Six ways to tend your emotional garden

Emotional wellbeing depends on regular nourishment, not unlike a flower or vegetable garden you cultivate. While vacations, sabbaticals and spa days are great, they’re the emotional equivalent of trying to maintain a garden just on the weekends or at the change of season — things might look okay, but they’re not thriving spectacularly with just that level of care. Most of us require more routine weeding and watering to maintain a high level of emotional wellness.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that our consciousness exists as seeds and as the manifestation of those seeds. We may have seeds of happiness, seeds of anger, seeds of sadness. But it’s the ones we “water” that manifest, and when they manifest they plant more seeds like themselves. Whatever is manifested the most takes up more space in the garden. Do you want it to be weeds or flowers?2016-07-21 16.59.10

You plant seeds during your own life, and also may have inherited seeds from previous generations. You may have a legacy of sadness or anxiety in your family, as well as seeds of joy or peace. Because of this blend of both inherited tendencies, and personal ones, the actions we take make a difference. Can you live in a way that will nurture the positive, healthy seeds rather than the negative ones?

People often overseed their lawns in the fall, so that new grass will come up in the spring and crowd out the weeds. So should we look for ways to overseed with the more positive emotional states that we desire, or as  Thich Nhat Hanh says, build “a strong storehouse of healthy seeds” to help us during times of trouble. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Have a place (a sort of safe space) that you go to regularly to re-generate. A special room in your home, a park, a church, a meditation space. I often regard the yoga studio this way – someplace where the outside world does not intrude, and the surroundings are peaceful.
  • If you are lucky, you’ll have at least one person in your life that you can confide in without judgment or recrimination. Sometimes we need to express things that are painful, shocking, or even hateful. Just because you have nasty emotions sometimes doesn’t make you a nasty person. It helps to have a space where you can rid yourself of these weeds.
  • If you don’t have such a person, or even if you do, you can also engage in expressive writing for health. Writing your story, for your eyes only, can be very healing. There’s some recent research from John Evans showing positive benefits.
  • Practice acts of kindness toward others. Seeing yourself in the eyes of someone you help or treat with love, feeling their gratitude, will scatter more seeds of love and kindness in your life and the lives of those around you.
  • And as for those around you, to the extent possible, surround yourself with people who are positive and loving. Yesterday, when I started to write this, I got a call from a friend who is one of the friendliest, most positive people I know. We made a plan to meet later in the week. When the call was ending, she said, “You’ve made my day!” but I was thinking, “No, you made my day.”
  • Practice living more mindfully and being present to the people and opportunities around you. Even when you are with loving friends and family, it’s important to be with them mindfully. Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to “practice full awareness in each precious moment” you are together, so that your friend isn’t just “ameliorating your suffering” but also planting a strong image in your mind that you can call upon to sustain you later on when you are not with her.

These practices become even more important when we are surrounded by so much turmoil 4-Co. Kerry-Killarney NP (10)and angry rhetoric in our world. The volume of that discourse could easily fertilize the seeds of anger, hate and misunderstanding within us if we let it. Change has to begin within each one of us, planting seeds of love instead. Remember Gandhi’s words, “There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.”

 

Warning: This could be habit forming

There are many people I know who subscribe to the belief that if you want to establish a particular daily habit, it’s best to do it as soon as you get up in the morning. A teacher of mine has the habit of writing first thing in the morning, my husband insists that exercising in the morning is the only way to make sure he does it, and most regular meditators say that it’s important to establish that practice upon rising. You could say it’s the Nike model: Just do it.

But here’s my typical morning when I don’t have to rush out: get up, drink a cup of coffee while reading the newspaper, eat breakfast with a second cup of coffee, have more coffee while doing the crossword puzzle…you get the idea. Can I possibly get into a different morning routine that allows me to accomplish more?

It’s tough to change habits. What we forget when we talk about establishing a “good” habit is that we usually have to eradicate a “bad” habit first. As a health educator, I’m frequently advising people on healthy eating, exercise and stress management, but even though they may have an intention to change, their habits of mind get in the way. If I examine my own life, and think about changes I’ve wanted to make, how often have I made progress? How often have I achieved my goal? And how often have I done that on my first try? Rarely, if at all.

