Self-care for the full catastrophe

What if a person is really clear about what his purpose is, and what his values are, but is blocked from putting them into action? What if unremitting stress is the result of that conflict and loss of control? What can be done?

Those were questions I was faced with yesterday while giving a presentation on stress management at a government agency in Washington. Over the past 16 months, the career employees who work there have had their life’s work come under fire, putting everything they value under assault. It’s practically impossible to do their jobs as they believe they should be done. How do they deal with that frustration day after day? For some, the answer is to walk away, take retirement if they can. For others, the choice is to remain on the job, struggling to promote the work they believe in.

Selfishly, I want these good and dedicated people to stay in their jobs, fighting the good fight for the rest of us. But with what we know about the long-term consequences of chronic stress — higher risk of heart disease, mood disorders, and musculo-skeletal problems; weakened immune systems, premature aging and more — what will the personal cost be for them?

If ever there was a stressor that’s not going away, or not anytime soon, this is it. As I continued my discussion with these employees, I realized that they would need every tool in the stress management arsenal to keep themselves emotionally and physically healthy for the time ahead. The problem was too big for any one of the strategies I had to offer them. And yes, the word “arsenal” seems highly appropriate when talking about this kind of assault on values.

MC900383136So my overall message was that if they want to be around in 4 years or 8 years to start doing good again, they need to practice self-care right now. Here are some of the things we talked about:

  • Support groups — In any kind of stress, social support provides both a buffer and a direct antidote to its negative effects. Studies show, for instance, that mothers of children with disabilities who participate in support groups have fewer cellular signs of premature aging than similar mothers who don’t. We need both the emotional support and the informational support that can come from a group, along with the ability to laugh and cry with people who know exactly what we are dealing with.
  • Becoming more resilient — People who can adapt well to changing circumstances do better in the long run. Certain people are born with this ability and others have to practice it. Some ways to do that are by having good relationships with others, being able to make and carry out plans, having a positive self-view (i.e. monitoring negative self-talk) and developing good communication skills.
  • Gratitude practice — Focus on what’s going right instead of what’s going wrong. I was delighted when one of the group brought up the movie “Pollyanna,” a favorite of my kids when they were young. Pollyanna changed the people around her by always finding something to be glad about, even in the face of adversity.
  • Everyday mindfulness — Slowing down and focusing on just one thing at a time can help with some of the physical effects of stress and bring down heart rate and blood pressure. Listening more to others, giving them the full benefit of your attention, brings benefits such as increases in understanding, empathy and intimacy. And setting aside device-free times and places helps us disconnect from the grind of work and news, allowing space for silence or connection to others.
  • Relaxation breaks — Even 5 minutes of attention to the breath is a respite from the stress of the work day, and brings many more minutes of benefit. True relaxation only requires 4 elements – a quiet environment, a mental focal point, a comfortable seat and setting aside judgment.
  • Joy, fun and play — We forget how good it feels to laugh and play. It’s so important to build something into each day that gives you joy, if even for a few moments. Dancing, shooting hoops, jumping on a trampoline, playing a board game with your kids –carve out some time to do something for no other reason than that it’s fun. Lifestyles

In the introduction to his book, “Full Catastrophe Living,” Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that his title came from the movie, “Zorba the Greek.” Zorba describes his married life as “Wife, house, kids….the full catastrophe!” But as Kabat-Zinn points out, Zorba’s way is to:

“dance in the gale of the full catastrophe, to celebrate life, to laugh with it and at himself, even in the face of personal failure and defeat.”

For those who are living the “full catastrophe,” perhaps my best advice is to follow Zorba’s example, riding the waves and celebrating what you can each day.

 

 

 

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There’s no final version of a life story

What we call “I” is just a swinging door, which moves when we inhale and when we exhale.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki reminds us that what we know as “self” is impermanent and ever-changing, whether or not we want it to be. We’d like to believe that changes to our identity are under our control, the result of growth and intent. But what happens when we find out that we’re not who we thought we were, when the family story that was built around us and on whose scaffold we grew is wrong?

NPR journalist Alex Wagner, who just wrote a memoir about her family, notes that the beginnings and endings of stories are arbitrary — there’s always something that happened before and more that comes after. And only when we ask questions and go looking will we find the fuller story.

Here was my story: My maternal grandmother ran off with a neighbor shortly before my mother’s second birthday, leaving her husband and six children behind. She had four more children after she left and her first set of children only saw her a few more times. She essentially cut them off.

