Friday, March 15, 2013

On 2013 - My Year of the Friendship!

This will just be a short post today - I may write more on the topic of friendship later on.  I have done some reflection over the past few weeks and decided that now that excitement of my wedding has passed, my "Friendship Muscles" need some flexing.

As I've written in past posts, I've found that maintaining strong friendships through divorces and break-ups and moves has been very difficult for me. Some dear friendships that I've made over the years are hanging in there - but they've definitely suffered from my move from the Midwest to the West Coast and a 3-hour time difference. Other friendships that had the potential to develop into stronger connections withered when our common group or context was lost due to a break up or life change.

I always thought that I'd make some of my strongest life friendships when I become a mother someday, but I'm starting to think that it is silly to wait for that phase of my life in order to expand and deepen my social circle - I should put in the time and energy to do it now and develop the habits and practices and traditions that will sustain all of my friendships through sleep deprivation and grueling car pool schedules and the other trials and tribulations of parenthood.

Luckily, I did a little research the last few weeks and discovered that I am not alone in this struggle, and that there are resources to help me strengthen my friendships and friendship skills - in particular, there is a new book out called, Friendships Don't Just Happen!: The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends by Shasta Nelson

I just bought the book and joined her online social community,  In addition, I have taken an even bigger leap of faith and created a new Meetup group - SF Girlfriends Book Club & Social Group.

I'm hoping that facilitating this group will inspire and energize me in my own journey to make 2013 my "Year of the Friendship" and also allow me to help other women in the San Francisco area do the same.  Please check out my new meetup site and consider joining or spreading to word to women who you think might be interested - this a whole new adventure for me, and I could really use your help!

In the meantime, I would also appreciate your insights as readers across the globe on the important and challenging practice of making and maintaining friends.  What has worked well for you over the years?  What pitfalls have you encountered and had to overcome?  What recommendations do you have for me and other readers who may be embarking on trying to bolster their friendship circles?  Please add your comments below and let us know what you think!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

On Friendships Across a Lifetime

My Wedding - Big Transition!
I haven’t completely given up on this blog, but it has been a while since I have written - apologies to my readers!  Today I am feeling nostalgic and figured I’d share some of what has been on my mind lately.   I’m currently in the process of moving across town to live with my new husband and am also part of a new office and department at work – in almost every phase of my life, things are shifting and changing, mostly for the better.

My AGD Girls in College!
One side effect of all of this change and transition is it is reminding me of the phases and people and memories that have come before this current one.   I find myself pondering a line from Nelly Furtado’s song, “Try.”  It goes, “I have lived so many lives, though I’m not old…”  That quote really resonates with me – as I think back over the years to my childhood and high school days in the Chicago suburbs, undergraduate days in Indiana, post-undergraduate days in Cincinnati, grad school days in Columbus, Girly Girl days when I first moved to San Francisco, then my Geek Love days in San Francisco, and now my Biodanza days in San Francisco.   I’ve also had many wonderful colleagues come and go throughout that time.

In addition to the friends and acquaintances that I’ve made through activities and other things directly related to me, I’ve also formed relationships over the years through people that I’ve dated – my first husband, my post-divorce relationships, and now through my second husband. 

On one hand, I feel blessed and grateful for all of these friendships –and I’m still friends with many of these individuals on Facebook and through other virtual means.  I enjoy catching up on what they are up to and cheer them on as they get new jobs, new relationships, and now as many of them become parents.  

But, I am also aware that as I have moved around and across the country and as I have moved out of these various phases and love relationships that my connection with many of these friends has weakened over the years.  Most of the fault for that lies with me.  I am unfailingly bad at maintaining long-distance relationships – and often have trouble picking up the phone and calling people who even live in the same city as me. 

I suspect that I am not alone in this quandary – or at least I hope I am not.  In this day and age, it seems to be not unusual to have wide networks of acquaintances and online connections but few deep, lifelong core friendships.   I don’t quite know how to fix this – it seems to take up most of my energy just to make time to go home and reconnect with my family in Chicago each year – I worry even that those relationships suffer from my distance away.

I saw a cartoon on Facebook the other day that showed someone’s wake with only one person there in the audience discussing how surprised they were to see the place empty because the person has so many friends on Facebook.  I laughed – but I also secretly cringed wondering if that will be me someday.

Do you think this technology that we have is a blessing or a curse?  On one hand, it is a lifeline for me because I still keep up with friends around my phone on my smartphone on the bus, but maybe it is also a curse because it lulls me into a false sense of security – it gives me a false impression that I am “keeping up my friendships” when really I am missing some deeper, more authentic way to do it. 