Research has shown that as much as 40% of our daily activity is performed in exactly the same way each day. In other words, much of our time is spent acting automatically. This is great, in the sense that you don’t have to think about how to brush your teeth every time you do it, but it makes it tough if you actually do want to change how you brush your teeth!geisha

We have two parts of our minds competing against each other. One is the intentional mind, which is goal-directed. This is the part we want to activate if we’re trying to lose weight, finish a project, or train for a marathon. The other part is the habitual mind, and it operates mostly outside of our awareness, helped by neurochemicals in the brain that allow habits to take over. We need the goal-directed part to be in charge long enough to get a new behavior established, then hope that the habitual mind kicks in and makes the behavior automatic. But how can we accomplish that?

According to social psychologist Wendy Wood, we first have to derail the existing habit and create an opening for a new one to take root. Because habits form through associative learning, a change in environment can often be a way to derail an old habit because  the cues for the behavior disappear. Some examples might be moving, changing jobs or hanging out with a different group of people.

What are some of the things that cue behavior? Many smokers say that they always have a cigarette when they have a drink. The drink is the cue for the cigarette – take away the drink, and maybe they are less likely to smoke. For others, watching TV is a cue to start snacking. So if you substitute another activity for TV viewing, you derail the snacking habit.

After creating opportunity and letting the intentional mind set a goal, it’s all about repetition. Studies show that it can take anywhere from 15-254 days for a new habit to be established. So repeating the behavior frequently is important, as is creating a consistent context in which it happens. In other words, we need to have new cues in the environment that trigger the new behavior.

It can take a while to figure out the new cues. When I moved a couple of years ago, I found that my writing habit was disrupted because my desk suddenly wasn’t a place where I could write anymore. Only after I began writing at the kitchen table was I able to consistently be productive. Then I could let repetition turn it into habit.chains

The theologian Tryon Edwards once wrote,

Any act often repeated soon forms a habit; and habit allowed, steady gains in strength, At first it may be but as a spider’s web, easily broken through, but if not resisted it soon binds us with chains of steel.

While chains of steel sound a little scary, they’re exactly what our healthy habits need. Unfortunately, they’re also what makes it so hard to break the bad ones.

 

 

Finding a new way to share the road

I recently returned from two weeks in Ireland, including a week spent driving on a lot of country roads. Toward the end of the trip, I was reading Rick Steves’ advice on driving in Ireland. One has to remember, he said, that there’s no “my side” and “your side” on the narrow, twisting roads, there’s just “the road”. 

What a metaphor for a lot of life’s encounters! We spend so much time jockeying for position, trying to gain the upper hand in work, in relationships, and yes, while driving, when we might benefit from remembering that we’re all in this together. Being flexible, knowing when to give and take, even yielding to someone else is often the wiser course of action. 

Just as there’s an inherent conflict in two cars driving in opposite directions on a road that’s only wide enough for one or one and a half, many of life’s struggles often appear impossible to resolve in a win-win sort of way. But sharing the metaphorical road doesn’t mean giving up (although I do admit to just pulling off the road in Ireland at times). It means learning how to approach, rather avoid or attack. 3-Co. Kerry-Gallarus hike (1)

There’s a conflict resolution model called the Thomas-Kilman Mode Instrument that describes five different styles commonly used by people, depending on the situation and on their personalities. They range from avoidance to collaboration, with accommodating, competing and compromising falling in between. While not everyone may use all the styles, they each have appropriate uses, depending on timing and what’s at stake. The two styles that I find most comparable to driving in Ireland are Accommodating and Compromising. 

Accommodating means that you sacrifice your own needs for someone else’s (thereby not being assertive). It is agreeable, friendly and yielding, but also cooperative; and appropriate in these instances:

  • When the conflict is about something that’s not very important to you, but it is important to the other person.
  • When it is necessary, and worth it, in order to maintain the relationship
  • When you turn out to be wrong about the situation
  • When damage would occur if you continued to compete, and you know you can’t win [think Bernie Sanders]. 

