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!

Rising above

Have you ever laughed when someone fell down? Have you ever resented someone who has success that you want for yourself? Is it hard to feel joy for someone to whom you compare yourself? One of the premises of a new book by Richard H. Smith, The Joy of Pain, is that these feelings are part of what makes us human. Often referred to as schadenfreude – a German term meaning both harm and joy – the emotion we experience in that situation allows us to feel better about ourselves.

One of my husband’s favorite movie quotes is from a scene in “The African Queen,” starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Bogart plays Charlie, a hard-living, cynical riverboat captain, and Hepburn’s character is Rose, a prim and proper missionary. At one point during their many arguments, Rose says to Charlie, “Human nature is what God put us on earth to rise above.

When my kids were little, I told them countless times that it was wrong to “laugh at the misfortunes of others.” Even at a young age, we compare ourselves to other people, and maybe the laughter comes from nervous relief that the embarrassment happened to someone else. But even if it is human nature to take pleasure in someone else’s downfall, I don’t think it comes without another distinctly human emotion: shame.

In the novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, the main character says, “I know something of shame…How can we not all feel it? We are all small-minded people, creeping about the earth grubbing for our own advantage and making the very mistakes for which we want to humiliate our neighbors.” At some point, the experience of schadenfreude has to make us feel hypocritical, knowing that we are playing a mental game of one-upmanship. The neighbor or co-worker’s failure somehow makes us more likely to succeed, or at least to feel superior, no matter how temporary that might be, or how undeserved.

Is human nature something we can rise above? Even Smith admits that humans are also wired for compassion. And practicing compassion can probably help us downplay those feelings of glee when something bad happens to someone we don’t like or with whom we compete. What is infinitely harder, I think, is actually being able to feel glad when something good happens for the person we don’t like. How can I summon genuine feelings of happiness for the kid who was mean to my child, or for the person who made a cutting remark to me, or for the politician who betrayed the public’s trust?

Among the Buddhist meditation practices known as brahmaviharas is one called mudita. Mudita is essentially a practice of sympathetic joy. It helps to counter feelings of jealousy and envy, and increases one’s capacity to feel joy and happiness for others’ good fortune. Practicing mudita calls for bringing to mind various people, and then mentally wishing them continued happiness. Since this feeling needs to be actively cultivated in most people, it helps to start the practice of mudita by calling to mind your own goodness and happiness, followed by people you love, and finally, the people who are difficult for you.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Yoga Journal web site has a very thorough article that explains mudita and how to practice it. The concluding wishes go like this:

“May your happiness and joy increase. May the joy in your life continue and grow. May you be successful and met with appreciation.”

Mudita asks that we stop thinking of life as a zero-sum game, and recognize that our own happiness increases when others are happy too, even our enemies. That’s how the human spirit rises above the human nature.

You gotta have heart

For how many moments of your life is your heart present? Do you do things in a “half-hearted” way? Do you agree to do something, knowing that your “heart isn’t in it”? We use expressions like this to describe lack of enthusiasm, but they are really just another way of describing an absence of mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, described in an interview the Chinese ideogram for the word mindfulness. He said it is made up of the character for presence, combined with the character for heart. In essence , mindfulness means presence of heart. By cultivating a quality of presence, he says, we inhabit our true selves and are more able to uncover our sense of compassion.image

I’ve spent the past few days reading a book called The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin. It is a novel about separation and grief, loneliness and misunderstanding, freedom and imprisonment. It contains a beautiful passage that, to me, perfectly describes mindfulness:

When she was alone, when she was working, it was as if she forgot about herself. It seemed strange to state it this way, but it was as if she had no outline, no body, even though the work was physical. Where did her mind go? Her mind was steeped in the task at hand. At such times she felt a depth of kinship with the earth, and also felt very grown up, rife with compassion.”

Is mindfulness necessary for compassion to exist? Are we able to feel deep sympathy for someone else, and to care about ending their suffering, if we don’t have the ability to pay attention and be present to what they are feeling? The character in the book realizes in moments of mindfulness at work that she has attained a greater capacity to feel, that there is a spaciousness in her heart that wasn’t there before.

