The sun rises every day — you can too

When my kids were younger, if they had a bad day, I would often remind them, “Every day is a new day.” It sounds like a platitude, but I was trying to get across to them that we don’t have to be defined by our mistakes. We have the opportunity with each new morning to start fresh, set a new intention, smile and act differently than we did the day before.

That might seem daunting, but the capacity for reinvention is in all of us. This idea was brought into focus for me while reading Laura Bates’ book, “Shakespeare Saved My Life”. She has taught Shakespeare in prisons for many years, even to people in maximum security who have no chance of parole. Her star student, Larry Newton, was convicted as a teenager, and sentenced to life without parole or even the right to appeal. He had never attended school regularly past 5th grade, and had been in isolation for years because of behavioral incidents in prison. If all of that isn’t a reason for despair, I don’t know what is. Yet, after he was accepted into Bates’ program, he blossomed. He started examining his life and his choices, he read and studied voraciously, and he became a teacher of other inmates. Here is what he said after realizing that he had been faking it, not making his own choices, but just trying to impress others in his earlier life:

And as bad as that sounds, it was the most liberating thing I’d ever experienced because that meant that I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be some fake guy that my buddies wanted me to be. When I started reading Shakespeare, I was still in segregation; that circumstance didn’t change. But I wasn’t miserable anymore. Why? The only thing that was different was the way that I saw myself. So the way that I felt about myself had to be the source of all my misery; we perpetuate our own misery. And that realization is empowering! So Shakespeare saved my life, both literally and figuratively. He freed me, genuinely freed me.

When the prisoner-students read and discuss Shakespeare, they frequently talk about prison as a metaphor, even though for them prison is real. But they can see that all of us put ourselves in prisons on a regular basis, when we trap ourselves in negative patterns of thought or irrational beliefs about ourselves. If a maximum security prisoner who will never get out can start looking at himself differently and more positively, shouldn’t we all be able to?sunrise2

Too many times, we become passive bystanders in our own lives, just letting circumstances drive us and other people define us. Yoga teacher Jo Tastula says that we need to be more aware that we are the creators of our own lives, and that our thoughts, our words, and our behavior set us on the path to what we make of it. When we are under stress, or experiencing a lot of negative emotions, it’s easy to veer off the path we want to be on. Somehow we can sense that things aren’t lining up right anymore, but we trap ourselves on that wrong path because we think there’s no way back.

That’s why paying attention to the cycles of nature can inspire us. Every day, the sun rises again. Every month, there’s a new moon. Every spring, the trees and flowers come back to life. These are reminders that change can happen over and over again; and they are opportunities to renew and reinvent ourselves. So tomorrow when the sun comes up, ask yourself: If a convicted murderer and prisoner for life can become a scholar-writer-teacher-mentor, what can you become today?

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.

Seeking truth and beauty

On our journey to better health and wellness, the spiritual dimension can be like the elephant in the room. We know somehow that it is important, but talking about it and figuring out what it means can be uncomfortable. So we avoid it as long as we can, before realizing that a fit body and mind only go so far if your spiritual health is struggling.

What is spiritual wellness? Every definition stresses that it is personal and individual. No one can create a mold for spiritual wellness and fit you into it. It involves your values and beliefs, the meaning you attach to life events and your existence, your sense of purpose in life. But some general components of spiritual wellness include having and demonstrating some purpose, the ability to be compassionate to others, the ability to forgive, the ability to spend solitary time in reflection, and aiming for a certain harmony about your relationship to the world. One of the things that make people squirmy about spirituality is confusing it with religious practice. But while religion certainly encompasses a sense of spirituality, the inverse is not true. Spirituality does not have to include any religious belief.

