World Health Day: Just in Time

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Today is World Health Day arriving just in time. Initially this post was going to share tips on how to keep your mind, body and spirit healthy: strategies you could apply right now to influence your well-being. However, considering the latest developments of violence in the world, perhaps it would be more effective to share strategies for how we, as a collective, can improve the health of the world.

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 Many people are feeling angered and outraged by what is happening in the world. These feeling arise because they alert us to the fact that something we care about is being threatened; humanity, freedom, equal rights, safety, etc.…. Conversely, it’s normal to feel sadness and fear as well.  All these feelings are normal and justified, and when felt can lead us to action that brings health, safety, and peace to all. But how?

Learning how to interpret the signals of stress can help us align our actions with our values, and strengthen our health overall. We can do this by noticing the signals triggered by stress, how they show up in our bodies and minds, and remind ourselves that our bodies are preparing us for something: to act and engage, tend and befriend, or challenge and learn.

When we experience something that threatens us—physically, emotionally, or even psychologically (like a belief)– our brain sends out a stress response to our bodies. Normally, we view these responses as negative and harmful to our health. However, if we adopt the mindset that this felt condition of stress is helpful, and if we are mindful of how it is presented in the body, we can then choose more effective responses.

For example, when something triggers the stress response in you, notice what is happening in your body: your heart beat may increase, the blood to your legs and arms increases as does your energy, and you become more focused. Notice the physical sensations you are experiencing as well as the emotion by naming it or them. Instead of thinking, “This is stress and I feel anxious. I need to fight or run,” you could think, “This is stress and I’m feeling motivated because this issue is important to me. My body is preparing me to perform. It will give me the resources I need.” And then consider your choices: engage in actions that are aligned with your values; mobilize your energy for good with non-violent protests, serving others who are affected, or volunteering resources that you are able to contribute.  Additionally, you may invest the energy in your body and exercise to build health so that you can contribute when needed.

Another response we can choose is to connect with others through the tend and befriend response. When you are stressed, hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are circulating around your body. However, so is oxytocin which encourages you to reach out to others, receive support and give it as well. Tending and befriending is an innate response in humans, and cultivating this connection can build your resilience- in your mind, body and spirit.  Oxytocin also helps our hearts recover from stress on a cellular level.

Yet another response we may adopt is the challenge and learn response. With this response, when we notice stress is in our bodies, we can be with them and think, “This is stress and I’m curious. What good can come from this? What can be learned? What healthy step can I take next?” Finding meaning or a benefit in a stressful event can help us cope in a healthier way.

Finally, (or perhaps initially) offer compassion, as seen in the traditional Loving Kindness Meditation to the world. Knowing that all beings wish to be free from suffering, offer these words of good will for all:

·         May all beings be safe and protected

·         May all beings be healthy and strong

·         May all beings be peaceful and compassionate

·         May all beings live this day knowing that we are all connected through our human experience. We all wish to be free from suffering.

This meditation has an impact on how you respond to others as well as yourself, with more compassion. What would our world be like if we all meditated with loving-kindness?  Be part of the change and investigate for yoursef.


Getting Centered in a Reactive World

View More: http://angieafmanphotography.pass.us/merryportraitsIt seems that our country and the world is being divided more and more with each passing day. With the political climate being tumultuous, freedoms and rights continuously threatened, and uncertainty of what lay ahead– this is an extremely stressful time. What can result from this stress is overwhelm, overload (of news and information), and loss of health. With a weakened immune system, physical illnesses can creep in, such as headaches, tight muscles in our backs, shoulders and necks, and the likelihood of not being able to fight off a cold or infection.  This increased stress and decreased immunity also affects psychological conditions which can bring on anxiety or depression.

Additionally, this type of stress also increases our emotional reactivity — heightening irritability, intensifying emotions, and sending us on autopilot with emotional reactions, which may then affect our relationships. So, instead of allowing the turbulence of the world to build up stress within you and affect you in negative ways, invest in your own self-care. Taking care of yourself during this time is essential, so that you may be healthy enough to take care of others, and answer any call to action in a healthy way. One self-care solution that not only reduces stress and reactivity, and increases clarity, connection and compassion at the same time is meditation.  The world can use more of these qualities, especially connection and compassion right now.

