Writing is hard. So why do I do it?

Why write? Who do we write for and what does it achieve? Is it the “antidote for loneliness” as Steven Berkoff says, or the “art of discovering what you believe,” as Gustave Flaubert expressed?

I started dwelling on this question a few days ago when a friend mentioned that my blog posts had changed since the 2016 election. She noted that they had become less frequent and perhaps darker, less joyful. I was somewhat surprised because while I notice changes in my writing at turning points in my life, I don’t ever know if others are aware of them. But if, as Meg Rosoff says, “Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are,” then it’s natural for such momentous events to hold a mirror to our strongest beliefs and give voice to our most closely held feelings.

Man writingSo why do we write? We write to tell stories, to set the record straight, to express emotions, to clarify our thinking, to discover a path forward, and simply to be heard. Sometimes we just vent, other times we are thoughtful; sometimes we write knowing no one will read it, on other days, we seek as many readers as possible. Usually we have no idea what the effect of writing will be on ourselves or others. Consider Anne Frank, who wrote a diary just for herself, but now millions of people have read it. Writing to “Kitty” probably gave her great solace during her time in hiding, but I’m sure she had no idea how many it would touch.

Writing is a way of rehearsing future action, trying out different ways of thinking and being. Sometimes you start with a vague idea and see where it takes you, learning as you go, making sense of where you are. Studies have shown that people who worry a lot can free up some of that cognitive space by engaging in expressive writing, better enabling themselves to deal with stressful situations. Creating a narrative around emotions has also been shown to protect the heart from stress during divorce. At its best, writing helps us grow.California-June (8)

Why write? Because it is both a discovery and an antidote. Writing shines a bright light on the inner self. We can use it to face fears, to recognize love and hope, to confront hate and anger. Writing provides a pause from all our sensory inputs and gives form to the 50,000 jumbled thoughts we have every day.  Yes, sometimes that illumination takes us to dark places, but it can just as easily show us the way back out.

 

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A new year of possibility…step by step

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but any time we turn the page to a fresh year, it can be worthwhile to think about the connection between intention and action. My beliefs about myself and others, my outlook on life, and my readiness to change converge as the starting point for every action I take and every habit I adopt:

Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny. (Gandhi)

Once you start thinking along those lines, you see the connections everywhere. For me, it’s been manifested in the movies, plays, and even the commercials I’ve seen lately. Here’s what I mean:

Downsizing – This film is advertised as a comedy, and it’s certainly funny at times, but it has a resonant message about what’s important in life. At the end of the day, it isn’t the place you live or the things you have, but rather whether you find meaning  in your life. Living a life of purpose and action, driven by values, is what really matters.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – In many ways, this movie was about knowing when we need to change our beliefs, especially about other people. Help doesn’t always come from the place or in the manner you thought it would. If you hold on too long to your fixed beliefs, you won’t take the actions that are needed to fulfill your destiny.Prague Budapest Trip 457 (2)

Nothing to Lose (But Our Chains) – This show by The Second City and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Companies was written by, and starred, Felonious Munk. The title comes from an Assata Shakur quote that was a catchphrase of the Ferguson, MO protests. But Munk takes it further in this show loosely based on his life, saying, “Some of us aren’t just oppressed by the larger society, we’re oppressed by the ideas that we’ve been conditioned with from birth.” Until we can let go of some of those self-destructive beliefs, forgive others and ourselves, our heads aren’t in the right place to find the path we need to take.

The Shape of Water – Okay, this movie was harder for me to like. Beautiful, yes, but at the end of it, I was left feeling a little, “So what?” On the other hand, it was definitely a film about values and the courage it takes to not back off when faced with choices that test them. Although the Gandhi quote suggests that actions lead to habits and habits lead to values, it works the other way too. Holding strong values and living by them influences the actions we take.

