self-care

Inner Disarmament: Stepping Stones to Peace

In these tumultuous times filled with such vitriol, I find myself feeling absolutely powerless. The unending waves of hatred, armed conflict, violence and xenophobia wash over me. What is within my power? The grand scale of the challenges seems to make any action I take seem inconsequential.

By nature I am an irrepressible optimist, and I find some comfort in something the Dalai Lama said: If you desire world peace, practice inner disarmament. Inner disarmament is not a part of our language or culture. Over the years I have struggled with what it means and how to cultivate it. I have been contemplating and really noticing my own anger and narrow-mindedness when it shows up.

At the time of the US invasion of Iraq, I realized there was something afoot in my interior life when I dreamed I was having a friendly discussion with George W. Bush over dinner. A wild idea no doubt for me as a confirmed progressive who was dead set against the invasion. The dream stunned and surprised me and opened for me some new way of seeing. At the dinner table this man ("W"), whom I had categorized and put in a box walled off by my own judgment and criticism was, after all, just a human being, doing what he thought best. The mere fact of our differences of opinion did not change our shared humanity. I listened. He listened. I was shocked that he actually was re-thinking his policy. (Oh, if only I were this powerful!) There was a startling take-away for me.

I realize that when certain feelings arise in me (hate, anger, and -- what is all too easy -- turning people into "others" for any reason), I lose my ability to hear what is being said, to understand the emotions present in the discussion, and to even imagine common ground. So real change starts with me and with each of us.

The first step for me is to notice the feelings and identify them. If I am really paying attention, I can catch myself before the feelings are in control of my mind, my mouth, and my actions. If I find myself wrapped up in a self-righteous story or justification for why someone else is wrong, I know I have to stop. If and when I truly listen, I am often surprised and moved by what I hear.

Does inner disarmament interest you? Consider this first step: Pause when you move towards or are already in a state of anger or agitation towards another person. In this moment of pausing, notice what you are feeling. You do not need to change anything but as you listen, recognize that your thoughts are colored by this emotion and just see what happens.

You may be tempted to dismiss this idea as naive. I am not saying there are not hateful words and behavior. But that is not all that is there. And if act from our own anger or hatred, there is no chance we can change anything.

 

 

 

 

The Challenge and Miracle of Self-Care

I don't know about your mind, but mine is super-busy and it is easy for me to get distracted – and this has only increased as I get older and as technology has become such a part of my daily life. You probably have heard the expression "monkey-mind", our thoughts constantly jumping from one thing to another.

In addition to my active thinking, I am often distracted by various body sensations – pain, fatigue, and more as the result of my stem cell transplant almost 15 years ago. And even without that, I remember when the recurring sore back or strep throat would occupy center stage in my attention.

I have had a daily yoga practice for decades – at this point the practice involves minimal moving and more breathing, chanting, gesture, and meditation. I am repeatedly surprised to see how hard it is for me to settle into my practice at the times I need it the most. I have a few tricks to help myself with this, but I know it is a common phenomenon. (Those tricks and the options besides yoga for a daily practice are for another time.)

But when I can connect my body and mind to my breath or sound, amazing things begin to happen. I will spare you the science of what occurs, but here are my direct experiences:

  • My body relaxes and tension begins to lessen or even disappear.
  • My relationship to my pain begins to change and and my anxiety or fear decreases.
  • My breath slows down.
  • My entire being feels like it is having a massage from the inside out.
  • My sense of my place in the universe comes into perspective and the size of my distractions seems to shrink.
  • My attitude towards myself and the world is reset so that I feel calm(er), kind(er), and more compassionate.

So even though my body and mind may resist getting to my yoga practice, I am always glad that I did. There is no single method or practice that is right for everyone, but yoga has definitely been right for me. I would love to hear what works for you.

 

 

 

Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First!

 

If you are on an airplane in an emergency situation, you may not save yourself or help anyone else if you don't put your own oxygen mask on first. And the flight attendants remind us of this on every flight. But are we really listening? Do we know we have to take care of ourselves first or risk perishing?

