peace in themidst at Crab Tree Nature Perserve

Peace in the Midst

How can we find peace in the midst of difficult times? It’s been 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, yet we continue to live through turbulent times. American poet, environmental activist, and farmer, Wendell Berry wrote a poem in 1968 during another turbulent time in American history.

After reading Berry’s poem the other day I decided to visit my favorite place to hike, the Crab Tree Nature Center. Crab Tree is a place where I can lose myself as I savor the wildness of the rolling, glacier-formed landscape and trails traveling though forest, savanna and wetlands. Yesterday the open fields were ablaze with yellow daisies (photo above), goldenrod and purple asters. The wildness of it all brought me great peace. Borrowing Berry’s words, I drank in the ‘grace of the world’ and felt totally free.

Later I read that the color yellow is associated with the qualities of confidence, optimism, happiness and friendliness, all qualities that are so needed now.

May you, too, find peace of mind and optimism during despairing times.


The Peace of Wild Things
Wendall Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.For a time I rest in the grace of the world,
and am free.


“Always have something beautiful in your sights,
even if it’s just a daisy in a jelly glass.”
~H. Jackson Brown, Jr., American Author

Join me for free Sunday and Thursday meditation.

Harmoniously,
Jacqui

Stress response to Covid-19

Under Stress? Why Not Tend and Befriend?

It’s all too frighteningly familiar: A man walks into a workplace and starts shooting, leaving many people dead and others injured. News reports later reveal that he was angry for being fired from his job or under great personal stress. In one scenario some six years ago, the owner of a sausage factory in California, who had complained about being harassed by the government over health violations at his plant, shot and killed three meat inspectors who showed up to examine the facility. A friend of the assailant commented, “He was a good man, but pressure, pressure—everybody blows up under pressure.”

But does this tendency to blow up with anger and aggression truly lurk in everyone? I’ve always wondered.

Classic responses to stress

At the core of our existence is the need to survive. Meeting this basic need requires a minimum of food, shelter, and safety. Lack in any of these can trigger fear and anxiety, which puts significant stress on our nervous system. From the earliest times, humankind has responded to stress in relatively predictable ways. In the 1920s and ’30s researchers described the two best-known reactions: lashing out or running away, also known as “fight or flight.” When threat is detected, the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system kicks in, producing stress hormones that activate glands and organs to help us defend the body against attack. Glucose is released to give us energy. Blood flows to the muscles and brain; heart rate and blood pressure increase; blood flow for digestion decreases. When the threat subsides, the parasympathetic branch, known as the “rest and digest” system, calms things down.

Freeze response

Freeze response

Another, less well-known, more recently recognized protective response to fear is “freeze”—like a deer’s response to the glare of headlights from an oncoming car. The freeze response most often occurs when neither fight nor flight is a viable option. We don’t fight or run away; we become immobile. The response is a form of “playing dead” in the face of danger, which often manifests as an inability to communicate or take necessary steps for self-preservation and may include feelings of apathy, detachment, and numbing. Freeze may occur when we feel paralyzed by survivor’s guilt or are overwhelmed. Like fight or flight, freeze is not a conscious response but one that occurs deep within our nervous system.

Tend and befriend response

The bulk of research on fight or flight has focused on male subjects. More recently, however, expanded research has identified a very different response in females. Compared to most males, females tend to respond to stress with less intense physical and emotional aggression. Instead, they may first gather and tend their offspring and move close to other females for social support and comfort. This response, dubbed “tend and befriend,” has the effect of calming the nervous system.

As research revealed that women are more likely to respond to stress through tending and befriending than men, scientists wondered whether there is something else at play beyond maternal instinct. The answer appears to be linked to the pituitary hormone oxytocin. Both animal and human studies have demonstrated that oxytocin, also known as the feel-good or love hormone, is released when females engage in nurturing behavior, and that inhibits sympathetic nervous system activity seen in fight-or-flight reactions to stress. Females’ estrogen enhances the effects of oxytocin, while male androgens inhibit its release.

