Archive | January, 2013

Fit and Focused—Mindfulness Matters

29 Jan

Mindfulness CartoonIf you haven’t yet checked out our new magazine, Alpha–The Evolution of Fitness, I’d snatch it up quickly. Don’t miss a single day that could be used to start creating your best life with cutting edge nutrition, fitness, mindset, and sport information!

In our last issue you were introduced to one of our contributing writers with a photo of him sitting upright yet relaxed in a cross-legged position, his supinated palms resting purposefully on his knees, the thumb and forefingers married intently.  The caption humorously poked fun at his Zen-like posture and its usefulness in capturing the attention of beautiful women. Guys, if you read it and gave it a try, we’d like to hear from you–we may be onto a novel way of match-making! If you haven’t assumed the sitting meditation pose, there are far more reasons than the possibility of discovering your true love. How about finding your truest life?

Those of you who know me are aware of my penchant for everything mindfulness-related. My audio courses and teleconferences teach it; my mental edge program (which, by the way, is not just for competitors) utilizes its principles for the development of optimal emotional intelligence; and while you won’t find me popping a squat in the middle of my office floor at The Diet Doc, you will find me screaming at Joe from below his loft, “You better not be eating and typing at the same time!!” I’m not obsessed, but I am excited. I’ve felt the benefits of mindfulness in my own life and I can tell you it has changed my perception of who and how I am, of what is important, and how I relate to others.  I’m happier, I’m more self-accepting, I’m more successful, I’m less negative, and I can more easily roll with the punches. I’ve never felt healthier. But don’t take it from me. I’m just some wacky, single, mid-30’s cat lady (you’ll understand when you read the magazine)! Read on to learn how mindfulness could make the difference in your life too.

Mindfulness meditation, while it has been around for thousands of years, has been garnering tremendous interest among fitness, health, and medical communities of late. Described by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a researcher and founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program at UMass, as a compassionate, non-judgmental focus on present-moment experience, mindfulness meditation is among the top six most recommended therapies of complementary and alternative medicine. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, in 2006 slightly over 9% of Americans engaged in meditation. That same year almost a million children meditated. School districts across the country are now teaching mindfulness to children in the classrooms, and governor Tim Ryan of Ohio has written a book about how mindfulness has changed his life. He is using his knowledge and experience with the practice, as well as the research behind it to develop the curriculums that many school in his state are implementing.

Mindfulness - You Can't Do it WrongIf you believe meditation in its various forms, and mindfulness in general, is just a rather fruity way of achieving some sort of transcendental spacing out, think again. It is being used  by millions to achieve optimal wellness; to cope with anxiety and stress; to manage emotional pain; to decrease the debilitating effects of depression, insomnia, and chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease; and to manage the psychological effects and treatment of disordered eating and substance abuse, just to name a few. The children who practice it are more emotionally aware, concentrate better in class, and exhibit greater resilience in the face of setbacks. Spacing out has no place in mindfulness—it is all about tuning in.

Fitness influences more than just the muscles beneath your skin that aid in the movement of your skeleton and impact your adiposity, strength, stamina, and flexibility of the shape that is uniquely you. Like the benefits listed above, exercise confers numerous health-related advantages, lowering our risk of many diseases and extending our longevity and quality of life. Consider that for every five points that an individual moves past the 30 point BMI, he/she loses 4% of the gray matter of the brain. That muscle beneath the skull, the one that actually gives us the ability to achieve the balance and proprioceptive skills necessary to lift the dumbbells over our heads, is significantly impacted by our focus on health. But without an intentional and direct emphasis on it, we’re choosing a lack of attention on half of the health equation.

A study published in Neuroimaging revealed that mindfulness increases regional gray matter with 8 weeks of practice and the benefits extend beyond formal practice time. Changes occurred most noticeably in the areas of the brain critical in emotional reactions, learning, memory, empathy, sense of self, and stress (Lazar, et al., 2011). (Those of you who struggle with will-power, poor body image, self-control, and related behaviors, I’d listen up). Sorry folks, the most common reason most people use for avoiding adoption of a fitness routine– “I don’t have time”– just won’t fly here. It’s not a valid excuse when it comes to exercise and nutrition, and I feel the same about it in this situation. All of us can say we don’t have the time. We make it for the things that we’ve deemed important. What’s the point of having a healthy body if you don’t have the mental capacity to appreciate it?

