Try a New Story

I spent a lot of time in my youth hating my hair.  In my mind, it had numerous faults including, but not limited to, the fact that it is brown and straight.  In the 80s, when big curly hair was all the rage, I got perms and spent hours teasing and blow-drying it upside down for maximum volume before coating the whole mess with hairspray.  I had the feeling that my hair wasn’t good enough, and changing it would make me better somehow.  My teenaged self-criticism was not limited to the superficial appearance of my hair.  After all, how can you judge one aspect of yourself negatively without feeling that the whole is somehow flawed?

Unfortunately it’s common to live with the belief that we are unacceptable in some way.  This may be based on some event in the past that left a permanent scar, such as being bullied, or it may be a conclusion we reached based on our own self judgment.  Regardless, the internal story becomes fixed: I am imperfect, and I must do something to change.  There are varying degrees of this belief, from “my thighs are too thick” to “I am a monster.”  But most of us will discover some version of this story if we watch our thoughts, or just look in the mirror!

But what if we gave up that old story and decided to tell ourselves a new one?  Maybe something like “In this moment, I have everything I need.”  Or “Right now, I am exactly the way I should be.”  I’m not saying this will be quick and easy, because this is a complete reversal from that old voice inside.  But this new story changes the focus, from the attempt to become something better in the future, to realizing that everything is perfect in this moment right now. This leads to a sense of contentment that has nothing to do with external circumstances, and therefore can’t be taken away.

Try working with an intention and mantra, like those above, that reminds you that you are enough right now. Start each day by repeating your phrase to yourself, and spending a few moments in silence, accepting the sensations of the breath as the intention settles in. When you become aware of self-critical thoughts, or comparisons to others, remind yourself of your mantra. Release judgment and refocus on your breath, accepting that you are right where you need to be, exactly as you should be right now. Content in this moment.

 

Everyday Courage

Courage is a big word.  It brings to mind fierce determination, or fighting against all odds.   But today I’m thinking about a more subtle kind of bravery, one that requires no less strength, in my opinion.  I walked my son to the bus stop this morning for the first day of middle school.  He is my oldest, so no one in our family has made this transition before.  He looked at me and said “Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to be the first one to do new things.”  He wasn’t anxious in an outward way, but his comment showed the small worries that must have been on his mind.  He got on the bus and rode off to a totally new school anyway, ready to move forward despite any qualms he may have had.  He wasn’t riding off into battle, but this morning certainly required him to be courageous.

Each day there are many small situations that require us to make a courageous choice.  It takes bravery to strike up a conversation with a stranger, to present a new idea at work or to try a new class at the health club. When you really think about it, it takes a leap of faith to even leave the house each day. We are courageous and bold when we choose to live our lives in spite of the things that may go wrong.  Every one of us has that strength inside, so imagine if we could connect with it whenever we need a greater level of courage.

A hot topic in neuroscience these days is neuroplasticity.  This is the ability of the brain to create new connections and pathways, even as a full-grown adult.  The great thing is, we can directly affect this process with practices like psychotherapy and meditation.  We create new pathways by using different parts of the brain together.  In the meditation practice that follows, we will connect with courage while we are in a relaxed state.  With repeated practice, these two states of being can become connected, leading to a sense of calm even in situations that require us to be brave.

Meditation:  Inner Strength of Courage

Find a quiet spot where you’re unlikely to be disturbed.  Sit comfortably, but with an upright, alert posture.  Gently close your eyes and breathe normally, in and out through the nose.  Begin to focus your attention on the sensation of your breath, noticing the temperature of the air as it flows through your nostrils.  Allow this mindful practice to calm your body and mind, releasing any thoughts that arise without judgment, returning again and again to the breath.

When you feel ready, allow the Inner Strength of courage to emerge into awareness.  Recall a time in your life when you experienced courage, perhaps bringing to mind a memory or image that evokes this more fully into your body.  Notice any associated sensations, emotions or images that arise in your body and mind.  Experience courage in this moment right now: fully embody it.  Now release any thoughts or memories and stay with the felt sense of courage in your body.  Let go of thinking, simply feeling the strength of courage throughout your body.  Breathe into this sensation, and recognize how this strength is always present, there in the background of your experience.  Sense how your inner courage is always present in your awareness.

