Are you feeling your yoga? Or just thinking about it?

Photo credit: Jacqui Damasco

Many years ago I met a yoga teacher who said that “yoga is a feeling practice.” That resonated with me, and at the time I realized that I was only feeling my practice some of the time. The rest of the time I was so involved with my thoughts that I was barely present with what my body was experiencing until my muscles started to protest.

On Thanksgiving this year I had the rare opportunity to spend the day alone and in silence. No talking. And the first thing I noticed was how much time and energy I spend thinking. So many words! Planning, contemplating, analyzing, theorizing, prognosticating about what other people might be thinking… On a silent retreat I wanted silence, but my mind had other ideas.

The endless rambling of the mind is easy to get caught up in, and for a lot of people, this constant spinning of the mind is what causes the bulk of their anxiety.  Don’t get me wrong – we want the mind to be able to do the work it needs to do, but when it is just spinning in circles and causing anxiety, that is not effective.

The same thing can happen in our yoga practice. We may be moving our bodies, but our minds may be miles away in space or in time – or we may be judging ourselves. We end up doing the practice for its residual effects, missing out on the experience each pose can generate. Or, we move our bodies around with little regard for what the body is telling us it needs – we aren’t actually listening or collaborating with our bodies.

Photo credit: Jacqui Damasco

In any given moment, thinking is accompanied by our sensory experience. The physical body is a sensory instrument. Sights, sounds, smells, sensations on our skin, all this is happening at this very moment – even as you’re reading these words. Can you feel your fingers touching whatever they are now touching? What are you hearing at this moment? What are you smelling? What do you see with your actual eyes (versus your internal landscape)? What emotions arise as you pay attention to your senses?

On the yoga mat, while in a pose or even while resting, what do you experience with your sense of touch? What do you hear, see, smell, sense, feel? What is the immediate experience of now? How does it feel to be present here and now? Very often, when we come back to the present moment, we actually feel more relaxed, more “here.” When we quiet the endless rambling of the mind, we have a chance to experience what is actually ok in the present moment.

If the mind really wants to get involved, you might occupy it with the question: “Is this pleasant or unpleasant?” or “What feels good about this pose?” Let the mind be in service to the experience rather than spiraling out with judgments, shoulds, associations, plans or other elements that aren’t directly related to the experience you’re having now. Of course that spiraling might still happen, and you have the choice to follow, or to do something different. Instead of jumping on the “thought train,” you could acknowledge the mind, give thanks that it can do what it does, and then gently direct your attention back to the sensory experience of the moment.

Who knows? You may begin to notice that your yoga practice actually feels good. Before you know it, you might find yourself smiling or even laughing on your mat. (Yes, that’s allowed!)

Namaste.

Holiday SOS Toolkit

The holidays are fast approaching and one of the challenges for lots of folks is how to handle all the gatherings of different sorts that may seem more like obligations than fun.

I’m lucky that I actually like my family and colleagues, but in case you happen to fall into the “obligations” category, Susan Auman (my friend and business partner at CBW), and I have come up with 10 tips for a Holiday SOS Toolkit. Here goes…

(1) Remember it’s temporary. One of my unfortunate college summer jobs was selling educational books door-to-door in California.  One of the phrases I learned was Og Mandino’s “This too shall pass.”  Pretty much all social events are time limited, or you can set your own time limit by deciding how long you’re going to stay.

(2) Orient to safe others. When arriving at your destination, look around for familiar and/or friendly faces. If there’s someone you know you prefer over the others, spend time talking with that person. Make a new friend, or bring someone along you know you enjoy being with. Continue to check for people who seem friendly or inviting. Sometimes those safe “others” might be 4-legged or leaf covered!

(3) Choose to notice what’s pleasant. In any holiday gathering there’s likely something that qualifies as pleasant – or at any rate less unpleasant than the rest. Maybe the food smells and tastes good? Is there a real live Christmas tree that smells like an evergreen forest? Maybe the holiday music is cheerful? Or maybe there are pleasing pictures on the wall or friendly pets to play with? Even small things can shift a generally unpleasant experience, but you have to look for them or they might pass you by.

