that it’s almost cliche–the depressed and addicted comic, musician, artist, or writer. Sanjay went on to remark that there are no easy answers. And he’s right again. But if we’re to understand this problem better and hope to prevent the next artistic genius from killing himself, we’re going to have to make sense of the shadow side of creativity, and learn to work with it. I’ve found Jungian and Buddhist psychological to be very effective in this respect.

Secondarily, may I suggest that we start by thinking about disorders like depression and addictions more critically? Sanjay started the interview by reminding us that depression is a disease. I’m not criticizing or even contending with Dr. Gupta. The subtext of his comment was that depression is a serious condition and that it warrants serious treatment. I wholeheartedly agree. Yet, I cringe when I hear the word disease. I know, it’s my issue. But I do so because I know that words are powerful, and in this specific case, it can be misunderstood. Everyone regards cancer as a disease. But does the word disease mean the same thing when applied to depression and addictions? To anyone listening, it carries the same weight. Sure, depression and addictions meet the definition: a particular quality, habit, or disposition regarded as adversely affecting a person. But are we talking about the same thing?

Cancer is primarily a disease of the body. The most-effective treatments for cancer target the body. Psycho-spiritual-emotional interventions may help on the margins. But affirmations, prayer, healing touch, meditation, group therapy and the rest can’t hold a candle to the power of the latest biological and chemotherapies. Depression and addictions are different. They are primarily diseases (qualities, habits, and dispositions) of the mind and heart. Yes, they affect the body too, it’s a whole system. So brain circuits do malfunction. But these conditions are primarily diseases of meaning (thoughts of self, needs, wants, losses, threats, urges, inadequacies, injustices, etc.). For that reason, they are extremely context dependent. That is why a change in meaning can result in a change in being.

Long and short of it is lumping all these disparate conditions together under on label seems like a mistake. If we continue to call both cancer and depression diseases, then we need two categories: one for the diseases of the body, and another for diseases of the mind and heart. Treat the former with biologic and pharmaceutical interventions supported with integrative approaches for symptom management. Treat the latter primarily with integrative interventions, talk and group therapy, shadow work, and most especially meditation and mindfulness. Then, offer pharmaceuticals to manage symptom intensity. That’s what makes the most sense.

The myriad ways humans manifest repetitious patterns of suffering require us to be a little more thoughtful in our approaches to curing them. I’m going to miss Robin Williams. Had the context shifted somewhere in his past, through mind training, I believe things could have been different.

If you found this post interesting or insightful offer your comments. Please also tweet and retweet and otherwise share it within your social media networks.

Mark Pirtle



People rather shock themselves than be with their own thoughts!

I heard a rather disturbing story on the radio show Science Friday this past week. Researchers at the University of Virginia were amazed to discover that many people would rather self-administer painful shocks than sit quietly with their own thoughts for 15 minutes. This research proves to me that people just don’t know how to work with their own thoughts. I find this both sad and worrisome.

thinkingMost of us think we think. But of course, this is not true. Spend anytime watching your thoughts and you realize that thoughts arise unbidden, in a chaotic stream. Which means we don’t often consciously pick our next thought.

Thoughts that arise do so because they carry emotional relevance. We tend to think about what we like and dislike. Most of us get stuck in traps of negative thinking because of a natural negative attentional bias. I think this is the reason why people would rather shock themselves than sit with their thoughts—too much negativity.

What if you had the ability to influence whether your attention fixated on negative thinking? What if you could allow thinking, but not be the thinker? You’d be free. That’s what meditation (mind) training can do for you.iStock_000004431227Mediumcmyk

The mind (not thoughts, but pure consciousness) can focus on itself and come to know its own nature. The nature of mind is like space: quiet and empty. Thoughts are like objects in the space. If you learn to see the difference between the two, you can choose to rest in the quiet peaceful space of your mind even if you are thinking.

I’d like to ask those researchers to test meditators (not just those who know how to be “mindful”). I know from personal experience that I’d have no trouble sitting alone with my thoughts for 15 minutes, or even an hour for that matter. I’d just meditate, which I find interesting and peaceful. You can learn to meditate the same way I have. Once you do, you won’t have to resort to shocking yourself to escape your thoughts, you’ll know how find peace anytime you choose.

If you’d like to learn to meditate, check out my guided meditation program. I want you to be happy.

Wishing you well,


America’s Epidemic of PTSD and Veteran Suicide

If you’re like me, you’ve already heard that veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan were suffering from PTSD. What I did not know, and what you may not have known either, was the immense scope of the problem. Approximately one quarter of all Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) members struggle with symptoms related to PTSD after leaving the service, says IAVA political director Kate O’Gorman.

A March 28th, 2014 online CNN report stated “researchers estimate that as many as 300,000 service members may meet criteria for PTSD.” Beyond these alarming numbers lies the ominous connection between PTSD and veteran suicide. I watched Rachel Maddow interview Montana Senator John Walsh on Wednesday, March 26th. Senator Walsh told Rachel that 22 veterans kill themselves by their own hand each day! This grave statistic is a tragedy beyond anything I had imagined. Very nearly every hour of every day a vet commits suicide. When I heard that figure tears welled in my eyes. I applaud Senator Walsh introducing a Senate Bill that hopes to bring needed benefits to these suffering veterans.


Senator Walsh’s Bill proposes to:

  • Extend special combat eligibility
  • Review wrongful discharges
  • Increase professionals in the VA
  • Improve mental health care in suicide prevention programs
  • Provide Special training for mental health care workers
  • Increase collaboration between VA and DoD
  • Establish a common drug formulary

There is a problem with a shortage of mental health care providers, especially in rural areas. But that shortage is not the only issue. Mental health care providers trained in mindfulness are more rare still. PTSD is a stress related illness. Therefore, mindfulness training is effective as a remedy beyond mere talk therapy. If you know a vet who is struggling with depression, anxiety, addiction, and/or PTSD providing him or her with a resource for mindfulness training may be another way to help.