My husband is a master at calling his friends frequently – he is constantly chatting with people on the phone and making plans to see them and talking about what is going on in their lives – I am really inspired watching him and suspect that he is on to something, but also exhausted watching him.  When I come work at the end of the day or am relaxing after a long work week of working with students, the last thing I want to do is pick up the phone and call someone.  Yet, who has more close friendships?  Who has friendships that have lasted a lifetime?

Someone passed me a quote once that said something like, “Friendships are there for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.”  I really like that quote – and I also like that you can’t predict in advance which of the three will be true for your relationships.  I do hope to make some close friendships with fellow moms when I have kids someday and have heard that those can be some of the closest friendships. 

Still, how do you make and keep those friendships that do last for a lifetime?  And, how do you know where to even start?  Which phase of your life do you pull from?  Should you focus on the people that you click the most with?  The people who are available the most?  The people who live closest to you? 

My Wonderful Bridesmaids
So many people over the years are near and dear to my heart (hopefully some of you reading this), and it is not for lack of love that I don’t keep in touch better.  I wish I was stronger at maintaining friendships and I do get lonely sometimes.  I was just listening to the song, “Now and Forever” by Carole King and really teared up – somehow this latest round of transitions is really bringing up old memories and making me miss my friends near and far more than usual - even as I'm busy organizing and packing and taking care of logistics. 

My Wonderful Family
I do think about moving back to the Midwest, too – and maybe I will someday.   I spend my life feeling torn between two coasts.  I love my job and the work that I do out here at the University of San Francisco, I love the weather out here (esp. when it’s not foggy), and I love the culture and opportunities available out in San Francisco.  But, I miss being closer to the people I love in the Midwest and being able to drive to Bloomington or Louisville or Cincinnati for a road trip.   I miss being able to really be there for and with my friends who have kids – to experience more than just the pictures or an occasional visit.   I miss casual get togethers with friends – birthday parties and potlucks and holiday celebrations other than the big ones.  When I have my own family, I desperately want them to experience the kind of love and camaraderie that I grew up with.

What will the future hold?  I don’t know – I suspect that this problem isn’t going to go away and that I will be torn between two coasts for more than a little while.  After all, even I did move back to Chicago, I would be missing the life and the connections that I have out here.

My Wonderful Mom - She Is My Best Friend!
I don’t have any easy answers – but I try to be open and honest on this blog.  And, this is what is on my mind today – and has been for a while now.  For those of you that I know personally, I miss you – and I hope that we get to connect more soon.  You are very important to me, and I cherish the memories that we have together.  

For those of you that I don’t know personally, hopefully this has raised some questions or made you think more deeply about a predicament that I believe is emblematic of the age we are in – as life flies by and connections come and go, how you make and maintain friendships across a lifetime?   Are Twitter and Facebook the answer – or is there something more that we are missing?

Nelly Furtado - "Try"

Carole King - "Now and Forever"

Now and Forever Lyrics
Songwriters: KING, CAROLE

Now and forever, you are a part of me
And the memory cuts like a knife
Didn't we find the ecstasy, didn't we share the daylight
When you walked into my life

Now and forever, I'll remember
All the promises still unbroken
And think about all the words between us
That never needed to be spoken

We had a moment, just one moment
That will last beyond a dream, beyond a lifetime
We are the lucky ones
Some people never get to do all we got to do
Now and forever, I will always think of you

Didn't we come together, didn't we live together
Didn't we cry together
Didn't we play together, didn't we love together
And together we lit up the world

I miss the tears, I miss the laughter
I miss the day we met and all that followed after

Sometimes I wish I could always be with you
The way we used to do
Now and forever, I will always think of you
Now and forever, I will always be with you

[ Lyrics from: ]

Saturday, March 10, 2012

On Routines - and Cherishing Life Moment by Moment

The other night, I starting thinking about all of the different phases that my life has held.   I have only been alive for three decades, but it feels like I have lived so many lives in that time.   I was sitting on the chaise lounge in my studio apartment, playing around on my computer, and my boyfriend was snoozing on the bed.  This is a peaceful and comfortable scene that has recreated itself a number of times in my near future and is one element of the routines and settings that make up my life right now.   Yet, all of a sudden, and it occurred to me that this will not always be my routine and setting – someday I’ll be in a different time and place and look at back on this time in my life remembering this particular chapter.

