12.10.2009

Conflict Is Relative: Changing Your Role in Family Conflicts

As the holiday season kicks into high gear, so do plans to reunite with relatives. In More Peaceful Holidays, Family Style, I outlined how to use mindful self-awareness to avoid conflict. Because good intentions and self-care aren’t always enough, here I offer ways to handle and repair conflict. I also urge you to consider new perspectives on old family roles and patterns to evaluate whether they still fit with your values and goals— or if it’s time for a change.

Okay, so you assembled your toolkit and implemented your peaceful plan. Nevertheless, you find yourself in the midst of an argument or upsetting situation... maybe even one you’ve replayed in your family for years. Now what?

Repair and Recover

  • Fight fair. If you must argue, don’t dredge up unrelated complaints and criticisms. Staying on topic is the only way to resolve the problem you’re having right now. Respectful communication— which means no name-calling and no insults— will help keep the issue from escalating. Positive outcomes are even more likely when you stay centered on listening, finding common ground, and expressing your own feelings and needs.

  • Take a breather. When you’re upset, your nervous system interferes with rationality. So when you need time alone to calm your nerves or vent to a friend, do it. Surprisingly, our bodies require up to twenty minutes to recover from the physiological components of agitation – and that can’t happen while you sit and stew. It’s more constructive to breathe deeply, take a walk, and replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

  • Depersonalize and empathize. While being the recipient of anger or criticism feels intensely personal, it actually reveals the insecurity and unmet needs of the aggressor. For example, nagging stems from fear and protective impulses; criticism from a sense of inferiority or powerlessness; and tantrums from a need for attention and control. See if you can detect the vulnerability that hides beneath the surface of offensive words and actions.

  • Check in with your values. When arguments concern past hurts, politics, religion, or personal values, there isn’t much potential for change of mind or heart. It’s up to you to examine the balance between self-respect and boundaries on the one hand, and the need to be “right” or to change someone else on the other. Ask yourself which is more important: proving your point of view? Or preserving your relationship?

Take the Long View

  • Let it go. Is there any chance that you can let this issue drop, even if someone else won’t? Clinging to blame or resentment blocks you from being present. Plus, it leaves you holding some heavy baggage. Apply a generous dose of open-minded acceptance to your respective idiosyncrasies and past mistakes. All relationships benefit from tolerance and forgiveness but not everyone has mastered these skills. It’s not about being saintly or a doormat. For your own growth and well-being, practice letting go of the burdens of expectations, judgment, and regret.

  • Learn. Even if you lose your cool, don’t punish yourself. Own your part in what happened, apologize if necessary, and forgive yourself and others. Consider this when you’re angry or hurt: will this matter one, five, or ten years from now? If so, what can you do for damage control or to prevent a recurrence? Extract whatever insight and wisdom you can, and try again. Perhaps you can even discover something valuable, some kernel of truth, in the someone else’s perspective or criticism.

  • Stay out of it, Part II. Family loyalty is nice, but it must be demonstrated in the form of mutual respect and caring. Despite your best efforts, the behavior of a family member (or members) may become intolerable. Take an honest look at your situation. Can you accept the way things are or not? If the environment feels more toxic than tonic, then avoidance may be the best way to protect yourself from further damage.

  • When all else fails, laugh it off. Appreciate the absurdity, pathos, and humor in others’ dysfunctional behaviors. When you view things from a detached perspective, the bickering and drama become less hurtful and more amusing. But be sure to laugh with, not at. And don’t take yourself too seriously.

The Choice Is Yours

Family change can take time, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. The important thing is to find your comfort zone. On a personal level, counseling or a support group can help you heal the wounds of the past and define your expectations for the future. On a family level, if you do not enjoy and benefit from time together, consider declining their next invitation.

You can’t choose your family, but you do have choices. You have the power to transcend old patterns and influence your life in the present. Let “flexibility, flow, and letting go” be your mantra as you endeavor to find a peaceful place in (or out of) your family. Here’s wishing you and your family a healthy, balanced holiday season.

12.05.2009

More Peaceful Holidays, Family Style

My memories of holiday family gatherings resemble a montage of Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, and A Charlie Brown Christmas: we never failed to concoct a sentimental mix of comedy and caring, drama and dissonance. Somehow togetherness magnified our differences and led to conflict. Over the years, though, I found that awareness of my own part in the mess enabled me to enjoy my relatives and the holiday season more fully. I’ve assembled a toolkit to help you handle the holidays, family style.

In this article, I explain why family problems are so hard to solve, how to gear up for family time, and how to stay cool when you’re together.

Family Systems: Stable, Not Sensible

Family patterns are difficult to change because families are systems. Systems vary in design, but they all share the quality of stability—not in the sense of health and strength but in the sense of mechanical predictability, like an assembly of parts that interact to function as a whole. And while its structure may appear complex or inscrutable to an outsider, everyone within the system knows his/her role and performs it to perfection.

The thing about families is that even when extreme dysfunction, pain, and abuse characterize their system’s “stability,” real change is unthinkable because it would force the family to disrupt their familiar, and thus comfortable, equilibrium. Individual change—positive or negative—is like having a screw loose. The system breaks down and everyone scrambles to “repair” the family to its former working order.

But change is possible and a single person can initiate systemic change. You can start by redefining your family role and “scripts,” or patterns of interaction.

Assembling Your Toolkit

  • Approach with an open mind. Try to view everything through fresh eyes, without the filter of past experience. Negative expectations are self-fulfilling prophecies so let go of past resentments—they keep you stuck in your predefined role. Visualize positive interactions and peaceful outcomes. Mentally walk yourself through each step: warm greetings, pleasure at seeing your relations, and affectionate laughter at mealtime. When you catch yourself in a negative thought or prediction, replace it with a positive thought or scenario.
  • Rehearse ways to defuse and redirect. If you expect to face pointed questions or criticism, prepare a neutralizing response and repeat it aloud during the weeks leading up to your family visit. For example: “I’m content with my life as it is. I don’t feel the need to date/get married/have kids.” Or “Yes, I have gained weight. I appreciate your concern for my health.” Rehearse your firm but compassionate delivery. Then be ready to change the subject to reinforce that the topic is off-limits.
  • Stay out of it. No, this doesn't mean to lose yourself in a drunken fog. It means to stay a safe distance from family fires. You will not—ever—change the values or temperament of your parent, in-laws, or your cousin Willie. So sometimes it’s prudent to withhold your opinion or to agree to disagree, especially when the conflict doesn't concern you directly. You can choose (1) to fight (and feel distress) or (2) to surrender (and feel serenity). I know which one I prefer. Focus on what you can control: your thoughts, your judgments, and your attitude.

Your Peaceful Plan in Action: While You're Together

  • Radiate peace. Smile. You will feel happier and more likely to interpret neutral situations as positive. Plus, happiness is contagious. Imagine that your presence will infuse the atmosphere with a refreshing, open-hearted kindness and optimism. Enact the positive outcomes and non-reactive statements you prepared beforehand.
  • Practice mindful self-awareness. Monitor your mood. Be aware when your anxiety level begins to rise and intervene right away to soothe yourself. Notice and intercept any angry, avoidant, or passive-aggressive impulses. Just be aware of what pushes your buttons and make a targeted effort to pause, breathe, and figure out what you need to relax.
  • Expect some resistance. At first, your composure might confuse and even inflame others because you are stepping outside of your traditional role. Stand your ground with an empathic response such as: “I see that you are upset, but let’s relax and enjoy being together. Let’s talk about this some other time.” Then follow through on that promise when everyone is calm.

I hope this helps you prepare for your next family get-together. Bear in mind that while you can enhance your sense of peace and enjoyment, old family patterns are unlikely to change overnight. That's why my next post will tackle how to handle family conflicts when they arise.



11.21.2009

Strategies for Stress-Less Holidays

Along with the fun and festivity of the holiday season comes serious pressure to decorate, buy gifts, entertain, attend parties, cook elaborate meals, cover for vacationing colleagues, and travel to see relatives—all while sporting a bright and merry smile! This year, prevent and prepare for holiday hassles with these stress-less strategies to add a little joy to the world.

  • Set limits and priorities. We often compound external pressures with unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others. Rather than trying to accommodate every invitation, request, and demand, set limits for yourself in advance. First and foremost, give yourself a break—literally. Periods of exercise and tranquility will sustain your immune system and energy levels. Simplify and keep consumerism in check with a firm spending limit. Save time when you shop online or give gift cards. Consider a charitable donation, homemade gift, or shared activity in place of a store-bought gift. Think about the big picture: preserve meaningful traditions and eliminate any activity that feels like an obligation. If you feel the need to explain yourself, emphasize how much you enjoy the peace and intangible pleasures of the season.


