Yesterday, I was fortunate to attend A Day of Practice with master teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn in Los Angeles through Insight LA. For those who don’t know him, Jon Kabat-Zinn is the father of mindfulness in the west, as he secularized this ancient 3,000-year-old practice and integrated it into the seminal Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program and clinic he founded in the late 1970’s. He is one of the main proponents in bringing mindfulness to as many sectors of our society as possible, to transform the way we relate to pain, stress, our minds, our emotions and each other.
On this practice day, I had the opportunity to deepen my own practice, choosing to come back to the present moment repeatedly, and see things (thoughts, emotions, situations, people, memories) for what they are, and not what my mind and story say they are. What I walked away with was the reminder that:
life itself is the real curriculum, the continuous meditation.
It is in our daily lives that we are offered moments of choice, where we can choose to wake up and notice what our minds are telling us, how we are feeling inside and out, and notice the richness of life unfolding before our eyes. In that unfolding, we can find opportunities to learn, not just about whatever the subject is, but learn more about ourselves and perhaps tap into and trust our inner wisdom and being. This is the power of waking up. Either on the cushion or off the cushion, the real power is in our awareness and choice. This is the power of mindfulness.
The curriculum that unfolds in life generally surrounds relating a healthy way. For example, relating to those important people in your life. The relationships between you and your parents, children, family members, friends and, of course, yourself are ripe for investigating conditioned reactions in any situation. How do you relate to another? Do you bring a bias with you before interacting? Do you anticipate one of the MANY ways of how the other MAY respond? Are you listening to what the other has to say fully before offering a response, or are you conjuring up what you will say before the last word leaves their lips?
How might attending to your conversations with a full heart and perhaps a beginner’s mind affect the dialogue and relationship? Test it out. With the next interaction you have, try stopping and pausing before reacting. End the multi-tasking, and engage with your presence to let the person you are conversing with know that they have your full attention. And then open your awareness. Hear what is being said. Observe body language. Tune into the moment and be curious. Reiterate back to confirm what you possibly heard. And then listen to the wisdom that arises in you (your intuition), and respond consciously. This simple act is not so simple to do. It takes commitment to direct your attention, and give yourself over to the moment and all that may arise, naturally. Many times, we want control over things: conversations, processes, and outcomes to name a few. What would happen if we gave the moment and the other person our full attention, and observe as a scientist would, what is happening outside and within?
So, sometime in your day today, ask yourself “What lessons may I learn from the curriculum of life? What choices will present themselves? How will I relate? Will I react on autopilot, or can I pause, disrupt how I normally react, and intentionally choose my response? Can I hear and see things clearly, with curiosity and without expectations or biases? How might these lessons affect my life and the people with whom I interact?” Investigate and then sit back, observe and allow your wisdom to surface. There is nothing to lose and potentially so much to gain. What will you choose? How will you relate? How will you respond?
To end this post, I’d like to share wise words that I was recently reminded of, from Arianna Huffington. Some food for thought for the curriculum of life:
“We have little power to choose what happens, but we have complete power over how we respond.”
Check out the guest blog post I penned this week for A2Z Healing Toolbox.com . This is a GREAT resource for anyone experiencing any type of grief, loss, trauma and transition.
Whatever the grief is, know that comparing your grief with someone else does not help. Making it smaller than it is, or larger than it is does not serve you in dealing with it. Check out this website to find tools that may help you work through whatever it is that you need to work through. And know that you are not alone!
So much going on this month of May. Beginning with the most important (in my book): National Mental Health Awareness Month!
Why is it that our society cares more about how we look and function on the outside than how we feel and function on the inside? Just look around at the media these days that tell us how we should look and what we should have. The truth is mental health is just as important, if not more, than physical health and beauty. After all, wasn’t it Gandhi who said:
- “Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
It All Starts with Your Thoughts
So it all starts with our thoughts, but those are some of the last things we give attention to, or conversely, we give them too much attention and get wrapped up in rumination. We begin thinking too much of the past and what I “should have” done, or thinking too much about the future and all the possibilities of what will happen, that we lose the one moment we have, the one in the present. The bottom line is that we are either oblivious to our own mental health and “not noticing”, or we exhaust ourselves from over identification. Into which realm do you fall?
