Muscle memory

I have recently taken on some new challenges, started learning some new things.

  1. Dance! – I made a pledge to myself back in January, took a foundations class, and then I also followed on with another Zumba class. I will do more of this, especially now that my schedule will be more flexible for the next couple of months.
  2. Massage – My massage therapist gave me a 90-minute lesson on how to give a massage to my hubby. I’ve been wanting to learn, and to have a non-sexual way to connect through physical touch. I wanted to learn how to properly do this without giving myself carpal tunnel or hurting my back over the massage table.
  3. Motorcycling – I took an intro class to ‘Cycling and Scootering. I did a lot better than I thought for only a 4-hour class. I am now more motivated to study for my permit and take the longer “Basic Rider Course” sometime in August or September.

What do these three activities have in common? All of the teachers spoke of the practices as building up “muscle memory” over time in order to make certain parts automatic. While learning new skills, we often have to think and focus intensely. This is all new and our minds and bodies need to make the connections necessary to master the skills. Then they take practice, repetition and time in order to build up the muscle memory that allows for less conscious effort, a more fluid and easy feel.

muscle memory
Photo credit link – Snowmie (Stop Your Tricks)

I started considering the muscle memory that drives many of our daily habits. Have you ever gone out to do an errand and ended up driving somewhere automatically even though you did not consciously want to go there? Your mind was somewhere else, but your body knew where you usually go (work, the grocery store, etc).

I thought about the muscle memory of playing the flute (started in middle school) or the saxophone (started in high school). My teacher told me that it was a good thing I started on the flute and then moved to saxophone because the movements are more precise and delicate. Apparently it is more difficult to go the other way. Hours and hours of practice on the flute helped me “convert” the muscle memory of the similar fingerings on the saxophone.

When we embark on a new chapter in our lives, there is no muscle memory yet for how to do our daily work. We need to suspend judgement and be kind to ourselves while we are learning. All of our efforts are part of the feedback loop of mastery, even if they fail, even if we shift too quickly and cut the engine while not allowing enough throttle to create momentum.

There are ways to visualize and help to create muscle memory even more quickly. One motorcycle instructor told us that even practicing our hand and foot motions in the evening for 10 minutes while sitting in a chair watching t.v. could help us master the skill more quickly. The memory is formed not just in our muscles, but with the help of our brain, and this is what world-class athletes do before their routines.

As I visualize my next chapter, I associate feelings of ease and excitement. I see myself learning new things, and having my back, giving myself encouragement if I make mistakes. I build up these muscle memories and know that in time, the practice pays off, and the learning accumulates. Confidence increases, and satisfaction as well.

What kinds of muscle memory do you access regularly?

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

Wellness Wednesday – watch your language

Do you ever notice what tone of voice you use with yourself when you make a mistake?

We all talk to ourselves (it is part of the human condition) though some people are not aware of what language they are using.

For example: you forgot to pick up your dry cleaning (again) and you wanted that clean shirt for tomorrow’s presentation. Do you say, “sheesh, you idiot, why did you do that again?” Or do you say, “Oh well, I guess I’ll wear a different shirt. I’d better put that reminder in my calendar next time.”

When you realize you did something you did not intend, do you have compassion for yourself?  Do you speak with yourself the way you would speak to a beloved friend? Or do you self-flagellate and add insult to injury?

It matters.

Quite simply, the way you treat yourself has a lot to do with how much compassion you can extend to others as well. If you realize we all make mistakes, that it is not a character flaw, and resolve to do it differently next time, you can learn. If you criticize yourself or use harsh words, you break down your relationship with yourself.

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Language can powerfully shape the way we think. If you speak to yourself with kind and loving words instead of harsh and blaming ones, you honor your being’s inherent tendency for growth and development. When you blame yourself or put yourself down (even if you do not intend, or if it is just habitual) it can erode the trust you have in your own wisdom.

It is interesting how I can observe family members or friends when they do this, but I didn’t realize when I was inadvertently doing this myself. I first discovered this during meditation. I used to “say” things like – oh dear, can you REALLY not concentrate for more than 30 seconds?”

Now when I meditate I say (to myself): hmm, how interesting that I’m thinking about X or Y. Then I gently pull myself back to my breath, or my body, whatever I am focusing on for the moment. Then 2 minutes later when I am planning my work for the day (while meditating), I say: “it’s okay, I know you are concerned about that. But it will be there when you are done meditating. Come back now.” It is a loving voice, gentle forgiving.

If you cannot access your thoughts through meditation, try a “thought download” – take a sheet of paper and just unload all of your thoughts for 5-10 minutes It might surprise you what is in there.

Curiosity and compassion will get you SO much further than blaming and shaming. 

Happy Wednesday, all.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

 

 

 

Reading, writing and rhythm

I am a voracious reader. My nightstand is typically piled with books, and I have about 3-4 going at any one time.