Once I started thinking along that path, I started to recollect various chapters in my life…what my pre-bed routine was like in other apartments and other relationships.  What it is like getting up and getting ready for work in this apartment – and what is was like doing so in other homes and with other partners at other times in my life.    On that note, I started thinking about what my experience is like going in to work now – and what it used to be like – who I would see during my day, what my office was like, and what the rhythm of the day was like.   I also thought of what activities and places I go to now after work – and other activities and places I used to go at other times in my life – yoga classes, dance classes, Jazzercise classes, happy hours – and how I would get there – listening to music in my car or listening to my Ipod on the bus – even walking through the city as I did in Seville, Spain to get home from class after school.

The only thing that unites each of these varying routines is while they were an integral part of my life, I didn’t really notice them at the time – every once in a while, I came up for air, looked around, and observed what was around me (thus why I still have recollections to ponder).  But, most of the time, I didn’t notice much at all – to me, that time and place in my life wasn’t very notable – it seemed that that routine would last forever, so why bother paying attention to it?  Sometimes, I even felt bored or frustrated with the monotony of it.  Yet, somewhere along the way, that chapter and that routine came to a close – never to come again in exactly the same way – except in my memories.

Lately, I’ve thinking about motherhood – what it would like to be a mom, what would be necessary to be a mom and a loving wife, how I would manage all of the stresses and tasks that come with raising a child, and how having a child would change my life forever.   Right now, I am blessed to have many moments of solitude and reflection in my life – time to clear my head, listen to music, take a bath, meditate, look up information on the computer or plan for a future possibility.   I certainly enjoy those moments now – but I am also realizing that someday those moments could be few and far between – and I could back wistfully at the freedom and independence that I have now.   Right now, I am also blessed to have plenty of time in my life to go to Biodanza classes and yoga classes and meditation groups and on various retreats – someday, if I have a child, I know that I would have to be much more choosey about what I do with my time when I am not at work and not with my family.   Finally, right now, there are so many tender moments of cuddling and sleeping in and connecting that I have with my sweetheart – without a baby or toddler in between us.  Someday those moments could be more difficult to steal way and our time together could be interrupted and strained by over-exhaustion.

Knowing all of those things doesn’t convince me not to have a child – although it does make me think carefully about whether I’d want to have more than one child.   Knowing all of those things make me think how important it is that I prepare myself for eventual motherhood – and really soak in all that I possibly can about this time in my life – about the routines and the dreams and the special moments that I experience day after day.  The sunny walks to the bus, the tender cuddly mornings, the enriching classes, and the wonderful moments of reflection like I’m having right now as I write this.  All of those moments are so tender and precious – and if I don’t take the time to see and smell and taste and hear and feel every detail, before I know it they will be gone.

Even if life doesn’t have it in the cards for me to have a child or marry my current partner, the change of routine and setting is still bound to happen one way or another – because that is the nature of existence – change is the only constant in life.   Someday my office will change again at work – or my coworkers will shift or my entire job will shift.  Someday the place where I go to Biodanza class will change or my teacher will change or people in my group will stop coming and new people will take their place.  Little my little, our routines shift until one day we look back and realize that various parts of our life are no longer there.  Sometimes the change is dramatic – with a big move or breakup or layoff.  Other times, it is more subtle and sneaks up on us.

I’ve been reading this book lately called Hand Wash Cold:Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life.  It is written by a Zen priest named Karen Maezen Miller who is a mom and housewife and writer and who grew up in typical American existence.  I’ve been reading it at lunch and really like it – it always seems to bring me out of my planning / ruminating mode and back to the present.  On the back cover of the book, it says, “Fall in Love with the Life You Already Have.”  How wonderful is that?  Thinking about it, I really do love the life that I have right now – and I suspect that if I had taken the time to notice what was in my life at various times in the past, I could have found stuff to love in those “life’s,” too. 

Two passages of Ms. Miller’s book about time really stood out to me today. 

She says (p. 130, “I tell people about how much time and effort it takes to be a wife and mother.  About how it occupies my whole life.  I say I can’t imagine a time when I’ll have more time, when my life will once more be my own.  In truth, I struggle daily to give even one measly minute of undistracted company to my family, and I’m here all day.  When do we actually have the children we say we have?  When are we actually in the relationships we’re in?  What portion of the years, the days, the hours of our lives do we spend being the people we define ourselves to be?  Fulfilling the roles that we have chosen?”

Although I am not currently a wife or a mother, I can totally relate to this passage.  I am often feeling like there is not even time to do what I want to do – and focused on getting to a magic, future time when I’ll feel like I’ve “arrived.”  But, the idea that that time will come is a myth – the only time we have is now – right now.   And, the idea that that place will come is a myth as well – the only place we have is here – right here. 

