Saturday, November 28, 2009

Getting Through the Holidays

The holiday season is upon us. For a lot of us, this is a time when family and friends gather for the annual feasts and culturally sanctioned vacations from work and school. However, for many of us, this is also a time when we feel the absence of a loved one, or the immensity of changes we've lived through since the "way things used to be."

Milestones such as holidays are signposts in time that describe our life's journey. It can be humbling to think that in general, few of us have 90 Thanksgivings or New Years' Eves to live through, much less remember. It doesn't seem like that many when we count them off one at a time, like beads on a necklace. As we grow into a fleeting adulthood that mercilessly and seamlessly gives way to old age, we can tick off another holiday season that has passed and will not return.

Those of us who are mindful of grief, either of our own or of others, have come to anticipate the holidays with bittersweet longing. We remember seasons past, missed opportunities, and the pain of loss at sensing an empty seat at the table. We may also feel the pressure of the finite nature of our lives. How many more holiday seasons will we have, who will we spend them with, and what kind of condition will be in during the next season?

These milestones don't only have to be poignant reminders of life's impermanent nature. A transformative exercise to do to help steer your life on the path you wish it to be is to consider what kinds of memories you want to reflect on next year. Holidays and milestones can trigger grief, but they can also be rallying points for generating meaningful change. These changes can be minor, such as menus, decorations or outfits, or major, such as the relationships we will pursue or not pursue, and the type of inner work we will have done by then.

Rather than get swept up in the storm of your emotions, you can try two things that are the cornerstone to my approach to getting through life's challenging moments:

1) Transform your automatic stress response into a voluntary one by practicing mindfulness skills. Start with basic belly breathing to help your body send the message of mindfulness to your brain, rather than allowing your brain to control your body. Then attach your mind to your relaxed body by tracking your breaths, one at a time.

2) Set realistic, attainable goals. Most of us won't be climbing Mt. Everest in our lifetimes. However, we all have some emotional or mental peaks to climb, or changes we want to make in how we live.

What would you like to reflect back on during next Thanksgiving, New Years' Eve 2010, gathered around the Christmas tree or lighting Hannukah candles? Would you like to be living out the same routines you have found? What would you like to change?

The holidays can be reminders of the impermanent nature of life, but depending on the choices you make, this impermanence can fuel the anguish of grief or mindfulness of life's endless possibilities. Choose wisely, and choose mindfully.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Mindful Debt Restructuring

As the global recession continues on, a running theme seems to be emerging with a lot of my clients in therapy. After having suffered through the trials of cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, a lot of them feel entitled to live a life of abandon. Becoming so intimately close to the First Noble Truth, that suffering is ubiquitious, they feel the need to seek out happiness at every turn.

This is all well and good. In many ways of looking at it, the Buddha himself advised that in the face of universal suffering, the search for happiness was the only alternative. However, the happiness that the Buddha taught, and that has been spoken of by many other teachers, was not based on pleasure, materialism or empty kicks. Instead, happiness was a side-effect of cultivating a compassionate and mindful life.

In contrast, as a society we seem to confuse happiness with pleasure. If it feels good, surely it must bring us happiness, right? And deep happiness can be reached by piling on fleeting joys, no matter what the cost, right? For many of my clients, the recession has responded with a resounding "NO!". People who chase Shiny New Things-- eat at the priciest restaurants, shop at the fanciest stores, drive the newest cars-- seem to be waking up from the intoxicating dream of materialistic pleasures into the hard reality of the First Noble Truth: you can't run from suffering by chasing pleasures you can't spiritually or financially afford. The debt will swallow you up.

The antidote to the First Noble Truth begins in a much simpler place that doesn't accept credit cards. That place is the Now. It's in front of you; you don't need to go anywhere. You don't need to make a reservation. You don't need a receipt in case you change your mind and decide it's too expensive.

The Now, this spacious, precious moment, is free and is the seed of true freedom and deep happiness. Begin now; watch your mind as it dances. Feel your breath rise and fall. Feel your skin settling around your body. Feel your exhalation spreading unconditional, universal compassion to your living space, paying special attention to sending unconditional love to your adversaries. This will set you free.

