Life is the Curriculum!

lotusYesterday, 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.

meditation signOn 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.”


May: National Mental Health Awareness Month

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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.

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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:

Or access the specific Monthly retreats from the following pages:

 

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:

31 Tips to Boost Your Mental Health

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:

Enough

Enough.

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.

Until now

by David Whyte, from the book Where Many Rivers Meet

 


From Stressed to Blessed

(This blog post was adapted from a piece written for HeraHub: Co-working Space for Women– for April is STRESS AWARENESS MONTH)

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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.

 


It’s All About the Selfie Retreat: Self-care and Mindful Walking Meditation

All About the Selfie Tour

Touring Keys Creek Lavender Farm

Recently, I had the opportunity to take a small group of uniquely inspired ladies on a retreat at the Keys Creek Lavender Farm, out in the country setting of Valley Center– which is about 30 miles from San Diego, CA. In this space known for growing, healing and well-being, we spent the day focusing on and celebrating “The Self”.   We weren’t cultivating conceit, self-righteousness or self-absorption. What we were doing was finally giving ourselves permission to treat us the way we treat others in life… with love, kindness and compassion. Spending time to focus on ourselves is not commonly encouraged in our western culture, where to get ahead (and sometimes just to make ends meet) we work the extra hours doing as much as we can, in addition to taking care of those around us, and responding to their needs– be it our significant others, children, parents, pets, etc…. As women of the 21st century, we are conditioned to do it all: juggling work, family and home life. We rinse and repeat these conditions all the time. Given that there are only 24 hours in a day, sometimes we run out of time to do it all, and find ourselves stressed out, burned out and most of all– out of balance.

It’s All About the Selfie Retreat allowed these women to regain balance and well-being, and give themselves the care they need. They had the opportunity to slow down and experience life focusing on the present moment. They asked themselves questions like “Who am I?” and “What do I need?” They did this through various reflective exercises, mindful meditations and intentional activities that supported savoring the moment and experiences. They participated in strengths finding, walking meditation, mindful yoga, mindful eating (nourishing themselves with purpose), sending loving-kindness to their loved ones, themselves and the world, and mindful self-talk—applying self-compassion techniques to cultivate both positive emotion and to use as coping tools when things don’t go as planned.

There’s not enough time and space to describe the full retreat in one post, so I’ve broken the day down into a few posts with this being installation #1. By the way, The Selfie Retreat is a staple service of BeingMerry.com, and is scheduled to happen at least once per calendar quarter. For this post, I’d like to focus on the mindful walking meditations that promoted self-love, self-care and gratitude.

Mindful Walking Meditation

We held a few different perspectives during our walking meditation, where we either focused or opened our awareness intentionally as we moved through nature, from a vintage barn setting where the ceiling was covered with bunches of drying lavender, to the labyrinth space where a magnificent crystal sits at the center. We initially focused our awareness on the sensations of walking – noticing the sensations in our leg muscles moving us through this space, the functioning of our joints supporting our bones, and our feet touching the ground and propelling us forward. We also focused our attention on our breathing—the intake of air at our nostrils, the releasing of stress in our exhale, the rising and falling of our chests or abdomens, and the opening of our hearts as we took in all of these sensations. We were aware of feeling of gratitude inside ourselves, for the ability to walk, breathe and exist without too much difficulty in those moments.

aats labyrinth

Keys Creek Lavender Farm Labyrinth

Our focus of awareness shifted once we reached the rock-lined labyrinth. These structures are unlike mazes as they have only one starting and ending point, which are one in the same. Labyrinths have been used throughout history in many cultures and over many centuries as a symbol of one’s spiritual journey, among other things. As we slowly walked through the labyrinth, we contemplated our life’s own journey, accepting all that we have gone through that has led us here to this moment. Sometimes the difficult times we experience are hard to accept, however, if we reframe those times and look for the silver linings (the lessons we learned as a result of those hard times), we see that without both the good and the bad times, we would not be exactly where we are today.

We ended our walk with an open awareness meditation, sensing and savoring our surroundings. In this type of meditation, we are encouraged to notice everything around us employing as many senses as we can. We notice the strength and temperature of both the breeze and the sun on our skin, as well as the aroma of the sweet lavender and fresh outdoors, and finally the songs of the birds chirping nearby and the sound of feet shuffle along the dirt path. Looking at the trees we pass, we notice the texture of the bark and the shape and color of the leaves with all their gradients. We are aware of our feet on the dirt path, and realize that many before us have walked this way as well. We may feel a sense of common humanity—being a part of something much bigger than ourselves. We feel a sense of awe and gratitude for life itself—all around us, and the ability to be a part of it. We realize that we are so very blessed.

