Don’t hit send (yet)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Got troubles? Don’t chew them over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know the lonely one?

The front page story yesterday about how loneliness is “lethal” would lead you to think that we just discovered it. The fact is that scientists have known for some time that loneliness and social isolation put people at higher risk for heart attacks, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions. What’s new in the past couple of months is that studies of the genome are yielding information on the specific mechanisms that make it happen.

Because social cohesiveness and cooperation were vitally important in early human history, the brain is rigged to see a lack of strong ties as a signal of danger. Just like any other kind of stressor, that signal puts the body on the alert, even down to the cellular level. In studies of both humans and macaque monkeys, researchers have discovered that social isolation leads to specific genetic changes that turn up inflammatory processes in the body and turn down the production of antibodies against viruses and other pathogens. These genomic adaptations are linked to human evolution, designed for our survival, and are closely related to the body’s stress response.

This heightened fight-or-flight response, activated on a chronic basis, results in increased inflammation and a reduced immune response, leading to significant long-term damage. The mechanism is observed in both directions: a change in gene expression predicts future loneliness, and loneliness predicts future gene expression. In older adults, perceived loneliness leads to an increase of 14% in premature deaths.

Sydney_142It’s worth mentioning that loneliness is not the same as being alone. What matters is whether someone feels connected, and feels satisfied with the connections he or she has. Plenty of people (myself included) relish some solitude on a pretty frequent basis, but that doesn’t equate to loneliness or isolation.

While we often focus on the elderly being socially isolated, loneliness can strike anyone, from the bullied schoolchild to the working adult with social anxiety. In the book “Fear”, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about original fear and original desire. He says original fear started at birth when we were pushed, helpless, out into the world, unsure whether anyone would take care of us. That fear “was born along with the desire to survive. This is original desire.” Original fear and original desire stay with us as we grow, especially the fear that no one will love and care for us. To me, loneliness is one manifestation of that fear.

You may be reading this and thinking, “I’m not lonely – I don’t need to worry about this.” There’s a bigger picture, however, that might concern you. Analysis of social networks by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler has shown that loneliness (like obesity, quitting smoking and other habits and trends) is contagious. So the more time that people in your social network, even those on the fringes of it, spend feeling isolated, the more likely it is to spread to others in the network. Over time, there’s a possibility that more of us start experiencing those feelings.

In a world where connection is constant, but often feels unsatisfying, how can we feel less lonely? How can we help others who are lonely? Forced togetherness is not the answer. Interestingly, some research has shown that a mindfulness based stress reduction program is more successful than social networking or community programs are at reducing feelings of loneliness in the elderly. MBSR has also been shown to turn down the pro-inflammatory processes in the body. The focus on present moment may be guiding attention away from the fear of being alone.

Christakis has said that when you help “the people on the margins of the network, you help not only them but help stabilize the whole network.” It would be wise to consider how we can do more to reach those people and offer them positive social connections. Maybe we can light up the network with love rather than fear.Lights

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.

Sydney_69

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.

Choosing between this and that

Did you ever balance on a see-saw when you were a child? There was always the challenge of working with the other person to find that perfect point where you were hovering in a horizontal line for a second or two, before one of you fell, a victim of weight and gravity.

The word seesaw may have come from the French words ci-ça, which mean this and that, or perhaps from the back and forth action of an actual saw. The imagery of the seesaw feels appropriate for a lot of the choices we face as we look for emotional balance, especially in how to respond to what life throws at us. We swing back and forth between options: On this side, we have pessimism; on that side, optimism. On this side, we have anger; on that side, equanimity. On this side, we have judgment and denial; on that side, acceptance. This, that, this, that.seesaw_balance

How do you choose the appropriate response in any given situation? Yesterday when I was talking about changing negative self-talk into positive self-talk to reduce stress, a listener challenged me on the concept of always looking for the silver lining. She was right to do so, because optimism isn’t always the correct response, especially if it keeps you from seeing a situation with clarity. There are certain instances where it’s better to be pessimistic because it keeps you cautious. For instance, you don’t want your airline pilot to be too much of an optimist!

