Meditating

I am reading the book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — A True Story by Dan Harris, one of the morning anchors on ABC’s Good Morning America. Can’t say I followed his work as a journalist until I heard about this book.

As the title suggests, his mind had a penchant for causing him real stress. Ego directed his thoughts and behavior so much that he craved fast-paced, drama-filled moments, constantly reactive to what was going on outside of him.The book lays out his journey to quiet his mind. He delves briefly into Christianity, Judaism, new age spiritualism, and Buddhism. His argument becomes, begrudgingly, (due to his preconceived notions of it being hippy-dippy-drivel) that practicing meditation is the one thing that will quiet his mind. Learning how to meditate, simply being still and focusing his mind on the present, changed his life.

New to meditating he described it like this: “It was a rigorous brain exercise: rep after rep of trying to tame the runaway train of the mind. The repeated attempt to bring the compulsive thought machine to heel was like holding a live fish in your hands. Wrestling your mind to the ground, repeated hauling your attention back to the breath in the face of inner onslaught required true grit.”

As one who has struggled with anxiety for several years, I began searching for a way to quiet my anxious mind a couple years ago. I prayed for freedom from anxiety and tried to be stronger, tried to tackle my anxiety. But it didn’t work. I experienced physical anxiety symptoms frequently–breathing hard, mind racing, heart beating fast–which was not good for my body. A friend recommended I look into guided meditation. She had been helped by it greatly. I thought meditation was for Buddhist’s and, not being of that tradition, I thought it wasn’t for me. I had negative preconceived ideas as Dan Harris did. But with my friend’s recommendation, I decided to try it. I expected to hear mysterious new-age chants and thought I would need to sit cross-legged like a pretzel with my index fingers and thumbs touching in a circle, humming “om”.

But what I found when I listened for the first time to a guided meditation was soft, calm music and the soothing voice of a man telling me to think about my breath going in and out of my chest. He told me to sit comfortably on a chair or the floor and to close my eyes. He said if my mind wandered, I should gently bring my thoughts back to the breathing.

After my first time, a full 15 minutes in which I opened my eyes and looked at the clock about 45 times, I felt renewed and relaxed. My anxiety (for that day) was gone. Surprised, to say the least, I tried it again and again, getting used to the 15 minutes and not thinking about the clock.

To meditate means to engage in contemplation and reflection, or to think deeply or carefully about something. I find that by sitting or lying quietly with my eyes closed, and thinking about my breath going in and out of my chest, I am calmed. No hocus-pocus, no chanting, not weird. My pulse rate lowers, blood pressure decreases, and I feel rested, like all my senses are sharper.

The book 10% Happier is an excellent read. In addition to describing the quest to quiet his mind, Dan Harris chronicles his 15 years as a journalist covering some of our nation’s biggest stories. He describes his relationship with other national journalists, which I like because it feels like a sneak peek into the real lives of famous people we know only as their television persona. I recommend it. And if you struggle with a racing mind or with anxiety, I also recommend you dip your toes into meditation. No guidebooks are needed. Here are Dan’s directions on how to practice mindfulness meditate:

  1. Sit comfortably. You don’t have to twist yourself into a cross-legged position–unless you want to, of course. You can just sit in a chair. (You can also stand up or lie down, although the latter can sometimes result in an unintentional nap.) Whatever your position, you should keep your spine straight, but don’t strain.
  2. Feel your breath. Pick a spot: nose, belly, or chest. Really try to feel the in-breath and then the out-breath.
  3. This one is key: Every time you get lost in thought–which you will, thousands of times–gently return to your breath. I cannot stress strongly enough that forgiving yourself and starting over is the whole game.

 Make it a good week!

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On Control

imageThe other night Michael and I arrived home from dinner to a door we could not open. Our glass front door was stuck shut. Each trying the handle, jiggling and tugging, we realized quickly it was in vain. Thankfully we have another door to the house so I was able to get inside and tried to open the door from there. We discovered, each on opposite sides of the door, that the handle was stuck in the locked position.

An hour and a half, and a new door handle later, we were grateful to be done with this surprise project. And grateful that we worked on the project together without argument.

As far back as I can remember, I looked around and made mental note of any potential stressors. If I could anticipate the problem, I thought, I could control the outcome. I was vigilant with preparedness, sure that being in control was the best way to manage life. Trouble was that managing life isn’t very fun. And it is exhausting.

Several years ago, coming home to the door stuck shut would have left me furious. Its unpredictability would have been a monumental stressor. I would have taken it out on Michael. Most likely I would not have helped him with the project, and would have been steaming mad until it was fixed.