The new State Farm commercial – this spot uses the Simple Minds song, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” to remind viewers that volunteering shouldn’t stop when the holiday season ends. In the ad, we see a homeless shelter or soup kitchen filled with people who come to help during Christmas; then that scene fades to the same space post- holiday, with only the people in need remaining. It’s a very affecting way to say “Don’t forget your good intentions – let them drive your actions all year long.”Lake Como_387

Martin Luther King wrote that, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Whatever intention you may have, trust is the bridge between thought and action — trust in yourself, trust in others, trust in the future. So whether you’ve made resolutions or set intentions, have you put them into words? Taken any action? Did you trust enough to take your first step?

12 days of holiday meditation

Many of us have the same guilty little secret: we look forward to holidays with just as much dread as with joyful anticipation. Yes, we love the parties, the decorations, the food, the family — but it’s such an overload that it’s not uncommon to wake up each morning with just a little bit of anxiety.

What’s on the to-do list today? What problems are unresolved? How many more hours do I have? What’s expected of me? Will everyone get along? Can I accept things as they are?

Wait a second! Where’s the joy?

To stay calm and to help me keep my eye on the goal — a happy holiday — I’ve been starting each morning with 5-10 minutes of meditation this week. I’m four days into it, and maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to feel just a little more centered.seesaw_balance

Day one: My guided Yogaglo meditation with Giselle Mari focused on relaxing the struggle and embracing the resistance I feel. Negative emotions are a valid part of my experience. I visualized being rooted to something bigger than myself, but staying “buoyant on the breath.”

Day two: While the coffee was brewing, I sat for 10 minutes and listened to the sounds coming from outdoors and within my home. I set an intention to stay present with the day and accept what it brought me.

Day three: Another morning meditation on Yogaglo, this time with Tiffany Cruikshank. This one was about noticing the sensations in my body. A great way for me to send some attention and breath to the achy places where I hold tension.

Day three bonus: An evening yoga class full of shoulder and heart openers. Heart-opening is not just a metaphor. Think about how your chest tenses up when you’re worried about someone you love; these postures help release that stress and make us more receptive and free to give and receive love.

Day four: Ten minutes with a Sally Kempton practice that had some similarities to day one. I worked with the idea of the “upward shift” of energy from the deeply rooted part of myself up through the heart and head. “Watching” the breath move up and down in a shower of energy helped me practice staying firmly rooted while still allowing my love and energy to flow up and out for myself and others.

What will the next 8 mornings bring? Perhaps sitting with the ideas of loving kindness, trust or grace. Maybe considering how attachment to certain ideas or outcomes sets us up for disappointment. I just want to take one more step each day toward the place in the center where life feels balanced and harmonious.

I’ve been reading Baron Baptiste’s book, “perfectly imperfect,” in which he talks about the emotional energy attached to the words “yes” and “no”. Yes offers possibility while no bears the weight of resistance. Holidays carry the risk that while we’re saying “yes” on the outside, our inner voice is saying “no.” But that resistant energy can affect our actions no matter what words we say, which is why it’s so important to be a “yes” to the experience at hand. As Baptiste writes, “The energetic vibration of yes carries the emotional energy of enthusiasm, which translates into action…yes allows for a sense of timelessness and the joy of being fully in my experience.”

I wish myself and all of you joy and peace this holiday season. Can you be a “yes” for that?

Reaching for gratitude amid chaos

One year ago, in the aftermath of the election, I wrote here about values, attempting to make sense of what had happened in our country. From my perspective, many of our country’s shared values had been put to the test and failed. Twelve months later, I’m no closer to understanding and my head is still spinning.

Things get crazier by the day.  Lying is an everyday occurrence in the White House. We now know that the Russians meddled in the election in a big way, enabled by our own social media companies. Powerful men are dropping like dominoes in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations. Evangelical Christians, the group who used to most strongly believe that moral character was important in our leaders, are now the group least likely to profess that belief. Hypocrisy reigns supreme. Maybe there are no shared values.

In some ways, the Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow gives us a pass on seeking shared values. Because it centers around the family and the table there’s no requirement to celebrate with someone who looks different or has opposite beliefs. Sure, there can be plenty of dysfunction and strife within families, but we accept that. They belong to us.