  • Be flexible. Know this: things will go wrong and you will encounter undesirable circumstances. Fellow shoppers will cut in front of you in line, relatives will criticize your weight, and you will overcook the turkey. But when things anger or annoy you, redirect your thoughts toward empathy and charity. Consider the hardships or worries that might underlie someone’s apparent hostility or selfishness. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Try to see the positive angle and humor in every situation. Take advantage of long lines and traffic jams to meditate, practice progressive muscle relaxation, or squeeze in a mini-workout with isometric muscle exercises. And when things don’t go as planned, remember that it’s all part of the plan.


  • Release expectations. When things get stressful, keep yourself grounded in the values that inspire the season: peace, kindness, gratitude, and goodwill. Recognize that it’s unfair to expect others to celebrate in your chosen manner. By the same token, it’s unhealthy to force yourself to conform to how you think you “should” appear and behave if you aren’t being authentic. Whether you thrive on exuberant parties and generous gift-giving or prefer a quiet, modest celebration, respect your needs and the needs of others. If you feel slighted by a card, gift, or invitation that never came, try not to take it personally. After all, the holidays are not just about you; they are about generosity and spiritual meaning. Make an effort to appreciate, rather than evaluate, all variations of religious and secular styles.


  • Reach out. For people without a support network or who have lost a loved one, being surrounded by joyful celebrations can remind them of what or who is missing in their lives. This “seasonal depression” is common, yet it’s easy for sufferers to fall through the cracks. You can help prevent depression by reaching out before the season gains momentum. If the holidays tend to be difficult for you, prepare a mood-boosting kit of options and implement them at the first hint of sadness. Write daily in a gratitude journal, engage in exercise or hobbies, ask a trusted friend to check in with you, seek out free community events, listen to your favorite music, or volunteer your time to help others. If depression takes hold, consider seeing a doctor or counselor, joining a mental health support group such as NAMI, or calling the national crisis line 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If, on the other hand, you have resources to spare, plan to visit socially isolated neighbors or a senior center to spread good cheer.


  • Take it easy. We all know that shops, service providers, and travel routes get busy this time of year. Recognize and accept this reality. Schedule extra time to travel and accomplish your errands so that you won’t feel rushed and impatient. Abide by the limits you set for yourself. When negativity creeps in, smile, take a deep breath, and let it go. Silently repeat positive mantras such as “I am an oasis of calm” and “I am grateful, I have everything I need.” No matter how busy or pressured you feel, take the time to relax and enjoy yourself even when you have a list of unfinished tasks. Relax, and make these stress-less strategies your new holiday tradition.


  • Find a local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) support group

    10.16.2009

    Can't We All Just Get Along? Keeping Your Cool in a Conflict

    In their efforts to “win” and be “right,” people often let disagreement escalate into a futile and frustrating struggle for power. But conflict doesn’t have to be adversarial. When handled carefully, a conflict can defuse hostility, generate alliances, and stimulate creative solutions. In the case of confronting an issue that has been ignored or avoided, conflict can be especially liberating. And the basic tools of conflict resolution can be learned and practiced by anyone.

    Because conflict is an inevitable part of life, it makes sense to learn some simple conflict resolution strategies. Below, I’ve presented my take on the National Multicultural Institute’s nine-step model for conflict resolution to help get you started.

    First, take a moment to reflect on a stressful conflict from your recent past. Then as you review the following guidelines, mentally compare each suggestion to what actually happened in your conflict. Imagine how things might have gone differently and pinpoint your particular strengths and weaknesses. Finally, consider how you might adapt your approach to improve the outcome of future conflicts.

    1. Listen with respect and openness. Before you even begin a discussion, calm yourself and step back from your emotions. Try not to take the situation personally, even if you feel defensive or under attack. Let go of grudges and preconceptions so that you enter the conversation with an open mind. Imagine that you are hearing everything for the first time.


    2. Look at the situation from the other person’s perspective. It’s easy to get trapped in tunnel vision, in which we convince ourselves that our way is the only way. Especially if the conflict surrounds a longstanding problem, it’s difficult to see things as the other person might see them. But it is crucial to set your pride aside and really listen. Avoid assumptions and ask questions if you don’t understand. Verbally summarize what you heard them say and ask for confirmation or clarification.


    3. Let the other person hear an explanation of your perspective. Explain your viewpoint clearly and patiently. Make sure to separate the person from the problem. In other words, focus on behaviors or situations that you want to change rather than personal traits. If you remain calm, use “I” statements and non-judgmental language, and stick to the facts during this step, then you increase the likelihood that the other person will listen.


    4. Recognize similarities and differences. Part of this involves defining the problem to ensure that you are talking about the same issue. Too often, people skip this step and simply assume that their respective complaints or goals are mutual. But it’s necessary to state the problem explicitly to avoid circling and frustration. Once you establish that you’re talking about the same problem, there are always at least one or two points on which you already see things similarly. If you can’t find any common ground, you might need to return to step one. As you identify differences, be careful not to use an accusatory or judgmental tone of voice.


    5. Acknowledge any cultural differences. Sometimes gender, race, religion, and other aspects of cultural identity and values remain an unspoken but powerful factor in a conflict. It’s not always easy to bring these into the open, but open acknowledgment of cultural differences can help define the relevant issues and sort out underlying unconscious motivations.


    6. Look for common ground. Find something—anything—to agree on, even if it’s just being able to name a common goal. Remind yourself that everyone will benefit if you can see this as a cooperative process.


    7. Recommend action. Be creative. Brainstorm as many possibilities as you can without worrying about how to achieve them. Even outlandish ideas might inspire other, more viable ones.


    8. Determine what adaptations each person is willing to make to find a satisfactory alternative. Where can you be flexible? What are your priorities and needs? See if you can sacrifice a little to accomplish your broader objectives. This is when keeping the “big picture” in mind matters most.


    9. Negotiate an agreement. Be realistic. You may decide you need to meet again for further discussion. You may have to check with other stakeholders to get their approval for your solutions. Or in some cases, you may just have to agree to disagree. If you find yourself stuck, consider hiring a professional mediator.


    In the heat of the moment, it sometimes feels more important to be right than to maintain a respectful, win-win attitude. But if you approach your conflict with goodwill, calm, and trust in the collaborative process, you’ll find that even monumental conflicts can be overcome.

    In most cases, conflict is about more than one issue; it’s about a relationship. Recognize that with a little give and take, the conflict resolution process has the potential to strengthen your rapport with others. And each successful resolution will give you the confidence and abilities to negotiate future encounters with ease.

    To learn more about win-win conflict resolution, I highly recommend that you read Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.
    This book explains how to see situations from other perspectives, how to maintain goodwill as you negotiate, and the finer points of getting your needs met without competition and hostility. You can read excerpts from the book or purchase it at Amazon.com.



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    Sources: National Multicultural Institute (NMCI), Nine-Step Model for Conflict Resolution; The Media Trust, Conflict resolution: Detailed facts and guidelines.

    10.01.2009

    Awaken to Life with a Daily Ritual

    While a fast-paced routine and high expectations are not inherently bad, the full-throttle way of life can spiral into counterproductive patterns of worry, overcommitment, and perfectionism. If your current lifestyle depletes rather than feeds your happiness, a daily ritual might restore your sense of balance and personal power.

    Each morning, I awaken myself literally and metaphorically with a ritual. Otherwise, auto-pilot thrusts me into a rush of work, errands, and agitation that I find unsatisfying. To give you a sense of what I mean by a “ritual,” here’s an example of how my morning ritual brings me to life:

    The alarm clock siren startles me into consciousness. I envision leaving the haven of my warm blankets for the obligations that await me. I fight the temptation to stay in bed, and ultimately my dog licks my face and scampers across my body enough times to overrule my urge to linger. Finally, with a determined heave, I put both feet on the floor. It’s a new day, for what it’s worth.

    I put on my workout clothes and wash my face so there’s no excuse not to walk out my front door, no temptation to eat breakfast or check email (there’s time for that later). As I grab my dog Luna’s leash and we head out the front door, my eyes adjust to the half-dark of dawn. The possibilities of the day take shape alongside the shadowy forms of oak trees and mailboxes that line the street.

    At first, I run at a slow pace. I focus internally to remind my muscles to relax into the natural rhythm of my pace and monitor the gradual rise in my heart rate. I rotate my focus between breathing, relaxation, and posture. After a few minutes this becomes more effortless, and I transfer my attention to my surroundings. I hear the steady sounds of my footfalls on the sidewalk as I watch the clouds evolve through the color spectrum of sunrise.

    As my body warms, the natural setting and rhythmic motions open up a sacred space in which I appreciate my body’s limits, capabilities, and presence in the environment. It’s a transition from rest to action that establishes my physical and spiritual aliveness. As I enjoy the changing light of dawn, I consider all the blessings in my life. I finish my run with a sense of accomplishment, gratitude, and hope, just as the sun’s full brilliance shines above the horizon.