This Thursday, my horoscope said that I was to have an excellent career day – that I would be really successful and unbeatable and all of the stars were aligned to support it.  When I read that horoscope, I pictured giving a “knock’em dead” presentation to some higher-ups or receiving news that I’d been promoted or given a raise – some dramatic demonstration of career success.  I was a bit puzzled, though, because all I had planned for that day on my calendar was a bunch of student advising appointments and a webinar.   As it turned out, I had a string of really meaningful conversations with students that day.  Conversations where I was able to be fully present and ask the right questions and help students find their way.  Conversations where hopefully I made a difference and inspired "a ha" moments that will help students change their lives for the better.  

Along the way, as I was reflecting that day at lunch – it occurred to me that that is the success story – that is the moment, the arrival that I’ve been striving for.  To be doing my lives work and make a difference in some student’s lives – that is what I have trained for and what I strive to do better and better each day – to have some success with that is truly something to cherish and celebrate.  This is my life –and my work legacy – one student at a time, one presentation at a time, hour by hour, day by day.  Blink – and I’ll miss it.

Ms. Miller also said, (p. 139), “I’m sure it can seem to some that all they have to do is work, leaving all the other priorities to languish on the periphery.  I hope for your sake that when it is time to work, all you do is work.  But in those hours when the choice is truly yours, what do you choose to put in front of you?  Where do you cast your enraptured eye?  Where do you lose yourself?  Where do you invest your time, your life, and your love, knowing whatever you pay attention to thrives?”

I want to strengthen these habits of mind of paying attention, being present, and appreciating the moment so that at each stage of my life, whether marriage, motherhood, or whatever life has in store for me, I will truly be there to experience it.  I want to be the mom who puts down my computer or phone and gives full attention to my kid.  I want to be the wife who truly sees and appreciates her husband and lets him know it every day.  I want to be the daughter and granddaughter who really cherishes each moment with her loved ones as they grow older.  And, I want to really be there – with friends, with students, with my Biodanza group, in nature – to really experience my life, moment by moment as it unfolds.

Lately, in Biodanza class, I’ve been feeling our moments of beginning and ending in the circle very strongly.  We dance holding hands in the circle – and often start moving counter-clockwise together to the music.  As the circle gains momentum, I feel a wondrous sensation when I relax and surrender to the movement – letting my self get pulled around and in and out by the circle – and simultaneously pulling those around me.   If I heed to the call, I can let go of the needs to cling or control and focus my energy on just being – on hearing the music, taking in the gazes of my fellow Biodanzeros as they go around the circle, and feeling their touch and the ground beneath me, supporting me and holding me each step of the way.

Life is that way, too – a continuous circle of movement – cycles –  beginnings and endings – we go around the circle and end up back where we started – like a merry go round.  If we stop straining to see what is ahead of us in the circle and just surrender to the ride, we can use our focus and energy to just be – to “fall in love with the life we already have” – moment by moment, step by step, breath by breath.

To close, I’m attaching below a video promoting Ms. Miller’s book, “Hand Wash Cold” which I highly recommend – and a song I heard the other day that reminded me of this idea – the importance of staying present and remembering each moment as it happens.  Finally, an inspiring image / poster I stumbled across recently - called the Holstee Manifesto.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

On Embracing Life’s Unexpected Turns and “Mishaps”

Like many of you out there reading this, I started 2012 with a few New Year’s Resolutions that I would like to achieve.  In addition to building on the life balance that I cultivated in 2011, I have set these specific intentions for myself:

1.     Exercise more regularly and vigorously – ideally in activities that bring me joy.
2.     Eat a healthier diet – i.e. fewer processed foods, more veggies, less sugar, less red meat/pork.
3.     Develop a more regular meditation practice – ideally meditating 5+ times / week.

Of course, none of these intentions are things that I wasn’t already striving towards in 2011 and none are them are completely out of whack with what I am already doing.   Plus, there are some other ancillary goals that I am continuing to work towards, too – like being an effective contributor at work, keeping my place organized, staying better on top of the laundry, etc. 

Still, I took an inventory of how I am “doing” against my ideal “balance-o-meter” and determined that if I can add these three key habits to the mix in 2012, I will have more health and wellness and my life will be in greater balance.

After the first two days of the New Year, I was off to a good start – and feeling excited.  I went to my weekly meditation group on Sunday night (Jan 1st) and had a really good sit.  Then, on Monday (Jan 2nd), I spent my last day of Winter Break cleaning my apartment, shopping for healthy foods, and attending a challenging Aharaj / Vinyasa Yoga class at my favorite studio.  I felt energized and confident that with two productive days under my belt and an organized and ready living space, I couldn’t help but achieve my New Year’s Resolutions.