So this Thanksgiving when I consider what I’m grateful for, I think it’s important to look outside the cocoon of my own family and my personal life. Not that I don’t have plenty to appreciate – all the people closest to me are happy, healthy, and doing pretty well. But as Gilbert K. Chesterton once wrote, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” Here are just a few of the people and organizations that we can’t afford to take for granted anymore:

Our free press. Under a constant bombardment of tweets calling them “fake news,” our major news organizations continue to do a mostly good job of reporting things just as they are. For about a year, The Washington Post has used the slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” on its masthead. That about says it all.

The ACLU. Perhaps no organization is more important when it comes to defending our liberties under the constitution. Whether it’s LGBT protections, sanctuary cities, people with disabilities, or aggressive policing practices, the ACLU is on the front lines.

Planned Parenthood. With women and their health needs under attack, Planned Parenthood is continuing their 100-year history of providing care and advocating for women, from their local community health centers to their global partnerships.newspaper

The women who are coming forward. It takes a lot of strength and bravery to speak out against powerful people and to discuss painful and uncomfortable incidents. My hope is that the women who are speaking out now will put predators and misogynists on notice, so that our children and grandchildren will live in a safer world.

The Southern Poverty Law Center. With hate crimes at a 5-year high and a president who is reluctant to fully separate himself from extremists, the SPLC’s mission to fight hate and bigotry is more important than ever. Their Teaching Tolerance project helps educators reduce prejudice and sow understanding in schools.

Local food banks. Too numerous to name them all, local organizations who focus on food insecurity are the angels in every community. From the Capital Area Food Bank and Martha’s Table, who I work with in Washington, to the Houston Food Bank, which was there for people after Hurricane Harvey, these groups provide critical support 365 days a year.Fairchild Airmen volunteer at local food bank

Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed by the news of the day, it’s difficult not to feel something like despair. Can we get through this time? Will people learn to trust again? Will civility return? But then I remember all the good people and organizations who are powering through, and I have a little bit of hope and a lot of gratitude. Thanks to all of you, from the bottom of my heart.Cloud White Blue Love Heart Sky Loyalty Luck

 

Where does stress show up in your body?

Sometimes people are skeptical when I say that stress always manifests itself somewhere in the body. They don’t recognize their symptoms – the muscle aches, stomach aches, headaches, or autoimmune conditions – as being related to stress in their lives. But even when we can’t draw a perfectly straight line from one to the other, they are connected. Stress shows up and it hurts.

For me, the left side of my neck and sometimes my left shoulder are where I hold tension. I might think that the chronic neck pain was something “more serious” if it didn’t almost totally disappear when I go on vacation. What a cliché! All I have to do is go somewhere, anywhere, other than home and voila! No neck pain. The fact is that pain and tension caused by stress is serious, not least because when it becomes chronic, it can start to be a stressor in and of itself.

Where do you hold on to emotions? Marlynn Wei, writing on the Psychology Today web site, explains how our bodies hold emotional memories, outlining research that shows how specific emotions are experienced in certain parts of the body. Yoga, for instance, teaches that negative emotions are often held in the hip area; something I’ve experienced by feeling very emotional after an intense hip opening yoga practice. It is as if something has been unleashed that was held in for a long time.

My therapist used to ask where in the body I was feeling something when I talked about a particularly difficult emotional experience. At first, I struggled to figure out where I felt it. I wanted to say, “nowhere”. But over time, I became aware that I was feeling it in my body, usually my chest, which, the research shows, is where anxiety and fear often show up.

When we hold this tension in certain parts of the body, and it becomes our “normal,” it can be hard to develop a new pattern of being. Humans, unfortunately, don’t come with a reset button – we have to work a little harder for it. As one yoga teacher put it, you have to “give the tissues permission to let go.” A possible way to do that is to move the energy to a different part of the body.