This is true for us as teachers, healthcare professionals, therapists, and caregivers, even though most of us don't learn this in our training and educational programs. We are too often focused on having answers and solutions and on giving to and serving others. Just yesterday I was reminded by a friend the we can neglect self-care because of our work or involvement in almost any activity.

What I notice in myself is that it is all too easy to give and not to take the time I need to replenish myself. I find myself exploring how to choose the right amount of effort to expend and committing and then re-committing to make the time for self-care.

My colleague Jim Gordon, MD, the Founder and Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, always starts his lectures with the fact that the heart of good health starts with self-care. Contrary to popular opinions, self-care is not selfish. If we are depleted, we will eventually have nothing to offer anyone else. We are like the gas tank that is running on empty or the battery that is dead.

We must save the only life we can save*, our own! I write this blog first as a reminder to myself. Secondly I hope that those of you who know me will stop me if you see me charging ahead, full speed, heedless of my self-care. Please remind me to slow down, to take care of myself, and, perhaps, to do less. And, of course, to breathe!

Why Bother with a Personal Practice?

Any day is wonderful time to start or restart a personal daily practice or activity that helps us to connect and align body, mind, and spirit. A personal practice can take just a few minutes – it need not be long or elaborate. The practice might consist of focused breathing, yoga, guided imagery, prayer, or even dancing. The focus is being present with your attention directed toward the experience of this moment. In doing this, we can both explore and cultivate our intention(s) for both the near term and the future.

For me the technique of choice is yoga, which includes breath, movement, sound, and meditation – and not necessarily all of these elements in any practice. What technique might work for you?

And I remind myself, if I miss a practice on any particular day, be kind and forgiving.  It is okay. Today is a new day and we can begin again – that is why we call it a "practice".

Living with Uncertainty

For a good portion of my life, I blithely went along thinking I could plan my day, my week, my next summer vacation, with certainty. And in the course of one hour, that assumption was blown away when my husband was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

At some level, we all know that substantive disruptions in our lives are possible in every moment, but I was certainly unprepared for mine. During the 8 months my husband was alive after that diagnosis, my planning horizon and my certainty about what the next moment might bring got really short. Sometimes I could plan the next hour; sometimes not. It felt like a wild and slightly crazy dance where I could rarely get my balance.

Barely three years later I faced my own life-threatening illness, and the crazy unbalanced dance began again. My life today is more stable than when I was diagnosed and going through treatment, but I still find myself wanting to recapture that old feeling – that my life can be orderly and predictable.

I have spent a good portion of the past 16 years learning to do the dance of uncertainty with light feet and with a regular warning to myself – sometimes successful, sometimes not – that the dance floor could tilt at any moment. I have found the techniques of mind-body medicine and yoga incredibly useful at reminding me to embrace what is here now, rather than wanting something else for tomorrow. Anything that connects me with my breath usually helps. Still, I notice how easy it is for me to forget and to assume that my life is stable and change is somewhere in the future.

In the past few weeks I have been reminded a number of times that change is more the norm than I would like to think. Why is this lesson so hard to learn? I feel the seduction of wanting stability, of deluding myself during times when my health seems predictable. I would not have chosen the circumstances of my husband's illness nor my own. But I often think that these challenges have been – and continue to be – my greatest teacher.

What I have is now.

Here.

This breath.

This moment.

 

More about yoga for chronic pain

My last blog post generated questions about the chronic pain video that was attached. What kind of yoga did Linda do? How much did she practice? Here is some context for her remarkable story.

Linda has been a yoga student in one of my weekly classes for quite a number of years. As she describes in the video, she arrived in pain and usually felt better when she left – the pain was eased physically and she was also more relaxed. The benefit, however, was not sustained, and she was plagued by chronic pain in multiple joints as well as neck and spine pain. This led her to be concerned about her condition as well as fatigued from managing her life with pain as a constant companion.

In the summer of 2012, I challenged the students in one of my classes to start a brief (and I really mean brief) daily home practice. I created what we affectionately called the "10-Minute Practice" because I assured them they could do it in 10 minutes or less. I created a stick-figure diagram with breathing instructions so they would have a guide to practice with at home and we reviewed it in class. It has 3 postures! A video version is below.

