Culativating an Attitude of Gratitude

Cultivating An Attitude of Gratitude

Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude Meditation 
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n positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Why? Because gratitude can help us experience more positive emotions and better able us to relish good experiences and even reduce symptoms of depression. It also can improve our overall health, help us better deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. While this research is relatively new, the principles have been a part of human being’s traditions for eons. This is particularly true in many of the world’s faith traditions, as well as indigenous peoples, such as our own Native Americans who truly practice an attitude of gratitude as daily practice.

Learning from past traditions

I write this in the week of Thanksgiving, which is traditionally the time we take pause to give thanks for all we have harvested during the year – goals accomplished opportunities ensued and people who made a difference in our lives. Yet going back in time the first Thanksgiving was celebrated after the first harvest and attended by 90 Wampanoag Native American people and 53 Pilgrims (survivors of the Mayflower). Having always lived close to the Earth, Native peoples must have understood the great hardships the Pilgrims had endured. They could teach the newcomers how to live with the land and the changing environment.

I recently read of how Native Americans have always had a tradition of expressing gratitude in all their gatherings. Unlike most of us, I am very intrigued with how broad they cast their gratitude. Whether for a council gathering or of family they always begin with ritual of giving thanks. They believe they have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things.

Bringing minds together as one

They start by bringing their minds together as one as they give greetings and thanks to each other—so their “minds are one.” Then they proceed to thank what they refer to as their “Mother the Earth” for all it’s bounty. Thanks for the waters to quench their thirst and nurturing life to all beings. Thanks for the fish, plants and animals, and for medicinal herbs for health and healing. They give thanks for the trees and beautiful songs of birds. Each day without fail the sun travels the sky from east to west, bringing the light of a new day providing the source of life and the moon that governs the movement of tides. Finally, they thank their ancestors and the very source of creation itself.

Author Daniel Defoe’s famous 300-year-old novel, “Robinson Crusoe,” provides a portrait of how gratitude can enhance one’s life. Crusoe is the sole survivor of a shipwreck in which he finds himself alone on an unknown island. Rather than falling into despair and focusing on loss and regret, Crusoe begins to count his blessings. He’s alive and has been able to salvage many useful items from the wreckage. Thus. thanksgiving becomes a part of his daily life.

Ways to cultivate gratitude

Gratitude is a way for us to appreciate what we have instead of always reaching for something we lack. As we learn from native peoples, there is a whole world—much of which we take for granted—to  be thankful for. Some ways to cultivate gratitude on a regular basis include writing a thank-you note and keeping a gratitude journal. Meditation and prayer produce positive healthful hormones. Even thanking someone mentally produces can do the same.

Whether we are inspired by fiction, native peoples or our faith or family traditions, gratitude is an essential ingredient for living a healthful  and engaging life. It involves both receiving and giving. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is like a growing a currency from which we can never be bankrupt. The more we feel it and express it, the more deposits in our master gratitude account, canceling out facing “notes” of regret at the end of our life.

Join me now as we cultivate an attitude of gratitude

Check our my free classes:

iRest Meditation and Hanna Somatic Movement–a gentle movement practice to release pain and enhance mobility.

Cultivating kindfulness

Cultivating Kindfulness

As you might have guessed, the word kindfulness is a hybrid of kindness and mindfulness. On its own, mindfulness is simply present-moment nonjudgmental awareness, often practiced in meditation. The dictionary says kindness represents the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. Brought into meditation, these qualities can enhance what might otherwise seem dry or even self-centered. An act of kindness involves connectedness—with oneself as well as others. There’s a lot of research that confirms the benefits of kindness and mindfulness to our overall health and well-being.

MindfulnessMindfulness needs kindness to help befriend the fragmented parts of ourselves—especially the parts we don’t like, parts that may feel limited, separate, or unworthy. The practice of mindfulness brings you into a state of awareness of the need for kindness. Mindfulness can intervene when you are about to react with fear or anger. It provides a pause or an opportunity to become grounded and gain a different perspective. Like the partners of yin and yang or shakti and shiva that play and dance together, cultivating kindfulness can transform meditation into a moment to moment everyday lived experience.

Suppose you are about to encounter someone whose actions in the past have enraged you. Pause and mindfully step back to observe and assess your feelings—with kindness. The result may enable you to act with compassion rather than wrath.

Mindfulness helps you become aware of stress in your life that may show up in your body—as tightness in your stomach or shoulders, headache, a racing heart. These are all messages that something is out of balance. Kindness offers comfort; it may help you find ways to reduce or eliminate stress and the damage it does.

 

Kindness’s side effects

David R. Hamilton, PhD, is the author of numerous self-help books including The Five Side Effects of Kindness,” which has this “caution” on its cover: “This Book Will Make You Feel Better, Be Happier & Live Longer.” He writes that a “side effect occurs alongside what’s intended. When we intend to be kind, we may not expect anything else to happen, but many things do happen.” These are the side effects of kindness that he discovered. It 1) increases happiness, 2) is good for the heart, 3) slows aging, 4) improves relationships, and 5) is contagious.

Hamilton says that humans have two ages: chronological (years since birth) and biological (apparent age of our body). Only about 20–30 percent of our longevity is determined by genetics. Science has shown that by regularly performing acts of kindness, we can slow processes of aging such as muscle degeneration, reduced vagal tone, weakened immune system, and inflammation.

It’s well known that mindfulness can relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. It can also lower blood pressure, reduce pain, and improve sleep. Performing acts of kindness—as well as being the recipient of such acts—has similar benefits. But in addition—like most pharmaceutical antidepressants—kindness stimulates the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter and one of the feel-good hormones that calm you down and make you happy. Your brain’s pleasure and reward centers light up when you are being kind to another person—and when someone is being kind to you.

Another feel-good hormone, also called the love hormone, that is activated by kindness is oxytocin. Oxytocin helps lower blood pressure and improve overall heart health; it can also increase our self-esteem and optimism. We are wired to help one another as part of our human survival. The uplifting feelings we get from being kind are often referred to as the “helper’s high.”

 

Practicing kindfulness

practicing kindfulnessI am likely to offer help (or kindness) to someone who has a clear need when I know that I have the capacity to fill the need. I use mindfulness to go inside myself and quietly, nonjudgmentally reflect on my inclination to help. If positive feelings arise (which can happen instantly or after a considerable amount of time), I know I am doing the right thing. And when I don’t find clarity or positive feelings, I can back off from trying to fill a need and simply be kind. You can never go wrong with kindness.

