Becoming peace – mindfulness of low-level stressors

As a yoga instructor I hear a lot of people talk about how stressed they are.  It occurred to me a while ago that our lack of mindfulness might be contributing low-level stressors that increase our daily stress level without us even realizing it.

I’ve noticed that there are a number of habits of mind and body that contribute to my own stress levels.  This is not to say these things have been eradicated from my life, but at least now I am conscious of the stress they are producing and have the choice to do something about it.  So here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned so far – mostly common sense.  They are not in any particular order except for how they fell out of my head:

1.    Be where you are.  Eckhart Tolle said in The Power of Now that stress is being in one place, but wanting to be in another.  Simply put, if you’re at work but wishing you were on vacation, this creates stress.  Similarly, if you’re mentally at work while on vacation, you create stress on your vacation!  Makes sense, right? This is also the yogic principle of santosha – being present with what is.

2.    Eat when you’re hungry.  Get enough sleep.  Use the bathroom when you need to.  Really.  Sounds simple, but the needs of the body can be insistent.  Stress lives in your body, so the more you abuse your body, and ignore its basic needs, the more stress you create.  You also prevent your body from being able to tolerate other stressors that might come up.  A healthy and well-respected body should also make you more efficient and more productive.

3.    Don’t procrastinate.  Putting things off just keeps them on that to-do list in the back of your mind that’s always nagging at you.  Take care of tasks a little at a time if  need be.  Let Facebook and TV be the rewards for getting things done – not the distractions.

4.    Do one thing at a time. It is an illusion that you can actually multitask – from what I’ve read, brains don’t work that way.  Instead, the attempt to do multiple things at once creates an unnecessary level of stress that could be alleviated by simply focusing on one task at a time (including eating meals or being with your kids).

5.   Meditate – even for 10mins per day.  Daily meditation has been shown to positively affect the body’s biochemistry.  If meditation doesn’t appeal to you, find another practice that helps you to find that state of connection with yourself.  Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, martial arts, running, fencing, swimming… there’s something for everyone.  But don’t just pick something that emphasizes your already unbalanced tendencies – find something that helps you to grow into a more balanced state.

6.    Let go of judgment. How often do you get anxious over other people’s behavior? Don’t you have enough of your own stuff to deal with?  On this same note, allow other people the right to their own lessons – isn’t that what this life is all about?  You can help if they ask for it, but taking on their suffering only creates more suffering in the world – not less.  As one of my teachers often says, “suffering is not noble.”

7.    Study yourself & take responsibility for your own actions. The yogic principle of svadhyaya teaches us to study sacred texts in order to know ourselves better.  Imagine what you could learn by studying the sacred texts of your own body and mind.  In order to really know yourself, however, you have to be willing to recognize how you have contributed to our current state of life, and this cannot be accomplished by blaming others for your situation.

8.    Recognize that it’s not all about you.  This was a great lesson taught to be by a former coworker.  How much of other people’s behavior do you take personally and allow to rattle your serenity, even to the point of making you hurt and angry?  Can you entertain the possibility that maybe their behavior has everything to do with what’s happening in their lives and nothing to do with you?

9.    Face your fears. How much does fear contribute to your daily low-level anxiety.  What are you afraid of? Is your world view based on fear?  Where did that fear come from – is it even yours, or was it inherited?  How much of the way you relate to others is based on fear?  What would happen if you related to the world with love, rather than with fear?

10.    Love yourself. There isn’t much to be gained by beating up on yourself when you notice you’re not perfect (did you really think you were perfect?).  If you make a mistake, treat yourself as compassionately as you would a close friend.  Then learn from your mistake and move on.  Just letting go of the mental anxiety we create by our self-loathing and project onto each other would go a long way to allowing Peace in the world.

Hope this is helpful to someone besides me :-).

Who are you talking to?

If you’ve been trying it you realize how much being “in the Now” is a challenge in itself. Today I realized how much not being in the Now affects our perception of others. It occurred to me today that it is really easy when we relate to each other to relate not to their current state, but to our history with this person (including all the hurts and pains they have cost us?) This is an issue because if we are only present with someone as their history, we never really allow the person to be who they are now – devoid of our polarized lens.  We hold on to our past impressions and often miss any changes that have occurred.