(4) Notice body tension and let it go. Difficult situations can make the body tense. Anxiety and stress generally show up as muscle tension in the body. Knowing the places you generally get tense can be helpful. If not, check for tension in your brow, jaw, shoulders, abdomen, pelvic floor or arms. You can choose to let go of tension in these areas. If your body’s not keen on letting go of tension you might have to consciously tense a little more (I know that sounds contrary), then stop your conscious tensing. Usually the muscles will let go – at least more than they did before.A little tip: your tongue can be an indicator of how tense you are. Tongue pressed fiercely up against the roof of your mouth? You’re probably revved up. Relax/soften your tongue and notice what happens in the rest of you…

(5) Move around!  Bodies actually become more tense when forced to sit still. Moving around can ease some of the tension (freeze) in the body and help you to relax. Sometimes just stretching in place or moving at the joints can help. For example, rolling the shoulders, wrists and ankles or gently stretching the sides of your neck might not appear too strange and can relieve some tension in those areas. Less tension means the brain thinks you’re more relaxed!

(6) Take breaks. If you’re like me, your inner introvert gets a bit overwhelmed by all those nervous systems in one place. Or maybe you just get overstimulated by lots of activity, color & noise? Removing yourself may be as easy as taking a trip to the loo! (That’s the restroom btw). While you’re there, check on your muscle tension, do some breathing with nice long exhales to relax the body and maybe even check for something pleasant – magazines? nice soap? interesting wall art? :-)Depending on where you are, going outside “for some fresh air” might also be and ok way to escape for a while.

(7) Pre-plan for contact with the sane world. If you know you’re going to be in the midst of a chaotic or highly unpleasant crowd, plan with a friend you can text or call (on those trips to the loo or when you’re breathing fresh air). Sometimes you need someone else to remind you to breathe.

(8) Get helpful.  I’ve found that purposeful activity can be very rewarding. Probably due to all that dopamine that gets created when you feel productive? Hosts are often happy for help and it’s sometimes also a way you can meet other people who are also helping.

(9) Plan an activity for the group. Directing the group in an activity can be a fun way of interacting, and also setting the tone of the gathering. Susan suggested the post-it note game. To play, you draw different characters on post-it notes and without the person knowing who the character is, each person gets a post-it on their back. Other people give people clues and each person has to try to figure out what their character is.

(10) Bring or wear something soothing. If all else fails, this is a back-up plan. Maybe you have a smooth stone that soothes you that you can keep in your pocket? Maybe there’s a lotion you like the smell of? Maybe a scarf with a texture you enjoy? Maybe your favorite colored shirt or tie or comfy shoes? Maybe your favorite tea?  Maybe you can check in with your favorite meme or funny YouTube video on one of those trips to the loo.

Whichever activity you choose, make sure you’re mindful and focused on that. Leave any aggravation, frustration or stress behind and stay as much in the present moment as you can. Much of what we experience comes from what we choose to focus on.   Whatever you celebrate, wishing you a wonderful, mindful, pleasurable Thanksgiving and very Happy Holidays.

The Trauma Brain Project

I recently had the honor of being on a panel of body-centered therapists following the reading of a play by Dayle Ann Hunt titled The Trauma Brain Project.

This play is powerful, moving, intense. It is the story of a woman’s journey to heal from the repressed memories of early childhood sexual abuse. Dayle takes us on this journey of her own life experience as someone who was diagnosed with Epilepsy as a child, who was also experiencing paralyzing migraines, unexplained nausea, psoriasis, sinus growths and a string of inexplicable conditions that followed her throughout her life; all of which led her (in her 50s) to shadowed memories of what had happened and to eventual healing with somatic therapy.

The cast is amazing. The direction is expert. We the audience were riveted for the duration of the piece.