Some acts of kindness might be viewed as selfish or as having ulterior motives that help the giver more than the receiver. But who’s to say who benefits most? Inspired by my gardener mother, I honed my own gardening skills by kindly offering to cultivate gardens for friends who couldn’t do it themselves. I get “high” fulfilling my passion, while they get a lovely garden. Mindfulness also plays a part in my gardening; tenderly nurturing the growth of flowers and beautifying a small part of Mother Earth are a meditative experience for me.

 

Seeds of kindfulness

I love the idea that kindness is contagious. Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, said, “Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.” Sometimes a seed sprouts far away from where it fell carried by the wind or a bird. This reminds me of a popular saying in environmental circles: a butterfly flapping its wings can impact the weather halfway across the world.

Paramahansa Yogananda said: said: “Kindness is the light that dissolves all walls between souls, families, and nations.” What if we practiced kindfulness not just with people we perceive are in need, but also with people who are unkind? It might soften a sharp edge of their unkindness. Realizing that everyone experiences life challenges, we can reframe our perceptions of unkindness. In 2008, researchers started bringing Tibetan Buddhist monks to MIT to see how the discipline of meditation had changed their brains. When one monk was asked how he handles things that happen in his day, he said he re-narrates each circumstance. To the question “What if someone cuts you off in traffic?” he responded that he would imagine that in the backseat of the offender’s car there was a woman delivering a baby.

As American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote: “Kindness can become its own motive. We are made kind by being kind.”

Syncing internal clocks

Elixir for a Healthy Life

What if you had something that could boost your immune system and help your body fight off infections like colds and flu? We all have access to an elixir that can do that (and so much more). It can help prevent weight gain and lower stress hormones and anxiety, thereby contributing to a healthy heart. It can help maintain proper brain function, including memory retention. It can boost mood. It helps us be alert, improves concentration, and increases productivity. It helps us make wise choices and avoid mishaps. It may even improve relationships. Life may be fuller and richer thanks to this elixir.

ElixirThe remarkable thing about it is that it is absolutely free! We know it well and should utilize it daily (rather, nightly). It’s sleep, or course.

Elixir of Sleep

Like most other species, we require sleep to restore and rejuvenate body and mind. In most cases, all we need to do is climb into bed and allow ourselves to relax into quality, restful sleep—consistently.

The widely accepted rules of “sleep hygiene” say we should follow the same nightly schedule—including on weekends—and sleep seven to eight hours every night. There’s no such thing as a sleep bank to compensate for lost sleep. But, sadly, it’s estimated that 60% of Americans do not get sufficient quality sleep.

Falling asleep for many people is a challenge. Waking up with the inability to go back to sleep is common as well, as is chronic insomnia. Our elixir is effective when “used” properly—by learning to honor the cycles of nature.

Physiological psychologist David Dinges, who is the chief of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has said, “I think sleep is one of the sweetest things you can get—like a great meal or seeing a good friend.”

Syncing with nature’s rhythms

Master clock like a conductorEvery plant, animal, and human exhibits biological processes through the course of the day known as circadian rhythms. Like programs running in the background, these rhythms are designed to carry out essential functions and processes. The different body systems are all synchronized with a master clock in the brain that acts like the conductor of an orchestra with all the players fine-tuning their local timing. This master clock is particularly influenced by cues from the environment, especially light, tied to day and night and our sleep-wake cycle. Like plants lifting their leaves in daylight and lowering them in the dark, almost every aspect of our daily life as well as every bodily organ, system, and cell is regulated by our internal circadian clocks. Our daytime and evening activities have a huge effect on our circadian rhythms.

While we all feel that drive to sleep, millions of us are lured by our phones, tablets, and computers when we should be preparing for bed, which then interferes with our ability to get to sleep. Stress from jobs, relationships, and the news—including the current pandemic—creates fear, worry, and anxiety that can make it difficult to relax enough to go to sleep or to sleep soundly. Shift workers and people who regularly travel across time zones may find it especially challenging to get quality sleep. The body likes regularity in everything—waking, eating, exercise—and especially sleep. Even the time changes every spring and fall may throw us off a bit.

Syncing internal clocks

According to Satchin Panda, PhD, author of The Circadian Code: Lose Weight, Supercharge Your Energy and Transform Your Health from Morning to Midnight: “…a sleep deprived brain is more dangerous than a brain under the influence of alcohol.” Yet driving after a sleepless night is not illegal. Much like the effect of jet lag from crossing time zones, many people experience social jet lag after weekends. Having a full-time weekday job, we often stay up late, party, and sleep late on weekends. On Mondays we may feel awful.

Getting a good night’s sleep regularly is the best health insurance, writes Mathew Walker, PhD, author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Getting fewer than seven hours of sleep, he points out, can make us more susceptible to the common cold. With five hours or less there’s a 70% greater chance of developing pneumonia. And without sufficient sleep for five days before getting a flu shot, there’s a 50% reduction in normal antibody response, thus rendering it less effective. Think about this before getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

Impact of light

We humans are predominantly visual creatures. The eye sends light signals to the brain telling us when it’s morning and night. Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland, remains inactive during daylight. But, around 9 p.m., when it’s dark, it switches on and floods the brain, where it remains for the next 12 hours. Its functions include lowering alertness and reducing body temperature, telling the body it’s time to fall asleep.

Daylight shuts this hormone down, and the body then shifts into readiness to meet the day. A predominance of blue light is present in daylight. Exposure to enough sunlight daily (even on cloudy days) can help us fall asleep at night. During evening hours, too many of us expose ourselves to the blue light emitted from the screens of our electronic devices, including TV, as well as energy-efficient LED lightbulbs, which has the effect of fooling the brain into thinking that it’s still daytime, causing it to hold back the release of melatonin.

Preparation for sleep

While there are many factors contributing to sleep problems, you can sync your internal clock by monitoring your light exposure, the timing of meals, and what you take to bed with you. Using dimmer, warmer lighting in the evening, changing to nighttime light settings on electronic devices, and using blue light–filtering glasses for watching TV and using cell phones and tablets and PCs can help. Eating only within an eight-hour period and no more than a few hours before bedtime can help the digestive system complete its functions before sleep. Also, remember that caffeine makes the heart beat faster. Coffee’s stimulatory effects last up to five hours, but it can take up to 10 hours before the caffeine fully leaves your system. While a nightcap might sedate you into going to sleep, alcohol interferes with REM dream sleep, an important part of the restorative sleep cycle.

