Self-care for the full catastrophe

What if a person is really clear about what his purpose is, and what his values are, but is blocked from putting them into action? What if unremitting stress is the result of that conflict and loss of control? What can be done?

Those were questions I was faced with yesterday while giving a presentation on stress management at a government agency in Washington. Over the past 16 months, the career employees who work there have had their life’s work come under fire, putting everything they value under assault. It’s practically impossible to do their jobs as they believe they should be done. How do they deal with that frustration day after day? For some, the answer is to walk away, take retirement if they can. For others, the choice is to remain on the job, struggling to promote the work they believe in.

Selfishly, I want these good and dedicated people to stay in their jobs, fighting the good fight for the rest of us. But with what we know about the long-term consequences of chronic stress — higher risk of heart disease, mood disorders, and musculo-skeletal problems; weakened immune systems, premature aging and more — what will the personal cost be for them?

If ever there was a stressor that’s not going away, or not anytime soon, this is it. As I continued my discussion with these employees, I realized that they would need every tool in the stress management arsenal to keep themselves emotionally and physically healthy for the time ahead. The problem was too big for any one of the strategies I had to offer them. And yes, the word “arsenal” seems highly appropriate when talking about this kind of assault on values.

MC900383136So my overall message was that if they want to be around in 4 years or 8 years to start doing good again, they need to practice self-care right now. Here are some of the things we talked about:

  • Support groups — In any kind of stress, social support provides both a buffer and a direct antidote to its negative effects. Studies show, for instance, that mothers of children with disabilities who participate in support groups have fewer cellular signs of premature aging than similar mothers who don’t. We need both the emotional support and the informational support that can come from a group, along with the ability to laugh and cry with people who know exactly what we are dealing with.
  • Becoming more resilient — People who can adapt well to changing circumstances do better in the long run. Certain people are born with this ability and others have to practice it. Some ways to do that are by having good relationships with others, being able to make and carry out plans, having a positive self-view (i.e. monitoring negative self-talk) and developing good communication skills.
  • Gratitude practice — Focus on what’s going right instead of what’s going wrong. I was delighted when one of the group brought up the movie “Pollyanna,” a favorite of my kids when they were young. Pollyanna changed the people around her by always finding something to be glad about, even in the face of adversity.
  • Everyday mindfulness — Slowing down and focusing on just one thing at a time can help with some of the physical effects of stress and bring down heart rate and blood pressure. Listening more to others, giving them the full benefit of your attention, brings benefits such as increases in understanding, empathy and intimacy. And setting aside device-free times and places helps us disconnect from the grind of work and news, allowing space for silence or connection to others.
  • Relaxation breaks — Even 5 minutes of attention to the breath is a respite from the stress of the work day, and brings many more minutes of benefit. True relaxation only requires 4 elements – a quiet environment, a mental focal point, a comfortable seat and setting aside judgment.
  • Joy, fun and play — We forget how good it feels to laugh and play. It’s so important to build something into each day that gives you joy, if even for a few moments. Dancing, shooting hoops, jumping on a trampoline, playing a board game with your kids –carve out some time to do something for no other reason than that it’s fun. Lifestyles

In the introduction to his book, “Full Catastrophe Living,” Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that his title came from the movie, “Zorba the Greek.” Zorba describes his married life as “Wife, house, kids….the full catastrophe!” But as Kabat-Zinn points out, Zorba’s way is to:

“dance in the gale of the full catastrophe, to celebrate life, to laugh with it and at himself, even in the face of personal failure and defeat.”

For those who are living the “full catastrophe,” perhaps my best advice is to follow Zorba’s example, riding the waves and celebrating what you can each day.

 

 

 

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There’s no final version of a life story

What we call “I” is just a swinging door, which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki reminds us that what we know as “self” is impermanent and ever-changing, whether or not we want it to be. We’d like to believe that changes to our identity are under our control, the result of growth and intent. But what happens when we find out that we’re not who we thought we were, when the family story that was built around us and on whose scaffold we grew is wrong?

NPR journalist Alex Wagner, who just wrote a memoir about her family, notes that the beginnings and endings of stories are arbitrary — there’s always something that happened before and more that comes after. And only when we ask questions and go looking will we find the fuller story.

Here was my story: My maternal grandmother ran off with a neighbor shortly before my mother’s second birthday, leaving her husband and six children behind. She had four more children after she left and her first set of children only saw her a few more times. She essentially cut them off.

This was a story I grew up with, a story that I feel I knew from earliest memory. My mother didn’t try to hide it from us or shelter us from it; we knew very clearly from a young age that her mother had left her behind, to be raised by her father and later, a stepmother.