    After a cool-down and a good stretch, I savor a homemade carrot muffin with orange juice and coffee. I visualize how I will soak up every sight, sound, and texture that I can today. I might admire two cardinals as they take flight from the branches of an azalea bush or exchange a smile with a stranger. Like the nourishing flavors of my breakfast, these small pleasures are the fuel that I need to appreciate the wonders of being alive and to make the most of the day.

    Whether you begin or end your day with a meaningful ritual, try not to rush the process or consider it an obligation. If you are strict or critical of yourself when you skip a day or if you imagine that you’re “not doing it right,” then you’re missing the point.

    Instead, see your ritual’s potential to focus your intention on a positive feeling or attitude that you’d like to cultivate. You may choose to meditate each morning to expand your capacity for joy or gratitude, or to establish a nighttime ritual to relieve the tension that accumulates throughout the day and prepare for a restful night’s sleep.

    Each day offers a smorgasbord of sensation and possibility that will never present itself in the same way again. There are lessons to learn from the people and environments that we encounter, but we must join the world in order to derive meaning from it. We are responsible for drawing or creating beauty from the raw materials of “what is” and taking action to construct the forms of our lives. Use your ritual to help you make the most of this day. Use it to soothe, replenish, and expand your consciousness.

    Living well now contributes to a better tomorrow. Rushing through life worrying about the future will not. So do yourself a favor. Wake up. Eat a muffin. And get out there and live.

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    My morning ritual would not be possible without the ChiRunning technique, which made it possible for me to run without knee pain. Using a combination of breathing, posture, and awareness, ChiRunning transformed my daily walk into a running ritual that relaxes and energizes me. Find it at your local library or read excerpts and buy it at Amazom.com:

    9.11.2009

    A Declaration of Dignity for Mental Illness

    I am not ashamed to admit that I suffer from depression. Sometimes this disclosure surprises my neighbors, friends, and counseling clients. They’re accustomed to hearing someone mention that they had the flu, skin cancer, or diabetes… but it’s rare to hear someone talk about agoraphobia or their latest depressive episode while chatting it up at the office water cooler. Talking about mental health problems is taboo, and stigma fuels the tendency to keep our mouths shut about our private struggles.

    Silence won’t make these conditions go away. The challenges of mental health and illness affect us all, and talking about them can only dispel the myths and misinformation that surrounds them. I’m not alone in my history of depression. I can easily think of a dozen family members and friends who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, cocaine addiction, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. No one is immune.

    People with mental illness are people in my life, people that I love. They aren’t lunatics, and they aren’t dangerous. They’re just like you and me, and they—we—deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.

    Public Stigma, Private Pain

    Imagine for a moment that an acquaintance tells you that she has a mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. How might you respond? Would you feel uncomfortable? Would you perceive her differently than you did before? Perhaps your reaction would vary according to which disorder she has or how well you know her. Regardless of the particulars, studies demonstrate that most of us will react with fear, distancing, and rejection.

    Stigma is another name for the negative stereotypes our culture attaches to a characteristic or behavior. Usually based on a combination of fear and false beliefs, stigma leads to judgment and discrimination. In the case of mental illness, these fears are rooted in unfounded beliefs that characterize people with mental illness as weak, bizarre, shameful, or violent.

    Because our culture lacks understanding of mental disorders, these conditions remain shrouded in mystery and denial. The stigma of mental illness causes people to conceal their disorders. Fear of negative labels and disrespect leads them to hide the truth—sometimes even from themselves.

    That fear of rejection discourages people in pain from seeking support. The majority (two thirds) of people with mental conditions don’t seek any treatment. Stigma is the number one factor that keeps people from getting the help they need for ailments that are generally treatable with medication and psychotherapy.

    Awareness, Understanding, and Action

    Next time you learn of someone’s mental health problems, be aware of your gut reaction. If you feel the urge to distance yourself, don’t beat yourself up about it. Nervousness and fear are normal responses to the unknown. But instead of succumbing to the urge to remove yourself from the situation, see if you can calm yourself and stay present. Instead of falling into old patterns of judgment or stereotyping, experiment with a new pattern of empathy.

    Imagine what fears and challenges you might face in the other person’s position. If you are unaware of what their disorder is or worry that you’ll say the wrong thing, try asking questions to learn more about their condition and how it feels to live with it. After all, each year in the United States, approximately 45 million people (about 1 person in 4) experience a mental illness. That means that if you haven’t endured a mental illness yet, there's a good chance that you will.

    Like physical disease and injury, some mental disorders have a biological basis while others are prompted by life circumstances and environment. It might help to view these seemingly foreign conditions as similar to bodily diseases. While they aren’t contagious, everyone is susceptible to them. And as we all learn more about prevention and treatment of mental health disorders, stigmatized perceptions of mental illness will emerge from the shadows of ignorance and fear.

    We Are Not Our Illnesses

    So far, the mental illness stigma remains strong. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. If you have a mental illness, don’t be afraid to seek help from friends, family, doctors, or therapists. Remember that you are more than your illness, and you can find ways to cope.

    It is my hope that you will join me in speaking out about the stigma that distorts our views of people who have mental illnesses. We have the power to become more informed and tolerant. As we renounce labels and stereotyping, the mental illness stigma loses its power to shame and condemn people who are simply in pain. With knowledge comes the courage to speak openly and emphasize our common vulnerabilities over our differences. When that happens, we all live with greater dignity.

    Learn More:
    Ways to Cope with Stigma
    Programs to Combat Stigma
    Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health

    8.21.2009

    Taste the Flavor of Life: Mindful Eating

    When we eat mindfully, the same love of food that can lead to overeating becomes the key to eating less because we experience greater enjoyment and satiation. Eating becomes more than a habit or compulsion; we transform it into a form of nourishment and sustenance for body and soul.

    Too often, eating is just one more mindless activity that I cram into a busy day. If I drive my car, flip through a magazine, or watch TV while I eat, I don’t pay attention to my food. Not only will that lead me to eat beyond the point of fullness, but it cheats me out of one of life’s most delicious pleasures.

    This distracted way of life robs us of the flavor of our food and the flavor of life. But mindful eating can reawaken us to pleasure and joy. It is a simple process to learn, and it makes automatic and emotional eating a thing of the past.

    Here are my 5 steps to mindful eating:

    1. Tune in. Take a few deep breaths. Turn off your television or music so that it’s quiet. Ask yourself what prompted you to seek food. Are you hungry? Or are you eating out of habit, boredom, or to fill an emotional void?

    2. Prepare with care. As you assemble the ingredients and begin to prepare your snack or meal, notice the colors, textures, and aromas of the food. Consider the natural and human effort that went into the food’s production. Arrange your food attractively on your plate. Light candles or use cloth napkins to make an everyday meal feel special.

    3. Appreciate. Take a moment to recognize how fortunate you are to have food to eat when you are hungry. Give thanks for your body and its ability to turn nourishment into energy. Again, become aware of the pleasing aromas and appearance of your food. If you are eating with someone else, take a moment to really see them and appreciate their company.

    4. Take it slow. Bring your attention to the moment. Take a small bite. Close your eyes. How does the food feel and taste when you first bite into it or place it in your mouth? What temperature is it? Do you sense salt, sweet, sour, or bitter most prominently? Chew slowly and savor the distinctive flavors. Between bites, set down your fork or spoon. If your attention wanders, bring it back to the process of eating slowly and mindfully.

    5. Satiation. About halfway through your meal, evaluate your level of hunger. When you feel 2/3 of the way full, stop. Give your mind time to catch up to your body and receive the signal that you’ve had enough. Think about your mindful eating experience. If you had trouble staying present, that’s okay. You’ve already taken a step toward a more healthful and satisfying relationship with food.

    It’s a terrible feeling to sit before an empty plate and have little recollection of the process—much less the enjoyment—of consuming its contents. When I find myself in this situation, I feel an unpleasant blend of guilt and regret that relates to my sense that I’m not giving my diet and body the care and attention they deserve.

    Make this small change to take better care of your self. Mindfulness is a process that feels more natural with practice. You can begin with more awareness of your eating drives and habits, and then progress to a fuller appreciation of the sensual pleasures of eating. I hope you’ll experiment with mindful eating and let me know how it works for you.

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    Thich Nhat Hanh offers a lovely way to share a mindful meal with your loved ones in Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Read excerpts or buy it on Amazon.com.

    7.09.2009

    Becoming Buddha: Practice Makes Perfect

    When I frown, complain, or otherwise lose touch with my positive side, my friends tease me about emotional awareness, the benefits of smiling, or one of my other upbeat article topics. I get their point; it’s funny to think that my writing could cause people to imagine me as a smiling, Buddha-like guru, the perfect model of mental health and enlightenment. And that image isn’t entirely false… I do smile a lot, and I believe in the benefits of mindfulness, awareness, and a positive attitude. But you know something that I don’t believe in? Perfection.

