Mindfulness & Wellbeing

Home for the Holidays

Holidays can be a difficult time. We go home to our families and old patterns of relating may be triggered which can produce stress and suffering. Mindful self care is a way to approach these moments with more curiosity and compassion for ourselves and those we love.

I-still-want-to-smack-some-

For instance, suppose you’re home having thanksgiving dinner with your parents and siblings and their spouses. You ask for seconds of pumpkin pie and your mother says somewhat quietly but loud enough so others can overhear, “Are you sure you want that second helping? Remember how you struggled with weight in your 20s.”

How could mindfulness help in that situation?

I take a moment to envision myself in the situation. I start by bringing awareness to what’s happening for me which is a way of bringing compassion to myself and seeing clearly what is going on, on the deepest level.

As I put myself in her situation, I’m surprised at the intensity of my reaction. I’m stunned. It’s like someone punched me in the gut. I feel blindsided by her words and so initially I’m shocked and then hurt and angry. I’m embarrassed that she would bring this up in front of my siblings and their spouses and seemingly has no awareness of how that would affect me. I’m disappointed that my mom still sees me as the person I was 20 years ago.

As I look deeper, I realize I really want her to see me as I am now, an adult, married, a competent professional, with good self-care skills. Her statement feels so disrespectful. So I guess in addition to acceptance of me as I am now, what I also want is respect. As I connect, I notice I’m feeling a lot of sadness and hurt more than anger. I really need to give myself understanding and acceptance for my feelings as they are now. As I’m sensing my yearning for understanding and acceptance from my mom, I touch into the capacity to give that to myself. I stop and just pause.

holiday-gathering-dreamstim

After I do that, I become aware of another level in myself, which is curiosity about what might be going on for my mom that she would say something like that. What deep longings might be going on for her that might be behind what she said?

Perhaps she feels some distance from me and my professional life and my competency in my life and even into my married life. We don’t visit often like this so there’s a lot she doesn’t know about me. Or perhaps she doesn’t feel a connection with me as I am today. So I’m wondering if her comments are a desperate attempt to connect with me in a way that she did in the past. She did have a deep intimate connection with me years ago where she felt able to contribute and help me in areas where I was struggling. Sensing this now I’m feeling a shift to a sadness that’s different because being a mother now myself, I can sense that loss of connection for a parent as a child grows into an adult. Perhaps she didn’t know another way to bridge that space with me other than with the comment she made.

So now I’m feeling some understanding and I’m moving into compassion for that loss of the closeness she had at one time with me. Maybe with that understanding I can find a way to communicate with her about how I felt without being judgmental or harsh. I also want to share with her my actual need to be seen and accepted for who I am. I’m also in touch with a longing to find ways to connect that would be meaningful for both of us and that might be a new exploration for both of us.

As I move out of visualizing the situation, I realize it’s so human to have painful feelings and thoughts. What’s important is how we respond to them. Mindfulness helps us to be more aware, in the moment, as the thoughts and feelings arise…and to bring curiosity and friendliness to them like simply saying to our emotions, “I see you”  This seeing is with kindness and compassion for ourselves and for the hurt or frustration or disappointment we’re  experiencing. It’s also a curiosity about what it is we are longing for and care about at a deeper level which may be triggering these feelings. From that place it’s easier to guess what’s going on for others and to communicate without being so judgmental or harsh.

I would like to emphasize that this kind of self-reflection and self-compassion “in the midst”, which might be implied from this post, would be quite unusual.  Just to have the presence of mind to pause and breathe mindfully in the moment would be an extraordinary act of mindfulness.  For most of us, the reflection and self-compassion and empathy come after the fact…often the “fruit” of the mindful pause in the midst.

 

 

Self Care for the Holidays

Walk Slowly (Danna Faulds)

It only takes a reminder to breathe,
a moment to be still, and just like that,
something in me settles, softens, makes
space for imperfection. The harsh voice
of judgment drops to a whisper and I
remember again that life isn’t a relay
race; that we will all cross the finish
line; that waking up to life is what we
were born for. As many times as I
forget, catch myself charging forward
without even knowing where I’m going,
that many times I can make the choice
to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk
slowly into the mystery.

