A soft focus gives you a clearer picture

Do you ever wonder why we have so many expressions about being tricked by our senses? We want to believe that the things we see, hear and taste are reality; but are they? Sensory input is prone to all sorts of distortion by the mind. As Mark Twain said, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

David Life, writing in Yoga Journal, said that “Our attention is the most valuable thing we have,” yet because the visible world is “overstimulating” the eyes wander and we become distracted. Gymnast Gabby Douglas has spoken about how hard it can be for her to focus: “I’m like: ‘Look, something shiny! No, focus. Oh, there goes a butterfly.'” The wandering eyes result in a wandering, hyperactive mind, jumping from one thing to the next with no real sense of clarity about anything.

Butterflies_03This is why the concept of “drishti” is so important in yoga, and can also be a practice that helps us off the mat. Drishti is a Sanskrit word that means “gaze” or “sight”; but also vision or point of view. By practicing drishti, we potentially develop better focus, concentration, and receptivity. It is a technique, but also, Life says, a metaphor.

In simple terms, drishti during a yoga practice means that you look at one point with a soft, unfocused gaze. Baron Baptiste says that making the eyes “soft and tender” first physically grounds us, then calms the mind and allows the senses to turn inward. During yoga, this has the physical benefit of helping us find stability in balance postures as well as making the practice feel like a moving meditation. In Ashtanga yoga, there are actually nine different drishti points where the gaze can be directed, depending on what you are doing – points such as the tip of the nose, the hands, the big toes, the thumbs or the third eye. But in most classes, people are just directed to find a drishti somewhere.

When the eyes stop wandering and the gaze is directed to a single point, it helps us see more consciously, “past the screen of our prejudiced beliefs,” according to Yogapedia. This effect can help clear away fears and judgments, the experience of what happened yesterday, the preconceived notions about what we can do and who we are. As Baptiste says, we expand from the default view to the 360 degree view. This allows us to become the observer of our own experience, enabling us to see things through new, uncolored lenses. IMG_2347

When the drishti calms the mind, we may even approach the moment with what is called “beginner’s mind,” as if it is something we are seeing for the first time. We can still build on past experience while recognizing that this moment is a new opportunity, one to be viewed neutrally and with receptivity. Possibilities widen. Eventually, David Life says, the development of a single-pointed focus helps us build compassion – for ourselves and others.

Jeff Brantley and Wendy Millstine offer a practice in their book “Five Good Minutes” that takes the lessons of drishti and applies them to the ability to really see another person. With a picture of a loved one in front of you (or in your mind’s eye) and while breathing mindfully:

  • See the person as if for the first time. Drop all the old stories about him or her. Notice as many details as you can.
  • Imagine this person moving through the stages of life, as a child, adolescent, adult, in old age, and at death.
  • See in this person the same wishes and fears everyone has. See the desire for love, safety, and peace.
  • End by releasing the image and noticing your own thoughts and feelings without judgment.

In this way, drishti helps us un-see so that we can bring fresh insight to the people and situations we experience each day.

 

 

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More kindness — the only resolution I need to make

It occurred to me on New Year’s Eve that the only resolution I needed to make was to be more kind. Why? Because kindness covers all the bases – my physical and mental health, my relationships, my productivity and my emotional well-being. Kindness differs from simply being “nice” because it requires action – just as resolutions do.

If I’m more kind to myself, I’ll be mindful about eating in a healthy way and getting more exercise. I’ll engage in self-care practices like getting more sleep and drinking more water. I’ll make my doctor’s appointments and take my vitamins. If I’m more kind to myself, I’ll stop feeling guilty about the time I spend reading, daydreaming or watching TV. I will accept myself as I am.

If I’m more kind to the people I live with, our relationships will improve. Kindness will heal the small hurts and be like a balm for the irritability and impatience we sometimes (unfairly) foist on our loved ones. Being kind will keep me from making the snarky comment or the unreasonable demand. Being kind will help us smile more.California - March (8)

If I’m more kind to the strangers I meet as I go about my day, it will improve my mood and maybe theirs as well. There is research that shows a small, but significant, boost to personal well-being from being kind to others. Being kind to strangers may open the door to unexpected and even delightful interactions which I would otherwise miss. Kindness will build bridges to understanding — as Mark Twain said, it “is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

If I’m more kind, I will remember to say “thank you” more often. Recognizing the kindnesses that others have shown me and expressing gratitude for them will build goodwill and “create a ripple with no logical end,” as Scott Adams has said.

