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.

 

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Books + beach + baby turtles = respite

Sometimes we need a respite more than we need a vacation, or even before we can be fully present for a vacation. What’s the difference between a respite and a vacation? The dictionary tells us that a respite is a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant, while a vacation is an extended period of recreation. When I left my home in Washington 10 days ago and headed for the beach,  I was fleeing from a stressful and frustrating situation. What I didn’t foresee was how many days it would take before I really felt like I was on vacation.

I knew I had to lower my stress level, and so I set some intentions from the start, the most important being to limit my email. I turned the mail function off on my devices and decided to only turn it on twice a day to check for things that were important. The rest of the time, I vowed not to check it at all.

Here are my other intentions:IMG_2188

I had been neglecting my yoga practice at home. In addition, I needed to spend some time learning how to use my new camera and updating my continuing education credits, as well as this blog. But it turned out to be many days before I could focus on the more mentally-tasking intentions.

On my first morning, I went to a yoga class and felt some of the stress begin to lift. On my second morning, I began a week of going out with other volunteers to monitor sea turtle nests on the beach. Each day at sunrise when we would begin our walk down the beach, a feeling of complete well-being would come over me and I would utterly relax. When we released some straggler baby turtles near the ocean one day, and people gathered to cheer them on as they made their way, I was filled with gratitude to be part of something so simple yet so much bigger than myself.

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The remainder of my first four or five days was spent reading books. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to do much more than that. Overcast weather justified my couch potato tendencies a bit, but if I’m honest I admit that I just didn’t have the energy or interest to do more than that. I finished three books in rapid succession, and would have read more if they had been available. Other people’s stories have always felt like a refuge for me when I needed one.

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By the fifth day, the sun came out, and with it my readiness to be “on vacation.” I finally felt like I could enjoy the recreation part of my stay — the swimming, boating, biking and other fun. I took my camera out and experimented with its different settings. I spent the hot part of one afternoon doing an online class to fulfill my CE requirement. I went kayaking with my husband, and enjoyed that wonderful feeling of physical tiredness that comes from exertion. It was such a welcome change from the mental and emotional exhaustion I was feeling a few days earlier.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that,

The purpose of a vacation is to have the time to rest. But many of us, even when we go on vacation, don’t know how to rest. We may even come back more tired than before we left.

I feel lucky that I had enough time to give myself both that respite and a vacation. But what I learned is that I need to build in more respites for myself at home, and probably more boundaries to keep myself from getting to the point of so much stress. Time to set more intentions!

 

How colored chalk changed my brain

Marian Diamond is best known for studying Einstein’s brain, as well as her penchant for carrying around a hatbox with a human brain inside. But my memories of her revolve around the color-coded lectures she used to give in her anatomy class at U-C Berkeley. Before we had PowerPoint, we had Marian Diamond and her colored chalk.

We would arrive in the lecture hall and find the chalkboard covered with an outline of the day’s class, complete with drawings of anatomical structures. Several different colors of chalk were used to separate parts of the lecture or demonstrate various pathways. I never knew exactly what I would see when I walked in, only that I would be mesmerized for the entire class period by the clarity of her presentation and her dynamic teaching style. Of all the professors I had in college, she is one of only two or three whose classes I vividly remember.Diamond-Zhukova750-410x273

So when I heard that Dr. Diamond died last week, at the age of 90, I was sad for only a moment, and then I smiled, thinking back to that Berkeley lecture hall. Marian Diamond was an expert in brain development, and I realize now that she wasn’t just teaching us about the anatomy of the brain, but actually changing our brains too. She was one of the first scientists to demonstrate neuroplasticity and to test theories of how the right stimulation can promote brain development at any age.

In the introduction to her book, “Magic Trees of the Mind,” Diamond wrote that “The brain, with its complex architecture and limitless potential, is a highly plastic, constantly changing entity that is powerfully shaped by our experiences in childhood and throughout life.” She believed, and showed, that nurture is every bit as important as nature in determining how our lives turn out.

Back when I was in Marian Diamond’s class, I was contemplating a career in nursing, but unprepared for the competitiveness of Cal pre-med students. My laid-back studying habits weren’t a good match for the tough courses I was taking, and I ultimately switched majors. Little did I know that many years later I would go into the field of health education. Now I rely on Diamond’s work all the time in the courses I teach on stress management.

The critical factors in nurturing healthy brain development, according to Marian Diamond, are a healthy diet, physical exercise, being challenged, having new experiences, and being loved – especially love in the form of touch. In studies of rats, she showed that those living in an enriched environment had thicker cerebral cortices, the biggest part of the brain and the one most important for attention, memory and learning. She also learned that rats who were held and petted every day lived longer than others. While much of her work focused on children’s brain development, especially the negative effects of growing up in impoverished environments, she also realized that we retain the capacity for growth throughout life. As she wrote,

“Perhaps the single most valuable piece of information learned from all our studies is that structural differences can be detected in the cerebral cortices of animals exposed at any age to different levels of stimulation in the environment.”