Now return to the sensation of your breath, coming back into your body.  Sit quietly with a soft focus on your inhale and exhale.  When you feel ready, return your awareness to the room around you, noticing any sounds and sensing the space around your body.  Allow your eyes to open, taking in your surroundings and returning fully to the present, ready to take on whatever comes with a sense of strength and courage.

 

Are Bad Moods Catching?

Have you ever been in line behind someone in a bad mood?  You know, the person who is upset about having to wait, foot tapping impatiently, just oozing negativity.  Think about how it makes you feel to stand near them, as you hear their muttered complaints and see the tension in their body language.  Maybe you start to feel a sense of agitation yourself, now realizing that the line is moving very slowly, and you certainly have better things to do!  Whatever mood you were in before encountering this person, you will leave them feeling upset.  You’ve just been contaminated by their bad mood.

Yes, moods are definitely contagious.  Whether it happens via energetic transfer or simply a reaction to visible cues, we are influenced by others.  Even our language acknowledges this effect, as in a toxic bad mood, or an infectious laugh.  Many times these effects catch us unaware, and we wonder when our day took such a downturn.  The good news is that we can retake control of our mood in these situations, once we recognize that we have been affected by someone else’s negative energy.  Then I like to take a few minutes to come back to myself with this practice.

Start by sitting quietly, noticing the thoughts and emotions and physical sensation in the body.  Breathe and allow them to come and go, without trying to change them in any way.  Then take time to reflect on the interactions you’ve had so far in your day and notice if any bring up a sense of agitation, frustration or anger.  If so, allow those feelings to come up, without trying to alter anything about the experience.  Now take full long breaths in and out through your nose.  Picture the frustration moving out with your exhale, to be replaced by calming energy moving in with each inhale.  Allow the exhale to release any tension leftover from earlier interactions, no matter how they played out, no matter who was at fault, breathe them out.  Breathe in peace and contentment, reconnecting with your true self.  When this feels complete, sit with the sensation of wholeness, flowing in and out with every breath.

This process works well with your regular practice of mindfulness, because it starts with awareness.  Mindfulness keeps returning our attention to the present moment, to what is happening right now, so we become attuned to the changes in our bodies and minds as we go through our day.  Then we are more likely to notice when a Negative Nellie or David Downer affects our outlook.  We can also choose to stay present during these encounters and return a scowl with a kind smile or empathic nod.  The person will either begin to settle down or find someone else to help them maintain their bad mood.  That is their choice, and it doesn’t have to affect us at all.

Control Issues

Control seems to be one of those issues that comes up again and again for me, and I know I’m not alone in this.  Every so often, I fall into old patterns of trying to make the world turn according to my plan, and I need to remind myself that it doesn’t work that way.  There I was today, driving down the road ranting against the traffic, all the red lights and the unexpectedly cool weather.  My internal tirade led to a predictable rise in my heart rate, tension in my muscles and short, rapid breaths.  I was stressed out, all because I was fighting tooth and nail against a bunch of circumstances that were completely beyond my control.

As human beings with rational thought and the ability to plan, we like to think we are masters of our universe.  If we put it on the schedule, it will occur at the allotted time.  If we leave early, we will arrive when expected.  People will behave in completely logical ways.  There are things we expect to be true, and very often they work out as planned.  But the truth is, that has nothing to do with us.  All the worrying, planning and scheduling we engage in don’t mean we are directing the show.  Things are going to unfold how they’re meant to, with little to no help from us.  When we realize this, we can start to release the death grip so many of us maintain in life, and start to go with the flow.  Think of walking on the beach, the waves rolling into shore.  We can’t slow them down or make them move in the opposite direction.  But we can allow them to propel us forward, instead of battling against their uncontrollable force.

Just as a refresher, let’s review some of the things over which we have no control.

1. Other people.  Everyone knows this, right?  But why do we have to relearn it so often?  Even as we recognize that we can’t make other people bend to our will, we are always surprised when the don’t.