This was a story I grew up with, a story that I feel I knew from earliest memory. My mother didn’t try to hide it from us or shelter us from it; we knew very clearly from a young age that her mother had left her behind, to be raised by her father and later, a stepmother.

For years, I’ve been interested in genealogy, and have delved deeply into my family history. But this story wasn’t one that I spent much time questioning or looking into. It was “case closed, end of story.” Then along came DNA testing, and with it, some second cousins who were unknown to me.

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So here’s the revised story: All those new second cousins? They are people whose grandparents were siblings of the man my grandmother ran off with. Even when I saw this reality on the screen in front of me, it took several minutes for the realization to sink in that my grandfather was that other man, and that my mother was left behind by both of her parents, not just one of them. The beginning of my mom’s formative story wasn’t when her mother left, it was much earlier.

I keep thinking this shouldn’t affect me much – most of the people involved are dead, I wasn’t that close to the man I thought was my grandfather, and I’m glad that my mother has been spared this truth. Yet I can’t stop thinking about it; it confuses and troubles me in ways I didn’t expect. I want to know more about this person whose DNA I share. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

You can touch the presence of your father and mother in each cell of your body. They are truly present in you, along with your grandparents and great-grandparents. Doing this, you know you are their continuation. You may have thought that your ancestors no longer existed, but even scientists say your ancestors are present in you. The same is true for your descendants. You will be present in every cell of their bodies.

If I am a continuation of my grandparents, who am I now? Who were they? We grow up with an identity that is molded by the stories and messages, both subtle and overt, that we receive from our parents and other adults. Sometimes self-perception gets skewed because of identities that are projected onto us (the “smart one” or the “pretty one” or the “troublemaker”). But we have a chance at different points in life to reject those projections and forge a fresh identity based on our own values, beliefs and goals.

And yet, it’s hard to rid ourselves of those early identities. Did my mother’s abandonment stories leave an indelible impression on me? Did that change how I interact with my world? What emotions should I be feeling about those old wrongs? On Psychology Today, Mel Schwartz writes that one’s sense of self should be more like a willow tree than an oak, more flexible than sturdy, ready to accept and bend with the storms of life. So I turn again to Thich Nhat Hanh:

Some of us have wonderful parents; others have parents who suffered a lot and made their partners and their children suffer. Just about everyone has some blood ancestors whom we admire, and others who had many negative traits and of whom we are not proud. They are all our ancestors…We may be angry with them, but they are still our ancestors…We cannot get rid of them…Unconditional acceptance is the first step in opening the door to the miracle of forgiveness.

I used to think that it was my mother’s prerogative to experience these emotions – anger, grief, forgiveness. I’m just beginning to consider my grandparents as people I might want to forgive, people who suffered, and maybe tried to do their best. I will never know what motivated them to do what they did; all I can do now is try to cultivate generosity and compassion toward them, bending like a willow, swinging like a door.

 

 

Let others break barriers, what I need are boundaries

After a particularly stressful few days, I realized for about the umpteenth time that I don’t set enough boundaries. I let work intrude on personal time, I let worries intrude on sleep, I say “yes” to too much, I pay too much attention to the barrage of email, and I let my to-do list pull me out of being present.

Yet when I do a search on the word “boundaries”, what concerns most people is pushing past them, breaking through the barriers that hold them back, and living to full potential. To them, boundaries are something to overcome. Am I the only one who feels the need to erect a few more limits around my self?

Boundaries are often physical, but they can also be mental, emotional or spiritual. They provide a sense of order to our lives. Kids try to push boundaries as a way of testing not only their parents, but their own ability to exist outside of them. Often, they are all too glad to retreat back inside the parental limits after one of those test runs. It’s safer there.

A 2011 study showed that people select aesthetic boundaries more often when they feel out of control. At those times, they choose “highly-bounded” objects such as framed pictures and fenced yards as opposed to open spaces or objects. On the other hand, people who have strong spiritual beliefs, and the sense of order that those often provide, don’t seem to need as many physical boundaries as people who do not have that kind of grounding.

