How to revamp your resolutions

So we’re eleven days in to 2016, and the tension might be starting to mount. Will it be the fresh start or the old ways that win out? Just how stressed are you about your new year’s resolutions? Are you wondering why a promise to yourself might be harder to keep than one you make to someone else?

If you’re having trouble, take heart. You’re not alone and there’s still a way to salvage your resolutions for 2016. But change is hard, and stress is a given as we fight against those entrenched habits of mind and body that just want to maintain the status quo. Dealing with the stress of change has to be the underpinning of the other resolutions.

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To help you out, I’ve adapted my top ten stress management tips to relate them to your new year’s resolutions and goals. I’ll share the first five here, and the others next week:

Know what you value — We all have core values, which may include things like health, family, religion or money; and then satellite values that we feel less strongly about. How are those values playing out in the resolutions you’ve made? If your core value is good health, for instance, and appearance is more of a satellite value, then maybe your weight loss resolutions need to be tweaked. Rather than setting a specific weight loss goal so that you can fit into a certain size, a health goal of consuming less sugar might be more aligned with your values.

Nurture your relationships — The support of the people around us can play a major role in the success or failure of our resolutions. How strong are your relationships with the people in your social network? Are there things that need repair in some of your friendships? Have you been supportive of other people’s goals? Think about how turning your attention to someone near you might provide emotional support to you both.

Practice gratitude — When we hit a roadblock, or cheat on a diet, or fall off the wagon, it’s easy to start berating ourselves and feel like we’ve failed. Use those moments to practice gratitude instead. Be thankful that you had five good days of healthy eating before something tempted you. Express gratitude for the sunny day that will allow you to get out and exercise, even if you didn’t yesterday. Say thank you to the employer who is paying for your smoking-cessation program.

Be present — Slowing down and paying more attention in each moment can make us more aware of the choices that precede our actions. When we’re trying to make “better” choices or break “bad” habits, mindfulness makes the choices more conscious, less rote. For instance, when you’re eating, just eat — don’t work, drive or watch TV at the same time. Sit down and look at the food, smell the food, notice the colors, before the first bite goes in your mouth. When we choose food deliberately, eat slowly, and savor each bite, we can feel more satisfied with less, because we have been fully engaged in the process of eating.

Don’t forget to breathe — Breathing mindfully can focus attention in a way that may clarify your resolutions for you. Thich Nhat Hanh has a breath exercise he suggests for bringing the mind back to the body. While slowly breathing in and out, you say “Breathing in, I’m aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I’m aware of my whole body.” If you’ve been living too much in your head, and neglecting your health, this can be a way of turning your attention back where it’s needed, while letting go of any tension that might have built up.

Wayne Dyer says that our intentions create our reality. It’s my hope that these five ways of bringing more intention to your resolutions will help make them your reality.

Let your senses do the walking

Quick – can you name your five main senses? When was the last time you really tuned in to them? We take the senses for granted, probably relying too much on sight, if anything. Only when we lose one do we appreciate how important it is. As Helen Keller poignantly put it, “Of all the senses, sight must be the most delightful.”

So one way of being more mindful of self and surroundings is to fully utilize all five senses: sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. I have a book from the 1960s called “Sense Relaxation Below Your Mind”. The title conjures up images of psychedelic experiences and love beads, doesn’t it? And the book certainly has a lot of artsy photos of blissful people engaging in touchy-feely exercises in sensory awareness. But it is actually a useful source of ideas for re-establishing your connection to your senses, and using them to mediate your experience of the world.

The thing I like most to do from the book is a sense walk, either in a familiar place or somewhere new. The way to do the sense walk is to concentrate for 3 minutes at a time on just one sense: first sound, then smell, then touch, then sight. After the first four, you sit down and eat something very slowly and mindfully, focusing on taste. You finish the experience by continuing to walk mindfully, seeing if you can fuse all five senses into a complete experience.

When I do a sense walk at this time of year, the signs of spring are foremost in my experience:

What do I hear? Birds singing and chirping more than just a week or two ago, but also sirens, traffic, children playing.

What do I smell? Mulch and manure as plant beds are replenished for the season; cooking aromas; cigarettes.

What do I feel? Everything is warmer to the touch; my feet connect with cobblestones; cool breezes kiss my skin.

What do I see? Forsythia and dogwood are blooming; the Washington Monument comes into view as I walk down the hill; spring break tourists walk dazedly, lugging Disney tote bags.