The Compromising style falls somewhere between being assertive and being cooperative. Using this style means that you try to find a middle ground where each person gets some of what they want. It is most useful: 

  • When you attach a certain amount of importance to your goals, but not so much that you want to assert yourself fully.
  • When people “of equal status are equally committed”. [Think 2 cars passing on the road.]
  • As a temporary measure in a complicated situation until some better solution is reached.
  • When you need to get resolution quickly in an important situation. 

As we drive through life, we’re often avoiding the narrow roads (being unassertive and uncooperative) or competing to take up the whole road (being aggressive and uncooperative), when we might “gain” more by using the accommodating or compromising styles. Ultimately, the gain comes in reduced stress and more time spent feeling relaxed and enjoying the view. What’s more important? 

Here’s what I learned on my vacation: It’s okay to yield, even to be soft sometimes; not everything has to be a fight to the finish. As Wayne Dyer has said, “Conflict cannot survive without your participation.”

 

Dealing with obstacles? Think like Pac-Man

The life we hope for is one of smooth sailing, the wind at our backs, and nothing but blue skies ahead. It’s a life where we make plans and carry them out, where we’re successful and satisfied and loved. Unfortunately, things don’t usually work out so perfectly. I’ve heard that President Obama’s mantra as a community organizer was, “Dream of the world as you wish it to be, but deal with the world as it is.” For most of us, the world as it is includes obstacles.

In some ways, modern life sets up to be surprised by obstacles. After all, we have an app for everything. We hear how easy things are if we just use this or buy that. So when we do hit a roadblock, often the first reaction is, “This shouldn’t be happening to me.” Today, for instance, I went running in the park after a bad storm. Some parts of the path were relatively dry and clear; but many areas were engulfed by puddles or covered in mud. I had to decide: which obstacles do I detour around, which do I leap over, and where do I plow right through? Just as the run today required some physical agility, dealing with life’s tougher obstacles often demands mental and emotional agility.

I’m reminded of the old Pac-Man video game where most of the time Pac-Man is outrunning his enemies, but sometimes he has the power to eat them. In life, we obviously try to avoid most obstacles, but sometimes confronting them gets us where we’re going faster. The question is what power pellets do we have that will enable us to confront the obstacles head-on? pacman_wallpaper_by_meskarune-d4a8m3k

Our strongest “power pellets” are past experience and social support. This means that when we encounter an obstacle on the path ahead, we first ask, “How have I dealt with this before?” And then, “Who can help me deal with this?” Change and blockages are inevitable, but it helps if you’ve been there before, or you know that someone can offer you advice or comfort.

The ability to adapt in the face of adversity is the hallmark of a resilient person, and keeping a positive view of your abilities is another power pellet for building resilience. Going through times of trouble can often be an opportunity for self-discovery and growth, and a time to gain a different perspective on smaller problems. It helps you realize that not every mud puddle is a crisis.

Nurturing a positive self-view is also enhanced if you continue to move toward your goals in spite of the obstacles. The other night I went to an event that featured gospel singer Bebe Winans talking about the new musical of his life story. He discussed and sang the title song, “Born For This.” The song grew out of an experience of being rejected, yet realizing that his goal was still valid and his purpose was clear. Knowing that your life has meaning, and keeping your eye on your purpose, is what gets you over the rough, messy patches on life’s path.

So while I wish you a journey free of obstacles, I also offer you this the next time you find yourself stuck in the mud: Don’t resist, don’t personalize. Deal with the world as it is, by asking “What can I learn? What power do I have? How can I creatively respond to this problem?”

Don’t hit send (yet)

To paraphrase Aldous Huxley, experience isn’t what happens to us, it’s what we do with what happens to us. We have a choice about how to relate to any given situation, but oh, the choices we make! Too often they are knee-jerk reactions to events rather than responses that are the result of any real thought process.