    Do I sound a little defensive? I am. The truth is, while I claim that perfection is a myth, part of me still expects that I can and should be perfect. Yes, there is some degree of social expectation to be at our best all the time; I detect a touch of challenge in the good-natured ribbing of my friends. But the real challenge resides in my own mind, in the pressure that I place on myself.

    Here’s how it looks for me when I’m not so self-aware: on a low energy day, I push myself and demand accomplishment. I keep a mental list of what I’ve done that day, which inevitably won’t measure up to my expectations. Or when a bad mood comes, I fight it and try to act as though everything is okay. Now, I know I’m not the only one who does this. Yet although these “downs” are normal parts of our energy and temperament cycles, we hide them away like shameful defects. Why the pressure to be— to appear—so perfect when we’re doing the best that we can?

    Obstacles and uncertainty are a natural part of the self-improvement process. Being honest about our vulnerabilities deepens the value of this process by setting more realistic expectations and connecting us to one another. That’s why I include examples of my own experience in my writing. When we acknowledge our shared weaknesses and common humanity, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief because it’s safe to be ourselves. And in accepting our own fallibility and lack of control over external circumstances, we can more readily accept “what is.”

    Despite perfectionist expectations from within and without, the real objective is to keep pushing our growing edge. To allow space for growth, we can use a daily practice (such as meditation, journaling, or prayer) as an opportunity to slow down and peacefully check in with ourselves. These practices expand our capacity for acceptance when we use them to let go of thoughts about what we should be in favor of appreciating what we already are.

    I use meditation to focus on gratitude or repeat a positive mantra. As I practice it, I reactivate the positive, accepting parts of myself. Writing is another practice I use to let go of perfectionist ideas. In my writing I explore ways to live a full and balanced life— as tools, not as standards to which we should compare ourselves. Writing functions both as a practice that enhances my awareness and as a reminder of my ideals. Any wellness practice—even reading and writing about self-improvement— keeps self-validating concepts fresh in our minds and hearts.

    I am a long way from Buddha-like equanimity or enlightenment, but I try to learn from Buddhist teachings. One of those is to relieve suffering by removing desire. Perfectionism is a desire for the impossible. Acceptance is the ultimate antidote to perfectionism. Through a mindfulness practice, we develop the ability to accept what we are rather than what we think we should be.

    When self-criticism and perfectionism seep into my consciousness, I remind myself that I am a learner, not a master of these ways of life. I refocus on gratitude, positive intention, and the benefits of the process itself. I practice, and then I practice some more. Practice will never make perfect. But I can be content in the knowledge that, for me, practice IS perfect.

    6.22.2009

    Breathe Easier with Emotional Awareness

    Emotional expression is as important to life as breathing. So when we suffocate our emotions, they inevitably arise in some form. Unacknowledged emotions can build up and burst from us like a desperate gasp for breath— often in a way that is misdirected, over-reactive, or self-destructive.

    See if any of these unintended emotional eruptions sound familiar to you: lashing out at a friend; excessive use of food, sex, or alcohol; and stress-related illnesses like depression or high blood pressure. These conditions and behaviors may feel involuntary or beyond our control, but with practice we can learn to manage them more effectively.

    We Learn Emotional Awareness

    The first step in this process is emotional awareness. If your family openly expressed emotion, then as an adult emotional awareness probably comes naturally to you; you easily identify and articulate your emotions. However, if your family sent mixed or negative messages about how to handle emotion, you may struggle to detect, label, and communicate your feelings.

    I fall into the latter category; my tendency is to push emotions aside. As a child, it was to my advantage to appear calm and happy—to comply and “be good” even when I felt upset or unsure. It felt safer to suppress fear and sadness.

    As a teenager and adult, I continued this pattern of obedience, self-control, and perfectionism. Rather than fully experience emotion and appear vulnerable, I denied the discomfort of sadness, insecurity, or hurt. Yet they always popped up somehow, taking me off-guard with unwanted outward (angry outbursts) or inward (depressed mood) expressions.

    Acceptance and Emotional Management

    Nobody likes to be surprised by these emotional eruptions, but we can interpret them as signals that our emotions need some breathing room. If you listen closely, the information you gain through emotional awareness allows you to respond in a balanced—rather than impulsive or reactive—way to your emotional needs.

    For example: do you ever have one of those days when you feel overwhelmed and off-kilter? I had a day like that last week, and I tried to ignore my emotions and be “productive.” That didn’t work for long. I had to tune into the emotional cause of my distress in order to regain control. Fortunately, once I became aware of the fear that caused my anxiety—and let myself feel it—I was able to focus on my work again. Emotional awareness led to emotional relief.

    Becoming Aware

    Emotional awareness involves the ability to sense, identify, and accept your feelings. On a personal level, these skills breed contentment and increased self-esteem. In relationships, they lead to more authentic interactions. An understanding of your own motivations, preferences, and desires leads you to live with integrity and make choices based on your values rather than on impulse.

    To assess your emotional awareness:

    Examine your underlying beliefs about emotions.

  • Were you discouraged from showing feelings? Were you taught to hide or deny them?
  • Did you learn that emotions are dangerous and should be feared or controlled?
  • Do you think that certain emotions are “good” and others are “bad” or shameful?
  • Are your beliefs productive or counterproductive to your mental health?

    Tune in to emotional signals.
  • Do you experience nausea or stomach upset? What about headaches, chronic pain, high blood pressure, panic attacks, or frequent colds?
  • Do these symptoms worsen during times when you feel anxious, sad, lonely, or fearful?
  • What about when you are around a certain person or group or in particular situations?
  • Do you use food, alcohol, or sex in a compulsive way?
  • Could unhealthy patterns in your life represent unmet emotional needs?
  • Do you make any solitary, quiet time in your schedule when you allow your emotions to come to the surface?

    Here are some tips to help you develop your emotional awareness:

    Accept feelings as a natural part of life. The way you feel is always okay; it’s just how you express yourself that might need some adjustment! Try to accept your feelings without judgment.

    Have an “emotion session.” If you find that a powerful emotion interferes with your productivity or concentration, try setting aside half an hour per day to let that emotion flow freely. By dedicating a time slot for freeing that emotion, you regain some control over the rest of your time and diffuse its subconscious power. When the time slot rolls around, let it all out!

    Identify the source emotion. Joy, hurt, anger, and fear underlie almost every other emotion. When you feel upset, try to determine what the underlying emotions may be. Sometimes we choose a more culturally accepted emotion to disguise vulnerability, such as when someone criticizes others (trying to appear powerful through anger) to disguise fear of rejection or hurt.

    Build your emotional vocabulary. Consult a thesaurus, talk about your feelings with a trusted friend, or use the link below to refer to an "Emotions Chart." Try to label your emotions as precisely as possible. Just giving a feeling a name can bring some relief. If you can’t name the feeling, that’s okay, too. The important thing is to be aware.

    Keep a daily journal. Even when you aren’t sure what you feel, writing can express your emotions in a way that thinking and talking about them cannot. If you let yourself be honest, you may discover things about yourself as you write that surprise you.

    Exercise and eat right. Your physical health and emotional health are inseparable. Exercise is a great way to release tension when you are angry, and it can elevate your mood when you are sad or hurt. Also, repetitive exercises like swimming or walking are opportunities to reflect on or process emotions.

    Practice mindfulness, meditation, and conscious breathing. As you learn to be in the moment, you grow more aware of your body and emotions. I frequently use the Emotional Ease guided meditation from Meditation Oasis (link below). It helps me to get in touch with vague or uncomfortable emotions and to let go of my resistance to certain feelings. And don't forget to breathe! That will keep you calm and ready to process any emotional signals.

    With practice, emotional awareness enriches self-knowledge and integrity. As comfort with emotional identification and expression grows, so does our ability to regulate emotion and live more authentically.

  • ---
    Click to view an Emotion Chart

    Visit Meditation Oasis to purchase the “Emotional Ease” meditation on CD (or listen for free by clicking the podcast link on the home page).

    Or, you can download the free Emotional Ease podcast at iTunes - Meditation Oasis

    6.05.2009

    Faking It: Smile Therapy?

    Don't throw those antidepressants out just yet-- smiling obviously won't cure clinical depression or solve the world's problems. But don't discount it entirely, either, because research shows that a smile can make things look a little sunnier.

    At first, acting happy to feel happy might seem a strange reversal of the common belief that actions are driven by thoughts or feelings. But it’s true—clinical research studies show that just as happy emotions drive happy behaviors like smiling, happy behaviors foster happy feelings. The message highway between your brain and body runs in both directions.

