Who’s your Sputnik?

We go through our lives circling, and being circled by, a changing array of characters: parents, siblings, children, spouses, friends and cousins. Our social networks and relationships change with the lifecycle, first one, and then another, becoming more or less important, a few of them constants. These circles of enclosure resemble nothing so much as satellites.

A satellite is a celestial body that orbits a planet, such as Earth’s moon. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into orbit, naming it “Sputnik”. Since that time, the word “sputnik” has become a Russian idiom meaning a special friend or life partner – in other words, a person around whom your life turns, and whose world revolves around you. The staff of the aid organization Partners in Health was so taken with this concept that they gave the name Sputnik to one of their treatment programs in Russia, signifying their commitment to patient-centered care and support.

But the term “sputnik” could be synonymous with any kind of social support. Who are the sputniks in your life? The people to whom you turn in times of crisis, as well as the ones in whom you confide on a daily basis? And for whom are you a sputnik? Which people would you drop everything to help? Whose well-being is vitally important to you?

Parents are like satellites orbiting and protecting their children; and sometimes in later years, that circle turns inside out and children’s lives begin to revolve around their parents. Sometimes we lose someone in our orbit; other times, new friends or spouses join it. We are members of overlapping orbits around other people, our social networks looking like elaborate Venn diagrams. The beautiful thing about a circle is that it can always expand.

Just as Saturn has 53 moons, but the Earth has only one, it doesn’t matter how many people are in your social support orbit if the ones who are there are giving you what you need. That support takes different forms:

  • Feeling cared for and loved
  • Feeling valued and respected
  • Having a sense of belonging
  • Having somewhere to turn for advice and guidance
  • Knowing that there is a safety net of physical or material support

These resources we can tap from our social relationships are powerful players when dealing with stress. The perception of support can either prevent stress from occurring, or be a buffer against stress after it starts. Whether it is someone to listen or someone to give advice, someone who gives a hug or someone who loans you money, someone who raises your self-esteem or someone who stitches up your wounds, support from the people in your orbit keeps you healthier, both physically and emotionally.

The people in your support circle should not be taken for granted. Thich Nhat Hanh writes that investing in people is more important than having money in the bank:

We can get in touch with the refreshing, healing elements within and around us thanks to the loving support of other people. If we have a good community of friends, we are very fortunate. To create a good community we first have to transform ourselves into a good element of the community…We have to think of friends and community as investments, as our most important asset. They can comfort us and help us in difficult times, and they can share our joy and happiness.

During medieval times, many early scientists believed that there was something divine or perfect in the shape of a circle. Is that any less true today? Isn’t there something supremely magnificent about the satellites that slowly rotate around us, keeping us safe?

Taking the slow road on Earth Day

Okay, I know it’s a bit of an oxymoron — driving on Earth Day. But if we assume the drive is necessary, can it be a mindful celebration of nature?

Driving into the city, I have a choice: Take the busy highway and then the congested main street, or make the journey on the slower parkway that meanders along the water, but gets me to the same destination. Today the road less traveled is clearly the better choice.

It’s mid-afternoon with a light rain falling. The road twists and turns, following nature’s path, not mine. Suddenly I am fully awake to my experience. This is not the time for rote driving; rather, the road grabs my attention and demands that I give it its due.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that any time we use an instrument or a machine, we change. We become something else that is a blend of self and machine. He suggests reciting this verse before driving, to make the experience more mindful:

Before starting the car,

I know where I’m going.

The car and I are one.

If the car goes fast, I go fast.

imageI settle into a steady rhythm as I respond to the organic curves in the road. There are stretches where I can go faster, but being forced to take my time around the curves makes keeping a slower, steady pace more fluid. On the main roads, I would have been speeding up just to stop. Here on the parkway, pauses are fewer, the motion is smoother, and I feel calmer as I drive.

I notice places in the creek where trees have fallen and boulders have piled up, chaotic spots that are reminders of wild winter weather. At the same time, Spring is announcing itself with a full-on burst of color. The bright yellow-green of new growth and the intense magenta of redbud trees flash around every turn. I realize what a gift it is to have this way of coming home.

Thoreau wrote that, “There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.” During the thirty minutes I’ve spent on the parkway, it’s been impossible to think about work or worries for very long. Nature has taken over my attention, if only for a little while.