How recently have you sent an email or text that you almost immediately regretted? It’s so easy and quick to react and hit ‘send’. But then the second thoughts arrive, or worse, the other person’s angry answer. And so we get caught up in a cycle of reflexive reaction that often makes honest, productive communication difficult to achieve.Email send

I currently have to work with someone whom I find very difficult. Unfortunately, email, with its inherent weaknesses, is the usual way we do business. This person seems (to me) to be overly sensitive, easily stressed, inattentive, and often very reactive. Sometimes I will send what feels like a very straightforward, innocuous message to this person, and get something back that just makes me want to scream. In the past, my instinct would have been to reply with some sort of snarky, hostile email. Now I am learning to wait a while before replying so that I can practice responding instead of reacting.

Responses are logical where reactions are emotional. Responses relate to the current situation as it is, while reactions tend to have some emotional associations to the past. Responses are thoughtful, reactions instinctual. Parent coach Nicole Schwarz recommends meeting “emotionally-charged behavior” not with criticism or judgment, but with observing and questioning. Richard Blonna has a list of  responding skills, including using “I” language, saying “tell me more”, paraphrasing, and reflecting back what the other person has said. These all have a way of defusing an emotionally-charged or angry situation.

The basis for responding rather than reacting is the cultivation of equanimity, being able to meet people and situations with tranquility, open-heartedness and acceptance. This is especially important when dealing with things that are out of our control, such as other people’s actions. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes,

The path of entering and blending in moments when you feel attacked or threatened in some way obviously involves taking certain risks, since you can’t know what the protagonist will do next nor how you will respond. But if you are committed to meeting each moment mindfully, with as much calmness and acceptance as possible, and with a sense of your own integrity and balance, fresh and imaginative solutions that might lead to a new level of understanding and greater harmony often come to mind…

Kabat-Zinn suggests that we apply this attitude even when we text or email. Be “in your body as you use your devices, …  thus being in the present moment…construct texts mindfully, with full awareness of what you are doing. If you are responding to tons of email, …pace yourself…” We can tell whether we are responding effectively by the feelings that result. Do you feel balanced and relaxed, or angry, fearful and imbalanced? Olpin & Hesson say that “Responding ineffectively leads to a chaotic inner environment.” Responding effectively can lead to feelings of growth, and potentially better relationships.

Sydney_147It’s not easy to compose each text and email as if we were sitting down with a pen, paper, and all the time in the world. The world around us insists that we rush and multi-task, that everything we own have multiple functions, that every thought and emotion be shared. Can we resist just a little? Take a breath, and decide, “I don’t need to say what I’m thinking right this moment. I can do better than that. I can be better than that.”

 

Got troubles? Don’t chew them over.

Ruminant animals, such as cows, are known for “chewing their cud” over and over before digesting it. It’s a process that enables them to get maximum nutrients from plant-based foods — they ferment the food in a special stomach, regurgitate it and chew it again. The rechewing allows them to break it down and digest it more easily. It’s easy to see the parallels with the way we humans sometimes think about an unpleasant event over and over and over again in an attempt to process it — in fact, we have a word for that, rumination.

cow chewingUnfortunately, we probably aren’t getting any beneficial nutrients from our rumination process. In fact, when someone tends to chew things over, and also has a pessimistic explanatory style, they are more prone to depression. Such nonstop rumination with no positive action statements not only fuels depression, but has been shown to extend the cortisol release that happens during stress.

Most of the time, I do a good job of keeping myself from rumination (some research does show that women are more likely to ruminate than men are). I’m a pretty positive thinker, I have a lot of distractions to keep me busy and I’m usually good about expressing my feelings to others. Lately, however, I’ve found myself engaging more in rumination after some stressful interactions, getting caught up in a kind of circle game with the same thoughts going round and round in my head. So I’m turning to the experts to help me get back on track.

Martin Seligman has several skills that he recommends for ruminators. Thought stopping is the first one. Literally say, or even yell, “Stop!” You can write it on a card to remind you, or ring a bell — anything to shift your attention away from the recurring thoughts. Because it is the nature of rumination to circle around in the mind, you can even schedule another time to think about it. The purpose of these thoughts is to remind you of the event, so sometimes writing down the thoughts helps too. If they are written down, you no longer need the mental reminder, and you can stop thinking about them.

