Wouldn’t it be more pleasant to ask for nothing?

Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that the “Santosha” of my blog name means contentment. I write about the struggle to find contentment more than what it means to have it. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca said that “We never reflect how pleasant it is to ask for nothing.” Now I see that I’ve been asking for contentment more than discovering it right here.

One of my favorite yoga teachers, Jo Tastula, says that we tend to focus a lot on what we want to receive, rather than what we want to let go of. She relates this to the season of Fall, and recommends that we consider the image of the tree dropping its leaves. What does that perspective look like? From up in the branches, perhaps it is a relief, or a comfort, to let go of what’s been weighing us down; to be bare and pared down to essentials. The fullness of Fall (imagine a nice round pumpkin or apple) gives way to completion (harvest, year-end). It’s a time to rest, to renew, and to strive less and prepare more.pumpkinsWhile Seneca has a somewhat mixed historical reputation, he is still considered to be one of the first great Western thinkers, and much of what he had to say about emotions is relevant to us today. When he said that “Contentment is achieved through a simple, unperturbed life,” he was talking not only about emotional regulation, but also gratitude, because contentment is impossible without feeling grateful for what we have already. Contentment requires us to stop asking for things, so that we can reflect on what is present. Thanksgiving_23

A recent episode of the comedy TV show “Blackish” demonstrated this idea in a gently humorous way. The main character, Andre, is upset to learn that his daughter is questioning her belief in God. But his own belief often consists of prayers that are requests  — asking God for some action or some thing that he thinks will make him happy. Later in the episode, after a moment of crisis for the family, he realizes the value of what he has and what he almost lost. Then his prayers change, and are about gratitude and thanks. In that moment, he stops striving, knowing that he has what is essential to him.

What would happen if you stopped striving for a while, maybe even shed some dead leaves? Perhaps you’d have time to nourish the truly important parts of your core. Or maybe just have time to breathe, and in that moment, discover santosha.

It seems to me that contentment is about satisfaction, and happiness is about satisfaction-plus. The plus is extra joy, extra pleasure. It’s like dessert at the end of the meal – it’s nice, but you don’t need to have it every day. I’m reminded of two books that I used to read to my kids when they were little. One was called “More, More, More, said the Baby”, and the other was titled “Just Enough is Plenty.” It’s nice to have more, but on many days, simply to be satisfied is enough, in fact it’s plenty.

 

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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.

 

 

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.

How to wage peace

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that, “It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.”  Each time I pass this banner in front of the Quaker meeting house I’m reminded that our actions for peace have to start in our own homes and lives.image

What are the causes of war but the same things that lead to strife on the micro-level: wanting an advantage over someone else, refusing to forgive a past wrong, holding on to things long after their importance has waned?

A more peaceable life might be within reach if we turned more often to these intentions:

Compromise — The word comes from the Latin meaning a “mutual promise”. Too often we think of compromise as one-sided, only seeing how much we are giving up. But the promise in compromise is powerful, and it shows how much we are gaining from the other side.

Listen first — In the words of a U.N. peacekeeper, “You have to be willing to let each person express their point of view, even if it’s a criticism against you. You have to let them talk first, and then speak. If you don’t let them express themselves, you won’t get any results from the discussion.”

Forgiveness — When we forgive, we can begin to heal the hurt that we feel. Refusing to forgive just lets the hurt fester – and closes down our hearts a little. Gregory David Roberts writes that “every act of love is in some way a promise to forgive,” that love is dependent upon our ability to forgive.

Accept change — Nothing stays the same. And as Frank Jude Boccio writes, “The problem is not that things change, but that you try to live as if they don’t.” We let beliefs about how things should be keep us locked in a struggle with how things actually are. Shedding those habits of mind can drastically shift perspective.

Happiness is a universal goal — In an interview in The Atlantic, Daniel Gilbert talked about it this way:

I think the problem with the word “happiness” is that it sounds fluffy. It sounds like something trivial that we shouldn’t be concerned with. But just set aside the word and think about what the word signifies. You quickly realize that not only should we be concerned with the study of happiness, but that it’s impossible to be concerned with anything else. Pascal says: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception … This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

How could the goal of all human behavior be a trivial thing?

How does your life help to remove the causes of war? We may not be able to solve the problems in the Ukraine or Syria, but if we live our lives in a way that demonstrates the principles of peace — acceptance, forgiveness, compromise, humanity, understanding — maybe we can start a tiny ripple of peace in the world.

 

 

 

What’s in your suitcase?

I’ve been a sporadic journal-keeper for most of my life. My most prolific period was during my angst-ridden teen years when I wrote about everything from bad luck with boyfriends, to concerts I attended, to books I was reading. Some people destroy their youthful writings, mostly because they’re so cringe-inducing. I don’t know if it’s vanity, voyeurism or something else, but I haven’t done that yet.

