February 16, 2017

Spiritual Trainer at the Bottom of the Well: Part 2.

Things have been getting intense. We have concerns about our children, our elderly parents, our country. It’s natural to want to push back against the problems, lead with disbelief and anger, or try to avoid the issues altogether. When I think about it, I’m brought back to my 5-year old self, watching Dad excavate our backyard to create a well. Stubborn large rocks and tree roots often blocked his path, initially getting under his skin. But, a true warrior, it was the largest boulders that transformed his angst into a calmer determination. In fact, the biggest boulders seemed to become steppingstones for him to explore his own inner well of purpose and even-keel resolve.
We all confront the barriers in our lives—and we can choose to see them as stumbling blocks and therefore despair, or see them as steppingstones, and get even determined than before. Like a personal trainer hired to increase physical strength, the boulders in our lives can be a spiritual trainer—here to help us hone and chisel our spiritual and emotional fitness.

 

When the blocks appear, instead of “oh crap, I can’t believe this happened,” I wonder what it would be like if we acknowledged that we don’t like the situation, but then asked ourselves, “How can we use this barrier to get stronger? Can we use it as a stepping stone to something greater than initially envisioned?” Just like at the gym, our spiritual selves are best developed during the heavy-lifting phases.
Some spiritual trainers will help you get clearer about what matters most to you. For instance, fighting against discrimination and insisting on dignity for everyone may be an American value you hold dear. By bumping into a roadblock on that path, you get in touch with how much that means to you– and getting clearer on what matters is a good thing. It inspires grounded knowledge, and from there focused action can be undertaken with integrity and principle.

 

A talented spiritual trainer may even compassionately show us the way our fears invite our mind to run wild. Understanding the disruptive power of fear is useful because this is not the first, nor will it be the last time fear will arise. If the anxious mind-chatter has you on the ropes, use it as a signal to pause and draw your attention to that space within you that embodies something eternal, warm, loving. From that connection, you are positioned to cultivate the most valuable mindfulness of all— a mindfulness that you can call upon not just when things are relatively calm, but when things are insanely nuts.
A spiritual trainer worth her salt will also help you identify blind spots in your faith. The one I’ve been struggling with lately is—How much do I trust that Something Bigger and More Powerful Than Any Human is guiding and protecting us? I’ve found myself sleeping with one eye open lately. Recent events have showed me where my faith is more fragile than I realized. It’s also shown me where I’ve taken things in the past for granted, and reminded me of how grateful I am every single day.

 

Dig deep and embrace the boulders. We have more personal grit and determination that we might’ve given ourselves credit for. And we will emerge from our time with the spiritual trainer with more courage, more focus, more gratitude and more grounding.

February 16, 2017

Spiritual Trainer at the Bottom of the Well: Part 1.

As a child in the Middle East, my Dad helped irrigate his family farm with a well in his backyard. So when my little family moved into a suburban New Jersey home in the 1970’s, Dad decided he’d do the same in our new backyard. No permits, no contractors, just Dad and a couple shovels and picks. I’ll never forget that metallic smell of damp soil as he dug and dug with impressive determination. Digging deeper than even he could’ve predicted, moving more boulders than expected, exhaustion began to seep into his bones. As thoughts of giving up took hold, he turned a corner. A loud YES! rang through the summer heat. He couldn’t have been more jubilant that afternoon had he struck gold. He enthusiastically planned a garden of eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and other vegetables to feed our family.
Daddy didn’t create that water. Rather, his task was to clear away the dirt and debris to reveal what was there all along. His steadfast and persistent action, coupled with a healthy dose of faith, granted him access to that precious resource. Our efforts to be mindful, to have peace of mind, are similar to Dad’s backyard experience. We aren’t creating mindfulness or any state of mind; we are simply clearing away that which blocks us from reaching it. What covers it up? For many of us, layers of stress, worry, and distraction. That is why systematically cultivating personal tools to remove the gunk is key.

 

Practicing yoga, sincere prayer, even mini-meditations are some of the instruments that help clear away the fog. Other tools include setting an intention, breathing with attentiveness (especially when feeling irritated), and moving our bodies and minds with purpose and kindness.

 

Even in this moment, you can catch a glimpse of the peace under the anxieties or stress. Close your eyes, lovingly placing your hands on your abdomen, and inhale deeply. Pause at the top of the inhale. Exhale slowly. Nothing in the external world changed just now, but maybe you felt a little more space, a brief moment of peace. It was there all along. And taking any thoughtful action from a place of peace can be exponentially more effective than doing it from agitation. The beauty of these tools is that the more we practice them, the easier it is for our minds to make that our go-to.

November 22, 2016

Yes, BUT

The aftershocks of this election season are still reverberating through our homes. We all know that these campaigns and their aftermath have contributed to intense feelings—misunderstandings, anger, fear, and confusion.

