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!

Making Mistakes?

The biggest mistake we can make is being afraid to make a mistake. ~ Joyce Meyer

In college I had a roommate who was funny, caring, and energetic. She was very bright, a pre-med student majoring in biology. Everyone loved to be around her; that is, until it came time for her to make a decision. What to eat, what to do, where to go… the options seemed endless to her and she didn’t have an easy time landing on just one.

Courses were limited to a certain number of students so we were urged to register early for classes in order to get a seat. One semester my roommate perseverated over the very best course schedule for so many days that, by the time she registered, two of her top choices were no longer available. While the schedule she ended up with looked fine to the rest of us, she was disappointed for days and felt like she was set back on her goals.

A depth of indecision like this can be a real roadblock. Perhaps born of insecurity, worry of what others may think, or fear of making a mistake, it stops us from moving forward. My roommate’s parents had high expectations of her as the first in the family to go to college. She then had high expectations of herself. But her fear of making mistakes led to negative outcomes and complete inaction.

Perhaps fear of making a mistake happens to most of us given the right set of circumstances. It can be almost terrorizing to make a decision. It has certainly been a limiting factor for me as I let fears of doing the wrong thing stop me from doing anything. But, awareness is the first step toward change and when we realize how our fears or beliefs are limiting us, we can make efforts to change them.

I have found that it takes immense energy to perseverate over a decision; even about something fun like what to do on vacation. If I spend time weighing options, listing ideas, becoming invested in each idea and considering the importance of each one, I’m overwhelmed by the planning and aggravated about what is supposed to be a fun vacation before it has even begun.

How are your beliefs limiting you? Is fear of making a mistake stopping you from doing something important? I challenge you to make a choice, step out in faith, and see what happens. Chances are you will feel much lighter by not allowing the decision to overwhelm you. Think of all the energy and time we can save!

Make it a good week!

 

To Thrive

I really like words. Reading, writing, learning, and considering the use of various words — I dig it.

In the song called Thrive by Casting Crowns, the lyrics say:

We know we were made for so much more than ordinary lives. It’s time for us to more than just survive. We were made to thrive.

These impactful words paint a dichotomous picture. We were made for more than ordinary lives, for more than just surviving. To survive is to remain alive, to subsist, to make it through. But we were made to thrive, to flourish, to grow, and prosper. Thriving is full of excitement, life, and growth.

I notice a difference in my life, in how I feel about my life and activities, in times of survival versus times of thriving. Heck, sometimes survival is excellent, the very best option. There are definitely times where I have been incredibly grateful for survival.

But during regular days, not the life versus death kind of days, sometimes it feels like all we can do is to survive from one day to another, rushing from place to place, never enough time in the day to get everything done. Never enough time to meet everyone’s needs. We look forward to the weekend, or days off, to get off the treadmill of weekday life and to have more time to ourselves.

But to thrive is an entirely different experience. I think of times when I feel like I’m growing, I’m excited, doing something that makes an impact. I feel like I thrive when I am creating a healthy meal, when I am having dinner with an old friend, unaware of the time as it passes. I thrive in new environments, in being part of a group that is moving forward on something. I thrive on the idea that the way I relate to others makes a positive difference to them.

What makes you thrive? Do you make efforts to use your time in ways that make you thrive?

Make it a good week!

The Other Side of Suffering

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Kauai, Hawaii – Honeymoon, 2007

Recently I read an article in the New York Times called “What Suffering Does” by David Brooks that I want to share with you. I promise it isn’t as bleak or depressing as it sounds! And the topic of this post has nothing to do with the photo above; I just love the photo. It was the view from the condo Michael and I stayed in for our honeymoon.

The idea of suffering implies pain and long-term distress doesn’t it? To suffer is to undergo, to be subject to, to endure. We know that when a person uses the word “suffer” they mean more than a passing sense of pain or distress; they mean something persistent, something gnawing and deep.

I guess I found David Brooks’ article so very interesting because he is naming and describing something I have felt but never thought about trying to describe. I spent many months in a state of fear and anxiety after my heart attack. Diagnosed with a rare disease of the arteries with hardly anything known about it was incredibly overwhelming. I consider what I went through as mental and emotional suffering.

From suffering comes change. A person doesn’t go through an extended period of physical, mental or emotional torment without changing.

And although incredibly difficult, suffering can produce positive results. David Brooks talks about parents who lose a child developing a foundation; a person with a chronic illness may start a support group. Someone who has suffered through a long-term stressful situation in their work may start their own business helping others manage stress. There are myriad examples of people who have suffered through a season of loss, defeat, or illness. They have emerged, not fully and not completely without pain. They are different, deeper in thoughts, perhaps more positive.