A calm and relaxed body and mind are essential to drift off into quality restorative sleep. Our internal clock relies on a steady diet of healthy habits and mindful routines. Evening is a time to wind down, and the bedroom is meant for sleeping and intimacy, not for work, checking emails, or watching TV.

Have you ever had your head hit the pillow and found yourself worrying about a problem or a long to-do list? Or perhaps you finished reading a novel or watching a movie and found yourself ruminating over the story—and your thoughts won’t stop. Rather than lie there, it may be better to just get up and put your thoughts on paper or write down a plan for the next day. Then you might sit and do some slow gentle breathing or listen to a meditation recording or calming music. As the narrator in John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday reflects: “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

Mindfulness practices for sleep

The Dalai Lama said: “Sleep is the best meditation.” Indeed, the restorative deepMeditation NREM cycle of sleep is much like meditation. A research study with middle aged and older adults revealed that practicing mindfulness meditation for just two hours per week for six weeks improved sleep quality and reduced insomnia, depression, and fatigue. You can create your own mindfulness practice for sleep by calming the mind with breathing. Incorporate a short prayer, or phrases such as “breathing in calm, breathing out tension.” Humming or sounding OM or gazing at a candle flame can help you focus on the present moment. Don’t worry when the mind wanders—as it will. Just gently bring it back. Better still, start earlier with some gentle yoga or somatic movements to release tensions and relax the body.

I recently taught a sleep course at a local community college—online—from 9 to 10 p.m. once a week for six weeks. After sharing various restful sleep preparation techniques, I guided them through somatic movements and a deep iRest Yoga Nidra meditation in the comfort of their own bed. A student shared, “I fell asleep easily and when I woke up with a hot flash, the techniques helped me fall asleep again.”  iRest is an ideal enhancement to our sleep elixir for easing into REM dream sleep and deep NREM sleep—both important for restoring body and mind.

So, is 2021 the year for you to create your own practices to enhance the properties of your own elixir—sleep?

Happiness while not knowing

Happiness While Not Knowing

Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.”
–Emily Dickinson

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many clients have shared their fears and anxiety about living in a state of not knowing. Will we and our loved ones stay safe? How long must we continue with all the restrictions and safety measures? When will work, play, and life in general go back to normal—if ever? These concerns are especially relevant for active older people who may wonder if their lives will ever be full again. Is it possible to be happy while not knowing what will happen?

We are born not knowing—and we are quite content in this state, as long as our basic needs are met.  But as life unfolds around us, we begin to learn that certain conditions have to be met—by ourselves and others around us. Still, our young minds remain curious and we have a sense of wonder as we discover new things, like what’s around the corner—in spite of being told “no.” As we grow older, we learn that to make it in life we need a plan, and we are highly rewarded when the plan results in success. But many plans fail and alternatives must be found. I have personally had to abort or revise many a project, goal, or dream—and have been much better off with the way things turned out.

“Happiness is the absence of resistance to what is.”—Rupert Spira

Not knowing: fork in the roadCertainty and change

Our brains feel rewarded when we make choices, and it doesn’t matter if the choice will actually be rewarding. It may seem strange that we would choose something unrewarding but certain, over uncertainty. But when we fail to decide or are uncertain, our brain conjures up negative scenarios that generate doubt and fear. We distrust uncertainty and ambiguity. Not knowing makes us feel vulnerable. The more we ruminate over uncertainty, the worse we feel. In contrast, when we know the answer or have a plan, we feel both safe and in control. Having a sense of certainty, we feel lighter, freer, and more content—even happy.

Being safe and in control, however, is ephemeral at best, as change is inevitable. But giving up certainty requires us to examine the beliefs that define us. These are the stories we hold to be true about ourselves and our world that have helped us feel stable and secure. We may try to hold on to our stories about the way things have been and yearn for the fruition of long-held dreams. In doing so, we not only risk wasting the precious life we’ve been given, but also miss what we most desire. Letting go of resistance to what is may enable us to discover our true self—and, as a consequence, happiness. That is authentic security!

Declaration: Pursuit of happinessFrom pursuit to acceptance

The U.S. Declaration of Independence states that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right. Unfortunately, the meaning of that right is often misconstrued. Much of our culture is geared toward seeking happiness in the form of experiences, relationships, and the acquisition of things. We seek to make it big financially so we can live the good life. We’ll be happy once things turn out a certain way: we land a better job with better pay so we can afford better clothes, fancier cars, and lavish vacations; or we retire early and live the good life. When we do finally obtain such material trappings, our sense of happiness is likely to be short-lived and we become possessed by a desire for something else.

Happiness eludes us when we spend our time longing for things to be better—or at least back to so-called normal. When we allow not knowing to continue to gnaw at us, this uncertainty becomes a form of suffering, according to Rupert Spira, the author of many books on spirituality. In The Art of Peace and Happiness he defines suffering as resistance to the current situation and searching for an alternative future. Learning to accept things as they are, as opposed to resisting them, opens us to our true nature and the knowing of our own being, which unfolds as happiness. Rupert says, this is pure meditation and the highest spiritual practice.

“Being at ease with not knowing is crucial
for answers to come to you.” –Eckhart Tolle

Uncertainty as helpfulUncertainty as helpful

While uncertainty may seem to dominate our lives right now, the core of our faith and spiritual traditions has always been cloaked in mystery. How can we knowingly grasp our place in the universe and the nature of all things? Yet research has revealed that most Americans believe in God or a higher power, even though this belief transcends reason.

Not knowing often makes us feel like we’re on shaky ground. How then can we feel grounded? Since the brain likes to be in control—and be rewarded for it—we can teach it to accept uncertainty about the future and actually be rewarded. Not knowing creates space for possibilities and opportunities to be revealed and for answers to be found. Remember when not knowing made us curious and we looked at the world with wonder and delight? Shifting our perspective can help us overcome our fears associated with uncertainty.

“To live in not knowing, or unknowing,
is to live in the joy of pure potentiality.”—Linda Hubbard

Walking in natureAcceptance

With simple practices like prayer, meditation, or walking in nature, we begin to appreciate uncertainty. The goal of embracing not knowing is exemplified by the Taoist practice of meandering meditation, which is simply following one’s thoughts without seeking a path. In all of these practices, acceptance can unfold into a kind of inner knowing where answers to our most pressing challenges can be revealed.

peace and happiness found in the most challenging circumstancesIn Spira’s view, not resisting not knowing leads to happiness, which he describes as “the simple knowing of our own being as it essentially is, that is not dependent on the conditions of the body, mind or world. It is our ever-present nature that lies shining quietly in the background of all experience and, when it is recognized, overflows into the foreground, pervading all experience with its qualities.” He says that peace and happiness are essentially the same—and can be found even in the most challenging circumstances and trying times, like those that all of us currently face.