Mothers tending to her children increases oxytocin A study found that at the end of a highly stressful workday, a mother’s response is increased nurturing of her children, which stimulates oxytocin, thereby reducing stress. In addition, women are more likely turn to others for support—e.g., talking on the phone with friends or relatives. By contrast, fathers are more likely to withdraw or have interpersonal conflicts.

Enter COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a long and challenging time for everyone, and it has taken a huge toll on our nervous systems. As we feared for our lives and those of our loved ones, our stress levels naturally heightened. Mandatory lockdowns exacerbated our stress. Those who could hunkered down in their homes, while others literally risked their lives working in “essential services.” Then additional events—most notably, widely publicized deaths of Black people at the hands of white law enforcement officers—exploded into social and political unrest, resulting in more fear and anxiety and more people pitted against each other.

Throughout this pandemic we’ve experienced a loss of connection. Everything is unfamiliar, unpredictable, and often uncontrollable. We’ve had to choose safety over love and belonging. All this has occurred because our nervous system has detected that our essential survival is at stake. During the pandemic, the “fight” response has been most in evidence in health care workers fighting for their patients’ lives. These workers coupled their fight with compassionate tending and befriending.

Reawakening connection

We need to tend and befriend our connectionsOur desire for connection and nurturing at this time has never been greater. What would we have done without delivery services, phones, and computers, Zoom, and Netflix? People have asked me, “Don’t you miss seeing people, besides on the TV?” Sure, but Zoom has been a blessing for me in the work I do and connecting with friends. Whether it’s one-on-one or with groups, talking face-to-face with real live people has saved me. Meditation and Somatic Movement have helped me stay connected to and in harmony with myself. But living alone, I do long to be physically present again with people—and especially to be held by my favorite tango partners and move in sync with the music! Though, sadly, I will miss the ones who succumbed to the virus.

I believe COVID-19 has awakened us to our collective vulnerability. It’s also stimulated the tend-and-befriend response in many people—not only female. Caring for ourselves and those close to us has been number one, yes. But hasn’t it also revealed the truth about our interconnectedness? As we consider ourselves part of a larger “us,” we realize that protecting ourselves also protects others. We are not separate and we really do need one another. We’ve seen this play out across the world with ordinary people joining together to help and protect the most vulnerable in their community–cultivating “tend and befriend.”

Creating space to tend and befriend

The renowned neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Within all the limitations that have been imposed upon us during the pandemic, haven’t we learned that we can still find ways to shape our lives, find space for what is important? Creating space for compassion—for ourself and others—can help us choose how to respond to events rather than be driven by fear and anxiety. Creating space helps us get out from under whatever we’re feeling as we move forward with our lives.

Space for compassion to tend and befriendChristine Runyan, a clinical psychologist, professor, and mindfulness teacher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, cofounded Tend, a clinical consulting practice focused on preserving the mental well-being of health care practitioners. In an interview for the podcast “On Being,” she talked about the power of pause, gratitude, and savoring. She recommends developing reverence for our bodies and our nervous systems, for seeking whatever releases oxytocin in us and creates a sense of wonderment and curiosity.

I leave you with some words from other wise teachers:

“I go to nature to be soothed and to have my senses put in order.”—John Burroughs, American naturalist

“The muscles used to make a smile actually send a biochemical message to our nervous system that it is safe to relax the flight or freeze response.” —Tara Brach, meditation teacher

“Even wearing a mask, others can see the smile in your eyes.” —Karen Ross, hypnotherapist and life coach

 