What do I taste? One piece of chocolate savored for several minutes. It reminds me of eating Almond Joys as a child when I used to nibble around the almonds and save them for last!

The sense walk offers an opportunity for a ‘beginner’s mind’ experience, or as Barbara Sher says, “When you start using senses you’ve neglected, your reward is to see the world with completely fresh eyes.” Instead of listening to the endless chatter of our minds, we start to hear the sounds of nature. Instead of smelling only what is close by, we learn to notice the aromas all around. Instead of being more familiar with the hard plastic of our digital devices than the feel of our own skin, we have a chance to rediscover the touch of something natural. Instead of focusing just on what’s relevant to us, we learn to look around and notice others. And instead of shoving food mindlessly into our mouths, we take the time to truly taste and be nourished.

Sense relaxation is about remembering what you innately know already. It is about giving yourself permission to just let go for a while. It is about being alive to your full experience. Try it.

What will you fight for?

There’s a moment in the film “Fed Up” when Dr. Harvey Karp says that if a foreign nation were “doing this to our children, we would defend our families.” He’s talking about the way food manufacturers market products full of sugar to our kids, leading to addiction that is every bit as powerful as that caused by drugs like cocaine. The potential for a lifetime of health problems caused by the resulting obesity is both real and heartbreaking.

He could just as easily be talking about the gun lobby, though, another instance where big money and weak politicians combine to create open season on our children. The parallels between the two industries, and our lack of political will, hit me as I walked by a neighborhood church last week. On their front lawn was a memorial to victims of gun violence – rows of t-shirts with the names and ages of people in the area who died by guns in 2013.

Would we fight an outsider who was doing this to our children? What do we fight for anymore? I feel like we, as a society, are in a state of learned helplessness. That’s a condition where someone stops looking for a way to help himself, or change a bad situation, because experience has taught that nothing but pain or disappointment comes from trying. We’ve just stopped fighting the way we should be.

Sure, there are people like Tom Harkin in the U.S. Senate who have fought the good fight on school nutrition standards and food marketing to kids, just as there are groups and individuals who have passionately worked for tighter gun laws. But both efforts are uphill battles that seem marked by more defeats than successes. Just this week, there were two or three more school shootings. When the news comes on, we can no longer tell if we’re hearing about yesterday’s shooting or a new one today; we’ve become so inured to such news that hardly anyone is even calling for a change in gun laws.

People on the other side of this debate – for both food and guns – say that it’s about individual responsibility. “Kids need to eat less and exercise more.” “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But we can no longer control everything individually. That just doesn’t work in a modern country where everyone is exposed to huge social networks and an unstoppable media barrage. At this point the only changes that will be of significance are the ones that alter the conditions in which we live, that transform the toxic environment for everyone.

Clarence Darrow said that “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” So let’s stop the helplessness. We all need to stand up and say we’re fed up.

Thanks for…well, everything

Even on a bad day, I try to remain grateful. And the thing that I am most grateful for is opportunity. It is opportunity that’s given me the education to get the job that puts me in the traffic that frustrates me. It is opportunity that led to success that bought the house where things break down. It is opportunity that widens my experience so that I go to the concert that disappoints me. So I accept the bad with the good, just grateful that I have choices. thanks

Acknowledging all the good that I have immediately puts life in a different, more favorable perspective. Maybe that’s why having a day devoted to giving thanks is so appealing to everyone. For one day, we put aside our worries, and sometimes our differences, to come together in appreciation, and see things in a positive light.

Here are a few of the other things I give thanks for this year:

Gardens; the gift of friendship; goodness;  grace; room to grow.

Insight; ideas; my ipad; my in-laws; interesting conversations.

Visitors; vacations; Vinyasa yoga; the view from my window.

Eating with friends; the feeling of empathy; my eighty-something mother; having enough.

Time for the things that bring me joy; traditions, old and new;  the taste of good food; the touch of a loved one.

Happiness; good health; a helping hand; my husband.

Acceptance of differences; fresh fall apples; ancestors; the aroma of pie.Thanksgiving_16

Nature; new friends; naps; physical and spiritual nourishment; my neighbors.

Kindness; kisses; my wonderful kids; knowledge; holding a koala.Brisbane_122

Stories; my sisters; the sight of a sunrise; solitude when I need it; stars in the night sky; songs, especially when my daughter sings them.

Tecumseh said, “When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”

Thank you for reading!