Meditation

Cultivating Somatic Awareness

“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.”Hans Selye, MD, pioneer in understanding stress

We humans spend a lifetime in our bodies, yet all too often we assume that body and mind are separate—the mind controlling what we do, the body dutifully obeying its commands. The eminent neuroscientist Candace Pert, PhD, author of Molecules of Emotion, wrote, “Mind doesn’t dominate body, it becomes body—body and mind are one.” The perceived separateness of mind and body has contributed to an epidemic of stress, chronic pain, and sleeplessness in our culture. Cultivating somatic awareness of the integration of our body and mind may help us achieve a greater sense of well-being. It may even extend our lives.

Stress, the nervous system, and the body

StressAs newborns, unlike most animals, we are not able to consciously control our bodies. But as we gradually learn how to move within our bodies and engage our senses, our body awareness expands. This awareness may be arrested, however, as we develop habits and succumb to the stressors of daily living—like when we sit for hours on end in front of a computer or allow our stressful lives to put us in a persistently anxious state. Residues of habitual patterns are held in the body as muscle tension. Regularly experiencing emotions like anger and fear can also cause persistent muscle tension; both can result in various forms of chronic distress.

Our nervous systems evolved to enable us to cope with short-term, life-threatening stressors. The so-called fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful threat to our survival. This is a healthy response as long as the fight is followed by rest and rejuvenation. The pressures of contemporary living can be almost 24/7. Many of us never have a chance to release tension and to really relax. Over time, such unrelieved stress can take an extreme psychological and physical toll in such forms as anxiety and chronic pain.

Body keeps score

Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, MD, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, describes “the extreme disconnection from the body that so many people with histories of trauma and neglect experience.” Dr. van der Kolk’s pioneering work on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has shown that the most critical aspect of healing is learning to fully embrace one’s emotional, psychological, and physical self. Having an inner sense of self alerts us to potential disharmonies and enables the body to reharmonize itself.

Nervous system Our bodies are truly amazing in their structure and function. Information received from our bodies and the environment through our five senses is transmitted to our brain through the nervous system. Habitual stresses and traumas can produce muscle contractions in specific areas of the body. Over time these contractions become so unconscious and imbedded that we lose the capacity to sense or control them. The result is stiffness, soreness, and restricted range of movement. Thomas Hanna, PhD, philosophy professor, founder of the field of somatics, and author of Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health, coined the term sensory-motor amnesia for this phenomenon.

The nervous system regulates every function of our body. The autonomic nervous system acts largely unconsciously, or involuntarily, regulating bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, and respiration. The somatic nervous system, also known as the voluntary nervous system, contains both nerves that send information to the brain and nerves that send information from the brain to the body and includes motor neurons responsible for voluntary movements like walking or lifting. Pain, whether physical or emotional, is an essential part of life designed to help us avoid harmful or dangerous stimuli or circumstances. The sensation of pain (or even numbness) acts as a messenger, the nervous system’s way of telling us something is wrong. We can ignore its message and suffer, or we can learn from it and take action.

Our bodies should continue to improve

 Re-awakening

When our senses and feelings become muffled by sensory motor amnesia, we no longer feel fully alive. Our bodies become more rigid, achy, or numb as the range of muscle movement is diminished because we’ve forgotten how to move those muscles. When we believe our mind is separate and takes charge of the body, we may accept that our physical and emotional pain is due to “my limitations” or “getting old.” Such acceptance enhances our feeling of separateness and can cause us to lose our sense of what it means to be human. Consequently, we are unable to realize our full potential.

Reawaken the nervous systemAccording to Dr. Hanna, however, the brain is a highly adaptive organ. We can retrain our nervous system, awakening the areas of the brain that have forgotten how to regulate both physical and emotional patterns in the body. Somatic awareness helps us acknowledge the presence of our whole self within our environment, rather than viewing our body as something separate from ourselves. We become acutely aware of our feelings, sensations, movements, and intentions at any given moment. Such self-awareness enables us to address trauma and anxiety and thus promote healing.

“As we grow older, our bodies–and our lives–should continue to improve, right up until the very end.” -Thomas Hanna, founder of Clinical Somatic Education

Different approaches

Classic approaches that may help reawaken body awareness include yoga, t’ai chi, Yoga Nidra meditation, massage, and breathwork. Specific methods developed over the past century include the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and Hanna Somatic Education. These practices are similar in that they teach gentle movements to identify and reverse harmful habits and learn to move more freely. Somatic therapies are also being used in psychotherapy for people who suffer from sexual dysfunction, digestive disorders, and other physical/emotional ailments.

Participants in a National Institutes of Health study on body awareness reported that cultivating somatic awareness helped them become aware of the differences between thinking about a sensation and directly experiencing the sensation. This awareness has helped them gain a more accepting attitude toward the changing sensations in the body. With less judgment and analysis of situations, they had more openness to various possibilities and solutions. One person noted: “The more comfortable I become in my body and not into my head, the more comfortable I find people are with me.

My own journey
iRest meditation

iRest meditation

Cultivating somatic awareness has been a lifelong journey for me, having been drawn to many unique ways of being in my body, including practicing yoga, dancing, and engaging in various forms of movement practices. When I was first introduced to iRest® Yoga Nidra meditation, I immediately fell in love with it because of its emphasis on body awareness, and I knew I wanted to help awaken this awareness in others. Yet, I still struggled with my own patterns of muscle tension, especially when sitting at the computer or driving long distances. I recently enrolled in a somatic movement education training program that teaches simple movements to help relax muscles. I’ve already experienced a positive change in my body, and I am excited to have another tool to teach others that can enable them to experience integration of mind and body and live healthier and perhaps longer lives.

In addition to Dr. Hanna’s book on Somatics, I highly recommend : The Pain Relief Secret: How to Retrain Your Nervous System, Heal Your Body, and Overcome Chronic Pain, by Sarah Warren.

 

Resilience

Meet Life on Life’s Terms: Learn to love what is

Sunflower“Oh, what a beautiful mornin’
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I’ve got a beautiful feelin’
Everything’s goin’ my way.”

—Oklahoma!