Unfortunately, life had other plans for me, and on Day 3 of the New Year (Tuesday), I headed back to work and within hours came down with a full-blown cold virus.  Not an “ Oh, I’ll just suffer through this minor annoyance” sniffle-ly cold, but a full-on, get the tissues ready, nose-blowing, sneezing, achy, “Get me some NyQuil! “cold which took me right back home from work and into bed for most of the week.

For the first day or so, I was devastated by this turn of events.   I railed against the universe, threw myself a pity party, and bemoaned my fate.  What about that new Hip Hop class I was going to start?  What about getting a jump-start on projects that needed to get done at work?  How could I handle losing momentum on my New Year’s Resolutions?  What did I do wrong to deserve being sick so soon into 2012?

From there, I proceeded to get angry with myself about not handling this turn of events in a very “Zen-like” spirit.  I felt like a Bad Buddhist, a Resolution Failure, a Germ Bucket, and a Loser.  Basically, for the third and fourth day of the New Year, I was not a very pleasant person to be around (bless my boyfriend's heart for putting up with me) – and I was definitely not a glowing example of progress.  The perfectionist part of me was not a happy camper.

Now that my days of pouting have passed and I am slowly starting to rejoin the land of the living, I’ve been reflecting on this situation and recalling some of the teachings that this episode exemplifies.

First of all, I told this story to a Buddhist friend on the bus this week, and as soon as I finished relating what happened, he immediately noted what a wonderful example of the Four Noble Truths it was.  I hadn’t fully thought about it, but he is totally right – this story is an excellent example of the first two noble truths of Buddhism.  Sylvia Boorstein gives this insightful  description of the first two noble truths in her book, It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness (p. 19)

“The First Noble Truth declares unflinchingly, straight out, that pain is inherent in life itself just because everything is changing.  The Second Noble Truth explains that suffering is what happens when we struggle with whatever our life experience is rather than accepting and opening to our experience.  From this point of view, there’s a big difference between pain and suffering.  Pain is inevitable; lives come with pain.  Suffering is not inevitable.  If suffering is what happens when we struggle with our experience because of our inability to accept it, then suffering is an optional extra.”

Looking at my illness from this perspective, my being sick was not the cause of my suffering.  Being sick was unfortunate, yes.   But, what was really making me miserable was my initial refusal to accept that my New Year’s Resolutions and goals weren’t going off as planned and my frustration at myself for somehow doing something wrong and “getting myself sick.”  Beyond drinking fluids and resting, there wasn’t much I could do to make my body heal faster – but I had a powerful opportunity to stop my suffering about being sick.

This newest chapter in my life has also brought to mind some recent teachings from a David Richo book that I am currently reading called, The Five Things We Cannot Change…and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them.

David Richo uses his years of experience as a psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner to describe these truths in layman’s terms.  According to him, we can greatly increase our happiness, freedom, and fulfillment by embracing five “givens” of human existence:

1.     Everything Changes and Ends
2.     Things Do Not Always Go According to Plan
3.     Life Is Not Always Fair
4.     Pain is a Part of Life
5.     People Are Not Always Loving and Loyal All the Time

During the early part of this week, the only one of his five givens that I wasn’t complaining about was #5 - luckily the people around me were great.  Otherwise, I was upset that my Winter Break and illness-free state were ending; I was upset that my New Year’s Resolutions weren’t off to the start that I planned, I was upset that I keep coming down with colds even though I work hard to have healthy living habits, and I was upset that I kept blowing my nose and sneezing my head off every two seconds.   

According to Dr. Richo, it’s not just that these five givens are unfortunate and we need to learn to “deal with them” in order to be happy.  He takes it a step further to explain why we should actually be glad that these five givens exist – because endings clear the way to new beginnings, and changes in plan can lead to serendipitous opportunities, and pain is a a powerful teacher which can lead us to empathy and compassion and wisdom if we let it.  

When we spend endless energy trying to control our experience (as I often to) by strictly abiding to resolutions, hanging on to jobs and relationships for dear life, and planning every moment of our life down to the smallest detail, we miss the opportunity say “Yes” to whatever opportunities comes our way. 