I’m also reminded of Like Water for Chocolate, in which all of the emotions of the character Tita become contained in the food she prepares, so that when people eat the food, they immediately feel what she feels — sadness, joy, pain. It doesn’t matter if you believe in the magic; there is something to learn from the idea that our work can contain some essential part of ourselves and that others can use their senses (taste, in this instance) to feel the emotion and presence that we put into it.

If we tune in to what our senses are telling us, really tune in, what can we learn? Whether it’s the expression on someone’s face, the sound of birds chirping, the smell of someone’s perfume, the taste of just-baked cookies, or the touch of a dog’s nose on my arm — engaging with my whole heart in that moment can help me understand what someone else feels, what is happening in my world, or just how much love can be contained in a batch of cookies. And that sense of understanding can open doors in the mind.image

Our brains are plastic; we can change them if we desire. The work of Richard Davidson and other neuroscientists has shown that if we train ourselves in mindfulness, we can hone skills that help us experience more happiness and compassion. But this isn’t something minor that just makes me or you happy on an individual level. The more we “widen our circle of compassion” as Einstein said, the more chance there is for harmony and peace in the world.

Our brains are plastic, but in order for them to expand, our hearts need to be present. So think about it — can you bring your whole heart to more of what you do every day?

Teach your children well

The public conversation has been a swirl of questions since the unspeakable mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut last week. How can we prevent these kinds of events? What does mental illness have to do with it? Can we control it by banning certain weapons? How will these child survivors handle it? How can we best protect our children?

Kids_0003We could buy our children bulletproof backpacks, as many parents are apparently doing in the aftermath. Or we can teach them lifelong skills that will not only build resilience for dealing with stressful events, but perhaps help schools and communities become environments where young people will not feel isolated, marginalized and desperate.

The American Psychological Association has tips for parents on how to help children build resilience. Their suggestions include things like “make connections”, “teach self-care”, and “nurture a positive self-view”. This is great advice, but a little vague. Even if a few parents look at the APA web site, how many have the skills to implement the ideas? Children, teachers and communities would be better-served by school-based programs:

  • Mindfulness programs in school. Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio was so affected by a mindfulness retreat he experienced a few years ago that he wrote a book about it (A Mindful Nation) and worked to get funding for “Skills for Life”, a social and emotional learning program, in Youngstown, OH schools. Teachers receive training, which helps them with their personal stressors, and then they bring the program into the classroom. The children have responded enthusiastically, teachers have found that their classes are better-behaved, and academic performance has even improved. Goldie Hawn, through her Hawn Foundation, has supported a similar program called “MindUP” in the Miami-Dade schools. The program helps develop emotional resilience skills, as well as “helping children function in their environments in a more mindful and less stressful way”.
  • Teaching Tolerance, a program of The Southern Poverty Law Center which aims to foster “school environments that are inclusive and nurturing”. They have developed many anti-bias education resources, including teaching kits, curricula and professional development programs. While their program was initially focused on building tolerance for people of different races and ethnicities, it is applicable to fostering acceptance for children with any kind of differences. One of their initiatives is the “Mix It Up at Lunch Day” which has been held every November since 2002. On that day, kids are encouraged to sit with someone new, someone outside of their “group”, at lunch. These kind of interactions help reduce bias and misconceptions about others.Hand Reaching
  • Compassion training. Dr. James R. Doty, Director and Founder of Project Compassion and Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University, has written, “Why, in a country that consumes 25% of the world’s resources (the U.S.), is there an epidemic of loneliness, depression, and anxiety…Our poverty in the West is not that of the wallet but rather that of social connectedness.” Neuroscience research, at Stanford and elsewhere, has shown that people can train themselves to be more compassionate and to feel greater empathy. This is vital for all of us to cultivate, no matter how old we are. As long as people do not feel connected to each other, it is too easy to forget about the people on the margins.

Will we ever eliminate all acts of violence? Probably not. But I would argue that time and money spent on building mindfulness, peace and compassion in schools are equally as important as resources for math and reading.  Thich Nhat Hanh has written, “A fresh way of being peace, of making peace, is needed…We rely on each other. Our children are relying on us in order for them to have a future.”