I’m pleased to present episode 120 of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz, in which I speak to a very special guest: Ilene Smith.
What makes Ilene special? She was featured in the book that is the companion to this podcast: The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live and Love as “Helen.” Long time listeners will also recognize her story as one I’ve told on the podcast, too.
In this episode, we follow up with Ilene to learn more about her journey to becoming a highly regarded counselor specializing in trauma recovery. Reach out to Ilene via email at email@example.com.
Listen, and let me know what you think! Be sure to leave a comment!
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Transcript of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz #120
MEL: Hello everybody and welcome to the Possibility Podcast. I’m your host Mel Schwartz. I practice psychotherapy, marriage counseling, and I am the author of the book The Possibility Principle, the companion to this podcast. I hope to be your thought provocateur and I’ll be introducing you to new ways of thinking and a new game plan for life.
MEL: Hi everyone. It’s my great pleasure to bring on a very formidable guest. Formidable is a word I’m using to speak to how I have known her and engaged her over the years through her own formidability. And I’m using that word because she has embraced her vulnerability. And you see the paradox there that I’m always teaching. When someone embraces their vulnerability, they become formidable. They become self-empowered. So I’m going to introduce to you today, Ilene.
MEL: Ilene is a mindfulness and positive psychology coach. She has a resume that is far too long and too wide for me to recount, but I’ll ask her to share with you all of those details. And I met Ilene, how many years ago would you say Ilene we met?
ILENE: I would say in dog years or human. About 20.
MEL: At least 20 years ago. At least 20. She’s probably being kind. And I want everybody to know that Ilene goes under the pseudonym of Helen in my book, The Possibility Principle. I shared an anecdote about Helen and at that time I was protecting her confidentiality. But at this point, I think it’s clear that that’s no longer necessary. So Helen’s real name is Ilene.
MEL: So let me share the anecdote from the book and then we will move in and invite Ilene to speak more about what was happening then in her life and now and very fundamentally how she has engaged her change process. So the anecdote I share in my book about Ilene was that I had given her an introduction to a colleague in common. She had some professional interests that I thought this colleague could help her with. His name is Bud. And I arranged for them or gave them an introduction to meet at a conference that Bud was attending.
MEL: Ilene went and attended that conference. Before the conference began, she noticed or recognized Bud who was speaking with any number of people. And Ilene stood by waiting for Bud to turn and pay attention to her and greet her. And at that point, Ilene, as you would say, you were feeling ignored or not noticed, correct?
MEL: Okay. So as time went by, the conference started and Bud was no longer talking to that group surrounding him. And Ilene, known as Helen in my book, decided her words were to me, I guess I just wasn’t that important. Bud left without looking to find her or look to her. And she concluded, I guess I just wasn’t that important.
MEL: So I do what I do. I challenged her. How do you know that to be a fact? Now I knew at that time that Ilene was carrying around this very core belief about herself, a self-esteem matter, that she felt she wasn’t that important. We explored how she came to that belief. And she shared with me that in her childhood, she and her mother had a role reversal. She waited hand and foot on her mother. Their roles were reversed. She was there to serve her mother and the experiences of childhood weren’t available for her. She wasn’t primary. She wasn’t the important one as a child. Her mom was. So she had a wave collapse. Remember wave collapses, those experiences in childhood, which can be chronic or acute, which inform our primary beliefs about ourself. And out of those primary beliefs, we have countless thoughts. Her thought was, I guess I’m not that important. Coming from the belief she carried from her childhood. So I pointed out those wave collapses to Ilene, and we went to work on helping her learn to see her belief and see her thought and not become that thought. Well, we’ve been at a touch for quite a number of years and recently reconnected. I have no idea where Ilene’s going to go with this story or our conversation, but I’m inviting her in and saying, welcome aboard. And please tell us what progress or lack of do you think you have made over these last 15 years in terms of breaking through that limiting belief of, I guess I’m just not that important.