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There’s at least one fiction book, which is my treat reading before bedtime, and the way I wind down before sleep. I am not so into e-books. I have a Nook, but forget to charge it. I have a love for real pages that I can turn, a visceral and physical experience of a book that I am too old-fashioned to replace.

When I write, I integrate the things I read, the practices I attempt, and the swirling thoughts I notice while meditating or navigating my days. It helps me slow things down enough to consider how it all fits together.

My philosophy teacher used to recommend that we write to remember. When studying, write out concepts and ideas we want to understand or explore.

In biology or chemistry labs, we wrote to capture our protocols, and our results. Writing is a part of science, part of study, part art-form and part formal work.

Reading and writing do not come easily to everyone, and I am grateful that I have always enjoyed both since a young age. Fifteen years ago, toward the end of graduate school I was diagnosed with adult a.d.d. Now it makes sense to me that I can either hyper-focus or be challenged to finish a page without distraction.

I do not have the “h” part of the usual diagnosis (and women often do not manifest that part, or they train themselves out of it to be quiet, compliant little girls from a young age). But clearly the difference in my ability to focus was palpable after treatment and medication.

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Before the diagnosis I had suffered from 2-3 periods of depression in my life, precipitated by burnout and anxiety. I had always struggled to pay attention during my “boring” classes, and often escaped into my imagination. Teachers knew I was smart, but they often said I was not working up to my potential. I finished salutatorian of my high school class, so clearly a lot of students may not have been working up to their potential…

What I find these days is that life is more about establishing the right rhythm for my days and weeks, rather than pursuing the elusive “balance” many strive for.

Filling days with to-do lists and activities may help us feel productive and in control of our lives. But resting, pausing and re-evaluating need to be a part of our lives too. An a.d.d.-oid brain is typically in motion constantly. I describe my thought processes as cascades, and they are very fluid and dynamic.

Normal people can typically compartmentalize their thoughts, like putting them in boxes, categorizing and organizing them. The a.d.d. brain tends not to work that way, instead flowing from thought to thought, in associative “play”. We create new categories, with different boundaries. Our brains  leap outside boxes like playful puppies or kittens.

For years I spent time hiding my a.d.d., at the advice of well-meaning professionals that explained to me that employers would not necessarily understand, and may penalize me for it professionally. In every job I needed to “prove myself” with consistency for quite some time before advancing, very hard for the a.d.d.-oid mind that gets bored once it knows the routine. The first time I was able to hire administrative support to help with the details while I could focus on big picture work, I finally started realizing my potential.

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My current position as an operational manager for an international team requires me to be quick thinking and to balance many factors in making decisions. I get to help my employees with career development (which I love) and coach them to develop their skills, especially when it comes to influence management in a large corporation with a matrix reporting structure.

I turned a weakness into a “superpower” of sorts, at least the way I am choosing to author my life and my story. I do not see it as a disability. I see it as a way of seeing around corners, flexibly solving problems, and bringing creativity to many teams.

As long as I find the right rhythm in my days, get time for rest, play and taking very good care of myself physically, I thrive. When I neglect myself, or slack off on good self-care routines, like getting enough sleep, healthy food, affection, love, and exercise, I suffer.

What I want to say to those suffering from depression, anxiety, a.d.d. or any other type of diagnosis: it does not have to define you or your life. You will need to learn to manage it, that is true. But it will give you unique insight, skills and resilience when you learn to manage it. You will benefit from more compassion for those who struggle. And if you learn to love yourself, and the unique way that your brain and body work, you can fully use your gifts.

 

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Find your rhythm, find what makes sense for you. Find others that support your strengths and help you cultivate them. You deserve that. And it is possible.

Have a great week, friends.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

Rumbling with our stories

I just love Brené Brown’s work on how to use what she calls “Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice.” She is a Texas born and bred professor, researcher and storyteller who studies shame, wholeheartedness and how we use story and narrative to shape our lives. Her Ted Talk on the power of vulnerability has been viewed over 33 million times. It is one reason I decided to start this blog.

Her definition of spirituality as a belief that humans as inherently interconnected, and in a loving force greater than ourselves is something I truly align with personally. Brown’s work is starting to make its way to families, government and leadership in large organizations. Her approach has wisdom that has been profound for me.

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She uses a term coined by Anne Lamott which is a personal favorite, the “shitty first draft.” Her process of identifying the stories we get “caught” in, and realizing they are stories we make up in our own heads to explain things, but that they are not reality, has helped me enormously. I wrote on this theme last week, but I want to explore it from a different angle here, since I finished re-listening to her audio program again recently.

