Category Archives: psychology

When life hands you limes, make ceviche!

You all know the expression: when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. It really means that you can turn the circumstances of your life into opportunities.

On my Monday trip to Mexico, I ended up in a bit of a situation – my flight arrived 30 minutes after the appointed time. When I reached Cancun, which was my intermediate stop on the way to Mexico City (I know, I know: I usually fly through Atlanta) I discovered the next flight was in a different terminal.  Then I discovered that the shuttle between the terminals only runs once every 20 minutes, which meant I would definitely miss my connection.

In the “olden” days as I will call them (before I started meditating and actively managing my emotions) I would have had a mini panic attack. I’d missed my flight, my cell phone wasn’t working and I was in a foreign country. Ack!!!

But this time around, I told myself: when I get to the terminal I will explain what happen and surely Delta will help me get booked on the next flight. There have to be several a day from Cancun to Mexico City. Sure enough, that was what happened. I’m not sure of Sky Priority status mattered or helped, but I did find some kind people right away who helped me get on the next flight which was due to leave 2 hours after the originally scheduled one.

ceviche and guac

I was left with actual time to have a late lunch or an early dinner, whatever you want to call it. I ordered my favorites: ceviche and guacamole and just settled in for an hour at the airport while waiting for the next flight. There was no panic, I didn’t stress over the hours of time I would miss. In fact, arriving in Mexico City around 7:45 instead of 5:45 means there will be considerably less traffic. There was no real harm done.

Later that night I had a chance to practice more mindful trip behavior as well. It turns out the taxi from the airport took me to the wrong hotel. My colleague had assumed I was going to the other address, so she told me “Colonia Escandon” rather than the location I had booked which was “Colonia San Jose.” So there was a difference in what I had paid at the airport versus the total amount due.

The driver was very kind about it, explained that I could pay him the difference. Only I didn’t have any pesos, and he did not have a credit card reader. Fortunately the hotel had an ATM, so I was able to get some local currency to pay him the difference.

These may seem like unremarkable incidents to a frequent traveler, and they are in many respects. But in my less mature days, either incident would have sent me into a mild panic (my mind racing to: “What the F*** am I going to do?”) instead of just calmly figuring out a solution to the problem.

Perhaps I am giving my meditation practice more credit than it deserves for this sense of peace and calm I have while traveling. It could be that I am a mature traveler, I know sometimes things go wrong. I focus on what I can control, not what I cannot. But I still think mindfulness practice has allowed me to slow down and think more calmly in situations that used to put me into a tailspin.

Reason enough for me to keep practicing every day. Have a great one, friends!

Advertisements

You Must Be Dreaming

The title of today’s blog is the chapter title from the book Maybe It’s You: Cut the Crap. Face Your Fears. Love your Life by Lauren Handel Zander. As some of you know, I have embarked on a 6-month coaching engagement with the Handel Group, and I am going to be brave and share some of the “resistance” that is coming up for me right now.

Maybe you will have some advice for me. I am not sure. Maybe writing about my resistance to dreaming will help me get through the obstacles that my mind is constructing against the goal.

My first assignment was quite lengthy, a short bio about myself (which was not short, I actually wrote 12 pages) and a chance to dream about 12 areas in my life. This included: self, body, love, spirituality, career, money, time, home, family, friends, fun & adventure and community & contribution.

After writing our dreams for these areas I needed to rate each area and then write out the current reality and to explain why we gave ourselves the current rating. Then I was asked to explain why I have not been able to realize the dream in that area of life so far.

This is not “easy” homework! I enjoyed writing the biography. That was fun, and I have been practicing my writing skills, so though it was quite a trip down memory lane, it felt good. Telling the story of our lives can be very revealing for a coach or therapist. Since we are the authors of our own lives, I am sure that someone reading can learn a lot about what we think about ourselves from reading the stories we tell.

The dreaming part was HARD for me! I started to do it and realized that I am pretty happy with my life overall, and that dreaming seemed indulgent. Shouldn’t I just be grateful for having more abundance in my life than most people in the world? Is it really okay to want more for myself?

I started the assignment, and then when back and read the areas the next day and realized those “dreams” I had written down did not really inspire me. It was much easier to write about where I am currently than it was to risk writing down my dreams. So I re-did that part of the homework a few days later and tried to dream bigger.