There are those days when everything is going your way. Your intentions, plans, and expectations are being fulfilled just the way you want them to be. And then there’s a glitch that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Suddenly the beautiful feelings drain away. You may ask, “How could this happen? Where did I mess up?” Perhaps you put the blame on someone or something else as you are overcome by negative emotions like anger, disappointment, or sadness. Life goes on in spite of your emotional tailspin. You can remain here and suffer. Or you can step out of the event and into the present moment—meet life on life’s terms and do what’s needed most. As the Rolling Stones’ song says: “You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometimes you just may find/You get what you need.”

Life continues

“If only I could arrange my life in such a way that there is less drama and stress in my work and relationships.” “If only my spouse and kids would do their part.” “If only the politicians could get their act together.” Sound familiar? If only…if only…. We constantly live in a state of “I want” and “I don’t want.” Yet, what we don’t want shows up anyway and what we want is short-lived or never happens, leaving us with The laundreyunfulfilled desire. The title of one of meditation teacher Jack Kornfield’s books is After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, which neatly sums up our inability to control our circumstances.

In spite of what happens to us, life moves on in myriad ways. The cycles of nature teach us that change is constant and the future unpredictable. It’s a fallacy to think we are in control of much of anything in our lives, except our response to situations. Resisting or fighting life’s terms only blocks us from living fully.

While we can’t change the world around us, we can change ourselves. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all have visions of how we would like life to be—for ourselves, in our relationships, at work, and even in the world at large. Essentially we want to feel safe and cared for—physically and emotionally. Anything that threatens this can set off internal alarms in the form of fear-based thoughts and feelings. The best thing we can do is to become aware of these alarms and stop the fear-driven reaction in its tracks—and then respond appropriately.

Loving what is

loving what isThe German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described his formula for human greatness as amor fati, which is Latin for a love of fate. This concept is rooted in Stoicism, a school of philosophy that began in ancient Greece and was later adopted in ancient Rome, with Emperor Marcus Aurelius being a key proponent. Nietzsche wrote: “That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it. . .but love it.” Now that is a tall order: to love whatever happens to us.

As fate would have it, I was given the perfect opportunity to test this wisdom shortly after I started writing this article. It was Saturday night and a part of a tooth broke off and I swallowed it! I became incredibly anxious. I recalled that during my last visit the dentist said that old fillings were breaking in that quadrant of my mouth and that I needed crowns. I told him then that it was not a good time.

I sat quietly, breathing for a few minutes, first observing that there was no pain. Trusting this problem could be addressed on Monday, I calmly—even lovingly—accepted my fate. And I even went out dancing. When I realized this wasn’t a huge fateful occurrence, I was able to regroup quickly, which was far different than my reaction would have been in the past. When I finally saw the dentist I told him I was ready to love my fate. This phrase became my mantra subsequently as he drilled away (though I admit I wasn’t fully loving every moment of that experience).

Another opportunity

Our guide Paz

Our guide Paz

I had another chance to witness this loving acceptance of what is recently while vacationing in the Mexican city of Puerto Morelos. I joined a tour that took us into the Yucatan jungle. The Mayan guide, Paz, was well versed in the medicinal applications of various plants and tree barks as well as the habits of local wildlife. There still are jaguars in the jungle and Paz explained that they are nocturnal and very catlike. Then he shared that a jaguar had actually eaten two of his dogs. Yikes! He said he lives in a rural village in a typical Mayan home with no doors and sleeps on the upper level. One morning he came down to find one dog missing. The next week he caught the culprit in action with his other dog—but was too late. “You must have been horrified,” I said. He smiled with near amusement, saying that the jaguar was simply fulfilling its nature. At least it appears that Paz knows how to meet life on life’s terms—and, he got another dog.

Meet and learn

Finding true personal satisfaction and contentment requires us to give up our desire for life to always be a certain way. The Buddha referred to this as “cooling the fire of desire.” To meet life on life’s terms doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action to change things personally, or even globally. Instead, our starting point becomes life as it is in this moment and simply being with what is rather than reacting to it. In addition, we learn to meet life without clinging to pleasant experiences, which inevitably don’t last.

MessengerRichard C. Miller, Ph.D, founder of the iRest Yoga Nidra meditation protocol, has written, “Everything we experience is a portal that can bring us back home to our intrinsic wisdom, love, equanimity and contentment.” When we meet life on life’s terms—even doing so lovingly—every experience becomes a messenger that we can learn from. These messengers show up whenever we feel powerless, constrained, imperfect, or lacking in any way. They also show up as periods of ecstasy—and the laundry. When we catch the reactive messenger and allow it to share its message, we gain intrinsic satisfaction and wholeness.

Stoicism, Buddhism, and other philosophic traditions place the responsibility on the individual to act from a place of love and compassion. The Stoic sage faced with misfortune would be emotionally resilient, with “virtue” sufficient for happiness—thus bearing a “stoic calm.” For Buddhists, it’s coming to terms with the way things are, not imposing optimism and hopefulness on them.

Allowing life’s terms

Allowing everything to be exactly as it is from moment to moment allows peace and happiness to surface. With clarity and stability of mind and body we are then able to meet life on life’s terms with the most appropriate response.

Amor fati may be a bit stringent for most of us, but we can at least befriend its terms, learn from it, and move forward meaningfully.

Joy and sorrow

What’s Your Natural Disposition?

“Good morning, Eeyore,” said Pooh.
“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning, which I doubt.” —A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

PoohAs you start the New Year, do you see your life circumstances optimistically or pessimistically? What is your natural disposition? How do you really want to view yourself in the world? I think of myself as a relatively optimistic person, but as I write this, I ask myself, Do I always think positively? What about my doubts and fears? No; I am not a card-carrying optimist. Nor do I believe there are absolute pessimists. We are much more complex creatures. But our disposition can help us realize our goals and live a fulfilling life—or it can hinder us.

A movement known as Positive Psychology touts the benefits of optimism and positive thinking. Research has shown that an optimistic disposition helps us cope with stress and build resilience. Further, it affects our physical health (it helps strengthen the immune system and prevent chronic diseases). And our mental/emotional well-being (it might, for example, help us cope with bad news). It goes without saying that optimists are generally happier than pessimists. But can pessimists flip to purely optimistic thinking? And should they?

Optimism/pessimism

Optimism is derived from the Latin optimum, meaning “best.” Being optimistic means one expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. For optimists even setbacks are viewed as learning experiences. Pessimism comes from the Latin word pessimus, meaning “worst.” A pessimist has a cynical, hopeless, or fearful perspective; anticipates undesirable outcomes; and believes that life is full of hardship.

optimismAccording to psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D., who is considered the father of Positive Psychology, and is the author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, pessimists have three thinking styles that surface when something bad has happened or didn’t go their way. They react automatically, believing the cause is either permanent (“this change can never be undone”; pervasive (“this will spoil everything”); or personal (“this happened because I made the wrong call and I have no skills”).

