Monday, June 24, 2013

Savoring Life

Affirmation:  I eat mindfully

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully aware of the present moment without judging.  John Kabat-Zinn brought a greater awareness to the practice back in 1970's when he began teaching Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). It is still taught worldwide. I studies MBSR at Duke Integrative Medicine, NC several years ago. It's a gift we give ourselves when we develop the ability to be in the present moment.  It's also the practice of a lifetime.  Most of here in the West don't sit in a lotus position for several hours a day chanting or focusing on a mantra (a single word or phrase).  Most Americans are more concerned about the past or the future and are missing whatever is happening in the present.  In general we are a busy, pre-occupied population.  But, most of us are also looking for ways to improve the quality of our lives.  We are searching for that which will enhance our daily experiences and not leave us feeling so worn out and tired.  Tools, we are looking for the tools we can use to fix or to shape or to color our lives so that we are able to take deeper breaths, appreciate the beauty of nature and relish the precious moments of connection with those we love.

For many, prayer is a powerful tool.  It's my first choice.  Time to communicate with my God, time to tell Her my concerns, to offer up thanksgiving for all my blessings and time to simply sit and listen.  It doesn't have to be formal prayer.  My day is lifted up and given over to God, Jesus Christ, before I even rise from the bed.  Then, if it's a day of unending activity which I must confess is not unusual, I still know that I am in prayer mode throughout all the business. 

In yoga the practitioner is called upon to focus on his or her breath.  Sometimes a yoga practice may only involve pranayama, breathing techniques.  There are many, some more elaborate than others.  The simplest one involves watching one's breath.  I encourage my students at the very beginning of practice to simply notice their breath.  "Close your eyes and begin to focus on your breath, the in and the out, the up and the down, the rise and the fall."  After years of beginning practice this way, I simply need to think the words and I feel calmer.  When a group of us are all focusing on our breath at the same time, the entire energy level in the room changes from charged to serene. 

Another breathing technique that can be used anywhere anytime is to simply take a deep breath.  Breathe all the way down into your belly and then release it.  Want to make it even more effective, sigh it out.  Oh, not just a little sigh, make it a full "haaaaa!"  Don't believe it'll make a difference?  Try it right now, do it a few times and then just notice.  Don't judge, just observe if you feel any different.  I attach the name of Jesus to my deep breaths.  It's a mini-prayer that I can do anywhere, anytime. 

Journaling is also an opportunity for me to practice mindfulness.  I like to have a large mug of tea next to me; my favorite spiral bound journal, an easy flowing ballpoint pen and a pleasant space.  I usually write in my sun room.  I have a nice chair and ottoman and the room faces my garden, the bird feeders and a small waterfall.  It's a yellow room with much of my favorite memorabilia on the shelves.  I begin with a prayer and then write my three pages.  I am fully there in the time and space.  It centers me for the day.  It leaves me feeling grounded and calm. 

Another way for me to practice mindfulness is when I am eating.  It's a reciprocal process in that when I focus on the process of eating, my eating becomes healthier.  I'm always fine tuning my diet.  I'm a moderate person, meaning I don't usually go overboard when I'm making changes.  I'm a sure and steady kind of gal. I share this with you because while I know a lot about vegan diets and vegetarian diets, I have not fully embraced any restrictive form of eating.  I avoid certain foods that I think aren't my best choices, like things with sugar, artificial colors or flavorings, foods that are heavily salted or have preservatives.  I try to eat mostly fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and chicken.  I love a glass of wine periodically and sharing an ice cream with friends or especially with a grandchild, is a real treat for me.  I know how important it is to eat a "good" diet.  I'm also aware of the global impact my choices have on the rest of the world. 

When I trained at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, breakfast was always silent.  It was a very educational experience for me. I am a social eater.  I love to sit with family and friends and share a meal and conversation. If there's no one around, I don't really care if I eat or not. I'm an "eat-to-live" person, not a "live-to-eat" person.  In order to make the best food choices for me I decided to simply pay close attention to the eating experience.  Have you ever tried the "raisin" experiment?  You place a single raisin in your mouth and you don't chew it.  You allow it to dissolve very very slowly.  You notice the texture, the sweetness.  You think about how it came to become a raisin, where it was grown, who harvested it.  It can take 10 or even 15 minutes to eat that one raisin.  It can bring you to a whole new appreciation for every bit you take.

What is your eating environment like?  Do you take your time and savor each bite or have you just gone through the drive-thru and are eating as you go?  What's dinner like?  Is the TV on or is the computer in front of you?  What if you simply sat at the table and focused on the food you are putting into your mouth and your body?  If you ate mindfully would your choices be different?  Mine are. We are what we eat.  What and how we feed our bodies, our minds and our spirits determines every cell of our being.  Slow down, breathe deeply, say grace before your meal and savor each bite and especially each moment of your life. 