Martin Seligman, in his book “Learned Optimism”, writes that optimism should be a flexible, situational choice. “You can choose to use optimism when you judge that less depression, more achievement, or better health is the issue. But you can also choose not to use it, when you judge that clear sight or owning up is called for.” He goes on to say that just because those of us who are not born optimists can learn how to be more optimistic, doesn’t mean that we lose our values or good judgment. It just means that we now have a tool we can choose to use when it is to our benefit.

Responses aren’t always either-or. If I choose not to respond in anger, that doesn’t mean I opt for complete passivity either. If we keep in mind the back and forth motion of a saw, we see there is a range of potential responses. We often find equilibrium in the middle, at the fulcrum point of the seesaw. The key is to give ourselves time to make the choice. It’s that pause, that “take-a-breath” moment that’s the hardest part for me. Instead of reacting with anger, can I ask a question that gives me a better understanding of the situation? If I discover something that I didn’t know, will that little bit of extra information keep me from making a snap judgment and help me respond thoughtfully instead of reacting harshly?

Learning to choose between responses takes time and practice. Herbert Benson and Eileen Stuart recommend this sequence:

  • Stop
  • Breathe: Release physical tension
  • Reflect: What are your automatic thoughts, irrational beliefs, or distorted thinking styles? Ask yourself these questions:
  • Is it really true?
  • Am I jumping to conclusions?
  • Is it to my advantage to think this way?
  • Am I catastrophizing?
  • Is there another way to look at the situation?
  • Can I handle it?

Thoughts, feelings and behaviors all influence each other, in a feedback loop. By questioning habitual thought patterns, we can subtly shift how we feel, and eventually, how we act. Think of it as the way you might shift weight on your end of the seesaw, to keep it balanced or to let it fall. It’s your choice.

Is resiliency the most important skill schools should teach?

Going back to school every September evoked feelings in me that were a mix of anticipation and trepidation. There was the excitement that surrounded the newness of it all – new books, new clothes, new teachers, new learning – as well as the fear associated with the certainty that it would all soon become a slog of homework, pressure to get good grades, and conflicts with friends. The college students I teach are no different. After approaching the fall semester with optimism, by spring all five sections of our stress management course are usually full.

Back to school doesn’t have to mean back to stress, though. Or at least not back to overwhelming stress. There are tools we can pass on to kids that will make a significant difference in how equipped they are to handle the challenges of their young lives – tools that will improve their resiliency in both the short and long term.

A 2014 survey by the American Psychological Association showed that teens report more stress than any other age group, stress that is primarily due to financial insecurity, as well as conflict at home and with peers. Those higher stress levels are not benign – they can result in both physical and psychological symptoms, poor performance in school and the inability to make healthy lifestyle choices. But teaching teens appropriate self-care skills can mitigate the stress.

The Benson-Henry Institute recently reported on such a curriculum that they brought to Boston-area high school students. Over a 6-8 week period, the students were taught about the science of stress and relaxation, learned how to reframe thoughts and attitudes, and practiced meditation and mindfulness skills. Those who received the curriculum reported significant drops in perceived stress and anxiety, as well as higher productivity. The results also held up over time – one year later, the students still demonstrated a greater ability to manage stress, as well as the ability to make healthy choices in their lives.

The resiliency program taught to them included the same things that are good for all of us: How to use breathing, mindfulness and imagery to work through tough challenges, how to change our negative self-talk into positive statements, and how our healthy choices bolster us during times of stress. If all goes well, when these kids get to college a stress management course will just be a refresher for them, not a starting point.

Each of the skills they learned – meditation, mindfulness, and reframing — does something different. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Meditation is neither shutting things out nor off. It is seeing things clearly, and deliberately positioning yourself differently in relationship to them.” Meditation creates a shift in perspective, allowing us to live with emotions that are both positive and negative, to really see ourselves and others with blinders off.

Mindfulness helps us foster our attentional capabilities, and to bring greater awareness to our interactions, our work and the world around us. While the Benson-Henry researchers still want to look at which skills have the most effect, and for which stressors, my guess is that the mindfulness practices are probably connected to improved relationships and better academic work.