ILENE: It’s very strange to hear you tell that story. And I remember it vividly. Clearly from listening to that and where I am, I’ve had a long journey, which I suppose explains why my feet hurt so much. And I was very lucky to come into your office at a time in which my marriage was unraveling after 25 years. But more fundamentally than my marriage unraveling, it was the fabric that I believe wove me together in terms of how I saw myself in the world and how I saw myself internally. And it was a very challenging time. You of course are an extremely challenging therapist to work with, which I needed. I didn’t need somebody who would hold my hand, although I can say I wouldn’t have liked that some days, but you challenged me to dig in. I would say there were days it felt like I was on an archaeological dig to find that hidden strength that I really had, but had stopped accessing it. So the nature of who I am is I’m a contemplative and I’m an academic. So during the process and time in which we work together, I went at this change process, both from a contemplative process, going back into many decades of meditating, as well as an academic process. And I started to ask myself, what were the three fundamental issues that my marriage unraveling had sort of catalyzed and had come to the foreground? And I came up with three things that haunted me. What did I do wrong? Why am I not enough? And of course, the third question is, what do I do now?
ILENE: So I think the what do I do now was less common than it might have been. I think a lot of people, especially women after divorce, go and want to get a makeover, change their hair, lose 20 pounds. It isn’t that that didn’t have some appeal to me, but my inner knowing was really that what I needed to change was not the color of my hair or the size of the heel I wore, but really what was it inside of me that was dictating how I felt. And certainly that what am I doing that’s not enough? Why am I not enough propelled me forward. At that time, luckily, there was a man named Nathaniel Brandon who was creating a world about research about self-esteem. And I’d read about him. I was doing workshops with teachers and superintendents about the importance of raising a child’s self-esteem so that they couldn’t just think they could, but that we gave them the skills along with that to do that. So I went to Omega for a three-day conference.
ILENE: And I’m not sure I had been to Omega many times at that point, but I parked, I got in there, there was a huge, big room, a really huge open room in there. And it was not what I expected. He stood up after his introduction and instead of doing a preamble or an opening monologue, he right away had us get up on our feet and do the following very challenging, very Mel Schwartz activity. He said we had to say our name three times, only we had to say our name. My name is Ilene Smith and I am enough. My first reaction is, well, that’s pretty strange. I paid for this conference. The second time, my name is Ilene Smith and I am enough. And I began to know something had shifted that there was an awareness in my body that just saying my name and this time listening to my words, listening to the sound of my proclaiming my name and I was enough started to create a shift. And on the third time, I was really aware that there was something inhabiting in my body that was unexpected. So very mind-body shift and awareness. So I thought, I lived through that. I can deal with that.
ILENE: And then the next instruction came, which was to go out and individually greet everyone in the room by going over and making eye contact, shaking their hand. Those are pre-COVID days, so we didn’t worry about that. Saying my name is Ilene Smith and I’m enough, making eye contact, heart contact, I would say, and then making a container big enough and spacious enough for the other person to say it and to feel heard. So it was a real amplification of genuine presence. And that alone is healing. When you are with somebody, it’s really with them and listening, it’s healing.
MEL: If we could just contrast that experience with the anecdote from my book, you were standing there waiting for Bud to acknowledge you. You concluded in your retreating and pulling back, I am not enough. I guess I just wasn’t that important. So that core shift of belief, I guess I’m not that important to I am enough. And as you said, I am enough, lots of thoughts came to mind. I am good enough. I am valuable enough. I am all things enough. I just haven’t known it. So there you’re resonating with your primary relationship, the relationship that impacts you far more than any other relationship is with your beliefs and your thoughts. So there was a profound defining moment shift in you with the words, I am enough.