A Dahn yoga teacher once told my husband that his chi (or energy) was too much in his head, and needed to be moved down, more to his gut. Many of us live too much in our heads, and not enough in our hearts and physical bodies. The whole idea of “chi”, or “chakras” in the yoga tradition, is to keep energy flowing through the body, rather than having it be stuck in one place. Sometimes when my neck hurts, I feel like my head is too heavy to carry around, or that even a scarf around my neck is too much weight. How can I move that energy to a different part of the body? How can I stop carrying the weight of the world on my neck and shoulders?

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A good first step is the Body Scan (instructions here). By mindfully bringing awareness to each part of the body, we realize where discomfort exists and we can then bring some extra love to that area. Because muscle tension can lead to decreased blood flow, and therefore less oxygen, focus on “breathing in” to that area. Visualize blood flowing to the sore muscle, bringing restorative oxygen. Then on the out breath, let go of it. This is what Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to as bringing “wise attention” to our symptoms.

Progressive muscle relaxation also teaches how to recognize tension in the body by deliberately tensing and then relaxing each muscle group, one at a time. Another thing it teaches is that one part of the body can be energetic and strong while the rest of the body stays relaxed and soft. So, for example, I can hold a strong yoga warrior pose in the legs, while allowing my shoulders and head to relax in a languid reverse warrior. That brings ease to my effort, as Soren Gordhamer would say.

Yoga has proven helpful to me. With my subscription to YogaGlo, I can try all sorts of classes, from 5 minutes to 90, that focus on just one part of the body. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of short practices for the neck and shoulders. The most valuable thing I’ve learned is how connected one part of the body is to another. One 10 minute class didn’t even involve the neck directly; instead, I worked on the curvature of my spine and practiced walking around the room with my shoulders back and my chin up like a model!

Of course, ultimately we have to address the underlying triggers for the stress. When I feel tense and I do a quick mental review of what could be wrong, often there isn’t anything specific. So I remind myself to ask, “What’s right?” instead.  It helps me focus on letting go of the background fears, and just being in the present, unguarded. As Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When you let go mentally, you relax physically, because the body and the mind are two aspects of one reality….Through stopping, whether in walking or sitting meditation, you are in control of the situation…you regain sovereignty over yourself.

 

 

 

Use the breath during times of change

The fall equinox is always a time of change, whether it’s as simple as putting on warmer clothes or as challenging as starting a new school or a different job. This year many people have had even greater hurdles in September, as they have been hit with hurricanes, floods, fires and devastating earthquakes. Although there are plenty of stories about people bouncing back, rebuilding and starting anew, the reality often is that people struggle a great deal, and for a long time. This can have a ripple effect on overall well-being.

Whether we’re dealing with a change we’ve chosen or a change that has been thrust upon us, we usually do best by utilizing both problem-focused, actionable strategies, as well as emotion-focused methods for reducing anxiety. One of the most accessible ways to calm anxiety is with the breath. Recently I did an online yoga practice called “Metamorphosis” with teacher Claire Missingham. As we relaxed into the practice, she said,  “Let your breath begin to soothe you.” Even though I use breathing techniques a lot when I am stressed or anxious, I had never framed it as self-soothing. But I realized that, of course, that’s really exactly what it is. So what follows are some of my favorite breathing practices (I’ve tried to give credit where it’s due).

“Don’t forget to breathe”

In the 1985 movie, “Follow That Bird“, Grover gives Big Bird a piece of advice as he is leaving Sesame Street. “Don’t forget to breathe,” he says, “in and out.” Sometimes when anxiety strikes, the first that happens is that the breath gets shallow, or we even hold our breath. So the best way to start any breath practice is just to notice your natural breathing, in and out.

“Letting Yourself be Breathed”

Do this while lying on your back:

1. Close your eyes, letting your arms rest alongside your body and focus your attention on the breath without trying to influence it.
2. Imagine that with each inhalation, the universe is blowing breath into you and with each exhalation, withdrawing it. Imagine yourself passively receiving the breath. As the universe breathes into you, let yourself feel the breath penetrating every part of your body, even your fingers and toes.
3. Try to hold this imagination for ten cycles of exhalation and inhalation.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil)

universe

4 – 7 – 8 Breathing

This is particularly good for relaxing before you go to sleep at night:

1. Close your eyes, relax your jaw, and rest the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth just above your top teeth.