Earthrise

Earthrise

Earthrise

Dedicated to Al Gore and The Climate Reality Project

On Christmas Eve, 1964, astronaut Bill Anders
Snapped a photo of the earth
As Apollo 8 orbited the moon
Those three guys were surprised
To see from their eyes
Our planet looked like an earth-rise
A blue orb hovering over the moon’s gray horizon
with deep oceans and silver skies
It was our world’s first glance at itself
Our first chance to see a shared reality
A declared stance and a commonality
A glimpse into our planet’s mirror
And as threats drew nearer
Our own urgency became clearer
As we realize that we hold nothing dearer
than this floating body we all call home

We’ve known That we’re caught in the throes
Of climactic changes some say
Will just go away, While some simply pray
To survive another day
For it is the obscure, the oppressed, the poor
Who when the disaster is declared done
still suffer more than anyone
Climate change is the single greatest challenge of our time
Of this, you’re certainly aware
It’s saddening, but I cannot spare you
From knowing an inconvenient fact, because
It’s getting the facts straight that gets us to act and not to wait
So I tell you this not to scare you
But to prepare you, to dare you
To dream a different reality
Where despite disparities
We all care to protect this world
This riddled blue marble, this little true marvel
To muster the verve and the nerve

To see how we can serve
Our planet. You don’t need to be a politician
To make it your mission to conserve, to protect
To preserve that one and only home
That is ours, To use your unique power
To give next generations the planet they deserve
We are demonstrating, creating, advocating
We heed this inconvenient truth, because we need to be anything
but lenient With the future of our youth
And while this is a training
in sustaining the future of our planet
There is no rehearsal. The time is
Now Now Now
Because the reversal of harm
And protection of a future so universal
Should be anything but controversial
So, earth, pale blue dot
We will fail you not
Just as we chose to go to the moon
We know it’s never too soon
To choose hope. We choose to do more than cope
With climate change We choose to end it—
We refuse to lose
Together we do this and more
Not because it’s very easy or nice
But because it is necessary
Because with every dawn we carry
the weight of the fate of this celestial body orbiting a star

And as heavy as that weight sounded, it doesn’t hold us down
But it keeps us grounded, steady, ready
Because an environmental movement of this size
Is simply another form of an earth-rise
To see it, close your eyes
Visualize that all of us leaders in this room
and outside of these walls or in the halls, all
of us change-makers are in a spacecraft
Floating like a silver raft
in space, and we see the face of our planet anew
We relish the view
We witness its round green and brilliant blue
Which inspires us to ask deeply, wholly:
What can we do?
Open your eyes.
Know that the future of this wise planet
Lies right in sight:
Right in all of us. Trust this earth uprising.
All of us bring light to exciting solutions never tried before
For it is our hope that implores us, at our uncompromising core
To keep rising up for an earth more than worth fighting for.

– Amanda Gorman, Youth Poet Laureate

 

Earth

What We All Have In Common

Celebrating Earth Day 2021

I recall a poet I once read who said that the Earth delights in us! This makes me smile. In my desire to honor this day, I began browsing through a number of quotes from a variety of people who have had something special to share about the Earth—our home. Their words address the importance of protecting and caring for it, learning from it, and ways it can feed our spirit—not just our bellies. This inspired me to do some jottings around their words.

American novelist and environmental activist Wendell Berry said, “The earth is what we all have in common.” We live on it, sleep on it and eat from it. The earth is our home and its abundant air, water and bounty keeps us alive.” We all share this planet with all its species and abundance. But in our busy lives and challenges it’s easy to forget this and take it all for granted.

 

Call for hope

wild flowersFormer, First Lady of the United States, Lady Bird Johnson said “The environment is where we all meet; where all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share.” She was an advocate for beautifying the nation’s cities and highways, especially with wild flowers—of which she wrote, “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”

Hope is something we need desperately today. Hope for a healthier environment, society and world for our children’s future. A Native American Proverb says, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” But hope is not enough. We need to care for it, and take appropriate action where we can while there’s still time to save our precious habitat from depletion.