Three “meals” a day for the soul

It makes sense that a healthy diet and plenty of exercise can help us sleep better at night and be more resilient in the face of stress. But consider the flip side: managing stress and sleeping well can support efforts to eat better and move more.

I recently spent a day counseling people on healthy eating, but I found myself more often than not talking with them about how much sleep they got, and what their stress levels were like. They invariably said that their jobs were stressful and the hours were long. They got home later than they would like, and found it challenging to think about preparing a healthy meal. The stressful day made them feel like they “deserved” the calorie-laden dinner. And by the time they ate, and spent a couple of hours winding down, they got to bed too late to get enough sleep. They often felt fatigued and low in energy.

Most of the people I talked to were relatively young and pretty healthy. But they were struggling with maintaining healthy behaviors in the face of increasingly demanding jobs and hectic lifestyles. Suggesting complicated or time-consuming changes won’t work for them. But what about something that takes only 5 minutes?

Spending 5 minutes once, twice or three times a day doing something that brings you back to the present moment, refreshes your mind, or relaxes your body, can be incredibly restorative. Most of all, in those few minutes, you’re engaged in caring for yourself. While the idea that you deserve care seems like it should be a no-brainer, many people have a hard time embracing it. But a practice that affirms your love and care for self can be the foundation for other health behaviors.

These 5-minute fortifiers come from many sources, including my own practice. Some are adapted from a little book called Five Good Minutes by Jeffrey Brantley and Wendy Millstine. I have divided them into morning, day and evening practices:

Morning

  • Resist the urge to jump right out of bed. Stay still for a moment. Listen to the sounds outside and in your home. Smile. Set an intention for the day, such as being kinder to the people who challenge you.
  • Sing in the shower. As Brantley & Millstine say, “Music and song can make you feel giddy, bubbly, euphoric, and joyful.”
  • Slow down. Ever notice how when you rush, you are more likely to drop things, spill things, and make mistakes; and less likely to find things you need? Taking the extra two minutes to get ready with care will not make you later.

Daytime

  • Breathe at the traffic lights. Too often when we’re rushing to get somewhere, especially in traffic, we chafe at the time spent waiting. Turn it into an opportunity to notice your breath. Inhale deeply and exhale slowly. You will feel calmer when the cars start to move again.
  • Take a break to look at nature. Whether it’s the view out your office window, or a picture on the wall, this practice will rest your eyes and your brain, and shift your perspective.IMG_0117
  • Eat lunch mindfully. Stop working for the time it takes to eat. Chew slowly, really taste the food and think of how it nourishes you.
  • Spend 5 minutes talking with a friend or family member outside of your work. Hearing the voice of someone who loves and cares for you helps ease the stress of the day.

Evening

Relaxing rituals in the evening help separate day from night and work from rest:

  • Make yourself a cup of herbal tea to warm and soothe you before bed.
  • Listen to some mellow music.
  • Give yourself a foot massage.
  • Read a favorite poem.
  • If you find yourself anxious with thoughts about work, imagine writing them down on pieces of paper. Then picture yourself walking to a nearby river and dropping each thought into the water, letting it drift away.

By tackling stress and sleep first, we put ourselves in a better place to make choices about eating and exercise. We change our habitual ways of thinking about ourselves, make caring for ourselves a routine, and have the energy to stick to a plan.

As Soren Kirkegaard said, “Don’t forget to love yourself.”

Spring recharge

We take for granted that our phones and other devices have to be recharged every day or every week. If we don’t do it, we lose the ability to communicate or do our work. The same is true of our minds and bodies, but because we don’t totally shut down, we don’t sense the same urgency to recharge.

April is coming to a close and it’s starting to feel like spring. What can we do to refresh ourselves? The weather teases us, with a few warm days followed by a really cold one; the pollen is challenging some of us to keep our heads clear; flowers are blooming, yet we’re still wearing winter jackets; kids are getting restless in school, but they have two months to go – we can answer that uncertainty and unsettledness by learning what serves us well and making changes in our routines.