A few years ago, I made a conscious decision to stop trying to control the unexpected, to stop taking inventory of each possible stressor. I kind of think (and I’m not a lunatic or being dramatic about this) that God let me have a heart attack and subsequent health crises to show me who is in charge. I am not in charge, and I needed to loosen up. I needed go easier on myself, to realize that the beauty in my life would come from how I handled the stressors.

So much of life is not in the forecast. I believe learning this is one of life’s great lessons. Although taking things as they come does not come naturally to me, I enjoy choosing to operate this way. I hope that you can’t related at all to what I am talking about, that you never need to be the person who works at going with the flow. But if do struggle with the vigilance of anticipating stress, I encourage you to give it a shot.

Make it a good week!

 

It’s the Little Things

The usually quiet dirt road was busy with cars, 4-wheelers, and various farm implements passing by. People riding bicycles or walking with their lawn chairs and strollers in tow, passed by dressed in red, white, and blue garb. Everyone smiled.

The parade line-up was just a few lots down, so we were some of the first spectators to wave and cheer in exchange for candy, beads, and key chains tossed at us.

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The route of this annual 4th of July parade goes around the dirt road encircling Clear Lake, the home of my husband’s family cabin. Each year, we, whoever is at the cabin, haul our lawn chairs out to the road to watch the 4th of July parade.

I love parades. As long as there are not clowns (most are scary!), I love a good parade. Part of the fun is to see what people consider to be parade-worthy.

Cities around the USA hold parades and huge fireworks shows at night to celebrate the birth of our nation on this holiday. People have cook outs and get together’s with friends and family.

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At yesterday’s Clear Lake Parade, I noticed how the people on floats, in their collector cars, or on a piece of farm equipment, looked so proud and happy. This parade draws people from nearby small towns all around, and the little things are important. Everyone seemed excited.

It is in the little things that we can find so much joy. And, unfortunately, sometimes it takes a reminder to remember this.

In this culture with all the gadgets, apps, and cool stuff to occupy our time and our minds, it is easy to forget about the world outside that isn’t dependent upon an app or a gadget.

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I am grateful that I saw this year’s parade and spend the weekend in this small town. I noticed excitement in the air, joy on faces, and people cheering, running to grab candy from the road. It felt like a throwback to childhood, a simple 45 minutes of the good life.

May we all remember to notice the little things, and be on the lookout for them. You never know when a little joy is right around the corner.

May it a good week!

 

Keep Your Peace

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Adorable little photo, isn’t it?!  I laughed out loud when I saw it, thinking about the many times I have said this to myself. Last week, at work and at home, my nerves were tested by people with odd requests and unique issues that created more work for me.

But as irritated as I was, and feeling stress as I do, with pressure in my chest and a headache in my temples, I realized I can put myself at risk physically by allowing myself to be so irritated.

Annoyance based upon what others say or do just hurts me. And it does seem to come down to what I allow. Continue reading

Attention

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I have a story, or a bit of a rant, perhaps…

On my way to work every day, I drive a side-street, two lanes in each direction, to get to the main highway. A street light stands at this very busy intersection where the two-lane street meets the highway. Traffic backs up for a few blocks as people wait to either turn left onto the highway, go straight through the intersection, or turn right onto the highway. I turn right.

In the few blocks leading up to the busy intersection, there are other small streets and parking lots which intersect. Cars need to turn off the two-lane street onto the small streets and into the lots. But, often, other cars are blocking the way. People have not paid attention to where they are or what they are blocking. They know they need to stop due to the traffic waiting for the street light. And they stop right behind the car in front of them. Like sheep.

I pat myself on the back for always leaving space for cars to get through; I do not want to block an intersection, cause a back-up, or increase congestion. And when I drive past those who have blocked an intersection, I yell, (inside my car with the windows shut… no one can hear me, and I don’t have road rage) “You idiot! You’re blocking the street!”

It seriously bugs me that people do not seem to pay attention to what they are doing and they cause problems for other drivers.

I assume these street-blocking drivers are engrossed in the radio, talking on the phone, texting, or just deep in thought. Some may be jerks who don’t care they are blocking others; but most, I am sure, do it by accident. They are not paying attention to all of their surroundings.

We benefit from paying attention to what we are doing when we’re doing it. Multitasking, although meant to make us more productive, actually reduces productivity. Doing two different things that require different kinds of attention reduces our ability to do either one well. Some say it is the sure way to do both jobs poorly. I think our culture and modern lifestyle makes a lot of demands on our attention, and sometimes the schedule and constant demands take over.