HimalayasThe Earth received significant benefits during the past year as we sheltered at home during pandemic. Air pollution plummeted around the planet. Surprisingly, people living in Northern India saw the Himalayas 100 miles away for the first time in ‘decades,’ as the lockdown eased air pollution. As people spent more time outdoors, at safe distances and often alone, the Earth also benefited from our visible presence walking on it and enjoying its beauty—even if only in our neighborhoods.

 

Spiritual cleansing

I find walking through a forest or a prairie enlivens and cleanses my spirit. Digging in the garden and planting seeds and plants nourishes it as well. Watching things grow and regrow again each spring brings me great joy. The beloved environmental photographer John Muir encouraged us to “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile…Wash your spirit clean.”

forest riverJohn Muir also said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” Have you ever walked in nature and found your thoughts and cares dissipating as you opened your senses to everything you encountered? Moving through a difficult period in his life, Craig Foster befriended an octopus in a South African kelp sea forest. Diving and videoing his experience taught him a great lesson on the fragility of life and humanity’s connection with nature. The “Octopus Teacher,” has become an Oscar nominated movie for us all to feast on.

Henry David Thoreau wrote of a need for “the tonic of wildness” as he explored marshes and other habitats to see, hear and smell the creatures and environs. Wildness is becoming less and less available to us on our Earth and must be cherished—as Foster most certainly has documented.

 

Loving kindness

Albert Einstein’s words: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,” are worthy of pondering. His work took him both into the most minuteness as well as the infiniteness of the Universe. We can also take this metaphorically as another way to delve into what it means to be human in this finite life, as well as what is our essential nature.

Loving kindnessResearchers have shown that Earth’s magnetic field vibrates at the same frequency as our heart rhythm when we’re in a heart coherent state. Increasing our vibration with loving kindness increases our harmonious interaction with Earth and each other, day-to-day.

Vietnamese spiritual teacher and author Thich Nhat Hanh has shared his simple wisdom in many books. This is just one of his numerous gems. “You carry Mother Earth within you. She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment. In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer.”

This is Our Earth. Let’s cherish its natural wonders. Let’s bring the prayer of loving kindness into one another’s lives as we move through this time of great healing is crucial.

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the wind longs to play with your hair.” -Khalil Gibran

Embrace through the heart

Embracing Possibilities

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” –Carl Gustav Jung

The first stage of the spiritual practice of Visioning for embracing new possibilities is to create space in our consciousness. This is also true for our lives, dwellings, etc.—letting go of whatever no longer serves us. The second stage is to embrace and cultivate the ground for eventually planting seeds of possibilities. This is best accomplished through the embrace of the heart.

I view the heart as a portal to our soul and the essential nature of our being—where lies the deepest truth or longing of our being.  The heart of love and compassion points us in that direction. Dreams and fantasies take us outside ourselves. They serve as necessary psychic processes that help reduce the rigidity of our thinking minds, and can be channeled to create sparks of inspiration. However, it can also serve as a distraction, especially when they form ruminating stories that keep us stuck or blocked in living fully. The possibilities that lie waiting on our horizon have a hard time getting through the barricades.

Tuning into the heart

I suggest taking quiet pauses in the day and tuning into the heart and ask: “What most wants to be heard, felt and lived as me.” What unfolds becomes the home ground of the highest visioning for possibilities for our life, including our life purpose. This is less about doing things in the world, but rather about a way of being. With practice the vision emerges and eventually becomes clearer. This heartfelt inquiry is a type of spiritual practice whereas we don’t manifest the vision; the vision is fulfilled through us. Yes, that’s right—the vision is fulfilled through us.

In my own quiet pauses and meditations, I regularly visit this stage, for it helps me stay attuned and in sync with my true essence. I allow it to be captured as affirmative words that I embrace as true in the moment. My current rendition is a variation of words like ‘holding space, empowering and being of service.’ As I move about my activities I ask if what I am doing or about to do in attuned and in harmony with my heartfelt intention. It’s like tuning into my favorite radio station that’s already there. Like an inner compass it reminds me when I go off course.