The yogis describe this polarized lens as samskara – our latent impressions of things based on conditioning and past experience. Our goal as seekers is to let go of this impressions so we can see our lives (including ourselves and others) clearly. Is this even possible?  According to A Course In Miracles (ACIM), and according to yogic teaching, we would have let go of those impressions to really be present with what is real. ACIM calls this forgiveness – the recognition that all that we see is projection/perception and that we have an opportunity to make a decision to shift our perceptions of things. According to ACIM a miracle is simply a shift in perception and there “is no order of difficulty in miracles.” Yoga would refer to this as detachment – letting go of the story, so to speak.

I saw a great example of this today – an argument where the two people couldn’t hear each other because they were obviously talking to the their past perceptions of each other. I know I often do that – especially with those who have offended or hurt me.  It is a protective mechanism, but it often gets in the way of approaching others with love.  ACIM says “All healing is release from the past.” It also says that we must learn to see the innocence in each other rather than the guilt. Those past perceptions are essentially the guilt that we place on each other, aren’t they? They are also the burdens we place on every interaction, and on our own energy fields in holding on to all of that stuff. Letting go of the past – forgiving – helps us to be fully present with each other as we are Now rather than as we were.  Being open to someone’s current possibility also releases them from the burden/prison of our expectations.

The World We See

I remember clearly part of the first conversation I had with my (now) husband, over a decade ago.  He said that humanity was more peaceful, and more supported now than it had been in previous history.  This assertion blew my mind.  I had bought into the notion of “the good old days,” which we seem to fall into, even in the absence of evidence to the affirmative.  My husband pointed out that the world historically had been more savage, and life more difficult with less ammenities.  Therefore, he concluded, humanity was actually better off now than we ever had been and things were getting better all the time.  (I might add that I call my husband a “pathalogical optimist!”).

I had to really stretch to wrap my mind around this idea of human progress.  After all, there were still wars, still racism, still poverty, still uncurable illnesses.  To accept that his opinion could be valid meant I had to change the way I thought about things — change my perspective.  I can still remember the feeling in my head when I tried to do that.  It felt as if my brain had to change to accommodate this alternatiave perspective.

Tonight I was talking about some of the teachings around 2012.  Rather than a portent of doom or gloom, it is seen by some as an opportunity for humanity to make some wonderful choices and to take an evolutionary leap.  As such, humanity is evolving toward a higher state of consciousness.  As I look around I see what seem to me to be signs of this progress.  Yoga is everwhere; you can buy “chakra” aromatherapy items in the supermarket; I can talk about ‘energy’ and nobody thinks I’m crazy; my conservative Catholic mom is telling me about the Law of Attraction; we have a Black president with a powerful wife; crowds gathered in support of Obama’s anticipated victory in Chicago last November and people were nice to each other; the Internet has connected us to friends, relatives and strangers all over the planet.

There have been so many changes recently – structures breaking down, and hopefully new and more positive structures will take their place (as the 2012 pundits have anticipated).  I meet so many people are working toward becoming better versions of themselves: more peaceful, more aware, less reactive. I know these people exist – I see them everyday.  They are my friends, my clients, my students, my co-workers.  They are courageous and commited human beings doing the deep soul-searching work to overcome their own limitations and limiting beliefs, and supporting others to do the same.

Sure, we can always find the dark clouds that obscure our silver lining view of the positive progression.  But if the clouds and the silver lining both exist, isn’t it just a matter of figuring out what you want to focus on?  I’ve found that recognizing the positives gives me the energy to go to work on the challenges that we still need to overcome.  In no way am I ignoring that these negatives exist, but when that’s all you see on the news, it’s hard to accept or know that there is something else.  But there is.

I believe that we are going to save our planet (and therefore ourselves).  I believe that we have the capacity as a human race to do what we need to do so that the future is brighter for our children and for generations to come.  I believe that we have so much more potential than we currently allow ourselves to experience.  And I continue to believe that despite the news which tells us otherwise, we are living in a magical time.

Learning from each other

I told a good friend about the Winter Feast for the Soul and about my belief that we have to create the peace inside that we want to see manifest in the world.  She responded that in her worldview, you can only create peace in relationship to others.  Of course, I think we’re both on to something.