When we write goals for wellness, we can include spiritual values and goals as part of the overall plan, as John Evans suggests in Wellness and Writing Connections. He also proposes affirming spiritual wellness by writing “notes to yourself when you notice beauty, truth, peace, hope, courage, kindness, love, compassion.” These notes can be an antidote to our daily dose of stories about conflict, violence and hate. Writing them down helps us to remember them, and gives us something to return to repeatedly for spiritual nourishment.  A few months ago, for instance, I wrote myself a note about a 10-year-old boy who was learning how to grow a garden. He told a newspaper reporter that, “You give it love and care like you would a baby. You feed and water it.” I often like to let my mind rest on that child’s simple message of truth and love.IMG_0121

I also wrote myself a note when I read And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. He included part of a poem by the 13th century poet Jelaluddin Rumi that goes like this:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other

doesn’t make any sense.

Here too, I find truth and beauty that resonate with each reading.

Author Gail Radley writes that “Human beings are meaning-makers,” but “to make meaning and find purpose, we must expand our vision [by] stepping into the realm of spirituality, into belief in something larger than ourselves.” Stepping into the realm of spirituality means sensing unity with other people, with other creatures, and with nature, and seeing your connection to the larger environment. It means meeting the world from that inner soulful place that is your best self. That’s the place from which we say “Namaste” at the end of a yoga practice. It translates to something like, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.” It is a way of expressing gratitude for the spark of goodness and beauty in another.

Where is the field of grass where you can let your soul lie down? Where do you find truth and beauty, hope and courage, kindness and compassion?

Where stillness resides

Does stillness catch you by surprise sometimes? By stillness, I mean the hyper-focused, super-engaged moments of true mindfulness. These are the moments when you’re not fidgeting, your mind’s not wandering, and every sense is on heightened awareness.

I had one of those moments yesterday, notable mostly because of how rare it is. As much as I try to be mindful in my daily life, to bring my full attention to whatever I am doing, I can see that most of the time there is still a lot of noise, static, in the background.

What are the necessary elements for finding these moments of stillness? First, not being afraid to let the on-going mental narrative subside so you can see what else is there. Too often, we give the monkey mind free rein, burying any chance for stillness under layers of busy-ness and planning and worrying, because we are afraid of what it would mean to accept ourselves and this moment just as it is. What would happen if you turned down the volume for a while?

Is solitude a prerequisite for stillness? Maybe. I found myself alone in the morning this weekend while my husband travels for work. The rhythms of the day changed, slowed, were more reflective. No one was waiting to hear me say something, so I said nothing. I have never thought I could handle a silent retreat, but a silent morning once in a while opens something up.IMG_0072

Nature also contributes to the capacity for stillness. A particularly beautiful day – crisp air, brilliant sun, the smell of fallen leaves – stimulates the senses so deeply sometimes that we snap to attention and appreciation. It is impossible to ignore the birds singing, the breeze blowing, and my presence in the midst of it.

Thoreau famously went to live in the woods at Walden Pond in order to find these moments of stillness. But even he realized that solitude in nature wasn’t realistic all the time. He wrote, “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” He understood that there was a time and a need for each of these. The two years of solitary living showed him a path for how to live, though, and as Brooks Atkinson observed, confirmed that he “could find all truth within himself.”

If we are to find the truth within ourselves, how we start and finish our days matters. Those beginnings and endings are the set-up for our energy levels, our potential for everyday mindfulness and even our creativity. Soren Gordhamer recommends 30 minutes in the morning for activities that “help you meet the day with calm and clarity,” and 60 minutes in the evening for activities of relaxation and ease that help you “transition from the day to sleep”. There is no one prescription for these activities, the idea is simply to pay attention to the inner life instead of the outer life that dominates so much of our time. So whether you meditate, pray, read, take a walk, enjoy a warm bath, or listen to music, you will probably improve the quality of your sleep and your ability to focus during the day.balance

These deliberate practices open a door to so-called “dispositional” mindfulness, being aware of what we are thinking and feeling in the moment, which is connected to healthier lifestyles, better heart health and fewer symptoms of depression. The more often you step over that threshold into the quiet place where stillness resides, the better able you will be to locate stillness again, even when life moves too fast and feels out of control.

In the full moon’s reflection

Like it or not, we are formed by all of life’s experiences. Sometimes our faces or bodies hold the story; other times it stays hidden in the recesses of our hearts. But how often do we stop to feel gratitude for the bad experiences, the things that “don’t kill us, but make us stronger”? The full story of a life contains all that can be held of both past and present. So when the moon is at its fullest, it’s a fitting time to celebrate everything and everyone who helped us get to where we are, says yoga teacher Jo Tastula.