The idea is that we need to recognize when we are in a difficult emotion (the reckoning). Instead of eating it or damping it down with alcohol or buffering it by numbing out on facebook, we get curious. We examine those feelings, own our story, and “rumble” with it. This step means we get honest about the stories we are making up, challenge them to determine what is true, what’s self-protection and what needs to change.

The final step is the revolution, in which we write a new ending to our story based on the key learning from our rumble. We then use this new, braver story to change how we engage with the world and to ultimately transform the way we live love, parent and lead. (summary from page 37 of Rising Strong).

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Some of us who have been to therapy recognize this is something that counselors do while we are figuring out what is causing pain for us in our lives. When suffering from depression or anxiety, it is critical skill to understand that it is our thoughts that cause us emotional pain, not our circumstances. Sure, if we are experiencing grief or loss or a traumatic event, then there will be pain. This is human, and though we are terrible about allowing grief as a culture, it is absolutely necessary for healing.

The tricky part is that we often add to our pain by layering shame and self-hatred on top of those life experiences. “I should be happy” we tell ourselves. “I should feel grateful” all of the self-help books tell us. But “shoulds” are not helpful. Feelings are what they are. They are not good or bad, they are part of being human.

Feelings often provide some helpful clues to us on what and who we want to move towards or move away from in our lives. Brené Brown makes the point that we often believe we are people that THINK and sometimes feel. But the actuality is that people always FEEL and sometimes think. Perhaps this is a remnant from the Descartes’ idea that “I think therefore I am,”  but it is inaccurate.

storytelling and brain
Photo credit link – Educators Technology

Neuro-biologically we are wired for emotion. We are wired for story. Our brain actually gives us a dopamine hit when we create a story that explains whatever disparate facts are in front of us. It makes no difference whether the story is true, it just takes comfort from making sense of the world. The stories we tell shape our lives. And when we tell them enough times, they evolve into theories about how the world works. Any theory we belief for long enough becomes a belief.

The awesome thing about humans is that we can choose to believe new things. When we encounter a belief that is causing us pain, we can unpack it, question it, and possibly change it. We often find we believe things we may have been taught when young, or observed in our family systems.

What if we write our stories as though we are the heroes and not the victims? What if we are able to forgive ourselves for the mistakes we made, and the mistakes others made? When we can free ourselves in this way, we free our energy to stop living in our past and to take brave steps into the future.

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If you want a free link to this roughly 3-hour audible presentation on this topic, where Brown explains her work, and also answers questions from the audience please email me at cristy@meximinnesotana.com. I am happy to share this with anyone who may want to do similar personal work.

Embodying a new self

I have written before about the idea that there is no “better” you – that self-acceptance and self compassion are the key to any big changes we want to make in our lives.

Paradoxically, I think we all grow, develop and change over time, and we do become “better” at certain things. It is not that we become better people. I hold the belief that all of us, just by virtue of being born, are worthy of love, compassion and self-regard. However, we strive to become more of who we are at the core, at a soul and spirit level, that identity is typically muted or hidden in an effort to be more acceptable to others.

Right now I am reading “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself” by Dr. Joe Dispenza and it is blowing my mind. The title is provocative to me because it goes against the advice we are typically given: just be yourself. While I agree this usually means we should not try to be “someone else,” most of us still yearn to grow and change and evolve to a “next version” of ourselves.

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We yearn for enlightenment, for peace, for a sense of ease in our being. But Dispenza explains how our habitual thoughts become encoded by our neuro-chemical and physical body over time. Our mind and body work together to create our reality, and re-create what we have known and experienced usually in the past. It is only when we become aware of our thoughts, and how they create emotions, which are “coding” for what they become in the body, that we can actively change the reality we are creating.

Dispenza uses the field of quantum physics to challenge our previous assumptions about a Newtonian universe in which there are physical causes and effects, and thus explores the notion of potentials. I really enjoy his explanations of how we can create changes in our lives to move from thinking to doing to being. Though I am only half way through the book, the insight has already exploded my mind in terms of the possibilities.

I have had great skepticism for the self-help idea of manifesting, though I have encountered it plenty of times in the literature I read. I must admit – I am a questioner and anything that is too “woo woo” for my researcher brain is typically dismissed as fluff. But as I consider the neuroscience behind the principles that Dispenza explains, now I understand the theoretical basis for how this may work.

My experiences with meditation, and understanding experientially how my thoughts create my feelings, and how feelings lead to action (or non-action) these concepts are leading me to wild new ideas about how we can create the lives we want. I still have not yet moved to the stage of practice and implementing these ideas fully, but I am sure to experiment with these as I embrace changes in my life going forward.

Hasta luego, amigos!

I am mastering sleep

To continue along a theme I started yesterday on the power of internal thoughts and dialogue on your feelings and behavior, I decided to go into another personal example.

Some of you know that I have struggled in the past with getting enough sleep. But in the last couple of years I have truly started to understand the difference that getting good, consistent sleep makes for me. It allows me to be less distracted, more engaged, less triggered in terms of emotional volatility.