Loving-Kindness Meditation

Try doing a 5-15 minute Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM) to reduce stress and cultivate compassion, not just for yourself and loved ones, but for the world in general. Loving-Kindness Meditation acknowledges that all beings want to be safe, happy, healthy and live without stress or suffering. It builds the connection of humanity and life by acknowledging the shared experience of existence. Start by offering these wishes to a dear one, then a neutral one, and finally (get ready for this) a difficult one. Be sure to include yourself in this circle of compassion as well. By consistently meditating with Loving-Kindness, you are building your resilience, immune system, the ability to empathize with others, and  take responsive action.  Studies show this type of meditation has a positive effect on vagal tone as well, which is our ability to bounce back after a stressful event.  Dr. Barbara Fredrickson wrote on this type of meditation in her book, “Love, 2.0“.  Check out her guided LKM, or  the guided LKM I offer on this site. Moreover, wisdom teachers all over the globe are encouraging this type of meditation right now, to bring compassion to the world, who so desperately needs it.

Awareness of Breath Meditation

This type of meditation focuses your attention on your breath, and the sensations involved in breathing. Why do this type of meditation? Again, studies show it has positive effects on your physical and psychological health. It reduces the effects of stress, and re-wires your brain– lessening the potential for autopilot and emotional reactivity. Moreover, it brings you back to the present moment, which is the only one we have. Instead of wasting your energy on ruminating what “should have” or “might” happen, focus on what is happening right now. Not only does this type of meditation bring you back to the present moment, it reduces the likelihood of “flipping our lids” in that heated moment (being hijacked by the amygdala– the area of the brain responsible for emotional regulation– which is impulse-based).

On the other hand, sometimes stress and tension can be a catalyst for action. By doing this type of meditation focusing on your breath instead of the stressful issue, once calm and focused you may ask your intuition, “What can I do right now to effectively respond?” Trusting in our intuition is one benefit of meditation, along with seeing choices in a clearer way.  No matter the situation in which you find yourself, this type of meditation has positive effects. There are many guided Awareness of Breath meditations online, such as the ones at MARC (Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA), or the 10 minute guided Awareness of Breath meditation I offer.

3-Mindful Breaths

If you do not have 5-15 minutes to set aside to meditate, try taking three mindful breaths at the time that you need it. This can be done anywhere. Just tune into your body and the sensation of slowly inhaling deeper than normal through your nostrils, for a count of four. Hold the breath for a count of seven, and then slowly release it out through your mouth over a count of eight. Breathing this way three times can trigger the relaxation response, activating your sympathetic system to slow down and reduce the possibility of unhealthy autopilot and emotional reactions.

Choose Your Response

The suggestions above will not fix the world’s problems, but they will allow you to be in a non-reactive space where you may choose a response. And in the words of Viktor Frankl, “In that response lies our growth and freedom.”  How will you let the conditions in the world affect you today? How will you grow? Exercise your freedom, and choose a healthy and effective response, with clarity and perhaps some compassion.  What would happen in this world if all human beings meditated? Perhaps the spread of compassion, cooperation, and love?  Reframing the quote by Gandhi into a question, “How will you be the change you wish to see in the world?” Starting right now, with this breath. Ask yourself this question. And then listen for the answer to arise.


Weighing in on Mindful Eating

heartfood

With International Mindful Eating Day approaching January 26th, what better time than the present to evaluate how mindful you are towards nourishment? If you are like many other Americans out there, you may find yourself mindlessly eating. When we eat this way, we neglect our full experience around eating.   We may grab something on the go and pay no attention to what or how much we are eating. Perhaps you’re multi-tasking; working, reading, watching TV, surfing the Internet or just doing other things while eating.  Without paying attention to the experience of eating, we may overeat, for our minds are not registering what our bodies are doing. After all, it takes about 20 minutes for our brains to catch up to our bodies. Enter the feeling of being over full, and maybe a bit guilty around finishing those cookies, bag of chips, bottle of wine or <insert your vice here>. And then what do many of us do? We beat ourselves up over our choices.