This is the Now. It's what we fight so hard to protect but lose so easily chasing shiny reminders of what it can feel like.

Ask yourself: Where will you be in 5 years if you keep consuming Shiny New Things? Does the happiness of consumption build on itself, growing proportionately to the size of each purchase? If that were so, everyone living in a mansion would be enlightened.

How happy will you be in 5 years if you begin a daily meditation practice today? Does the happiness that meditation can bring build on itself, growing proportionately with the amount of experience you have training your mind? It would seem so.

You have at this moment the ability to walk in the footsteps of your future enlightenment.

Simplify into the present moment. It makes good financial sense, and you won't be paying it off at a high interest rate. You will, however, only be able to withdraw what you deposit.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Putting your child to sleep

I’ve had great results putting our five year-old to sleep with a body scan meditation. He’s always been a difficult sleeper, and it’s been amazing how he can sleep so well throughout the night falling asleep this way. I also believe that this technique has helped him develop more somatosensory awareness, or awareness of his body in relation to objects around him.

As always, any meditation technique you try with others works best if you have tried it yourself first. For a five year-old, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First off, the general rule of thumb is to use one minute per year of life prior to adolescence for the duration of a meditation. For instance, a five year-old’s meditation should probably be no longer than five minutes, a seven year-old, seven minutes, etc.

Second, have a couple of variations to suit his or her personality. With our five year-old, I’ve used two techniques. He definitely prefers one to the other. You can combine them, too, if you wish. I do this after his bath, after the story, and once he already has his pajamas on.

To begin this as part of your routine, you can tell your child that you’ll now be starting a new bedtime routine which will help their body to rest and grow, and help them to have good dreams.

1) “Wiggles”: Begin with the right foot. Ask your child to wiggle their right foot. Then, the left foot. Move up to the right heels, the left heels, ankles, knees, thighs, hips, private parts. Ask him or her to wiggle all these parts one at a time. It might mean that they just move these parts from side to side. Move up to the backbone, the back, the tummy, the chest. Then, the right fingers, thumbs, and hands, then the left fingers, thumbs, and hands. The wrists, forearms, elbows, arms, and shoulders. All the body scans get extremely relaxing when you spend a lot of time detailing the head; begin with the neck, the chin, jaw, mouth, tongue, cheeks, ears, nose, eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, forehead, top of head, and the brain, to sleep as much as it can.

Your child may talk at points about it; they are a child. Not even adults can maintain a meditation session, so don’t expect more of your child. Just re-direct him or her back to the body part. Once the wiggles are done, you can sing them a lullaby and tuck them in for the night.

2) The second technique is the “goodnight suit”. You start with the same body parts as the “wiggles”, but instead of asking your child to wiggle the body part, you say “feel your right toes getting heavy, they relax, and go to sleep”. Say “good night right toes”. Ask them to say good night to each body part this way. Go in the same order, but asking them to say “good night” either out loud or silently in their mind. At some point, don’t be surprised if they stop talking. Once you get to the top of their head and brain, you can tell them that the goodnight suit is on, and they’re ready for bed. Sing them a lullaby and it’s time for a good night.

The other things that make the body scans work better is to limit the amount of television they watch before bedtime. Recent studies have shown that each half-hour of television exponentially increases their risk of having attention deficit. I believe it also infects their visual imagination to make it harder to self-soothe themselves to sleep. You definitely don’t want to have them watching television right before bed, and most definitely not before a body-scan meditation.

Finally, make sure you’ve had your child exercise for at least 20-30 minutes during the day. Regular exercise, limited television, and the body scan meditation can help your child develop a healthy body, mind, and spirit.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Nutritional environmentalism

More on synergy.

There is a growing awareness in our country of being energy-independent to address national security and environmental damage. There is also another national dialogue taking place on health care.

I believe that these issues are inter-related. The choices we make in our every day lives have profound and interdependent impacts on the world we live in. It starts very simply with the food we eat and the energy we use.