How will you take time for yourself today? Trying going for a walk in nature.

But don’t take my word for it… try a walking meditation for yourself. Focus your awareness on your bodily sensations, or open it up to nature and the world, noticing all her splendid details. Try one perspective and then the other. Explore which twist of mindful walking resonates with you. There are other things you can think about (or sense) on a mindful walk (in each step “you arrive”, in each step “you are home”—Thich Nhat Hahn encourages this perspective). The main point is that you focus your awareness, or open it up. When you find your mind wandering, as it will during meditations, just bring it back kindly to the object of your focus or intention.  This kind of slowing down, and focusing or opening does not only change your body (giving it a break from the crazy running around many of us do), but also your brain (rewiring the stress response) and spirit (responding with awe and offering gratitude) as well.  Try it as your-SELFIE just may thank you for it!


CHOOSING Positive Emotions

Time for a post as I finish up teaching a couple of courses of The Happiness Journey, through Hapacus, and continue on with the class that I am taking which I wrote about previously, Love 2.0 with Barbara Fredrickson. It has been a juggling act, teaching, coaching, learning and living life with all the conditions I’ve built into it (family, kids, responsibilities, etc…). On the bright side, I am managing a fairly stressful load by CHOOSING to build positive emotions into my daily diet. As I teach the Happiness Journey, I remind my students and myself that happiness is only one emotion they can choose. There are a host of  other positive emotions they can access if they need a lift out of a blue mood, which could be more conducive to actually lifting them up. And these positive emotions can lead to others as well, leading to an upward spiral.

So what are the other positive emotions from which we can choose?

There are at least ten positive emotions that you can call on and cultivate at any time. There are many more, but ten show up in many positive psychology studies. In another one of Barbara Fredrickson’s books, Positivity, she calls them out in order from the most often occurring:

  • Love
  • Joy (happiness)
  • Gratitude
  • Serenity
  • Interest
  • Hope
  • Pride
  • Amusement
  • Inspiration
  • Awe

and as suggested by another researcher, Kristen Neff,

  • Self-Compassion

I included this last positive emotion out after reading quite a bit on the subject as well. I would definitely add it to the top of my list… from which to cultivate at any time… especially for a busy working mom in this day and age.  One of my favorites, besides love (and kindness), is gratitude which I hope to really savor and talk about more in November.

Can we really CHOOSE to feel positive emotion? And why are positive emotions important?
The homework for the Love 2.0 class involves revisiting Positivity fully. This book has reminded me of the key concepts about positive emotions in general, and YES, how choosing them intentionally can produce great benefits psychologically, physically and socially. This is one reason why they are so important. Here are some other key concepts worth knowing about:

  • You can choose positive emotions by noting HOW you interpret events and ideas AS they unfold (and AFTER they unfold as well).
  • We need 3 positive emotions/encounters for every 1 negative emotion felt– to enable us to flourish. (some are challenging this ratio right now– but considering many people have a ratio of 0 to 1 or 1 to 1, 3 to 1 can make a dramatic difference in life satisfaction levels, on a whole).
  • Letting positive emotion linger will bring more health benefits.
  • Positive emotions encourage positive spirals all around you, i.e., one positive emotion can lead to the others.
  • Those who WITNESS positive emotions will feel more inspired and uplifted and are more likely to engage in positive emotion themselves.
  • Positive emotions can help you broaden your physical and psychological outlook and build your life with more possibilities in a real physiological way.
  • People who have a high positivity ratio live on the average 10 years longer than those who don’t. They also get sick less often and are able to bounce back from health and psychological setbacks more effectively and at a faster rate.
  • Positivity is contagious.

This last point is pretty big. Your good mood influences how you interact with those around you, who adjust how they interact with those around them, and so on and so forth. This is a stellar example of how you can really “Be the Change You want to See in the World,” as Gandhi quoted years ago.

How can I choose and cultivate positive emotion?

There are many ways to cultivate positive emotion. As noted above, you can choose positive emotions by noting HOW you interpret events and ideas (and the meaning you assign them– The Happiness Journey addresses this concept through explanatory styles).