More kindness will lead to more forgiveness. Maybe I won’t beat myself up as much when I procrastinate or make a mistake. Maybe I won’t be as critical of others or hold them to a higher standard than they can meet. Maybe I can even be kind to those who have hurt me or the people I love.

Being more kind, whether it’s to myself or others, won’t be easy. As Jill Suttie writes, “We are naturally conditioned to pay attention to the negative things happening around us,” and we have to “purposefully create opportunities for positive emotion.” She suggests starting with simple, small acts such as smiling at someone on the street because that can act as a “gateway” to more kindness.

As Jon Kabat Zinn has written,

If I become a center of love and kindness in this moment, then in a perhaps small but hardly insignificant way, the world now has a nucleus of love and kindness it lacked the moment before.

So what if we all at least tried to become centers of love and kindness? Then it might truly be a happy new year.

 

Staying out of troubled waters

There’s an adage that goes, “Never meet trouble halfway. Let it travel the full distance. Something usually happens to it before it arrives.” Good advice, right? So why is it that so many of us go looking for trouble?

  • Do you wake up at night and start worrying about what might happen tomorrow? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.
  • Do you get stuck in the middle of a project because of self-doubt? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.
  • Do you come up with a million reasons not to take the risk to do something that you know you will love? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.
  • Do you believe that the problems you’re having today will last forever? If so, you’re meeting trouble halfway.

When we don’t make trouble travel the full distance to reach us, we easily become paralyzed, anxious and overly cautious. Productivity suffers, and we definitely can’t grow or change in a meaningful way. Studies have shown that anxiety and worry are negatively associated with self-efficacy, the belief in one’s capabilities and confidence that goals can be achieved.psychology-2422439_960_720

It’s tough to break the habit of anticipating trouble, or the vicious cycle of negative beliefs and avoidance.  Yoga teacher Kathryn Budig is one of the people who inspires me when I need a kick in the pants to make an intentional effort toward positive thinking. Her practices are all about empowerment, taking risks, having fun and not letting those nagging worries f*** with your head. During a challenging moment, she’ll simply say, “You’ve got this.” Or, “You know what? If you fall, you’ll just get back up and try again.” During tough moments, I remember her voice and repeat to myself, “I’ve got this.”

There are other ways to make trouble travel the full distance. One is to use visualization to flip the scenario that you’re imagining in your dark moments. Instead of picturing the worst, can you picture the best outcome? Build as many details into your mental picture as possible, until it becomes believable. The mind can be a powerful tool to your benefit, but sometimes it has to be gently coaxed to turn in the positive direction.

Looking back to your past can also be useful. In most cases, you know that you’ve been able to rise to challenges like this before. You can remember other times when your worries have been unjustified, when the outcome that you feared did not come to pass. The bottom line is that you probably have as much reason to expect the best as you do to expect the worst. So focus on those proven moments when you have been successful.

Choose some small change to make in order to build self-efficacy. Not something life-changing, but something achievable. When you see for yourself that you are capable of making the change, confidence in your abilities will grow and you can move on to something bigger. The more self-efficacy you build, the less anxiety you should have — because your belief in your ability to cope will be stronger. You will more often be making trouble travel the full distance to reach you.

Most important is to be firmly grounded in the present moment. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, each new day is a precious gift. Greet the peace and happiness that the day offers. Breathe it in. For this moment, don’t look any farther into what’s ahead.image

 

Apples and pumpkins and pears, oh my!

At first blush, Fall is not my favorite season. It is probably second only to winter as my least favorite since I’m a warm weather girl at heart. But, trying to find a silver lining, I decided to make a list of all the things I like about Fall, to see where that would take me. It turned out to be a longer list than I thought it would be.

Let’s start with the weather, shall we? Yes, fall brings cooler temperatures and sometimes rain, but it can also be glorious (as it is as I write this). Late September and early October offer us some breathtakingly beautiful days that feel like summer, but are all the more precious because they come as a surprise. As we count down the weeks until the real cold sets in, I have greater appreciation for the gift of these gorgeous days.