Tastula’s full moon yoga practice inspired me to explore the abundance of my existence. The poses are expansive and opening, sweeping in the totality of what I have observed, encountered, undergone or remembered. To celebrate our fullness, she says, we must include everything and exclude nothing. That means that all of the pain, the missteps, the bad judgments and embarrassments must be a part of the whole. We cannot selectively acknowledge just the joyful moments, successes and correct decisions that have made up our lives.image

Whenever I even remotely start to regret some of my youthful mistakes, I remind myself that I would never have met my husband if I had done things much differently. We were from opposite ends of the country, living in dissimilar circumstances, at very different places in our lives, when we met by chance in a foreign country. We really only had one chance to meet. The song “On My Way to You” beautifully expresses the idea that even the crooked roads we’ve traveled contribute to the goodness of life:

I relive the roles I’ve played

The tears I may have squandered

The many pipers I have paid

Along the roads I’ve wandered

Yet all the time I knew it

Love was somewhere out there waiting

Though I may regret a kiss or two

If I had changed a single day

What went amiss or went astray

I may have never found my way to you

The falls along the road help us find our way. Hardship and hassles round us out, hone our appreciation for the good times, teach us patience and tolerance, make us smarter and more interesting. So when we practice gratitude, why not give thanks for them too?

This week, for example, I had a lovely visit with my sister, read a good book, enjoyed phone calls with my kids, and did some meaningful volunteer work, all of which I loved. But I also got bug bites all over my body, had to deal with some issues in my house, and was screamed at by two separate people who didn’t like the bumper sticker on my car. Much as I might like to exclude those negative experiences,  I can’t. They are part of the whole picture of my week.

The full moon is visible to us when it is completely illuminated by the sun, as seen from Earth. It is something we perceive only because of the light shining on it. The full moon gives us the opportunity to illuminate all the nooks and crannies of our lives, to take a look at what’s in there that we’ve tried to hide, and to be grateful for our capacity to hold it all.

 

Creating an oasis

“We become habituated to the familiar, but the familiar isn’t always healthy,” says yoga teacher Felicia Tomasko. Her words might apply to our relationships, our diets, our jobs, or our surroundings. Sometimes we get so used to living in situations that don’t benefit us that we forget there is an alternative. But look around – is your environment helping or hurting you?

Our minds and bodies are one big source of input, and the saying, “Garbage in, garbage out” seems appropriate. If our senses are bombarded by too much noise, tension, unpleasant colors, harsh light and bad air – if we don’t have someplace to serve as an oasis from all that – if we don’t feel safe and comfortable —  the environment will increase stress and contribute to poor health and lower productivity.

The renowned architect and designer Michael Graves says, “I believe well-designed places and objects can actually improve healing, while poor design can inhibit it.” He doesn’t say that lightly. A recent profile in the Washington Post described how Graves was left paralyzed after an illness, and how his experiences turned his work in a new direction. He has first-hand awareness of how the color of a room can lift or sink one’s spirits, or how a lack of accessibility to perform everyday tasks can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. He is now taking on projects that rethink hospitals, senior living centers and housing for wounded military.

We can think of the environment on both the macro and micro levels. The term, “built environment” isn’t a household phrase yet, but it is widely used in the public health community. According to the Prevention Institute, the built environment consists of the “physical structures and infrastructure of communities”; it can encompass how land is zoned, how a community is designed, what kind of housing is available, transportation options and access to green space. The Prevention Institute has highlighted some recent projects that have contributed to healthier communities:

  • Building a jogging path through a cemetery in Los Angeles so that people without a park in their neighborhood would have a place to exercise and enjoy green space
  • Organizing a community to obtain a full-service grocery store in their area
  • Starting a project in Boston for lead-safe backyards for children to play in
  • Turning vacant lots into community gardens
  • Redesigning an unsafe intersection to make it more pedestrian and community-friendly
  • Engaging a community to create murals that improved the aesthetics of their Philadelphia neighborhoodNew York (2)

By changing the macro environment in even small ways, people may feel safer, may be able to eat more healthy foods, may enjoy more social support from the community and may have more opportunity to exercise. When a community buys in to projects like these, and uses the assets it has to bring them to fruition, the first project can often serve as a catalyst for on-going improvements to the environment.