ILENE: I think that’s a wonderful summary of exactly what happened. And there were two other things that happened, a lot of things that happened that weekend that I will forever be grateful for. But the two things that I noticed first was that it was a big room and people have, you know, there’s a sensation of people’s breath and peppermints and all the mélange of things that happen when you put a lot of people in the room. But there was a shift to the smell of fear. And I have always said about myself, I’m like a human beagle, that I perceive things on a scent level. And it influences me and informs a lot of the impressions that I get. And so the room was filled with an odd scent of fear. And sort of the way a dog knows that you are afraid of them. I looked around the room and didn’t watch anything that looked challenging. And then I realized that I must not be the only one that is having a discrepancy between my inner belief, which clearly was I’m not enough, and what it would take to take the leap from I’m not enough to I am enough. And that I think I believe to this day, created fear. And I was aware of it. And I could sense it in the room. So when I went to bed at night, I think I knew something had shifted, that proclaiming it and not pushing it away was really a shift for me. And I began to professionally think about how I could work with those three ideas. Because when things go wrong, instead of saying, okay, what do I learn from this? I think there’s a reflex, I think for women, maybe more than men, to say, what did I do wrong? Why am I not enough? And then what do I do now as a result of those?
MEL: So just for clarification, when you’re saying there was a scent of fear, In the room.
ILENE: In the room.
MEL: Two questions, how would you, given the notion of inseparability, how would you distinguish my scent of fear or the scent of others? But more importantly, are you saying that after everyone said I am enough, then following that, the scent of fear or prior to that?
ILENE: I think the moment he asked us to get on our feet and say that I am enough, I think we all came, it was a Friday night, with an expectation that the opening night he’ll say interesting things, we’ll take notes, and we’ll get on the easy street to the rest of the workshop. And I think his challenging and I would tell you confrontational style the whole weekend was more than I expected.
MEL: So you’re saying that it was the surprise, you’re not sitting there in the anonymity of the audience, but everybody was standing up. Did everyone stand up at the same time and say I am?
ILENE: No, that’s so funny that you ask that, because not only did some people not stand up, there were several people who never stood and they did not come back on Saturday.
MEL: So you may remember or you may not recall the work we used to do and what I used to teach around the to be verbs and how they limit us is, am, were, was. So when we look at the term, I am enough, let’s look at the converse, I’m not enough. In my book, your message was, I guess I wasn’t important enough. When we remove the to be verb in a negative way, then instead of I am not enough, it’s I feel like I’m not enough. And now the shift here, when you say I am enough, underneath it, what’s really shifting? It’s the feeling. I feel like I am enough because there’s no objective truth to it, but if I feel like I am enough, then indeed I am. So do you agree that it’s ultimately the perception or the feeling, the subjective feeling underneath that is the wellspring of the shift as opposed to the objective statement?
ILENE: I do. And I think after decades of working with different clients, I think part of what allows you to stay in the belief that I am enough is developing a certain capacity for distress tolerance and not having a moment of distress throw you out of that belief that I am enough. Okay, so I am enough, of course, we can go through stress, distress, anxiety, but the resilience that I can handle it. That’s the resilient quality. Life brings challenges, conflicts, heartache, stress, but I am enough allows you to feel that you can navigate it. So it’s a resource.
MEL: So would you say this shift for you beyond those words in the ensuing years, the shift is that you began to trust your own resourcefulness?
ILENE: Oh, yes, for sure. And I also learned to tolerate the areas that are still challenges for me without diminishing my sense of self.
MEL: Could you speak to some of those areas that you still feel challenged by?
ILENE: Even with a GPS, I can get lost. I navigationally and technologically, I feel like Wilma Flintstone. And when I have to make a big presentation, or they put that little mic on me, the first thing I do is notice there’s a flutter. And then somebody comes and helps me. And then I go back into saying, I’m not here to be the tech expert. I’m here to bring to you some open heartedness, some willingness to be vulnerable and courageous in how we interact. And I don’t judge myself as harshly as I did.
MEL: So you feel like you’ve traveled quite a distance from back then with I am not enough to get your resourcefulness now that I am.
ILENE: I would say.
MEL: Those questions that you had asked yourself at the time of your divorce process, what did I do wrong? Interesting question, right? The propensity there was, it must be my fault. Is that kind of like a childhood reflex, which is if you attending to your mother and serving her needs, if she was upset or angry with you, it was what did I do wrong?