People know this already, even if they don’t know anything about science. A Gallup survey several years ago showed that “learning something new” was one of the biggest predictors for whether someone thinks they had a good day. We’re bored if we’re not challenged, and we languish if we’re not loved. We know we feel better if we eat healthy food, and think better when exercise gets blood flowing to the brain.

Daniel Defoe wrote that, “The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond, and must be polished, or the luster of it will never appear.” What we learned from the diamond that was Marian is that the brain needs its own share of polishing and nourishment for us to lead a rich, fulfilling life.

 

Why you need to declare independence

We observed Independence Day all over America yesterday, celebrating our freedom as a country. Yet, as individuals, we still put ourselves in chains a lot of the time. We imprison ourselves with judgment, and with the dreaded “should, ought and must.”

As often happens, I started thinking about this in a yoga class. One day last week, a teacher said, “Allow your eyes to close,” which is typical language in yoga class. But the use of the word “allow” got me thinking. Then I heard a teacher say, “Give yourself permission to….” Hmm – I was starting to see a pattern. It didn’t seem like the words were meant just to let us know that we had a choice; it seemed more like the words were an acknowledgment that we don’t often let ourselves relax, or choose to do less than we are capable of.Woman Closing Eye

At another point, the teacher asked us to do tree pose, which involves resting one foot against the opposite leg while balancing on the other foot. Usually people will use a hand to assist them in getting the foot high up on the inner thigh of the other leg; but this time the teacher asked us not to use our hands, even if that meant that we wouldn’t be able to get the foot as high. It was interesting to me to watch as some in the class couldn’t seem to bring themselves to “settle” for the foot just resting against the ankle or calf — they had to use their hands to bring the foot as high as possible. They just couldn’t allow themselves to do less than their max.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the two parts of Buddhist meditation are stopping, and looking deeply. It’s the stopping that’s the hurdle, because once we can do that, the looking deeply will naturally follow. But as he says, “If you’re like most of us, since you’ve been born, you’ve been running. Now it’s a strong habit that many generations of your ancestors also had before you and transmitted to you — the habit of running, being tense, and being carried away by many things, so that your mind is not totally, deeply, peacefully in the present moment.”

The constant running can lead to “wrong perceptions,” including the self-judgment that results in constant striving.  For some of us, the constant striving comes from the mistaken belief that we have to be the best at everything we do — the best in our professional lives, the best parent, the best athlete, the best host, and yes, the best in yoga class. But why? If there is one, or maybe two or three, area of life where we really give 110% to be our best, why can’t we just let ourselves be…okay at some of the other things?

In their book, “Five Good Minutes,” Jeff Brantley and Wendy Millstine have a practice called, “Retire the judges in your mind.” It’s all about letting go of the self-judgment and self-criticism. They suggest that while you are sitting quietly, and with that intention, that you notice the judgmental thoughts and say, “Thank you, you may or  may not be true, but thank you anyway.”Brisbane_85

If you stop striving for a moment, and let that foot rest a little lower on the leg in tree pose, maybe you’ll notice something about tree that you couldn’t see when you were using so much effort. Maybe stopping and looking deeply for a moment allows you to grow your tree differently the next time you do it. Thich Nhat Hanh compares the release of tension that comes from letting go with soaking mung beans: “You don’t need to force the water to enter the mung bean. You let the mung bean be in the water, and slowly, slowly it goes in….The same is true for you.”

Here’s a radical thought — sometimes maybe we should do less in order to do more. So declare your independence from the tyranny of “I must,” “I should” and “I have to.” Allow your eyes to close, give yourself permission to stop, take whatever it is you need.

 

Making your resolutions reality

Debbie Ford wrote that “New Year’s resolutions often fail because toxic emotions and experiences from our past can sabotage us or keep us stuck with the same old thoughts, patterns and regrets.” It can be scary to look closely at ourselves, to acknowledge some of our fears and emotions. That’s why having a plan for dealing with those negative voices boosts the staying power of your resolutions. Here’s part 2 of stress management as a foundation for resolutions:

Live purposefully — What drives you? What are you passionate about? When you combine  your values with the gifts and strengths you offer to others, that synergy helps you feel engaged, connected, and part of something larger than yourself. If, as Sean Johnson suggests, you ask yourself every day, “What is worth my time, attention, prana, love?”, and then follow that path, your actions will bring you an authentic feeling of happiness, rather than anxiety.