2. Time.  It’s pretty obvious that the clock moves forward no matter what we do, yet so much angst arises when we expect it to follow the schedule we planned.

3. The earth/natural world.  We can plant lawns where forests used to grow, we can water and mow, but we still can’t prevent the weeds from growing.  We also can’t make the sun shine on our outdoor party, but we can ruin our whole day wishing we could.

4. Mortality.  This is THE life lesson for most humans.  No matter who we are or what we do, eventually every one of us is going to die.  Sorry for the downer, but we might as well accept that we have no control over our ultimate fate.  Then we can live with an appreciation for the gift of each day of our lives.

These are just a few of the things which are out of our control.  There are many more.  The list of things we can control is much shorter.  I am going to assert that there is really only one thing on this list.  We can control our reaction to everything in life that is out of our control.  I realize it’s often said that we can control our thoughts, but if you have ever tried to stop something from coming into your mind, you know thoughts arrive unbidden.  We can control how we respond to these thoughts, just as we choose how to react to our circumstances.

So how can we get our control issues under control, so to speak?  The most important thing for me is to recognize when I’m trying to push against the waves instead of going with the flow.  Control is about wanting things to be different than they are, so when I’m exerting control, I am not mindful or present.  This usually brings out physical symptoms of stress in my body, as well as internal mental arguments against what’s happening in the present moment.  These are reminders that I need to loosen my grip and come back to an attitude of curiosity and acceptance.  This means I’m interested in what’s happening in this moment, and I allow it to unfold as it’s meant to.  Only in allowing what is do I truly relinquish control.  My thoughts may get involved, providing a commentary.  I can’t control that.  But I can watch the thoughts arising, knowing they will soon pass away if I don’t try to control them.  The same is true for any situation in life.  It will arise, unfold and eventually pass by.  Let it go.  It’s out of our hands anyway.

Consider working with a mantra during meditation that aligns with your intentions to let go of control:

The universe has its own plan.  I release and allow the unfolding.

 

 

What to do when you’re anxious Now

Meditation is a great way to decrease symptoms of stress and anxiety.  These symptoms often begin “in the head” when the mind starts to dwell on regrets about the past or worries about the future, so it makes sense that learning to stay in the present will help.  Meditation is a long-term solution, which leads to a calmer presence and less physical and emotional reactivity.  I recommend it to anyone who will listen.

The trouble is, I am often suggesting this long-term solution to people with a more immediate problem.  Studies show that regular meditation can reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety within a few weeks, but in the meantime they are still popping up during work or social interactions.  Besides taking time to work, formal meditation also isn’t a practical way to reduce anxiety in real-life situations.  We can’t just sit down and meditate for 20 minutes whenever we feel stressed or overwhelmed.  That’s usually frowned upon in business meetings!

There are ways to use meditation techniques for faster results, however.  These tools are simple and portable, and can even be done around others without attracting unwanted attention.  The two meditations below are based on the principles of mindfulness, which quickly guide us back to the present moment.  In that space, worries and regrets are recognized for what they are: simply thoughts, not reality.  These “quick fixes” will be most effective when used as part of a formal meditation practice.  Try the longer version first, to become familiar with the technique, then use the quick fix as needed during daily life.

Practice 1: Find Solid Ground.  Helps with physical symptoms of anxiety or stress.

Why this works: The mind reacts to uncomfortable physical symptoms of anxiety by dissociating or detaching from the reality of the present moment.  This practice re-establishes the mind-body connection, firmly grounding us in the present.

Longer Practice: Find a comfortable seat in a chair and gently close your eyes.  Follow your breath for a few rounds, then allow your focus to shift to tactile sensations in your feet.  Become aware of sensation in the soles of the feet as they rest on the ground.  Conversely, notice where the solid ground is rising up to meet your feet.  Let go of any thoughts or stories, and gently direct the mind back to the sensation in your feet whenever you become distracted.  Pay particular attention to feelings of solidity and support, becoming absorbed in the groundedness of your feet on the earth.  Rest here in sensation for 10 – 20 minutes.