What must I embrace?

Once we have prepared the soil of our consciousness, it’s time to determine what kinds of seeds we want to plant. So, we ask, “What must I embrace?” This is where we explore the ideas, possibilities and growth opportunities we are receptive to welcoming. Perhaps asking: “What is it that wants to emerge through me into reality?” Then we allow the new possibility to unfold—as it is ready.

Next we’ll explore how to embody possibilities.

Renewal & Possibilities

Renewal: New Possibilities- Part 1

Spring is just beginning here in the northern hemisphere—the season of renewal and new possibilities. A small plot of land across from the complex where I live is blanketed with a floral violet-colored ground cover. It does so spot-on every year at this time, and it always takes my breath away. Daffodils and crocuses are beginning to blossom.

I know—the Covid-19 pandemic continues to linger and keep our lives in check. But we’ve come a long way through a very dark period of our lives—for many of us with great suffering and loss. Yet, there is hope for returning to some level of normalcy in the air, and the season of spring helps to fuel this.

“We grin and bear it ’cause the nights are long.
I hope that somethin’ better comes along.”

— The Muppets

What’s Next?

What will the coming months and year ahead really be like? When will we feel confident that we can see and hug our loved ones and friends freely again? When will life feel normal again—or will it ever? Most importantly – however things do unfold – what new possibilities are ahead for each of us?

There is a spiritual practice of Visioning developed by Rev. Dr. Michael Bernard Beckwith of the Agape International Spiritual Center that might just help with this. It’s designed to help us create a more expansive idea of our lives than what we currently have—going beyond our limited perspectives and experiences by opening us to a higher vision. This is not about catching a vision and setting out to make it happen with goals, actions, etc. Rather, this Visioning is a meditative practice to clear some space for deep listening to Divine Wisdom within. In this space we can pose a series of inquiring questions: What must I release? What must I embrace or embody? What must I become?

Release and let go

This first inquiry invites us to clear out what is not needed, has completed its’ purpose, or is limiting us in some way. Is it time to let go of a relationship? Perhaps there are old habits, attitudes or beliefs that are no longer life affirming. Anything that does not serve the fulfillment of the possibilities and a new vision deserves consideration. It can even be old stuff we have hanging around, or old clothes we no longer wear and may never wear again. Releasing creates a vacuum, or perhaps we could refer to it as a womb of potentiality.

The spring season of renewal is a natural time for doing spring cleaning, or organizing, such as the garage or basement. It’s also the time to clean up the garden to prepare it for new growth. Whether you sit in quite meditation, go for long walks in nature and or tend to your home and garden, allow this to be time of reflection, of sorting and clearing the soil of your consciousness. These are all mindful actions that can serve this process.

Watch for furthering this Visioning practice in future posts.

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.

do it differently like this impala

Do It Differently

We humans are creatures of habit—and for good reason. Habits help us live efficiently and do important things each day, like brushing our teeth. Our habits are formed by trial and error. As babies we learn to push ourselves up, roll over, and eventually pull ourselves up to stand. And we receive loads of accolades when we do. Our curiosity spurs us to constantly explore new things—until we fall or are told “No!” which can be confusing and make us feel bad. As we grow, the conditions of our lives begin to shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions that can ultimately shape our destiny. We can remain creatures of habit or we can do it differently, try something new, move out of our comfort zone. When we do, brain science tells us we will be enriched.

Safety versus changeability

Distress and anxietyAs our bodies grow, our brains also grow. Our brains are trained to favor familiarity and, from an evolutionary perspective, keep us safe from predators. Safety and comfort take on a whole new meaning with the seemingly predatorial pressures of contemporary living. Our distress and anxieties are often rooted in a fear of failing. Playing it safe and doing what we have always done seem to be easiest course—until a major change disrupts things. Then resistance and resentment may surface and we ask: Why did this happen? Why did they have to change things? Why can’t it be like it was? Why do I have to do it differently?

