Mindful Movement and Mental Health Part 1

Many people ask how and why do I incorporate mindful movement into my mental health practice and what is it?  Great questions!  To me mindful movement is a mixture of yoga, mindfulness meditations, breathing, and guided relaxation exercises.  I was first introduced to yoga in 2010 when I went to a Yoga Calm ® training for ideas as a School Counselor.  I was working in a difficult and wonderful middle school in SE Portland OR and was in my 7th year.  I was feeling stagnant and stuck in providing the support and relief I saw the middle schoolers needed.  They were a fierce group of kids with stories longer than mine.  These young people were facing violence, poverty, neglect, and racism.  They were fighters both physically and mentally and many were stuck in that fight, flight, freeze space out of a survival need.  They often needed to be on guard and aware of their surroundings to stay safe.  So, how could I help them respectfully drop those defenses in school so they could open up to learning and healthy relationships?  I say respectfully because as a Middle-Class White woman who grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, I had no first hand understanding of what it was like to be in their shoes.  I learned through them and honestly I wanted them on guard out in the community and for some in their homes.  I however, wanted them to learn that they could choose to be vigilant or choose to relax and receive.  Receive support, care, kindness, and an education.

This is where mindfulness and yoga came in.  I started with my small groups and expanded to teaching yoga in the health classes every Friday.  Some students were resistant and that was okay.  I made sure they knew they were in charge of their bodies and the choices they made in the yoga space.  I just asked that they didn’t take away from others experiences out of their nervousness, embarrassment, or understandable awkwardness in trying something new.  We talked about how normal it is to act out or shut down when we feel these emotions.  And what did those emotions feel like in their bodies; butterflies, tightness, hot?  We used the breath or movement to slow down their critical minds to be able to tune into their bodies and make a choice on how to respond.   I was also mindful that there is no one size fits all model, so what is calming for me may not be for them, so I had them explore what was regulating and calming for them; was it moving, sitting, laying, observing, drumming?  I gave lots of options, which is what yoga is all about.  Yoga calm taught the language of saying “I’m not ready for that or I have not learned that yet.” versus “I can’t”.  I loved this because I wanted the students to have a sense of agency in that space, something they did not have in other areas of their life. “The guiding principle of recovery (from trauma) is restoring a sense of power and control to the survivor.” – Judith Herman.  Together as a class and community, we created a routine and mixed music, drumming, games, challenges, and guided relaxations into the classes. 

I further worked to make the classes relevant and to connect the lessons on the yoga mat to their worlds outside of that space, the “big yoga” as we called it.  For example, naming and understanding emotions and making choices on how to respond to them in yoga and in life.  A common one was when we did a balance pose.  We talked about what knocks us off balance in here and in life?  Our inner voice, our friends, worries, fears, these things all distract us and knock us off balance from focusing on the present moment.   We talked a lot about sadness and anger two strong emotions these kids felt.  How do we learn to work with these emotions in a way that is safe and healthy and serves us?  They are intelligent emotions and uncomfortable emotions.  These topics and more came up, I believe because the students felt settled and calm after movement or play in yoga.  This allowed them to dig deep, open up, and tolerate these deeper conversations, their minds and bodies were grounded and safe to have them.   This is when transformation happened, and students learned they could drop their guards and defenses.  They learned to trust themselves to tune in to their environment and the signals their bodies were getting and ask is this a safe place? They didn’t have to be stuck in a space of always feeling unsafe and distrustful, which isolated them.   Most students grew to love that hour each week, as did I.  It was an invitation and opportunity to show up to safe space and relax and receive the support, care, challenge, and kindness from myself and their classmates. 

I am so grateful for this introduction to the powers of yoga and mindfulness that I continue to study it and work to incorporate it in my my private practice with families, individuals, and hopefully someday couples.  Yoga and mindfulness are tools to help us overcome trauma, regulate anxiety and stress, and be present in our lives to experience joy, happiness, and love.  If you want to learn more about the science and biology of these interventions (stay tuned to part 2 of this blog) or check out Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, Reclaiming Your Body by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, The Body Keeps Score; Brain, Mind, and Body Healing of Trauma  by Bessel Van Der Kolk, or any of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books who created Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

In eternal gratitude to the amazing middle school students in Portland OR, who taught me hope, resilience, and strength….Namaste.

Be well,

Danelle

More on Mindful Movement in Counseling: https://www.danellechapman.com/what-is-mindful-movement

How do we Live a Balanced Life in an Unbalanced time?

I often find myself using the phrase “I need to find a balance” or “strike a balance” when it comes to living my life.  What does that really mean and how do we do it, especially when our life or community can feel like they are in turmoil?  We may be striving to find a balance between work and play, exercise and rest, healthy eating and indulging, talking and listening, silly and serious, active and relaxed, present and auto pilot, social time and alone time, to enjoying the present to thinking about what else you need to do.  The list can go on and on.  The work of finding balance, I believe, is pivotal in maintaining an equanimity (mental calmness, composure) that allows us to participate effectively in our families and communities.

A personal example showed up recently for me as our family prepares to move from Portland to Denver.  My son and I have spent the last month with friends expressing gratitude and saying goodbye.  I have worked to sit back and watch and appreciate the way other people love and see my child.  As a parent I often am in the auto pilot role of parenting.  Busy correcting behavior and managing needs.  Sometimes to the point that I forget to find the balance between parenting and sitting back and admiring and appreciating the little person my son is becoming.  By striking the balance between active parenting and stepping back and watching, I can more effectively be present with my son, enjoy him, and relax and receive the gifts of being a parent. 

Another common area that comes up with clients, and me, is how to find balance amidst the current political and social climate of our country?  How do we find a mental calmness when we are inundated with stories and experiences of injustice, some so horrific we feel rocked to our core.  I do not have an easy answer to this other than doing the work to not get swept up in it to a point that we lose our sense of connectedness to the day to day beauty and good that is out there.  Or to lose sight of our influence in small ways.  A smile or a compliment to a stranger can make a difference in a way we may never know.  I often share the starfish story with my clients which has been adapted in many ways.  It reminds me of the mantra I practice when I’m feeling swept up in a belief of I can’t do enough and that is; “Do the good that is right in front of me.” Here is one version of the starfish story;

While walking along a beach, an elderly gentleman saw someone in the distance leaning down, picking something up and throwing it into the ocean.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, picking up starfish one by one and tossing each one gently back into the water.

He came closer still and called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”

The old man smiled, and said, “I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”

To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”

Upon hearing this, the elderly observer commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

The young man listened politely. Then he bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the back into the ocean past the breaking waves and said, “It made a difference for that one.”

I know for me smaller, simpler kind deeds give me the energy to believe all our actions matter.  Furthermore, it propels me to access a more balanced (grounded) state of mind which allows me to stay informed of what is happening in our communities and not shut myself off.  To ultimately be able to respond and participate more effectively in my community.

So, how do you live a balanced life during an imbalanced time?  I recommend finding moments to slow down, pause, check in with yourself.  I realize slowing down can seem like a privilege if your life is filled with numerous stressors that have you in a place of survival mode.  So, meet yourself where you are at, start small, maybe you find that pause in the shower in the morning or for a few minutes before you jump out of bed in the morning.  Ask yourself where are you struggling to show up effectively or from a space of calm or composure?  Is it in your life at work, with family, friends, or in your community?  What are you fixating on or spinning on without forward movement?  What are you ignoring or missing out on by keeping your focus on that area that has you spinning?

“Life is a Balance between Holding On and Letting Go” – Rumi

May you find the balance to step back and see with a relaxed and open heart, to hold on to what matters, and to let go of what takes you away from that which matters most.

Be Well,

Danelle

 

Mindful Movement Practice - Compassion and Self-Care

It is not uncommon to feel a bit tired in the winter months.  Darker days, the adrenaline rush (drama and trauma for some) of the holidays are over, and we can fall into a rut anticipating spring.  For those working in helping professions; teachers, counselors, wellness professionals it is a busy time supporting and providing care for others.  If you aren’t in these professions most of us can think of ways we care for, support and lead others.  The key (or practice) is tuning in and knowing when we are starting to feel drained (empathy fatigue) and tapped out so we can work to recharge and renew!  This is a great time of year for self-care!  Okay, all times of the year are good times for self-care, but winter may be a good time to boost your practices if you are feeling lethargic, cynical, short-fused, or a bit more emotional than usual.  I share below a mindful movement practice that I have taught to clients and in my mindful movement classes.  I encourage you to find a quiet space to sit and reflect on the ideas presented at the beginning.  Maybe have a journal nearby to write down thoughts and feelings that come up as you think about compassion, self-compassion, self-care, resilience, and loving-kindness.  If you are not familiar with yoga, that is okay, you can have a practice of gentle stretching with the guided meditation or just do the reflecting and meditations.  It is your practice, do what feels safe and needed as you courageously turn towards yourself and your inner experiences and practice self-care.  Namaste.

The following practice is broken into the following sections; Reflection, Mindfulness Meditation, Movement, and Loving-Kindness Mediation.