Cooler days also give us the opportunity to do more outside. The prospect of hiking or biking, which might have inspired groans on those 90-degree days with 90% humidity during August, is actually pleasant now. This is the time of year to explore and put some serious miles on the shoes before it gets too cold and icy.

It’s also a whole new season of produce at the markets. Yes, I miss the berries and peaches, but the apples right now are amazing. The pick-your-own farms are in full swing as well. What would Fall be without a trip to the apple orchard, the cider mill or the pumpkin patch?New Jersey apple picking (7)

I’m happy not to be a kid starting school in September, but for adults the fall offers rich opportunities for learning and experiencing culture. It’s a new theatre season, the serious fall movies are starting to appear and a new season of adult programming begins at local colleges, museums and art centers.

I can start wearing different clothes! If you’re like me, by the end of a season, you get sick of looking at the same wardrobe choices every day. It’s almost like buying new clothes when I can go into my drawers or closet and pull out a forgotten sweater or a long-sleeved shirt and remember how much I like wearing it. I warm up my feet, which have been in sandals all summer, rediscovering socks and boots.

There are more people around. Some places feel more crowded,  but that’s a good thing in general. It means that people are back from their summer vacations and more available for making plans and getting together. It’s a good time to plan a nice fall dinner party, maybe one featuring squashes and Brussels sprouts.IMG_1043

I can turn off the air conditioning and open my windows. I love the fresh air (well, as fresh as it gets in the city) and even the noise that goes along with it. It makes me feel connected to the outdoors and to the neighborhood.

We can start anticipating and planning for holidays. The sight of the pumpkins and other squashes, the apples and pears, the sweaters and boots, makes me think of Thanksgiving and beyond. What will be on the menu this year? Who will be with us?  What traditions will we keep and how will we celebrate differently?

Anthony Doerr, the author of the acclaimed novel “All the Light We Cannot See”, has said,

The preciousness of life and the changes of weather and the beauty of seasons – all those things have always sort of dazzled me.

I’m setting an intention right now to let Fall dazzle instead of disappoint this year, to look with new eyes on its changing colors, to savor the tastes and textures it offers, and to accept the season in all its unique beauty without wishing I was in any other season.

How to disable the rudeness virus

What was the first thing you did when you got to work today? Greet someone warmly, or snub someone in the elevator? Hold the door for someone, or send the nasty email you were stewing over all night? Compliment someone’s work, or leave a mess in the kitchen? While you may think that your action ends there, it has repercussions throughout the day – for anyone who witnessed it.

Like many emotional states and behaviors, rudeness is actually contagious. And when someone witnesses what they perceive to be rudeness early in the day, it tends to color their perceptions of all the subsequent interactions they have during the remainder of the workday. It contaminates their view, and makes them more likely to perceive something as rude later in the day. That makes rudeness something more than just an encounter between two people; it has ongoing social ramifications that could really impact a workplace or community.Spain-Barcelona (87)

Much of the recent research on the contagion of rudeness has been conducted by Trevor Foulk, a professor at the University of Maryland. And while a great deal of that research has focused on the workplace, there are parallels to what we see every day in the larger societal sphere. A rude tweet early in the morning sets the stage for an escalating battle of words throughout the day, and a tendency to take offense at even the most benign statements because rudeness has been “activated” in people’s associative networks.

Every time we witness something like this, we make an assessment as to what to do about it, using up valuable mental resources that could be better spent on work tasks or other activities. It also makes us more likely to just avoid such social interactions. People with higher self-esteem and a stronger locus of control may have a greater ability to cope with these situations, but even for them, it’s a drain on resources.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about something similar — the Buddhist concept of “knots:”

When we have sensory input, depending on how we receive it, a knot may be tied in us. When someone speaks unkindly to us, if we understand the reason and do not take his or her words to heart, we will not feel irritated at all, and no knot will be tied. But if we do not understand why we were spoken to that way and we become irritated, a knot will be tied in us.

knot 2He goes on to say that these knots will grow tighter and stronger if they are not untied, and lead to feelings such as anger, fear or regret, creating “fetters” that effect us, even if they are repressed. They eventually express themselves through “destructive feelings, thoughts, words or behavior.” In other words, rudeness and unkindness are as contagious as a physical illness, and we can become carriers without intending to be. It’s not too much of a leap to see a connection to the recent decline in civility across American life and the erosion of trust among people.

