T.H.I.N.K.

I don’t love politics.  I think it’s because I like to believe the best about people, and a lot of politicians, democrat and republican, have consistently shown their worst.  We are inundated with attack ads, largely full of generalizations and half-truths.  What these ads really do is make me disappointed in the person who “approved” them.  After all, what you say about someone else tells me more about your character than theirs!  Regardless of party affiliation, what we get most from politicians these days is a lot of talk, most of it without much substance.

In contrast, many other cultures value silence: the silence of meditation or prayer, or even vows of silence kept for years.  One of the reasons for silence is so a spiritual seeker can listen.  How can we hear the answers we seek if we are constantly talking?  And clearly a lot of talk is senseless or even damaging.  Think of gossip, or some of the speeches the political candidates are making on the campaign trail!

Maybe society doesn’t have to go so far as taking a vow of silence, but perhaps we could use a reminder of how to use speech to communicate and connect rather than deride and divide.  I was recently reminded of an elegant set of guidelines for speaking.  They are adapted from several spiritual traditions, and I can’t cite an exact origin.  I’m grateful to a friend for posting them as a timely reminder for us all.

Before speaking, T.H.I.N.K:

T – is it true?

H – is it helpful?

I – is it inspiring?

N – is it necessary?

K – is it kind?

If we were to follow these rules, imagine the changes that could happen.  We wouldn’t have to doubt what anyone said.  There would be no fear of having our feelings hurt by a careless comment.  The politicians would inspire us in dark times instead of increasing fear and division.  Idle chit-chat that doesn’t increase our connection to another person would cease.  Kindness would be the rule rather than the exception.  Imagine the sense of calm, and all the quiet moments.

Of course, this is a utopian dream.  I can’t make the men and women running for office think before they speak, but I can choose not to listen to gossip and defamation.  Words that are untrue, unhelpful, uninspiring, unnecessary and unkind won’t get my attention.  And while I can’t control any other person’s voice, I can control my own.  Every time I think before I speak, I have the opportunity to influence someone else.  And so do you.  Maybe it will go viral?

Other People

I can’t control other people.  I know that’s true, but sometimes it seems they can control me!  My mood changes if someone is rude to me, or I witness a person doing something mean.  Their behavior triggers a thought cascade in my mind, and if I don’t watch it, I will end up angry or sad or irritable.  It’s like magic!  But, the other person didn’t cause my mood, my reaction to that person did.

I know plenty of techniques to bring myself back around.  I start by reminding myself not to take it personally.  Sometimes that’s enough.  Other times, I need to dig deeper. Then I have to work on letting go of how I think things should be, which includes all the thoughts of how unfair this other person’s behavior is, and how I wish they would treat me differently.  This often clues me into the fact that I’m fighting what is happening, rather than accepting and responding to this moment.  When I let go and accept it, the right response to the person and situation usually presents itself.

Sometimes none of that works, and I’m still replaying a scenario in my head. Then I try to invoke a sense of compassion toward the person.  Stay with me here, I know that’s often the last thing we feel about someone who has hurt or upset us!  But if I can recognize that person as another human being, who, like me, is just doing the very best they can with what they have been handed in life, I can start to let go of some of my anger and upset. At the very least, I may find a different perspective.  I’ll give you an example.  I went to the pharmacy this weekend to get a prescription for a family member.  I ended up in line behind an elderly man.  As he started to speak to the pharmacist, I realized two things.  One, that this man was an angry bully, and two, that his issue was not going to be resolved quickly.  I was frustrated because I wanted to get my prescription filled so my family member could start it right away, and this was not what I wanted to happen! I realized that I had a choice, and decided to go to another pharmacy.  But not without being angry about it!