This play is a must-see for anyone who works with diagnosing illness. Dayle Ann is passionate about medical professionals, therapists, and trauma survivors knowing that their symptoms may be trauma-related. The body and mind do actually influence each other.

 

If you’re interested in this topic and have any ideas on how this play can be more widely disseminated, please contact D
ayle Ann at www.thetraumabrainproject.com

After the play I led the audience through a few basic exercises to help with regulation since watching anything traumatic can have an impact on our bodies. And it struck home to me again tonight that we are being inundated daily with news of traumatic events. This doesn’t mean we are all traumatized by this, but we are more than likely affected. So I thought I’d quickly share one of the techniques that I shared with the audience in the hopes that you might be able to use it in your day-to-day. It’s called 3-2-1

  1. Look around and notice and briefly describe (e.g. “orange mouse pad”) three (3) things you see
  2. Now listen and name two (2) sounds you hear
  3. And now notice one (1) thing you’re feeling with your sense of touch.

How are you feeling now? You can repeat that sequence one more time if you’re feeling a little more focused or settled than you were before you started.

Namaste.

Loving Your Anxiety

Love Your Anxiety (Or at least get to know it)


I know it sounds crazy to even imagine “loving” your anxiety. But one of the fundamental truths about being human is that we have emotions, including anxiety. What makes us human is that we also have the ability to make meaning of our experiences and that meaning-making is what turns a simple emotion into a recipe for disaster.

Anxiety is fear of a future negative outcome. Stress has to do with not wanting to be in the present that you find yourself in. We imagine that outcome over a range from slight discomfort to a major catastrophe. 

Some amount of sympathetic nervous system activation (which causes stress and anxiety) is needed to keep us cautious and therefore keep us safe.  But the anxious state is meant to be a short-term, action-inducing state. So when anxiety runs amok, our bodies suffer. There’s a fascinating book called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” that describes all the different body systems that are affected when stress hormones predominate in the body.

Stress and anxiety happen in the mind and the body. The mind has a random thought that we believe, and the body reacts with tension and often uncomfortable sensations in the gut or the chest. Tightness in the body often restricts breathing as well which can lead to a hold host of other sensations. All this discomfort creates a state of mind that is geared toward getting away from the discomfort at all costs, leading to smoking, drinking, overeating, yelling at your loved ones, etc. Too much anxiety can even lead to a crash, which then feels like depression. 

So what’s the solution? Love your anxiety (ok, I know that’s not going to happen!). At the

very least, though, to change and anxious state we need to acknowledge and accept that it is happening. Anxiety is part of our self-protective capacity. It is an indicator of something that needs attention. It is a call to action. 

What’s your anxious feeling telling you? Maybe it’s telling you you’re overworked and need a break? Maybe it’s telling you that you don’t feel safe or fulfilled in your current relationship or career? Or maybe it is telling you that you have some work to do on your self-confidence or ability to set boundaries? In order to figure out what it is telling us, we need to pause and listen while recognizing that the emotions don’t have to control us, we do have a choice about how to feel. 

Some simple ways to work with an anxious mood in the moment:

  • Allow it to be without judging it as “bad” or “wrong” or somehow a sign of your failure. The extra layer of “shoulding” just makes the anxiety worse.
  • Be curious about what triggered the anxious state.
  • Give your anxiety something to do. Anxiety often shows up in the body as a jittery feeling. This is excess energy in need of direction. So dance, shake, shimmy, walk, run, do some vigorous yoga. Get the energy out and then try to do something a bit more quieting.
  • Notice the anxiety as body tension and let go of tension in the muscles. Tight shoulders? Let them drop. Tight jaw? Let it drop.
  • Uncomfortable sensation in the belly? That might be just the result of the abdominal muscles tensing. You might take over the tension (tighten your ab muscles) and then stop tensing, allowing the muscles to let go.
  • We humans seem to have a natural tendency to catastrophize. Maybe instead of catastrophising, ask yourself: “OK, it feels like everything could go wrong, and is there any way this could go right?”
  • Pay attention to your exhales, even making them longer. Exhaling lowers your heartrate, which gets elevated during stress.
  • Ask for help. Social interaction with a safe, supportive other is one of the ways that we humans calm down.
  • Stay away from coffee – yep, coffee drinkers have been shown to have random spikes in their anxiety during the day.
  • Look around your environment, recognizing that you’re physically safe and that there aren’t any threats in your immediate vicinity. You might notice and name 3 objects that you see, 2 sounds you hear, and one thing you feel with your sense of touch. or you might count all the objects you see of a certain color or shape. Anything that breaks up the circular or negative thought pattern that is making you anxious.

