What do you want to add to your life?

A list, by its nature, has to have some importance. We make lists to organize our thoughts and to remember what we want to recall, and why would we do that if it wasn’t for something meaningful or important? Right now I have a grocery list in my purse and a to-do list on my desk.  On my iPad, I have a list of 100 books “That Shaped America”. Last week the “Best of 2016” lists started appearing. And a few years ago, Rosanne Cash even made an album called “The List”, featuring the songs her father had considered essential for her to know.

So lists can be made up of things that are the best, the most influential, or the most essential. And lists can be more mundane: groceries, names, chores, goals. The common factor is always, “Let’s not forget these things.”

For my birthday, I received a journal called “The 52 Lists Project“. The idea of the journal is to take lists beyond what we want to remember and into the realm of inspiration and insight. What do our lists reveal about us? Loosely organized around the calendar year, each week’s list challenges the writer to look a little more deeply inside.

List #48 asks me to “list the things you want to add to your life.” This is the time of year when many of us are expecting gifts, but list #48 is something different — the non-tangibles that I desire. Here is my list:

Joy/smiles/laughter — is there anyone who feels they have enough of these? Our world gives us so much to be serious and worried about, but how can we temper those thoughts with occasions of joy?  My inner child wants to delight in the glow of holiday lights and the beauty of new snow, to laugh at something silly, to smile at a loved one.zoolights-december-5

Civility & respect — These traits seem to have gone missing from society. A nearby Quaker church used to have a banner that asked, “How does your life help to remove the causes of war?” My question now is, “How can my life add to civility and respect in the world around me?” Can the way I think and talk about people, places and things (even in my own home) be a small step that contributes to a shift in the environment?

Volunteering — Our time and presence are powerful gifts to offer others. When we give help, most of us get just as much out of it as we put in. It’s an opportunity to put passions into practice; get out of our own heads for a while; and shift our perspective. It is also a way to experience humility and demonstrate respect for others.

Meditation — I’m in the middle of a personal 28-day meditation challenge. I especially like a 5-minute meditation I found on YogaGlo called “With empty hands, I take hold of the plough.” It helps me visualize the balance between letting go and holding on, as well as approaching each task with openness.Hand Reaching

Sleep — The Dalai Lama has said that sleep is the best meditation, but it is an ongoing challenge for me to get deep, uninterrupted sleep. Since sleep is so important for repairing the body, and contributing to a longer life, this will always be on my wish list.

Time with friends — It’s so easy to get caught up in juggling everyday life that time with friends often goes to the bottom of the list. But the nourishment that comes from these moments together makes our daily burdens so much lighter. As Henry Van Dyke wrote, “A friend is what the heart needs all the time.”

A list of 6 simple things to add to my life. Now I’ll see if it translates to action, or just procrastination!

Some lists endure longer than others. The grocery list might get tossed tomorrow; the book list will be marked up and crossed off; the to-do list will probably get longer. Some lists, like #48, serve as guideposts. Some, as Rosanne Cash discovered, become legacies. What kind of list are you writing this week?

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Now what?

What do you with what you know, what you’ve learned, the gifts you have? Is having it all enough for you, or does meaning only accrue when you act on what you have? In “The Illuminations” by Andrew O’Hagan, one character says to another, “People who read books aren’t reading them properly if they stop with the books. You’ve got to go out eventually and test it all against reality.”

Several days ago, I went to a yoga workshop billed as “Yoga: The Advanced Practices”. Now that title might make you think that I’m someone who can do a headstand with ease, or twist my leg around neck, or any number of other challenging yoga postures, but nothing could be farther from the truth. And, in fact, the workshop’s “advanced practices” weren’t about asana (physical postures) at all. They were about the real “meat” of yoga — pranayama (breathwork) and meditation. We spent only about 40 minutes of the three hours doing asana.

Why do the other practices matter so much more? As our teacher, Greg, said, they provide the answer to the question, “Now what?” As in, “I’ve mastered a handstand. Now what?” Or, “I’ll never master a handstand. Now what?” Breath and meditation give you the space, the way, to take the yoga off the mat and into the world. As you grow in emotional awareness and focus, they help you be the person who can give back to the community, who can be the better spouse, the better friend, the better parent.

The very next day after the yoga workshop happened to be the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. As I was reading through the prayerbook, I came across this meditation: “Why be concerned with meaning? Why not be content with satisfaction of desires and needs? The vital drives of food, sex and power…are as characteristic of animals as they are of us. Being human is a characteristic of a being who faces the question: After satisfaction, what?

Now what?