The third skill, reframing thoughts to be more positive, helps students understand that stress comes mostly from within, and that they can take charge of their thoughts with practice. Every single negative thought that crosses our minds can be substituted with a more accurate or positive alternative. Storyteller and artist Ilan Shamir has a book, Simple Wisdom, that is subtitled “A Thousand Things Went Right Today!” What if we simply stopped a few times each day and listed just 10 of those things that went right so far? I’m certain we would all immediately experience at least a slight shift to a more positive pole.

Actor Will Smith once said that, “The things that have been most valuable to me I did not learn in school.” I don’t think he is alone in that. But maybe if teaching resiliency skills in school becomes the norm, kids will grow up believing that they learned something there that is extremely valuable and applicable to all of life’s challenges.

What some women can tell you about stress

We see the headlines all the time: “Stress makes you sick,” “Work makes you stressed,” “Stress makes you fat,” even “Stress Kills.” But why does all this happen? Why is stress so dangerous, and how do we know?

Luckily for us, there are a lot of outstanding neuroscientists, social scientists and others who are devoting their careers to answering these questions. Many of them are women, so in honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, I thought I would profile a few of them and the highlights from their work.

What socioemotional resources are available to us during stress and where do they originate?

Shelley E. Taylor is a Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA and winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. She is perhaps best known for the “Tend and Befriend” theory: the idea that our response to stressful situations is not always “fight or flight.” Sometimes primates, especially females, seek out social relationships to protect themselves and their offspring during stress. These “affiliative” behaviors may be mediated by the hormone oxytocin, or in men, vasopressin, which may act as a thermostat for social resources, triggering a hormone response when our social support goes too low.holding_hands1

How exactly does stress age us and why are we more likely to develop chronic diseases as we age?

It turns out that we have little caps on the ends of our chromosomes called “telomeres”. These are bit like the tips at the ends of our shoelaces. Just like shoelace tips, the telomeres stabilize the ends of the chromosomes and keep them from unraveling. Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Carol W. Greider (along with Jack W. Szostak) won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work on how telomeres protect the chromosomes and how the enzyme telomerase maintains the length of the telomeres even as the cells divide. If we don’t have enough telomerase, and cells keep dividing as they do, eventually telomeres get so short that cells die — limiting years of healthy life. And guess what has an impact on telomerase — stress!image

How does that cell aging manifest itself physically and psychologically?

Elissa Epel of UCSF studies cell aging in people with major depression and those who suffer acute and chronic psychosocial stress. She has focused on the role of telomerase and the stress pathways that lead to early aging, overeating, abdominal obesity and immune responses. She is also involved with interventions using mindfulness and social support to help lower stress reactivity and improve emotion regulation.

How does social status impact our stress levels and their health consequences?

Carol Shively, of Wake Forest University, studies monkeys and other primates to explore how social stress might lead to depression and greater susceptibility to disease. She has found that animals who are lower on the social ladder for extended periods of time have twice as much hardening of the arteries as dominant animals. Other studies have shown similar patterns in humans.

Why do we want to eat comfort food during stress, and why do we gain fat around the abdomen?

Comfort foods and abdominal fat actually reduce stress and make us feel better. Mary Dallman, also at UCSF, studies the brain-pituitary-adrenal interrelationships and how chronic stress effects changes in energy balance. She has found that every type of cell in the body has receptors for glucocorticoids [stress hormones], which means that stress can potentially cause havoc everywhere. It also leads to an increase in the synthesis of fat and glucose, while protein synthesis declines, throwing off how we process the food we eat.

In spite of all this stress, how can we be happy?

Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at UC Riverside, and winner of the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize, studies human happiness, what makes people happy, and how people can become happier. Her work shows that while we all have temperaments that make us more or less happy to begin with, a fairly significant percentage of our potential for happiness is open to change. Her research has found that generally happy people tend to interpret events in a positive way that supports their happiness, while chronically unhappy people tend to interpret the same events in ways that bolster their unhappiness. So she also studies how the thoughts and behaviors of the naturally happy people an be encouraged or taught to those who are less positive.

The takeaways from all of this work are 1) stress is toxic; 2) it affects all of us; and 3) there are ways to reduce its impact on our health. I’m grateful to these scientists, and so many others, for the intellect and passion they have devoted to this work. It has informed my teaching, inspired my writing and improved my personal wellness.