For years, I’ve been interested in genealogy, and have delved deeply into my family history. But this story wasn’t one that I spent much time questioning or looking into. It was “case closed, end of story.” Then along came DNA testing, and with it, some second cousins who were unknown to me.

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So here’s the revised story: All those new second cousins? They are people whose grandparents were siblings of the man my grandmother ran off with. Even when I saw this reality on the screen in front of me, it took several minutes for the realization to sink in that my grandfather was that other man, and that my mother was left behind by both of her parents, not just one of them. The beginning of my mom’s formative story wasn’t when her mother left, it was much earlier.

I keep thinking this shouldn’t affect me much – most of the people involved are dead, I wasn’t that close to the man I thought was my grandfather, and I’m glad that my mother has been spared this truth. Yet I can’t stop thinking about it; it confuses and troubles me in ways I didn’t expect. I want to know more about this person whose DNA I share. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

You can touch the presence of your father and mother in each cell of your body. They are truly present in you, along with your grandparents and great-grandparents. Doing this, you know you are their continuation. You may have thought that your ancestors no longer existed, but even scientists say your ancestors are present in you. The same is true for your descendants. You will be present in every cell of their bodies.

If I am a continuation of my grandparents, who am I now? Who were they? We grow up with an identity that is molded by the stories and messages, both subtle and overt, that we receive from our parents and other adults. Sometimes self-perception gets skewed because of identities that are projected onto us (the “smart one” or the “pretty one” or the “troublemaker”). But we have a chance at different points in life to reject those projections and forge a fresh identity based on our own values, beliefs and goals.

And yet, it’s hard to rid ourselves of those early identities. Did my mother’s abandonment stories leave an indelible impression on me? Did that change how I interact with my world? What emotions should I be feeling about those old wrongs? On Psychology Today, Mel Schwartz writes that one’s sense of self should be more like a willow tree than an oak, more flexible than sturdy, ready to accept and bend with the storms of life. So I turn again to Thich Nhat Hanh:

Some of us have wonderful parents; others have parents who suffered a lot and made their partners and their children suffer. Just about everyone has some blood ancestors whom we admire, and others who had many negative traits and of whom we are not proud. They are all our ancestors…We may be angry with them, but they are still our ancestors…We cannot get rid of them…Unconditional acceptance is the first step in opening the door to the miracle of forgiveness.

I used to think that it was my mother’s prerogative to experience these emotions – anger, grief, forgiveness. I’m just beginning to consider my grandparents as people I might want to forgive, people who suffered, and maybe tried to do their best. I will never know what motivated them to do what they did; all I can do now is try to cultivate generosity and compassion toward them, bending like a willow, swinging like a door.

 

 

Stress on the job – & why culture matters

High blood pressure, insomnia, heart attacks, anxiety, depression – these are just a few of the real costs of workplace stress. And according to a new book by Jeffrey Pfeffer, outcomes such as these make the workplace the 5th leading cause of death in the United States. In “Dying for a Paycheck,” Pfeffer makes the point that it is underlying management practices that are the culprit, and no amount of spending on wellness programs can make a difference if those don’t change.

Every day in my work (supporting wellness programs!) I meet people who suffer from high blood pressure, or who tell me about the stress of their jobs. These are not generally the people in top management; these are the people on the middle and bottom rungs of the organization. Where does that stress come from? Often it’s about a lack of control – when employees are subject to many demands, but can’t exercise control over them, research shows they are at increased risk for heart attack and hypertension. The American Institute for Stress published statistics about other sources of workplace stress from a 2006 survey of EAP providers:

  • Workload 46%
  • People issues 28%
  • Juggling work and personal lives 20%
  • Lack of job security 6%

Pompei (60)Stress reduction programs and personal choices such as meditation, exercise or disconnecting from email can only alleviate symptoms. The root cause of much workplace stress — corporate culture — is not something that any one individual can change. People are willing to work hard, and even to work long hours, if they see the work as meaningful. In a MIT Sloan Management Review article, Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden write that meaningfulness is more important to employees than salary, advancement, or even working conditions. Meaning is something that people often discover for themselves. Good leaders can’t make it happen, but research shows that poor leadership can almost certainly destroy it. What makes people feel that the work is meaningless?