Often we get extremely busy with the fast-paced demands of a job, with taking care of others, or just with day-to-day activities.  External demands can seem overwhelming, especially in the holiday season. When family, friends, parties, and gift-buying, all become too much, it’s easy to let taking care of ourselves go by the wayside.

I remind myself that in this moment, in any moment, I can choose to stop, take a breath, notice, be aware. I can choose to bring my focus back and touch into what I want this holiday season to be about at the deepest level. I can choose to take time to nourish myself, to love and care for myself. In the process I make possible the deep connection with others that I so yearn for and that is the essence of this holiday season.

dreamstime_m_47305293 [mother & daughter play at Christmas]

Ways to mindful self care when the going gets tough:

  1. Becoming aware of being triggered. Especially noticing it in the body.
  2. STOP. Pause. Allowing whatever is happening. Making space for it with a sense of curiosity and friendliness.
  3. Noticing thoughts. Are there expectations? Limited perceptions? Self judgments? Knee-jerk reactions? Remember that thoughts are just thoughts.
  4. Tuning into what you care about, value, long for, or need at the deepest level. Nurture self compassion.
  5. Listening for and guessing what the other person cares about, values, longs for, or needs at the deepest level. Let the other person know you are making an effort to tune into what is happening for them at the heart level.
  6. Speaking your truth. Ask yourself: Is what I’m saying helpful? true? necessary? kind? Does it express what I’m yearning for at a deep level.
  7. Asking for what you need. Keep in mind there are many possible strategies for meeting particular needs.

Learn more about how to bring mindful self care into your life:

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Close Encounter

800px-Airbag_of_Dacia_Logan_after_accident

Recently, I was driving to visit a friend at her horse farm. Traffic was light on the two lane, secondary road and my mind was wandering ahead with concerns about being late. Suddenly the car in front of me veered into the opposite lane. The first car of oncoming traffic narrowly missed a collision, but the panel truck behind struck the car head on. The car bounced back into my lane and came to a stop about 20 feet in front of me. I instinctively braked and pulled onto the shoulder. All of this unfolded in slow motion. It felt like time stood still.

I felt scared and overwhelmed. I thought “I don’t have skills to be helpful in a situation like this”…I also felt very torn and had a sense of ‘should’ and ‘obligation’ to do something. Then I saw many cars had stopped and a number of men were running toward her car. I decided to drive on.

As I drove off slowly, my car came almost parallel to the car that had crashed. I observed the driver’s arm and head slumped out the driver’s window. It was a woman. She had long curly red hair. She looked very young. I couldn’t imagine she could still be alive. Such a close encounter with death, so sudden and with someone so young, was disorienting and deeply unsettling. I felt shaken to the core. How can someone be here one minute and gone the next?

I wanted to get away, yet I stopped about 500 feet down the road, feeling that nagging thought, “I should go back and tell them what I saw”. But I didn’t. I told myself…”they don’t need me… I’m going to be late”. I continued on, feeling a nagging sense of guilt.

I also found myself detaching with a subtle sense that the person was doing something wrong and deserved it. “She was probably texting. There is a reason for this. It could have been avoided.” Later I realized I was rationalizing that this couldn’t happen to me. I was finding things that I wouldn’t be doing while driving which somehow made me feel safer, separate, and not so vulnerable.

By the time I arrived at my friend’s farm (see an earlier blog , “Building Trust, Turning Toward the Difficult”), I was pretty disconnected from my body and the feelings I was having.

Fortunately, the experience at the farm helped me to reconnect with what was happening for me in my body. My ability to be present and value what was arising in body sensations and feelings, i.e. fear and overwhelm, allowed me to value deeper needs although I was not clearly able to articulate them in the moment.

Equally fortunate, that evening I spoke with two good friends who are fellow mindfulness practitioners. They listened as I spoke about my experience that day and reflected back to me what they heard. They reminded me that it is human to blame others when we are confronted with the natural grief over the fragility and vulnerability of our human condition.