The world we see reflects who we are. Sometimes we need to correct our course or re-affirm our best qualities and intentions so that they are manifested in that reflection. Any kind of meditation helps us do that, as does the meditative practice of affirmative writing, part of the “Writing to Heal” program. Affirmative writing can crystallize values and create a vision for one’s life; it helps us identify our gifts and be grateful for them; and it can be a guide to living a life where you flourish and grow.

So take paper and pen, find somewhere to sit quietly, and answer these questions in writing (resist the urge to self-edit):

  1. What are your gifts? You best qualities, what you offer to others?
  2. What gift do you feel is ready to emerge, evolve or resurface?
  3. How have you denied or hidden any gift in the past?
  4. How is your life and others impacted when you withhold your gift?
  5. How might your life and others be impacted if you offered your gift?
  6. What might living with this gift look like and feel like?
  7. What support from others do you need to develop your gift?
  8. What does your gift need from you?

Naming your gifts, and thinking about how others are impacted when you offer them, is a powerful way to answer the question, “Now what?” When I did this exercise, and I responded to question 6, how would living this gift look and feel, the words I wrote were, “spacious, exciting, vibrant.”

An authentic life is an examined life. Living with questions like these can sometimes make us uncomfortable. But eventually, if we want the answer to “now what?” we’ve got to go out and test the answers against reality.

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.

Savoring a sunny day

What do you want your day to feel like? The question isn’t what do you have to do today, or what do you want to accomplish today — but how do you want it to feel as you are going about it? What emotion or sensation do you want as an evocation of your day?

I want my day to feel like sunshine.

How did I choose sunshine? I started my day with an on-line meditation from Amy Ippoliti. With a paper and pen nearby, the practice began with gratitude – what do you feel good about, grateful for, right now? The next few minutes were spent contemplating yesterday’s successes or positive moments. In each case, I meditated on the question, then wrote things down. And for the final step of the meditation, the question was, “What do you want your day to feel like?” Is it a feeling of joy, or fun, or ease?  Can you visualize it?

Sometimes when we’ve been going through a succession of bad days, or are under a lot of stress, it’s hard to remember that we can often choose how to feel, just as we can choose how to react. I know that’s true for me. A series of mishaps in my home, a lot of travel recently, and some new responsibilities have overwhelmed me at times. I focus on the negatives, let myself get carried away with anxiety, and forget that these are very, very small problems compared to what some people face.

So this morning I looked at my gratitude list. It included feelings about my children and the comfortable life I have. I thought about a letter I recently received from someone who referred to my son’s smile as “a little bit of sunshine.”

I considered everything that was positive about yesterday — the helpfulness of the people I dealt with, the fact that I felt in control of things instead of overwhelmed, the nice mid-day run that I had, and most of all, the beautiful, sunny, cloudless day that it was.

So when I got to the part about how do I want my day to feel today, there was no question that I wanted it to feel like sunshine. I wanted it to feel like that beautiful cloudless day, my son’s smile and being bathed in light.

The thing is, though, that not every day is sunny and cloud-free. Some days are overcast, both literally and spiritually. So how do we capture the sunshine on those days? How can we sustain the positive emotions from one day to the next, no matter what happens?

A recent study by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin showed that some people are able to savor positive emotions longer, while in other people they subside quickly. The difference is related in part to the activation of the reward center in the brain. So capturing sunshine on a cloudy day depends on keeping that reward center more active.

There’s no question that doing so requires making a choice to focus on those positive emotions. It might be by meditating on lovingkindness or compassion, or by calling up memories of a time that felt especially joyful or comforting. In either case, the goal is to really drop back in to that feeling, so much so that you experience it all over again. The more you practice doing that, the easier it will be to get back to that baseline of positive emotion.

This 5-Finger Exercise* is good way to begin (spend 2 minutes on each part):

Touch your thumb to your index finger. Think about  time when your body felt healthy fatigue, such as after an exhilarating physical activity. Can you capture the feeling again now?

Touch your thumb to your middle finger. Think back to a time when you had a loving experience, perhaps a warm hug or an intimate moment with someone.

Touch your thumb to your ring finger. Now recall the nicest compliment you’ve ever received. Can you really accept it now? By accepting it, you are giving a gift to the person who said it to you.

Touch your thumb to your little finger. As you do so, go back to the most beautiful place you have ever been and dwell there for a while.

 

 

 

 

*The 5 Finger Exercise is adapted from one I was given. I’m sorry I do not know who developed it.

 

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.

How to take a time-in

My breath slowed as I rolled out my mat and sat down to await the start of yoga class. I looked around at the mostly-young group of people there for the 5 pm class. Had they left work early? Do they have flexible hours? Do they work part-time? Were they going back to work later?

As I silently congratulated all of us on taking time out of the day to do something good for ourselves, I realized that it wasn’t really a “time out” – it was very much a “time in”. It might even have been the most time I’d really spent “in” and engaged all day.