Mindful EatingThose of you who set goals for 2013 to lose weight, exercise more, eat more healthfully, or any combination of the three, and  you’re still plugging away, congratulations. Don’t stop. At any time you may stumble, encounter a setback, or feel less than thrilled with your progress, but these are expectable. If you want to ride the roller coaster of life’s ups and downs more resiliently, however, consider the effects of mindfulness on decision  making. A study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience in 2011 found that mindfulness practitioners as compared to those who do not engage in mindfulness, use different parts of the brain for decision-making (Kirk, 2011). Rather than impulsive and emotional reactions, the mindful individuals exhibited greater rationality and objectivity. Other research indicates that one of the most crucial components in successful weight loss and weight loss maintenance is behavioral flexibility. That means you have to be able to step out of your black and white, I-have-to-have-it-this-way-or-it’ll-all-fall-apart mindset, and be able to respond versus react.

Okay, if I’ve not convinced you yet, here are five more compelling reasons to begin incorporating mindfulness into your fitness routine.

  1. Mindfulness enhances immune response through increased antibody production.
  2. Attention, anxiety, memory and mood (say that five times fast!) are each impacted positively with mindfulness practice. Just 4 days of practice is all that’s necessary to increase focused attention, working memory and cognition.
  3. Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms decreased by 50% with 10 weeks of mindfulness training in a study published in 2010.
  4. Long-term mindfulness practices results in greater brain volume, less atrophy with aging as compared to individuals who do not engage in mindfulness, and strong neural connections.
  5. Binge eating was shown to decrease by 75% in a study conducted at Duke University with use of a mindfulness program.

The evidence is there. Will you put it into practice?

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Would I Have Done That?

11 Jan

Why is it that I learn more about myself in the aisles of a grocery store than any other place? I’d like to count how many times my blogs begin with a description of an experience in Walmart!

This one starts out much the same, except I decided to go to a new store. As I approached the carts, I noticed they were all hooked together by red cords. Strange looking  boxes were attached to the handles of each. I was perplexed. I pulled the cart nearest to me only to find that it wouldn’t move. I stood there, blankly. “What is going on here?” I thought. I yanked on the cart again. Nothing. I don’t know what I looked like to the other people walking into the store. Did everyone have such trouble getting a cart? Suddenly a woman walked up behind me, “Here hon, take mine,” she said.

“Oh! Thank you!” I replied. “But what exactly is going on here?” I asked, gesturing toward the red contraptions.

She smiled like it wasn’t the first time she had answered this newbie question. “You have to have a quarter to get the cart. They do it so you’ll return them. When you’re done shopping you hook it back up and you get your quarter back.” She pointed to the quarter-sized slot on the front side of the crimson box.

fear and the number of things you hide“Ohhhh!” I laughed gingerly, thanked her again, and held back tears. Yes, tears.

Revelation #1- it’s okay to not know things, it’s okay to ask for help, and  there are good and genuine people in the world. 

“You’re very welcome,” she said. “You’ll learn fast. You come here once and you’ll know what to do next time!” she said cheerily and scampered off to her car.

I drove the cart into the store, slowly navigating the aisles. I wanted to make sure I had a good lay of the land. If I could avoid making a trip to two other place, all the better. “I hate shopping.” The words weren’t audible, but they sounded like it in my head.

I picked up some of my staples– heads of cauliflower, eggs, cans of green beans. And I came to the checkout counter excited with my finds. Not only did they have the things I bought on a weekly basis, but everything at this store was far cheaper than I had been paying. I removed the items from the cart and organized them on the belt.

“Twenty-one, seventy nine,” the woman said to me cheerily. At one point someone had told me that this store didn’t take credit cards. I was ready with my checkbook. No sooner had I scrawled the date in the right top corner when the cashier looked up from her register and said quickly, “Oh, we don’t take checks!” I looked at her quizzically. “We only take debit cards or cash.” That same watch-out-tears-are-coming feeling crept up my chest and into my chin.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t have either. My card is a debit card b….” She cut me off. “You have to have a PIN with it.”

“I don’t.” I replied. “I’m really sorry. I can’t buy these things then.”

“So put them back?”

“Yes,” I said so quietly I’m not sure she heard me. I swallowed hard and fumbled with my checkbook, shoving it back into my purse and took a step toward the door.

“I’ll get them for you.” A woman walked up next to me with a smile.

I looked up. Was she talking to me?

I must have looked stunned, confused. “Really.” She turned to the cashier and put her debit card through the reader, entered her pin, and concluded with “There!” Now the tears were at the bottoms of my eyeballs. In a split second the dam would break.

Don't Believe Everything You Think“I will write you a check,” I said,somehow finding a foundation of strength to hold up my words. “Wow, thank you. I’m so thankful. This was so kind of you. Who can I make the check out to?” I felt like a child…a stammering child. The uber-controlled, confident woman I was so used to being was brought down to what felt like a level of desperation and need. Over the inability to buy her own groceries.