       Reflection - Compassion and Self-Care with Loving-Kindness (Resilience)

As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese zen monk, points out, “Compassion is a verb.”  It is not a thought or a sentimental feeling but is rather a movement of the heart.  As classically defined in Pali, compassion is “the trembling or the quivering of the heart.”  But how do we get our hearts to do that?  How do we “do” compassion? What gets in the way of being compassionate?

 Thoughts on how we do compassion and the barriers:

·       Compassion is born out of lovingkindness (tenderness and consideration towards others and ourselves).  It is born out of the wisdom of seeing things exactly as they are. When we are struggling and in pain confronting and accepting reality is not our instinct, it takes courage, strength, and skill!  Who wants to see the reality of an illness, we fight this reality and this fight can become a barrier to compassion and show up as denial, fear, or sense of overwhelm. 

·       Compassion also arises from the practice of inclining the mind, of refining our intention.  Is our intention to fix?  We only fix things that are broken so when our intention is to fix it is as if we are saying we are broken and our feelings and thoughts are wrong.  This is a barrier for compassion to flow through us. To do compassion we work to have the intention to feel our feelings and experience them, not fight it, but work with it, turn towards it.  In the mindfulness world this is referred to as attend and befriend.  Again We need strength, courage, and wisdom to be able to open so deeply. The state of compassion is whole and sustaining; the compassionate mind is not broken or shattered by facing states of suffering.  It is spacious and resilient. 

·       Furthermore, compassion is nourished by the wisdom of our interconnectedness.  We are all linked, and compassion is the natural response of seeing that linkage. It is caring and concern rather than a feeling of separation into us and them.  When we know we are not alone it is easier to do compassion to open up in this way.  Common Humanity vs. Isolation  https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/

·       Lastly, wisdom of our interconnectedness arises hand in hand with learning to truly love ourselves. We best do compassion when we can be self-compassionate towards ourselves.   The Buddha said that if we truly loved ourselves, we would never harm another.  For in harming another, we diminish who we are.  When we can love ourselves, we give up the idea that we do not deserve the love and attention we are theoretically willing to give to others.

“We all have the same capacity for compassion and for peace.  Our hearts are indeed wide enough to embrace the whole world of experience both pleasurable and painful and with this knowledge comes freedom and happiness.” – Sharon Salzberg

 This to me leads to the idea of resilience.  When we know we can handle it, when we trust that we are stronger than we know, we often can relax. We can more easily let go of fear or guilt (not enough thinking) and truly be with and present in our moments and others.  We grow and learn through these experiences vs. get stuck in the pain or detached from our experience.

 To nourish our resilience, wisdom, and compassion we can practice loving kindness to ourselves and mindfully keep our heart open when we want to.  There is also wisdom in having boundaries.  With mindfulness practice we are in charge of when our heart is open and when our heart is protected.

 As you move through the practice outlined below, I invite you to bring your attention to your heart region both physically and emotionally.  Which poses challenge you to open up, to lift your chest, broaden your shoulders, and lift your gaze?  Which words and thoughts stir your heart?  Tune in to when you are embodying compassion throughout this practice.  Also, you can tune in to when you hug in or turn inward.  Some poses require you to hug in to keep you safe and stable or to take a break (such as childs pose). Some ideas you may not be ready for or want to think about and that is okay.  Practice self-compassion during these moments and be kind, treat yourself like you would a dear friend, child, or pet.  

Check In with yourself – What are your favorite self-care practices?  Complete this statement, Compassion to me is....

Mindfulness Meditation

Let’s begin, start with choosing one of the meditations below.

Sitting Meditation – Compassion for Self and Others (15min)

https://chrisgermer.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Compassion-for-Self-and-Others-16-min.mp3

Or

Self-Compassion and Loving Kindness (20min)

https://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/LKM.self-compassion_cleaned.mp3

Movement

●        Cat Cow

●        Child's Pose

●        Sitting up - wrist exercises (rotating wrists in circles)

●        Mountain – 3 Big Deep Breaths with Sighs if desired….Let it out!

●        Eagle arms – both sides)

 

Sun Salutation(s) – 2-3 rounds

●      Forward Fold (option to use blocks and reminder of slight bend of the knees)

●      Kneeling Lunge (Right leg back)…..Crescent Pose, Warrior II, Warrior II with side angle

●      Plank (on knees as option)

●      Cobra

●      Table Top

●      Downward Dog (Right leg forward)

●      Kneeling lunge….(can change each round with one of these options- Crescent Pose, Warrior II, Warrior II with side angle

●      Forward Fold

●      Upward Mountain

●      Mountain

 

●        Child Pose

●        Cobra – option superman and swimming

●        Upward Dog

●        Thigh stretch on stomach.  Laying on stomach and bending one knee at a time and using strap or hand to hold foot and stretch thigh…careful with the knees.

●        Downward Dog

●        Seated Twists (Legs straight out front, bend right leg and plant right foot on opposite side of left leg by knee, twist to the right, left elbow on right knee….switch sides)

●        Shoulder Bridge (supported – block  or blanket under you on low back, sacrum, or not with legs stretch out one at a time for psoas stretch)

●        Seated Forward Fold

●        Single leg seated stretch

 

●        Rest and belly breathing- hands on belly feeling hands rise and fall on your belly

●        Core work

●        Back Twists

●        Savasana- corpse pose (rest pose) or you can return to a comfortable seat

If lying down, roll to side, pause, gently sit up, and press hands (palms) together at your heart.        

 Loving-Kindness Meditation

I encourage you to again offer words of kindness and compassion to yourself, slowly and affectionately…

 May I be safe.

May I be peaceful

May I be kind to myself

May I accept myself as I am.

“May the light in me, honor the light in you.  Namaste.” - Danelle

 

 Lesson by: Danelle Chapman Counseling & Mindful Movement LLC ©

When Body Positivity Backfires

“Although the trance of feeling separate and unworthy is an inherent part of our conditioning as humans, so too is our capacity to awaken.  We free ourselves from the prison of trance as we stop the war against ourselves and, instead, learn to relax to our lives with a wise and compassionate heart.” – Tara Brach

It is not uncommon in my practice to work with people on judgmental thinking and shame based self-talk.  This thinking often limits growth and leaves people feeling trapped, separate and at war against themselves as Tara Brach states in the quote above.  Most recently this has come up in my office around body image.  I hear (mostly) woman say, “I know I should be positive and accepting of my body….you know body positivity, self-love”  Oh the dreaded “should”.  Most clients smile at me when they say “should” and follow it up with a “I know, I know quit shoulding on myself”.   We smile together.  I love when people catch their destructive thinking patterns, relax with a smile, and do not attach to the unhelpful thought.   I encourage them to turn that should into an “I want” and get curious, what do they need and want and why?  I sometimes then hear “I want to be healthier and feel better in my body…and yes, I do want to weigh less and be thinner.”  They then go on to say how shameful and guilty they feel about wanting this.  This is the paradox, it is okay to feel negative about our body and still ascribe to the body positivity movement and all it stands for.  In fact it is quite normal to have “negative” moments about ourselves, our situation, and our bodies.  The balance is finding space for all the moments.  It is also how we relate to those negative moments and what we do with them that contributes to our well being or not.

The practices of mindfulness and self-compassion teach us to work to attend and befriend all our feelings and thoughts (comfortable and uncomfortable) and not move into that reactive place of fight (this is wrong), flight (avoid), freeze (numb).  The body positivity movement backfires when we think it means we should never feel bad or negative about our body or that accepting our bodies means we cannot work to transform them to a healthier, more authentic, balanced version of who we are.   It is okay to want to lose weight.  It is all about how we go about it.  Shaming ourselves for the way our body looks or shaming ourselves for not accepting our bodies are both toxic. 

Self-Compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy.” – Brene Brown

Acceptance is meeting ourselves where we are at and honestly and empathically seeing the reality of our situation as difficult and uncomfortable as it is.  You’ve heard me say, acceptance does not mean agreement.  So, we can accept our bodies, love our bodies, and still want to change them.  The work is coming to appreciate your body from a holistic and realistic place. It is so much more than how it looks.  I often encourage people to look to their relatives and realistically embrace the body type they were given genetically from their families.  Is your family known for strong powerful legs, curvy hips, big loving arms? This practice helps you to love your body and honor where it came from and not work to change it to an unrealistic version of what it should be.  I also suggest the practice of expressing gratitude for the parts of the body and what they do.  For example, I am grateful for my arms for being able to lift my son and give people hugs.  Gratitude and appreciation are wonderful gateways to acceptance and joy. 

In addition to expressing gratitude and appreciation for your body and its different parts, catching and noting that self-critic builds your awareness, so you can work to honor the feelings and thoughts that come up with being imperfect.  Yes, honor the negative feelings and thoughts.  We then acknowledge we are not alone, everyone has aspects of their body they’re unhappy with.  We can then work to be kind, supportive, and understanding towards ourselves and that is the energy that leads to being healthy.