Here’s what my spring recharge looks like:

Rediscovering nature – Sustainability is a buzzword all year long, but Earth Day still serves as an opportunity to get people outdoors. A few days ago, I went on a Nature Conservancy hike at Great Falls Park in Virginia, overlooking the Potomac Gorge. As many times as I have been there, I never fail to be awestruck when I see the falls with all their power and beauty. Vultures, cormorants and herons were soaring over the gorge as the river rushed over the rocks. In the park we saw the first spring wildflowers, and I learned that the flowers of redbud trees are edible (salad garnish!) It doesn’t take a whole day to do something in nature: in the May issue of Yoga Journal, there are ideas for connecting with nature in a minute, an hour, a day or a week.Great Falls NP_1

Fresher, lighter food – The warm, comforting foods of winter will soon be a memory. Florida fruit is starting to appear in my grocery store, and I love tracking the progress of the blueberries for sale: first Florida, then Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey and later in summer, Michigan. Spring and summer will mean more local food, more raw or lightly-cooked food, more fruits and vegetables. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has published a book about the best basic foods including best fruit (guava, watermelon and kiwi), best vegetables (kale, spinach and collard greens) and best beans (soybeans, pinto beans and chickpeas). Think of the combinations!photo

Cleaner spaces – Our homes suffer over the winter too. They’re closed up with stale air; dirt and toxins have accumulated; and closets are cluttered with heavy coats, sweaters and boots. Last week I cleaned out my coat closet, and I can’t stop admiring its organization and empty space. (We’ll see how long that lasts!)

A clearer head — Working on mind clutter is valuable too. Could you possibly let go of activities that are draining you and wearing you out? Sometimes I realize that just the process by which I’m doing something is too complicated, that there is a simpler way that uses less energy. Often it’s because I’m trying to control something too much. But by letting go of some control, the process becomes easier, and I am freer in a way. Recommitting to a meditative practice helps me figure this out.

Reuniting with friends and family – Feeling other people’s energy can be a great way to recharge. Spring is the perfect time to connect with people who stimulate and challenge you, support you and nourish you. It’s the time when we start planning family reunions and summer picnics. Maybe it’s a time to commit to putting out more love, and less fear and judgment; to look for the beauty in people that mirrors springtime’s beauty.

Great Falls NP ChickweedI don’t think there is any season that nourishes the spirit, or gives us more reason to feel hope and optimism as spring does. As the writer and abolitionist Harriet Ann Jacobs wrote, “The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also.

Being grateful for January

By the time I was 18, I really hated winter. I spent my last cold season in my home state of Michigan just grumbling about how much I didn’t want to be there. Then I left for good.

Even now that I live in the Mid-Atlantic region, winter is my least-favorite season. By the time January arrives, I know it’s going to be cold for three more months, I’m already sick of my winter clothes, and don’t even get me started about all the kale I see on restaurant menus! (I’m sorry, I just don’t like it.)

But this year, I’m resolved not to be the winter grinch, so I searched for the silver lining and came up with ten things to like about January:

  1. The world didn’t end on 12/21/12. The misinterpretation of the Mayan prediction was not true, and I am grateful to be alive in January 2013. (That “2012” movie was pretty fun, though.)
  2. Inaugurations. Every four years, we have a reason to continue celebrating in January. In Washington, where I live, a party spirit pervades the air this week.IMG_0740
  3. The start of the new semester in my teaching job. I look forward to meeting my new group of students and feeling like I have a clean slate with them.
  4. Eating comfort food is okay. Even the healthy eating columns are full of recipes for stews, soups and pasta. We can enjoy the warmth and savoriness of heavier food and find it richly satisfying.Comfort food_109
  5. Catching up on books and movies. With outdoor activities curtailed, and holiday craziness winding down, it’s a good time to curl up with a novel, or have a marathon viewing of Pride & Prejudice.
  6. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. More than just another day off, this is a day to try to give back and be of service to the community.IMG_2315
  7. Starting my new calendar. I still like to keep a paper engagement calendar where I write with ink or pencil. I love the feel of cracking open the new book each year and starting to enter birthdays and appointments.
  8. There’s no one at the beach. January is great time to walk along the shore and have the entire beach all to yourself. Just bundle up!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  9. The days are getting longer. Yes, the mornings are still pretty dark, but we’ve crossed over the hump of the shortest day and the light will increase bit by bit from now until June.
  10. Snow days. There’s no guarantee of snow days where I live. Sometimes two years can go by without one, but that makes it all the more special to wake up to that awesome quiet that comes with a huge snowstorm. I may not like winter, but I enjoy the way all my neighbors talk and laugh while shoveling snow together. There’s a great feeling of camraderie and community at those times.IMG_1052

The month of January is named for the Roman god, Janus, who had two faces. That way, he could look back to the year just finished, and forward to the year just beginning. “Janus” is actually the Latin word for arch, which makes the month of January a kind of doorway for us. Knowing that, I can begin to appreciate how we need to pass through January if we are going to reach the balmier days of spring.