As I continued about my day, I kept returning to the man at the pharmacy, thinking all kinds of nasty thoughts about him and how mean he was to the pharmacist.  My stomach kept churning and I was distracted and irritable.  My other techniques weren’t calming me.  Finally, I stopped myself.  I literally said “Stop it!”  I took a deep breath and really thought about this man.  He was elderly.  He was alone.  He was ill.  I breathed into my heart and was able to feel compassion toward him.  I am not saying he is allowed to bully people because he’s had a hard life, but I can recognize his struggles and know fully, once and for all, that his behavior is not about me.  Or the pharmacist either, for that matter.  I let him go, and my mood lifted.  Just like magic.

Live with Intention

At the beginning of yoga class and iRest meditation, we are often asked to set an intention.  By doing so, we commit to using the energy of the practice toward a goal.  An intention can be something small, like staying focused and alert, or something larger, like opening the heart to compassion.  A personal intention can guide and motivate us through the practice, and even through the rest of the day.  So what would happen if we set an intention for our whole life?

A life’s intention would mean putting into words our purpose or code for living.  It would force us to define what we really stand for.  I think the idea of intention is difficult for a lot of us.  After all, it implies that we can point to and define our true purpose in life, when that is the ultimate question for many people.  How do we know if our path is the right one?  You can find hundreds of books and websites devoted to this very question.  I think part of the problem is that we expect perfection.  We see a word like intention or purpose, and we believe that it means we should know the exact course our life will take, and that course must be super spiritual, meaningful and good.  That’s a lot to live up to!

Living with intention doesn’t require any of that.  Intention is simply about reminding ourselves what is most important, so that it’s fresh in our consciousness.  If we reaffirm our intention often, we will start to see connections in our daily lives.  Not because of any secret power in the universe, but because we are aware that we are looking for something, so we are more observant.  We won’t miss any clues that present themselves.

You can work with intention in many ways.  Try journaling about what is most important to you, and remember that there may be several answers.  This exercise could help you to realize a common thread among them, leading you to greater clarity.  Another idea is to set an intention for each day, such as a small goal in your personal or professional life.  Then expand to longer-term goals, maybe for the next month or year.  Try to make it positive.  For example, “I will look for a more rewarding career” instead of “I will get out of this dead-end job”.  Keep refining your intentions, and you will find yourself getting closer and closer to your true life’s purpose.  Ultimately, when our actions align with our purpose, we are truly living to our fullest potential.

 

 

 

Your Body on Stress

We all know that stress is bad.  It has been linked to mental illnesses like anxiety and depression as well as physical ones like diabetes or high blood pressure.  But what does it really mean to be under stress?  The causes of stress are different for everyone, but almost every human body will respond in the same way when it is stressed.  That’s because the “stress response” is a normal physiologic reaction.  It is the modern-day version of the fight or flight reaction, which prepares us to either face danger and fight it off, or turn and run for safety.

Once the brain recognizes danger, a cascade of events occurs, involving multiple hormones and nerve signals.  The end result is that the adrenal glands are triggered to release stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.  This takes only milliseconds to occur, and the body immediately prepares to handle the danger.  The heart rate and blood pressure rise, to more effectively pump blood to the muscles.  Blood sugar is elevated to provide more fuel, and respiratory rate increases to provide more oxygen.  The brain goes on high alert, scanning the entire area for any threat.  Non-essential systems are temporarily downgraded.  For example, the digestive tract doesn’t need to be working when we are fighting or fleeing, so it slows down.  The same with the reproductive system.  Once the threat has passed, the hormones are decreased and the body returns to a normal resting state.

In ancient times, threats were things like dangerous animals or enemy tribes.  People addressed the threat, then returned to normal life, if they survived.  In modern times, threats are things like traffic jams when we’re late, deadlines at work, or constant emails demanding our attention.  Today, threats aren’t as likely to be truly life-threatening.  The trouble is, our bodies don’t know the difference.  A yelling boss or a charging tiger, the stress response is the same.  The other problem is, modern stress never seems to go away.  We are on constant alert, so the stress hormones stay elevated more of the time, leaving the heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar elevated.  Our brains keep looking for danger, and we are left anxious and unable to focus or sleep restfully.  Our digestive and reproductive systems are slowed down, causing constipation and lack of libido.  This is your body on stress.