“With self-compassion, we don’t need to be perfect in order to feel good about ourselves.  We can drop the obsessive fixation with being thin enough or pretty enough and accept ourselves as we are; even revel in who we are. Being comfortable in our own skin allows us to focus on what’s really important: being healthy – and that always looks good” – Kristin Neff

 

 

 

Listen and Live with a Compassionate Heart

"Compassion, a sense of universal responsibility, thinking of others as your brothers and sisters and all human beings as one family -- that is the antidote for fear, hate and jealousy." – Dalai Lama

As a parent, counselor, and human I feel strongly about cultivating and practicing compassion.  I believe this most strongly when I feel cut off from my compassion instinct and overwhelmed and swept away by the enormity of the pain in this world.  I feel empowered knowing that through mindfulness practices I can access it again.   We have the ability to tune in to others in a deep way during times of not just love, but also pain.  Fred Rogers believes the inability to feel, talk about, and manage feelings (ingredients of compassion) disable us;

“Part of the problem with the word 'disabilities' is that it immediately suggests an inability to see or hear or walk or do other things that many of us take for granted. But what of people who can't feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What of people who aren't able to form close and strong relationships? And people who cannot find fulfillment in their lives, or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love? These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.” 
― Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember

The value of getting in touch with our feelings and others and forming close and strong relationships is an ability we all have.  Empathy and compassion are the skills to do this.  Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese zen monk, points out that, “Compassion is a verb.”  It is not a thought or a sentimental feeling but is rather a movement of the heart, an action.  As classically defined in Pali, compassion is “the trembling or the quivering of the heart.”  How do we get our hearts to do that?  How do we “do” compassion? And what gets in the way of being compassionate?

Compassion has been said to be hardwired, innate in both the evolutionary and neurobiological arenas.  It is an instinctual habit that triggers our reward system.  Compassion can get blocked in an increasingly anxiety and fear-provoking world.  We become hijacked by our limbic system and we can get stuck in a protective state of fight, flight, freeze and cut off from our compassion.  Tara Brach describes this beautifully in her talk “What’s It Like Being You?”.

Compassion is a courageous act, it asks you to be with others pain.  Sometimes we can go into a flight response because we don’t want to feel that pain, it is too much.   We reach a point of empathic distress.  We are a sponge about to burst from absorbing others pain and not knowing what to do with it, so we turn or run away.  We can also have a freeze response to this sense of overwhelm and move into a protective numbing or freeze space and we cut off.  Lastly, you can go into a fight response, you have a defensive reaction, judgement, or a anger toward the situation or person.  It is not uncommon to be able to relate to all three of these states.  I saw these responses a lot in my work in the schools.   The inequities and social justice issues provoked anger, sadness, and burnout.  Well-meaning compassionate individuals got trapped in the dilemma of it is not fair, it is too much, and it is.  However, we have to move beyond that pain and transform it into care and connection.  The cost not to is too great and is as Fred Rogers described, a real disability.

I’d see educators experience empathy fatigue.  They’d get stuck in the unpleasantness, they were that sponge with no space to absorb anymore.  The work was to move them to a mindful place, release the pain, create space, and unblock the compassion. I love the metaphor of be the ocean, not the waves.  When we practice mindfulness our body is relaxed and present and our mindset is expansive or larger and we have room for the pain (the waves).  We are then the ocean influencing the waves.  

So, how do we do this?

Practice caring connection.  This can be as simple as building community.  Saying “Hello, how are you?” to our neighbors, shop keepers, mail people, teachers, and truly wanting to know the answer, pushing past the “I’m fine” response.  Or even simpler, smile and make eye contact, see all people as human beings worthy of being seen and treated with kindness even if it is not returned or received, that may be their hurt or cut off from compassion. 

Be curious and inquisitive.  Learn to listen wholeheartedly with your mind, body, and heart.  Hear not only the words, but sense the emotions, and name empathize and validate other people’s experiences.  I teach my parents and couples about the skill of attunement to build trust.

A – Awareness of partner’s negative emotion 

T – Turning toward partner 

T – Tolerance 

U – Understanding 

N – Non-defensive responding 

E – Empathy

Source: John Gottman

Practice mindfulness; pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.   It is natural for our mind to wander and be preoccupied with our own stuff, step out of that endless thought stream and engage with the world around you.  And my favorite, Tara Brach’s RAIN. The acronym RAIN is an easy-to-remember tool for practicing mindfulness and compassion using the following four steps:

R- Recognize what is going on;

A – Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;

I – Investigate with interest and care;

N – Nourish with self-compassion.

Release, renew and reenergize; wring out and release that sponge I mentioned earlier.  Move your body; run, bike, walk, dance, dig in the dirt (garden), practice yoga.  Create art, music, poetry.  Play and be silly! Sing, Laugh, Cry, Yell, whatever you do, let it out!

May we all find the courage to listen and live with a compassionate heart.  Namaste

Main Source: Tara Brach https://www.tarabrach.com/what-is-it-like-being-you/

 

 

 

Anchoring with Imagery

 

I recently got my second tattoo and while my brother lovingly and jokingly says “You are one more tattoo away from a biker gang”, I realize the power of grounding and anchoring in imagery these days.  Now, you do not need to get these images tattooed onto your body to find your steadiness and ease in the world, but it can be helpful to associate your values and intentions with an image.  

Grounding and Identifying Resource Anchors are two mindfulness strategies to move through and not get swept away by big emotions.

Grounding: Sitting comfortably, become aware of the sensations where your feet meet the ground; the weight of your body on your seat; the contact places where your arms or hands rest on your legs. Let your breath be slow and full, and feel the sense of gravity, of belonging to the earth. With your senses awake, recognize that “I am here in this moment, right now.”

You can also ground yourself by touching an object that you experience in either a pleasant or neutral way. It might be something you carry with you such as a stone, shell, pencil, piece of jewelry or meaningful talisman. Or it could be touching the fabric of your clothing or the material of a chair or sofa. Another approach to grounding is to name ten things you are noticing in the room you are in, or name what you are seeing outside.

Resource anchors: These are places to rest the attention that can help collect and quiet the mind, as well as arouse an increased sense of ease. They can be employed separately or in some combination.

·       Be aware of sensations in the body that are neutral or pleasant like the feet or hands; feeling the whole body sitting; or open to sounds and the space they are occurring in.

·       Place your hand(s) gently on your heart, belly or cheek (or a combination of these) and feel the sensations of warmth and contact. You might also hug yourself.

·       Mentally repeat a whispered phrase of reassurance, comfort or love:

“It’s okay sweetheart.” “I’m sorry and I love you.” “I’m here with you.” You might also repeat a set of phrases, as in the lovingkindness or metta practice: “May I be happy, may I be free from inner or outer harm, may I be peaceful, may I be free.”

·       Visualize something or someone that brings a sense of comfort, safety or love - a person who you trust, a place in nature where you feel at home, a spiritual figure or deity. You might imagine a loving being embracing you and/or filling you with healing light. 

Resource: https://www.tarabrach.com/working-with-fear/

I thank my son for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and reminding me of the value of noting what I see in the world and the meaning I can pull from it as a resource, an anchor, a steady point of attention.  He sees things through a beginner’s mind, which is an attitude of mindfulness many of us work to practice.  Beginners mind refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. 

As we all know life is busy, life is full, and if we don’t take the time to pause it races past.  My favorite thing to do is go on walks with my son and watch him stop and look at everything, this is especially grand when we have no time restrictions.  He loves to pick up flowers and stones and give them to me and his Dad as gifts.  Some may say he picks weeds and gravel, but to him they are beautiful treasures.  A beginner’s mind at its best, his lack of preconceptions, openness and eagerness allow him to just experience the moment with the attention of wonder and mystery and in turn cultivate joy.  Such potential in walking through the world this way.  

He loves dandelions and like most children loves when they are dead and he can blow the fuzzy white seeds into the air and make wishes.  This was the inspiration for my latest tattoo, cheesy maybe, but to me it is beautiful.   A reminder life is short, dream and make wishes, and our seeds spread and grow everywhere.  The last one being a powerful reminder that how we show up with others matters in ways we may never know.  We never know if a smile at a stranger plants a seed of hope in their soul or if an extra minute listening to someone plants a seed of being valued in this world.  I want my son to remember this lesson he has reminded me of through the image of the dandelion, now forever on my shoulder.

What images ground and anchor you in what matters most and remind you of how you want to live your moments? 

May you find a steadiness and ease in the images around you. Namaste.

Forgiveness is for the Forgiver

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.  Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Forgiveness is a practice, and a painful and difficult one at that.  It is one we resist because it is so challenging to let go of the anger, resentment, and hatred that we cling to so fiercely when someone has harmed us.  That anger, resentment, and hatred become our shield, our armor.  We ground ourselves fiercely in a stance that no one will ever harm us like that again.  This is a fine stance to take, yet the harm to ourselves comes when it leads to us cutting off love and disconnecting from others and from ourselves.  Meditation teacher and Psychologist Tara Brach teaches us that “When we have been betrayed and wounded, when we are threatened and afraid, holding onto resentment is a way of protecting ourselves.  It is our way of armoring against the experience of raw pain.”

When I work with clients around forgiveness I treat it like a grief process in that there are stages and phases of forgiveness.  The work is in building the capacity, skills, and strength to bring awareness, loving and compassionate awareness to each phase we are in.  It is okay to be angry, it is normal and makes sense, again it is protective.  We need to honor and experience the anger in conscious and safe way.  It is by naming and feeling the anger that it begins to loosen its grip, be released, and we heal.  We can then begin to relax and create the space to trust and forgive.  We practice forgiveness to be open to love.  This is a courageous act, to let that armor down, maybe not all the time, but if we remain locked in our anger and unable to forgive, I agree with Dr. Martin Luther King in that we cannot love. 