I believe that writing down our dreams, really imagining vividly what they look like, sound like, taste like and feel like can be a key to achieving them. Sometimes, as Martha Beck would say, it can be painful to dream. If it has been some time since we actively pursued our dream, we may feel sad or regretful about giving up on a dream.

Or I am finding that I  absorbed some lessons about dreaming that include: “Sometimes you can’t have what you want. You should be happy with what you have. Not everyone can have their dream. Some of us have to work for a living.”

During my first session, my coach picked one of my lower-rated areas and asked me to read my dream out loud. I did. It sounded lame. She asked if that really inspires me. No, not much. So my homework for the session (we meet every 2 weeks) is to re-write that dream for what I envision one year from now. It is supposed to give me goosebumps.

Since the topic is money, she asked me to include specific numbers. I need to also write where I am now, including specific numbers as well. I will talk with my husband about this topic as well, and align on responsibilities about money stuff.

Simple, right?

I wish!

The resistance that comes up for me is all about: shouldn’t I be working the career goal first? What if I work out a money dream and the career aspiration doesn’t follow? Since I make good money now, what if I paint myself into a corner regarding goals and then I don’t make the choices I want in my career? And if buying a home is in the one year goal, what if we do that, and then things don’t work out with my career change goal, and then we have a harder road in the future? What if? What if? What if?

See where my brain goes? Yikes. That’s what dreaming does for me.

do your homework

All those areas of resistance and fear come up. But I am going to stay with it. I am going to write out my money dream for a year out, and then respectfully listen but then ignore those voices for a bit. At least until I finish my homework.

Do you dream regularly? Do you write down your dreams for the future? Do they excite you? What gets in the way of dreaming up what your heart desires? I would love to hear what types of strategies you use to get past any resistance you may have to dreaming.

 

 

Inside Out

What if everything you thought you knew was wrong? 

What if you woke up tomorrow and you saw the world in a completely different way? For example, what if you learned that reality is in your imagination, that you generate your world. It is not some objective truth “out there” but rather constructed by your inner world, and projected outward.

Kind of a radical idea, no?

And yet, what cognitive scientists and linguists like George Lakoff tell us, human beings use mental frames to explain their reality. We can observe facts or circumstances in the world, and when they do not fit our frameworks, our way of explaining the world, we simply dismiss them as exceptions. We cling very strongly to our beliefs about how the world works, and this helps us to live and make decisions.

Sometimes our beliefs are actually wrong. Beliefs are really just thoughts we keep thinking over and over again. They may come from what we were taught growing up. They may be reinforced by societal programming. They begin to seem like reality because maybe everyone around us holds the same beliefs.

It can feel very threatening when we begin to question our beliefs. There is a biological reason for this. Our brains like to be efficient and avoid pain. So we develop neural pathways that serve as “shortcuts” that help us make choices and decisions about the world. This way we don’t have to evaluate all of our more automated activities, like driving to work, or walking down the hallway. These are automatic skills we develop and practice all the time.

It is a healthy to question our beliefs now and then, and it has radically changed my own life. When I realized that beliefs are a choice, and I can consciously choose new beliefs, my head kind of exploded.

First you have to be conscious of your beliefs. I will use food as an example, because it is easy to understand. I spent most of my adult life, until about 3 years ago in fact, believing that consuming fat in my diet would make me fat or keep me fat. It is easy to understand how I would form such a belief: nearly all the dietary guidelines recommend a low fat diet. The food industry has perpetuated the idea that sugar is fine for us, but we should consume “x” as part of a low-fat heart-healthy diet.

Imagine my amazement when instead of battling my body and brain’s natural inclination to consume fat, I began to add much more of it to my diet. I switched from skim milk to whole milk (gradually of course, going to 1%, 2% and then whole). I started using butter and olive oil liberally in my cooking. I went bananas for avocados (which I have always loved, but thought I should limit because of fat content).

As it turns out, over the past 18 months, I have lost 20 pounds on a high-fat diet. The loss has been sustainable and easy to maintain. At the same time, I cut way back on sugar and flour, because those powdered substances did not make my body feel good, when I started paying close attention. I defied all the conventional wisdom on eating three meals and several snacks a day to avoid low blood sugar.