Technology has blurred the lines between work, play, home, school, leisure and learning. We mostly perceived it as helpful, allowing us more flexibility about when and where we earn a living, but it can also lead to a feeling of being out of control, especially to those who have more difficulty managing the work/family boundary. A 2016 study showed that integrating our various domains may lessen the impact of moving between home and work; people eventually develop ways to transition more smoothly if the boundaries are more fluid. But I don’t know if that works so well for someone like me with high distractibility and an overly-developed sense of responsibility. I don’t feel like I’m good at either compartmentalizing or integrating. Sometimes I feel like I’m just running back and forth.7-Co. Wicklow-Glendalough (24)

Tom Friedman, in his book, “Thank You For Being Late,” writes about walls, in his case an actual border wall like we hear so much about. Friedman says we need to have a big, strong wall so that we feel secure, but the wall needs to have a really big door in it. The idea isn’t to keep people out as much as it is to know who we are inviting in. This is the way that I feel about my mental and emotional boundaries right now. I need a wall with a big door so that I feel more in control.

My “52 Lists” book has an exercise for week 10 which asks you to list the things you should ignore. Here’s my list:

  • The people who are second-guessing me
  • My phone/email
  • The news (sometimes)
  • My monkey mind
  • The things I can’t control

Last week when I was in a yoga class, I set an intention to hit “pause” more often. Not just by taking a break, but actually pausing more before speaking or reacting. The pause button gives me the opportunity to respond rather than react; it helps me recognize what I’m actually feeling in the moment. It gives me a moment to ask, what is the best use of my time right now? What is the best use of my energy? Can I mindfully deal with the situation at hand, or do I need to shut the big door for a while?

Soren Gordhamer writes that, “Because how we leave one moment is how we enter the next, it helps to expand instead of squeeze during times of transition.” Mindfully expanding during the transition time is like hitting the pause button, doing less in order to do more.

 

 

 

Why you need to declare independence

We observed Independence Day all over America yesterday, celebrating our freedom as a country. Yet, as individuals, we still put ourselves in chains a lot of the time. We imprison ourselves with judgment, and with the dreaded “should, ought and must.”

As often happens, I started thinking about this in a yoga class. One day last week, a teacher said, “Allow your eyes to close,” which is typical language in yoga class. But the use of the word “allow” got me thinking. Then I heard a teacher say, “Give yourself permission to….” Hmm – I was starting to see a pattern. It didn’t seem like the words were meant just to let us know that we had a choice; it seemed more like the words were an acknowledgment that we don’t often let ourselves relax, or choose to do less than we are capable of.Woman Closing Eye

At another point, the teacher asked us to do tree pose, which involves resting one foot against the opposite leg while balancing on the other foot. Usually people will use a hand to assist them in getting the foot high up on the inner thigh of the other leg; but this time the teacher asked us not to use our hands, even if that meant that we wouldn’t be able to get the foot as high. It was interesting to me to watch as some in the class couldn’t seem to bring themselves to “settle” for the foot just resting against the ankle or calf — they had to use their hands to bring the foot as high as possible. They just couldn’t allow themselves to do less than their max.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the two parts of Buddhist meditation are stopping, and looking deeply. It’s the stopping that’s the hurdle, because once we can do that, the looking deeply will naturally follow. But as he says, “If you’re like most of us, since you’ve been born, you’ve been running. Now it’s a strong habit that many generations of your ancestors also had before you and transmitted to you — the habit of running, being tense, and being carried away by many things, so that your mind is not totally, deeply, peacefully in the present moment.”

The constant running can lead to “wrong perceptions,” including the self-judgment that results in constant striving.  For some of us, the constant striving comes from the mistaken belief that we have to be the best at everything we do — the best in our professional lives, the best parent, the best athlete, the best host, and yes, the best in yoga class. But why? If there is one, or maybe two or three, area of life where we really give 110% to be our best, why can’t we just let ourselves be…okay at some of the other things?

In their book, “Five Good Minutes,” Jeff Brantley and Wendy Millstine have a practice called, “Retire the judges in your mind.” It’s all about letting go of the self-judgment and self-criticism. They suggest that while you are sitting quietly, and with that intention, that you notice the judgmental thoughts and say, “Thank you, you may or  may not be true, but thank you anyway.”Brisbane_85

If you stop striving for a moment, and let that foot rest a little lower on the leg in tree pose, maybe you’ll notice something about tree that you couldn’t see when you were using so much effort. Maybe stopping and looking deeply for a moment allows you to grow your tree differently the next time you do it. Thich Nhat Hanh compares the release of tension that comes from letting go with soaking mung beans: “You don’t need to force the water to enter the mung bean. You let the mung bean be in the water, and slowly, slowly it goes in….The same is true for you.”

Here’s a radical thought — sometimes maybe we should do less in order to do more. So declare your independence from the tyranny of “I must,” “I should” and “I have to.” Allow your eyes to close, give yourself permission to stop, take whatever it is you need.