In the words of Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, "We forgive for the freedom of our own hearts."  Forgiveness is for the forgiver.  To me choosing to forgive and practicing forgiveness is a lifetime practice or as Dr. Martin Luther King says, a constant attitude.  It does not mean that we become passive to the person who is causing the harm, and it does not mean we condone the harmful behavior.  It means that we do not allow them to have the power and influence over us to shape our worldview and to live in the grips of anger, fear, and hatred.  More eloquently Tara Brach says “Forgiving is a movement of your heart not to carry aversive hatred or blame. That you can care about someone and still create boundaries… Each of you has this wisdom, heart, being place that intuits that there really isn’t freedom in the moments that you’re carrying blame and judgment.”

I can’t stress enough that this is a courageous practice and a practice to come to in your own time, much like the stage of acceptance in the grief process.  Acceptance, like forgiveness does not mean agreement with what happened, nor does it mean that you will feel good or okay.  It does not ignore the harm, trauma, or wrongdoing.  Acceptance is the practice of coming to terms with the reality of what happened.  We forgive, sometimes it is ourselves we are forgiving and sometimes others. To quote Lily Tomlin, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.”  And much like grief there is no end to forgiveness.  We will walk through life being reminded and triggered of the harm that happened to us and we will feel pain.  That pain may show up as anger and an armoring.  This is an opportunity to once again compassionately and courageously practice forgiveness to remain open to love.

Here are some of my favorite resources to guide myself and my clients in this work:

https://www.tarabrach.com/meditation-guided-heart-forgiveness/

https://www.tarabrach.com/rain-forgiveness/

https://jackkornfield.com/forgiveness-meditation/

May you all find the freedom and love in practicing forgiveness.  Namaste.


 

Loving Your Body from the Top Down

“It's like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” ― Patrick Rothfuss

Practicing self-compassion, especially for women when it comes to body image, is not easy.  I work on my practice of having a healthy body image on a fairly regular basis, and the “aha” came for me when I stopped trying to get my body “right” and instead focused on getting my mind “right”.  You see, you can be a size small, and still think you are fat and not good enough.  It is like those funny mirrors at the carnival when you are struggling with body image issues.  What you see is not reality, what you see is the self-image you have of yourself in your head.  So, the exercise of loving your body doesn’t start at the gym, it starts at the top (your mind) and works its way down to your body.

So, how do we do this work?  It really is individual to each person and a good place to start is to think back to childhood.  Much of our self-image is rooted in how we were treated and seen by our early attachment figures, which is often our parent or guardian.  This is where our core beliefs start to form.  The good news is we can challenge the core beliefs that no longer serve us and create new ones.  For me, I received mixed messages growing up.   I had incredibly encouraging parents who complimented me often and always told me they were proud of me and that I was beautiful.  They encouraged athletics and being active (going outside and running around), we ate healthy (the four food groups), and enjoyed sweets and treats in moderation and often, only after we finished our greens.  The mixed message came in watching my mom exercise compulsively, eat not much more than salad, take diet pills, and put herself down for how she looked.   You know that question that makes our friends and partners roll their eyes; “Does this make me look fat?”  That was a common question my mom asked which got me thinking at a young age about the importance of not being fat or being perceived as fat by others.  I wish I could say I haven’t asked this question, and that how I felt about myself wasn’t influenced by how I look or how I think others think I look, but at times it is.  I have learned that it doesn’t matter how the receiver of this question answers it, it matters how I answer it.  So, do I blame my mom for my unhealthy body image? No!  Instead, I have compassion for her and wonder where she learned to view her body and self and practice self-compassion for myself. 

I am a big fan of Kristin Neff and her work on self-compassion.  She outlines three elements of self-compassion and I believe you can apply each element to your practice of learning to love your body from the top down.

1.     Self-Kindness – This is being gentle and understanding with ourselves, especially when we fail, make mistakes, and struggle.  It is also the knowing that making mistakes and having life difficulties is inevitable.  So, when it comes to body image, instead of getting angry at yourself and labeling yourself as “bad” when you ate too much, didn’t exercise, have put on a few pounds, or don’t fit into your favorite pair of pants, challenge yourself to practice self-kindness.  A good measure is to think, what you would say to your best friend if they were going through what you were experiencing? Would you call them a fat, loser?  Probably not, instead you’d take a gentle and encouraging approach.  You may remind them that they are beautiful and that you love them regardless of how they look, and that one extra piece of cake isn’t the end of the world.  You may say, “Your body is amazing and strong; remember that bike ride we took last weekend?”

2.     Common Humanity – This is “recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience - something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.  It also means recognizing that personal thoughts, feelings and actions are impacted by “external” factors such as parenting history, culture, genetic and environmental conditions, as well as the behavior and expectations of others.”  You are not alone!  Here are some sobering statistics from the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders which exemplifies that body image is a common issue on women’s mind from a young age: (http://www.anad.org/):

  • 91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting. 22% dieted “often” or “always.”
  • 47% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures.
  • 69% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape.
  • 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner (Collins, 1991).
  • 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat (Mellin et al., 1991).

The challenge is to not give into the “external” factors and take on the helpless mentality of “I guess I will always hate my body”, “If only mom would have role modeled something different and I didn’t read fashion magazines, I’d love my body”.  The purpose of the element of common humanity is to pull us outside of ourselves, to move past the shame and blame and recognize we are human.  We learned to think and feel a certain way about ourselves because of the influence of “external” factors.  We are not just “weak, wrong, or bad” for learning to think this way, and we can unlearn this unhealthy way of relating to ourselves! 

3.     Mindfulness – “The willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.” This is a healthy mindset to take on and practice a healthy body image.  Like I said from the beginning, the practice of loving your body starts in the head.  So, the next time you put on that pair of jeans and they are a bit tight or you find yourself comparing yourself to your thin best friend, be willing to honestly and courageously observe your negative thoughts and emotions.  We can’t change our thoughts, but we can catch them, check them, and challenge them and work towards changing our unhealthy reactions to them.  One suggestion is to take a deep breath and practice compassionate self-talk when you catch your negative body image self-talk.  Neff suggests:

“This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment?
May I give myself the compassion I need?”

Kristin also has several self-compassion meditations on her website, http://www.self-compassion.org/guided-self-compassion-meditations-mp3.html.

While I know I will never reach a perfect place of loving my body all the time. What I do know is that I have influence over how I think about my body, how I feel about my body, and how I treat my body.  I know that I am not alone in this struggle.  I know that my body is strong and allows me to run, hike up mountains, and practice pilates and yoga on a regular basis…oh and have a baby and still do these things, wow! I have learned to appreciate and compliment my body for what it can do and the experiences it has given me versus how it looks.  I practice loving my body from the top down.

“People often say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  And I say that the most liberating thing about beauty is realizing that you are the beholder.“ – Salma Hayek

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned as a School Counselor

 “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

I’m approaching the end of my career as a School Counselor and as I move through the grief of this transition I feel excitement, sadness, and an immense amount of gratitude for all the lessons I have learned.  I’m a firm believer that we can feel some or all of the stages and phases of grief anytime we experience a significant change whether it is chosen or not.  And sometimes we deny ourselves from feeling them in fear that we are making the wrong decision.  We may ask ourselves why do I feel so sad and/or scared if this is the right or best thing to do? Well, because it is a change, it is new, and there are unknowns and you could fail….it is a risk to make a big change!  For me, I loved being a School Counselor.  I began my career at 24 and have grown up so much in the profession.

After moving through the sadness and fear I find myself filled with peace and gratitude.  Much of this is due to reflecting on all I have learned as a School Counselor, and the appreciation that who I am reflects the people and experiences in my life. 

“As we express gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them” – John F. Kennedy.  I will take these lessons with me beyond the school setting and live them in my roles as mom, wife, friend, daughter, sister, neighbor, counselor, and human.  Thank you.

·       Be Present with your Presence.  Your body language, eye contact, and attention communicate more than words.  And, some problems or challenges do not need thoughts, opinions, or reflections, they just need to be heard, valued, and given a space to breathe.

·       Be Curious vs. Critical.  Being curious keeps you open and connected while being overly critical keeps you closed and disconnected.

·       Value and see everyone, we are a community.  A simple way to do this, learn names, use them, and pronounce them correctly.  We are all connected and we all have value and influence.

·       Do the good that is right in front of you. This is especially helpful when feeling swallowed up and overwhelmed by the injustices, tragedies, and stressors of life. 

·       Don’t get trapped in the dilemmas. When you find yourself complaining, cynical, and agitated more than celebrating, believing, and calm you are becoming a part of the problem….self-care, self-care, self-care.

·       See the good…there is so much good…and let that fuel you through the not so good.

·       The highs are high and the lows are low.  Pace yourself.  And you get to choose how you ride those highs and lows.

May we all be open and grateful to the daily experiences and moments that shape our lives.  Namaste.