 

 

It’s easy to be hard, harder to be soft

Contentment is hard to find in January. There’s a letdown after the holiday months of November and December. Many of us are experiencing winter at its harshest. And the resolutions that we made a month ago with optimism and enthusiasm have collapsed, wavered, or become a struggle to maintain. It’s easy to fall into patterns of judging ourselves pretty harshly and with a lot of negativity. If ever there was a time to practice self-compassion, this is it.

This morning, feeling like I needed to start my days in a more positive way, I hauled myself out to an early yoga class. When it came time to set an intention for the practice, I realized that I rarely set an intention or dedication of love toward myself. I usually send love and compassion to someone else in my life, or if I do direct an intention toward myself, it leans toward self-improvement: Energy! Patience! Greater productivity! I’ve become attached to outcomes in a big way, and forgotten to treat myself with the care and kindness of a good friend.

By the end of January, it’s easy to get into patterns of negativity and isolation, beating ourselves up about not reaching our goals, and cocooning ourselves at home with TV and comfort food while we wait for spring. But by looking forward rather than in, we miss an opportunity to flourish right now. Practicing self-compassion can, on the other hand, help us realize greater emotional well-being and more of that elusive feeling of contentment.

Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, says that there are three core components to self-compassion: self-kindness, recognition of common humanity, and mindfulness. Mindfulness means that we acknowledge our pain and discontent, our flaws and our failures, along with all of our good qualities. But we don’t feel isolated by those imperfections and our mistakes don’t feel so personal, because by recognizing our common humanity, we see that everyone else has the same needs and desires, and ups and downs that we have. And by directing loving kindness to ourselves and others, we reap a lot of potential benefits.

Neff’s research has shown that people who have more self-compassion experience less anxiety and depression, and have increases in happiness, optimism and other positive emotions. They engage in less negative self-talk, and their self-esteem  stays higher when something goes wrong for them, because they realize that everyone makes mistakes and they don’t take it so personally.

Author Karen Armstrong says that, “Compassion is a practically acquired knowledge, like dancing. You must do it and practice diligently every day.” The recommended way of practicing compassion is through loving kindness and compassion meditations. Here is an example of loving kindness meditation (practice it by directing it first to yourself, then one-by-one to others: benefactors/teachers, beloved friends and family, a neutral person, a difficult person):

May I be happy.

May I be peaceful.

May I be safe from harm.

May I enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May I experience ease and well-being in body, mind and spirit.

And a compassion meditation (practice the same way as loving kindness):

May I be free from suffering.

May I hold myself with softness and care.

May I be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May I be free from the suffering caused by greed [or anger, fear, confusion, etc]

May I experience ease of body, mind and spirit.

May I respond to suffering with compassion.

Each time I go through these meditations, I return to the line, “May I hold myself with softness and care”, because I know that sometimes this is the thing we forget in our day-to-day lives. Softness and care, rather than harsh judgment: That’s what we need in January, and beyond.

Resolution = intention –> heart’s desire

A resolution and an intention are pretty much the same thing. But in the yoga tradition, the ideal is for intentions to come from the heart more often than from the mind’s desires. And that’s why I find myself setting an intention for 2015 even though I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions.

In Sanskrit, the word for intention is sankalpa. It comes from kalpa, which means “a way of proceeding” and san, a “concept or idea formed in the heart”. So setting an intention means acting on an idea or desire that comes from the heart.

What is my intention? Simply to spend 30 minutes each day reading a non-fiction book.

How does this intention come from my heart’s desire?

All my life, reading has been a treasured experience, “the greatest gift” according to Elizabeth Hardwick: “It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind.” It has calmed me when I’ve been distressed, stimulated when I’ve been bored, provoked when I’ve been complacent. imageYet I have developed two habits that are getting in the way of reading serving my heart’s purpose. One is reading on the iPad, and one is reading mostly novels.

When I first started reading on the iPad, I promised myself that it would only be for traveling, so that I didn’t have to pack heavy books with me. Then I discovered Overdrive and started checking out library e-books. After that, I moved, and had to drastically reduce the number of physical books on my shelves. So I stopped buying “real” books. But one of the things I discovered is that I dislike reading nonfiction e-books because of the difficulty with flipping back and forth in the book, or easily finding a piece of information. So I just stopped reading nonfiction.