Of course there are many other ways to deal with anxiety, including lifestyle habits of getting enough sleep and exercise. Do you have a favorite? Share it with us! 

Breathing to Live

Hope that you are well and enjoying this moment of Life!

I’ve been fascinated with the breath lately. It’s pretty amazing that the thing we need most to survive (air) is abundant and free! We walk around in it!  Your breath can have a calming effect on your nervous system, and yet constrictive breathing patterns can be agitating to the mind. That’s one of the reasons yoga is so focused on breath. Free your breath and you free your spirit!

Our bodies are such fascinating instruments, and so wonderfully interconnected. Amazing, really. Did you know that tension in your jaw can affect the health of your pelvis? And that chronic tension in your shoulders can be an indication of constrictive breathing habits?

I do breath awareness work in my Yoga for Pelvic Health classes and with many of my psychotherapy clients, simply because the breath influences so much about the body and mind. Read on below for more tips about breathing. And don’t worry! If you’re alive and reading this, then there’s a good change your body is breathing well enough right now! And with compassionate curiosity you can develop awareness of how you could free your breath even more!

Quick Facts about Breath and Breathing 

I’ve become really fascinated by the breath and the mechanisms of breathing lately, and I’m especially interested in the ways that the breath affects our nervous systems, and therefore our state of anxiety or relaxation. Here are some facts that might surprise you, or might be enlightening!

  • When you’re relaxed your breath is usually slower & deeper, but not forced or strained
  • When you’re agitated or afraid, your breath is faster and usually higher in your chest
  • Your breath should change depending on the context – if you’re running, you need to be breathing faster and deeper than if you’re sitting and reading this email
  • More oxygen is not necessarily a good thing. You need a balance of oxygen to carbon dioxide in order for your body to function well (yes, you need carbon dioxide!) Too much oxygen can be as problematic as not enough, and breathing too hard or too fast all the time can alter your balance of oxygen to carbon dioxide actually causing anxiety & other problematic symptoms
  • Your lungs span the area from just below your collar bones to your lower ribs (there are no lungs in your belly/abdomen).
  • Think of breathing in through your nose and down into your lower ribs
  • The belly moves out as a result of the downward movement of your diaphragm – a muscle that connects to your lower ribs & spine – when you inhale. Forcing the belly out isn’t a good idea and doesn’t help you breathe better.
  • Your lower ribs should move when you breathe. When you’re exerting yourself, your upper chest should also move to allow more space for your lungs to fill. Your shoulder muscles generally shouldn’t be used for breathing
  • Allowing ribs and belly to move when you breathe provides for a freer breath and a more balanced & content nervous system.
  • Tucking your pelvis under (squeezing buttocks in) and holding your belly in wreaks havoc with your breathing and isn’t good for your spine (or your pelvis). Whether sitting or standing, the pelvis should optimally be in a neutral position with a curve at your lower (lumbar) spine
  • A “deep” breath doesn’t mean forcing the breath into your belly or taking a big, loud breath. It’s best for the breath to move quietly, freely & deeply into the body at a relatively relaxed rate – depending, of course, on what your body is doing. 
  • The average number of breaths per minute is 15-20 for adults.