Neuroscientists tell us our brains have plasticity—i.e., they can adapt to newness no matter our age. Our thoughts, feelings, and actions light up brain circuits, or neural pathways, and establish new connections. These pathways are reinforced the more they are lit up, becoming deeper and stronger. Because of the brain’s plasticity, we can start a new path, make new connections, and develop a new habit by intentionally and consistently trying a new way.

Researchers have shown that it takes three weeks to create a new habit. If we are starting a diet or have the desire to change a self-limiting thought or belief about ourselves, we need to give it a fair chance so the new pathway can establish itself. It’s important not to resist, but trying to drop old patterns of thinking should be avoided as well, as it may strengthen the old way. The brain reinforces whatever we focus on—positive or negative. Research has shown that simply thinking and imagining a new way of being helps build new neural pathways.

Defying age

defy physical and cognitive ageAs our bodies age, we can accept, and therefore reinforce, the notion that physical and mental decline is inevitable. Or, our brains and our bodies can defy physical and cognitive decline by recapturing the spirit of curiosity of our early years, by letting go of habitual living.

We can defy physical and cognitive age by doing things or wearing things or connecting with things from the past that make us feel younger. In 1979 Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist and author of Mindfulness, carried out an intriguing experiment known as the Counterclockwise Study. She selected a group of men in their late 70s and, for a week, put them in a 1959 living situation. All accoutrements of their environment—furniture, décor, news, sports, music, TV, movies—were from the earlier time. They were instructed to behave as if it were actually 1959, like discussing historical events as if they were current. The results: the men’s physical strength, manual dexterity, gait, posture, perception, memory, cognition, taste sensitivity, hearing, and vision significantly improved—by a minimum of seven years.

Nearly thirty years later, in 2010, Langer collaborated with the BBC to recreate her experiment with six former British celebrities in their 80s. They were transported back 35 years—to 1975—by similar means, and they too emerged after a week notably rejuvenated—in some cases up to 20 years younger than their biological age.

Boosting the brain

In recent years a new field has emerged called neurobics. You may have seen advertisements for mental exercise programs to enhance memory and focus and even change negative self-talk. These programs claim that practicing neurobics regularly can keep your brain fit. Neurobics works to keep brain pathways active and actually create brain food molecules linked to memory called neurotrophins.

Research by Moses Chao, a psychiatrist at NYU Medical School, found that using nondominant hand activity like brushing your teeth with your “other” hand produces neurotrophins that boost memory. Chao also discovered the same enhancement of memory with physical movement and exercise. He refers to this as “Miracle-Gro” of the brain nerve cells. He says we should keep moving and be like children, always in motion.

Neurobics as mindfulness

giving your full attentionThere are three main components of the neurobics system. One is expanding the use of all our senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Sensory data generally pass through the thalamus en route to dedicated areas of the cortex designed to process them. Most of us use vision and hearing regularly but the other senses less so. We can use our senses in novel ways, such as closing our eyes while showering or eating or watching TV without the sound.

A second component of neurobics is giving your full attention to something, like trying an activity that is completely new to you, perhaps bird watching or learning a new language. And finally, a third component, is to break from your normal daily routines. Take a new route to work or to the supermarket. Shop at a new store. Rearrange your desk, workspace, or furnishings. Move art work in your home to different locations. Buy a new outfit that is not be your usual “style.” Let your imagination soar!

Neurobics has much in common with mindfulness practices like eating in silence and savoring the tastes and smells. One mindfulness neuroscientist recommends the practice of self-nurturing touch. Spend a few minutes periodically during your day gently stroking your hands, arms, and face in the most pleasurable way possible.

Langer defines mindfulness as simply “actively noticing new things,” which she says energizes and engages us and opens us up to new possibilities. We then become more aware of our environment and more sensitive, understanding, even compassionate. Langer recommends that we notice five new things about a partner, friend, or colleague. Noticing is also listening objectively to others’ viewpoints and being curious about how they came to their opinion.