A number of students began to practice it daily and Linda was among them. She noticed that it helped diminish her morning stiffness and it also helped her feel centered to start her day. Interestingly, within a couple of months Linda decided to go on a diet, something she had not been considering previously. Over the next 20 weeks, she lost 25 pounds and she has kept them off ever since! The combination of daily yoga practice and weight loss seems to have markedly changed Linda's pain.

As Linda and I were talking about this blog, we both wondered if it was her daily yoga practice that created the right environment for her to embark on her diet. Her successful discipline in doing this 10-Minute Practice helped build her will and remind her that she could take on and follow through with new activities for self-care!

Living with Pain: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Pain has been my regular companion for most of the past 12 years and for the past few days it has been pretty noisy. It continues to require both my energy and focus to establish and re-establish a sense of well-being as pain makes me tired and worn out and distracts both my thoughts and emotions. Perhaps you know the feeling.

There are a number of things that I know to be true for me:
-- First, there is the source of pain (the particulars in my body).
-- Second, there is my reaction to the pain.

The source of the pain might be known -- an injury, a surgical incision, a mouth sore (my current issue) -- or it might not be. As part of the normal physical response to pain, other parts of the body are activated -- muscles tense to guard and protect against further aggravation, complex nerve signals are triggered from the brain.

Sometimes I am able to change the pain -- either diminishing it or completely eliminating it. At other times, I cannot do anything about the pain. I should add that there is definitely a role for drugs in pain management. The worse the pain gets, the harder it is to manage it. So I have learned when it is time for me to haul out the pharmaceuticals. I know where that threshold is for me. Do you know where yours is?

Even if I cannot change the pain itself, I can almost always change my reaction to it. That reaction is characterized by fear (How long is this going to last? What does it mean?), anxiety (Will I be able to sleep? Can I work today? Is it time for drugs?), self-pity (This is not going away. Poor me!), and a deep sense of denial/rejection -- not wanting this pain in my body, wanting things to be different. When I change how I respond, I can often relieve the secondary physical symptoms and almost always ease both my emotional and mental state.

There are many techniques for managing your reaction to your pain. My impulse is mostly to reject it, ignore it, or want the pain to be different. For me, the place to start is to look straight at what is happening now -- the physical sensation, the emotions, and the things I am saying to myself. What helps me most is practicing -- really practicing! -- wanting what is present in any moment. That trains me not to direct my energy at rejecting the current reality, and it also prepares me to face the more challenging difficulties in my life. This kind of practice can and should occur even when there is no pain present, and we can all benefit. There is no way to avoid pain in this life.

Below is one woman's story of how yoga helped her with chronic, debilitating pain.

In addition to yoga, I have also found mindfulness-based meditation, systematic body scans, and guided imagery extremely helpful. If the pain is severe and compelling, I have a small library of MP3 files I can call upon: When it is just too hard to wade up thru the haze of pain and to focus, another voice can really help.

What techniques have you tried? What didn't work? What does? What have you learned?

 

Just one breath: Change your stress level and so much more.

I know from painful personal experience that I can be overwhelmed and frightened by the circumstances of my life.  It took the illness and death of my husband and my own brush with life-threatening illness for me to learn the most basic lesson of self-care:

If I control my breathing, I shift my emotions and the sensations in my body.

Science has shown over and over again that we quite literally change the autonomic nervous system when we relax with the change in our breathing.  What does that mean in real terms?

  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Decrease your heart rate
  • Improve your digestion
  • Improve the efficacy of your immune system
  • Decrease stress hormones

All this (and more) just by changing your breath?  Yes, this really works.  There are many ways to do this and each of us needs to discover a technique that works for us personally.

One simple breathing practice:

  • Bring your awareness to your breathing.
  • Notice the breath and how you experience it.  Do you feel the temperature at the openings of your nostrils, cool as you breathe in and warm as you breathe out?  What parts of your body are moving?  Does your abdomen expand on inhale and relax on exhale?  Are your ribs perhaps moving out as you breathe in and letting go as you breathe out?  Are you breathing through your nose, your mouth, or some combination of the two?
  • Intentionally slow down your breath, exerting as little effort as possible.
  • Take 5 slow and easy breaths.

When you have completed 5 breaths, allow your breathing to return to normal and notice how