 

 

Spring Renewal by Seeing the Goodness

All beings are flowers

blossoming

In a blossoming universe.

—Soen Nakagawa

Spring time is upon us and the season of spring often refers to a time of hope, youth and growth.  Flowers start to bloom symbolizing new life and growth and there can be a sense of hope that the drudgery and difficulties of winter are behind us.   Spring is often seen as a time of renewal, a time to rebloom into our full potential.  I have been thinking about this reblooming and returning to a space of hope, youth, and growth.  For me, it comes from a conscious choice to start to shed an energy that was the opposite of hope, youth, and growth.  I was feeling trapped, defeated, and stuck and found myself attending way to often to those things that fueled those feelings resulting in discontent and unhappiness.  I started my shift out of this by asking myself the question that I often ask my clients.  What do you want to experience more of in your life and how can you create and invite that?

I want, like most of us, to experience more kindness and goodness.  I want to see the goodness in myself and others and the world.  I was in a phase or slump of feeling trapped in seeing the cruelness and injustices.  Consequently my emotions, behaviors, and interactions with myself and others was impacted.  I was cutting off and feeling critical vs. connecting and feeling compassion.  I was falling into the pattern of blaming others for my irritated or agitated mood and interpreting their behavior in a critical “What’s wrong with them?”  lens vs. a “Gosh, they must be having a tough day, what’s going on and how can I help?”  My motivation to get this in check was not just for myself, but also for my son.  I want my son to see the goodness in the world and feel a sense of connectedness from carrying this mindset.  And I of course want him to act out of kindness vs. criticalness or cruelness.  I do not want him to be naive and out of touch with the difficulties in our world, I want him to know how to experience discomfort and pain in a healthy, effective way.  I like any parent want him to find a balance.  And as parents we all know role modeling is the best teaching tool.  So, I began my spring renewal to practice what I desire for him and ultimately myself.  I set an intention to be kind and work to see the secret goodness in this world.  Jack Kornfield introduced me to the practice of seeing the goodness, the beauty of the heart in his book The Wise Heart.  I share the practice he recommends below:

1)       Wait for a day when you awaken in a fine mood, when your heart is open to the world. If such days are rare, choose the best you have. Before you start for work, set the clear intention that during the morning you will look for the inner nobility of three people. Carry that intention in your heart as you speak or work with them. Notice how this perception affects your interaction with them, how it affects your own heart, how it affects your work. Then choose five more days of your best moods, and do this practice again five more times.

2)       After starting a day in this way five times, set the clear intention to practice seeing the secret goodness for a whole day with as many people as you can. Of course, you will find certain difficult people. Save them for later, and practice first with those whose nobility and beauty is seen most easily. When you have done this as best you can for a day, choose one day a week to continue this practice for a month or two.

3)       Finally, as you become more naturally able to see the secret goodness, expand your practice. Add more days. Try practicing on days that are more stressful. Gradually include difficult people, include strangers, until your heart learns to silently acknowledge and bless all whom you meet. Aim to see as many beings as you can with a silent, loving respect.

The practice of seeing the goodness in others is to me fuel for the heart and mind to stay grounded and rooted in what is most important to us.  And for me this practice allows me to repair and renew my heart and mind to face the cruelty and injustice that very much does exist, but not get stuck in it.  Furthermore, it creates and invites more hope, growth and goodness and less fear, stagnation and cruelness.  Thomas Merton profoundly says “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in the eyes of the divine.  If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.  There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed….I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

May we all pause and see the secret goodness and beauty in our hearts and those around us.  Namaste and Happy Spring.

 

 

A Peaceful and Steady Heart

Keeping a peaceful and steady heart in the midst of human suffering is one of the most important practices I can think of during times where we feel shattered, hopeless, and afraid.  We all have or will have these moments of losing faith and struggling to return to some sense of wholeness.  I wish our human spirits did not need to be challenged in this way, yet the reality is they often are.  In our deepest moments of sorrow, we have a choice to respond with compassion or react with fear.

Easier said than done.  This does not mean we can’t or won’t be afraid, get angry, or feel immense pain.  The intent is to tap into our steady, peaceful, and wise heart and find healthy, helpful, and safe ways to feel and express all these emotions.  This is the practice of equanimity.  Jack Kornfield beautifully writes in his book A Lamp in the Darkness that “Equanimity is an attitude of open receptivity in which all experience is welcomed. It’s a way to keep a peaceful and steady heart in the midst of it all.  It is finding a balance between pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame. For example, if we focus only on feelings of love and compassion without a balance of equanimity and peace, we can get overly attached to the way we want things to be. Also, while we can love the world and hold the sorrows of the world in compassion, we also need equanimity and peace to teach us balance with the things we cannot change.

I recently taught a yoga class in which we covered equanimity and peace and after I read the words above, I said “sounds lovely, doesn’t it?”  The challenge and struggle with this is how do we find a balanced perspective and accept that we cannot change, for example, what happened in Parkdale Florida? I can’t answer that question, I still long to believe that while we can’t change that it happened, we can make changes, so it doesn’t keep happening.  I wonder, and I guess hope that if we work individually and with our communities to relate to all the emotions we are experiencing around this event, others like them, or our own personal traumas in a more compassionate and balanced way we will return to wholeness and not stay heartbroken and shattered and reactive.  I know I feel a responsibility to stay open and receptive to all of life’s experiences to promote a sense of safety and peace in this world and not live gripped in a reactive fear place.  How do I do this?  I work to practice mindfulness with an attitude of equanimity.  This is both a simple and difficult practice. 

The simplicity comes in that mindfulness is about awareness and compassion.  The complexity is staying present with compassion while holding in our awareness violence, death, murder, and human suffering.  Our instinct while being exposed to these realities is fight, flight, freeze a protective response.  So, I encourage pacing yourself and finding a balance.  Again, the practice of equanimity comes in finding the balance between pleasure and pain, love and loss, conflict and peace.  I have a quote in my phone from Jack Kornfield, I’m not even sure where I heard it that says, “When we deny our happiness we lessen the importance of their deprivation.”  This reminds me that when I am feeling consumed by another’s loss or tragedy and feel guilt for my happiness to be grateful for my happiness and not take it for granted.  This I hope in some way honors the gravity of other losses and tragedies.  I further think of what the poet Jack Gilbert wrote in his very powerful poem Refusing Heaven “We must risk delight.  We can do without pleasure, but not delight.  Not enjoyment.  We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.  To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”

Equanimity is often further explained with the quote “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”.  We sometimes can’t stop the waves of difficulty from coming but we can work to practice responding from a steady and peaceful heart.  This does not mean withdrawal or indifference which could be the freeze or flight response, again that is a fear response.  Equanimity calls for an acceptance.  And again, easier said than done, who wants to accept that 17 people died senselessly in a mass shooting?  Acceptance does not mean agreement, it means we do not fight the reality of the situation.  We grieve, heal, and respond from a steady present heart vs. a reactive and fearful heart.  We do not forget to practice gratitude and happiness during these times just as much as we do not forget to practice releasing our anger and sadness through tears, advocacy work, and courageous conversations.

“May we find balance and peace, compassion and equanimity, amidst all the things of this world.”

Resource: A Lamp in the Darkness Jack Kornfield.

 

 

 

Feel your Feelings in 2018

I have been tossing around the usual new year blog ideas; goals, intentions, making changes and none of them resonated with me like the skill and practice of “feeling your feelings”.  That may seem like an obvious and unavoidable practice to some, but in my work as a Counselor I am often working with my clients to move out of numbing, avoiding, or feeling traumatized by their feelings and courageously feeling them so that they can heal.  Chris Germer, a well known psychologist coined one of my favorite phrases and reminders; “When we feel, we heal”.  I further want to dig into this practice with you because I was struck by a Harvard poll stating that millennials (those in the age rage of 18-38) are filled with more fear and dread than hope for their future.  Wow!  What will our future look like if we operate from a emotional place of fear and dread?

Tara Brach points out that “While fear is a natural and intelligent emotion, when fear goes on overdrive, we are in a trance of fear that contracts our body, heart and mind. Our resistance to the direct experience of fear sustains the trance and leads to decisions and behaviors that harm ourselves and others. Only by facing fear with mindfulness and compassion can we awaken from trance and reconnect with our capacity for creativity and full aliveness, wisdom and love.”  Furthermore, Brene Brown says “We’re all afraid. We just have to get to the point where we understand it doesn’t mean that we can’t also be brave.”

So, how do we unravel fear, understand it, feel it, and be brave and not paralyzed by it or destructive in our reactions to it?  Fear is what you experience when you are actually in a stressful or threatening situation, it is a present-moment emotional experience.  It is an automatic response to a threat.  Yet we can become conditioned to feel fear as a protective factor even when we are not in threatening situations.  We become in the habit of seeing the world thru a fearful lens.  This may be in reaction to trauma or chronic stress and anxiety.  Our mind and body stays in fight, flight, freeze mode and always on the lookout for the next threat.  So, to unravel and understand it we can practice mindfulness. We name it and challenge the story we are telling ourselves that perpetuates it.  While yes there are scary things that may have happened in your past and may happen in your future, what is happening right now?  Can you pause, relax, and tell yourself you are safe in this moment?  When you do this your behavior is more apt to be intentional, rational, and responsive, driven by courage and wisdom vs. irrational, impulsive and reactive, driven by fear.  

