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EASING OUT OF COMPULSION, EASING IN TO CHOICE

brainThere are lots of ways in which we as human beings can get caught under the vast net of stress in our lives. We oftentimes find ourselves feeling trapped by difficult circumstances and the attending feelings and thoughts that arise from them. All of this can create a sense of being overwhelmed and life at times can appear unmanageable. We then struggle and we suffer. Often times the root cause no longer exists but our coping strategies themselves have become problematic.

For instance, we may initially have found some short term relief in the pleasure of eating, in particular rich comfort food laden with simple carbohydrates. These foods produce feel-good chemicals in our body and we get a quick surge. Unfortunately, and just as rapidly, we then get a marked drop in energy and mood. The same is true of addictions of all kinds, alcohol, cigarettes, too much TV, too much social media…the list is endless. And it can be an endless loop unless we step out of the ring.

Beginning and maintaining a mindfulness practice has shown to bring healthful and lasting relief to the stress in our lives that is simply part of daily living and relief from the compulsions and bad habits that are largely maladaptive coping strategies.

women meditatingIn an original research article published in Frontiers in Psychology (2015), short term meditation was shown to significantly enhance cerebral blood flow in areas of the brain critical for self-regulation. These are the areas of the brain that support us in good decision making and in overcoming unhealthy habits and addictions of all kinds.

Collaborating researchers from the University of Oregon, University of Texas/Austin and the Institute of Neuroinformatics at Dalian University in China discovered changes in the anterior cingulate cortex and insula in the brains of those who had been only meditating for 5 days (30 minutes a day). These parts of the brain have also been reported to be associated with positive mood.

The study showed neuroplasticity (changes in the brain) demonstrated with fMri imaging and consistent mood improvement reported by participants as well.

These findings provides hopeful news that regulating our emotions and responses doesn’t have to be an arduous, protracted process but it does take discipline. The benefits reported are only maintained by continued practice.

And there are many mindfulness practices you can engage in. It can be helpful to begin with guided meditations. It can be a little tricky starting out on your own and a guide gives instruction and support. You can find several of them here on this website for free. There is no sign up or commitment involved, except a commitment to yourself to show up and practice and trusting in that.

Wherever you are on your journey, may you have compassion for yourself. May you healthy and happy.   IMG_0050

PUTTING YOUR STORY DOWN

For some time now, my three children (20-somethings) share this little mantra with me, often accompanied by a big grin. It goes like this: “Just do you, Mom!”

be yourselfWhether that means wearing a funky flowered hat, leading a guided meditation on the quad of a local campus, or making friends in line at the RMV, I find this call to just be myself a lovely affirmation every time I hear it.

I believe their call to me is an echo back from my daily attempts to encourage their discoveries about themselves ever since they began that discernment process.  Of course, like all of us, they have shifted and morphed as they “tried on” various versions of who of “being them” might include: jock, artist, rock star, philanthropist, hipster, or adventurer.  Some they have tossed out of hand.   Others have become integral pieces of who they are.

And of course, like all of us, they have suffered. There have been grave losses, illness, dark times, and broken dreams.  Yet, I have seen these unwanted crucibles, time and again, transform them in miraculous ways to  live life fully present.  There seems to be no profound personal or spiritual advancement without them.

However, the most challenging experiences, in fact all experiences, can also be places where we can get stuck. 070711a7017 (1)

The journey of who we are and why we are is a life-long one. The task is made more difficult when we hold onto particular stories in our personal history, identities about ourselves that don’t tell the whole story.

Students come to my classes to reduce stress, alleviate anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and  illness. There is much relief in discovering there is a common thread of suffering among participants.

Sometimes their first identifier when introducing themselves to the group is  along the lines of, “I am a recovering alcoholic,” “I am a survivor of abuse,” “I am a divorced single mother,” and so on.

It is powerful and healing to share these parts of ourselves as sources of demonstrated strength, resilience, and a tenacity to rise above.  Both speaker and listener are inspired and connect deeply with one other. They are living proof that we as humans can go through the worst and come out the other side.

Even more generally, an introductory description may be,  “I am a Mom/Dad/Lawyer/Nurse/ _” (fill in the blank.) There is a natural tendency to identify with our roles at home or in the workplace.

020206_trdp_s6 (1)All of these experiences, the challenging and the fulfilling, are hugely important facts.   These experiences help to shape us. AND THEY ARE NOT US. Each of us is much more than the sum of all our stories.      