Any of this sound new or contrary to what you learned in yoga class? It’s been an education for me to study the breath more deeply too & I’ve had to relearn some things! It’s also been wonderful to observe how psychotherapy clients and yoga students have benefited from learning more about how their breath works.

Please feel free to leave a comment to this post and let me know what you think…

New possibilities for compassionate transformation

Happy New Year!

I love this time of year.  It feels so fresh with possibilities.  But that’s an illusion, though, right?  Every moment of every day is fresh with possibilities.  Yet maybe it’s the collective agreement about the specialness of the New Year that provides an extra wave of optimism that we can use to feed our own New Year resolutions.  I’ve also noticed a growing wave of cynicism this year.  There seems to be an expectation that no matter what your resolution is, it won’t take long for it to fade away.  Again, that may be a collective tendency, but why assume that will be the case for you? We don’t have to be victims of the collective influence.

When we choose to do something different with ourselves, we almost always move away from a comfort zone and toward something we have to learn to be comfortable with.  New possibilities can trigger the fears that live below the surface of our minds. Years ago I was talking with my husband about an issue I had been struggling with for a long time.  “Why can’t I just let this go?” I wondered.  He offered (and I accepted!) the possibility that it was because I had held on to this way of thinking for so long and it had become a part of me.  He suggested that it was because I didn’t know who I would be without it that I chose to hold on.
Sometimes we hold on to the most uncomfortable aspects of ourselves because they are familiar.  We are afraid of who we might be without them – afraid of the unknown and unfamiliar.  Fear is a powerful motivator – you only have to look around at the political and economic climate to see evidence of that.  Fear sells a lot of products, garners a lot of votes and keeps the status quo in place. Even the prophecy around 2012 is feeding into that collective fear which affects us all and yet goes largely unacknowledged. Fear can also warn us of impending danger, or be an indicator that we’re growing out of our comfort zone – it’s all about how we choose to see it.
I believe that we each are integral parts of the collective that is humanity.  Goswami Kriyananda writes that we are each “microcosms of the macrocosm.”  From this perspective, when one of us makes a change to our way of thinking or being in the world, it creates a ripple that affects the whole collective.   
So what if we were to create ripples or even waves of change this year by acknowledging and stepping out of the vortex of the collective fear of gloom & doom through the recognition of our individual fears?  I don’t mean “fighting” or “pushing through” or “ignoring” your fear. Just being willing to see it with compassion is itself a revolutionary act of courage.

Sometimes just seeing clearly is all it takes to recognize anticipation of the new versus an actual threat to well-being.  Imagine if, as a collective, humanity could recognize change as a marvelous potentiality versus impending doom & destruction.  In a comment to a post about Fear as Opportunity that I wrote in 2010, a reader named Christine offered a wonderful mantra she uses when faced with fear:  “I am willing to dance with you.”  I think that just about sums it up.

So how do we cultivate this capacity to view ourselves compassionately?  I offer below a version of the Buddhist Metta meditation that has helped me to cultivate self-compassion.  It has helped me in the process of acknowledging, and in many cases moving beyond, the many fears that held me hostage for years.  
Have I overcome all my fears?  Heck no!  I don’t even know if I will, and that’s actually okay with me.  What I do know is that seeing a little more clearly and a little more compassionately helps me to be curious, rather than contemptuous about myself and this mysterious, fascinating, sometimes-seriously-hard-to-deal-with adventure we call Life. 

So here are the 4 phrases that I use for my Metta practice:

May I be filled with loving-kindness,
May I be peaceful and at ease,
May I be free from suffering and self-deception,
May I be healthy and happy, and free from fear.
The traditional phrases are:  May I be safe, May I be happy, May I be healthy, May I live with ease.  (I know, a lot less words!)  For more information on Metta, Sharon Salzberg, a well-known Buddhist teacher, talks about the traditional practice in which you also offer these phrases for others.  Personally, I like to do “drive-by Metta” silently for strangers I pass on the street, for the patients in passing ambulances and even for politicians & acerbic TV talk-show hosts!  It provides me a small way to transform a wave of apprehension, anxiety or fear into an act of possibility.
Namaste, and may 2012 bring you peace, curiosity, compassionate self-awareness and ease of well-being!!