Doris Day
As Dr. Richo puts it (p. 13), “To focus on being in control hinders our chances of finding the new possibilities that arise when surprising directions appear on our path.”  He mentions several examples of famous people who stumbled upon their destiny after a wrong turn came their way – like Doris Day whose injury ended her dreams of being a dancer but cleared the path towards her becoming a famous singer/actress and Margaret Mitchell whose injury held back her journalism career but cleared the way for her to stay home and write the novel Gone with the Wind, her legacy to the world. 

Braised Spinach - Yum!
In my own case, staying home this week allowed me to enjoy several opportunities that might not have otherwise come my way.  For instance, by being at home, I was able to experiment with cooking several new healthy dishes and get my eating resolution off to a good start.  Also, by being able to work from home a few days instead of jumping right back into the office right away, I was able to better prioritize which task items needed attention right away and start this first week of the New Year in a more proactive rhythm rather than falling into my usual habit of clearing my Email Inbox first, meeting with students, or procrastinating when I really should be devoting time to getting projects done.   Finally, who knows what other opportunities I may have set into motion by getting sick and staying home this week – sometimes our karma and destinies aren't revealed until later down the line.

All in all, if you are also working on some New Year’s Resolutions or goals of your own, I encourage you to remember these noble truths and givens and try not to be so hard on yourself.   In the end, January 1st is just a figment of our imagination and a date that we put on the calendar.  Each moment is an opportunity for a fresh start, and sometimes a “mistake” or “wrong turn” can actually lead to greater gifts. 

Beautiful Oops!
I gave my little niece/cousin a book for Christmas this year called, “Beautiful Oops” in an effort to encourage that very spirit and openness to life in her as she grows up in our high-pressure society.  Barney Salzburg's key message is, "When you think you have made a mistake, think of it as an opportunity to make something beautiful."  It’s full of fun little examples of art that can be created by a folded piece of paper or an Ink Stain or other “Oops” that both big kids and little kids make from time to time.  If you have any little kids in your life, I encourage you to check it out with them!

For now, I leave you with this quote from the Five Things book.  I’ll also leave you with several songs/videos that strangely (loosely) seem to convey this theme of accepting life and finding beauty in unexpected places.  Enjoy!

“May I trust the forces that help me know who I am and where I am going, and may all those who doubt themselves and disregard their destiny likewise be surrounded by inescapable evidence of their limitless identity and destiny (Richo, Five Things, p. 33).”

Beautiful Oops - a Video Read-a-long for the Barney Salzburg Book

"Try" by Nelly Furtado (note - this one is more subtly connected related)

"This Too Shall Pass" by Ok Go (Rube Goldberg Machine Version)


Friday, November 25, 2011

On Gratitude - It's Not Just for Thanksgiving These Days!

Courtesy of
As we finish up the turkey leftovers and close the chapter on Thanksgiving for this year, I’d like to express my gratitude for discovering the practice and power of gratitude this past year – a practice that now brings joy into my life well beyond Thanksgiving.  

In the Awakening Joy course with James Baraz that I took this year (and the accompanying book), one of the key practices that we were taught to cultivate is Gratitude.   According to happiness experts like Rick Hanson, our brains are trained to focus extra attention on negative stimuli – a throwback to the days when we had to be primed each minute for potential dangers – after all, if we weren’t careful, giant Sabertooth tigers would chase us and eat us!  

Very useful back then – not so useful now in modern life.  Nowadays, all of that focus on the negative makes us depressed and anxious and unhappy.   We live longer and stay out of danger – but we carry our unhappy brains and moods with us all of our lives.

Before learning to focus on gratitude, my conversations with friends and family used to sound like competitions to see who would win the award for having the worst day - I’d grumble about the student I met with who was cranky or the bus that was late or whatever minor annoyance was highlighted in my consciousness.  My companions would complain about the bad weather,  the driver who cut them off and the friend who stood them up for dinner.

Since learning the power of gratitude, I am making a concerted effort to focus on what I am grateful for in my life and what has gone well in my day.  As a result, I feel more positive and am able to share the joy and happiness in my life with those around me.  

Here are some ways that I have worked gratitude into my life:

USF's Beautiful Campus!
When I walk back from lunch to head back in to work, I make a point to take in the beautiful campus surrounding me and cultivate a smile in my body and mind.  I also try to notice the positive atmosphere around me on the way into work in the morning, when I am walking home from the bus at night, and whenever I stop for a minute and take a breath.

When I am feeling anxious or frustrated, I’ve found that taking a minute to stop and run through a list in my mind of things that I am grateful for really helps me to break out of the cycle of samsara and get back to an open heart and mind – ideally before I tear the head off of my companion.