In contrast to mindless eating, when we bring mindfulness to the table, we bring our awareness to the act of eating. We bring curiosity and begin to question our intent for eating. Are we really hungry, or are we looking to comfort or distract ourselves from doing something else, or feeling a certain way? We may notice our tendencies to like or dislike certain foods, as well as the conditioned rules we may have around eating in general. We begin to look at our food differently—noticing even the smallest nuances about our meal; the way it looks in color, texture, shape and density. We tune into the fragrance of our food, or the way it feels in our mouths as we take that first bite and then two more (after the first three bites the intensity of flavor and other qualities of food fade as our bodies adapt). We notice the sound the food makes as we chew. And we give plenty of time towards chewing to experience all we can. After swallowing the food, we may follow our awareness down into our stomachs and notice how it makes us feel. Has that bite made an impact? Remember, each bite adds up. And then we may ask our stomachs and our bodies, “Do I need more?” We ask our stomachs this because it is only concerned with volume; it has no interest in taste or filling an emotional void.  And chances of us not needing more is great, as we attend to how we feel, what we think, and listen to our bodies: this is enough. This is the process of slowing down, pausing and eating mindfully.

So, my questions to you as we approach the International Mindful Eating Day, as noted by The Center of Mindful Eating: Do you check in with yourself regarding why you are eating? Do you intentionally slow down, notice and savor as much as you can about your food, the environment, and how your body, mind and heart respond? Do you bring non-judgement to the act of eating?  What is YOUR experience? What do you want to cultivate with eating mindfully in 2017?

[If you are in San Diego, CA and interested in this subject, consider attending a free workshop on Eating Mindfully . If you want even more information, consider the 8-week course on Eating Mindfully, held on every Friday in February and March of 2017, from 9:30-11am PST at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center and the Balanced Mind Meditation Center.]


Building a Healthier You with Meditation

shutterstock_150843320Is one of your 2017 resolutions or intentions to be healthier? Are you looking to relax and be calmer in life; deal more effectively with the challenges and stressors you are facing; and/or increase your focus and happiness? Then you might want to try meditating. Perhaps your doctor or a friend suggested you give meditation a try, but you have reservations. You are not sure you can meditate. After all, your mind is so busy and active with all the multitasking you do, and clearing your mind of all thoughts is highly unlikely. Or you do not have enough time to invest in meditation because your schedule is too demanding. You might even resist because you do not know where to begin. Whatever your reservations are with meditation, there are things you can do to get started with a practice of your own, starting with addressing these concerns.

Addressing Concerns: The “Too Busy” Mind

Yes, we are a busy and productive society, being rewarded for “doing.” Moreover, we are encouraged to multitask—getting as much done as we can, in as little amount of time possible. This multitasking, which is a misnomer—it’s really switch tasking or stopping/starting the process between two or more tasks– has limitations itself. Studies show that switch tasking affects our attention span, reinforcing our inability to focus for longer periods. This inability to focus is a cycle that perpetuates itself. Switch tasking also negatively affects the quality of what we do, adds more time to get it done, and drains our energy over a period of time. What meditation does for busy minds like this is to help them focus longer on one task, with better quality outcomes. Meditation is mind training, and multitaskers are not exempt from benefiting from this training. In fact, it seems to help them in the end. During meditation, we notice the nature of the busy mind, and when our attention shifts from our focus, we kindly and without judgment, notice the shift and bring our attention back to our focus. This focusing can help us in daily life, recovering from interruptions, and getting things done more effectively and on time.