 

Do or do not? Procrastination’s grip.

The ancient Greeks had a word, “akrasia,” that meant doing something against one’s better judgment. To put it another way, akrasia is a failure to do what one has intended to do and what one ought to do. Our modern word for this is procrastination.

Here are the things I do when I’m procrastinating about doing something else:

  • Check my email
  • Tell myself I can read one (just one!) chapter of a book
  • Call someone
  • Do some laundry
  • Do the crossword puzzle or Sudoko
  • Organize my desk

Here are some of the things that I should be doing instead:

  • Grading my students’ homework
  • Writing for this blog
  • Catching up on work projects
  • Scanning the documents that have been sitting in a box for 3 years

Why is it so hard to get started on these tasks? I know that I can’t really relax with the book or the puzzle while these other things are hovering in the background, yet even that unsettled feeling can’t always move me to begin.

Having just finished teaching a unit on time management to my students, I know that  researchers characterize people like me as either avoidance or arousal procrastinators. Avoidance procrastinators tend to be self-critical, often have a maladaptive sense of perfectionism, and possess irrational beliefs about the outcome that would result from actually doing the thing they avoid. Arousal procrastinators, on the other hand, claim to work best under pressure (which is usually not true) and seek the thrill that comes from doing things at the last minute.

I’m pretty sure that I’m an avoidance procrastinator, although I do have to admit that I get a little adrenaline rush when I’m working up against a deadline. We avoidance procrastinators often believe that unless our work is absolutely perfect and liked by everyone, our self-esteem will be threatened. On other tasks, we switch into avoidance mode because they require us to do something that is out of our comfort zone, and we question our ability to even accomplish them.2016-04-02 12.50.04

Those of us who struggle with procrastination could try jolting ourselves out of it with the Nike motto, “Just do it.” Or we could use Brian Tracy’s metaphor, “Eat That Frog!” which comes from a Mark Twain quote: “If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.” In other words, get the tough stuff done first and then it’s out of the way.

Those tricks might work for some of us some of the time, but it’s important to realize that procrastination isn’t just laziness or lack of willpower. For some people it can have lifelong consequences, such as an inability to make and achieve career or financial goals, a tendency to anxiety and depression, and poorer physical health. Fortunately, procrastination can be treated with cognitive behavior therapies such as REBT (rational emotive behavior therapy). REBT asks you to imagine doing the thing you’ve been avoiding, and then predict and label the emotion that you would experience with it. It’s like a trial run for the real thing.

Practicing mindfulness might also help. A study done by Sirois and Tosti showed that higher mindfulness scores were associated with lower levels of procrastination and with more unconditional self-acceptance. It may seem counter-intuitive that the present-moment awareness of mindfulness would be beneficial to procrastinators who already have difficulty being future-oriented and goal-directed. It’s true that many procrastinators are too focused on short-term pleasure and current rewards, but that’s not the same thing as mindfulness. When we practice mindful acceptance of our present experience, we can accept the discomfort of the difficult task and also generate more self-compassion while we do it.

As Thich Nhat Hanh has written,

“When fear manifests, we want to have the seed of mindfulness also manifest to embrace it. So we have two energies present — the first is the energy of fear, and the second is the energy of mindfulness. The fear receives a bath of mindfulness and becomes a little bit weaker before it drops back down to  the depths of our consciousness in the form of a seed.”

First, do no harm

To reflect upon our true nature is one of the purposes of the five “yamas” in yoga, the ethical and moral codes that are at the center of the practice. In English they are nonharming, truthfulness, generosity, balance and moderation, and abundance. At the Women’s March on Washington this past Saturday, I saw the yamas — and our true nature — on magnificent display. 2017-01-21-09-34-09

People of all ages, races, and backgrounds joined together with one purpose — to say “no” to the policies and mean-spiritedness of the new administration, and to say “yes” to love, inclusiveness and prosperity for all. While everyone came to the march with strong feelings and determination, there was still a joyfulness in the air. It was a relief to hear leaders speak the truth, and energizing to be surrounded by such an abundance of passion. There was no violence, there was a balance between pro and anti messages, and I saw uncountable examples of generosity and kindness among strangers. 2017-01-21-14-43-15

Going forward, though, the most difficult yama to practice could well be nonharming, because it means more than just physical nonviolence toward others. Stephen Cope says that the yamas “are really about restraining behaviors that are motivated by grasping, aversion, hatred and delusion.” So when we practice nonviolence (ahimsa) it means we have to monitor our negative thoughts, which can be a form of violence. We have to let go of hostility, and invite peace into our hearts and minds.  2017-01-21-09-13-08

Yoga Journal has some suggested asana (postures) for cultivating ahimsa. They include warrior poses, which might sound counterintuitive, but the challenge is to use our “warrior” energy with virtue. If you have ever done a warrior sequence in a yoga class, you may remember flowing from Warrior 1 to Warrior 2, to reverse Warrior, and perhaps Warrior 3. The sequence is done slowly and with grace, so that it becomes thoughtful, intentional and nonharming.