ILENE: Or what didn’t I do right? And the other question that popped up then, and it’s emerging even in our conversation, which is provocative and probably very meaningful for a further conversation with myself, which is I’ve shifted from why is this happening to me, which is very much disempowered to why is this happening for me with an understanding that life is going to give us completely the unexpected. And if I can get out of my own way enough to say that there is some gift in this, might not be one that shows up where I’m clear about now, but there is an advantage to having the alchemy of challenge.
MEL: By all means, it’s just such a fundamentally vital restructuring of how we see things. I’m sure you’ve experienced, it’s my belief in my own life and in the work I do with others, that we keep being presented with the same type of challenges until we learn to vault over it, grow and prosper. And then those challenges don’t recur. For example, I’ll work with people who say I’m always being taken advantage of. Why is that? I’ll ask, do you think you’re just so unfortunate that people are always looking to take advantage of you? Why doesn’t that happen to me? Because this is school. This is our education life. All these things present to us as opportunities to grow and learn. And once we do, it doesn’t happen any longer. You start to attract different kinds of people into your life, don’t you?
ILENE: I think so. Very much so.
MEL: So we are no longer asking yourself, why is this happening to me? The way I would put it sometimes would be, what is the opportunity here for me to learn that I’m not seeing? If I keep walking into the same wall, I need to turn the lights on, figuratively speaking, so I don’t walk into that wall. And that’s a whole different way of looking at life experience. And again, we’re not blaming and faulting ourselves. We’re here to learn, to evolve and to grow. At least that’s a dominant spiritual belief that this is our schooling. Could you share with the listeners a bit about your mindfulness practice and your meditation practice and how you go after helping others?
ILENE: I started doing mindfulness in my 20s, very, very early. I was extremely lucky to have had that come into my life early. And I had one experience where I volunteered in Danmore State Prison, and it was a maximum security prison. And I was a very young, innocent, I was absolutely sure I could make a difference. And when I arrived at the prison, I had met with the warden, what are you going to do? I’m five foot three, I think he was a little worried. How was I going to deal with the tattoos and the large men who were angry and stuck inside? But he assured me that he would always have two bodyguards, two guards, not bodyguards, although they felt like bodyguards in the room with me. And initially, you can imagine there was some resistance to it. But I am a believer, I’m passionate about the capacity to let your mind be full, and to be full of different options. And so I would come into the room and week by week, I would work with them on learning to pause, learning to deescalate, learning ultimately, self compassion and compassion for others. And it was the most exhilarating, sad time because a lot of these men were lifers, and Danmore is a maximum state prison. And after each meditation practice, I would have them do some form of creative experience to help them embody what the practice had included. And one day, I some of them couldn’t read, I asked them to bring to take a pen and pencil and to sketch out a cup, because I had been talking about setting an intention, and how no matter what you were doing, you had the opportunity to open your mind, start your day by setting an intention. So interestingly enough, I do practice what I preach, all of my cups have different things on them, this one happens to say, be joyful. And I intentionally in the morning, open up my cupboard and ask myself, what do I want to fill my cup with? Is it calm? Is it joy? Is it kindness? Is it self love, self worth? So I have a lot of them.
ILENE: And after one particularly challenging session, I had the men take a piece of paper and create their own cups. And then they could fill the cups with anything they wanted. And some of them were angry, their cups were flowing over. And some of them were one word that we later used as a mantra. And it was fascinating. And we got into this conversation about how most of us have a reductionist point of view. We think about is your cup half empty? Is it half full? That wasn’t where I wanted them or hoped they would go. And what I wanted them to realize is that what we put in our cup, what we keep in our cup is intentional. And when our cup is filled with things that are toxic and unproductive, we have the intentionality and the capacity to empty the cup. And they taught me every week, what it was like to go from feeling behind bars, behind walls, behind words, behind my beliefs, to saying, even now, I have the capacity to find some freedom. I think of my professional experiences that will always occupy a place in my heart. That was the one. And I’ve taken those gifts from those men and begun to go out in the world and work with populations that are pretty diverse. I was lucky enough, maybe I’m not going to use luck, because I do think that we are given opportunities if they’re in front of us.