Addressing Concerns: Clearing Your Mind of Thoughts

What follows from above is that, with meditation, we are not sitting and trying to clear thoughts from our minds. We are simply observing the nature of the thinking mind, and when our focus wanders or shifts– which it inevitably does FOR ALL OF US– we kindly and intentionally bring it back.  Mindfulness meditation is about working with our attention to focus on something in the present moment.  Noticing the shift of attention is the actual practice of meditation. If our mind shifts or wanders 5 to 50 to 500 times, we simply notice, and choose to return our attention back to refocusing 5 to 50 to 500 times. By observing the nature of the mind this way, we are able to recognize that our minds process a multitude of thoughts throughout our day, and we don’t have to be hi-jacked by, or react to a specific thought at that moment. We have the ability to pause and choose how we proceed.

Addressing Concerns: Investing Hours to Meditate

It does not take hours to meditate. One can meditate for that duration, but for beginners, we suggest you start off small and then build on. You can even start with taking 3 deep breaths at random times throughout our day, perhaps when you go through a doorway or transition to another space and role. You can also start with focusing for five minutes each day and increase this time slowly in five minute increments per week.  Just know that meditation is dose dependent; the more you do, the more likely you will experience benefits.

Addressing Concerns: Where to Begin

Start a meditation practice meeting yourself exactly where you are. Don’t wait for an empty schedule to get started. That time may never come. Instead, start by taking five minutes out of your day, like in the morning when you get up, or right before you go to bed. Invest this small amount of time to build the foundation of your practice, framing it as self-care. Consistently practice every week, at the same time if you can. Determine what schedule works best for you, and where you can fit it in. And then do it. Many beginners start with guided meditations to help stay on track, and be reminded of refocusing. These meditations will guide you gently, and without judgement. (Check out this 5-minute guided Mindful Transition Meditation by Merry).  And that is how we suggest you treat yourself as you begin your own practice; kindly and without judgment. And then just do it…and notice what arises as a result.

Beginning a Meditation Practice

1.      In a quiet environment, sit comfortably in a chair keeping your back straight, sitting in a dignified, yet relaxed and stable way (a pillow or towel behind the lower back can support you, as will sitting midway on the seat, with your feet on the floor). Set a timer for five minutes, or follow a guided meditation.

2.      Allow your eyes to close if that feels comfortable, or just gaze downward at the floor, letting your arms rest gently in your lap.

3.      Begin by taking three deeper than normal breaths; breathing in slowly through your nostrils, and out slowly through your mouth—extending the out-breath for a longer amount of time than the in. This begins to trigger the relaxation response in your body.

4.      Now, return your breathing to a normal pattern—not controlling it, tuning into your breath wherever you sense it most strongly in your body. You may feel it at the tip of your nose, as the cool air comes in, or at the ribcage as your chest rises and falls with each breath cycle. You may feel it at your abdomen, contracting and expanding as well.

5.      As you breathe in, focus on what it feels like to be breathing in. What sensations do you notice in your body? What qualities of the breath do you notice? Just observe your experience as you sense it.

6.      When your mind starts thinking, or shifting to other things as minds naturally do, just notice this thinking activity, and choose to kindly and without judgment return your attention to your breath, and the movement of breathing in your body. Stay with it for a few minutes. No need to judge or be harsh with yourself as your mind thinks. Simply return the focus every time you notice the shift.

7.      To help align your mind with the movement in your body, as you breathe in mentally whisper to yourself, “breathing in.” And as you breathe out, mentally whisper to yourself, “breathing out.” You can even shorten it—to “in” and “out” respectively. This can help keep your mind focused on the sensations of breathing in your body, uniting them together as you sit, alert.

8.   End the meditation with the sound of the timer, letting your focus of attention go and congratulate yourself for taking time out of your busy schedule to invest in your well-being. Wiggle your fingers and toes, and bring your awareness to the room in which your body is sitting. Allow your eyes to open gently.

Meditation allows you to work out your mind, as you would your body. Studies show various benefits can be realized by meditating on a regular basis. Know that there are many different kinds and styles of meditation, and the one suggested here is based on mindfulness. Do what works for you, as this is your practice. You will get as much out of it as you put into it.