What do you want?

This year has been the year of fabulous yoga training for me.  In January I went to Tucson for the Level I training in Amy Weintraub’s LifeForce Yoga which specializes in yoga for managing anxiety and depression.  The workshop was held at a Catholic retreat center high up on a mountain with a fabulous view of Tucson.  We saw the sun rise every morning as we chanted the Gayatri mantra and on the last night were blessed with the rising of the full moon in all her luminous glory. 
Even though I’m an island girl, the deserts of the Southwest are magical to me, and in Tucson the desert is dotted with majestic Saguaro cactuses, which at 6ft tall are over 100 years old!  Suffice it to say the whole experience was transformative.  It was a great opportunity to “get away” and be somewhere else – to slow the pace of life and have an opportunity to be in silence with myself when I wanted, but also to be in joyful communion with others.

One of the things that Amy taught at the workshop was sankalpa.  A sankalpa is an intention.  You can create an intention for your class, for your day, for your stage of life.  You come into this life with a sankalpa – your life purpose.  Your sankalpa is essentially what you want to manifest.  But most often, when we are asked what we want, we respond by highlighting we don’t want!  For example:  “I want to not be so stressed,” or “I want to stop being so disorganized.”  We tend to focus on what we don’t want, rather than clarifying what it is we want to manifest.  In a way, it can be scary to imagine what you do want – what if you don’t believe you deserve it?  Or what if the current circumstances of your life don’t seem conducive to your dream manifesting itself?  Some of us were taught not to hope for too much, so we don’t end up disappointed.  Kriyanandaji, the head of the Temple of Kriya Yoga, often repeats the phrase:  Aham Brahmasmi.  He translates this to mean:  “I am the creative principle.” In other words, I have the power to create my life.  If you have the power to create your life, then why not direct your energies toward what you want, rather than what you don’t want?

So, what do you want?  Amy recommends that you bring your sankalpa into the present:  “Peace flows through me now.”  I’ve spent a lot of my life being tired and focusing on how I don’t want to be tired anymore.  So instead I created the sankalpa:  “Good health and vitality flow through me now.”  Guess what?  When I say it I feel better, clearer, more energized, and a smile comes to my face!  Of course just stating an intention starts the energy flowing, but you must follow intention with action to manifest your heart’s desire.  It is also beneficial to courageously, mindfully and gently excavate the underlying subconscious beliefs that might be sabotaging your best efforts.

The second fabulous teaching was last weekend right here in Downer’s Grove.  Rod Stryker also taught about sankalpa and he mentioned another term that I wasn’t familiar with until recently: vikapla.  Rod described sankalpa as the intention linked to your heart – that which you want, your reason for being – and vikalpa as that belief or desire which separates you from your purpose.  Whichever one of these is strongest determines your destiny.  A lack of fulfillment in life, Rod taught, is based on not living your purpose.  And if you’re not living your purpose, it might mean that your vikalpa is stronger than your sankalpa in terms of your desire for it to manifest.

I think we all get glimpses of our vikalpa.  You might feel yourself recoil when presented with a fabulous opportunity and then notice yourself coming up with reasons why it’s not the right thing or why you can’t do it.  Or you might start to clarify your sankalpa and find that your mind comes up with all kinds of reasons why it can’t happen.  Mindfulness helps us to notice these moments and look at them clearly, examining our deeper motivations, rather than running away.  What is manifesting in your life right now?  What might be the underlying belief or desire that has brought these circumstances into being?  (Rod Stryker has a book about these teachings coming out in a few months.  If you read it before I do, let me know what you think…)

So in two separate trainings this year already, I’ve been presented with the teaching on sankalpa.  Maybe its time to really get clear.  What do I want and do I dare to dream that the desire of my heart could become the life of my dreams?  I’ve seen plenty of evidence so far that your entire life can shift based on the strength of your desire.  If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be a yoga instructor, energy worker and therapist I would have laughed.  I was a committed database manager with a love of logic, data and computers.  I promise you that life can change in a heartbeat. Aham brahmasmi – you are the creative principle.  The first step to putting that power to work is to get clear on what you want.