I also make a point to really stop and feel good feelings inside – to take in the good and soak it into my body and mind.  Happiness researchers like Rick Hanson say that by really emphasizing and noticing when we feel good, we can help to change our brains over time and discount the bad things that we notice day in and day out.   For instance, I had a really good phone conversation yesterday with my grandparents in Florida – who I am extremely grateful to still have alive and healthy in my life.  When I got off of the phone, I noticed that I felt really good – and I paused for a moment to feel that all the way through my body – and to remember how amazing it feels to be able to have them in my life to call on Thanksgiving.

My Mom and Me - An Old Favorite!
One practice that I am particularly grateful for is a gratitude email practice that my mom and I started earlier this year.  Each day, we trade emails back and forth sharing three things that we are grateful for in our life.   I look forward to reading my mom’s emails each day to find out what is adding happiness to her life; I find the practice of writing my own emails helpful to focus my attention on the good; and I am enjoying how this new exchange of gratitude lists has improved the flavor of our daily connection with one another.

I would be silly to claim that I bring the spirit of gratitude into my life all the time – after all, just like any of you, I have days and moments when I sound more like a whiny grouch than anything else.  Nevertheless, these past months of gratitude practice have been so worth it and so wonderful that I am convinced of its power.  Don’t believe me?  Try it for yourself – this year, instead of saving gratitude just for Thanksgiving, try keeping it in going in your life until next Thanksgiving – and see what you think!

As a parting gift, here are some videos on gratitude – to give you some ideas and get you started!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

On Surrendering Into Our Interconnectness

The past few weeks, I have been holding an intention to be more accepting of myself and others and reflecting on our interconnectedness with each other and everything around us.   Of course, doing so has been difficult for me to do because you can’t “will” yourself to do anything – approaching these qualities of compassion and lovingkindness with a desire for perfection is counterproductive.  

I had the opportunity to listen to a great talk by Tara Brach on Anxiety About Imperfection in October, and have also been reading her book Radical Acceptance during my lunch hours.  According to her, you can’t convince yourself not to be judgmental of yourself or others – just as you can’t convince yourself to change any habit through willpower alone.  Instead, by bringing gentle and loving awareness to your thoughts and actions and seeing how they resonate with your body and mind, you will begin to shift them naturally.  Also, by reminding ourselves of our loved ones and humanity, we become less likely to think in terms of me, my, and mine – and we are inspired to act with love and compassion.

These ideas also work well for dealing with difficult emotions – like anger, anxiety, sadness, fear, etc.  For many years, my approach has been to feel ashamed and distressed when these feelings arise and to try and get rid of them as quickly as possible.   I come from a family where we try to focus on the good and put a happy face on things.  I do believe that focusing on the positive in life is a beneficial thing and much research and teachings support that idea – gratitude practice has been more and more helpful in my life.  

Invite the Monster for Tea!
Nevertheless, having aversion to difficult feelings rather than approaching them with gratitude and acceptance often makes them harder to cope with.  Many of the Buddhist teachings that I’ve come across encourage us to lean into discomfort and lean into difficult emotions – to welcome the monsters into the room when they arise rather than running away scared.  While suffering is never pleasant, when we truly look it in the eye and take it in, it opens our hearts and humbles us. 

These days, when I feel anxiety arising or feel sad or angered about something someone said to me, I try to focus in on the actual sensations in my body, the raw feelings underneath – not the story about whose fault it is or what I should do about it or why it is happening.  I try to feel my heart and throat tighten or feel the heaviness in my body or feel my flushed face and hold those sensations with a loving heart, like a mother would hold her crying child.   In surrendering to the feelings moving through me, I feel a great sense of release and I feel strangely held by the universe. 

Biodanza "Nest"
In Biodanza class recently, our teacher Clara did a vivencia class focused on the concept of the nest – feeling supported and nurtured by everything around us.  I had had a particularly stressful week at work and was feeling pretty wiped out – so wiped out that instead of trying to be the perfect student and do every exercise “right,” I just released into the moment – when we walked through the space, I sank my feet into the ground and felt it hold me up; when I danced with one of my classmates, I just gazed into her eyes and felt an authentic, open connection; and when we gathered into the equivalent of a big group hold, I just relaxed completely and felt all of the bodies of my comrades around me.  It was truly a wonderful class – and really made me feel connected with the earth and the community around me.   I didn’t feel such a compulsive need to hold myself up. 