If you’d like to check out some guided meditations, go to my Resources page or listen to my guided 5-minute Mindful Transition Meditation . Also, a variety of meditation apps are available for smart phones or online. The next blog post will focus on a few of these, such as “Calm”, “Headspace”, “Chill” and “Insight Timer.” Check back soon for more information on these apps, and how they may help you in your practice.

Until then, be well, be merry, and just breathe!


Live This Year By Your Values

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Welcome 2017! Sending out a wish of Loving Kindness to all beings:  In this New Year,  May we all be peaceful, safe, healthy, happy and live with moments of ease! 

So, how do you plan to start off your New Year? With a list of resolutions of what you need to change, or by listing intentions of what you wish to create  in your life this year? Whatever route you take, try bringing your values into the picture, mindfully. They can help guide you at any crossroad you encounter in the moment, when you are trying to decide between one thing or another. Reflect on your values and then make a choice that is aligned with what you hold important, to live more authentically.

Revisit Your Values

Start by revisiting your values. Make a list of your values on a piece of paper or post it, and put it somewhere visible in your workspace or home. Or you can create a note on your phone to bring up at any time. Identify your values, listing them as overall categories: Health, Family, Career, Recreation, Nature, etc…. You can expand these categories with details that fall under that heading. For example, if I appreciate time with family, the value would be listed as “Family,” and under that category I would identify the family relationships that are important to me: mom, daughters, son, sisters, nieces, nephews, etc…. I can also list family rituals that are important to me which involve family members.

Brainstorm Activities that Support the Value

Make another list. Brainstorm acts or activities that you can do to support the value. In my case, with Family as the value, my list of activities that I can do to support or strengthen this may include calling on the phone or video conferencing at least 1x a month, sending a text or email weekly, setting up monthly or quarterly dates to be with those important people, and acknowledging birthdays or other special events.  Think about creative or novel ways for you to support these values. Is there a way to support two or more values with one activity? For example, if I value family, nature, health and physical activity, I may suggest to my kids a hike at the beach or lake. I make sure to remind myself of the main value being supported, so that I don’t have major values vying for my attention.

Fit the Supportive Activities on Your Calendar

Schedule those supportive acts on your calendar. Look at your daily, monthly or yearly calendar and note– what events occur naturally in each month, i.e. birthdays, holidays, special celebrations, etc…? Where might you intersperse a few ideas from your brainstormed list?  Are there better times of the year to participate in certain activities? And, if you need buy in from other people, make sure to give them advance notice to fit it into THEIR schedule.

Reflect on Values When at a Crossroad

When you come to a decision point and need to assess how to spend your precious gift of time, reflect on your list of values to remind yourself of what is important. If the choices do not support your values, what other options do you have? Can you say “no” to something that is not aligned with your beliefs? For example, if my work-life balance is out of whack, and I have an opportunity to spend more time at work, or some time with my family– given family is important to me, I may choose family at this time. Or perhaps I have “self-care time” on my calendar, and a new work opportunity arises. If self-care is important to me, saying “no” to the other opportunity allows me to say yes to my value of self-care. Know that at every crossroad, you have the option to choose.  Try making the choice based on what you hold important, and live in accordance with your values.

Ask “What do I value?” Answer Honestly, and Support Your Beliefs

Bring more authentic living to your days by taking the time to check in and notice: what is important to you? What do you value? What brings you life or joy? In what activities or roles are you involved that you lose track of time? Where does your passion lay? What makes you feel fulfilled? Asking these questions, and then honestly answering them are the first steps. Revisit those values, make room to support and live by them, and then notice how much healthier and satisfied you feel. Make this year one in which you strengthen and cultivate a more authentic you! Do it today… value the gift of this day that has been given to you… your time is now!

 


It’s Time to Let Go!

Time in moments
We’ve hit that time of year again, New Year’s Eve, where you may look back in time and assess your life. You may ask yourself, “What did I do this year to support myself on a healthy journey? How, where and with whom did I spend my time? Did I meet my goals or readjust my expectations? How did I progress or regress during the year?” 