How can we inoculate ourselves from the contagion of rudeness? Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we need to “live every moment in an awakened way.” We must be aware of our feelings and motivations. Where are they coming from? Can we hold them in our consciousness and examine them without discomfort overwhelming us?

If awareness is the first step, then perhaps the second is to recognize the power you have to control your own feelings and thoughts. Not everything is personal. Practice your ability to change negative thoughts into positive ones, remembering that you always have a choice in how you interact with the world around you.

Be more intentional in your words and actions. Too often, we are reactive and impulsive in our responses. But if rudeness is contagious, so can kindness be. Choose your words more carefully, thinking first about how they will be received. Set an intention to start each day with an act of kindness. As Aesop wrote so long ago, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where’s the joy?

I’m finding that writing is like exercise. The longer you stay away from it, the harder it is to get back in the habit of doing it. But the fact that I’ve managed to make so many other things a priority in the last eight weeks does make me wonder why I choose to have a blog at all. Who am I serving? You? Me? And does this bring either of us joy, or even “santosha” (contentment)?

Last year I read Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life-changing Magic of Decluttering,” then embarked on several months worth of purging my clothes, books, papers, makeup and more. As I’ve written before, it can be useful from time to time to think about not only the objects in your life, but also the people, the habits and the commitments that are either lifting you up or bringing you down. And while the “KonMari” method focuses only on physical belongings, many of the ideas and questions that she raises could just as easily apply to the activities where we spend our time.

For those not familiar with Marie Kondo, her primary emphasis is on the question, “What things will bring me joy if I keep them?” She discusses the different kinds of value something can have: functional, informational, emotional or rarity. She has a very specific order by which you should undertake your decluttering, starting with things like clothes and ending with mementos. In this way, you come to the most emotional and sentimental items last.

I’m sure that many people have rolled their eyes on hearing that they should hold an object in their hands, and ask “Does this bring me joy?” The t-shirt you got at a concert 10 years ago, the book you bought and never read, the CD you listened to once – you probably never thought about whether they bring joy to your life. But asking the question helps move you out of your inertia and away from that dreaded word, “someday.”2018-07-20 14.06.30

Kondo also suggests that we ask what an item’s true purpose in our life has been. Has the item already fulfilled its role? What about the book that’s been sitting on your shelf for five years, that you’re going to read “someday” when you “have more time”? Maybe, she says, the book’s purpose is to teach you that you don’t need it. In that case, it has already done its job. Likewise with giving away something you received as a gift. The purpose of a gift, Marie says, is to be received, and that has already happened.

I admit that I only made it to the fourth category (out of five) of my belongings, and within that, only to the fourth of ten subcategories. I’m stuck at electrical equipment and appliances. But what I’ve been asking lately is whether KonMari can be applied to time-management and choices that we make every day about what is important.

Some of the choices we make about time do bring us immediate joy — being with friends or family, enjoying a special meal, reading a good book. It’s easy to say yes to those activities. The problem is that some actions that are good for us in the long run are hard to do in the short term. Like exercise – a run might bring me joy when it’s over, but I’m not feeling happy when I think about starting! Writing a blog post might give me joy and satisfaction when it is finished and someone “likes” it, but the process doesn’t always flow. Like

This dilemma goes to the heart of what it means to live mindfully. It’s a reminder that mindfulness means living in the moment, rather than for the moment. Holding a favorite object might more easily bring me joy in the moment, but so can setting a goal or intention for myself. As Olpin and Hesson write, “creating goals entail[s] bringing future moments into the present so you can apply appropriate control toward achieving them.” Can I mindfully create a vision of the future in the present? Does that vision inspire me to say, yes, writing will bring me joy? If so, then I am not yet ready to say that this endeavor has fulfilled its purpose.

Does my finding joy through writing also serve you? As a writer, I have a certain intention, but as a reader, you can interpret it any way you want. Am I providing information, emotional resonance, or possibly even joy to you? These are things I want to explore with you as we go. Thanks for staying with me!

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.