Can we bring the strength and quiet grace of the warrior to the long task ahead of us now? Thich Nhat Hanh says:

“Many people…know what needs to be done, and they engage in political, social, and environmental work to try to change things. But after a period of intense involvement, they may become discouraged if they lack the strength needed to sustain a life of action. Real strength is not in power, money, or weapons, but in deep, inner peace.

“Practicing mindfulness in each moment of our daily lives, we can cultivate our own peace. With clarity, determination, and patience — the fruits of meditation — we can sustain a life of action and be real instruments of peace. I have seen this peace in people of various religious and cultural backgrounds who spend their time and energy protecting the weak, struggling for social justice, lessening the disparity between rich and poor, stopping the arms race, fighting against discrimination, and watering the trees of love and understanding throughout the world.”

If we are to be warriors for preserving the ideals of our democracy, we need to be mindful about treating ourselves and others with ahimsa. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, ahimsa toward self means that you recognize your limits and don’t push yourself beyond the point of well-being.  “You can start practicing ahimsa’s gentleness on yourself,” before turning it toward others. Expect to be challenged by ahimsa, he says. “It is easy to relate with ahimsa to someone who doesn’t threaten you. The test is in how you will relate to a person or situation when you do feel threatened.”

Give up or let go? What’s the difference?

Why do we give up? Why do we surrender, admit defeat, part ways with somebody or something, or stop hoping for a positive outcome? Maybe it’s because sticking with it is too hard, or it takes too long, or because we’re tired of failing. Sometimes we decide that we’re just not strong enough to see something through, or we just don’t care enough.

That’s very different from letting go, at least in the Buddhist sense of letting go. Letting go means easing up on the tightness with which we hold onto people, things or ideas. It means relinquishing our hold on how we want things to be, and instead knowing that we have given our best effort and now we accept what happens. Thich Nhat Hanh has written:

…for many of us, even when we are most joyful, there is fear behind our joy…We are afraid of things outside of ourselves that we cannot control…We try to hold tight to the things we care about — our positions, our property, our loved ones. But holding tightly doesn’t ease our fear. Eventually, one day, we will have to let go of all of them.

Letting go can be a lot scarier than giving up. When you give up, you can stop thinking about the person, thing or  idea, and just eliminate it from your life. Letting go, on the other hand, means realizing that you don’t have control over everything, and you might have to live with and accept an outcome that is different than what you hoped for. You don’t stop caring when you let go of the outcome.

How can the feelings of caring very deeply about something, while at the same time having no control over it, co-exist? To Jon Kabat-Zinn, letting go is “allowing things to be as they are.” That means being a witness to one’s fears and insecurities, being fully aware of those feelings, and being able to live peacefully with them. How hard is that?!

Without a doubt, a really strong mindfulness practice is a good place to start the process of letting go: The practice of looking deeply inside and not being afraid of what arises, but rather noting it and letting it go by. But that’s not enough. We also have to be able, in that stillness, to move from worry and unease to comfort and joy. Not an easy task!

Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that instead of running from the present moment because of the difficulties we face there, we instead try to remember all the positive things in life, which usually are greater. Maybe it’s the smiling face of a loved one, a particular place that brings you peace, or some accomplishment of which you are proud. There is an exercise in a stress workbook that I have, which can help identify both the things in life that drain your energy (the difficulties and worries) as well as the things that fill you with energy and revitalize you. These are the things you want to bring attention to:

Drainers and Fillers

Once you go through this process of identifying what aspects of your life are either filling you with joy and energy, or sapping your strength, you can make decisions. There might actually be things on the left side (drainers) it would make sense to give up on. There will be others on which you’ll want to loosen your grip and try to live with more peacefully. The fillers will help you do that — you’ll remember who is there to support you, what brings you joy, and where you find meaning in your life. The fillers will provide the images you turn your thoughts to during meditation. They will help you remember the wide open space in front of you, and all of the possibility that exists beyond your fears.