Saturday, June 15, 2013

Hugging for Health

Affirmation:  I gather ten hugs a day.

My mother is of English-Scottish decent and my father was an only child whose father was Swiss-German.  I don't know if that's why we didn't do a lot of hugging but we didn't.  My husband's family is pure Italian.  Some are from Naples and others are from Sicily but both his mother and his father's family immigrated from Italy.  When Sandy took me to his house to meet his family the front door flew open and his mother, all five feet of her, threw open her arms and hugged me with all her might.  I was home.  I think I had waited my whole young life to be embraced with such ardor.  This was where I belonged.

I read many years ago that we are supposed to gather ten hugs a day.  I know some people don't like being touched.  I know it's not appropriate to go around hugging everyone but oh, how I love to give and get a hug.  I've found it fascinating that once you tell someone about the ten hug a day quota, or at least the people I see regularly, they are excited about sharing a hug.  I have adopted Yolanda's warm greeting with almost everyone who comes to our home.  I feel my hug says "Welcome!  I'm so glad you're here!  Come in and share the warmth and safety of our home." 

Most of the groups I belong to greet each other with a hug.  Touch is an essential part of staying healthy.  During World War II psychologists noted that orphaned infants who were not cuddled suffered stunted growth both physically and mentally and in some instances actually died. Now we have all sorts of programs that insure babies will be held and even massaged to promote their healthy development.  We all need to be touched.  Massage has been shown to be an amazing tool in the arsenal for staying healthy.  The elderly need touch.  When I did my MSW at Chapel Hill, NC I focused on gerontology. One of the topics discussed was how as we age many people don't get enough affection.  Now, whenever I visit the assisted living or the Alzheimer's unit I make sure to hold hands or touch their arms or shoulders.  If they seem agreeable to a hug, I freely give one.  

There are so many ways to greet people and so much of it is determined by the culture in which we reside.  Of course it's also determined by the relationship we have with a person.  In most cases we greet a complete stranger with a nod, perhaps a smile or a handshake.  I've been in European countries where I was kissed on both cheeks by someone I'd just met.  When I was at Kripalu studying Yoga, we had one full day of silence.  It was not the first time I'd been in a silent mode at a retreat but this time the teacher instructed us to not even make eye contact.  She explained that even that type of communication required energy and the purpose of this exercise was to completely focus within.  It was the first time I was so aware of how much effort I put into my casual contacts.  I can remember walking the quad in college and making an effort to acknowledge everyone I passed that I knew or that even looked familiar.  I still do that.  My walks around Apex Lake here in North Carolina contain many nods, smiles and greetings.  It seems so natural to me.  I am always perplexed by those who have on their ear pieces and don't even look my way as they pass by, perplexed but I do not judge them.  Perhaps this is their "silent retreat" time. 

My husband, Sandy, believes the Italians invented hugging but my daughter-in-law is from Ecuador and they too are great huggers.  She has taught even us how to greet every family member.  You get up from wherever you are and you go to the person who has just arrived and you give them a warm hug and maybe even a kiss.  Her greetings say, "I love you and you are important in my life."  It's been another gift she has brought to our family.

There are many different types of hugs.  There is the one arm hug, the wrap your arms around someone and hold them tenderly hug, there is the bear hug, there is the spoon while lying down hug and there is the heart to heart hug.  If you rest your left cheek on the other's left cheek and shift your weight to the right, your heart will rest on top of theirs and you'll feel the heart's rhythm.

How do you greet people?  What comes naturally?  Do you think you can learn to hug if it doesn't come naturally?  Once I was with a friend in a department store and I went and asked a sales person a question.  The sales associate had on a name tag and I called her by her name.  My friend was shocked that I would use someone's name to whom I had never been introduced.  I love a name tag.  I make every effort I can to read a service person's tag and to call them by name.  For me, it's another type of a hug, a verbal hug.  It's the same message we each send when we greet someone warmly, "I care about you. You are important." 

Ten hugs a day keeps the doctor away.  Yesterday I walked into the choir room at St.  Michael the Archangel to sing for a funeral.  I am a member of the Resurrection choir.  The room was packed with people because our former pastor was being buried and the regular choir from two churches were singing.  I was immediately embraced by several people.  I found myself counting, "one, two, three, four, five."  Five hugs plus Sandy's early morning hug, "six."  "Only four more to go," I thought, "this will be an easy goal today."  Ten hugs a day keeps us healthy and keeps those healthy with whom we share them.  A simple heart felt hug can brighten your life and the lives of all those you care about.  Can you gather ten hugs today?  Be careful, it's a random act of sharing joy and affection.  Once you begin you might have to hold back with that stranger walking past you. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Peace Be With You

Affirmation:  I live a Christ centered life of love, peace, joy, gratitude and compassion.