Revelation #2: – it’s okay to not know things, it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to accept help, and there are good and genuine people in the world.

I pushed my cart over to the counters lining the  back wall of the store. This was what appeared to be the bagging area. But there were no bags. The benevolent woman leaned over to me from her own cart and said, “Here! Keep these. You’ll want to bring them back with you next time. I’d have hated for you to have a bad experience here. This is a wonderful store. Everything is so expensive these days. I want you to come back!” She smiled and continued chatting with me about a trip she recently took to the Caribbean, what gas prices were like there, and how we are quite lucky to live where we do.

Yes, yes, we are, I thought. Now more than ever this is clear to me.

She looked up from her bags and said, “Do you need another? Can you get everything in those two bags?”

“I think it’s perfect,” I said. “Thank you again. So much, really. It was nice meeting you.”

She smiled and drove her cart away, the sliding doors capping what felt like a fantasy.

ConnectionAs I slid into my car the tears finally came. They collided down my face with gratitude, with grief, with disappointment in how hardened I had become. Was I really so surprised that there existed such generosity in people? Would I have done what they did?

I recognize now it’s not that I don’t believe there is goodness in others. I wouldn’t be a therapist if I believed that. My life’s work revolves around helping others realize their gifts so they can live more fully, more vibrantly, and out loud. It’s so easy to get swept up in our own little insulated worlds that we forget what is truly important though. Connection, fellowship, love, vulnerability, authenticity.

The teacher became the taught in the grocery store that day. The teacher who lives by learning herself but can obviously be surprised by her unthought known.

Revelation #3: it’s okay to not know things, it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to accept help, it’s okay to be uncomfortable, vulnerable, and forget what we already know, and there are good and genuine people in the world.

Vulnerability Just Ahead

Come, Walk With Me…

1 Jan

Pain demands to be feltWhen a friend of mine shared with me recently in an email that her mother “decided to die on Christmas Day” I took some time to respond. Given the situation and the rate at which the woman’s condition was deteriorating, it had seemed that weeks before, the possibility of death occurring sooner than later was imminent. My friend was her mother’s caretaker, and each time we spoke I was reminded of my own mother’s role. She is currently caring for my grandma, whose husband, ironically, would be celebrating his birthday this New Year’s Eve.

As I write this I’m struck with wrenching sadness. Unexpected. I let the ache fill my chest, and I suppose there are a few things happening for me all at once. The reminder of my grandpa’s death puts front and center the eventual passing of my mom. The thought of her absence leaves a gaping hole in my heart. I imagine too, her pain in being with her dad when he died, having taken care of him for over a year, feeling helpless to give him comfort as his body failed him and longing to have him argue with her in their typical sparring way that would so often leave her upset and fuming but would now give her reassurance that he was vital and energetic. It’s not my pain, it appears, that I’m afraid of then—it’s hers. All the same, I suppose I am afraid of not being able to take it away from her, afraid of the lack of control I’ll have?

But my friend’s words were poignant. Despite not knowing that her mom had chosen to make Christmas Day the day she would take her last breaths, she thought it. She gave her mom credit for a decision. Her mom was a strong-willed, demanding woman. It fit. Was that my friend’s way of making sense of an event she couldn’t easily wrap her mind around?

the most precious giftsThe reply to my friend was short. What could I say? I’m a therapist, and I know she needs to grieve. I know too that her process will be hers alone, distinct and beautiful in its own right. But I wasn’t sure of myself in this situation. I calculatingly expressed my sorrow for her…for her mother’s death. I remember pausing before I typed the word “death”, wondering if it would be more appropriate to say “passing.” But what difference would it make? I scanned her email before deciding on the former, hoping to glean a sense of rightness of fit from the context and her tone. I couldn’t. If she were in the room with me I’d just be with her. I’d reach out and hold her hand…hold her if she was okay with it. But I couldn’t do that across a thousand miles and a keyboard. I typed those words instead, worrying with every key stroke that it sounded trite, overly sentimental, and empty. Except it wasn’t, at least not to me. It is what I would do. But I proceeded to get on my own case about worrying so much about my words. Back and forth I went until I decided to land on the fact that this wasn’t about me. I expressed that she was in my prayers, in my thoughts, that I was having a difficult time articulating what I wanted her to know, but that I was there for her, whatever she needed. When a person dies, what do you do?

Death.