Wiring paradox

The fact is that humans are wired biologically to be fearful, which triggers the fight or flight response. While this negativity bias has helped humans meet hardships across the millennia, unfortunately, it has become the way many of us experience the stress-producing challenges we face in modern life. Optimists, on the other hand, respond to stress by focusing on the potential to create something better.

But there is a paradox because we are also wired for positivity. We are more likely to remember pleasant experiences than negative ones. We even remember neutral events as more positive than they really were. Being hopeful and trusting, optimists continuously create positive memories. Sometimes, however, this high level of trust can result in extreme disappointment.

scientistThere are actually advantages to being a pessimist. A pessimist who is naturally skeptical generally needs proof before he or she gets on board. Scientists, necessarily, are constantly questioning and reluctant to accept findings that cannot be duplicated. While optimists tend to be risk takers and may make fanciful leaps in thinking, pessimists may help keep their unrealistic ideas in check. Winston Churchill said: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Both perspectives help us to see the whole.

Realism, optimism with a caveat

None of us live entirely as idealistic optimists or fatalistic pessimists. There is a middle position: realism. William Arthur Ward, an often-quoted 20th century American writer, noted: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

During the Vietnam War, many US soldiers were held captive for long periods. Once the prisoners were rescued, the ones who made it were often realists. It was discovered that usually pessimists died first. Surprisingly, they were followed by optimists, who often lost hope over time and gave up. Mostly the realists made it because they lived one day at a time, making the most out of each day.

James Stockdale

James Stockdale

In the book Good to Great, author James Collins recounts a conversation he had with James Stockdale, a U.S. Navy commander who was held captive in Hanoi for seven and a half years, where he was tortured, locked in leg irons, denied medical attention, and kept in solitary confinement. Stockdale told Collins, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When asked which prisoners did not get out, he replied, “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. . . . they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’” And so on and so forth. Ultimately, said Stockdale, “they died of a broken heart.”

Stockdale paradox

Though Stockdale’s outlook sounds optimistic, he emphasized that it was not. He remained realistic about his situation; he didn’t give up because he looked at the big picture, and he had no expectations about when he would be freed, whereas the optimists held on to unrealistic hopes. This is what is known as the Stockdale Paradox.

A realist is someone who sees things in the moment and takes each day as it comes. Realists are grounded and adaptable; they are able to cope with the negative while still enjoying the positive. A realist hopes for the best and is prepared for the worst. Like pessimists, realists base opinions and decisions on analysis, though they tend to be more objective.

Realizing the best you

best possible selfPositive Psychology believes people can boost their positive emotions, happiness level, optimism, and coping skills. It recommends this exercise: Visualize yourself at a future moment in time—such as six months, one year or five years from now—having accomplished your goals. Consider the character strengths you’ll need to make that vision a reality. Imagine that in this vision of your future you are expressing your Best Possible Self. You might think of it as reaching your full potential, achieving an important milestone, or realizing one of your life dreams. This vision should be attainable and within reason. Writing it down can help you grasp the character strengths that will help you realize your Best Possible Self.

I learned a similar approach in my coaching training, called “Future Self.” Meeting a vision of the Self I would like to become, I asked questions such as what important steps had she taken to achieve her goals. This exercise helped me create a positive direction for my life, with realistic steps that I am still taking to become what I consider my Most Satisfied Self.

 Mindfulness disposition

minduflnessIn my own experience, meditation and mindfulness practices have fostered my own realism. Ellen Langer, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Harvard University and author of Mindfulness, has conducted research that has found that mindfulness results in better health, more competence, and greater happiness. She suggests that mindfulness makes us more optimistic because we are open and attentive to possibilities.

On the other hand, mindless optimism or pessimism may prevent people from being present with reality itself. For example, a pessimist may mindlessly relinquish control of his health to the doctor, accept whatever diagnosis is given, and take whatever medications are prescribed rather than participate in his own health care. Whereas an optimist may read about his symptoms online, question the doctor about the prognosis and what side effects the medications might have, or ask whether there are alternative treatments.

Langer’s approach to mindfulness includes five steps:
  • Seek out, create, and notice new things.
  • Realize how behavior can be understood differently in different contexts.
  • Reframe mistakes into learning experiences.
  • Expand your mindset and perspective to gain control of emotions.
  • Be authentic.

Such a disposition of mindfulness encourages you to be an observer of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. That process helps you learn what aspects of optimism, pessimism, and realism are beneficial for you and ultimately find fulfillment in life. So, what’s your natural disposition? As Oprah Winfrey once said: “When I look at the future, it’s so bright, it burns my eyes.”

listening in nature

Listening as Presence: Learn How

“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

Listening to pianoI recently viewed a TV special with a segment from the PBS children’s television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in which Nick, a young boy, was invited to play the piano. As Nick played a Bach minuet, Mister Rogers listened in a way that suggested he was not just hearing the notes but actually experiencing them in the same way his young player did. He watched Nick’s facial expressions, not his hands, and was thoroughly present and connected in his listening. Indeed, a Mister Rogers hallmark was encouraging kids to connect with others, especially those different from them. That passion for connection is reflected in the title of both the song for which he is best remembered and the recent documentary film about him: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Passive and active

How often are you really present with what is happening in your life? Do you find yourself easily distracted while engaging in activities or listening only partially when people are speaking? Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions have always had their power to distract us from the present moment. But nowadays texts, emails, and various social media have become all consuming, taking us away from what is before us, and even what is inside us. Yet with all this connectivity, research reveals that Americans feel more isolated and disconnected than ever before. All these electronic distractions interfere significantly with our ability to truly listen, focus, respond—and even to feel fully alive.

Hearing is generally a passive experience. We are bombarded with a myriad of sounds as we move through our daily lives and simply cannot be present to all of them. But how often do we really stop to listen?

Listening is not limited to hearing through our ears. We have the capacity to listen with our whole body, heart, and mind. Although hearing depends on the transmission of vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear, sound vibrations also produce a felt sense in the body. I once attended a conference at which the entire audience was deaf. To my surprise, the event ended with a dance; the participants’ bodies moved with exhilarating joy to incredibly loud music. So loud it felt like my eardrums might burst. But I also felt its deep vibration throughout my entire body.

listening to cicadas

cicada

As I write this, the hissing sound of cicadas is present outside and I occasionally pause and listen. I feel it vibrating inside and around me. Listening can be an active inner experience that that requires our full presence and fosters openness and absorption.