Clinging to your personal history as it IS you, is at best incomplete and at worst, leaves you unable to see clearly what is here for you in the present. Self-descriptions are a good deal about what has happened to you, how you dealt with it, the work you do, and the people in your lives.

061006_cr_5659 (1)To widen our perspective, we become aware of what is around us and within us now, in this moment. Embracing your past and your roles from this perspective, you have a spaciousness to see that all your stories are not the final truth.

Honor and accept where you have been and what you “do”, utilizing it in the present where need be. But release the tight attachment to your stories.  They will not disappear if you let go of your over-identification. Nothing gets lost.

“Just doing you”‘ is the quiet call to the present…the modern version of “just be you”. Releasing our stories, if only for a time, allows us to widen the container of our life.

In this container, there is no need to put labels on who we are.  We can live unencumbered by our own or other’s definition of who we are, we see things with fresh eyes.

“Just do you” is the vibrancy of noticing what’s around you right now: a smooth pottery coffee mug, cloud formations or rain at the windows.  People and animals, landscape and cityscape, offering themselves for your enjoyment.

The authentic you arises naturally from this place. Try it.  You may discover a lightness and a rightness about being you in this moment.

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FULL CATASTROPHE LIVING

Our title today is taken from the ground breaking book, Full Catastrophe Living (1992) by premier leader in the field of mind/body training and the founder of the University of Massachusetts Stress Reduction Clinic at UMASS Medical School, Jon Kabat-Zinn.     dreamstime_7048996 (1)

This book  has long since been dog-eared and worn thin by its continual use as an invaluable instruction manual for me. “His major research interests which include mind/body interactions for healing, clinical application of mindfulness meditation for people with chronic pain and stress-related disorders, and the societal application of mindfulness,” align with my own.

While I entered this stream of contemplative practices long ago from the opening of spirituality vs. the current tide of science and medicine; they are in some ways one and the same stream.

In living the full catastrophe, we accept the pleasurable experiences of life and the painful ones with a quiet balance towards them, not getting too wrapped up in clinging towards one or running from the other.  Understanding in a deeper sense that both of these are just passing phenomena, we can be with either.  

For instance, this morning my mind continued to play the daily theme it has done for some weeks now. With frigid temperatures continuing, along with my chronic, cold induced cough, I think,  “I need a vacation.” Perhaps you’ve had this thought recently too? Many, many others thoughts follow this, but they are all stem from this one.

100414a1266 (1)And there is nothing wrong with this thought (or any other for that matter).  Vacating your life for a bit, whether for a week, a month, or even a long weekend (especially if there are turquoise waters involved) can push the refresh button on our minds and bodies.  We log in so much information and activity every day. The amount we can or choose to delete never really a significant de-cluttering of brain space.

And here is some more thinking, “Some warm weather may help me with this winter cough…”

But what if  we can’t take a vacation or we got to take a vacation and it didn’t “take?” Whatever problems we have, whatever inner turmoil, doesn’t necessarily or even likely cease just because we have gone somewhere other than where we are.

If you have been struggling with sadness, anxiety, or anger before you left, chances are there will be moments while you are away that these emotions still arise.  The saying  “wherever you go, there you are”(a title of another book by Kabat-ZInn by the way) is an undeniable truth.

Since you ARE here right now, being here is always an option.

You can make room for moments right now that are exceptional and rich by not going anywhere. How? By engaging with the art of non-doing.  By being present to comfort and discomfort alike, with no particular preference.  By not judging yourself for not doing, but instead just seeing what IS here.  

As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out, “The flavor and joy of non-doing is difficult for Americans to grasp because our culture places so much value on doing and on progress. Even our leisure tends to be busy and mindless.  The joy of non-doing is that nothing else needs to happen for this moment to be complete.  The wisdom in it, and the equanimity that comes out of it, lies in knowing that something else surely will.”

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Right now, there is sunlight peeking through the frost covered windows of my bright alcove in my office. A host of bird songs are making themselves known on the evergreens outside.  Cars are speeding past this little cottage while my dog sleeps.  I can breathe in warm steam and hot tea and smile at this fortune.  I can send out thoughts of healing for myself and everyone else who is coughing this morning. I can notice how warm my feet feel in these slippers.

All this from non-doing.  What is in this moment for you?