As I understand it, A Course In Miracles talks about the world as a projection of our own internal space.  For example, when you meet someone who is really aggravating to you, there is a good chance that what you find aggravating in that person is actually present within you – but perhaps absent from your conscious awareness, or repressed.  According to the Course, if we can forgive that grievance in the other, we can also forgive it within ourselves.  Ultimately what that means to me is that our interactions with others provide rich fodder for exploring our own inner landscapes.  Usually when someone touches off your hot buttons it is more about you than it is about them.  Ultimately each charged interaction provides an opportunity to learn a new lesson about ourselves.

The marvelous thing (in my view) about this notion that the world reflects our inner space, is that the beauty that you acknowledge inside will also be reflected in our exterior world.  Many years ago I went to a taping of an audio series by Carolyn Myss and Norm Shealy.  One of the exercises was to think of some positive quality of yourself.  I was floored.  I couldn’t think of one positive quality.  It took me weeks to think of something, and what I came up with was compassion. People who have always known me will probably say:  “Come on, Francine!  You had to know you had lots of positive qualities!”  Well, it’s one thing what the outside world recognizes, and entirely another what a person will accept for themselves.

Pema Chodron in her book “When Things Fall Apart” talks about bodhichitta (awakened consciousness).  She mentions that bodhichitta can start like a small hole in a dam that lets through a tiny trickle of water.  That trickle eventually wears away at the wall until the whole thing comes tumbling down.  For me, this small recognition of my one positive quality was like that small hole in the dam.  After that I ended up through a series of “coincidences” starting my yoga teacher training, meeting my Reiki teacher and studying energy healing, and quitting my job to study counseling.  From that one point of acknowledging my own worth, I find myself surrounded by amazing, enlightened, compassionate, conscious beings who bring me even further into awareness of the beauty that lies “out there.”

So while the challenges of the outside world teach us about ourselves, recognizing our own positive qualities can also lead us to be more open to attracing people who have those qualities into our lives.  What is peace, after all, but opening to being more compassionate with yourself and with those around you?

Winter Feast for the Soul started on Thursday.  You can join in anytime if you’re interested – As the organizer Valerie Skonie says, “Forty days is forty days.”  You just start counting from one.

Releasing the Struggle

So here we are again at the start of another year (yay!). I’ve decided to set some goals for this year and to finally make a vision board to help me visualize those goals. But just so I don’t get overwhelmed, I’ve also decided to take it all one day at a time.

Dunno about you, but this whole Life thing can seem a little (or a lot) overwhelming sometimes. This year I turn 40, and I guess it has taken me this long to figure out that I can’t do everything at once, or do it all perfectly. It has also taken this long to really accept how much of my stress is just mental struggle. Really. The idea that something is going to be hard creates so much more heaviness and resistance than just letting go of the mental baggage and doing it!

Winter Feast for the Soul
Winter Feast for the Soul

For example, January 15 begins the Winter Feast for the Soul, described as “a 40-day worldwide spiritual practice period for people of all faiths everywhere.” (See more info below) Thousands of people all over the world joining together with the intention to grow our spirits and increase the peace in the world. When I first heard about it I thought: “This is so cool!” And my next thought was “40 minutes! Where can I find 40 more minutes every day!?” Mental anguish. Resistance. The antithesis of Peace! But I guess this Yoga thing must be working because my next thought was: “For heaven’s sake, just do it! You probably spend that much time on Facebook and email!” So, to my Facebook friends, after Jan 15 you’ll have to call me!

As a friend pointed out (on Facebook :-), we can approach this 40-day commitment (and all our commitments) with perfectionism and stress, or we can resolve to do the best we can. Maybe I won’t make 40 minutes every day. Maybe I’ll miss a day. But if I’m practicing peace that means being peaceful with myself by not beating myself up (the yogic practice of ahimsa – non harming). So much of peace has to do with letting go of our mental baggage, the samskaras that block our ability to view things as they really are. Through the practice of santosha (contentment) we let go of the stories we create and accept what is. It is a lifetime of practice – one day at a time.

This year, I hope to approach my resolutions with that same sense of peacefulness. I hope to recognize when I’m bringing mental stress into my goals and creating a struggle where it doesn’t need to be. I plan to let go of the mental baggage, and just do what needs to be done. If I fall, I’ll just get up and start again without giving up on the whole process or beating up on myself.

May your 2009 be filled with many, many wonderful moments. May even the sorrows and the disappointments be openings for Grace.