A valid question to ask this month is when was the last time you attended to your own mental health– your feelings and general state of well-being? Many people don’t take the time to drop inward, and when we do it’s on the negative. Since way back when, the human brain has been wired with a negativity bias (we need 3 positives to counteract 1 negative event), with the media focused on the worst, and our 24/7 connected and socially comparable status, it’s easy to see why many can easily get swept up in that downward spiral of negative thinking. Add to that the natural stressors of life that may involve difficult communication with others, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for anxiety or depression. When these dips in mental health last for periods longer than an hour or day (perhaps weeks, months and even years), we begin to see major mental illnesses arise. These altered states of thinking take a toll on our psychological and physical health as well, and are much more prominent.
The State of Well-Being: Lost
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, while a whopping 70% of U.S. adults are obese or overweight (FastStats 2014); only about 17% of U.S adults are considered to be in a state of optimal mental health: successfully coping with normal life stresses, working productively, and making contributions to the community. That leaves 83% of us needing to attend to our own mental health and how we cope with life. The CDC’s website states currently 26% of us have been diagnosed with depression, and estimates by the year 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability throughout the world, trailing behind ischemic heart disease.
With this in mind, why aren’t we all as concerned about mental health and illness as we are about physical health and illness? What can we do about both? We can check out resources that speak to both and well-being in general. We can become aware of the need to balance, and bring attention to the mind-body connection. That is what we do at BeingMerry.com. We bring attention to wellness and well- being with Mindfulness.
Bringing Awareness to Well-Being: Retreat Solution
To address the physical and mental connections, we offer day-long Mindfulness Retreats to bring one’s mind back to one’s body and heart. In fact, in May and June 2016 we will be offering AWE Inspired Retreats at Keys Creek Lavender Farm, 40 minutes north of San Diego. Science has shown lavender to be a natural soothing and calming agent, and mindfulness to bring the same, plus a whole lot more.
During these day retreats, we take a moment to slow down and bring awareness to the connection of physical and mental health. We bring in mindfulness that allows us to reset our auto-pilot in our brain, and influence both our immune systems and stress reaction cycles. We drop into our senses within the body, and really notice the experience we are having—with THIS mind and THIS body. We try to see thoughts and emotions for what they are, and not get carried away with the mind on her travels to the future or past.
At the AWE Inspired Retreats, we nourish our minds and bodies with our breathing, with slowing down and taking in, and with compassionate movement and healthy refueling. We see our journeys for what they are, and in that moment, give ourselves what we need. We participate in various forms of meditation that allows us to experience greater calm, and connect to our minds, bodies, and feelings. We discover inner resources that can change our lives, and awaken our capacity for authenticity and wisdom. We intentionally slow down to bring focused attention to our human experience—“being” in this brain and this body. And knowing, that is enough.
If you want to know more about the AWE Inspired Retreats, check out the registration pages found at:
- www.beingmerry.com and go to Retreats.
Or access the specific Monthly retreats from the following pages:
- May 15th (Sunday) 9a-4p : http://AWEinspiredretreat.eventbrite.com
- June 18th (Saturday) 9a-4p: http://AWEinspiredretreatjune.eventbrite.com
Bringing Awareness to Mental Health
Other solutions are out there to help you invest in your mental health. Take a look at what Mental Health America has put out this month to increase your awareness:
To close this post and leave you with a thought about mental health, mindfulness and the benefits of retreating inward and toward your breath, I turn to poet David Whyte who said it so succinctly with his poem “Enough”. I encourage you to take this moment to think about your well-being, and how you will invest in it this month, as we all strive to live the healthiest lives we can—opening to life and connecting our minds, bodies and spirits:
These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to the life we have refused
again and again until now.
As we exit Stress Awareness Month, I wanted to share a specific practice may allow you to have another perspective on stress. In the Mindfulness -Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class we define stress as change, which is an inevitable part of life. We adopt the mindset that change can be helpful, allowing us to grow and experience things that otherwise might not have occurred (and perhaps see things through a silver-lining). We notice how stressful events or changes go through a cycle, having a beginning, middle and end to them– much like the changing nature of our breath or physical sensations. Much like our
thoughts and emotions as well. They all come and go. We practice many sitting meditations in MBSR focusing on the breath, body, thoughts and emotions, so this analogy fits nicely, as we sit and notice what arises and falls away.