I am grateful for the ‘fruit’ of my mindfulness practice over the years which ‘showed up’ for me in the midst of such an unsettling and disturbing experience. Because of my practice I was able to watch and observe the thoughts as they arose without necessarily believing they were true or getting caught in them. This cultivated a willingness to turn toward what was happening, even though it was unpleasant,  which allowed me (with the support of my friends) to respond to a larger sense of what was unfolding, rather than denying or repressing my experience.

Now, somewhat surprisingly, I’m feeling a sense of gratitude for this very real reminder of our shared fragility. I am reminded, once again, that there is no insurance policy that can protect us from this reality, mental or otherwise. I’m left feeling great compassion for the woman in the car (who survived without life-threatening injury) and myself and my fellow humans. I’m much more in touch with the preciousness of each moment of our shared journey…and with the desire to not get caught up in taking our precious, fragile lives for granted.

Building Trust, Turning Toward the Difficult

horse IMG_7150

Yesterday I went to visit a colleague and friend of mine, a clinical psychologist who has been developing a livelihood that embodies her passion…horses. She is renting a beautiful farm that has two barns with spacious, clean stalls and an indoor arena for training the horses and teaching classes. She has a number of clients who board their horses…many of whom have horses which have previously been abused or traumatized.

While driving to her farm, I had a deeply unsettling ‘close call’. I arrived breathless, distracted and tense. I found my friend deeply involved in her very full day of caring for her horses so I just jumped in and shadowed her as she moved through her chores. She described the endless nature of the chores as very grounding and noted that they help her to be in the moment and present with the horses. “They speak but we can only hear if our minds are quiet”, she explained.

She showed me photographs of one of the horses when she first saw him with his coat dull, head low and eyes lifeless after years of abuse. I couldn’t believe the horse before me could have possibly been that horse in the photograph…now with bright, shining black coat, massive and muscular with his head held high yet totally tuned in and curious about his environment and very attentive and responsive to my petite friend who cooed, spoke endearingly and yet firmly if needed.

horse 2 IMG_6916

Soon she wanted me to get actively involved. She encouraged me to use a massage brush with a (big to me) brown, male horse, who had been abused as a working horse out West. She told me the horse would let me know what felt good and pointed out a few areas that he liked where the muscles were still healing. I felt a little intimidated. I had difficulty noticing the horse’s feedback, which she patiently continued to point out to me. Despite being a massage therapist, I was aware of thoughts like, “I’m not strong enough to do this”, “I don’t know how much pressure to use”, “I just came for a visit and she has me working”, “I’m too tense to do this.” etc. My discomfort was painful.

At some point, however, I began to settle into the process, with one hand on the brush and the other on the horse, patting him, talking to him. I began to feel the movement of the horse into the brush, as if asking for more. I noticed how he would extend his neck and curl his lips back while extending his tongue when he was really enjoying the area I worked on…not unlike we humans when the massage is a ‘good sore’. I also noticed I was more in my own body and calmer, the thoughts disappearing. Occasionally, he would touch his nose to places where he wanted more massage.

My friend explained that when horses are abused it affects the musculature from the neck all the way down the spine. Healing involves mobilizing all these micro muscles, which is challenging for them because there is discomfort for them in doing that. The healing process involves building trust so they will be willing to go to those difficult and sore places they’ve learned to brace around to avoid the pain, losing progressively more mobility.

After the horse’s muscles were warmed and loosened with massage, we went to the indoor arena where she asked me to walk my horse around the perimeter of the arena. I noticed how much more present and connected I felt with him now and how much more present I felt in my own body in that time and space. The whole afternoon started to seem timeless.

horse 3

Then she started to lead him through a series of figure eight turns that required him to turn his neck both left and right. The left turn extended the right side which is the difficult side for him. In this process she can see where he is having difficulty in the movement on this particular day. Only after being armed with this important information does she actually ride him to encourage him to gently push the boundaries of what he can do, moving more into the difficult areas, building confidence and trust. I was truly amazed to watch the rider and horse become so seamlessly one, like a dance. She only invited him and he complied to her coos, clicks, snorts (reminding him to breathe) and “good boy’s”.