Recently, when I was looking for something else in my attic, I came across some of my old journals and brought them down to read. Surprisingly, the cringing was minimal. I was mostly intrigued by my younger self, as if she was from some foreign land.  And I found this poem in a collage on one journal cover:

Poets and true pathfinders have

Traveled like this: tires

Stripping pavement have been

Music to ears far finer

Than my own, but

Still I grow gladly

Into my vagabond self. I

Have died sometimes; I have left bolts and

Scraps of my life in unguarded

Corners and have smiled

In apology at my scattered,

Misstated thoughts. I am

Collected now, into one worn

Suitcase and the healing conviction

That everything left

With me is absolutely relevant.

I don’t know who wrote it, but the poem still resonates, even though I’ve been anything but a vagabond.The idea that we can boil down the true necessities of life to what would fit, metaphorically speaking, into a suitcase, rings true. The poet sounds weary, as if it took a long journey to reach that point, and maybe it does.image

Especially at this time of year, when there is such a temptation to indulge in excess holiday buying, it seems wise to remember what is really relevant and valuable in life. To love and be loved, to be safe and secure, to do or create something meaningful, to learn new things, to feel healthy in body, mind and spirit — those are the most important things in my suitcase. Do I really need anything more?

A recent article by Stacey Colino in Bethesda Magazine talked about why people in our affluent area, with money, physical health and great educations, could still be so unhappy and dissatisfied. One possible reason is the constant comparing of ourselves to others. Psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal was quoted as saying, “To compare up is to invite envy; to compare down is to invite gratitude…When we compare and find ourselves wanting, we make ourselves unhappy.”

If I pack my suitcase with the true essentials of my life, I can only feel gratitude, knowing that for many others, things like love and security are elusive. But even if I had to fill a suitcase with the material possessions that matter to me, I don’t think I would have too much trouble fitting them in. A few pictures of my kids, my wedding ring, a special book or two, and I feel rich.

When I was eighteen, I saved that poem because it was romantic to think of myself as a vagabond and because I already felt that I was leaving a little bit of myself behind with each new experience. I share it now for completely different reasons. I hope that the scraps I’ve left behind have touched someone along the way, and the scattered thoughts have gathered themselves into a more focused path forward. Have I learned to compare myself only with the younger version of me?

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.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

In this line from “Hamlet”, Shakespeare goes straight to the concept that happiness or unhappiness is all about perspective. Our beliefs color our view of the world. Look at something from a different angle – more importantly, think about it from a new perspective – and it might not bother you at all.

It’s really pretty apropos that a playwright gave us such a useful way to characterize our perception of stress. So much of stress, after all, comes from the stories we tell ourselves about events and the roles in which we cast ourselves. Are you playing the victim, or the victimizer? The hero or the villain? The innocent or the guilty? Sometimes it takes only a slight shift to see ourselves in a different role.ffd6

But the ironic thing about this quote is that the characters were talking about prisons, and thinking of the place they were in (Denmark) as a prison. Nothing imprisons us so much as being unable to see another side of a situation. We get stuck telling the story the same way over and over again, convincing ourselves that it is the “truth”, and not recognizing that someone else’s “truth” might be very different. This way of thinking often traps us when we feel we have been wronged by someone.

Imprisoning ourselves in the story doesn’t make the hurt go away, though. Even though it seems counterintuitive, getting free of the old story and considering a new one can be a lot more healing. Look at what the writer Gregory Maguire did with The Wizard of Oz story. He took a tale that we thought we knew, and knew well, and turned it on its head. The good witch isn’t all good – in fact, she’s downright mean at times. The wicked witch isn’t wicked at all – just misunderstood and discriminated against. Couldn’t the same be possible with the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives?

That was one of the exercises I did in a workshop on writing for health last week. Our first assignment was to write about a traumatic experience in our lives, and our feelings about it, from our own point of view. But the next day we were asked to write about the event from a different perspective. The writing was completely different the second time when I considered the other people who were involved in the event. I was able to feel more empathy and compassion for the people I might have “blamed” for the hurt.

I saw something in Yoga Journal a while back about changing your negative “what-ifs” to positive “what-ifs”. So here goes: What if you looked for the silver lining? What if you “walked a mile in another person’s shoes”? What if you forgave someone for hurting you?  What if you told the story another way? What if you decided to play the villain or the fool instead of your chosen role? How would that look and feel to you?

Thich Nhat Hanh has written about roses and garbage that we cannot have one without the other. They are equal, and equally precious. “…we must be careful not to imprison ourselves in concepts. The truth is that everything contains everything else.”

The complete story of any life or any event contains an infinite number of points of view. Each side of the story might hold a valuable truth that could set you free of blaming and on to a path of discovery. The first step is changing the story.