    Acting happy to elicit positive emotions is a lot like the counseling intervention of “acting as if.” “Acting as if” rests on the assumption that people act in accordance to their values and beliefs. The idea is that by choosing to act on less prominent (but more positive) beliefs about yourself and the world, you can learn to feel more comfortable with these positive behaviors and beliefs.

    It’s a little like the “fake it ‘til you make it” cliché. Even though your smile may feel contrived and artificial at first, positive intention and practice gradually melt into a more genuine sense of awareness and appreciation.

    Where the Body Leads, the Emotions Follow

    One recent study demonstrated that facial expression and posture provoked related emotions. That tells us that if you smile, lift your chin, and stand upright, you’ll feel happy and confident. If you frown, shrug, or slump, you’ll feel sad or angry.

    Not everyone is susceptible to this effect, but I can attest to its validity in my life. In high school, I tested a psychology teacher’s assertion that lifting one’s chin two inches would inspire confidence. While it took practice to overhaul my slouchy, angst-ridden teen posture, that slight adjustment profoundly impacted my posture and self-esteem. Even now, on days when I need a confidence boost I remember to keep my chin up. Literally.

    Expression Overhaul

    For years, I wore a serious, almost frowning expression by default. I didn’t like that people constantly asked me what was wrong, and I often heard comments about how “intimidating” I was. Even worse were the occasions when someone cheerfully urged me to “smile!” Those well-meaning remarks pushed my peeve button every time.

    So, driven in part by a desire to avoid irritation, I attended more closely to my expression. I reminded myself to lift the edges of my mouth to a more neutral position, and I tried to smile as often as I could. Over time, people stopped seeing me as intimidating and didn’t ask me what was wrong as often. I was surprised to find that the transition happened internally as well—I even felt more tolerant and accepting of others. While I didn’t undergo a complete transformation, I was less angry and more hopeful. All from smiling a little more.

    Smile Therapy

    A character on the Ally McBeal television series engaged in what he called “smile therapy” when he felt especially distraught or uptight. When things went wrong, he pasted on a broad, toothy smile. The effect was comedic, but he was on to something.

    Putting your smile muscles to work during times of stress changes your outlook for a couple of reasons. First, the brain interprets this muscle movement to mean that you’re happy or contented. Even holding a pencil horizontally between your teeth is enough to approximate a smile, as far as your brain is concerned.

    Second, your mood and perceptions of neutral events grow more positive simply from “acting” happy. Happy behavior isn’t likely to erase the trauma of a crisis, but it will encourage you to view mundane events from a more generous perspective. An upbeat posture and expression primes your brain to give others the benefit of the doubt or to see the “lighter side.”

    Besides these advantages, the sheer absurdity of smiling in moments of duress breaks the problem-centered mindset of anxiety and anger. When you take yourself less seriously, you can be a little gentler with everyone else, too.

    You Get What You Give

    Smiling signifies contentment to your brain, but it also reminds us to be aware of the signals we send to the world. If you project a scowl or frown as I once did, what kind of response do you expect to get?

    In settings ranging from bedroom to boardroom, a smile is the best starting point for any interaction. Smiles project positive energy, confidence, and acceptance. A pleasant expression invites openness and collaboration. It’s a small gift that you can offer someone who might be caught up in a difficult day or a bad mood. And far from being a selfless act, it will improve your attitude as well.

    Grin and Bear It

    Life is full of disappointments and setbacks. Things go wrong every day. But it’s important to acknowledge that things also go right. When we smile, we train ourselves to interpret the world in a more positive way—or at least remind ourselves that life is easier if we accept things the way they are. I keep a smiling Buddha sculpture in my meditation corner as an example. When I find myself resisting the flow of life’s ups and downs, I follow his lead and let my face relax into an accepting smile.

    In Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. Our smile affirms our awareness and determination to live in peace and joy. The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.”

    Peaceful, positive actions lead to peaceful, positive feelings. For me, smiling and standing tall inspires me to see the world as a better, friendlier place even as I contribute to making it so. It enables me to laugh more readily at life and at myself. Try it and see what a posture makeover, expression overhaul, or smile therapy does for you.

    ---
    Thich Nhat Hanh is one of my favorite role models for happiness. Read excerpts from or buy Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life on Amazon.com.

    ---
    Source: Schnall, S., & Laird, J. D. (2003). Keep smiling: Enduring effects of facial expressions and postures on emotional experience. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 787-797.

    5.08.2009

    Quickies: 10 Minutes to a More Balanced Life


    Previously in Life Is Now, I talked about "tuning in" to nurture the dormant parts of our selves ("Tune In to Turn On! Speak Your Truth"). Even as we awaken our full potentials, it’s easy to fall out of balance when money concerns, responsibilities, and cramped schedules distract us from self-care. But it only takes 10 minutes to cultivate greater balance.

    First, determine which of your needs aren’t being met. If you aren’t sure, use this self-assessment. Then, choose an activity that will help restore balance to that part of your self and your life. Whether that means crossing an item off your to-do list or indulging in a special treat, devote a few minutes each day to your mental health and you will begin to feel more peaceful and fulfilled. Consider these mental health quickies:

    Restore and Replenish

    · Walk, do sit-ups, or jump rope
    · Eat a snack
    · Take a nap
    · Breathe deeply
    · Cook or find a new recipe to try
    · Drink a cup of tea
    · Put your feet up
    · Stretch
    · Do a few yoga poses
    · Find a cause and sign up to volunteer

    Repair and Resolve

    · Hire a babysitter
    · Ask someone else to cook
    · Make an appointment to see a therapist
    · Do the dishes
    · Ask for help with a project
    · Balance your checkbook
    · Plan a day off
    · Organize your work area
    · Call about an overdue doctor/dentist/service appointment
    · Catch up on e-mail

    Nurture and Connect

    · Talk or write to a friend
    · Lay in a hammock
    · Meditate or pray
    · Pay a compliment
    · Watch the sunrise/sunset
    · Get and give hugs
    · Sit in a park
    · Give thanks verbally or in writing
    · Plant something
    · Inhale your favorite scent

    Comfort and Indulge

    · Change into sweats, pajamas, or slippers
    · Dry off with towels warmed in the dryer
    · Buy fresh flowers for your home
    · Take a warm bubble bath
    · Get lost in a magazine or book
    · Buy a present—for you or someone else
    · Hug a stuffed animal
    · Listen to a comedy CD or mp3
    · Fantasize or daydream
    · Kiss or make love (what “quickie” list would be complete without this?)

    Create and Play

    · Write in a journal
    · Shoot some hoops
    · Dance or sing to a favorite song
    · Color in a coloring book
    · Work on a jigsaw puzzle, crossword, or Sudoku
    · Play an instrument
    · Work in the garden
    · Swing on a swing
    · Play with your children or pets
    · Tell a joke

    Print and try these "mental health quickies" when you need more balance in your life. Commit to spending just ten or fifteen minutes a day to care for your self. You deserve it!

    What can you add to the list? How do you carve out time to take care of yourself? Share your ideas and stress relief strategies with us by adding a comment.

    4.28.2009

    Micro-Goals for Motivation Success


    We all know that exercise can help us feel good, but that first step can be a challenge even for people in the best of health. It’s even harder when you carry the burden of obesity, depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia, or chronic fatigue. These conditions sap your strength, crush your motivation, and turn your thoughts pessimistic.

    But micro-goals can help you outsmart those symptoms. I used this particular set of micro-goals to start walking when I was sick and depressed. Perhaps they’ll inspire you to take your first steps.

    Micro-Goals for Exercising

    You can use the micro-goal approach however you like, but I experienced dramatic results with walking. Experts may say you should get 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise, but to me that sounds like a massive commitment. Sometimes I struggle to motivate myself to spend 5 minutes unloading the dishwasher, much less getting dressed in workout gear to sweat, huff, and puff for 30 minutes.

    So when my doctor recommended walking to ease my depression, I wanted to try it but I couldn’t imagine pulling off the daily exercise. Then a physical therapist advised me to start with 5 minutes per day. His advice sounded realistic. Do-able.

    I won’t lie—those first few days were miserable and hard. But soon it got better, and so did I. It all started with that first micro-goal: 5 minutes of walking. Here are some of the micro-goal strategies that worked for me:

    Put One Foot on the Floor

    With depression, even getting out of bed or off the couch can seem like too much. If getting up is a challenge, don’t even think about exercise. Instead, think of the smallest possible first step: putting one foot on the floor. That tiny movement can jump-start your momentum.

    Get into Gear

    Literally: put on your walking clothes and shoes. Do it first thing when you wake up or get home from work. This strategy prepares you to take advantage of the slightest hint of motivation when it strikes. If motivation doesn’t come, that’s okay. But if it does, you’re ready.

