Open the door for change

New Year’s resolutions are known more for their grand ambition than their rate of success. Most of the time, we make resolutions to change ourselves: lose weight, get fit, quit smoking, make a career change, learn a language, and so on. But research shows that many people scale back their goals almost immediately, fewer than 50% are still working toward them after 6 months, and fewer than 10% after a year.  I’m not much of a believer in those kinds of odds.

But I’ve been thinking that this year, I might resolve, not to change, but to accept change more gracefully, especially those changes that are thrust upon me. What kinds of changes am I talking about?

  • Changes in the best-laid plans
  • Changes in my neighborhood such as new roads, traffic lights and buildings
  • Changes in my body that come with age
  • Changes in my work life
  • Changes in the people I know and love
  • Changes when a loved moves away, or … moves back

I can choose how I react to the events, big and small, that upset the balance of everyday life. Do I kick and scream, or do I invite them in? Most of the time, these events are out of my control, so why waste valuable energy fighting them?

Soren Gordhamer says this concept of inviting can be applied to challenging situations. He writes, “…we can think, Why are they doing this? …. Or we can look inward, pay attention to our mind and body, and inquire, What creative response wants to arise in this situation?” Inviting “makes more room for clarity and ease of mind”, even in the presence of “strong emotions”.

One of those strong emotions is often fear, because the unknown can be powerfully scary. Dostoyevski said that change is “What people fear most.”  But instead of asking, “Why is this happening [to me],” ask “How can I benefit from this change, or at least make the best of it?” Calling upon past experience, learning everything possible about a new situation,  and having faith in your ability to handle it can ease the transition.

Much like the practice of mindful meditation, this way of approaching change is an ongoing process. When we meditate, we are encouraged not to judge thoughts that arise, but to notice them, and then turn our attention back to the breath. Even if other thoughts come up hundreds of times, we always go back to the breath. In the same way, most of us will never reach the point of accepting change with grace 100% of the time – but that doesn’t mean we stop trying.

So I resolve in 2012, to continue to:

welcome the opportunities that come with change,

look for the silver lining in adversity,

meet challenges with courage and creativity,

allow other people the space to change,

appreciate my ability to learn and adapt,

and be happy just as I am.

Happy new year!

Food for thought

The latest report on obesity rates across the nation was issued last week, and it is pretty sobering. Sixteen states saw their obesity rates go up over the past year, and none went down. In 12 states, more than 30% of the population is obese, and Colorado is the only state with an obesity rate below 20%.

Obesity rates are also higher in racial and ethnic minorities, those with less education, and those with lower incomes.

Why is this happening, and what can we do about it? It is a complex problem with no easy answers. Certainly environmental factors play a big role. Think about the societal changes during the past generation – 24/7 availability of food, acceptability of eating and drinking almost anywhere, huge increases in the number of meals eaten away from home, significant increases in portion sizes, and the difficulty in obtaining fresh fruits and vegetables in certain neighborhoods.

But we also have to consider our susceptibility to becoming “addicted” to the high fat, high sugar diets that are so prevalent. In his 2009 book, The End of Overeating, David Kessler (former head of the Food and Drug Administration) cites research that shows that these “highly palatable foods” actually are addictive for some people. When we eat them, and eventually when we even see or think about them, dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasurable experiences. In addiction, dopamine actually changes the brain, sending the message to repeat the action that leads to pleasure.

Eating should be a pleasurable sensory experience. But why do some people become unable to stop themselves from indulging in the high fat/high sugar/high salt foods, while others (about 15% of the population, according to Kessler) can just say “no”?

Gabor Mate, a Canadian physician who has treated addiction and written about it, believes that all of us are on the addiction spectrum somewhere (not necessarily just with drugs or alcohol). Everyone wants that endorphin rush. Identified addicts are just further along the spectrum because (he believes) they have suffered more, usually from abuse in childhood.

I’m not suggesting that everyone who overeats was abused as a child; but I do think we have to consider the emotional reasons that people become “addicted” to food. After all, the term “comfort food” came from somewhere! What are we lacking? Soren Gordamer says, in Wisdom 2.0, that “Our relationship to eating is often less about nourishing our body or how the food tastes and more about satisfying our desire system…What we crave is not the food, but the satisfaction of getting what we want, of having our desires filled.”

Gordamer suggests mindful eating practices to bring more consciousness to our eating. Kessler says that it is necessary to create a different reward system for yourself, and to structure your environment in order to avoid the cues that lead to overeating. Dr. Mate believes that it is never too late to get the nurturing and compassion that we need in order to change the conditioning of our brains.

So where do we go from here?

    • We need to hold food manufacturers and restaurants responsible for giving us the information we need to make good decisions about the food we eat. Some have a history of combining sugar, fat and salt in calculated ways that are designed to keep people coming back for more.
    • Our society must change perceptions around food and eating. Dr. Kessler says we need a cognitive shift about unhealthy food like the one we had one about smoking. It used to be viewed as sexy, and now mostly it is thought to be nasty and unhealthy.
    • Have some structure around meals. Sit down at the table with family or friends. When you eat, just eat.
    • What are your triggers for unhealthy eating? How can you avoid them? Maybe it means giving up some TV so you don’t see the commercials; or changing your route to work so you don’t see a certain restaurant.
    • Surround yourself with people who support you and make you feel good about yourself. Avoid situations that might trigger negative emotions, something Buddhists refer to as “guarding the gateway of the senses”.
    • Practice self-compassion. Change starts with acceptance of who you are now.

The Space Between

The other day my yoga teacher was talking about pausing between breaths, and how that relates to taking moments of stillness between life’s activities. I thought about how we tend to focus on what we do, hear, say and see rather than on what we don’t. A couple of years ago, I went to a concert where the musician commented that the space between the notes is still part of the music. When I teach communication skills, I remind students that silences are still part of a conversation. White space in an advertisement is part of the message. And not doing can often help you get where you want to be.

Too often, we have the urge to fill those spaces between. We barely wait for someone else to finish talking before we begin. We fill all the space on the page with words and pictures. We fill our houses with stuff. We fill our days with activity after activity. We are uncomfortable with silence, we mistake simplicity for emptiness, and we confuse activity with accomplishment.

In his book, Wisdom 2.0, Soren Gordhamer suggests that our stress and irritation whenever we have to stop and wait for something (traffic, checkout lines, slow computers) might come from our disconnection with our inner life.  We just feel uncomfortable being alone with our thoughts and feelings, even for a few minutes.  To restore that connection, Gordhamer recommends viewing these forced pauses as an invitation to relax, to breathe, and to take a break. Yes, it’s frustrating to wait when you might already be late, but since you cannot change it, accept it as a gift. Use the time to breathe deeply and notice what’s going on around you, and “be present as you wait.”

I tried this yesterday while waiting in line to pick up a prescription. Everyone in front of me was taking a long time. But I didn’t get impatient; I just waited, and breathed. I even let the person behind me go ahead of me because he seemed to be in distress. I felt pretty good when I left the store – at exactly the same time, but in a much better frame of mind, as I would have left if I had been fuming the whole time.