If you embark on this exploration, I’d love to hear about your sankalpa!
Namaste!

Like falling snow…

I was watching the snow falling last week and was struck by its silence and gentleness. I remembered having the same impression watching a snow storm in New York in 1996 that practically shut the city down.  Last week I was struck again by how this gently falling snow, so silent and light, could have such huge effects and how force is often not necessary to make a big change.  In fact, as humans we often use much more force than is necessary, since we’ve come to believe that strenuous effort, even struggle, is necessary to get results. 

As I watched the snow last week, I also recognized the effect of the falling snow on my body and my psyche.  There is a spacious, expansive quality to falling snow – the snowflakes suspended in the air as they gently float to the ground.  There is freedom in their surrender, and as I watched I could feel expansiveness, silence, and a sense of surrender.  Something inside me settled and I felt lighter and more at ease. 

Nature reflects the qualities that also exist in us – since we are Nature as well.  As Nature hibernates and moves into low gear, might we also be encouraged to find time for stillness and quiet?  Like the quality of the falling snow, perhaps we might take time to check in and acknowledge the spaciousness, expansiveness, silence and surrender that live within our own minds and bodies. 

I’ve been listening to some wonderful guided meditations by Jeddah Mali.  In one of these she invites us to notice the lightness that is here now.  Thinking of the snow automatically (for me) brings that sense of lightness.  Noticing the movement of my breath also helps me feel that lightness & expansiveness as physical sensation. 

Sometimes when you’re struggling with day-to-day living, it is hard to imagine that there could be any relief because you’re focused on the struggle.  But right here in your breath and in your body is the possibility of relief.  It only takes a momentary shift of focus.

Notice how you feel now, notice body, breath and mind. What image brings a sense of lightness, expansiveness or ease for you?  Perhaps something from Nature?  Pick any image that resonates with you and notice how your body and breath might change as you hold that image in your mind.  As you go about your day-to-day activities, you might want to check in with this feeling again and again.

May you experience lightness and ease of wellbeing this holiday season.

The peace that is always here…

So the holidays are here and maybe the stress is starting to settle in a little deeper.  For me there is the hustle and bustle of the gift-buying and preparations and the general collective stress that sets in, there is the excitement and anticipation of the kids hoping for wonderful presents, the holiday lights and the darkness of winter and Nature’s stillness that underlies all of this activity.  All this is available right now in this minute – all at the same time.  So, since I get to choose where I place my focus, I choose to place it on the peace – the stillness and silence – and sometimes I’ll chose to focus on the excitement and anticipation. 

Even though I’ve had a sense of this underlying peacefulness, to focus on it is a big departure for me this year. Usually I just get stressed worrying about travel plans, what to get for whom, whether the receivers of gifts would like their gifts, and on and on.  This year, everybody gets tie-dye (my kids’ idea) and the kids and I are excited to get started on this make-at-home project.  They’re already picking out which designs for whom and which colors.  It’s fun.  Hopefully people will appreciate their gifts, and the love with which they were made and offered.  But none of us can control what others think or feel.  All we can really control is that we do our best to love, we place our focus on what nurtures us and those around us, and we give ourselves a break, every so often, to check in with the peace that is always here.