We also talk about different kinds of stressors that propel opportunities for change; such as internal stressors, originating from our inner self- like a certain thought or belief, to external stressors originating from the outside world- like the demands of work. We also categorize the duration of stressful events from acute- lasting a short time-like recovering from the flu, to chronic stressors- like being a caregiver to an aging parent or a child with special needs. Finally, we talk about maladaptive responses to stress that are conditioned happening on autopilot, where we just react without thinking.
Opening up Your Awareness
Expand your awareness around stress this week by noticing how it shows up in your life and being curious by asking/answering certain questions. Are the stressors originating internally or externally? What might be the duration of the stressors? How often is it/are they occurring? Intermittently (acute) or constantly (chronic)? Do you have any control over the stressor? How do you normally react to the stressor? Is auto-pilot controlling the reaction, or do you have some control over your reaction? As we begin to open our awareness to stress, and become curious, we see stressors for what they are and how some fall away and pass, and for some we can choose a healthier response by bringing in mindfulness.
When we bring mindfulness to stressful events, we have a moment to pause and notice, and see the change for what it is rather than what we are (with our judging, striving, and impatient minds). Just by pausing, we break the auto-pilot cycle and have the freedom to intentionally choose a different response.
Looking for that Silver Lining
To cite an example of seeing stress differently and bringing mindfulness to the table, let’s consider an acute external stressor many people experience every day: traffic. Seeing traffic as negative– it’s stopping us from what we want to do– our initial auto-pilot reaction may be maladaptive; we may grip the steering wheel tighter, breathe shallowly, and intently stare at the red car lights glaring in front of us “willing” the situation to change- for the light to turn green or for the bottleneck traffic jam to break up. We may start to ruminate about how much traffic “stresses us out”, and begin mentally going to our to do lists (of what we need to do next and in less time now), or worst case scenarios about what may result from the traffic- being late, disappointing others, etc…Maybe you will be so late, you’ll miss what you are aiming for all together! Rumination can easily lead to over identifying with the situation.
By taking a “stress can be helpful” mindset, we might see traffic as a time to STOP:
- Take a breath
- Observe and
This breath allows the oxygen we take in to our bodies really nourish us. This breath has a calming effect, that engages the parasympathetic system of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). On a cellular level, this breath strengthens your well being by allowing your body to take in more, and affect telomeres that are responsible for the aging of cells. On a conscious level, you may then choose a healthy response, such as focusing on a positive memory from the day, or using gratitude to recall something that went well during the day, and for this moment to recall and savor it.
You may realize that this stressor or change will end soon, and that rumination won’t make the event pass faster, and may even get you more riled up. You realize that with each opportunity to literally pause, you are refueling yourself. If you adopt this suggestion you may find that you arrive at your event calmer and with greater perspective– taking in more around you.
Try It Yourself
I encourage you to try this breathing practice the next time you are in traffic, and notice what arises in you. Check in with your body. Are you gripping the wheel with tension, or breathing in and nourishing your body? Whichever behavior you choose, notice how it
feels IN your body. What do you notice directly? Check in with your mind: are you ruminating about the future or rehashing something in the past, or perhaps bringing gratitude and remembering something that went well today? Check in to how your thoughts influence the way you feel in both your heart and body. What do you notice?
Attempt this practice for one day or one week. Notice what you are feeling and thinking as a result. Chances are you’ll be a little more compassionate behind that wheel- starting with yourself and working outward. What we know about change and stress is that they happen, and if we bring mindfulness to our lives during this time we are creating
a more compassionate world, starting with one event and one person. If you choose to take on this challenge, email me with what you noticed. I would love to hear what you experienced and noticed from taking this new perspective
(This blog post was adapted from a piece written for HeraHub: Co-working Space for Women– for April is STRESS AWARENESS MONTH)
The demands of the business day seem to continuously pile up: the phone calls, emails, voicemails, budgets, reports, and meetings on the schedule. You are the ultimate producer, juggling multiple roles and projects to build or contribute to the business that you envision will change the world. You look at the clock, realizing although you’ve put in a full day, time is ticking. You wonder how much more you can accomplish before you start it all over again tomorrow, squeezing in food or sleep, or if you’re a parent too, the duties of raising a family. Your mind continues to race through to-do and “should-have” lists, as your shoulders tighten, and pressure in your neck and head increases. Your body screams, “STOP!”