Quick Fix: Start by inhaling deeply, then exhaling slowly through your nose.  Focus awareness on the sensation of your feet touching the ground.  Feel the heels, the balls of the feet, and each toe resting on the earth.  Recognize the support of solid ground rising up to hold you, feeling the strength of your connection to the earth.

Practice 2: See What’s Real.  Helps with feeling overwhelmed, frazzled or caught in repetitive worries.

Why this works: When we are stuck in worries, we are distracted from the present moment.  This practice reconnects us with the physical world and returns the focus to what’s real.

Longer Practice:  Sit comfortably with your eyes open.  Take a few breaths, focusing on the sensation of air moving through the nostrils.  Allow your eyes to rest on a prominent object in your visual field, such as a tree, if outdoors, or a piece of furniture.  Scan the object slowly, noting details of color, texture and movement.  Describe it fully in your mind until this feels complete, then move to another object, scanning it in the same way. Slowly take in everything you see, moving from object to object.  Return your attention to naming what you see whenever your mind becomes distracted.  Notice what’s around you in this way for 10 – 20 minutes.

Quick Fix: Inhale deeply, and exhale slowly through the nose.  Then open awareness to what you see around you.  Choose one object of focus, describing its color, texture, and every detail with complete attention.  Whatever you see, allow it to completely fill your vision, attentive only to what you take in with your eyes.  Feel yourself present in this setting, aware of everything around you.

With regular meditation, it’s easier to notice when we are ungrounded, or distracted by thoughts.  Then we can use these techniques to reconnect before symptoms of anxiety or stress become overwhelming.  Eventually we won’t need to rely on quick fixes, because they will be a normal way of staying present for life.

Clear out space

The season is changing.  Finally, after a long winter and chilly spring we are seeing the sunshine again!  The earth is beginning to renew itself all around us.  The sun is shining, the animals are frisky, the flowers are blooming and delicate shoots of new plants are peeking up from the soil.  This is all possible because Mother Nature does a lot of advance preparation.  In the fall, the trees lose old leaves, making way for new ones come spring.  Now the animals shed their winter coats preparing for warmer weather.  Everywhere there is a clearing away of what’s no longer needed to make room for new growth.

As modern humans, we aren’t tied to the cycles of nature very much anymore.  But, some of us may have seasonal rituals, such as spring cleaning, or moving heavy clothes to the back of the closet.  Externally, we give attention to removing what we no longer need.  But what about our internal space?  Our minds are full of patterns, habits and coping methods that have developed over many years.  At one time, they were necessary, but our lives and circumstances change constantly.  What was once helpful may become obsolete, or even harmful.

Consider your internal landscape for a moment.  Are there any habits or thought patterns that are no longer serving you?  Have you felt blocked from taking positive steps in your life?  Like the earth, we may need to purposefully clear away the old, dead leaves to make room for new shoots to emerge.  Psychotherapy is the best way to become aware of outdated patterns, and to begin to create new, positive changes.  But we can shift our internal energy to create the right environment for new growth.

Studies have shown that we can create powerful new connections in the brain during meditation.  The technique below uses a combination of intention and mantra meditation, an ancient practice that calms the body and quiets the mind.  The object of focus during this type of meditation is a mantra, which is simply a meaningful word or phrase.

Meditation to Clear Space for New Growth

1.  Set aside 10 to 20 minutes for meditation practice.  First thing in the morning or last thing at night are traditional, but the most important thing is to create a routine so meditation becomes a daily habit.

2.  Find a quiet place where you’re unlikely to be disturbed, and take a comfortable seat.  You may sit in a chair or cross-legged on the floor, but try to maintain an alert posture to stay focused.  You may choose to set a timer, so you know when you’ve completed your meditation.

3.  Start by setting an intention.  Use your own words to express what you’d like to achieve.  Some examples are: “I clear away what no longer serves me.”  “I am open to new growth.”  “I release the old and welcome the new.”  Ideally, the phrase should be simple and easy to repeat.

4.  Close your eyes gently, and focus your attention on your breath.  Breathe in and out normally through your nose.  Notice the sensation of air flowing in and out of your nostrils, calmly releasing any thoughts, just feeling the breath for several moments.