    Feel Terrible… and Do It Anyway

    It sounds simplistic, but this mental trick lies at the heart of motivation success. Exercise novices can’t fake the feeling of energy and eagerness that comes naturally to advanced fitness enthusiasts. So go ahead and acknowledge that you feel awful and don’t want to walk; I sometimes say it out loud in an exaggerated, whiny voice: “I don’t WANT to go out!” Saying it aloud makes a thought real, and thus less powerful; and the whiny tone helps me recognize my stubbornness while the silliness factor helps me laugh at myself.

    Once you let go of your resistance to negative thoughts and accept that you feel terrible and unmotivated, those thoughts
    become less powerful and overwhelming. As long as your physician gives you the okay, it can’t hurt to walk out that door despite whatever excuses your body and mind throw at you.

    Remember: It’s Only Five Minutes

    Don’t worry about long-term commitment or some “30-minutes-a-day” nonsense. A short walk to the end of the street and back was the perfect start for me because I could remind yourself that it was only five minutes—and I could even see my destination from the front door. If that still sounds overwhelming, your first walk objective could be walking for one minute around your living room. Whatever your comfort level, make your first goal one that you can accomplish.

    Celebrate Success

    One way to transform depression’s negative thought patterns is to increase positive thinking. When you accomplish any of these steps—even just getting one foot on the floor—praise yourself for that effort and achievement! It’s easy to get in the habit of discounting our accomplishments. We think “it’s no big deal,” or “I should’ve/could’ve done it sooner/longer/better.” Banish these kinds of thoughts. You must be your own best advocate. Instead, try thoughts like, “I got moving… that’s a great start” or simply: “I’m awesome.”

    Step by Step

    Walking is an ideal place to start when it comes to exercise. It’s something almost anyone can do. It requires nothing other than mobility, comfortable shoes, and stepping out the door. Plus, somehow “taking a walk” sounds more mundane and convenient than “exercise” or “working out.” While it’s just a matter of terminology, every little bit of psychological edge helps.

    Motivation to Momentum

    With micro-goals, don’t even worry about long-term commitment or how you’ll work up to longer, more frequent sessions. Those things will take care of themselves when the time comes. Just use micro-goals to break the process down into the smallest possible increments. Tiny steps get you moving; then you can build momentum from that initial success.

    Try these strategies to achieve the hardest part: getting started. Realize micro-goals with small, manageable steps. And as you build momentum, strength, and stamina you’ll be on your way to better physical and mental health. For now, it’s just about putting one foot in front of the other.



    4.09.2009

    Difference Does Not Equal Disability

    Here’s what “disability” looks like: a pigtailed 3-year-old girl holds a baby doll and smiles; a teenage boy sinks yet another three-pointer on the basketball court. Now adjust your mental image: the little girl holds the doll between her chin and chest because she has no arms; the teenage boy’s left arm ends at his ribcage level and doesn’t have any fingers.

    These are only a couple of examples of the adaptation and ability that characterized my weekend at “Hand Camp.” Hand Camp is Hands to Love’s annual retreat for families of children with congenital upper limb differences. In other words, these kids were born with arms or hands that are somehow different than the norm. Yet they can do most everything that I can. In many cases (such as my fellow basketball player), they do it better.

    This was my fourth year at camp, which takes place at Camp Crystal Lake in Keystone Heights, Florida. I host support groups and workshops where parents reflect, connect, and share solutions with each other. Parenting is universally challenging; it’s even more so when your family contends with frequent doctor visits, multiple surgeries, and the stigma and stares that people with a physical difference often encounter.

    Hands to Love’s mission is to “[bring] together children with congenital hand differences and their families to create a safe haven in which these families can try new activities, share experiences and develop a support network.” And that support network is strong; founded and run by a doctor and occupational therapists, this year’s volunteers included adaptive equipment experts, occupational therapists, physical therapists, a clinical psychologist, college students, and adults with upper limb differences (a.k.a. “AULDs”) from a variety of fields.

    These volunteers join forces with campers and families to network, adapt, achieve, and thrive. But the true power of Hand Camp lies in the challenge and celebration that camp activities provide for the kids. Camp Crystal Lake features rock climbing, kayaking, arts and crafts, swimming, a ropes course, and archery—all in a safe environment.

    I emphasize safety in the standard sense of trained staff that ensures no one gets hurt; but safe, too, in the emotional sense. For these kids, it’s easier to take risks and be themselves without the interference of onlookers who assume they can’t perform an activity—or, worse, won’t even let them try.

    In each activity, volunteers are there to help; but it’s common for kids with limb differences to work out how to do things on their own—just turn around and they’ve devised a new way to hold a fork or tie shoelaces. The more physical pursuits might necessitate special adaptations (a strap or stand to hold a bow and arrow, for example), but everyone works together to find a way for campers to experience success.

    While much is possible for these children, life with a limb difference isn’t always such fun. In addition to physical challenges, discomfort and injury can arise from pointed stares, rude questions, teasing, and bullying. [See this LIFE Center article to learn more about these challenges.]

    That’s why Hand Camp is so important. One weekend a year, these kids get the opportunity to be themselves in a context that doesn’t single them out. Instead, they’re surrounded by people who, like them, prefer to focus on strengths and ability. Campers make new friends, learn new skills—even practice new dance moves. They also get to interact with older kids and AULDs, who are living proof of the unlimited possibilities for the future.

    It’s hard to describe the support and positive energy that electrifies the air of Hand Camp each year, but I know that I leave feeling better than when I arrived. Being a part of the Hands to Love mission infuses me with hope and motivates me to try more, expect more, and be more. It inspires me to sustain the attitude—the conviction—that anything is possible.

    Ever feel self-conscious or unsure when interacting with someone with a disability or difference? Check out LIFE Center’s Straight Talk about Disability.

    Or, click these links to read more about the
    Hands to Love organization, Hand Camp 2009 (news article), and awesome AULD Wendy Stoeker.

    3.20.2009

    The Enlightened Hugger

    Last week’s post (“The Hug Manifesto: Hold On for Dear Life”) promoted hugging to comfort and connect with others; this week I suggest ways you can use hugs to transform relationships and expand your mindfulness practice.

    Deeper Emotional Connections

    It’s so easy to fall into a routine and fail to connect with the people we love. Even though I exchange daily doses of hugs with my friends and family, sometimes I’m guilty of going through the motions without much awareness of the moment. So every now and then I try to step back, slow down, and appreciate these expressions of love more fully. In one memorable instance, I used the “hugging until relaxed” technique to forge a deeper connection with my Mom.

    I ran across David Schnarch’s “hugging until relaxed” exercise while reading Passionate Marriage for a counseling class. This technique extends hug time beyond the cursory embrace so that participants move beyond self-consciousness to relax into one another.

    In addition to the technique’s application within a marriage, Schnarch writes about the impact of hugs in other relationships. One of his examples pertained to hugging his father twenty years ago, which he compared to “embracing a tree trunk.” As the years passed, Schnarch’s father softened by degrees. At the same time, he gradually became more relaxed when hugging his son. As the duration and relaxation of their hugs increased, they fostered a more open and affectionate relationship. The hugs both reflected and contributed to their growing closeness.

    While I’m all for hugging tree trunks (see below), I’m thankful that my Mom’s hugs were never wooden; instead, they were energetic and smiling—but brief. After reading about Schnarch’s experience with his father, I wondered if our hugs could be something more. So as my Mom walked me to my car after a visit, I proposed that we try “hugging until relaxed” and explained how the extended-version hug worked. She agreed to try it.

    I took a deep breath and hugged her. At first there was the familiar stiffness and urge to pull away that accompanies most hugs that extend beyond the comfort zone of one person or the other. But after a few more seconds, I felt our bodies relax and a warm, nurturing energy flowed between us.

    It was like a physical version of unconditional love, exactly what I had hoped to feel. As I relaxed into my mother’s hug, I was touched by her willingness to risk the kind of intimacy that didn’t come naturally to us. It was worth the risk to ask her for what I needed, and our hugs have held new meaning ever since.

    Spiritual Hugs

    To me, “hugging until relaxed” resembles the mindfulness elements of slowing down and being in the moment. And its principles overlap with some other, more intentionally spiritual paths to hugging nirvana.
    My favorite comes from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. In Peace Is Every Step, he introduces a Hugging Meditation, which combines hugging and mindfulness to convey love and gratitude or invite reconciliation. The meditation begins with deep breaths and peaceful intention and progresses through several stages of awareness of the moment and your fellow hugger.

    Another option is the Chi Hug, which emphasizes the energy exchanged during a hug. In this extension of ChiWalking© techniques, you use grounded self-awareness as a base to give and receive caring energy in a hug.

    Now here’s one you may not have tried: tree hugging. While Schnarch may consider trees hard and unyielding, many feel grounded by the experience of hugging a tree. It’s no coincidence that yoga features a tree pose and that Qigong martial arts also contains a move called “tree hugging.” Trees represent stability, strength, and the peaceful energy of nature. Especially if you enjoy solitude and the outdoors, a tree hug meditation might lend variety to your spiritual practice.