Snacks really are an emotional event, they are not required for survival. They are not necessary for people in places where food is abundant and obesity runs rampant. Our bodies are well-adapted to periods without food, and our ancestors fasted regularly. Once we add back natural fats to our diet and ditch the foods that give us unnatural insulin spikes (flour, sugar and processed foods) we actually start becoming fat-adapted. Our bodies use ketosis to burn fat stores for energy, rather than just blood sugars.

Imagine my amazement, and my anger, when I realized there is a belief perpetuated that keeps so many people struggling with their weight. Sadly, there are public policies that perpetuate this incorrect belief and help perpetuate obesity and illness in our population. It is not about calories in and out, it is about insulin resistance.

But back to beliefs: what if I had not questioned this conventional wisdom, and had just accepted it as truth? The belief did not serve me. It actually was causing harm to my body and brain health. When I listened to my body, and paid attention to what made me feel more vital and energetic, I began to understand.

So lately I have been exploring other beliefs: what if money is not hard to earn? What if I am capable of certain things I never imagined? What if the ideas I learned by example in my culture were just plain misguided? Do these beliefs serve me? What if I adopted a new belief on that particular front?

Wow. It nearly makes my head explode, to consider about the possibilities. I am working right now on questioning my beliefs about money. I am sure to share what I learn in future posts.

But I challenge you also: What do you accept as true in your life that may not be serving you? Are there some beliefs that need cleaning out in your life? Consider the possibilities. I dare you.

 

 

 

Responding vs reacting

One of the benefits of practicing meditation and yoga consistently is that it teaches you the difference between response versus reaction.

To me, I define the difference in these as temporal, relating to time, and emotional, relating to reactivity. When we slow things down, in our breathing, our movement and our thinking, we can often realize when our reaction to a stimulus may be out of proportion.

For example, when someone make a remark I may perceive as offensive, my first reaction may be to get angry. However, if I give the words a moment to sit there, without immediately responding, I may consider the perspective of the speaker. I may pause and realize that they words they have said are not about me (or someone I love) but they are about them.

In fact, this practice has been so powerful for me, because I know my tendency has been to react, to say something back, or to at least indulge in anger or negativity. But as I have started to consider what I can do to act with more love and less fear in every situation, I realize I have a choice about how I respond.

This is true in meditation and yoga. When we realize there is a little discomfort in the body, maybe in the lower back or neck, we have a choice about how to respond. We can observe and watch the feeling. Sometimes it intensifies momentarily, and then dissipates. We can move and adjust if needed or try to breathe into that area.

This is contrary to the speed of our culture right now. We want more, we want faster, we do not wait to wait for things. Everything is available on demand, and we get frustrated when we have to wait for more than a few moments for a download. So we become conditioned to react, not to wait a moment and respond. Hey, I get it! I am the same way.

But what if we tried to move a little counter to what the culture tells us and we move more slowly and deliberately? We say no to having too many options open, and we take more time to respond mindfully instead of reacting. We improve our relationships, because we may ask clarifying questions instead of getting upset over a remark someone made.

It is worth trying, just taking a breath or two when something seems to “trigger” a response in you. Notice where the emotion lands in your body. Decide if you want to respond or let it go. I am far from perfect at this but I am playing with it more, and forgiving myself for the times when I did not have this skill.

It may have a radical impact on how you interact with the world. Let me know how it goes!

 

Why do we crucify ourselves?

I love early mornings, when I sit with my coffee and write, sometimes with a cat on my lap, sometimes just with a few fresh ideas in my head. After a good night’s sleep, my mind is clear, and sometimes the remnants of a dream come forth. Very often I forget them right away, and that is okay. My subconscious lets me know when I need to remember them.

This morning I had fragments in my head of a song by Tori Amos that I have not hear in years, possibly decades: “Why do we crucify ourselves?” So that was fascinating. It is a good question though. Why indeed?

Isn’t it amazing how some music imprints itself upon us in a way we cannot explain. This particular album was introduced to me by my best friend in college. The Little Earthquakes album was a staple of our music mix in those days.

“I gotta have my suffering so I can have my cross…”

Yeah. I guess some of us were taught to use Jesus as an example of behavior we should follow. I am going to risk offending people in this post, and probably confess my beliefs here and how they have changed over the years.

I wholeheartedly embrace the example of Jesus as a spiritual teacher, perhaps even a savior in a way. But I always puzzled at people who are so self-sacrificing that they neglect their own self care. The Bible says that Jesus died for our sins, that his suffering was our redemption. So why do we insist on suffering more than needed?