Our micro environments, on the other hand, are sometimes easier, or at least quicker, to alter. With fewer people to please, it becomes simpler to take pro-active steps to create a healthier space. Think about how you feel in certain rooms. Are there particular places that you associate with stress? Are there others where you feel more calm or creative? What is it about the space that provokes those feelings? Is it the activities that take place there? Is it the design or usefulness of the area? Does it feel light or dark, cluttered or spacious? What can you change to make your space more conducive to health and well-being? Some things to consider are:

  • Having sources of natural light and good ventilation
  • Bringing nature indoors – with flowers, a plant, or even a picture of nature
  • Rearranging furniture, or even room uses, to better suit how you live and work
  • Painting your rooms in colors that please you, or calming colors like blues and greens
  • Creating sound that is pleasing – music, water, wind chimes
  • Setting aside a place in the home, even a small one, that is free of work, tension and dissension

Philip Johnson has said that “all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.” Even without a great architect, can we create those places of contentment for ourselves?

 

How high do you bounce when you hit bottom?

Humans may be unique among species in our potential to be resilient in the face of change. Biological imperative drives most species to persevere in a programmed way even when circumstances become dire. The sea turtle returns to the same beach no matter how much development or predation occurs there. The monarch butterfly’s route to a certain Mexican forest is encoded in its DNA and it flies as if on auto-pilot. The salmon will swim upriver to spawn even when a dam is in its way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPerseverance is necessary for our success too, and sometimes it’s enough. But today, more than ever before, the world is changing at a breathtaking pace and we need something more than drive and diligence. We need resilience.

Resilience is the ability to adapt to change, to bounce back from losses and hardship, to thrive anew after experiencing adversity. Our resilience benefits us in small ways every day, but especially when life throws a big curveball our way. Think job loss, natural disaster or personal tragedy.

Resilience is about having inner strength, but it’s not about being a Lone Ranger kind of tough guy. In fact, one of the hallmarks of a resilient person is being socially connected: having supportive relationships, working collaboratively with others, and asking for help when necessary.

Our ability to be resilient isn’t fixed — it’s not even something we’re really born with. According to This Emotional Life, resilience develops as people grow up. We gradually gain more knowledge and experience, and that enhances the belief that we can cope with new situations. Ideally, we also learn self-management skills such as how to express emotions. And if we enjoy supportive relationships with our family and community, they help us gain trust and optimism.

Of course we’re all born with different kinds of temperaments, and most of us don’t grow up in that kind of ideal environment. So it comes as no surprise that many of us aren’t all that resilient. We become rigid in our beliefs, resistant to change, and unwilling to look for silver linings. We dig in our heels, deny that change is necessary and hold on to the status quo as long as possible.Detour

See, decide, believe. That’s how someone who resists change can change himself. Like any behavior change, first it’s necessary to see that you might not be so resilient, then decide you want to change. After that, start telling yourself that you are resilient. Believing it helps make it so, because brain research suggests that resilience depends on communication between the logical, prefrontal cortex part of the brain, and the limbic system, which is the seat of emotions. So what we say, what we think, the story we tell about ourselves, helps make the reality.

Other tips for building resilience come from the Mayo Clinic and the Centre for Confidence:

  • Try to see change as a meaningful challenge, and make each day have purpose
  • Learn from experience, and use it to build problem-solving strategies
  • Nurture connections with others; try to resolve any persistent conflicts with family or co-workers
  • Stay positive and hopeful
  • Know that you cannot control all events, but you can control your reaction to events
  • Take care of yourself – being physically, mentally and spiritually well prepares you to adapt to change.

Nothing lasts forever, change is a given and there are no guarantees. The headline of a piece in the Harvard Business Review said it best: “Surprises are the new normal; resilience is the new skill.” Be ready.