Once upon a time an amateur golfer could purchase hole-in-one insurance.  If the golfer made a hole-in-one, he or she would receive an all-expense paid trip to anywhere in the world.  I knew this because one of my husband’s business associates at that time had just returned from a trip to Hawaii that he had “won” through this program.  My husband had a birthday coming up and I thought this would be an excellent present for him (for us!)  I probably had a slight attack of conscience because I mentioned it to him to make sure this was something he’d really enjoy.  He would not, he told me.  What he really wanted was a new set of golf head-covers.  That’s what I bought him.  He was happy.  The following week my husband had his first hole-in-one.  It did not make him happy.  He certainly didn’t want to call me to tell me about it.  I think if he could have kept it from me for the rest of his life, he would have but we lived in the tiny town of Norwich, New York and word would reach me probably sooner than later.  As you can imagine I was very disappointed.  I can think of several things I might have done differently had I known he was to have this hole-in-one after telling me not to buy him the $40.00 hole-in-one insurance.  But, it’s always easier in retrospect, isn’t it?  We’re always so much wiser in retrospect, aren’t we?  What would life be like if we were people who knew ahead of time what was going to happen?  

I love those sci-fi movies about people who are time travelers.  I especially like the ones where people go back to the past.  Two of my favorites are Back to the Future with Michael J. Fox and Peggy Sue with Kathleen Turner.  In both films they were able to impart helpful knowledge to people in their past to help them improve their lives in the future.  In Peggy Sue, Kathleen Turner had a nerdy friend who believed her story that she was from the future.  He wanted to know what he should invest in.  “Panty hose,” she suggested.  What should I invest in now that will insure my future success?  Do I need to be able to see the future to make those decisions?  Maybe I would be able to pick out the winning power ball number or I could buy some sort of unknown stock, like Apple, before it went through the ceiling.  Perhaps one would know who not to marry or what job not to pass up.  Oh, the places one could go and the things one could do without any concern, without any confusion. 

I have several dear friends whose early married lives were very difficult.  One friend’s husband left her with three children and declared bankruptcy.  Right after he left, her house burned to the ground.  These were only a few of the challenges she faced at that time. Her husband then began a new relationship and a new business and she was left to figure out how to survive.  The really good news is she did more than survive, she thrived!  It’s been a few decades now since all this began but recently she found out he was dying.  She held a lot of justified resentment towards him but she picked up the phone to talk to him and instead of venting all her frustration and anger, she found herself thanking him.  For what?  For her three wonderful children, for her stamina and fortitude and for the life she now lives.  If she could have seen into the future with all the travail she would face, she probably would have still chosen the same; a different choice would have meant she would be a different person and she’s a marvelous human being because of the trials she’s overcome.  She has made peace not only with her ex-husband but with life.

In the Catholic Mass we have one phrase that is used three times.  “Peace be with you.”  Three times the priest says, “Peace be with you.”  No other phrase is repeated even once but this one is repeated three times.  Why?  Because it’s the one gift everyone desires, peace.  When we are in the middle of war most of the population wants it to end.  They want peace.  When we are in the throes of caring for someone in pain, we pray for their peace.  When someone has experienced the death of a loved one, we ask for them to have peace.  When we or someone we know is faced with any sort of difficulty, financial or physical, we want to see them come to a peaceful place.  Peace.  What does it look like?  Can one find it in any situation?  Recently, an acquaintance confided that his job might be at risk.  We reacted with alarm.  He, on the other hand told us he wasn’t worried.  There was nothing he could do about it right now, so he wasn’t upset.  He was at peace.  We may not have a definitive definition for peace but we all know when it’s missing.  We all know when we are not at peace.  It is one of God’s greatest gifts.  We can claim it whenever we want.  Sometimes all it takes is a short prayer, a deep breath and a silent few moments.  Once we are at peace with ourselves, we can radiate that peace out into the rest of the world. 

It might seem like foreknowledge might be a better gift than peace but it doesn’t matter.  There is no such thing, no matter what the psychic tells us.  There’s no guarantee that we’ll ever know what the future will hold.  But, we can find peace with whatever life has brought us.  We can let go of the disappointments, the trials, the hurts, the not so wise choices and we can ask God to let us go forward with the gift of peace.  We can go forward knowing that our lives, the good, the bad and the ugly are exactly as they are supposed to be and that with God’s gift of peace, we can rest in all of it.  

P.S.  Because of Sandy's career we have not only traveled to Hawaii, we have traveled the world.  We really didn't need that hole-in-one insurance.