For instance, a diet high in red meat and other animal products uses tons more fossil fuels than a plant-based diet. Corn to feed the animal has to be grown; non-organic fertilizers are mostly petroleum based, need to be transported to the farm (sadly likely to be a factory-farm warehouse, not rural sprawling acreage). Corn fields and animal farms need to be irrigated—this all takes fuel. Cows and pigs aren’t made to digest corn, but grass. So they belch and fart a lot after eating all that corn and sorghum, releasing more methane into the air than all the automobiles in Europe. The animal then needs to be transported to slaughter and market. Additional processing—making into frozen entrees, etc. requires more steps. And once digested, this animal-based food product has not only belched greenhouse gasses into the air, but also increases your chances of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and a host of other health problems that are driving our health care costs wild.

You don’t need to be vegan or vegetarian, but becoming aware of the consequences of a plant-based versus meat-based diet can save more fossil fuels than the type of car you drive. This awareness can also help you to get more in touch with the food you are putting into your body, where it is grown, and how it gets to be on your plate. I am convinced that one of the most significant drains on our economy is the consequence of poor food choices, such as a diet high in meat-consumption or processed foods. Cooking a nutritious meal for yourself and your family can be the greenest thing you can do, probably even more important than the car you drive or who you vote for.

Use these simple steps to help you make lifestyle choices that can help your health, the environment, and the health issues you have or don't have in later life:

1) Try going vegetarian or vegan one day a week. If you can do more than that, great. You may be surprised at how easy it is. Simple menu ideas can be oatmeal for breakfast, split-pea soup for lunch, a handful of walnuts for a mid-afternoon snack, and whole-wheat pasta with pesto sauce with a side-salad for dinner. Notice how your body feels when you wake up the next morning.
2) When you have meat, make sure it’s the smallest portion on your plate. For instance, if you are eating a steak, try having a half-portion with a larger portion of side-vegetables. Drink a glass of water before you start eating.
3) Measure out the nutritional information you see on the labels of your processed foods. For instance, a serving of regular cola usually has as much sugar as nine packets of sugar. Would you ever add that to a cup of coffee or tea?
4) Processed foods have become great about lowering the fat in some of their foods, but too often make it up by adding astronomical amounts of sodium. Compare the serving size, portions, and percentage of recommended sodium on your food labels. No single meal should have more than 30% of your total sodium intake (assuming you are eating three meals a day and no salty snacks in between).

These simple steps can help you to get in touch with your body to make healthier choices. Our precious human bodies depend on our planet for sustenance; we can reciprocate by helping the planet with the choices we make in how we nourish ourselves.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Public Grief

What a week.

So many public figures-- Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Billy Mays-- all died within days of each other. Millions mourned their loss, as well as the lives and achievements of these public figures. They made us laugh, entertained us, danced, and help us shop. For many of us, we grew up watching Ed McMahon every night, Farrah every Wednesday night. We remembered a world before and after moon walking, and stains that wouldn't leave without OxyClean.

I couldn't but help wonder about the hundreds of thousands of others who died last week, who will die this week, or who die every day. The deaths of celebrities draw us in, we re-live their talents, we grieve their losses and then move on. These are lives lived in the public eye, and then ended in the public eye. It somehow satisfies our need to see our heroes fall, become fallible and human. Or, to honor the markers of our collective cultural landscapes.

But we could do so much more.

Even though few of us will live lives on national television, movie theaters, or provide the soundtracks to our memories, all of us will die. When celebrities live, they seem larger than life. In death, we are reminded of the Buddha's words in the Nine Charnel Ground Contemplations-- "None of us are exempt from this fate."

The deaths of famous people demonstrate that death is universal, and if we allow it, can be a universal teacher. We can-- if we choose to-- be reminded of the preciousness of all life, of the unique potential of each human life, and the inevitability of our mortality. We can use the deaths of celebrities as bells of mindfulness to wake us up from taking our precious moments for granted. To become empowered to make the choices that give our lives meaning.

So, thank you Ed, Farrah, MJ, Billy, and everyone else for giving us the opportunity to wake up in your own way.

May you all be free from suffering, and may you all be at peace.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Climbing Mountains

During a period of transition in my life, I had the good fortune the meet a gifted therapist. In trying to determine which road I should take, she asked me a powerful questions which I have also come to adopt as a therapist many years later.
She asked me if I was looking back on my life in my old age, which of the choices in front of me would give me the greatest satisfaction.