Celebrating Earth Day by driving might not be what environmentalists had in mind when they inaugurated the occasion back in 1970. But before we can care for the environment, we have to notice it, and a mindful Earth Day drive has a way of stirring close observation and appreciation for all that surrounds us.


Wobbling toward trust

Bob Dylan sang, “Trust yourself …If you need somebody you can trust, trust yourself.” Somehow I think he must have known just how much many of us need to hear that.

Reckless personWhen I wobble in tree pose, or can’t bring myself into a headstand in yoga, it’s not just equilibrium or core strength holding me back – it’s lack of trust in my ability to do it. When the anxiety over my recent move took hold of me, it wasn’t because anything was going wrong — it was my failure to trust myself and my strength. When I worry about one of my kids doing something new, it’s not so much about them, but about me not trusting that I taught them well.

According to Psychology Today, not trusting ourselves often evolves out of being hurt by someone or something we trusted. We become afraid to trust anyone again, and we start to question our judgment. From there, faith in our selves begins to dwindle. So how do we rebuild trust in our own abilities, capacities and judgment?

The magazine offers this simple somatic exercise as a first step to restoring trust in yourself:

“Sit or lie down so that you are comfortable and in a safe place.
Now, how can you make it even more comfortable? Get a blanket, a pillow… whatever will make you feel relaxed and content.
Once you are settled, ask yourself: “How do I know this is comfortable?” This might appear to be a silly question, and perhaps even confusing. However, it is an important one in increasing your skills of building trust.
Continue to explore what sensation you feel that you recognize as comfort. For example, you might think, “I do not feel any pain,” “I breath easily,” or “I feel relaxed.”
You might be anticipating that this feeling won’t last, which is true. We can’t control or grasp on to this pleasurable feeling. It’s only important that you are in the present moment right now, not drifting into thoughts of the future or the past. Thinking of the future can create anxiety; thinking of the past can create depression.
Remain aware of any sounds, the temperature, the light, and your physical sensations. Can you let yourself simply enjoy the moment?
You can practice this exercise for as long as you prefer and as time allows you. Just keep checking in with your level of comfort. What feelings indicate that you are comfortable? With time, you may start to trust your feelings again.”

When we were babies, we learned to trust when our needs for food, safety, warmth and love were satisfied. This exercise takes us back to those basics. If I believe that this warm, comfy feeling I’m experiencing right now is real, then I can have faith that it will come again and I will be able to recognize it.

Great Ocean Road_23.1The other thing worth noting about this exercise is that it is very much focused on present-moment awareness. If we think about trust as the flip side of fear, then the inability to trust is all about fear of what the next moment, or the one after, might bring. By staying focused on the present, we only have to trust what we are experiencing in this moment.

Life is full of surprises, dangers, joys, hurts, disappointment, elation, boredom, passion. In order to have the good with the bad, we need to worry less about what’s around the corner and focus more on everything that is absolutely right, right now. As Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, instead of asking, “What’s wrong?”, we should learn to ask, “What’s not wrong?”

“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.

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.

Getting to someplace safe

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.

Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.

Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name

And they’re always glad you came.

The theme song from “Cheers” is the first thing that popped into my head when I started contemplating the idea of having a safe space. A place where “everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came,” appeals to me, and may have had something to do with the popularity of the show during the eleven years it aired on TV.

The studio where I practice yoga is called “Sacred Space”, but I often think of it as a “safe space” for that exact reason. Everyone there makes a point of learning, remembering and saying people’s names. It’s an incredibly simple, yet powerful, way to make people feel welcome and known. Well, of course, you might say, it’s a yoga studio; they’re going to make that effort. Unfortunately, my experience tells me that it is the exception rather than the norm.

What makes a place a safe space? The safety we seek could be physical, mental or emotional. For some, a safe space might simply be a place they feel protected from physical harm. For others, it’s the place where they feel comfortable enough to speak freely. Or it’s the place where they feel accepted and loved unconditionally, just as they are.

Once, when talking with a landscape designer, she told me that people don’t like to sit outdoors with their backs exposed. So she would plan a row of trees or shrubs behind a seating area. In the same way, we feel safe emotionally when we know that someone “has our backs”, supporting us, not leaving us exposed. Who has your back? Is it your family, a friend, a community? How does knowing you have backup change how you go through life?