Good sleep allows me to be more creative, more flexible in my thinking, and more generous in spirit. It helps me keep my weight stable and gives me more consistent energy. Sleep allows me to make better decisions and to pause before responding to stimuli. It “cleans up” the toxic stuff that builds up during the day.

But for years I struggled with periodic insomnia. Notice how I define that in the past tense? In truth, I still struggle sometimes. But I was considering the difference in telling myself “I suffer from insomnia” and changing that thought too: “I am learning to master sleep.”

Sleep

It may seem like a subtle difference. But when I consider the feeling that results from “I suffer from…” it makes me feel bad. It makes me feel defeated. When I instead practice the thought, “I am mastering sleep” I start to feel hopeful, as though I am making progress. It means I have not yet figured it out, but that I am getting there. Actually, that is what is true for me.

Back when I started tracking all this stuff with the Wellbeing Finder about a year and a half ago, I really struggled. Knowing that getting better, more consistent sleep was the goal, I could see what factors led to better sleep. So I experimented with different things, like powering the devices down at least an hour before bed. I was shifting my drinking and eating patterns too. I quit alcohol and cut way back on sugar and flour.

It turned out some of those factors were much more relevant than I thought in getting a good night’s sleep. Now that I am used to receiving better quality and quantity of sleep, I am a total convert! But I need to realize this is a skill that can be mastered. Even though I suffered from insomnia in the past, I am gaining mastery over good sleep.

If you are mastering sleep, do consider what language you use as you learn to embrace this beautiful and restorative habit. Imagine if you used kinder language to describe the process of change, and describe the issues as relevant to the past but not the present. Perhaps that will help you, as it has for me, to let go of the need to be perfect. Mastery is an ongoing process but so very worthwhile.

Go easy on yourself

This time of year can be difficult, especially for anyone dealing with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that may originate from the lack of light and lack of fresh air.

Symptoms I experience are typically insomnia, sometimes anxiety or changes in my mood or appetite. Many of us have increased cravings for carbohydrates, and we may feel sluggish or have difficulty concentrating.

For many years, I have used exercise, dietary strategies such as a vitamin D supplement in the morning, magnesium at night. I try to get enough vegetables for their anti-oxidant properties and fiber, but in Minnesota nothing is fresh this time of year, so it can be difficult.

Getting enough healthy fats in my diet more recently has been a wonderful benefit to my health overall. I have learned more and more on how balancing our brain chemistry with healthy fats is really important. Right now I am reading “The Chemistry of Calm” by Dr. Henry Emmons, and there is some wonderful advice there on how to overcome anxiety. Dr. Emmons presents the information from both Western and Eastern traditions and I strongly encourage you to check it out if you want more scientific background on drug-free ways to overcome anxiety.

I still struggle with insomnia periodically, usually when the seasons change and/or when I am under more stress. I know how important sleep can be for good healthy, so I try valiantly to get more, and sometimes it still eludes me.

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Over the years, I have learned some strategies which help. It is a learning process, and I have to accept that it takes some time to change old habits. I am undoing a pattern that was established (and possibly reinforced) for 25-30 years. I may not unlearn it overnight. But due to the remarkable neuroplasticity of our brain, we are capable of training ourselves out of old patterns.

The biggest factor to remember is to have compassion for ourselves, and not to label ourselves as “anxious” or to consider ourselves flawed in any way. Instead of saying, “I am an anxious person” try instead: “right now I am struggling with anxiety and I am learning how to manage it.” Thus, the condition is temporary and not a part of our identity.

It is important not to identify too strongly with any label, as this may convince us we a permanent, unalterable condition. The truth is that we have far more capacity for change than any of us realize. And this learning how to manage our struggles is where wisdom is born. Nothing is wrong with us. This is the human condition.

About half of our life may be happy or joyful (or maybe slightly more). But about half of or life will be negative emotions. This contrast is what makes life so rich and interesting. If we can go easy on ourselves, realize that sadness and feeling down sometimes are a part of life, then we can truly appreciate the joyful moments.

Compassion for ourselves and for other people is really the engine that helps us live a good life. We sometimes have that inner critic that resists compassion, questioning if we deserve it, speculating that we do not. If we come from religious backgrounds where original sin was a big part of the emphasis, this may be harder for us.

It may take some time and practice to cultivate compassion for ourselves. But it is possible. And with this self-compassion comes the ability to have compassion for others as well. In this time of holiday festivities and dark, cold, weather, that can go a very long way.

If you are struggling with SAD, anxiety or depression, please get help from a trained mental health professional, and/or seek support from the people you love. It is not a time to “go it alone” when you are dealing with this stuff. Sometimes families are not as understanding, so try to find someone who can help you get the support you need.