The Vast Sea of Awareness
In that talk about Anxiety About Imperfection, Tara Brach shared an image / idea which I’ve found very powerful lately.  She said to picture ourselves and the entire universe as the great wide ocean.  So many waves of emotions and stories and egos and everything run through us, but in the end we are just a vast ocean of awareness – awareness that has been here since we were born and will be here when we die.   When I feel triggered and think about sinking into the great ocean of love and awareness, I feel a wonderful sense of wholeness and completeness. 

I was also working with sound last night at a Sound Healing meetup at the Globe Sound and Consciousness Institute that I went to in celebration of 11-11-11.   There were several musicians there and we spent a lot of time using singing bowls and toning in as a large group on particular sound frequencies.  If you ever have an opportunity to do that sort of activity or sing along with a toning CD or use toning forks, I encourage you to do so – it is amazing how much can communicated by sound.  I have a similar feeling in Kundalini Yoga when we chant various mantras together  - something about joining together in sound really cues me in to our joint energy and spirit – where my body starts and ends seems to blur.  

Walk Into the Light, Patrick!
I also like picturing our unitedness in terms of light – when I was at the Sound Healing meetup, I found myself picturing an image similar to the ending of the movie Ghost, where Patrick Swayze finally joins up with all of the other beings in heaven after he saves Demi Moore from the evil person who murdered him.  As I remember it, you see him stepping into a bath of light and at first you can see him and see the outlines of other beings, but eventually it all just blurs together into one big ball of light.  Other movies with death have used this image as well – of walking into the light, etc.

I’m not sure what your specific spiritual beliefs are and I’m not inclined to try to change them – I think all religions in the world have something beneficial to share.  Most of them at their heart encourage us to bring love into the world and share our light and compassion with others.  As we learn more and more about science, it seems that science supports the idea of us all being interconnectedof us all being part of a giant energy field.   There are so many neurons that fire and connect to help us conceive our place in the world that I think it is entirely conceivable that this idea of a body and a self separate from the rest of the universal energy field is simply something created by our brain to help us make sense of the world – otherwise it is too abstract to conceive. 

The Rescuing Hug
Science also supports the idea of our connection with others being crucial to our survival – I’m sure many of you have heard "The Rescuing Hug" story or read one of the articles that circulated around the Internet a year or so ago about the benefits of co-incubating twins that have been born prematurely and aren’t ready to survive in the world yet.  Or of allowing premature infants to be held and hugged by their parents.  Our science world would suggest to keeping the environment sterile and free of germs is the most important thing (and it’s definitely important) – but it seems that there is support for the idea that touch and human connection is extremely important to our survival.  I’ve also heard stories of babies in orphanages who died or had health difficulties even though they seemingly every need taken care of – they were feed, clothed, given shelter, etc. – but weren’t held on a regular basis, and we as humans depend on that touch and connection.

Have You Hugged Someone Today?
In the documentary movie, Connected, which I mentioned in my last blog entry, there is a part where the narrator mentions that hugging for at least six seconds releases oxytocin and helps with our over wellbeing.  I’ve also heard that things like Cuddle Parties – which are parties basically focused on giving space for hugs and affection without all of the complexities of dating, relationships, etc. – are extremely helpful for single people.  Hugging and sharing affection with another human bolsters our immune system and can even help people lose weight – many times we try to fill out need for love and affection and connection by buying things or stuffing ourselves with food or other material things – when all we really desire is a hug – or some sort of basic reminder that we are infinitely connected with source and everything around us.  

When is the last time that you hugged someone?  Hopefully not too long ago – if it has been awhile – go find someone and give them a hug – and – extra credit – try to hold the embrace for at least 6 seconds – or at least a full breath.  So many times when we give someone a hug, we tense up and hold our breath instead of just relaxing into the embrace and feeling our bodies and souls melt into one another.  I LOVE this picture of two kittens snuggling up to one another – I keep it posted on my fridge, and it warms my heart every time I look at it. 

Anyway, these are some thoughts that I’ve been working with lately related to working with anxiety, imperfection, and difficult emotions and about finding such expansive peace in surrendering to the connections and shared energy around us.  I just came from an acupuncture session earlier today, and as I was lying on the table, I felt such a deep sense of peace – as if I was sinking into and through the table and was swallowed up by the vast energy, love, and light around me.   The feeling was fleeting, but when it was there, it was so incredibly powerful.  

As you tackle these same demons in your life, I encourage you to embrace your suffering and feelings with compassion, give yourself or someone a hug, and seek out practices like Biodanza and Sound Healing that assist you to let go and float into the endless sea of awareness of which we are all part.

To finish - I leave you with an old favorite song of mine that I got from watching Grey's Anatomy - "Infinity" - by Merrick.  The images in this video are moving and beautiful - enjoy!