Embracing change

Embracing changeBeware that the brain is always on guard to potential threats and therefore is resistant to change based on the perceived fear of failure. This fear is really our imagination, a fantasy run amok, according to neuroscientist Andrew Newberg. The more we reinforce the fear “Maybe I’ll fail,” the more likely it will become “I’m going to fail.” Newberg, who is the director of research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University, recommends practicing affirmations and loving-kindness meditation to reach a state of relaxed awareness where you can observe the fantasy for what it really is. You can then change the failure fantasy to “I might fail and I might succeed.” Ask yourself what it would feel like to succeed. Focus on that feeling and proceed with actions.

As I reflect on my life, there has always been a part of me that relished change and new experiences. My early years of solo foreign travel expanded my appreciation of people living in different cultures. Yoga, belly dancing, and Argentine tango have each created deep body awareness. My work as a recruiter, then as a coach and a facilitator of iRest Yoga Nidra Meditation has reinforced my compassion for people and their circumstances. My newest venture has been completing a Clinical Somatic Education certification training and empowering teaching and teaching people simple movements to relieve their own chronic pain. I’ve found that doing things differently than I had previously has greatly enhanced my confidence and courage.

Are you ready to approach your life differently? Try something completely new. Change a deeply rooted habit. Learn about and challenge your memory with neurobics. Then relish what you’ve done for yourself.

 

Embrace your scars

Embrace Your Scars and Imperfections

“Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

— Rainer Maria Rilke

gounded beingI was in the midst of writing this article when the COVID-19 virus epidemic was declared a pandemic. Our Illinois’ governor mandated a “stay-at-home” order for all non-essential service employees. Much of my work halted, and like everyone, I was trying to adjust to the effects of isolation and uncertainty. I reluctantly cancelled my June Greek Island yoga retreat. And, I wondered when, or if, I’d get to dance Tango again! But my spiritual teachings and practices helped calm me with an inner knowing. No matter what happens on the surface of our lives, there is an unshakeable ground of being that is eternally present.

As the saying goes, we must “look for the silver lining.” We can choose to shine light on the positives that arise during, and because of, this pandemic. We can also embrace the residual scars that reveal the underlying strength, beauty and wisdom that emerges as healing inevitably pervades.


Gold and silver

I was so disappointed when a treasured statue of embracing dancers broke into many pieces last year.  I thought maybe I could glue it together, or better yet find a new one like it on the Internet. When my search proved fruitless, I consulted an expert on how to repair this item. His fee was far too expensive, but he told me on how I might do it myself. Because it was made of a soft soapstone, he cautioned that fragments could easily chip off. I gingerly glued the first two pieces together and waited many days before continuing with the next piece. When I finally got it all together, I was delighted to see it whole again—even though its imperfections were noticeable because of missing fragments.

Several weeks later, still admiring my accomplishment, I remembered referencing the Japanese art of Kintsugi in one of my articles many years ago, entitled, “Living the Wabi-Sabi Way.” When a piece of pottery has broken, the areas of breakage are mended with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Highlighting the cracks and repairs simply represents an event in the life of the object, and thus becomes a symbol of its fragility, strength and beauty.

embrace your scars Aha, I will paint the seams and imperfections with gold paint! As I did so, ideas began to flow on writing about Kintsugi as metaphor for life. Embracing our flaws, scars and imperfections offers us the opportunity to acknowledge our true strength, beauty and wisdom that comprise our essential wholeness.


Wounded, broken

Inevitably, circumstances shift and change and sometimes life seems to fall apart. Stuff happens, often catching us off guard. A relationship goes sour, a job is lost or put on furlough, finances take a hit—or we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic!  While we are not made of ceramic, our emotions and thoughts can become rigid and corruptible (corrupt comes from the Latin word corruptus, meaning broken in pieces).