5.  Now silently repeat your mantra along with your breath.  You may find it most comfortable to think part of your mantra on the inhale, finishing it on the exhale, or repeat the entire phrase with each part of the breath.  Do what feels relaxed and comfortable in your mind.

6.  Continue to repeat your mantra while sitting comfortably and breathing quietly until your time is up.  When your mind becomes distracted, know that it is natural and expected.  Release the thoughts without judgment and gently refocus on your mantra and your breath.  As many times as necessary.

7.  When your time is up, breathe quietly for a few more moments, noticing how you feel, perhaps giving thanks for this time to take care of yourself.

Change is difficult for most of us.  Be kind to yourself and recognize that old habits are deeply ingrained.  But, by offering your intention to change, you are acknowledging a willingness to accept new growth.  Watch for it in all areas of your life.  It may be subtle at first, before suddenly springing forth in the space you’ve prepared for it.

 

 

Inner Smile

Bad days can happen to the best of us.  Through no fault of your own, sometimes plans go awry, schedules run behind and your new shoes get dirty.  Feel free to insert your own version of a lousy chain of events, but I’m sure you know what I mean.  Imagine your last bad day.  See it in all its glory, each disastrous circumstance and the thoughts and feelings you had about it.  Perhaps you can feel your shoulders tensing up and your mouth settling into a hard line.  The power of your imagination brought that bad day to life again.

Now think about a really great day.  One of those days where things go smoothly, everyone likes the dinner you made and your boss compliments your work.  Imagine how you feel sailing through a day like that.  You might notice a deep, free breath and a soft smile on your face.  This exercise clearly demonstrates that the experience of a good or bad day is reflected in both the mind and the body.  It’s also evident that we can re-create these thoughts and bodily sensations using our imagination.  We can use this to our advantage in a relaxation technique called Guided Imagery.

Guided Imagery is a form of relaxation that evokes peaceful images or memories.  The benefits of guided imagery are similar to those of other forms of meditation: it promotes deep relaxation and counteracts the effects of chronic stress.  It can also lower blood pressure, reduce performance anxiety and improve the sense of well-being.  It can be done by listening to a recorded script, or you can create a scene using your own words and images.

Below is a short self-guided script.  Like our good day/bad day exercise above, read the scenario first, then use your memory and imagination to bring it life:

Begin in a comfortable position, either seated or lying down.  Close your eyes and start to follow the breath for a few rounds.  Simply focus on the sensation of the air moving in and out of your nostrils.  Now bring to mind a beautiful place, either somewhere you’ve been or someplace entirely new.  Notice the details of the scenery: the colors, the things you see around you, the smell and temperature of the air, any sounds you might hear there.  Use all of your senses to bring this place to life in your mind, fully inhabiting this beautiful scene.  Picture yourself going about a relaxing day in this special place, enjoying yourself fully, with no worries or cares in the world.  Feel a sense of complete peace in your body and your mind, and bring a smile to your lips.  Allow the smile to spread to your entire face, lighting up your eyes.  Feel it flowing into your torso, expanding into your heart.  A radiant smile now permeates your entire body.  Allow it to expand, taking in everything within and around you.  Rest here as long as you’d like, in this sense of joy, breathing it in with your inhale, and sending it out to the world with your exhale.

Know that you can return to this place and this feeling anytime you want, simply close your eyes and breathe the feeling of an inner smile into your heart.

Wholeness Inside

Things don’t always go the way we want them to.  At times, it may seem like everything is falling neatly into place, and other times it feels as if everything that can go wrong, is.  How do you feel when everything is smooth sailing?  Conversely, think about how you feel when life gets rocky.  There’s probably a big difference!  It’s natural to have ups and downs in our moods that correspond to situations in life.  The trick is how quickly we readjust and bounce back.

For a lot of us, the tendency is to evaluate everything based on our current circumstances.   A bad turn of events makes a good day suddenly terrible.  The mind turns critical, judging everything harshly: ourselves, other people, even life itself.  The mood can’t help but follow this line of thinking straight down into despair.  Then, even the future begins to look hopeless.  Let’s face it: stressful situations will always arise in life.  If you can’t be okay unless everything is perfect, you’re not going to be okay very often.

