Mindfulness & Wellbeing

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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Recently I came across these photos taken by Roeselien Raimond, a Dutch nature photographer, showing foxes enjoying themselves in the wild.

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It appears that foxes don’t need mindfulness courses to learn about being in the moment, even in the face of adversity.

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After seeing these pictures, I became curious about Roeselien, the person behind the camera. How did she ever get the pictures? I learned that she didn’t use remote controlled cameras or any other fancy technology. Instead it was a process that required mindful presence and nonstriving. She comments:

“ the harder you try, the more you’ll move away from your goal. If you are too eager, an animal will sense that eagerness and will remain alert. I learned to do as foxes do, just being there and see what might happen. And in the mean time, I just enjoy smelling some fresh air and feeling the sun on my skin.”

What a metaphor for my meditation practice. However, what meaning could it possibly have in the midst of a busy, goal-oriented life?

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Of course we need to have goals and to work toward achieving our goals. Foxes need to eat. Roeselien wanted to get exhilarating pictures. She’s a professional. Her livelihood depends on it. We want the health benefits of a meditation practice and try hard to achieve those results.

Yet I’ve learned over time that one of the most profound ways to achieve my goals is nonstriving. For me this means just being there in the moment, being present, even with unpleasant things, and letting the action develop organically out of wisdom and appropriateness to the situation.

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The results are often very different from anything I might have planned and beyond any expectation I could possibly have had of what would happen.

Meditation is a very direct way to practice nonstriving. When you sit down to meditate, you don’t get to control anything or to dictate the outcome. You quickly discover it’s impossible to control thoughts, for instance. What emerges is an ability to see thoughts more clearly and in the process not get carried away by the thoughts. In this way, mindfulness has been shown to be helpful for conditions like anxiety and depression.

I meditate because, over time, I’ve become more centered and grounded, and more compassionate with myself and with others. I’m able to get over periods of depression and anxiety easier and quicker. I feel more connected to the mystery and wonder of life. All of this happens without striving for particular results.

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It’s about just being there and seeing what might happen. Just being there, for this particular meditation period, or for my life. As I discover over and over, what happens often is totally amazing and totally unexpected.

Building Trust, Turning Toward the Difficult

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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.

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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.

An Authentic Life

This week I’ve been reading a book by Mark Nepo  titled The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live an Authentic Life. He speaks of the struggle to be real, to live our life with a deeply felt sense of authenticity. What a yearning I have to feel connected to that inner sense of meaning. How easy it is for me to lose that connection.

I was talking with a friend this morning about the desire she has to move out of her current job into something that seems more in line with what she really yearns to do with her life. Yet the realities of life, of needing a full time job given the necessity to put food on the table, pay the mortgage and keep the heat on keeps her anchored where she is. I felt her stuckness very powerfully. She has such a gift to give the world and yet the realities of life intrude.

“Before stories were recorded, what happened to the living was told and retold around fires, on cliffs, and in the shade of enormous trees. And it is said that somewhere on the edge of what was known and unknown, a man and a woman paused in their struggles to survive and faced each other. One asked the other, “Is there more to this than hauling wood?” The older of the two sighed, “Yes…and no.”

My challenges are different than my friend’s yet somehow similar. My thoughts seem to focus on limitations, barriers, if only the world were different, if only I were a better person, if I meditate long enough I’ll be a better person and on and on. Always something to accomplish, always some time in the future that things will be better.

“They say that, after a time, the two who paused on the edge of what was known and unknown stumbled into humility. ‘Please tell me, is there more to this than hauling wood?’ the one would ask again. And the more tired of the two replied, ‘No, no. It is all in the hauling, all in the wood, all in how we face each other around the small fires we build.’ ”

What does this mean “it’s all in the hauling”? It’s so easy for me to lose the essence of who I am in the midst of day-to-day life. How can I both survive and thrive?

“It was then they rested, as we rest, when accepting the grace of our humanness. You see, we’ve always been on a journey, like it or not, aware of it or not, struggling to enter and embrace things as they are. And when we can accept our small part in the way of things, when we can build a small fire and gather, it opens us to joy.”

Embrace things as they are? So I never get to live my dream job? Where is the essence of who I am in that?

I stop and breathe. I remember times when I have inhabited completely whatever I was doing, right in the moment with whatever life brought, giving every bit of myself to it. Yes, there is some sense of thriving in those moments, even when the moments are not what I might have wanted.

In my practice I’m present with my breath, I lose it, I come back. That’s just the way it is. My breath is always there, always keeping me alive. It just waits for me to notice. Sometimes I seem to lose touch with the essence of who I am and what I care about most deeply yet it also seems to always be there, just waiting for me to notice.

Sometimes daring to live an authentic life means changing jobs.  Sometimes not. The challenge, it seems to me, is to live that authenticity right here, right now in whatever life brings and in so doing allow space for new pathways to open up, sometimes in strange and unexpected ways.

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

Befriending Self-Doubt

Alone

An “off trail” hike over gargantuan red boulders
dropped in the desert as if by some God.
Filled with trepidation at the suggestion to stray…
yet, afraid to say, “no”.
Scrambling over, under & around smooth edged rocks,
rough & warm in the sun…
trying to keep up…fears of being left behind…
hardly able to take in the surrounding, abundant beauty.
Common street sneakers, like their wearer, not up to the task.
Panic rising, a fist tightening in the gut,
a knot in the throat, dry mouth… dread deepening as dusk approaches,
shadows looming across the boulders.
They seem to delight like young children frolicking…
astounding…and oh, the deep yearning to feel that too.
Alone, terrors haunt.
The fear and the shame of it…keep me silent…
isolated as a desert butte.
And then, around another rock…a sign…the trail.
The safety of stories shared.

Recently, I was reminded of the feelings of being lost in the desert and once again experienced feelings of anxiety and inadequacy as I was moving out professionally into some ‘unfamiliar territory’.  A part of the ‘fruit’ of mindfulness practice in my life is that I am able to recognize these familiar feelings of anxiety and inadequacy and the bodily sensations that accompany them as they arise and bring a more curious and friendly attention to them.  With a gentle inquiry, “What is this?”, and turning toward my body to feel the sensations and where they are arising, I say to myself, “I see you…It’s OK…I’m here”. What arose was a quality of spaciousness within myself to embrace the feelings of anxiety and inadequacy as well as the willingness to share what I was experiencing with my colleague and friend.  The result has been an ongoing creative collaboration on our shared dream filled with joy and more resilience in the face of challenge.

When we learn to  hold the stories we tell about ourselves with more curiosity and kindness, we can begin to touch and remember the wholeness of who we already are.

Being in the Now

To experience the world in the present moment, we need to step out of our mental concepts and use all our senses to directly experience life as it unfolds moment by moment.

Transformation

Does a caterpillar look at a butterfly and say: “What’s wrong with me?” or “I’m so ugly, I wish I could look like that.” I doubt it. A caterpillar lives his caterpillar life moment-by-moment allowing the transformation to happen from within.  Life force simply unfolds naturally, expressing the beauty that has been there all along.