So what do you do? Perhaps think, “This work will never get done! I just don’t have it in me to finish it all!” And then give up? Or ignore the tension in your neck, and continue to race forward, increasing your blood pressure, and compromising both your health and the quality of your work? Or reach for yet another cup of coffee or drink d’jour to get you through the night? What the experts in stress science suggest you do for healthy living is adopt a stress is helpful mindset accompanied by mindfulness.
A Stress Mindset?
Stress, the predictable part of life in this constantly changing world, can be harnessed to help you perform at your peak. Adopting the mindset that stress is helpful (not harmful) can build your resilience, and help you cope in healthier ways. In her book, The Upside of Stress, Dr. Kelly McGonigal shares evidence from the new Science of Stress that just holding this belief can change your relationship to stress and the outcomes. Ever hear of the Self-fulfilling prophecy, or placebo effect? There’s a similar thing going on here with mindset. Our beliefs shape our attitude, thoughts and then behaviors. And we tend to find what we are looking for, and act in accordance with our beliefs.
Now you may ask, “Why have a relationship with stress?” Because stress is a natural part of life, and the aspect that we have more control over than the stress itself is our response to it. Science shows stress can lead to many reactions besides the traditional fight and flight. Are you aware that we have access to the “challenge” and “tend and befriend” response that are also innate within us, which support health? By perceiving the “stress is helpful” mindset, we can identify what can be learned, look for the good in stress (perhaps a silver lining), and stop the auto-pilot of fight or flight response. By applying mindfulness we can pause, begin to see clearer, and intentionally choose our responses.
Applying Mindfulness to Stress
Jon Kabat-Zinn, grandfather of bringing mindfulness to the western world, and Founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Clinic and Program, as well as The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, shows how mindfulness (the ability to intentionally focus awareness on present moment experiences with non-judgmental and accepting attitudes) can support us living more engaged lives. Mindfulness allows us to perceive stress differently as we become aware of its effects on our minds and bodies. This awareness enables us to choose a response. In the MBSR course that I teach, we look at the circle of awareness as well as the stress reactivity cycle, and attend to where we may interrupt the conditioned fight or flight loop. One way to do this, as proposed by Elisha Goldstein and Bob Stahl in The MBSR Workbook, is to STOP:
Stopping and pausing whatever you are doing.
Taking a few deeper than normal breaths, to bring you back to the present moment away from your to-do’s and “should have” lists. Breathing this way nourishes and reconnects your mind and body, physiologically resetting the auto-pilot reaction cycle.
Observing what is going on inside and outside. Noticing the overstuffed inbox and overbooked calendar. Observing your thoughts (“I’ve got a lot of work to do here, will I make the deadline?”), noticing what you are feeling—exhausted, anxious, disconnected, and attending to how it is showing up in the body; a headache, your heart racing, and or pressure in your neck, shoulders, or even chest. Observing means taking note and allowing what is here to be here, and not trying to push it away or ignore it. You can then bring to mind your intention asking, “Where can I pause the auto-pilot reaction, what are the possible responses, and or what do I need in this moment?”
Proceeding to do the next thing that supports filling that need; take a walk or brief nap, connect with others (like our children or friends for a hug, or engage with a pet), or rise to the challenge reducing distractions, and managing time, boundaries and expectations more realistically.
We can influence our own well-being greatly, and relating to stress differently is one answer. The first thing to do to increase your stress awareness is to try on this mindset: simply thinking about how stress can be helpful, and what can be learned? And then STOP: bringing mindfulness to your moments, supporting healthy responses, and increasing your overall well-being.
Kelly McGonigal and Jon Kabat-Zinn go further to include additional steps, which I cover in the MBSR class I teach, and in the retreats I organize. Additionally, I include this kind of information in my coaching sessions… all in the name of well-being. Check out the rest of this site to gain more information, and you will see how YOU can go from STRESSED to BLESSED.