A common fear I work with is loss and death.  When we live in fear of losing the ones we love, being abandoned, facing a illness or tragedy we can miss out on moments of joy and even resist them.  Brene Brown terms this “foreboding joy”.  She describes this phenomenon as “When something good happens, our immediate thought is that we’d better not let ourselves truly feel it, because if we really love something we could lose it. So we shut down our ability to completely enjoy so that we can also shut down our capacity for feeling loss.”  This is not feeling your feelings.  What would it be like to learn to embrace uncertainty, change, grief, and loss so that we can also embrace love, hope, and peace?  I say we need to love hard the ones we love, because it will change, we will lose them and they will lose us.  Think of what you give up and miss out on when you don’t?  Human beings are strong and fierce and resilient.  I witness this time and time again in my work.  So as we enter 2018, let us be brave, unravel our fears and face them, soften our armor, and connect and reach out with love and compassion.

Below are some of my favorite phrases and practices to remind me of the value to feel your feelings and challenge fear:

  • Difficult Emotions x Resistance = Destructive Emotions (Chris Germer)

  • Name it to Tame It (Dan Siegel)

  • “I feel ________” vs. “I am __________.” http://www.drdansiegel.com/about/mindsight/

  • What we resist, persists (Chris Germer)

  • When we feel, we heal (Chris Germer)

  • Label your emotions with calm attention vs. Worried Attention

  • Distract - Relax - Cope

  • Stop - Take a Breath - Observe - Proceed

  • Practice Gratitude (opposite of foreboding joy) By practicing gratitude for what you have you acknowledge the meaning and magnitude of someone else's loss.  Where attention goes, energy flows.  Challenge your fear based lens and recognize and acknowledge the moments and experiences you are grateful for to cultivate a feeling of peace, contentedness, and joy.  This is the energy needed to move through the difficult times.

Links to mindfulness meditations to listen to:

References:

https://chrisgermer.com/

http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/harvard-millennials-fearful-about-future-american-dream-out-of-reach/article/2605615

Daring Greatly Brene Brown

 

Practice Compassion towards Self and Others

“A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest-a kind of optical delusion of consciousness.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” – Einstein

We seem to be at a time more than ever when we are the most connected yet the most disconnected.  Many connect effortlessly via texting, messaging, and social media, and their lives our out there for many to view.  Yet are we really connecting with each other in a way that fuels happiness, life satisfaction, motivation, and mental well being?  I would argue, not fully. 

To give and receive compassion and cultivate its full benefits; happiness, life satisfaction, motivation, connectedness, mental well-being, I feel we need to be present with ourselves and for the most part physically present with others.  Yes, we can cultivate it via technology, but I hope we can all agree that physical touch and proximity are much more impactful than connecting via technology.  It is in these physically present moments where mirror neurons can fire via eye contact and physical touch and lasting connection with compassion occurs.

So, what is compassion and how do we practice it?  Thich Nhat Hanh states “compassion is a verb, it is not a thought or a sentimental feeling but is rather a movement of the heart.”  Further in Pali compassion is defined as “the trembling or quivering of the heart.”  You may have also heard compassion defined as “to suffer with”.  This type of openheartedness can be scary and we may doubt our abilities to be this present with ourselves and others.  And to be honest at times, we may not want to go to this place.  We may be feeling a certain way; unhappy, stressed, anxious, angry, hopeless, sad and these emotions can drain us and cut us off from wanting to be openhearted to ourselves and others.   This is why compassion practices are just that, practices, and practices that are courageous and imperfect.

Kristin Neff is the expert in Self-Compassion and says it is “extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering or giving ourselves the same care and kindness we’d give to a good friend.”  And much like the metaphor around self-care that talks about when on an airplane, if there is an emergency, put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping someone else.  This idea I believe is similar with compassion practices.  We must practice self-compassion before we can fully and honestly give compassion to others.  A favorite quote of mine to exemplify this is “The Buddha said that if we truly loved ourselves, we would never harm another.  For in harming another, we diminish who we are.  When we can love ourselves, we give up the idea that we do not deserve the love and attention we are theoretically willing to give to others.”   Again, remember compassion is a practice and therefore we are not perfectly loving towards ourselves and others at all times.  The practice is to notice, catch, and pause when we are being the opposite of self-compassionate and compassionate towards others.  When we find ourselves being judgmental, cutting off or isolating, or self-absorbed or over-identifying to negative emotions, this is a time to slow down and practice self-compassion.

Kristin Neff outlines three elements of Self-Compassion and has many exercises and meditations on her website for you to try out http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#guided-meditations.

The three elements of Self-Compassion and their opposites are:

1.       Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgement (Fight)

2.       Common Humanity vs. Isolation (Flight)

3.       Mindfulness vs. Over Identification or Self-Absorption (Freeze)

I included the Fight, Flight, Freeze because what helped me with embracing this practice is understanding some of the research behind it.  Often people feel that being kind to oneself is too soft and will not propel us or motivate us to make change.  They misinterpret self-compassion as just accepting the status quo.  Self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves and yes embracing ourselves flaws and all.  It is accepting ourselves honestly as we are.  And acceptance does not mean agreement. 

So, I may be unhappy with my physical health and want to be healthier and using self-kindness vs. self-criticism as a motivator will be more effective.  Research shows that being self-critical actually undermines our motivations.  We tap into our reptilian brain and feel threatened (fight response) and attack the problem and the problem is ourselves.  When attacking ourselves and in that fight response we are releasing cortisol leading to high levels of stress or even depression to deal with the stress.  Self-compassion elicits the opposite response, instead of feeling threatened, we feel safe.  Self-compassion via loving kindness creates the optimal mind state to do our best and change.  It taps into our mammalian brain or care giving system.  This is warmth, gentle touch, and soft vocalizations which release oxytocin and opiates, the feel good hormones.  I always think of how I teach children or pets.  I don’t berate them and criticize them, I often lower my voice and am encouraging to create a space of comfort and safety.  This ideally allows them to feel motivated and willing to take a risk, maybe make a mistake and  ultimately learn and grow.   So, why not turn this practice towards ourselves to support a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset that can leave us stuck.

So, how do you practice self-compassion?  You work to recognize and allow all your feelings and thoughts to rise to the present mind and choose to respond with love and care and encouragement.  My favorite sayings by Chris Germer are “What we resist persists” and “What we can feel, we can heal.”  So, when faced with a failure, insecurity, perceived inadequacy, or sense of suffering work to soften and not resist what is happening.  When you resist and fight it you are more likely to tap into the reactive and often fear based fight, flight, freeze response.  I encourage you to practice mindfulness and get curious, feel your feelings, and heal and change and grow and thrive!

One last great tool is the RAIN of Self-Compassion by Tara Brach

Recognize what is going on.

Allow the experience to be there, just as it is.

Investigate with interest and care.

Nourish with self-compassion.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” – Dalai Lama

 

Reflections on Gratitude and Joy

“When you go to a garden do you look more at the thorns or the flowers?” – Rumi

We are entering the seasons of Gratitude and Joy, we see these phrases all over and yet, how often to we slow down and reflect on if we are truly practicing and cultivating these feelings?  And what do they mean?  How do we know we are grateful and joyous?  “Where attention, goes, energy flows”, so here we go bringing our full attention and awareness to these concepts.

To me and I know many others, gratitude and joy go hand in hand.  A favorite question I have been asked is, “Have you experienced happiness with enough gratitude?”  And when I can answer yes, that is joy!  Jack Kornfield refers to gratitude as one of the eight gates to joy.  The others being; Integrity, Generosity, Trust, Mindfulness and Presence, Connection, Mystery (happiness without a cause- I think of this as wonder also), and Joy in the happiness of others.

Gratitude as a gateway to joy is a practice we can all cultivate.  I agree with the statement that “No matter what you have faced, joy and renewal wait your return” – Jack Kornfield.  It can be easy and normal to get caught up in what Tara Brach refers to as the “If only” mind.  If only I finished all my house projects I’d be happy.  If only I lost some weight or was in better shape I’d be happy.  If only I made more money I’d be happy. If only I had more time I’d be happy. If only my relationship with so and so was (fill in the blank) I’d be happy.  If only I had a different job….you get the point.  Tara goes on to say when we hinge our happiness on things going a certain way we are missing out on being happy in the present moment.  Now this doesn’t mean to not strive to make external changes in your life, it simply challenges you to think about the energy you are using to fuel that change.  Is it coming from a place of inadequacy and criticalness or a place of humanness and kindness?  Is it coming from a grateful place for what you do have vs. what you do not?   I’m a firm believer that the latter fuel is healthier, more renewing and energizing and brings about joy.