  • The work isn’t aligned with their personal values
  • They feel that they’re being taken for granted
  • They perceive unfairness in the workplace
  • They are asked to do pointless or risky work
  • They don’t have supportive relationships at work

In 2010, Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappo’s, wrote a book called “Delivering Happiness,” which became a bestseller. His message was that corporate culture can not only support a company’s success, but may even be a prerequisite for it. Since then, Delivering Happiness has morphed into its own business as a coaching and consulting organization. Their research shows that there are three main elements that lead to employee happiness and greater engagement:

  • Connectedness
  • A sense of progress
  • A sense of control

Think about how much time you spend at work every day – eight, ten, twelve hours? Why would we want to spend that much time each day not feeling connection and empathy for others? We need to have friends at work – people to bond with, people who have our backs. In fact, DH research shows that “having a best friend at work increases engagement seven-fold.”Close-up of human hands clasped together in unity against white backdrop

Seeing progress in the work is also important. Personal progress needs to be measured and affirmed more often and in different ways than just an annual review. In addition, having a sense of the role each of us plays in the growth of a project or of the organization also leads to greater commitment and engagement. People want to feel that they are making a contribution.

Control may be the most important of the three elements. When people sense that there is transparency in the organization, that their ideas are respected, and that they are empowered to make decisions, it builds trust and motivation. Trust is incredibly important in itself because without it, no one will speak up about problems or safety issues; fear, disconnection and hostility often increase.

Changing the corporate culture begins with the emotional intelligence of its leaders. Can they embed and support policies within the organization that lead to connection, progress and control? Can they see the organization as a community in support of a mission – a community where people spend at least a third of their lives?

My suspicion is that most of us don’t work for organizations that are excelling at delivering happiness. I have no fear that my job in workplace wellness will be ending any time soon. Long ago, Aristotle wrote that, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” At the very least, maybe that is something to strive for.

 

 

 

Let others break barriers, what I need are boundaries

After a particularly stressful few days, I realized for about the umpteenth time that I don’t set enough boundaries. I let work intrude on personal time, I let worries intrude on sleep, I say “yes” to too much, I pay too much attention to the barrage of email, and I let my to-do list pull me out of being present.

Yet when I do a search on the word “boundaries”, what concerns most people is pushing past them, breaking through the barriers that hold them back, and living to full potential. To them, boundaries are something to overcome. Am I the only one who feels the need to erect a few more limits around my self?

Boundaries are often physical, but they can also be mental, emotional or spiritual. They provide a sense of order to our lives. Kids try to push boundaries as a way of testing not only their parents, but their own ability to exist outside of them. Often, they are all too glad to retreat back inside the parental limits after one of those test runs. It’s safer there.

A 2011 study showed that people select aesthetic boundaries more often when they feel out of control. At those times, they choose “highly-bounded” objects such as framed pictures and fenced yards as opposed to open spaces or objects. On the other hand, people who have strong spiritual beliefs, and the sense of order that those often provide, don’t seem to need as many physical boundaries as people who do not have that kind of grounding.

Technology has blurred the lines between work, play, home, school, leisure and learning. We mostly perceived it as helpful, allowing us more flexibility about when and where we earn a living, but it can also lead to a feeling of being out of control, especially to those who have more difficulty managing the work/family boundary. A 2016 study showed that integrating our various domains may lessen the impact of moving between home and work; people eventually develop ways to transition more smoothly if the boundaries are more fluid. But I don’t know if that works so well for someone like me with high distractibility and an overly-developed sense of responsibility. I don’t feel like I’m good at either compartmentalizing or integrating. Sometimes I feel like I’m just running back and forth.7-Co. Wicklow-Glendalough (24)

Tom Friedman, in his book, “Thank You For Being Late,” writes about walls, in his case an actual border wall like we hear so much about. Friedman says we need to have a big, strong wall so that we feel secure, but the wall needs to have a really big door in it. The idea isn’t to keep people out as much as it is to know who we are inviting in. This is the way that I feel about my mental and emotional boundaries right now. I need a wall with a big door so that I feel more in control.

My “52 Lists” book has an exercise for week 10 which asks you to list the things you should ignore. Here’s my list:

  • The people who are second-guessing me
  • My phone/email
  • The news (sometimes)
  • My monkey mind
  • The things I can’t control

Last week when I was in a yoga class, I set an intention to hit “pause” more often. Not just by taking a break, but actually pausing more before speaking or reacting. The pause button gives me the opportunity to respond rather than react; it helps me recognize what I’m actually feeling in the moment. It gives me a moment to ask, what is the best use of my time right now? What is the best use of my energy? Can I mindfully deal with the situation at hand, or do I need to shut the big door for a while?

Soren Gordhamer writes that, “Because how we leave one moment is how we enter the next, it helps to expand instead of squeeze during times of transition.” Mindfully expanding during the transition time is like hitting the pause button, doing less in order to do more.

 

 

 

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.

 

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?