Sometimes the safe space is where we go when we need to get away from our own negative emotions. The term “breathing room” often refers to a break, or respite, from work or other stressors that are weighing on us. Thich Nhat Hanh, however, recommends that people have an actual breathing room in their homes, a designated place to go when feeling overwhelmed by anger or other strong emotions. He writes, “That little room should be regarded as an Embassy of the Kingdom of Peace. It should be respected, and not violated by anger, shouting, or things like that. When a child is about to be shouted at, she can take refuge in that room. Neither the father nor the mother can shout at her anymore. She is safe within the grounds of the Embassy. Parents sometimes will need to take refuge in that room, also, to sit down, breathe, smile, and restore themselves. Therefore, that room is for the benefit of the whole family.”

A safe space is where people are valued, and have values in common. It’s the place where we are free of judging and being judged, the place where the masks come off and we can be our truest selves. It can be outdoors or indoors, a physical space or a room in our minds; it can be found in the covers of a book or the warmth of a hug, the darkness of a theatre or the stillness of a church, in a community of people or the solitude of nature.

Growth comes from leaving our comfort zones, but it shouldn’t mean leaving them behind for good. I don’t think growth would be possible if we didn’t know we could return to that part of the comfort zone that holds our safe space. When we fail, when we feel rejected, even when we’re just plain tired, we need a refuge. When we’re overwhelmed by life’s ups and downs, we need shelter. Where is your safe space?

Waste in abundance

How much food will you throw away today? Will you even notice it?

The Natural Resources Defense Council, in a new report, estimates that we throw away 40% of our food supply in America every year. Food is wasted at every step in the supply chain, starting at the farm and ending in our kitchens and trash cans. Food now represents the biggest part of the solid waste in our landfills.

Last night, I was congratulating myself on the nice meal I made from ingredients I happened to have on hand – some leftover tomato, farro and onions from my pantry, basil from my garden, and a chunk of Parmigiano that I bought a couple of weeks ago. No waste!

But today I took stock of the food in my refrigerator that I will have to throw away. There is the cantaloupe I bought because my son has recently discovered he likes it – but then he didn’t eat it. There’s the fennel I bought because I needed some of the fronds for a recipe – but I didn’t have a use for the rest of it. There’s the apple someone bought and no one ate – because the summer fruits like peaches and berries are so much better!

As it turns out, fresh produce is the worst food group for waste.

When we personally throw away food, we may only think about the money that we wasted on it. But in reality, the waste is much broader. The NRDC is concerned with the other resources wasted, such as the water and energy to grow and transport it and the pollution caused by its production. They calculate that just a 15% reduction in waste could feed 25 million people a year.

While the issue of food waste is a big one that will require big solutions by government, the agriculture industry, food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants, there are steps that we as individuals can take to reduce our waste.

  • Don’t buy more food than you realistically will eat. People have a tendency to load up their shopping carts because of the bargains offered at warehouse stores, the relatively low cost of food in the U.S., and the convenience of shopping less frequently. But we may have to re-think our ways of shopping to reduce our waste.
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. As portion sizes have increased in recent years, so has food waste (a 50% increase since the 1970s). Ordering smaller restaurant portions or taking home the leftovers will reduce waste there. Then don’t forget to eat the leftovers so they don’t end up in the trash at home!
  • Consider composting if you have a yard. At my house, all of our fruit and vegetable scraps go into our compost bin (along with leaves and grass). Although our county frowns on this because they say the food attracts animals, it is not a problem as long as you don’t put any animal products in the compost. We benefit by reducing our trash volume, and by having rich compost to add to our garden.
  • Get involved with a gleaning group. To glean means going in after a crop has been harvested and gathering the small amounts of fruit or vegetables that remain. Farmers will often invite charitable groups to come in for gleaning after the profitable part of the harvest is over. The produce is then donated to groups that feed the needy.
  • The next time you look in the refrigerator and say “There’s nothing to eat”, challenge yourself to make a meal using what you have on hand, instead of going out to buy more that might just be thrown away.

Finally, eat with mindfulness and appreciation. Thich Nhat Hanh has written, “When we sit down to dinner and look at our plate filled with fragrant and appetizing food, we can nourish our awareness of the bitter pain of people who suffer from hunger…Doing so will help us maintain mindfulness of our good fortune, and perhaps one day we will find ways to do something to help change the system of injustice that exists in the world.”

Stories we tell

Every family has stories – usually a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. Some stories are told over and over, and others get hidden away like skeletons in the closet. But all the stories shape us and our life stories.