Luckily, the body comes equipped with the antidote to stress.  It’s called the relaxation response, and it is basically the opposite of fight or flight.  The body naturally returns to this state when stress has passed, or we can induce it ourselves.  It’s as close as our own breath.  In fact, simply closing the eyes and paying focused attention to your breath will begin to calm the body and the mind.  Taking it one step further, count the length of your inhale and exhale, and gently make them equal in length.  Take several of these equal breaths, then slowly begin to lengthen the exhale.  For example, if you inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 5 for a few breaths.  Then, keeping the inhale the same, expand the exhale to a count of 6.  Continue to gently and easily lengthen the exhale until it is up to twice as long as the inhale.  Maintain this 2:1 breath for 5-8 breaths, if it feels comfortable.  Keep in mind that this exercise should always feel easy and relaxed.  If you become short of breath or light-headed, stop immediately and return to a normal breath.  Practice this exercise every day, then see how helpful it can be any time you feel anxious or stressed.

In this day and age, when stress is constant, we must frequently remind the body that our level of threat is not life-threatening. The best way to do this is to regularly practice some form of relaxation.  My favorites are yoga, meditation and breathing exercises, like the one above. Look for restorative or gentle yoga classes, then you know your goals for relaxation will fit with the style of yoga being taught in class. Multiple styles of meditation have been shown to reduce stress and induce the relaxation response, including iRest, mindfulness, and TM. Consider enrolling in a series of classes or workshops so you can get really comfortable with any technique, because benefits come with regular practice.  Over time, stress will have less of an impact on the body and the mind, and we can return more often to our natural state of relaxation.

 

 

 

 

The Worst Critic

I hear a lot about what my patients “should” be doing, whether it’s keeping the house neater, exercising more or finding a better job.  Some people report feeling inadequate, inferior, or even like a failure because they aren’t doing what they “should.”  They believe the standard has been set by someone else, and they aren’t measuring up.  They compare themselves to the neighbors and expect that the neighbors are watching and judging them. It can create a lot of anxiety, trying to keep up. But we established last week that what other people think of us is their issue, not ours. If that’s true, then who are we really trying to please?

In reality, there is no judge, and no ideal we “should” be trying to reach.  They only exist in our minds.  The voice we hear telling us to keep up is our inner critic, and it is hopefully the harshest judge we will ever face.  The inner critic sets the standards, and keeps the score.  When we see a new friend’s beautiful home, it is the voice that reminds us we haven’t vacuumed recently.  It notices the neighbor’s new car and reminds us that our income is down this year.  You can bet it is the voice that whispers “failure” when we turn on the TV instead of going for a run.  No one feels good in the face of such abuse, but most of us are used to letting the inner critic rule our minds, and subsequently, our moods.

As is so often the case, the first step toward change is to become aware of the situation.  Take note of when the critic is most active, and most negative.  You may find an association between your level of stress or fatigue, and start to recognize the need to rest before the critic can rear its ugly head.  Second, notice what the critic is saying.  Write down some of the most common themes, and assess the validity of the statements.  Prepare your counter arguments by reminding yourself of the positives in your life.  If you always hear that you’re a failure, keep a list of your successes.  Third, recognize when the critic has a valid point.  After all, this voice developed for a reason: as an internalized guide toward right and wrong.  If the critic is questioning your morals, could there be a grain of truth in the attack?  Does your behavior need to change in some way to adhere to your principles?  Every now and then the critic is right, just don’t allow it to bully you the rest of the time!

Changing our relationship with the inner critic takes time and effort, but it is worth it.  We may not silence the voice, but it will hold no power over us.  We can release the negative energy of all the “shoulds”, stop the judgment, and listen to our true voice: the voice of the heart.