2. Take one or two deep breaths to start.

3. Now begin counting as you breathe: Inhale to the count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 7, then exhale slowly for a count of 8.

4. Repeat this 4-7-8 sequence three or four times.

(Recommended for once a day. Adapted from Andrew Weil, 8 Weeks to Optimal Health)

Alternate Nostril Breathing

Balances the nervous system. Hillary Clinton says she used this technique after the election.

1. Sit comfortably with eyes open or closed.
2. Use the thumb and forefinger to alternate closing off one nostril at a time.
3. Beginning with an exhalation, use the thumb to close off one nostril. Keep it closed off as you take your next inhalation.
4. Then release the thumb and press the opposite nostril closed with your forefinger as you exhale. Inhale through the same nostril, then switch the finger and thumb again.
5. Continue alternating from one nostril to another in exhale-inhale cycles for as long as it feels comfortable.

(Adapted from Olpin & Hesson)

Anti-Stress Breathing

Sit comfortably as you would for meditation:

1. If you would like to use a “mudra”, touch the tips of your pinkie fingers and thumbs together, while keeping the other fingers on each hand together but not touching the opposite hand.
2. Close your eyes or focus on the tip of your nose.
3. Inhale deeply through the mouth, and then exhale through the nose. Then inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth.
4. Continue with this alternating pattern for several minutes.

just breathe

 

Books + beach + baby turtles = respite

Sometimes we need a respite more than we need a vacation, or even before we can be fully present for a vacation. What’s the difference between a respite and a vacation? The dictionary tells us that a respite is a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant, while a vacation is an extended period of recreation. When I left my home in Washington 10 days ago and headed for the beach,  I was fleeing from a stressful and frustrating situation. What I didn’t foresee was how many days it would take before I really felt like I was on vacation.

I knew I had to lower my stress level, and so I set some intentions from the start, the most important being to limit my email. I turned the mail function off on my devices and decided to only turn it on twice a day to check for things that were important. The rest of the time, I vowed not to check it at all.

Here are my other intentions:IMG_2188

I had been neglecting my yoga practice at home. In addition, I needed to spend some time learning how to use my new camera and updating my continuing education credits, as well as this blog. But it turned out to be many days before I could focus on the more mentally-tasking intentions.

On my first morning, I went to a yoga class and felt some of the stress begin to lift. On my second morning, I began a week of going out with other volunteers to monitor sea turtle nests on the beach. Each day at sunrise when we would begin our walk down the beach, a feeling of complete well-being would come over me and I would utterly relax. When we released some straggler baby turtles near the ocean one day, and people gathered to cheer them on as they made their way, I was filled with gratitude to be part of something so simple yet so much bigger than myself.

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The remainder of my first four or five days was spent reading books. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to do much more than that. Overcast weather justified my couch potato tendencies a bit, but if I’m honest I admit that I just didn’t have the energy or interest to do more than that. I finished three books in rapid succession, and would have read more if they had been available. Other people’s stories have always felt like a refuge for me when I needed one.

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By the fifth day, the sun came out, and with it my readiness to be “on vacation.” I finally felt like I could enjoy the recreation part of my stay — the swimming, boating, biking and other fun. I took my camera out and experimented with its different settings. I spent the hot part of one afternoon doing an online class to fulfill my CE requirement. I went kayaking with my husband, and enjoyed that wonderful feeling of physical tiredness that comes from exertion. It was such a welcome change from the mental and emotional exhaustion I was feeling a few days earlier.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that,

The purpose of a vacation is to have the time to rest. But many of us, even when we go on vacation, don’t know how to rest. We may even come back more tired than before we left.

I feel lucky that I had enough time to give myself both that respite and a vacation. But what I learned is that I need to build in more respites for myself at home, and probably more boundaries to keep myself from getting to the point of so much stress. Time to set more intentions!