You can also choose intentional activities like:

  • Connecting with nature (through sounds, sights, smells, touch)– by being outdoors or with animals/creature. Nature can inspire you, remind you that you’re part of a bigger picture (humble/awe you), and in return you may display gratitude and love for allowing this connection.
  • Connecting with others– by showing interest, being curious, being kind or helping, When you help someone, you externalize your positivity and it moves between you and another person like a dance… adding more possibilities for goodness in the world.
  • Opening your mind — by focusing on the present moment and finding the positive meaning in the situation. At any time, ask yourself in any given moment, “What is right here? What can I celebrate?” Or on a different note, dream about the future… anticipate an event in which you can plan and savor, and replay in your mind at a later date.
  • Opening your heart– by savoring goodness, counting your blessings and following your passion.  For any of the emotions or methods above, ask yourself, “When was the last time I felt this feeling? Can I think of other triggers that can produce these feelings? What can I do now to cultivate these feelings?”

There are many other methods you can employ to cultivate and choose positive emotions. If you would like to grow your repertoire/library, and learning about new tools that can help you increase your positive emotion, please email/contact me at any time.

What We Focus on Grows

Now that you know what positive emotions are, how they can benefit us and how we can choose them, what positive emotion will you CHOOSE to focus on today? Do it for today, tomorrow and if you can– everyday– and your heart, your mind and your body will thank you in years to come!


Got Strengths? Of course you do…

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The topic of strengths, specifically character strengths, is getting a lot of airplay these days especially in the fields of Positive Psychology, Positive Education and Business as well.  Positive Psychology identifies character strengths as the 24 traits (derived from 6 common core) seen in human beings across cultures and time– that are universal to the human experience. These traits or strengths are values you embody that help make you who you are- they reside inside and are pretty stable over time.  Researchers, educators, employers and now the general public are starting to realize that focusing and building on such strengths, rather than weaknesses, can make for a happier, meaningful life in which you are engage and living more optimally.  Also, using strengths in times of adversity or conflict can also help us cope better with the situation and progress on to a resolution.

The VIA (Values in Action) Institute studies and assists people in identifying and using strengths– doing so for over a decade now.  They offer online assessment tools — some are free– for individuals to discover their strengths so that they may use them in all aspects of their lives, from working and learning, to interacting and existing. Here are a few reported research findings taken directly from the VIA Website:

  • Using one’s signature strengths in a new way increased happiness and decreased depression for 6 months (Gander, Proyer, Ruch, & Wyss, 2012).
  • The use of signature strengths elevates individuals’ harmonious passion (i.e., doing activities that are freely chosen without constraints, are highly important, and part of the individual’s identity). This then leads to higher well-being (Forest et al., 2012).
  • Among youth, the use of signature strengths in novel ways along with personally meaningful goal-setting led to increases in student engagement and hope (Madden, Green, & Grant, 2011).
  • A qualitative study examined the use of VIA strengths by women in the workplace and found that in all cases, strengths led to a “virtuous circle” in which the strengths use helped them overcome obstacles that had impeded strengths use. All subjects derived unique value from using character strengths at work (Elson & Boniwell, 2011).
  • Employees who used four or more of their signature strengths had more positive work experiences and work-as-a-calling than those who expressed less than four (Harzer & Ruch, 2012a).

If you’re interested in identifying your strengths and taking the assessment tool, go to VIA Me. The test is 120 questions– and may take 10 or so minutes. They also have a free assessment tool for kids, to understand their strengths for the same reason; build them up to make life more happy and get through challenges more successfully. Both are free tools, with reports that follow that call out your top 5 strengths and introduce you to ways you can use them to get more from life.

I took the VIA Me test– 2 times this year. My findings did not change between those times, and they did not surprise me. My signature or top 5 strengths include love of learning, creativity, curiosity, appreciating beauty and excellence, and gratitude. What did surprise me was the suggestion to use those strengths in novel ways, and to use them to get through difficult times. It works… when met with some recent obstacles, I reflected back on my strength to figure out solutions. Especially the strength of creativity. I would ask myself is there a creative solution here? When I started to lose interest in something that has interested me in the past (like exercise routines), I used my strengths in new ways, and my interest returned (this relates to a term in positive psychology called hedonic adaptation… something we all do whether we want to or not–i.e. lose interest after a while).

I also had two of my children take the test (the 3rd will do so soon), and the results surprised me a bit. Knowing their strengths has helped me relate to them better; for I call out a strength when I see it and celebrate it. This kind of exercise not only helps me with being grateful that they possess such strengths, but it also helps them too… realize the strength and feel good about having that quality as a part of themselves– which increases self-esteem and happiness in general.

So, now that you know (in a nutshell) what strengths are, are you willing to give it a shot and check out yours? I’m telling ya, you’ll be glad you did!

If you’d like some help with this process or would like to talk more about it, just email merry@beingmerry.com.