I will always enjoy reading novels more, and that’s okay. In fact, studies have shown that reading literary fiction helps us understand other people better and to build stronger relationships. But there is another world of information out there that I am missing by excluding nonfiction from my menu.

Reading is declining pretty much everywhere. A recent Wall Street Journal article discussed this development and the “Slow Reading” movement that has sprung up in places to counter  it. Proponents of slow reading even get together in some cities to read as a group (each with his or her own book). Research indicates that we need 30-45 minutes of reading in one stretch for true immersion (and presumably, improved comprehension), so that’s what these slow readers do.

I don’t think I’ll be joining a slow reading group, but I hope to model my reading on their design. Even my fiction reading doesn’t meet the immersion threshold most days — if I’m busy, I read for maybe 5 or 10 minutes before falling asleep, and while I mostly switch to airplane mode while reading, the iPad just offers too many distractions that lure me away from the book I’m reading.

The interesting thing about the Slow Reading movement is that their prerequisites for it sound a lot like those for meditation: a comfortable seat, a quiet environment, no distractions, the book as focal point. By bringing mindfulness to the act of reading, we can deepen the experience and its impact on us.

We take time for what is important to us. Thirty minutes a day to rekindle a treasured gift, to illuminate life’s purpose — that’s an intention from my heart.

No mud, no Christmas tree?

It’s the week before Christmas, and somehow it seems appropriate that I’m reading “No Mud, No Lotus” at the same time that I’m going around giving presentations to people on holiday stress management! In the book, Thich Nhat Hahn says that, “One of the most difficult things for us to accept is that there is no realm where there’s only happiness and there’s no suffering.” When it comes to holidays, sometimes we set our expectations for only one or the other, not realizing that happiness and suffering must co-exist.

IMG_1262Suffering can run the gamut from everyday stressors like traffic and annoying co-workers, to physical pain and poor health, to anxiety and depression, to the overwhelming grief that accompanies losing a loved one. But it is the “mud” of suffering that makes happiness real and meaningful. At the holidays, if we “get stuck in the mud of life”, wallowing in our pain, we risk turning into Scrooges. Yet if we are too starry-eyed about the ideal holiday, we feel slammed when something turns out differently. How do we find a middle ground and feel comfortable being there?

Here are 5 ways to improve your holiday — body, mind and spirit:

Start by acknowledging the bad along with the good. Thich Nhat Hahn writes, “We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.” One of the best tools for doing this is to keep a little notebook near your bed, and use it to write each morning or evening. Write about what you are grateful for, or write about something that causes stress or pain in your life. Be present with the emotions that arise. You will probably gain insight and perspective from the process of telling your story.

Make sure your days are values-driven. How long has it been since you considered what is most important to you in life? Is it family, money, work, service to others? Whatever your core values are, how does your holiday time align with them? Are you spending time each day on the things that are the most meaningful to you? If you plan your day with your values in mind, you will end each day feeling better.

Practice mindful breathing. All suffering manifests in the body somewhere, but by reuniting mind with body, we can relax that tension. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The great news is that oneness of body and mind can be realized just by one in-breath.” When we focus on the movement of the breath, in and out, our minds are released for a while from their monkey-like tendency to jump from thought to thought.

Communicate. Sometimes relationships get strained around the holidays because of conflicting traditions, past grievances, or differing expectations. We often assume things about other people, their motives, their likes and dislikes. Try approaching a difficult situation with love rather than fear. People may surprise you.

Keep yourself healthy. Sleep long, eat well, and move often to use up stress hormones and negative energy. From No Mud, No Lotus: “…if we don’t have the time and the willingness to take care of ourselves, how can we offer any genuine care to the people we love?” Just as we are instructed on airplanes to put on our own oxygen masks first, before helping others, we need to do the same in everyday life. Only by starting with self-care are we wholly able to care for others.

“If you know how to make good use of the mud, you can grow beautiful lotuses.” How has your holiday grown out of you and your experiences? Perhaps you can see its reflection in the clear water that runs after the mud washes away.