 

I’ve noticed that the only one thing I can really control—my own thoughts—have been hijacked by strong emotion. I’ve felt more anxiety and anger these past several months than I have in the past decade combined. I’ve felt alienated from some of my fellow Americans across what feels like a great divide. I’ve also felt closer to those who “think like me”, but our togetherness is often used to bash those who don’t see it the same way that we do.

 

Ironically, even if we are in service of some of the greatest causes in our country–justice, safety, protection of civil liberties, advancement of economic equality–we can get caught up in counterproductive thinking. As we seek our vision of the U.S., sometimes we embolden our mind’s habits of fear, of resentment, anger, all the while making the peace we crave even more elusive. When we pause, we know that harboring negative feelings doesn’t really help the cause and only squanders our precious energy.

 

“Yes, But.” Yes, But they really are monsters. Yes, But there are practical issues to consider in this political climate. Yes, But we must be angry to get our point across. Pema Chodron calls the “Yes, But” the blind-spot of the human race. It allows us to justify of our anger, anxiety, or whatever.

 

I, too, struggle with the magnetic pull of the “Yes, But”. Its riptide is very strong and convincing. Sadly, the Yes But strengthens my mind’s habit of being pissed off at the crap I really can’t control. When I recognize the Yes, But as such, then I can get out from under it a little more. Instead of using Yes But as the beginning of some justification to stay in the negative, it can be used as a sign to come back to our center.

 

When centered, we can get as much, if not more, done than we can from courting fear and anger. Instead of unintentionally discrediting our perspective because we’re in rant-mode, being calm and still connected to our truth puts us in a genuinely powerful position. Doing so channels our strong feelings into action and activism that is determined, trustworthy, and faithful.

 

Heading into the holiday season, you may encounter friends and relatives who don’t see things eye to eye with you. Along with those brussel spouts, take this with you to the table. Honest listening and understanding– even if you don’t agree with their perspective– is what creates the path to working more constructively towards bridging these differences.

 

While we seek to attain peace, let’s challenge ourselves to listen, speak and act from that well of peace in our own hearts and minds. Through doing so, we lay the foundation for building an even stronger country, help heal the separations, and revitalize a depth of humility and gratitude together. What would happen if you tried this? Use the space below to comment or feel free to email me.

October 20, 2016

A GOOD CRY OVER A BAD ELECTION

I’ve gotten so angry over this election. I’ve been enraged about the things Trump has said, done, and proposed. I’ve been disappointed by many of the revelations that have come to light regarding our former Secretary of State. And I’ve been beside myself as I see streams of hateful words and ideology spring from the mouths of fellow citizens.

 
Awash in confusion and anger, I read some friends’ posts on FB and wonder, Really? I read the newspaper and feel claustrophobic. Except, unlike claustrophobia’s remedy, there is no viable breathing room that could take away that closed-in feeling during this election.

 
I don’t know anyone who isn’t longing for November 8th to come and go. But, truth is, no matter who wins, it won’t solve the emergent problems in our country. The unrest and mistrust that have surfaced during this campaign is stunning. Maybe the system was already broken, yes, it probably was already broken, but the vastness and depth of that seepage blows my mind.

 
This morning, instead of anger, I had a good cry. I cried because our country is so divided, because so many people hate each other’s guts right now. I cried because this isn’t the vision of America that I hold dear to my heart. I cried with the realization that our differing beliefs could incite so many hurtful words and actions. I cried because, by holding each other hostage, we ironically perpetuate the pain we are desperately seeking to avoid.

 
It’s devastating that we have collectively lost sight of the fact that not only are we all Americans, but we are all humans. That we are in this web together, bound more by our similarities than our differences. We all want happiness and peace in our lives. We all need food, breath, and love. There isn’t one of us that doesn’t share the same air or the same basic vulnerabilities.

 
There is a light at the end of this tunnel. That I am sure of. Anger is sometimes necessary because it motivates us to change things, to seed activism. But chronic anger, with few meaningful outlets is a trap. The time to switch gears is now.

 
It’s time to reinstate our faith that we can get through this thing together, even if we disagree. It’s time to refocus our attention from what divides us, to what brings us together.

 

 
We all want the best for our families and our country. No matter who you vote for, now is the time to let more light in through the cracks. Now more than ever, we are called upon to be clear and level-headed and compassionate. And between now and then after November 8th, let us draw upon our hope and determination that our country will not only heal its fractures but will emerge stronger and more cohesive than even before this whole mess started.

October 20, 2016

Feeling Stressed About This Election?

Feeling stressed over this election? I personally have lost sleep over it, lost friends over it, and have experienced a level of anxiety unparalleled since we were placed in lockdown during the search for the Boston Marathon bomber.