Connection

We all have a need to tell our story and truly be heard. Our minds often ruminate over stories of our daily experiences as well as our life challenges, which can cause us to feel stuck or blocked. Sometimes just letting it out verbally can release some of what is pent up inside. But that may only provide a temporary fix. We all need a Mister Rogers–like listener. When someone truly listens to us, a powerful human connection is created. We depend on and thrive as a result of such inter-relatedness with others.

listening through journaling

Anne Frank

When no one is available to listen, journaling can be a meaningful outlet. Some people keep a journal as if they are opening up to another person. Thirteen-year-old Anne Frank was forced into hiding with her Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1942. For two years she kept a diary in which she shared her deepest thoughts and feelings with an imaginary friend she called Kitty. Kitty became Anne’s safe and intimate confidante. Her diary, subsequently published as The Diary of a Young Girl, has become a classic that continues to inspire countless readers.

How to listen to another

I believe that most of us listen to one another halfheartedly, or, more colloquially speaking, we are half-assed listeners! When someone is speaking, a transient thought may surface in our mind, and we stop listening. We may think we’re listening, but we get busy thinking about what we want to say in response and become focused on when we might have the opportunity to interject our thoughts. The result is a fragmented conversation that does not provide the sense of connection we all need.

How do we listen? You might practice the following exercise with a friend or partner. Choose a time and place away from conflicts when your stress hormones are not activated. As one person shares something important to him or her, you, the listener, should slow down and breathe deeply. Perhaps evoke Mister Rogers! Become calm and absorb what the other person says—like a sponge. Set aside judgement and assumptions; don’t analyze and don’t interrupt. This is especially important when listening to someone whose views don’t agree with yours. Notice if you become triggered by what is being shared. Stay grounded and present with your breath while continuing to remain open and accepting; maintain eye contact.

Rather than wanting to fix, change, or give advice, be curious. Respond with nonintrusive, clarifying questions. For example, paraphrase what you’ve heard and ask, “Did I get it right?” Ask the speaker to “say more.” Ask about their feelings, which will allow them to know you care; they will feel validated, something we all seek.

Listening in nature

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “In listening in naturenature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.” Nature may be our best teacher for learning to listen. As the cicadas continue to hiss outside my window, I feel their presence subtly vibrating in my body, calling me to go outside and walk amongst the trees. According to biologist David George Haskell, author of The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, “There is no such thing as an individual within biology…. Instead, the fundamental unit of life is interconnection and relationship.” A tree shares the sounds of its leaves rustling in the wind; the insects and birds inhabiting its branches make their own unique and beautiful sounds. Nature’s sounds can help lure you away from your busy thinking mind. When you relax into listening, it’s possible to empty your mind of unnecessary thoughts. When you are deeply present, you experience the sound of silence and feel its peace and equilibrium. Listening can become your best companion.

As the spiritual philosopher Jean Klein, author of numerous books including The Book of Listening and The Ease of Being, said: “When you come to innocent, unconditioned listening, your body goes spontaneously into deep peace.”

 

 

Loving kindness

Taking Pause

“It’s not so much knowing when to speak, but when to pause.”—Jack Benny, American comedian who died in 1974

What is a pause? Generally, it’s an interlude or gap between two things. Some pauses are long and others brief. Some may seem pregnant with meaning, especially when someone pauses while speaking. If you’re taking a class or attending a speech or presentation and the teacher or speaker stops talking, you probably become intensely aware of the sudden empty space waiting to be filled. Your mind may try to fill in the space with what you assume is coming next, or you may also relish the uncertainty—remaining open to something unanticipated. During that notable pause, you may feel a special connection with the speaker, as well as with everyone else in the room. Had your mind wandered prior to the pause, you may suddenly find yourself very much in the present moment.

In written works, periods, commas, dashes, and colons force the reader to pause and better grasp what he or she is reading. Pauses can help you transition from one activity to another, and even shift your mood. And, pauses can help you experience moments of deep presence—nothing lacking and everything just as it is. As the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said: “If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply.”

Beneath the surface

icebergHuman beings present themselves to the world much like the tip of an iceberg floating in the ocean. Beneath the surface of the myriad of distractions and busyness of life there is an enormous depth of being. Pauses can help you drop the facade and access this depth so you can listen to your own inner voice and connect with your true views and desires and even your intrinsic value system.

Author Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own: “…it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” Our body, brain, and spirit need periods of idleness, of non-doing. That’s how ancient hunters and gatherers lived. When they weren’t acquiring food for sustenance, they played, groomed, rested, and gazed at the heavens contemplating their existence in nature and the universe.

One can take pause in prayer, meditation, or simply a deep breath. Longer pauses might be spent in nature, on vacation, or on a sabbatical—from work or even a relationship. When a relationship grows sour, or an impasse ensues following an argument, it can be helpful for each partner to take a time out for inner inquiry and reflection. This creates space to examine beliefs and feelings related to the situation.

In his beloved classic The Prophet Kahil Gibran says this about marriage: “let there be spaces in your togetherness…” A healthy relationship needs spaces for separateness—space to grow individually as well as together. Knowing when to pause, as Jack Benny said, is at the heart of every person’s life. Gibran ends with: “And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” Like trees, we all need space in order to thrive.

walking pathWhen feeling stuck or blocked in trying to solve a problem or finish a project, shifting one’s attention to something else—taking a walk or breathing deeply—interrupts the brain circuits. You may recall times when you fail to remember a person’s name; the harder you try, the more it eludes you. But when you back away for a moment, it quickly pops into mind. I often take breaks when writing to move my body; I tend to have my most creative insights while walking or even driving. Not surprisingly yoga and meditation foster physical and spiritual opening up.

Practice pausing by noticing your feelings, thoughts, and actions in the moment. Don’t analyze, criticize, or try to fix anything. Simply ask questions like “What do I believe right now?” “Are these beliefs really true?” “How would my life change if I letgo of this belief?” Notice how such pauses foster shifts in your thinking and feeling when you are experiencing a challenge, impasse, or even fatigue.

Selah

Selah is a Hebrew word that is used extensively in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms, which is often interpreted as “stop and listen.” A national organization, Selah Freedom, is dedicated to ending sex trafficking and bring freedom to the exploited. They interpret Selah as to pause, rest, reflect. Psychologist Rollo May wrote, “Human freedom involves our capacity to pause, to choose the one response to throw our weight.”