    Your Next Hug

    I challenge you to try one of these hug variations. And as always, I invite you to share your reactions through the Life Is Now comment link. Here are links to the resources mentioned in today’s blog:

    * If you sign up for Google Book Search, you can preview Passionate Marriage to read more about David Schnarch’s hugging until relaxed technique. Simply sign up, search for the book, view the contents page, and click on the “Hugging Until Relaxed” chapter link.


    * Try Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Hugging
    Meditation
    .

    * Feel the energy in a Chi Hug.

    * Get in touch with nature with this tree hug meditation.

    * Remember to consider the Hugs for Health
    Foundation's
    “Rules for Hugging.”

    ... And be sure to tell me about any new and unique hug variations you discover.



    3.13.2009

    The Hug Manifesto: Hold On for Dear Life

    Hugs have a warm, fuzzy reputation. But they have a serious and powerful side, too. A well-placed hug can defuse strong emotions, bridge differences, and remind us that we are alive and valuable.

    Holding On

    A few years ago I took part in on-call crisis “care teams,” which intervened to support survivors of crises such as crimes, accidents, or suicides. Our training taught us to be present with someone as they experienced shock, horror, sorrow, and grief. Mostly, we listened or sat in silence to literally “be there” for them. Many times, we held people as they cried.

    Sometimes opening my arms to these virtual strangers was the first thing I did after I introduced myself. That hug offered the person in crisis something to hold on to during a moment of extreme instability.

    Being in the presence of someone in crisis can feel exceedingly awkward. A natural response is to fumble for some magic phrase to ease this person’s burden. We try to say something—anything—to fill heavy, dark silences and to help ourselves feel less powerless. Frequently, we just want to get out of there.

    I suggest that we reach out instead. Recognize that while it’s impossible to remove somebody’s pain, a hug can ground and validate everyone involved, even if only for a moment. The physical contact serves as both a reality check and a sign that somebody cares.

    Reaching Across the Divide

    As a gesture of caring, hugs can alleviate personal pain and isolation in non-crisis circumstances, too. Consider, for example, how our society tends to marginalize or isolate groups like the elderly, disabled, developmentally challenged, chronically ill, and people with mental health concerns like depression. These are people who need affection and care the most, yet receive the least. Perhaps it’s difficult for us to acknowledge people who inhabit the very pain and challenges that we fear.

    But these conditions are not contagious. We can’t let fear of difference or infirmity keep us distanced from one another. Instead, a hug reminds us of our common need for validation and acceptance.

    I would extend this concept to other kinds of distancing. For one, I think we mistakenly assume that someone who frowns, seems “tough,” or is radically different from us wouldn’t want a hug. Similarly, the thought of hugging might seem ludicrous in the midst of a conflict or argument. Yet offer a smile or a hug and you may be surprised at how the barriers melt away.

    Strength In Softness

    A great example of this comes from my Dad, who mentioned to me that he hugs his fellow Vietnam veterans. I liked the idea, because war veterans are a group that might not initiate hugs on their own. Aside from being trained to conceal vulnerability, it’s also common for combat vets to suffer from grief, survival guilt, and traumatic memories. Sometimes they “numb” their emotions to protect themselves from feeling that pain. Unfortunately, that can block positive emotions, too.

    Since my Dad’s comment, I’ve added hugs to my expression of thanks when I meet a veteran who displays a tough exterior. And, of course, I make it a point to hug my favorite veteran (my Dad) every chance I get.

    My Hug Manifesto

    I suggest that hugs are one small way to practice open-minded inclusion. When I feel awkward in the presence of someone who arouses my fears of rejection, mortality, or the unknown, I consider it an opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and push my growing edge.

    Yes, it’s scary to be in the presence of pain or the unfamiliar. Yet when my natural impulse is to shut down or escape, I try to remember that making contact can ease the tension and reassure everyone involved. When I offer a hug, I make myself vulnerable because I take the risk of reaching out first. This bestows and invites trust. It conveys goodwill.

    According to the popular statement by family therapist Virginia Satir, “We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth.” According to her criteria, many of us don’t get the hugs we need to survive. But I tend to agree with her philosophy. Because once we make hugging a habit, we do more than survive. We grow.

    Hug Wisely

    Throughout my counseling training, I examined the ethics of touch closely. So I must emphasize that the kind of hugging that I encourage assumes a healthy respect for ethical and individual boundaries. In order to create a positive, compassionate experience, please secure permission before you hug (and see the Hugs for Health Foundation’s Rules for Safe Hugging).

    I don’t believe hugs will save the world from hunger, war, or the scourge of deadly disease. But I do believe in the power of hugs. Any loving, peaceful act is a step in the right direction.

    Next time: Embrace Your Spiritual Side (Hugs for Deeper Connection)

    3.03.2009

    A Little Meat, a Little Cake for Lasting, Balanced Love

    I recently took part in a delightful wedding that encapsulated all the best aspects of a balanced relationship. Just like other parts of our lives, marriages and relationships work best when we keep our core values in sight and infuse them with simplicity, balance, and appreciation for the everyday miracle of love.

    In contrast to the flash and excess of some weddings, Laura and Angelo’s marital celebration was elegantly simple. Without pomp and pageantry, the event’s focus fell naturally on togetherness and sharing. And as a second marriage for both the bride and groom, the union reflected both the blush of romantic love and the wisdom of two souls familiar with the daily effort, compromise, and maintenance that marriage requires.

    To begin, my husband Karl and I arrived at the restaurant where the ceremony was being held and placed our offering in the “wishing well.” This accorded with the couple’s request that guests offer encouragement rather than tangible gifts. I liked their idea; I understand that young couples need help to accumulate household items, but by this point in our lives less is more.

    Next to the well sat a commemorative plate and an indelible pen. I read the sweet, solemn messages of hope and love already on the plate. I wanted to add something that reflected the essence of marriage but couldn’t find the right words to convey what was in my heart. I decided to wait until later to sign it.

    The hostess ushered us into the ceremony area: a small dining room lit by candlelight, a simple altar, and an aisle strewn with red rose petals. There were only a handful of people in attendance, a small congregation of family members and friends. The bride, Laura, and I have been friends since the early 1990’s. I also know her eleven-year-old daughter Sophie but had yet to meet her beloved, Angelo.

    The ceremony was brief and heartfelt. Sophie stood at the altar next to Laura in a lavender dress. Laura shone in an elegant off-white gown and smiled broadly as she recited her vows. Angelo, too, exuded pride and serenity. After exchanging rings and words of commitment, the couple poured sand from two separate vials into one larger, heart-shaped glass vessel. This gesture symbolized the convergence of two families into one. I was touched, knowing that Angelo’s family was unable to travel from their home country to attend the ceremony.

    After the ceremony, we gathered on the patio as the sun descended toward the horizon. The air was warm and a cool breeze joined me as I circulated among the guests. I reacquainted myself with Laura’s parents and chatted with some of her college friends.

    Once the wedding photographer set Angelo free, I introduced myself to Angelo and felt an instant connection. He admired how Laura sustained her friendships over the years. I liked his easy manner, quick smile, and sense of humor. When I told him I hadn’t decided what words of wisdom to write on their commemorative plate, we laughed at his pragmatic suggestion: “Love is forever, as long as it lasts.”

    Later, Karl and I were seated close to Angelo, Laura, and Sophie at the large table that filled an intimate, private dining room. Tea lights glowed amidst orchid and lily centerpieces. We ate an exquisite meal, replete with shellfish and grilled meats, cheesy potatoes and delicate wines. The food arrived on platters that we passed around the table; the communal nature of the meal fortified the feeling of camaraderie.

    It was a time to appreciate togetherness. Guests clinked glasses to signal the bride and groom to kiss; Sophie and I competed for the record of “most napkin drops”; conversation ranged from movies and music to a good-natured ribbing of Laura’s parents for texting with their iPhones at the other end of the table.

    At one point, Karl and I conferred to reconsider what to write on the plate. We wanted to avoid anything overly sentimental—that just wouldn’t suit our perspective on marriage. Karl jokingly proposed the somewhat silly, “Much love to you. Mwah! Mwah! Mwah!” (accompanied by kissy sounds). I liked it: simple, yet playful. I inscribed our message on the plate and embellished it with a poorly executed sketch of two lilies. It’s okay, I thought; imperfection and mistakes are just as much a part of marriage as love and blessings.

    An array of rich desserts arrived to complement the finale: a champagne toast to our friends. As the champagne and a lovely cake adorned with orchids was placed before her, Laura spoke of the significance of gathering to share a meal. She cherished having us together at one table to support their vows and the future of their relationship. Angelo thanked us for our presence. On that day, he said, we were his family.