 
Going well beyond the typical election, the fear, mistrust, and anger these campaigns have unleashed is unnerving. It chills me to the bone to hear the newly emboldened voices of hate, including the Klan, anti-semites, Islamaphobes, and misogynists, to name a few.

 
And if you’ve noticed that you’re more irritable and on-edge these days, you’re not alone. The American Psychological Association (APA) recently revealed that almost 60% of Americans surveyed indicated that this election is a significant source of stress. No one is immune– Republicans and Democrats alike reported similar levels of stress.

 
The study, however, was conducted in August, well before the Access Hollywood tapes came out. It’s likely that had they surveyed the 3,500 Americans today, they’d find the stress levels have gone up. Way up.

 
Thing is: there is not much we can control in this race. The lack of control over something this important can easily lead any of us to feel powerless, and anxious. We can even feel really angry towards those who don’t agree with our perspective. Add it up, and it’s a recipe for feeling stressed out.

 
So, how do we protect ourselves from getting emotionally banged-up over the next several weeks? How can we handle stress so that it doesn’t cloud our mind with fear and loathing, to quote Hunter S. Thompson?

 
Here are several, relatively easy and low-cost ways to counteract the stress. You’ll notice that none of them has to do with changing anything external. The suggestions below are aimed at helping us manage the one thing that we really can control: the freedom to choose what we think. Even if some of the grown-ups in the room have lost their collective minds.

 
It’s called M.I.N.D.F.U.L.

 
M. Mini-Meditation. Before you get out of bed in the morning, give yourself five minutes to do a quick meditation. Yes, your mind will wander; that’s expected. Gently but firmly bring your thoughts back to a focal point—either your breath, or a mantra such as “peace”, “relax”, or whatever word makes you feel centered. In study after study, including work at UC-Davis by MacLean (2010), meditation has been shown to improve our power of concentration as well as build the “letting go” muscle. This is because we let go of random thoughts and purposely focus our minds on something calming. Five minutes a day. If you don’t have five in the morning, try five when you go to pick up the kids from school, or five before bed.

 

 

I. Integrate a Yoga practice into your life. Restorative yoga, or any yoga that helps you feel calmer. Even ten minutes a day will help release the tightness that settles in the muscles when we get stressed.

 
Pair your home practice with something else that is non-negotiable, like brushing your teeth. Think, after I brush up, I’ll practice for ten minutes. A full class is great too. If you can’t come to one of my classes on a Wednesday or Friday mornings, check out on-line yoga (like www.yogaglo.com, or www.yogatoday.com), or other studios in your area.

 

N. Nap. As in, mid-afternoon, 15-20 minutes. This type of self-care helps us feel more aware and alert, less stressed and according to the National Sleep Foundation, puts us in a better mood. Think of it as an investment in the rest of your day.

 

D. Deep breaths. Inhale deeply. Exhale slowly. This is so good in terms of accessing the relaxation response. Among other things, deep breathing activates the vagus nerve, which helps switch the nervous system from fight/flight/freeze to a more relaxed awareness. Additionally, it boosts our immune system and releases anti-stress enzymes. Do it anytime.

 

F. Friend. Treat yourself like you would a good friend. I’d been seeking media info on this campaign the way a junkie seeks a fix. Kind of addictive. But, it didn’t help me feel secure, or peaceful, or happy. Instead, my fear-based-news-obsession revved me up. Treating myself the way I would treat a good friend means I’d encourage myself to get off the computer and get some fresh air, take a walk, eat something nourishing.
This thinking is consistent with the APA’s suggestion to limit exposure to media coverage during this election. It’s like breaking a habit. And worth it: Selectively attending to the news can have a powerfully positive effect on us and our families.

 

U. Unselfish acts of charity. There is substantial evidence, including work by Konrath (2011), that altruistic behaviors are linked to better health outcomes. Giving away your time or money honors the fact that, as the Dali Llama suggests, we are all interconnected through our vulnerabilities and our wish for happiness. This in and of itself can have a soothing effect on the nervous system.

 

L. Laughter. Laughing releases good-feeling hormones, such as dopamine, endorphins and nitric oxide. These are the same hormones that not only combat aging, but also help us feel less stressed. So, grab an old comedy that you love, or a funny friend that you love, or listen to The Dean Obeidallah Show on Sirius XM—something, anything that makes you chuckle. Some swear by Laughing Yoga; if you try that, let me know what you think.

 

To de-stress, you needn’t do all of these at once. Think of this list as a set of choices that you can pick and choose from when you’re stressed about this election, or stressed about anything, really.

 

Reach for the one that comes to your mind first. The more we drop down and listen to our internal messages, the more we access our own innate wisdom. As this election has undermined trust at a national level, cultivating a deeper trust of our own mind and body is vital to making it through this month unscathed.

 

 

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