The use of expressive writing about the stressful event may also be useful. The important thing is that the writing can’t just be ruminative, a regurgitation of the events. It has to be turned into a story, attached to feelings, and ideally, reveal insights into the situation that might move you forward. What are the emotions and feelings that surround the story? Fear, guilt, regret, anger? The RULER method teaches us to recognize, understand, label, express and finally, regulate emotions. Writing about the troubling event can be a healing part of that process because it is an opportunity to take the first four steps (RULE) and attach them to the story.

Several studies have shown that mindfulness reduces rumination. One that was published in 2008 (Chambers, et. al) showed that after a 10-day intensive mindfulness program, participants demonstrated reduced rumination, fewer depressive symptoms and more working memory capacity. Since mindfulness is all about staying in the present moment, this makes sense — it’s hard to think about a past event while staying present. If the unwelcome thoughts come up during mindfulness practice, we learn to just observe them, without judgment, and let them go.

Ultimately, rumination is a desire to control an event that is out of our control — either because it has already happened or it involves other people’s actions, not ours. We all wish we could have do-overs, or make other people do what we want. The techniques that I’ve mentioned here help to distract, heal and re-focus from what is out of our control. Eventually, we may learn to surrender to what is, accept the reality of it, go with the flow, and trust the universe to make it right.

Navigating a disturbance in the force

Ever since the first Star Wars movie burst into our cultural consciousness almost 40 years ago, its lexicon has become a part of our conversational lives. From the moment Obi-Wan uttered the line, “I felt a great disturbance in the force,” we understood that it was possible to feel shifts in the energy that “surrounds us” and binds us together. There’s no better metaphor for describing the unsettled feeling that arises when stress hits us and our homeostasis is threatened.

I’ve been experiencing just that kind of disturbance in the “force” for the past 6 weeks or so, ever since my son announced that he was moving across the country. While I’m happy for him and feel hopeful that he will be successful in his new life, I have many moments of anxiety about both the change and the process of getting there. In addition, my own home is experiencing upheaval as the things he wants to keep, but can’t take, somehow materialize here for storage. So I decided to look for some Star Wars wisdom to help me:

“Search your feelings.” (Palpatine) This seems like a good first step. Why exactly am I feeling anxious? Is it anticipation of loss? Is it fear of his failure? Fear of my failure? Do I not have enough trust? These are uncomfortable questions, but we can’t hide from emotions that make us squirm. It’s worth sitting a while with the discomfort to gain some clarity and see the path forward.

“Fear is the path to the dark side.” (Yoda) It’s very easy to slip into darkness and inertia when we let fear take over. I recognize that my own fears and anxieties don’t help my son, yodabut only make him more anxious. If I catastrophize about this move by engaging in negative self-talk about it, that can only hurt. Focusing on strengths and practicing positive self-talk will help dispel fear, and leads to:

“Your focus determines your reality.” (Qui-Gon Jinn) If we think only about what can go wrong, something probably will go wrong. If we can stay focused on positive outcomes, our actions will move us in that direction.

“Patience you must have..” More wise guidance from Yoda. Not only must I have patience with my son, who doesn’t always follow the path I want him for him, I must have patience with the process. Transitions take time, and frequently there are bumps in the road. Not everything is on my timetable. I will take a breath, and allow things to fall into place with time.

“Many of the truths we cling to depend on our point of view.” (Obi-Wan) Or as we say in stress management, perspective is everything. Sometimes there is no universal truth, just different versions of the story. Can I shift my point of view about my son’s capabilities, about my role in his life at this point, about what is a good outcome? Can I be flexible enough to let go of beliefs that don’t serve me or him anymore?

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” (Yoda) My naturally cautious son has suddenly adopted Yoda’s philosophy, and is just going to do this. He is letting go of fear and stepping off the diving board. As for me, there can be no “try” either when it comes to supporting him. I must just do it.

“Remember — the force will be with you always.” If we change the word “force” to “love”, this is the message I am left with. No matter what happens, I will always love my son and be here for him. I am cheering for him as he embarks on this journey, and ready to live with all the uncertainty that risks worth taking bring.