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.

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Our essence

Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person? Do you have only the vaguest idea of what that means? Does it matter?

Spirituality is one of those amorphous words that mean different things to different people. That’s part of why it’s a mistake to draw too many conclusions from the new religious affiliation study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. While the number of people who say they are not affiliated with any religion has grown to 20% of adults, 37% of those people say that they are spiritual; and even among those who do affiliate with a religion, many say they are “spiritual, but not religious”.

Spirituality is important for health, which is why it is one of the Six Dimensions of Wellness. Its role is to bring together the other dimensions by providing meaning and purpose to our lives. It is not enough to be physically, intellectually or socially healthy if there isn’t an overarching “world view” supplying significance to our actions. Herbert Benson, in his book, Timeless Healing, discusses the idea that humans might be the only species with a sense of our own mortality. If our brains were not wired to “harbor beliefs” that there is a deeper meaning to life, we could easily be overcome by dread and fear.

More and more research shows that people who are religious or spiritual are healthier and live longer than those who are not. The problem is that most studies are based on religion rather than that vague “spirituality” because it is easier to measure. So it’s somewhat unclear where the health benefits come from – the belief itself, the healthy behaviors required by some religions, or the social support that comes from belonging to the religious community?

Unlike religion, each of us can personally define spirituality. At its core, it is about feeling connected to something larger than ourselves. As we become more spiritual, we focus on others more than just ourselves, and move away from material things as a source of meaning. So how do you tell if and how you are spiritual? One good way is to ask yourself where you are and what you are doing when you have feelings of spirituality. In the Pew study, about 58% of people said that they have a deep connection with nature and the earth. For many, spirituality can be found most easily in nature.

What are your beliefs and values? Are you putting them into practice in your life? For many of us, stress results when there is conflict between our values and our actions. The Dalai Lama says, “I don’t see any difference between religious practice and daily life. One can do without religion, but not without spirituality.” He calls spirituality “the full blossoming of human values that is essential for the good of all.”

Other characteristics of a spiritual nature are compassion for others, having the capacity to love and to forgive, altruism, and the ability to experience joy. Even if you feel that you are lacking in one of these areas, they can all be developed and enhanced through practice. Whether it’s volunteering in your community or engaging in compassion meditation, there is a way to cultivate greater spiritual connection.

The root word of spirituality, spirit, comes from the Latin word for breath. A sense of spirituality may be as natural to us as breathing. We not only need it to live, we need it to live well.

Listening in

We are not just our bodies, but it is important to be aware of what they’re telling us. The more we pay attention to how we feel – in mind, body and spirit – the easier it will be to sense when something is not right. Then we can take steps to bring ourselves back into wellness.

Sometimes conflict arises, though, when we turn to medical professionals who have a one-size-fits-all approach to healing. Too often, that approach involves a prescription for medication as a first step rather than a second or third. Even though we might have doubts about the medication, sometimes we don’t speak up about them.

Dr. Herbert Benson, an authority on mind-body approaches, writes in his book, Timeless Healing, that “…when it comes to the medical profession, we are often intimidated or scared by the subject matter and we disregard our true feelings and reactions, even though brain research tells us that emotions are critically important decision-makers in our minds/bodies.”

Benson believes that physicians underestimate people’s desire and ability to make lifestyle changes, or to try other approaches that don’t involve drugs. He says, “Trust your instincts, and trust the doctor who values your impressions and assessments.” In other words, find the doctor who starts from the premise that you know your body best.

Of course, to know your body best means that you have to pay attention to it. Some of us are very in tune with the nuances of our bodies; others tend to be dissociated. But there are a number of mindfulness practices that help us become more aware.

  • Body scan – this practice involves bringing your attention to each body part, one at a time, starting say, at your left toe, and working your way up. The attention is passive observation only, without judgment.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation – this practice has you tense and tighten parts of your body one at a time, then relax them. It helps bring awareness to the difference in sensation between tension and relaxation.
  • Present moment awareness – by sitting quietly and focusing on the breath, we can often become aware of what kind of body sensations are connected to certain thoughts. If you find your mind drifting to something troubling, you may realize the place in your body that reacts with tension to that thought.

It is estimated that 70%-80% of all healthcare visits are stress-related or stress-induced. It makes sense to use lifestyle change rather than medication to treat many of them. We can start by becoming more alert to the interaction of mind and body, and by treating ourselves with compassion. I sometimes practice a compassion meditation from Frank Jude Boccio (found in Yoga Journal magazine) that includes the line, “May I hold myself with softness and care.” There is something about that statement that always reminds me of my innate value, and the need to treat myself well.

Hippocrates said, “The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.”  Learning to tune into our bodies and trust in that force would make us all better healthcare consumers and custodians of the awesome gift we have been given.

Relax into better health

Last Thursday, I was privileged to hear Dr. Herbert Benson, a leader in the field of mind-body medicine, give the keynote address kicking off Mind-Body Week D.C. Although he reiterated much of the material found in his many books and papers, it was still a treat for me to hear him discuss it.

Dr. Benson started his research over 40 years ago as a young medical doctor. At a time when doing research into the connection between mind and body, and spirituality and healing, could be a sure-fire career-ender, he was brave enough to pursue it. In doing so, he defined the effect known as the “relaxation response” and conducted study after study showing how it could be evoked, and what its benefits are.

Benson believes that medical care should consist of what he calls the “3-legged stool”, where the three legs are self-care, medications and procedures. In order for us to have optimal wellness, all three legs must be utilized as needed. His life’s work has been to show how our ability to use the first leg, to heal ourselves, is real and powerful.

In his ground-breaking book, The Relaxation Response, first published in 1975, Benson explained how the relaxation response could counteract the effects of the stress (or “fight or flight”) response. In fact, the relaxation response is the direct opposite of the stress response. In essence, we cannot be stressed and relaxed at the same time.

Benson also demystified meditation for people. While his initial research started with transcendental meditation, he demonstrated how the relaxation response could be achieved using some basic elements of T.M., without needing a mantra or a spiritual guru. Anyone can access it without cost or special equipment. Here are the steps he recommends:

  • Choose a word or phrase on which to focus (some examples are words such as love, peace, or one; or words with religious meaning).
  • Sit quietly in a comfortable position that you can maintain for some time.
  • Close your eyes and relax your muscles.
  • Breathe slowly and naturally, repeating your focus word as you exhale.
  • Maintain a passive, non-judging attitude. If your mind wanders, keep coming back to your breath and your word.
  • Continue in this manner for 10-20 minutes (beginners should try for 5 minutes at a time).

Using mental focusing techniques to bring about relaxation is not radical now as it was in 1975. But it is still not fully a part of Western medicine. Integrative medicine centers exist at many hospitals, but it often seems that they function alongside, rather than as full partners with the traditional departments. That’s too bad, because over the years, Herbert Benson and others have developed a body of research that shows that regularly practicing relaxation:

  • Can lead to lower blood pressure and lower heart rate
  • Reduces metabolism and breathing rate
  • Reduces the harmful effects of stress
  • Leads to changes on the genetic level in areas that control inflammation, aging, and insulin use

By calling upon our ability to relax, we can reduce the physical symptoms of stress. We also have the potential to reduce our use of the health care system since a majority of doctor visits are for stress-related complaints. We can take more control of our health.

Deepak Chopra has said “Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day”. When we regularly experience that quiet, it can also open a mental door that allows us to be receptive to ideas. In that way, a regular relaxation practice can also help us learn, be more creative, and think more clearly.