The hardest times, like living through the death of a loved one, losing the illusion of stability we all take for granted, or transitioning to a new part of our lives, invite us to ask the same question-- which choice would give us the greatest satisfaction, the most meaning?

The process is similar to setting anchors for ropes when climbing a mountain or a tall rock. If you get too high up, your rope will catch your fall if it has been secured to an anchor. In life, setting these anchors of meaning can serve the same purpose. They can help you decide which steps can guide the path to your goal and remind you if your deeds are helping you along the way.

The difficult question in grief, in the ambiguity of losing a stable identity, is often "who do I become now?"

The mindful path can help you find a meaningful answer.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Why Synergy?

My new book focuses on how mindfulness can step by step help us to overcome the tendency to worry, obsess, ruminate, and get lost in our thoughts. In researching different aspects of what makes people "happy", I became convinced that there is a common ground, a convergence, of what goes into wellness and well-being.

Although I don't believe that "happy"realistically is a permanent, unchanging condition, I do believe that being happier and having more happiness, meaning, and satisfaction with our lives-- wellness-- is within reach for all of us. Interestingly, what goes into sustained wellness is not only good for individuals, but also for society, and our planet.

First and foremost is the regular, sustained practice of meditation. Mindfulness is very well-researched, and very similar across traditions and practitioners, especially relative to the more subjective experiences of Tantric meditation. Mindfulness teaches us about the mechanics of the body, and how stress and distress can be regulated by awareness of the body, inner speech, and mind. Mindfulness, practiced for around 20 minutes twice a day, everyday, can help us to step back from our incessant chatter and into the immediacy of the unjudged here-and-now.

Second, regular exercise can help us to nurture this awareness of the body, and help us to feel connected to our body. Modern life has found so many ways to alienate us from our bodies, be it in the form of cosmetics or microwave meals. Our bodies all too often become viewed as hindrances whose aging, decay, and needs stand in the way of some of our most desired pleasures. But pleasure is not happiness. Happiness with the body is in having a healthier body that we feel connected to, not in opposition from. Exercise, at the dose of 20-30 minutes a day, 3-4 times a week, can help us to get re-connected to our bodies, and invigorate the circuits of well-being in our brains.

Third, good nutrition. Each step builds on the previous one. Mindfulness is the foundation for awareness; exercise is the activating principle. Now comes the energy-- food. For the past 10,000 years, when humans can be said with some certainty to have abandoned a predominantly scavenger lifestyle, a plant-based diet low in saturated fats has sustained us. This isn't an exclusively vegan or vegetarian diet, but one that relies on sustainable, renewable sources of food, with animal products added for variety. Because this is our earliest recorded diet, it doesn't necessarily mean it's the healthiest. However, it does seem that every week, a new danger from our convenience-based, red meat-centered diet comes out. This modern diet and its convenience is killing us. A return to balanced nutrition therefore seems reasonable. In general, what's good for the heart is good for the body-- whole grains, daily fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and meat that's not red (wild-caught sustainable seafood, grain-fed poultry, if you must eat meat).

The synergy now begins to emerge. Mindfulness increases the awareness of the body-- the awareness of the body increases respect for the body-- respect for the body increases the desire to sustain the body with better nutrition-- and eating better can actually help the planet. The production of red meat produces more greenhouse gases than all the cars on our planet. And, as the swine flu/H1N1 pandemic has shown, how we "grow" our meat can have unintended consequences.

When we sit down for regular mindfulness practice, we are given part of the antidote for the alienation of modern life-- awareness of body, awareness of our mental chatter driving our behavior, awareness of how our actions and interdependent with the well-being or suffering of countless beings around us. When we crave what is unhealthy for our bodies, not only do we suffer, but also the planet and society suffer.

The synergy of mindfulness is that in making healthy choices for ourselves, we contribute to the health of society, and of our planet. And it all begins with being aware of this precious, fleeting moment, connecting to the belly breath, and sitting through the inevitable itches and discomforts of regular meditation practice.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The First Noble Post

Welcome to my blog!
Check back for future posts about mindfulness, wellness, resilience and the emerging wisdom of synergy to help heal mind, body, spirit, and planet. Here is a link to my first book on amazon--