The point is, although none of us would choose to suffer, it is these seasons of pain that shape us. Looking back on what made us stronger, that which propelled us into doing something more meaningful with our lives, may be the events that caused us pain.

If this topic is of interest to you, I highly recommend reading David Brooks’ article.

Make it a good week!

 

Limitations

Sarah lived to celebrate 110 years. A young woman of civil war times, her destiny was to stay home safe and sound in Illinois, cooking for others. But her heart was with those fighting for basic freedoms for all. Sarah’s deeply held passion was freedom for slaves.

The country, in midst of war, had sent many of its young men to the battlefield. How could Sarah help except to be one of these young men? She cut her hair, disguised herself as a young man, and entered the army. In more than six months served, no one suspected.

President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation at that time, freeing the slaves, and ending Sarah’s time in the war. Returning home she attended college, choosing to study medicine. Given the injuries she had seen in the war she wanted to be a physician.

This story came from a writing workshop I attended over the weekend. In a session on freelance writing we divided into pairs and were given a hypothetical story to write about. One in the pair was the interviewer and the other the interviewee.

I was paired with a young woman next to me. She had rolled into the room in an electric wheelchair, arms atrophied, with a beautiful black lab service animal accompanying her.

I drew our assignment from a group of small pieces of paper. Opening it, Sarah and I read together, “You are a 110 year old civil war veteran.”

My immediate thought was, Oh, no, what would I say about this? But thankfully Sarah said she would like to be the interviewee. Her deep eyes twinkled as she looked at me saying, “Well, obviously, as a woman I couldn’t be in the war. I’ll disguise myself as a man!” Thus, the story began.

She created the story; I asked questions to fill in a few details and in just a few moments we were finished. As the interviewer, I read my version of her story aloud. Then, as the interviewee, she read hers. Each pair in the class did the same with their stories. The lesson was about perspective; two people telling the same story or retelling facts will do so from a different perspective, in a different manner.

When I first saw Sarah I had ideas about limitations. But when she opened her mouth and created this tale about being a civil war veteran, I believed her. I imagined her as a 17 year old girl cutting her hair and leaving Illinois as a boy. From her mind and voice she had no limitations.

Among the many valuable takeaways from the writing workshop, I may have learned the most from my experience with Sarah. She made me think about limitations, about what exactly they are. How do we limit ourselves? In what ways can we do amazing things and attain extraordinary goals, even given our limitations?

I have a feeling I’ll mull this over throughout the week. Happy spring, and make it a good week!

Advice I would give my young self…

Lately I have been thinking about my age. Not thinking I am old or feeling close to my expiration date. But I’ve been thinking about habits and trying to make some changes.         I read somewhere that it takes 66 days or 66 times of doing something to change a habit… not a particularly easy effort.

It got me to thinking about habits I formed in my 20’s, the decade in which so much of my adulthood was shaped.

If I could go back and give my 20-something self advice that I would actually accept, here are a few things I would say…

1. Don’t fret. Truly, truly, today has enough worries of its own. You don’t need to worry about tomorrow or next week because they will arrive soon enough and take care of themselves. What other people think of you, how to handle an upcoming situation, worrying will not change a thing. The thing will happen and will usually be just fine. You can avoid wrinkles on your forehead from unnecessary fretting later in life.

2. Go easy on yourself. There is no need to beat yourself up (figuratively) for making a mistake or for saying the “wrong” thing. Most people do they best they can most of the time — and that includes you. Be realistic, don’t be a jerk, but be gentle with how you view yourself.

3. Develop good habits. Don’t wait until later. Decisions you make now about how you eat, whether or not you exercise, whether to make reading a part of your daily routine, and most other habits, will stick with you. It doesn’t get easier to develop good habits as you age. And developing them while you’re young provides more time to reap the benefits.

4. Stand tall. You are a tall woman, tall enough to touch the ground at 5′ 9″. There is no need to stand on one leg with the other bent to appear shorter. And no need to feel “less than” because you’re big. Be proud of who you are and show it with your posture. Wear high heels when the time is right. It doesn’t get easier to start later!

5. Consider gratitude. Life will bring challenges your way. People will disappoint you, and your heart will be broken a few times. But you will also have many successes, exciting opportunities, and your heart will be filled with love. Try to consider what you are grateful for every day; gratitude for what you have, for your relationships, for simple things like sunshine. It will help from falling into and remaining in negativity.

I am sure there are many more tidbits my 20-something self would benefit from but these are the few that first came to mind. What would you tell your young self, your 20-something self or your teenage self?

Make it a good week!