But I believe we can be in charge of our schedule and demands. We can be intentional with our thoughts and attention. Entire industries involving meditation and yoga have sprung from our culture’s desire to slow down, to take a break from the demands of modern-day life. They help shut out the clutter and help us focus.

I don’t know if you struggle with this–multitasking or not paying attention to what you’re doing. But if you do, I encourage you to try an experiment. Consciously think about, attend to, the task at hand. Try to finish the email you are working on before looking at the one that just came in. Avoid answering the phone if you are engrossed in a project. Put your cell phone in your pocket or purse while at work rather than letting it pull your attention away each time it dings or vibrates.

If you do this experiment, intentionally focus your attention, I believe you will find three positive results:

  • You will enjoy the task or event rather than simply checking it off the list, onto the next thing.
  • The project or work will be done, touched once and finished, rather than drug out through distraction.
  • You will accomplish more in your day than you do when you let the demands of multitasking control you.

Make it a great week!

 

Curb Appeal

I love this time of year, Springtime. People seem peppier, a little brighter and happier, although sometimes sneezier due to allergies. Trees are budding, and green is popping out of the ground as new plants and flowers grow.

The other day I was cleaning up and pruning the landscape in our front yard. Last fall I left the flowers and greenery on small bushes for “visual interest.” Someone told me it looks nice to have some height in the landscaping over the winter, and it helps with curb appeal. I gave it a try, and it did look nice over the winter. But there really was nothing to those flowers or bushes. They were dead.

These are last year's flowers I cut out of the new, growing plant.

Last year’s flowers that I cut out of the new, growing plant.

As I cut off the dead flowers and pulled old leaves out of the bushes, the landscaping looked much better, cleaner, and healthier. It got me to thinking about spring cleaning, for my life in general. I wonder how much I do to maintain my visual interest or curb appeal–holding onto a façade throughout a season.

If you have a chronic illness, or have had a medical condition, addiction in your home, a significant loss, or perhaps a child making his own choices on what seems to be the wrong path, you probably know what I’m talking about. The façade we put on for other people, just for appearances, is like the bushes left for the winter for visual interest. It is just that, a façade.

What we say to others about ourselves is selective and, with Facebook and other social media spaces, it is easy to post the positive things in our lives–the good curb appeal. When asked how we’re doing, it is often easier to say, “I am doing fine,” than to really get into the truth of the pain we feel. Or, we try to show our best physical selves when we are holding onto unhealthy habits, or dysfunctional relationships.

This spring, in addition to pruning, weeding, and washing windows, I am thinking more about my life in general, and what needs to go. Perhaps the easiest person to fool is ourselves. But at some point, it becomes obvious that we need to be honest and make changes. What is the visual interest that you need to let go of? In what ways are you pretending, putting on a façade? Can you prune some of it away?

The little Autumn Joy Sedum bushes after pruning.

The little Autumn Joy Sedum bushes after pruning.

Buoyancy

The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.  ~  Nelson Mandela

Remember when you were a kid? When you played softball and struck out? When you played goalie on the soccer team and allowed the game-losing goal? When, as a top student, you bombed the final? When you didn’t get asked to the prom?

Okay, I’m not trying to bum you out. Failure feels really bad. Even after years have passed, we can still feel that pain in the pit of the stomach, reminding us of how that bad experience felt. But failure is one of those inconvenient and difficult facts of life.

Learning how to fail, accept and learn from it, is critical. We need to know we are okay and secure, even after a mistake. And we need to try again.

This is resiliency. Actually, I like the word buoyancy better because I see a visual image of a boat buoyantly moving on the water, floating easily with the waves, never covered for long by water, always reclaiming its place on the surface.

There are a few mistakes in my life that I remember vividly; the wrong words said in a relationship, an error at work with huge financial impact, mistakes from moving too quickly. It felt really bad each time, and I thought if time could be reversed, words retracted, then the world would be so much better!

But, with time, I can recall the lesson in each one. And I haven’t made those mistakes again. Likely never will.

I think the ability to absorb failure begins in childhood, and I wonder if it is taught rather than simply attained. If children see it is okay to strike out, to allow the goal, to get a bad grade, and are encouraged and supported through the difficulty, their sense of self will be bolstered to sustain some failure.

Mistakes and failure usually have higher stakes in adulthood than they do in childhood. But our reactions to them can mirror our reactions to our childhood mistakes. If we learn how to get up again after the failures as children, we will be better able to get up again as adults.

I wish no failure for you. But if you are going through a rough patch, or have made a mistake, I encourage you to get up and try again. It is just one stop on the path to success.

Make it a good week!