Not sure how to check in?  Try this:  Notice that you have a body, and that your body is breathing.  Begin to follow the flow of your breath.  Notice that each time you inhale and exhale, the breath comes from stillness and goes back to stillness.  You may also feel that it arises from silence and goes back to silence.  Just notice the rising and falling of the breath, from stillness and back to stillness, from silence and back to silence.  Now instead of focusing on the breath, focus on the stillness, or the silence.  You might begin to feel that it is always there, and that your body begins to feel more peaceful as you focus your attention on the stillness or the silence – the peace that is always here.  Doesn’t take long to check in, but it feels pretty good, and you can even do it in line at the mall!

Happy holidays!

Making friends with yourself

What would you do if a friend confessed to you that she felt really badly about something she had recently done, or really didn’t like something about herself?  You would probably feel some compassion for your friend and try to think of something to say to help her feel better, right?  And yet what do you do to yourself when you feel badly about something you’ve done?  What thoughts come about when you think of the things about yourself that you don’t like?  For most of us those thoughts aren’t about being compassionate! 

It’s not a secret that we tend to treat others better than we treat ourselves, often to the point where we can offer compassion to others, but have difficulty offering it to ourselves, or even receiving it from others.  How much we are able to love ourselves, I think, is directly related to how much we can allow others to love us.  If we beat up on ourselves, on some level we begin to think of ourselves as inherently flawed and unlovable.  This breeds suspicion and disbelief when others see us differently. We might even back away from people or relationships because we aren’t used to allowing the light of love and compassion into our hearts.  To be loved or lovable is unfamiliar.

A few months ago I told someone that I felt I had made friends with my mind.  The person responded first with surprise and then with disappointment. “I wish I could do that,” she said.  In our culture we tend to think it unlikely that this could ever be possible.  Instead we believe that we need to control, cover up, pretend, medicate and distract.  And yet, it is possible.  In Buddhism, this acceptance of self is called ‘maitri.’  Pema Chodron, a wonderful Buddhist teacher describes maitri on this youtube video as “unconditional friendliness toward oneself.”  She describes maitri as “the basis of compassion.” 

Think of it, what if you were able to just think of yourself as being okay?  What would your life be like if you were able to cut yourself some slack and just love yourself as you are without trying to be more perfect, more knowledgeable, more attractive…  How much stress do we put on ourselves trying to be more or ‘better’ because we are so dissatisfied, so averse to what we are now?  And yet, have we even looked to see what is actually here or is it just an assumption that what we are couldn’t possibly be enough?

So, how to go about cultivating this self-compassion?  I think the first step is really to welcome the possibility that you could be unconditionally friendly towards yourself, that you could be worthy of loving.  From there, I’ve found that the universe is only too happy to lead you into more and more lessons and revelations.  Sometimes the lessons are easy and sometimes not.  It is not that life suddenly becomes a bed of roses, but that you begin to see the difficulties as more ways of deepening in relationship with yourself and with others.  Any relationship takes effort and most relationships work better if the focus is on the other person’s positive qualities vs. judging their flaws.

In my experience, a simple way to begin to cultivate self-compassion is to spend some time acknowledging the aspects of yourself that you actually do appreciate.  Since we have such a tendency to judge things as good or bad, let me be clear that the other aspects aren’t bad per se.  It is just easier at first to love ourselves based on those things we perceive as ‘positive’ qualities.  It might take some time (it took me days the first time I tried to come up with one thing), but just finding one thing you appreciate about yourself is like clearing a little hole on the grimy window of our past perception so that the light can begin to shine through.

Make a phrase with your one ‘positive’ quality (or more if you have more than one).  For me it was “I am compassionate.” Notice how your body feels when you say this phrase.  And when you find your mind going into the place of self-judgment or self-criticism, let this phrase be your ray of light. Once that tiny ray of light is experienced, the shadows become less dense and the darkness begins to give way.  Repeat your phrase whenever you think of it.  Eventually you might find it pops up on its own! 

In the next few blog entries I’ll be offering more tools that have helped me to bring light into my shadows.  If you have other tips, comments or experiences to offer, please feel free to share those as well by clicking on the Comments link below.

Until next time, may you live with ease ☺