We live in a world that is largely out of our control.  The universe is just doing what it does, and our minds are just doing what they do: thinking, labeling and judging.  Luckily, we have some control over one of these.  We must find a way to accept that changing experiences, both good and bad, do not change who we really are.  Many ancient philosophers considered the True Self to be unchanging.  They called it Awareness, the Observer, or Pure Presence.  It is the part of us that is watching everything else come and go, while remaining calm, peaceful and serene.  The True Self knows that changing circumstances arise and eventually pass away again, but at our hearts we are always perfect and whole.

Connection to this place of Awareness is essential to riding the waves of life.  The best way that I’ve found to access it is through meditation.  Try this practice to access your inner source of equanimity:

Find a comfortable seat in a quiet place where you won’t be likely to be disturbed.  Softly close your eyes, bringing your focus to your breath.  Follow your breath for several rounds, feeling the sensations of air flowing in and out of your nostrils.  Then allow your attention to turn to your thoughts.  Let them come and go, watching, as you would clouds moving across the sky, without attaching to them or being pulled into a story.  Notice that the thoughts arise and pass by within your awareness.  Then ask yourself, who or what is observing these thoughts?  Feel back into Awareness itself.  Connect with it, and rest here for several moments, watching everything come and go across this background of Pure Awareness.

Throughout your day, in any situation, take time to reconnect with this place inside you that is unchanging, Pure Awareness, that is simply observing the changing circumstances of life.  Allow it to remind you that no matter what is happening, you are always whole and complete inside.

Follow Your Gut

Have you ever had a gut reaction?  You might know it as that physical feeling in your body trying to tell you something.  Maybe it’s offering guidance about a choice you need to make, or whether or not to trust someone, or a warning that something is very wrong.  Often, this knowledge comes without a sense of how we came to a conclusion.  We just know.  It’s also usually accompanied by a feeling in the body, maybe a hollow sensation or butterflies in the stomach, hence the expression “listen to your gut.”  It means your intuition is at work.

Interestingly, scientists have discovered that the human gut (or stomach through large intestine) has its own nervous system.  It is influenced by the same neurotransmitters at work in the brain, such as serotonin.  Whether this means the gut can think in some capacity is unclear, but it’s well established that the gut is influenced by emotional states.  For example, many gastrointestinal illnesses, such as irritable bowel syndrome or chronic constipation, are exacerbated by stress.  When we feel anxious or upset, there is definitely a corresponding sensation in the abdomen.  Sometimes those sensations appear before we are even aware that we are in distress.  Imagine if you could regularly tune into that innate knowledge, using both the brain and the intuition to influence your choices.

Research shows that we can increase self-awareness through mindfulness and other forms of meditation.  With regular practice, we can more easily recognize right decisions, and also know when something doesn’t align with our personal values.  This knowledge may come from the rational, thinking brain, or a recognition of that gut sense in the body showing us the way.

Build your sense of intuition by establishing a daily meditation practice, or try this exercise to directly strengthen awareness of your gut sense.  Start by sitting comfortably and focusing on the breath for a few minutes.  Then bring to mind a situation from your life when you know you made a right choice.  Remember the details of the event, and the feeling you had when things worked out perfectly.  Observe the sensations in the body associated with this choice.

Next, bring to mind an opposite situation.  One in which you made poor choices, either with bad consequences or simply the knowledge that you didn’t act in accordance with your values.  Recall the details, and observe the body sensations associated with this event.  Notice the difference in your thoughts, emotions and sensations when remembering these opposite situations.

Now take this awareness into real life.  Notice what is happening in your mind and body when you have to make difficult choices.  Recall the exercise and what you observed when you remembered past decisions, and use this experience to learn what your gut is telling you.  Intuition can be a powerful ally, and direct observation of our thoughts as well as our body sensations allows us to use all of our natural sources of knowledge.  When we operate from this place, we always know the correct response to any situation in life.  The knowledge is there, we just have to listen.