Every human being suffers. It is part of our DNA. It is part of what helps us have empathy for others, the understanding of sadness, of grief, of anger, of any depth of emotion. And yet when we are young, some of us are told “don’t cry, it will be okay” or “honey, don’t be sad.”

It reflects possibly our parents’ inability to deal with their own emotions that they asked us not to express our own. Everyone has sadness, anger or loneliness at times in their life. It is okay. Nothing has gone wrong. These emotions help us to connect with ourselves, and with others, and to let us know when things may need to change in our lives.

Anger is how we SHOULD react to injustice. It is something that can motivate action, though not necessarily sustain it. And yet many of us were taught not to express anger, but to fear it. Or we were not shown that it was okay to be sad sometimes. But being angry or sad is part of the human condition, nothing that should shame us.

When we resist or deny our feelings, that is when they cause more suffering. Our feelings are like vibrations in the body. They come, they move through us, and they complete themselves. Probably no other practice has helped me understand this than yoga and meditation. Every emotional state is temporary. Many of these states are a result of our thoughts rather than anything external.

Simply by feeling our feelings, possibly naming and acknowledging them, we allow them to move through us. They can be a guide to let us know we should reach out to friends and connect with loved ones. They can help us know when we are moving toward danger or toward joy.

As more people develop emotional intelligence, they may learn to identify and embrace their emotions rather than “buffer” them away with alcohol, food, Netflix or other addictions. Instead of piling on the guilt and shame over feeling sad or angry, they can release this added suffering and feel more peace.

I certainly have not mastered this, and have had to deliberately practice feeling my feelings, and identifying the thoughts behind them. But it has allowed me to stop crucifying myself over mistakes, or my own shortcomings. That serves nobody. I am pretty sure Jesus would agree with me on this one, and allow me to forgive myself.

 

 

 

Do you have a few minutes?

Happy February! To those of you who live in northern climates, we are three fifths through the winter, mas o menos.

Somehow when we get to February I always feel a surge of optimism. Spring is not so far away now, and those of us who get a little “cabin fever” this time of the year start noticing more light in the evenings.

Last February I started a habit of daily meditation. I had been meditating before that, and developing some consistency. But last year, I fully committed to a minimum of 5 minutes per day. It was a do-able goal, and I count my yoga sessions as part of my practice, so with 3 classes a week, that made the goal easier as well. This weekend I will celebrate an entire year consecutive days of meditation.

It has changed my life, particularly since I have struggled in the past with a.d.d. Meditation has helped me calm my mind and become less reactive to the “bouncing” thoughts. I can observe them and not follow them. I notice when I am caught in a story that I am spinning, and start to question whether that is even true. I hold less judgment about my mind, and more curiosity.

To those who have been thinking about starting a practice, I encourage you to start small. Literally commit to only 2 minutes the first time, focus on your breathing. It may not be easy at first! But then add a minute a day, and see how this changes the quality of your days overall. It may take a few weeks before you really start to notice benefits, so give it at least 30 days.

People used to tell me I needed to have at least 15 minutes for it. That was a big barrier. I simply could not imagine how I would fit that in every day. Now I average a lot more than that. But if I only fit in 5 minutes in the morning, and then get 10 minutes on a lunch hour, I still do it. It is not always easy, and sometimes I feel “too restless” to want to do it. But those are the times I am most likely to benefit, I now realize.

Last fall I read Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body (Goleman and Davidson). For a clinical researcher like me, I loved learning about experiments, past and present to demonstrate the value of meditation. The authors actually critique some of their early studies, the bias and the lack of proper controls. They review the field and conclude that yes, even with some flawed studies in the beginning, reliable science is beginning to emerge on the benefits of meditation.

If the idea of silent meditation is not your cup of tea, there are many guided meditations available at the Insight Timer app that I use. Jon Kabat Zinn has a book called Mindfulness for Beginners with some guided meditations that I really like also. Another resource that was great for me about 2 years ago when I first wanted to commit to practice was Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

For those of you who have a regular practice, I would love to hear how you got started. As I like to say about sleep, doing more of it is like a super-power! If only I had known when I was younger. But I know now. So I will continue to encourage people to try it, and see what works for them.

 

 

 

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.