When the future becomes uncertain, we can fall into self-pity and victimization leaving us feeling utterly alone and broken. However, what has been broken or lost has the potential to be repaired or recovered. With appropriate resources a relationship may be repaired, a new job found, physical and economic health restored—maybe even better than before. If a void still remains, this creates space for new possibilities and opportunities…a chance to create life anew.

Suffering is a natural part of the human experience; experience that is essentially impermanent. We won’t live in this flawed and imperfect body forever—the surgence of COVID-19 has made this very clear. We don’t need to hide our wounds and scars or pretend nothing happened—any more than we need to ruminate over the past. Every scar has a story behind it, reminding us of a challenge overcome, a battle survived or even a funny moment in our lives. The key is to learn and grow from the experience, knowing that the hurt is over and to not let emotional scars linger as the story.

Emerging strength

Phoenix Often, we need to seemingly lose everything before we can rise from the ashes like the resiliency of the Phoenix. George Mumford, an aspiring basketball player at the University of Massachusetts, had injuries that forced him give up the game he loved. Pain medications led to heroin as emptiness left him spiraling downward. Finally, after turning to mindfulness meditation and getting clean, he was called to help Coach Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls, a team in crisis after the departure of Michael Jordan. Mumford has since coached a roster of champion clients from Olympians to corporate individuals.

Moving through challenging times makes us stronger. It’s a strength that emerges from within—our connection with our truest self, our core of being. Just as a physical wound heals from the inside out, there is an inner strength within each of us that arises to help us heal. The stronger we become with each circumstance, the greater ease we bring to each new challenge. We can heal collectively as well.

As I write this, I hear of all kinds of people throughout the world who are volunteering in various creative capacities to help us move through this pandemic.

Nelson Mandela recalled a time when he was reading a newspaper while flying with other passengers in a 20-seat aircraft. Suddenly one of the propellers began to sputter and stop. A sense of unease filled the cabin with concern that the other engine would keep running so the plane could safely land. Mandela continued to read his paper as though everything would be fine. Later, passengers remarked on how much his calmness helped them. What Mandela embodied and demonstrated is something we have within us—an unshakeable calmness and ease of being that cannot be broken or shattered and is always present.

Beauty and wisdom revealed

Embrace your scarsJapanese aesthetics value marks of wear from use of an object, and find beauty in what has been broken. In Kintsugi art, when a piece is missing from a ceramic bowl, a fragment from another broken object is fashioned to fill the void. We do this with broken bodies. When a leg is lost a new one can be attached to replace it. Rather than hiding the prosthetic, some people allow it to be freely visible as though wearing it as a badge of honor. Isn’t this an authentic display of inner strength and beauty?

It’s often said that when we bring something into the light, we see it more clearly. This is true of the flaws, blemishes and imperfections of our bodies as well as our lives. Regrets, lost opportunities and hurts, when left to harbor inside, can fester and cause more suffering. However, if we shine a light on them gilding them with our reflections on what we have learned, we begin to put ourselves back together.  We can then accept our true uniqueness—imperfections, deficiencies, challenges, warts and all.

The wisdom of Kintsugi also teaches that acceptance of change is inevitable.  There is a part of us that holds our authentic beauty, that is not broken, accepts everything and forgives our perceived brokenness.  When we can truly forgive ourselves, our inner beauty radiates. Thus, forgiveness brings us back to wholeness.

Life’s golden journey

vein of goldThe healing of our brokenness is sealed with a vein of gold that shines out from the core of our authentic beingness. We only need to regularly open our hearts, rest back and steep in this ground of being with whatever inner practice works for us—meditation, nature, connecting with a loved one. Our life journey then becomes a reflection of that golden vein which nourishes not only us, but interconnects with others throughout the world, the earth itself and the Divine Universe. The COVID Pandemic has brought us to our knees.