Furthermore, happiness research shows that those who are happy choose to be happy, they intentionally turn towards happiness.  This doesn’t mean they do this in the absence of struggle, challenge, or pain.  They make the choice to be happy amidst the struggle, and that is brave and wise.  A way to choose happiness is to savor those moments that bring you happiness and express appreciation and gratefulness for them.  Again, gratitude is a gateway to joy.  Truly concentrate and be present in those moments, firmly lock those moments into your memory by being fully present in them.  My current concentration in joy practice is with my son.  When I’m reading him a book, I work (not always successfully) to focus on the story, his reactions, his warm body cuddled next to mine, his smile and laugh.  These are the moments I want to remember, these are the moments that matter the most to me.  These moments are more important that the do lists and work stressors to get to after our story time is over.  I don’t want to absent mindedly miss these moment, because if there is one thing I have heard the most as I have become a parent it is that “They grow up so fast.” 

So, what are the moments you are missing out on or not fully embracing because you are distracted, stressed, planning, fretting?  Intention and Attention are two words I remind myself of frequently.   One of my intentions is to experience joy and gratitude and to do this, I practice bringing my attention to the moments that cultivate these emotions and choose for moments to be happy.

Here is a great mindfulness meditation to spark your practice by Jack Kornfield “Concentration with Joy” https://jackkornfield.com/concentration-with-joy/

 

Surrendering to the Genuine Practice of Self-Compassion and Loving-Kindness

Talking about Self-Compassion and Loving-Kindness comes easily to me, truly practicing them with open-heartedness, now that is tough part.  I am very proud of my hard-working midwestern roots.  “Work hard, be positive, don’t complain, be grateful, don’t upset the apple cart.”  These are the messages I remember from my youth.  They are not bad, they are great, they have allowed me to accomplish the goals I have set out to accomplish in my life.  The gratitude has given me peace and grown my empathy and compassion skills for others.  Where these messages have become difficult is when “don’t upset the apple cart” leaves me stricken with anxiety when needing to confront a conflict, and when I find myself complaining or feeling the opposite of positive and then feel overwhelmed with guilt and “shoulds” and shame.

It has taken me a long time to embrace that it is okay to not always be happy, that that is not me being selfish or being ungrateful.  Also, that speaking my truth and disappointing others is also “okay”.  While the latter doesn’t always feel so good, I find myself remembering this quote “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time” And that song lyric You see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself.” 

So, what do I mean when I say “surrendering to the genuine practice of self-compassion and loving-kindness”?  I mean not being so rigid in the belief systems from my youth that can leave me resisting and fighting truly feeling my feelings of anger, irritation, sadness, disappointment, resentment, and….you get the point, all those “negative” or “bad” feelings I thought I wasn’t supposed to feel.  I’ve learned that I can feel them and not be self-destructive or lash out at others.  I can incline with tenderness towards the difficult, uncomfortable, and painful feelings.  One of my favorite ways to practice this is a self-compassion mindfulness meditation from Chris Germer called “Soften-Soothe- Allow”. (https://chrisgermer.com/meditations/)

Chris Germer says that by intentionally practicing soften-soothe-allow as a mantra or full meditation “we reverse the instinctive tendency of the body to resist and react to emotional discomfort.  We also anchor our emotions in the body and transform them there.”  This is not only a self-compassion practice, but a courageous practice.  Below is an abbreviated version of what the three words encourage.  I recommend checking out the full meditation at the link above.

Soften – into any sensations physical or emotional.  Open up, create space, relax.

Soothe – practice words of encouragement and kindness to provide comfort to the pain.

Allow – the discomfort or challenge to be there.

I say it is courageous practice because I think of the dharma equation(s) Pain x Resistance = Suffering or Pain x Resistance = Destructive Emotions.  This practice is all about slowing down, relaxing, and opening to allow the pain to be felt and not resisted.  We then authentically move through the event or situation that caused pain, release our emotions, and heal and transform or grow.  The key to this is that it is a “practice” not necessarily a state of constant being.  There are protective factors in the resisting of painful emotions.  For example, when moving through grief.  There is shock and denial, and these stages or phases can be necessary to holding it together after a shattering loss.  It is important to have the skills to regulate, tolerate, and be with painful emotions before jumping head first into them.  So, remember the key to this practice is the loving-kindness and self-compassion which means no “shoulds” in terms of how you are supposed to do it.  Pace yourself, your pace, and if it is too triggering or dysregulating, trust your inner wisdom (your gut) and stop.

As you learn to incline with tenderness towards your pain to heal and grow may this quote support you in that practice; Like a caring mother holding and guarding the life of her only child, so with a boundless heart of lovingkindness, hold yourself and all beings as your beloved children.” – Gautama Buddha

 

 

 

Loss, Grief, Healing, and Transformation

“Awareness may not diminish the enormity of our pain in all circumstances.  It does provide a bigger basket for tenderly holding and intimately knowing our suffering in any and all circumstances, and that, it turns out, is transformative and healing.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Loss, Grief, Healing, and Transformation are four powerful and universal experiences.  Loss is all around us and its impact is unique to each individual experiencing it.  We experience loss when we; do not meet a goal, miss out on an opportunity, age, lose a job, change jobs, move, go through a breakup/separation/divorce, experience an illness or injury, have a loved one with an illness or injury, or experience a death.  This is not a conclusive list; there are other forms of loss.  Loss is often about a change or a shift in our lives which requires us to grieve and accept a new reality.  It is a normal and natural part of life, although not an easy one.  Grief is our reaction to the loss.  Through the grief process we heal and ease into the change and transform. 

There is no step by step way to heal.  However, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has normalized the intense emotions of grief and grieving with her “Five Stages of Grief”.  It is important to note and Elisabeth talks about this in her work that the stages are really just a framework to help us understand the feelings associated with loss.  It is not a step by step approach, work through one stage and move onto the next, it is not linear.  You may experience one stage or all five and you may jump around from stage to stage.   Again the impact of loss and the process of grieving is unique to the individual experiencing it.  There is no right or wrong way to grieve; however, there can be healthy and unhealthy ways to cope.  The five stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance and Elisabeth refers to them as tools to help you become knowledgeable of grief’s terrain and be better equipped to cope with life and loss.  I believe just like the stages healing and transformation are not static.  I believe there isn’t an end point, you don’t experience a loss and then heal and transform, done, instead I see it is process and a practice.

An example of loss, grief, healing, and transformation being a process and practice is in the case of having a loved one experience an illness or accident.  In these situations, the person you love is physically alive, but you go through an emotional loss.  You must learn to live with a new reality, a new relationship with this person.  Maybe they need physical care, maybe they have changed cognitively, and for sure they will need emotional support as they experience their own loss.  And while you may work through the stages in your own way and come to a place of acceptance you may have moments where you are hit with the pain of the loss and are challenged to work through the anger, depression, or denial all over again.  This is not a setback, this is a moment to practice, to allow your feelings and listen to your needs to create a space to heal, grow, and transform.

For more information on the Stages of Grief, I recommend the book On Grief and Grieving  by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler.  Through the process of coming to terms with your loss by turning towards and experiencing the painful emotions (on your own time at your own pace) you may come to that healing place where you feel comfort in your pain.  When that pain is no longer something you avoid, but something you experience as a reminder of the deep love and connection you have for the person you lost, or the strong desire you had to reach a goal important to you, or the passion you had for a lost job.  This is the work and the practice of healing and transforming.

“The pain now is part of the happiness then.” – C.S. Lewis

Connecting to our Wisdom, Our Inner Guide

Who is your enemy? Mind is your enemy.  Who is your friend? Mind is your friend. – Buddha

For an upcoming yoga support group, Reflect, Relax, Renew, I have been exploring the idea of wisdom.  We throw around the word wisdom, but do we really know what it is and what it means to embody wisdom? 

From my readings, the definitions “Knowing deeply how to live” and wisdom as “Your Inner guide” resonated with me as the simplest.  Kelly McGonigal, Health Psychologist, more specifically describes or defines wisdom as "the ability to see what is true in this moment and what is needed in this moment.” She goes on to talk about how “It is the ability to see through the habits of the mind including stress, disappointment, and self-criticism.”  So, what does that mean?  I think it means that we are all born with wisdom, a core essence of who we are.  I see this in my 2 year old son.  He is silly, sensitive, caring, curious, and expressive.  These characteristics guide him in how he explores the world.  Yes, I realize he is not yet reasoning and rationalizing like an adult, but his wisdom is simple, he is all about the moment and what he needs in the moment.  He doesn’t see his emotions as good or bad, simply as communication tools to know what he wants or needs and expresses it.  So, what is it about life that transforms normal emotions and feelings of stress, disappointment, anxiety, self-criticism to habits that pull us away from staying connected to this innate, intuitive wisdom?

I believe Tara Brach, a Psychologist and meditation teacher, touches on an answer to this question when she speaks of thestories that imprison us”.  We frame what’s going on in our lives with a story, we assign meaning to the events in our lives based on how we interpret and evaluate them, and this shapes the experience.  The stories that imprison us are fear based and can keep us stuck in pain and suffering.  More specifically, we have a difficult experience or many or a trauma and it shapes us, it impacts how we think, feel, and act, it shapes our world view.  With anxiety, our story could be that life is unpredictable, not safe, so our thoughts and feelings follow.  And this story can and often does come from a very real place, from events in our lives that involved loss, violence, fear.  What sometimes happens is if we get stuck in this anxiety story our mind becomes conditioned with lots of “what if” thoughts and feelings of tension.  Tara Brach refers to this as a “negativity bias”.  This is when we have experiences that are traumatic or we experience chronic stress or anxiety or depression and we get stuck in a protective habit of keeping ourselves safe and by habitually looking for threats.  This is a part of our survival filtering process to scan for what could be a problem and fixate on it, again to keep ourselves safe.  Tara goes on to say, “we get very loyal to our anxiety, mistrust or vigilance and we can unconsciously walk through life with these fears based stories if we don’t unhook.”