Last year I read Staring into the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death by Irvin Yalom. I’m not sure what led me to it. Perhaps it was on the recommended reading list in my psychotherapy journal. It very well could have been a discussion I had with a friend about how we comprehend death. Or maybe I was interested in better understanding the fear that so many of us have about dying. It seems our fear of death is often underlying the fear we experience in other areas of our lives. We desire connection and belonging, and we will, upon introspection about our behavior, lash out defensively and in anger when underneath such explosions is fear of isolation and rejection. Isolation—could this be the illusion linked to death? How are we to know  if we’re unwilling to ask questions about death though, of The fear of death follows from the fear of lifeourselves and of others? If death were within our awareness, willingly, would we all be walking around on automatic pilot so often? Going through the motions? Living with such an astoundingly depressing, in my opinion, lack of intention or sense of our own mortality. If we were really mindful of death, wouldn’t we be more conscious in life? If we asked ourselves what our thoughts are on death, wouldn’t it incite us to live more generously? Feel more passionately? Or, maybe by asking ourselves about death, we’d just be living in a perpetual state of anxiety.

If you are a follower of my blog, you’re aware of my penchant for mindfulness. It’s my belief that we all need to wake up and become active observers of ourselves and others, refrain from pushing away what is and away from pain, pay attention to what influences us and how we act, and pause long enough to respond rather than react. When someone dies I think the discomfort is less about the loss and more about the emotions that well up inside of us. And we try arduously to shove them away. I’m reminded of something a friend of mine said to me this week: “I’ve been holding back tears, and I’m not a person that cries,” she stated as she explained that her co-worker was leaving. This was a women 10 years her senior but who felt like her older sister and was her best friend.

The Tragedy of LifefIn this instance I felt sure of what I wanted to say. “What is a person who doesn’t cry? Non-human?” It’s possible this statement could have easily been taken the wrong way by someone other than a friend, but it was important to me that I convey to her that crying would, it seemed, be a pretty normal reaction to what she was experiencing. “Your sadness could be showing you how important she is to you; do you want to ignore that?” I said.

If we were more comfortable feeling in general, would we be more comfortable with death? If we more often said to the tears filling up the caverns of our insides, “Come, walk with me,” instead of “No, go away!”, would death be more easily experienced? What about before the death?

How do we manage what I would presume most of us will only experience once? Death isn’t like a meal, when we know we’ll have another. “This one just wasn’t satisfying,” we might think. “But I have lunch in a few hours.” No. Death means done.

At the same time death might mean an awakening of sorts, to our own fragility, to our meaninglessness, to meaningfulness, and to relationships we cut ourselves off from either purposefully or just through an abandonment of attention. Paul Auster in his book, The Invention of Solitude, becomes a son to his father and makes it possible to become a father himself, only after his father’s death. What if both had, if even obligatorily, run through the gaping holes of each other’s hearts and been vulnerable enough to get to know each other before? Would it have mattered?

forwardYalom (2008) quotes a woman in Staring at the Sun for whom it mattered immensely:

“I lost my beloved father two years ago and I have experienced previously unimaginable growth since. Before then I’d often wondered about my own ability to confront my finiteness and had been haunted by the idea that I too, will someday pass from this life. However, I have now found in those fears and anxieties a love for living I didn’t known before” (p. 116).

My current assignment for the course I’m involved in is focused on “Difficult Conversations” in healthcare. In palliative care, communication of what is often perceived as difficult has received much attention, primarily because of the intense discomfort that many physicians feel when they must bring it up to patients and family members. Little training is provided for healthcare workers during their education and practicums, at least not the type that provides them with confidence. Emotions can’t exactly be blueprinted. An “if”/”then” flow sheet for telling a patient that they will not recover, won’t cut it. So we come back to having the ability to be comfortable in our discomfort, to experience our own suffering as we face the suffering, but don’t assume the suffering or the decisions, of others.

As I conclude I am brought back to my most recent conversation with the friend I can be ultimately raw with, whom I can divulge what others might, quite possibly contract with horror in hearing or seeing.  He read me a passage from the book he’s absorbed in, which just so happens to be about dad’s…and death. I’m struck by the convergence in these last few days of my school topic, his readings, my friend’s mother’s passing, and the squelching of friend’s tears stemming from a loss.  All seem to be beveled in a tangle of  fear. They are Time to Growconnected. We are connected. I have with this friend what I imagine to be quite rare, a frequency that a mere fraction of could stabilize the air between life and the anxiety of death. Sogyal Rinpoche, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, eloquently captures the essence of this strange marriage of the aloneness of death and its revelatory harmony:

“When we finally know we are dying, and all sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense…of the preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings.”

The healthcare workers who sit with the dying and who reveal to their families the brevity of the life before them, the aging, the caretakers of those in their final days,  the dying who have accepted their impending endings, the dying who haven’t, the dead who had no choice, and those of us who fear what will come– might we face death with life, with breath, and welcome it to walk with us? For isn’t it always with us anyway?

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