What is “time in”? It’s not just time spent looking inward, though that could be a part of it. It’s time being fully present, and in the moment. It’s time when our brains get a rest from the over stimulating environment that we’re exposed to most of the day. It’s time when we pay attention to our senses, stop multitasking, and regain focus and concentration.

Spending time in meditation, for instance, leads to a restful, yet awake, state where we have more alpha wave activity in the brain. This brings greater mental clarity, fosters creativity and enhances memory. Research shows that regular meditators can stay on task longer and are less distracted even when they are in a multitasking situation.

Less formal meditative experiences happen in yoga, where the sequence of postures commands focused attention, or in exercise such as running, when the sounds of the breath or footfalls become a focal point. Such activities have a beneficial effect on the brain, making us alert to what’s happening in the moment, and sometimes opening a window to better directions or opportunities.

I’m continually surprised by the way that an idea will just pop into my head when I’m in a yoga class or out for a run. Even when I’ve been blocked creatively about something for days, allowing some mental space from it and taking “time in” almost always helps. That must be why companies such as Google, Nike, Ben & Jerry’s and Zappo’s have on-site meditation classes or nap rooms for their employees. Resting the brain can have surprisingly productive results (like new ice cream flavors!)

Being able to bring intense focus and concentration to a project is a necessary element of what is called a “flow” experience in positive psychology. Flow is “a joyful state” that we experience when “we are actively involved in trying to reach a goal, or an activity that is challenging but well suited to our skills”. During “flow”, we lose track of time and self-consciousness. People who are “high-flow” generally demonstrate better performance, commitment to goals, and greater long-term happiness. Without the motivation or ability to focus, however, high-flow activities seem too hard. We choose the easier low-flow activities (like watching TV) that might provide immediate gratification but don’t really lead to long-term satisfaction. That’s why it is so important to well-being that we strengthen the capacity to focus through “time in” pursuits.

Instead of saying we don’t have time to meditate or exercise, we should be saying there’s no time to waste before starting. Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, says that “Our daily decisions and habits have a huge impact upon both our levels of happiness and success.” Maybe today’s decision to spend “time in” will be the start of a recurring pattern for you – one with a far-reaching effect on your fulfillment in life.

Thanks, I’ll walk

Walking meditation, says Thich Nhat Hanh, “is really to enjoy the walking – walking not in order to arrive, but just to walk. The purpose is to be in the present moment and, aware of our breathing and our walking, to enjoy each step.” Instead of being on the way to someplace, it is the act of walking itself that is the purpose.

I’m in the middle of a book that inspires me to contemplate walking as meditation. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is about a recently retired man who gets a letter from a friend he hasn’t seen in 20 years, telling him that she is dying of cancer. The letter disrupts the unhappy inertia of his life, and on the spur of the moment, he decides to walk hundreds of miles across England to see her before she dies.

When I started reading, I thought that this book would be just a lighthearted, quirky story. But it has turned out to be engaging, thought-provoking and touching. Harold changes on the journey, not only from being physically unprepared to being fit and able; but also in the way he views his life. At first he is tortured by memories of the past, and he doubts what he is doing; but the walk transforms him into someone who has hope.Pt Reyes Natl _03

Walking is the most recommended physical activity in the world, because it is accessible to almost everyone, and offers many health benefits. Among them is an increase in “well-being” in people who walk regularly. Walking promotes clear thinking, and gives people an opportunity to notice their thoughts and feelings. Its ability to integrate sensory experience, motor skills and brain activity make it a part of psychotherapy for some mental health practitioners.

While it is possible to walk mindfully as you walk for exercise, walking meditation means paying attention to the walking itself: the sound your feet make as they touch the ground, the rhythm of your steps, the sound of your breath. Gradually you might find that your breath becomes regular and paces itself with your footsteps, for example 3 steps for each inhale and 4 steps for each exhale. Jon Kabat-Zinn says about walking meditation, “The challenge is, can you be fully with this step, with this breath?”Labyrinth-with-Pilgrim

Another way to do a walking meditation is to walk in a labyrinth. Labyrinths have been used for thousands of years as a way to clear the mind and find answers to questions. They are often found on the grounds of churches or other religious centers, or in places of health and healing. A labyrinth consists of concentric circles leading to a center; you walk around the spiral to the center and then retrace your steps on the way out. It is a metaphor for the spiritual journey inward. At the labyrinth near my house, there is a quote from St. Augustine: “It is solved by walking.”

I don’t know yet if Harold Fry will solve the unhappiness of his life by the end of his journey, or the end of the book. While I wonder what will happen, I’m savoring each chapter as I go. I do know that what he has learned already is this: He doesn’t need to be in a hurry to arrive at his destination, because at each moment of the journey he is arriving somewhere.