Selah Freedom has a residential program for victims of trafficking that provides needed therapy and life coaching to help the young women overcome the damage of past trauma and find new life paths. The program offers personalized educational plans, job placement, trauma therapy (including equine therapy), education in life skills, medical and legal assistance, and holistic restorative care.

meditationI have the honor of facilitating iRest Yoga Nidra meditation programs at Selah Freedom’s Chicago residential facility. During iRest, the women, mostly in their late teens and twenties, set aside their dark past and whatever has gone on in their day. They lie down on blankets and pillows and slip into deep relaxation and even dreamless sleep as I guide them in mindfulness practices aimed at helping them feel safe. The practice teaches them to welcome emotions and self-limiting beliefs, which ultimately lose their potency. This clears the way to uncover their wholeness and worthiness.

Pausing: make it a habit

You may not have a staff of coaches and therapists focused on helping you achieve your life goals, but you can do much of this work on your own by finding your own way to pause.

Pausing provides space to discover your deepest desires. When you do this regularly and intentionally, those desires become a motivating force, like an inner compass reminding you to stay on your path and sort out what’s right for you and what’s not…not this, not that, YES this!

Lily padsGetting in the habit of taking regular pauses can help you recharge and become more connected to life. What you do for yourself, you do for others. What you do for others, you do for yourself.

Your most healing pauses may be simply resting and being. You might start by taking a deep breath, expanding the whole rib cage and belly, then resting and letting go. Use this simple acronym as a reminder: TAP RIBTake a Pause, Rest in Being.

I would like to leave you with a few words from a poem by William Stafford titled “You Reading This, Be Ready”:…carry into evening all that you want from this day. The interval you spent reading or hearing this, keep it for life.”

I hope you regularly take pause to note what you wish to carry forward in this day and in your life.

Bebriending

Art of Befriending

What does it mean to befriend? The dictionary defines it as: “to make friends or become friendly with; act as a friend to (someone) by offering help, support or aid.” Diplomats, politicians and businesspeople are successful when they befriend the powerbrokers within the system. Whether with competitors, peers or enemies, getting to know each other personally creates a foundation of common ground to help broker future deals.

The art of befriending can also be a powerful skill to apply in many areas of one’s personal life. One person wrote about befriending the country to which she recently relocated. Another, ordered an extra Starbucks for the homeless person she passes on the way to work each morning. How about befriending yourself—your thoughts and emotions, disappointments and regrets and health issues. The art of befriending can have endless applications.

Foes as friends

In 2017 Oprah Winfrey led a focus group for television’s 60 Minutes. Fourteen people were selected from a community in Michigan. Seven supported President Trump and seven were against him. As expected the discussion was spirited and emotional.

Following the show the fourteen people created a private Facebook page for further discussion and to stay connected. Then they took it a step further. BowlingThey started to socialize over pizza, bowling and even visiting a firing range—essentially befriending each other. When 60 Minutes learned about these remarkable happenings they decided to do a follow-up show filming some of their outings and once again having Oprah facilitate discussion. Interestingly, none of the members had changed their views. But they had learned to listen to one another and understand the others’ views–and they had become friends.

Befriending invites one to step outside oneself, and in an imaginative way, step into another’s shoes to experience his or her feelings and perspectives. In this way, befriending unfolds as empathy, which fuels connection, according to Brené Brown, author and professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.

Befriending encounters

Befriending isn’t a new skill to learn. You already know this naturally. But you can learn new applications.

Think about the people you shun who are different than you. How does it serve you to remain separate from them? What would happen if you were to get to know them and really listen—without judgement—to their views? Is it possible to be open, curious and welcoming so you might learn more ideas? Other befriending qualities might include: caring for, encouraging, and having one’s back. These are essential for raising children, and for showing up for a family member or friend who is in need.

WaterVery often befriending asks you to step outside your comfort zone. In the Academy Award winning movie, Shape of Water, a mute janitor befriends and eventually falls in love with an amphibious creature. One never knows where befriending might take you!

Sometimes you may befriend someone and then never see them again. Yet, you are both somehow enriched or enlightened by the brief encounter. This has happened to me many times when I’ve traveled. Some of my dearest friendships started this way.

For some people it is even possible to befriend a former partner or spouse. When my relationship with Tom ended a number of years ago, I really struggled. But with time and good therapy, I was able to accept that our romantic relationship did not work and no one was at fault. With a foundation of mutual understanding we later befriended each other and continue to share good times together. A deep trust and empathy have evolved between us.

Befriending yourself

 

YOU may be the most important person of all to befriend. There is much going on inside—thoughts, beliefs, stories and emotions. There are a myriad of things happening in the physical body at any given moment. How much of this do you take for granted…and possibly not treat very well?

The same befriending qualities such as curiosity, listening, non-judgment, etc., are equally applicable to knowing all facets of you. What sort of relationship do you have with your body: your health, your age? Is there something you want to change? Are there areas of disappointment or even disgust? Besides you, who really cares?

I love the title of Terry Cole-Whitaker’s book, “What people think of me is none of my business.” You can’t control other people’s thoughts about you—and sometimes your own. But, you can befriend the thoughts you think and the feelings and emotions that arise as well. Rather than block or resist them with sugar, shopping, TV or wine, take time to get to know them. Lovingly and tenderly befriend them.

Fear, for example, can be a rich source of insight. Rather than allowing fear to become an enemy that paralyzes you, befriend it. Sit with it and seek to understand it. Let your fear tell you what it wants. Let it show you what needs to be healed and let it become a companion to help you move forward. While this process initially takes courage, it also makes you stronger, wiser and more resilient.

Disappointments in life can often result in feelings of blame and guilt, especially when we didn’t meet our own expectations. Befriending can start by stepping back as an outside observer and witnessing the whole scenario or story about it. Make friends with the aspects that stand out, especially your beliefs and thoughts. Acknowledge what you have learned—which might even be a new skill that serves you later. The journey of life is filled with learning and growing from all experiences—positive and negative.

kindnessIt’s a law of nature that with every negative there is a complimentary opposite, which is often uncovered in the learning. Each informs the other. A line from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Kindness, reads: “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

Live from befriending

Living from a place of befriending invites you to welcome whatever comes your way, openly, lovingly and without resistance. The art of befriending has a multitude of benefits that can empower you. It helps you feel more connected to life and frees you to feel more whole and complete.