Sometimes in this process of reflection, we get stuck ruminating on how something SHOULD have ended up, or how things SHOULD be right now. This cycle of ruminating may influence how you feel overall, and keep you in that downward spiral. So instead of dwelling in the land of SHOULD HAVE/SHOULD BE, I’d like to invite you to cultivate one of the attitudes we encourage in mindfulness meditation- that of letting go.

When we sit in formal meditation, we are encouraged to let go- of expectations of how OUR PRACTICE is supposed to be (effortless, producing a certain outcome, etc…), how OUR BREATHING is supposed to be (holding for how many seconds, where we are supposed to feel it, etc…), and how OUR MINDS are supposed to be (clear, quiet, not busy, etc…). To support this letting go, we also cultivate acceptance -allowing for our experience to be just as it is. Even if we find our minds wandering numerous times, as they naturally do. By accepting our level of attention- in this case, a busy mind in this moment- we are able to let go of how it should be different. This acceptance allows us to see we cannot control every moment, and that some, if not all, processes need to unfold on their own schedule. 

Moreover, we also see by the power of acceptance that when we get to a crossroad, or decision point, we notice where the mind goes and choose to bring it back to our object of focus (breath, sound, image). We allow for our minds to behave this way as they naturally do, noticing, and then redirecting without judgment.

When we sit in meditation, we are training our minds– with these attitudes. By having a consistent practice, we may find some of these attitudes flowing out into our daily life. We are able to let go more, or find it more natural to let go– of expectations we hold for ourselves and others. We are able to let go of how situations SHOULD be, and allow them to unfold as they naturally would. We are able to see the past as just that– something that has ALREADY happened– which we can no longer change. We may let go of beliefs and rules that no longer serve us. Or let go of relationships- be it friendships or more- that also no longer support us.

Letting go means releasing your embrace, and allowing and trusting in a process to naturally unfold. With this trusting in the natural flow of things, we are strengthening our own trust in ourselves: our intuition, decision making and more.
As you can imagine- meditation does more for us than just sitting still on a cushion or whereever we sit. The attitudes practiced in meditation can overflow into daily life, and bring us back to what we have: this current moment. 
So, as you go thru this eve of the new year, bring into your awareness this attitude of letting go. And then notice what comes next? What arises out of the possibility of not knowing but allowing for the moment to unfold. Let go of the way things SHOULD be and accept them as they are. And then notice how letting go may affect your mind, body and heart. Be with whatever arises– knowing there is a natural flow to this moment, to this life. 

Happy New Year!

Be well, be merry, be you!


Training Your Attention to Focus on What’s Important

shutterstock_338081309As I facilitate mindfulness meditation classes and coach individuals on mindful eating, self-compassion and stress reduction, I’m constantly asked the question, “Which mindfulness program is the best one for me?”  My answer: it depends on that which you wish to focus– the relationship you want to experience differently.  I’ve been asked this question so many times that I wrote an article on it that appears in L’Chaim Magazine this month entitled, “Increasing Your Well-being.” Check it out! But first ask yourself– is there a relationship that I wish to experience differently with: myself, others in communication, food, stress, concentration, relaxation, etc…? If so, perhaps a mindful approach can offer you a different perspective than the one you normally have.

Keep in mind that mindfulness is about attention training. And what we know about our modern world is that our attention is constantly divided and in demand 24/7– as we rapidly shift our tasks (what some call multi-tasking), are asked to be available all the time, and be productive beyond belief. With mindfulness, we bring the intention to slow down, really attend, and recognize reactions and conditioned responses/habits that keep us stuck– from experiencing happiness in this moment.

If you have any questions after reading the piece, contact me. I’d be glad to chat and perhaps look at the current relationship you have with that on which you wish to focus– one that may be out of balance, in need of a refresh, or resulting in reactivity that you experience as unhealthy. Bringing deliberate, focused attention into our lives can allow us to experience greater well-being, and positively influence those around us.

What are you waiting for? ‘Tis the season… to be mindful!