    I might not have summed it up in a pithy phrase for the plate, but the experiences of Laura and Angelo’s wedding exemplify the essence of marriage. Along with the other guests, we enacted and embodied yin and yang, the down-to-earth and the sublime, the meat and cake of a life together.

    Those brief hours contained the formality of commitment; the strength of family support; the blessing of faith; and the company of youthful energy and practiced maturity. A marriage needs those components to survive. Yet also present were the elements that allow love to flourish: music, flavor, friendship, and a hearty sense of humor.

    So here’s my wish for Laura and Angelo and everyone else who vows to make love last. Cultivate simplicity, balance, and gratitude. Laugh at yourself and laugh often. Invite the contributions of your family and friends in all their imperfection. Savor the pleasures of fresh air, food, music, and affection. And much love to you. Mwah!

    2.18.2009

    Don’t Put Happiness on Layaway: Let Go of the Outcome.

    For too many of us, life revolves around the achievement of some defined “outcome.” We hold tight to the belief that we can’t be happy until we obtain/complete/accomplish some particular object or objective. We put our well-being on layaway, as though we must make a series of payments before we can have what we want!

    I can’t blame anyone for buying in to the conviction that happiness always lies just out of reach. After all, our society’s values promote ambition, consumption, and measurable results. We’re expected to have the right car, clothes, job, degree, and friends. And if you don’t have these things, you’d better get them; otherwise, you’re nothing. By these standards, worrying and caring less about outcomes might seem counterintuitive. Irresponsible. Or just naïve.

    I’m not suggesting that we relinquish all worldly possessions or act without any concern for the future. It’s just that while goals and direction are valuable, too much emphasis on the outcome diminishes mindfulness and creates unnecessary stress. In particular, excessive focus on outcomes breeds two unwanted conditions: (1) fixation on the future and (2) energy wasted on trying to control things that are beyond our control.

    First, obsession with outcome (or what will happen) keeps us locked in the future, blind to the wonders of the present moment. You may have noticed that this blog is called “Life Is Now,” not “Life is Then” or “Life Will Begin Sometime Next Week.” If we place happiness on hold while we endeavor to improve ourselves or our situations, it might just stay on hold forever. It’s great to have goals, dreams, and a vision of your ideal life. But it’s equally important to appreciate who we already are, what we already have, and the process of change and personal evolution.

    Second, obsession with an intended outcome supports the illusion that we can control how things turn out. That unrealistic expectation results in massive disappointment, frustration, anxiety, and anger when things vary from our plans and expectations.

    Sometimes this is evident in situations, such as when people grumble, pout, and rage at things that don’t go their way. Examples you might recognize include being irritated by a long grocery checkout line or feeling resentful when someone slips into the parking space you had your eye on. Other times, the illusion of control contaminates relationships in the form of conditional love, so that we reward someone with love and affection only when they behave according to our ideals and preferences. This includes all the “shoulds” we impose on ourselves and people in our lives (more on this in a future post).

    Letting go of the outcome remains a challenge for me. In fact, I’d say most of my stress arises from reluctance to let go of control and resistance to “what is.” As I work on this, I’m starting to understand how arrogant my attempts to control life are; my belief that things must be a certain way presupposes that I know what’s best! Alternatively, when I relinquish my need to control circumstances and outcomes, I am free to let the universe (or God, Tao, or some other higher power) figure it out.

    I rely on a couple of simple techniques to help me let go of outcomes. One is to breathe deeply for three or four breaths. This is often enough to return my focus to the moment—and it calms me down when I’m uptight. The other strategy is to redirect my thinking from what I don’t like about the situation to something positive. For example, I think of five things I’m grateful for; or, I mentally repeat a phrase like “I am peaceful and serene.”

    I get the best results when I combine these strategies so they function as a mini-meditation break. If you want to try an actual guided meditation about letting go, one of my favorites is this podcast at Meditation Oasis (which you can also download for free on iTunes).

    This discussion of letting go of the outcome concludes my series of blogs about the “rules” that guide my journey toward mindfulness and authenticity:

    1. Show Up
    2. Pay Attention (part 1 and part 2)
    3. Speak Your Truth
    4. Let Go of the Outcome

    Clearly, there aren’t any rules, only options. I can attest that I like myself better when I show up and speak my truth; I feel more connected when I pay attention to my body and my environment; and I grow increasingly peaceful when I let go of the outcome and appreciate life as it unfolds. These four principles add richness and meaning to my life; perhaps they can add to yours, too.

    I appreciate your feedback. Please continue to share your thoughts and opinions via email and/or by commenting below so others may benefit from your perspective. And as always, thanks to Pat Korb and the Gestalt Center of Gainesville for inspiring this blog series.

    2.14.2009

    Tune In to Turn On! Speak Your Truth.

    When it comes to authenticity, speaking your truth seems like a no-brainer. But it’s not as simple as being honest. My version of speaking your truth encompasses two primary intentions: to (1) find and (2) liberate your inner voice.

    When you speak your truth, dormant parts of yourself are activated and you come alive! Like the rainbow revealed by the fusion of light and water, our lives are more vibrant and beautiful when we express the full spectrum of our selves and our potentials.

    This process is rooted in wholeness and integrity. Integrity requires acknowledgment, acceptance, and activation of ALL parts of our selves—not just the “good” and “acceptable” parts. Too often, comfort zones and external expectations steer us toward certain comfortable ways of being.

    I’m referring to those times we take the path of least resistance, when we smile through a gloomy mood or answer the obligatory “How’s it going?” with an obligatory “Fine!” Sadly, by falling into routine we miss many opportunities to be authentic and genuine. Our quirky, spontaneous, vulnerable parts fall quietly into disuse. But these dormant parts deserve to live! They’re also crucial to a sense of balance.

    How do we get in touch with this neglected inner world? The key is to “tune in” to our bodies and emotional responses. It’s easy to ignore thoughts (and even feelings), but the body cannot be ignored. Our bodies sometimes use physical symptoms to get our attention when we neglect a part of ourselves that is aching to be expressed.

    Sometimes the signals are obvious, like a terrible flu or depression; other times they are more subtle, like persistent hunger. Fatigue, muscle pain, and digestive upset were my clues that something was off kilter; craving for sweets, fidgeting, nail-biting, or back pain might be yours.

    For example, my default setting is extraversion—plenty to say, always ready with an opinion or a joke. This served me well in the academic and professional worlds, because I appeared competent and confident, maybe even charming (on my better days). But on a spiritual level, my softer, sensitive side got trampled underneath all that intellectual swagger.

    It wasn’t a healthy trade-off. I saw doctors and tried medications to rid myself of my symptoms, but outward solutions didn’t work. So I took a different approach. I sought and applied whatever tools I could to tune in(-ward) and embrace the symptoms instead!

    I used a variety of means to be present with my body’s messages: exercise, journaling, reflective talks with friends, mindfulness practice, and meditation. Most of these practices engendered a sense of quiet and release. As I let go of resistance in favor of being present and aware, a chorus of inner voices broke the silence to speak their truths.

    Because I had promised myself not to judge or resist them, it was safe for the more vulnerable, timid parts of my self to emerge. And incredibly, as this happened my symptoms started to dissipate. Setting out the welcome mat for my symptoms eliminated my internal struggle. I wasn’t fighting myself any more.

    My “tuning in” tools operated as both process and outcome, an end in themselves. Because the practices contributed to an overall state of self-acceptance, peace, and flexibility, I started to recognize and respond to my needs with less effort. I didn’t have to power through the day.

    My newfound balance let me trust myself to exist in novel ways. Formerly dichotomized blends of traits (like competence/warmth, drive/suppleness) harmonized. People still saw me as competent and witty—but also trustworthy, kind, and caring. I felt more open to giving and receiving love. After all, who wants to hug a rock when they can hug a teddy bear?

    It’s risky to listen to and speak your truth because by doing so you enter the realm of the unknown. But it gets easier with practice and the rewards are astounding. When I allow expression of my softer (yet POWERFUL) voices of truth, I forge connections with others and between exiled pieces of my self.

    Now, this is only relevant for my color spectrum and how I speak MY truth. Yours may be different, and it may change over time. My truth brought out my inner teddy bear; the best thing for you may be to voice your inner rock! It’s a process of discovery, and the joy is in the process of seeking and speaking your truth.

    To jump-start your process of tuning in, I’ve posted an assessment that can guide you to discover which parts of your self are more or less active and to consider how you do or can nurture these parts of yourself. The chart also leaves space to make notes about the truths each dimension holds for you. I’d love to hear your comments about what you discover!

    Next time in Life Is Now, “Let Go of the Outcome,” the final post in the mindfulness and authenticity series inspired by Pat Korb and the Gestalt Center of Gainesville.