Sometimes I stare at the old photos of my great-grandparents, or my dad with his army buddies, and try to figure out who they were. Were their lives mostly hard work and disappointment, or did they experience joy and possibility? How does the answer to that question explain who I am? Did I just inherit my blue eyes and brown hair from them, or does their legacy also include patterns of behavior and ways of looking at the world?

Carl Jung wrote that, “The more intensively the family has stamped its character upon the child, the more it will tend to feel and see its earlier miniature world again in the bigger world of adult life.” In other words, our perspective can be profoundly shaped by our early experience.

People in my family have been farmers, miners, autoworkers, soldiers, teachers and cooks. One was a blacksmith, one a postmaster, and another a mayor. One person has a library named for him, while others lived and died in anonymity. Their stories include poverty, abandonment, infidelity and suicide, as well as pioneering spirit, public service, loyalty and courage.

While I want to embrace many of the values I inherited from them, such as a strong work ethic and sense of responsibility, I sometimes find myself stuck with some of the others, such as a tendency to think small and play it safe – characteristics that probably result from generations who always had to struggle. Can we change our lives enough as adults to establish a broader legacy for our own children? Is it possible to get past the negative self-talk, the family dysfunction, and the habitual patterns of behavior to grow into a more satisfying life while still building on the positive aspects of the past?

Just tuning in and becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings, then being able to label them, are good first steps. In their book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves define emotional intelligence as “your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships.”

Understanding emotions and managing behavior require us to pay attention to them. Sometimes we are so caught up in daily life that we act and react without thought. Keeping a journal (or writing a blog) can help focus the attention on what we are doing and feeling.  Formally practicing mindfulness can also help develop the ability to slow down and pay more attention to our emotional lives. A mindfulness practice can be as simple as sitting quietly and observing the breath for a little while each day. In his book, Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about mindfulness that it “enables us to be in touch with life, which is wonderful in the present moment.”

So perhaps that is the legacy I can give my children: a consciousness of my actions, a smile shared in joy, an awareness of how awesome life is right now. If I can do that for myself, and for them, what stories will they tell?


How we eat alone

“…Food means pleasure, culture and conviviality.” That’s the message behind the Slow Food movement’s Food and Taste Education program. Do we really need to be educated about something that seems so obvious? Apparently so.

Yesterday in the Washington Post, J. Freedom du Lac wrote about a trend seen in both casual restaurants and more high-end dining spots: people who eat a meal alone, but never put down their smart phones. Some restaurateurs don’t like it because they think their food should be the focus of the dining experience, but most are resigned to it. Even those restaurants that have a ban on devices realize that they can’t enforce it.

In the past, solo diners would often take a book or a newspaper with them to a restaurant to avoid the social awkwardness of eating alone. Is the iPhone or iPad any different? Does it represent a need for constant stimulation, and an inability to be alone with our thoughts; or does it mean that we crave contact with other people, even at a distance?

I’m wondering if restaurants that have incorporated communal tables might have found the answer. The concept emerged first in New York City and on the West Coast, but now most cities have at least one or two restaurants where patrons can dine together.  Some people have been slow to embrace it, and some will never like it, but my experience is that it does have the potential to generate conversation and the conviviality that the Slow Food movement teaches. On-line comments indicate that the communal table might be a boon to the solo diner in avoiding the crutch of the iPhone. The web site solodining.com even posts a list of restaurants that have communal tables.

What about the pleasure of eating?  Dining alone may actually give us an opportunity to savor our food and experience it more fully than when we are with others; but because we feel uncomfortable eating alone in public, we tend to rush through it. If we can resist that urge, and incorporate principles of mindfulness to the act of eating, we could be rewarded with a deeper, more satisfying sensory experience.

Jan Chazen Bays has written what many consider to be the definitive book on mindful eating. When she discusses people’s issues surrounding food, she says that “The problem is not in the food…The problem lies in the mind. It lies in our lack of awareness of the messages coming in from our body”. One of the principles of eating mindfully, according to the Center for Mindful Eating, is “Choosing to eat food that is both pleasing to you and nourishing to your body by using all your senses to explore, savor and taste.”

So, the next time you find yourself eating alone, whether at home or in a restaurant, try making your meal more of a sensory experience. Take a moment to breathe. Think about where the food came from, and your connection to the land where it grew, the person who produced it, the path it took to get to you, the people who prepared it and served it to you. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “We can see and taste the whole universe in a piece of bread! Contemplating our food for a few seconds before eating, and eating in mindfulness, can bring us much happiness.”