Move more — This advice doesn’t have anything to do with a resolution you might have about exercising more. This is movement for the joy of motion. Just move more, even when you don’t exercise. Walk somewhere that you usually drive – you’ll notice different things! Dance when you’re cleaning the house. Go ice-skating. Take the stairs instead of the elevator at least once a day. Movement is what our bodies crave when we are overloaded with the products of stress. It just feels good to move, so do it!Skaters

Practice compassion — starting with yourself! This is probably the most helpful thing you can do for yourself if you are trying to stick to resolutions. Don’t beat yourself up when things aren’t going as planned. Observe your own struggles, and those of others, with compassion. Try this meditation from Jack Kornfeld: “May I be held in compassion. May I be free from pain and sorrow. May I be at peace.” After you have directed these thoughts toward yourself for a while, turn them to others you know.

Learn something new everyday — Knowledge is power. Are you trying to have a healthier diet? Instead of following the latest fads, read some reputable nutrition literature and educate yourself in a way that will make your actions more successful. Try a different source for the news of the day to get another perspective. Read a book about something you know nothing about — it may be a great distraction from the focusing obsessively on what you are trying to change.Laughing woman

Laugh – then laugh again, and again. The other day I found a little collection of comic strips that I’ve cut out of newspapers. Even though I’ve read them many times, they still make me laugh every time I see them. We laugh for all sorts of reasons – sometimes it’s because things are genuinely funny, other times we laugh because a situation is so absurd, often we laugh just so we don’t cry. Like movement, laughter helps us rid the body of stress hormones. It also helps shift perspective, realize that we are not alone, and take the mind off of problems. Remember that your resolutions are supposed to make your life better, so don’t take them so seriously – resolve to laugh more in 2016!

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.

How Do You Play?

Is it purposeless, spontaneous, an antidote to boredom or loneliness? Does it involve risk, excitement, pleasure or freedom? If so, you play like a child — and that’s good news.

Childhood play has recently become a target of our attempts to help kids be more physically active, but children themselves have a very different idea of what constitutes play. And their perspective could help us help ourselves as well as them.

IMGIn a child’s view, playing has no goal. It is the ultimate in present moment awareness – there is no desired end result – it is an end in itself. That’s one of the take-aways from a new study conducted at the University of Montreal. Other important findings are that risk-taking is pleasurable for children, helping them learn how to cope with life’s unpredictability; that play doesn’t necessarily have to be active; and that they feel ambiguous about scheduled play activities. For both kids and adults, this is a reminder that the social and emotional benefits of play are every bit as important as the physical benefits.

According to Stuart Brown of the National Institute of Play, being playful helps us be more adaptable, leads to trust and benefits brain development. He has studied the rough-and-tumble play of animals, as well as babies’ early play with their mothers. Play is driven by curiosity about the world and each other, and social play is often the glue that holds us together. Brown says that “The opposite of play isn’t work — it’s depression.”

Play can help us be more creative. John Cleese recommends using humor to enhance creativity, because it makes us more playful and relaxed. Brown says that play is a mediator between the brain and the hand. He has observed that design students who can’t creatively solve problems haven’t worked with their hands enough, doing things like playing and tinkering.

In order to “infuse” your life with more play, Brown recommends spending time with children, surrounding yourself with playful people, and looking back at your “play history“. What kinds of play did you enjoy as a child? Can you make an emotional connection between your childhood play and your life now? What is the story you tell about playing?

When I was a child, much of my play was unstructured. I grew up in a big family, and there was always someone around to play with. Because I didn’t have any brothers, our play often involved dress-up and make-believe rather than physical play. We had a music box that played the wedding march, and we would take turns putting on a bridal “veil” and playing wedding. We would take our large collection of “Little Golden” books and make paths around our bedroom with them, or build a fort or tent with a blanket thrown over a clothesline or picnic table. I also enjoyed solitary activities like reading, paint-by-number and crocheting. Our physical needs were satisfied with bike riding and occasional games of softball with the boys next door.

I’m still a fan of make-believe in my preference for dramas and fiction, and my dislike of reality TV. My exercise most often comes in the form of activities I do by myself (running, biking) rather than “team” sports, since I had little of that during childhood. But I try to keep myself open to ways of playing that I’m less comfortable with — partner yoga with my husband expanded my ability to trust; snorkeling and stand-up paddle boarding have helped me enjoy playing in the water; taking more opportunities to laugh and be less serious about life has helped me relax.image

Play is whatever feels like fun and freedom to you: sports, games, puzzles, playing with a pet, laughing at a movie, acting in a play. Play is what makes you feel like your child self again. As George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”