I had arrived at 1 pm. I looked at my watch and it was already 5 pm. …the time had definitely flown! I felt like a different person than when I had arrived, so much more grounded and present. I was so grateful and expressed my deep appreciation to my friend.

My horse had shared many lessons with me. Working with him, afforded me a chance to practice with my own pain. With him I relearned the importance of the body and connecting with our experience even when it is painful or unpleasant. I experienced on a deep level that turning toward the painful, difficult or unpleasant instead of avoiding is an “effective way through”.

I also saw how our history and experience shows up in our bodies and can take up residence there, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. The paradox is… by bringing attention and gentle awareness to our bodies and what is painful or unpleasant, there is the possibility of change which arises on its own out of that process.

I learned that experience, even very difficult experience, by its very nature changes when we approach it with a curious and kind attention…and I learned that our wholeness is never lost.

If you want to learn more about Dr. Katsamanis’ work, you can go to her website at: www.mariakatsamanis.com

Venturing Out

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Winter (Jean Meier)

Many days of snow and ice,
cold and wind.
I rarely venture out,
until yesterday.
End of winter.
Slowly
warmth returns.
Still ice on the pond.

Breath of Life (Danna Faulds)

I breathe in All That Is-
Awareness expanding to take everything in,
as if my heart beats
the world into being.
From the unnamed vastness beneath the mind,
I breathe my way to wholeness and healing.
Inhalation. Exhalation.
Each Breath a “yes,”
and a letting go, a journey, and a coming home.

Mindful

Last weekend when I was picking my husband up at the hospital and trying to find a parking space, I missed the aisle I wanted to turn on and backed up (unfortunately without looking carefully in my rearview mirror) and promptly backed into the car behind me. Fortunately he was very kind (a doctor) especially after hearing I was picking up my husband.  After exchanging information about our insurance, etc. and driving out of the parking lot into the sunshine, I noticed the sunshine, blue sky and how the sun was reflecting off the snow around the hospital entrance…I felt more peaceful and grateful it was just the car and that everyone was safe and OK.

A poem by Mary Oliver, “Mindful”

Every day
I see or I hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the hay stack
of light.
It is what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

MARY OLIVER from “Why I Wake Early”, Beacon Press, 2002

Stand Within the Chaos

Can you bring to mind a time when someone gave you the precious gift of truly listening to you? Deep into your heart? Maybe it was a moment of deep despair, or just a moment of confusion. Beneath everything, all the storms you carry around on the surface, they saw you. They knew you. They touched your humanity.

Recently I came across this video of Carolyn Mabry. Here’s one experience she describes in the video. It’s a cold, snowy night. She’s standing on a bridge. There’s confusion, people are standing around. Her focus has narrowed to nothing more and nothing less than one person, a person threatening to jump.

I imagine myself on that bridge with her. I feel the cold seeping into my body. I’ve worked on a crisis hotline. I know a little of what it takes to talk to people who are actively contemplating suicide. Yet somehow this seems much more real than anything I experienced in a warm room and a telephone distance away.

I wonder, what would it take to engage with that person on the bridge, at that moment to really, fully, be there with that person?

Here’s what she says about what it takes:

“…this is an example of partnership. We worked together here. He told me. I asked him… We exchanged ideas. I want him to realize I’m on his side… I don’t want to get over this moment as quick as possible at your expense. I want it to come from your inner knowing which I know will come out if I make space for it. ..I think anyone in touch with their own heart and intuition can do it but they must have so much confidence in the person and the fact that there is a place in that person that knows, and respect that place…Respect everything that person has been through, that  brought them to this moment, to believe that they can lead to a  solution, because it’s much easier than struggling with the person. It’s nurturing…It’s the attitude and belief system that have to go with it. The words don’t count unless they do…That’s the thing. be able to stand right within all the chaos and see the stillness of that person and know the answer is there, know there is meaning to it.”

 

Mindfulness and Dementia

I see the tall pine trees, the fleck of color, a cardinal. It makes me think of my aunt, a bird watcher all her life. I remember the simple things. I remember sitting by her kitchen window with the bird feeder right outside. She knew all their names. I never paid close attention. I knew the common ones, sure, but not much more.

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