How do I connect this to the practices of mindfulness and yoga?  Well, both are practices that help us cultivate wisdom.  Wisdom gives us the strength and insight to unhook from the stories and habits that are not serving us anymore but at one time kept us safe and helped us survive.  I believe mindfulness and yoga give us the space to reflect, relax, and to reconnect to our wisdom of knowing that we do not want to live a life detached from others in our emotional world or distracted in worry thoughts.  These practices help us get out of autopilot and be intentional.

Chris Germer wrote that we can cultivate wisdom through mindfulness in the following ways and I’ll expand it to include yoga:

1.      Step out of our thought stream and bring our attention to the sensory experience.  -this practice can easily happen in yoga or via day to day mindful moments by bringing your attention to your breath or your movements.

2.      Practice being with discomfort to help us increase our tolerance and acceptance – Discomfort happens physically and emotionally in yoga when we struggle with a difficult pose.  We can also practice mindfulness of emotions and physical sensations from a place of curiosity vs. judgment or awareness vs. rumination.

3.      Disengage from automatic responses; learn to pause, breathe, observe the stimulus response process – In yoga our automatic response to a difficult pose could be frustration and I can’t, through support and encouragement we breathe, refocus, and try again and maybe modify and practice what we can do vs. what we can’t.  Mindfulness mediation gives us this practice as well; a favorite is Stop Take a breath Observe Proceed.

4.      Vehicle to practice moment to moment observation of the minds antics – Again mindful movement allows for the practice of observing with curiosity vs. judgement and learning to observe with space vs. attach with urgency.

5.      Allow us to see how the mind creates suffering – when the mind fights thoughts and feelings with aversion it fuels them and we suffer. Pain X Resistance = Suffering.

6.      Develop Compassion ­– practicing mindfulness and yoga cultivate our wisdom and fuel our compassion, our loving-kindness towards ourselves and our struggles.

I hope these ideas give you the strength and insight to continue showing up fully in your life during both the good times and the difficult.  Maybe, next time you are in a situation that triggers you, get curious.  Ask yourself “what’s the story I’m telling around this?  What is it bringing up?  Can I name the emotions?  Can I remain a kind witness to what is happening right here? And can I tap into my inner guide and see what is true in this moment and what I need?”  Tara Brach wrote “The poet Rumi saw clearly the relationship between our wounds and our awakening.  He counseled, “Don’t turn away.  Keep your gaze on the bandaged place.  That’s where the light enters you.”  When we look directly at the bandaged pace without denying or avoiding it, we become tender toward our human vulnerability.  Our attention allows the light of wisdom and compassion to enter.  This is what I wish for all of you, for your wisdom and compassion to continue to heal you and keep you resilient and hopeful and present.

May the light in me, honor the light in you - Namaste

Sources: Kelly McGonigal Yoga for Pain Relief, Chris Germer Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy, Tara Brach podcasts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nurturing Love by Practicing it

We all wish for and long for love and it is not something that just magically happens, it is something that must be nurtured and taken care of in order to grow and flourish.  I had a wise professor tell me once that he believed people fell into hope versus fell into love.  I think we have an idea of what love is or isn’t from our parents and from what the media presents as romance, but we don’t really know until we are in it ourselves.  My professor believed and I agree, that falling in love and really learning what love is comes later as the rubber hits the road so to speak and our relationships are challenged.  This is when the hard work to stay emotionally connected happens.  I see this happen with the couples I work with and in my own relationship.  When couples are able to trust and be vulnerable, they are able to do the work to really transform their relationship to the next level of intimacy and grow together.  I challenge you to ask yourself, how well are you nurturing and practicing love in your relationship?  It is easy to profess love, but how do you show love for your partner on a consistent basis?

What challenges do couples face that really tests their love and push it to grow and strengthen?  I think it is any time there is an emotional disconnection which threatens the security of the relationship or what Dr. Sue Johnson calls an “attachment injury.” In her book Hold Me Tight, Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.  She defines this as “a sense of betrayal and/or abandonment at a key moment of need that, if not addressed and healed, undermines trust and connection and triggers or fuels relationship distress and partner insecurity”.  This kind of injury can be as traumatic as an affair or during times of stress when you need your partner the most and they are not there for you.  It is especially troublesome when years go by and these injuries have not been addressed in order to be healed.  Ted Huston of the University of Texas did a study and found that when marriages fail, it is not increasing conflict that is the cause.  It is decreasing affection and emotional responsiveness.

Knowledge is power, so I challenge you and your partner to talk about this.  Tell your partner how you need to be loved in the relationship, ask yourself on a regular basis if you are showing trust, kindness, affection and respect to your partner.  Also, learn to assert your needs during times of vulnerability.  Your partner can’t always read your mind so they may unintentionally not respond when you are in need, so learn to ask, and if you are asked, learn to listen and respond unconditionally.  Nurture the love in your relationship by practicing it! 

"We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them - we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare." – Brene Brown Daring Greatly

Spring Renewal from the Attitude of Equanimity

“No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.” ~ Proverb

I thank my yoga teacher, Kimi Marin, for the inspiration behind this blog post.  She helped me ease into my discomfort around admitting to myself I have been feeling quite tired or “blah” for lack of better words for the last couple of weeks.  I have felt a level of agitation and urgency to figure out why I am feeling this way so that I can fix it.  In that striving to fix the discomfort, I felt stuck and this fueled my “blah”.  She talked to me about how spring time is naturally a time that we feel tired because we are getting ready for all the growth and rebirth that comes with spring.  When I thought about it this way from a place of loving-kindness, I felt a sense of relief and calm.  This wisdom allowed me to let go of my need to fix the situation and just let it be. 

It was my spring wake up call to renew my practice of equanimity.  Equanimity is one of the seven states of mind or attitudes in Buddhist psychology that contribute to the development of wisdom.  Specifically, it is an attitude of open receptivity in which all experience is welcomed.  Equanimity allows us to stop trying to fix things long enough to see what is.  “A modern definition of equanimity refers to one whose mind remains stable & calm in all situations.” – Allan Lokos.

So, what will your spring renewal be about?  Whatever it is, I encourage you to approach it from a mental state of equanimity.   Allow yourself to be open to the pleasant and the unpleasant.   By my focusing (or fixating) on the unpleasant, I created an obstacle in my mind that something was wrong with me.    And once I realized I was creating and fueling my own discontentment I knew I could let it go and ultimately change it.

In the deepest forms of insight, we see that things change so quickly that we can't hold onto anything, and eventually the mind lets go of clinging. Letting go brings equanimity. The greater the letting go, the deeper the equanimity. In Buddhist practice, we work to expand the range of life experiences in which we are free. – U Pandita

 

Resource – Mindfulness and Psychotherapy  Christopher K. Germer, Ronald D. Siegel, Paul R. Fulton

Creating Space and Relieving Stress with Mantra

When we are under an immense amount of pressure and feeling stressed our minds are often preoccupied and racing with thoughts and our body and muscles may ache from the tension of holding them tight.   Stress is inevitable. We may have some stressors we can take off our plates, but for the most part we all have responsibilities; family, work, school, and friends. These responsibilities pile up and can become overwhelming and unmanageable. When I talk to kids I often compare mounting stressors to a soda bottle. Every stressor is a shake to the soda bottle. The more shakes the closer you are to blowing your top. We all must find ways to slowly relieve the pressure so that we don’t blow. How do you slowly unscrew the cap to that soda and you control the pressure being released?

How about a mantra? You may suddenly have an image of Stuart Smalley in your head from Saturday night live and be rolling your eyes, but stick with me and hear me out. A mantra literally means a “tool for the mind”. A mantra can remind you to slow down, step back, and create space in your mind to sort out those racing thoughts so you can prioritize and act in a healthy, effective way. A mantra can be a word or a phrase. Match your mantra to your mood and personality. Don’t choose something that seems like a foreign concept or idea to you, such as the Stuart Smalley “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me”. Or maybe you are a humorous person and this is just the mantra you need to distract yourself, smile, and move forward.   Others of you may want a calming, centering mantra such as “Breathe”, “Peace”, and “Relax”. Maybe you want an encouraging mantra “I can ride this out and not let it get to me”, “This situation won’t last forever”. How about an affirming mantra “Each day I do the best I can”, “I’m a good person, not a mistake”? Possibly, there was something a mentor, role model, or someone you admire said to you at one time that got you through a difficult time. Visualize that person and say to yourself what they would say to you.

Whatever the mantra you choose, this strategy is about self-compassion and reminding yourself that underneath your sometimes overwhelming emotions is a caring loving person who is capable of handling stress and distress in a healthier way. Choose to be in control of releasing the pressure in your life, don’t allow it to get the best of you and lead to you blowing your top.

Resources – The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer and The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Workbook by McKay, Wood, & Brantley