ILENE: We might have to go around to find them, but I’ve had some extraordinary opportunities to be part of some national mindfulness movements. I was one of the original writers for Goldie Hawn’s, the Hawn Foundation’s curriculum, which is K through 12, called Mind Up, in which we structured a body of lessons for the kids and the teachers, teaching kids the skills of that. So instead of feeling, I’ve got nothing to do but explode, I have nothing to do but implode, that they can learn to stop, self-regulate, self-love, and then recreate something else. So every day that I went into different cities, I was a specialist in turnaround schools. You could stick me in a school because I tend to see the best, not just the worst or the stuff that was a struggle, but to work with these turnaround schools.
ILENE: And I had to give a speech at a national conference, and I talked about, I’d been at this one school in the South Bronx, which was a really hard school, for about six months. And one day I walked in and there was blood all over the floor, and there were cops, and I was there to do a whole faculty presentation on stress management and using breath work to self-regulate. And I found out that it was a fourth grader who took a big pen and had no way to see himself as enough, no way to regulate himself, no way to see options for this conflict and volcano that was inside of him. And he grabbed a pen and stuck the pen, the big pen, into the neck of his, of a fellow student. And that was how I began my day, working with the teachers about where do we go from here? What now? That was incredible. I walked out, I got in my car. I think I sat there unable to start the car because I was awash with my own emotions and everybody else’s as well.
MEL: That’s quite a story. When you were using the word mindfulness before, I became aware of my thoughts.
ILENE: Oh, tell me.
MEL: And my thought at that moment was, well, there’s the old story of the student goes to the Zen master for his lesson and the master says, would you like a cup of tea? And the student says, certainly, master, and holds out his cup. And the master starts to pour the tea until the cup overflows. And the student says, master, my cup is overflowing. And the Zen master says, I’m just reminded with all the thoughts. So I just want to share here, not so much with you, but with the listener. We always have to look at words and terms and ask, tell me what you mean by it. Because for some, mindfulness can be addressed very, very efficiently and usefully the way you’re addressing it, Ilene. And for others, mindfulness requires emptying the mind of the thoughts. So I think ultimately, it’s the quality of the thoughts running through our mind. And always remember that the moment you have a thought, that thought attaches to the accompanying feeling. Thought and feeling operate as a complex together. So if you are fearful, hateful thoughts, we know what you will be feeling and you’re caught in that tandem. But your work around mindfulness sounds extraordinary. Clearly, how it’s also assisted you over the years is just incredible.
MEL: So in the notes to this episode, I’m going to be sharing with the listeners, if anyone wants to get in touch with you or write to you or seek you out professionally, I’m going to provide your contact information and everything else for the listeners of the podcast. So I’m just going to put you on the spot for a moment. In conclusion, what’s the one thing that you want the listener to take away?
ILENE: Ask better questions.
MEL: I love that.
ILENE: I guess. And don’t judge the answers.
MEL: Ask a new question. Ask a new question. That’s when we move into constructing new realities, when we ask new questions. Beautiful. Well, thank you so much.
ILENE: You’re welcome.
MEL: Thanks for joining the show.
MEL: Well, everybody, hope you enjoyed today’s episode. And until next time, wishing you mindfulness, wishing you a mind free from stress, fear, anger. Looking forward to speaking with you again next week. Be well until then.
MEL: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Possibility Podcast. I welcome your feedback on this and any episode. Please send me an email at Mel at MelSchwartz.com or leave a comment in the show notes for this episode at MelSchwartz.com. If you like what you’re hearing, please take a moment to rate and review the show at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Your reviews really help boost the visibility for the show. And it’s a great way for you to show your support. Finally, please make sure to subscribe to the Possibility Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. And that way you’ll never miss an episode. Thanks again. And please remember to always welcome uncertainty into your life and embrace new possibilities.