Cherish life. Nourish it.

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I Will Be Happy When __________. Signed, Goldilocks

Mature woman beach“I will be happy when…….?” I’m a perfect size 6? Get my degree? Get married? Buy that house? Take my dream vacation? Lose weight? Get a job? Retire? Get a new car?

How many times have we made similar statements? They’re powerful words, because they infer that happiness is an elusive state that depends on everything being “just right.” Remember Goldilocks? Goldie believed that happiness always depended on external circumstances. She saw no need to take personal responsibility for her own happiness, nor did she recognize the role of contentment and gratitude in her life.

Goldie had not developed the ability to be at ease with life’s highs and lows. Her comfort zone was incredibly narrow. Instead of embracing the whole spectrum of emotion, she wanted everything to be just so. Nothing imperfect or unexpected was tolerated.

Likewise, today many feel that happiness is the result of avoiding or getting rid of bad feelings. But rejecting our emotion only creates more bad feelings. Rejection of our own emotion is a rejection of self, contributing to feelings of brokenness or unworthiness. And if we believe we’re unworthy, we won’t believe we deserve to be happy!

If we feel blocked from happiness, one exercise is to look at what’s “in the way” as The Way. Think about it: how many times have we experienced stressful events, only to look back on them with gratitude for the lessons they taught us? Patience, endurance, clarity, flexibility, hope, and adaptability are all fruits of the tree called hardship.

Some may say that these are old fashioned values, but old gold is still gold, and emotional resilience is currency that we can invest every day.

Rather than depending on “just right” moods or circumstances, we can learn to allow happiness to become an overall state of being. The power of this approach is that it allows us to find the good in every situation.

Daily practice can include focusing on:

  • what we’re grateful for
  • areas of contentment
  • what’s working in life
  • drawing pleasure (aka nourishment) from our daily activities

Spending a few minutes each day quietly contemplating all our reasons to be grateful has proven to be an excellent technique to ground us in happiness as well as contributing to overall health. (see links below)

Instead of rejecting unpleasant emotions and feelings, we can learn to see all our experiences as just that-experiences. And experiences are the fabric of life. Rejecting so-called negative experience is a rejection of life.

We all experience discomfort. How we choose to respond to it determines our happiness set-point.

The human mind tends to get stuck in loops–repeating thoughts, beliefs, and interpretations that tell and re-tell the story of our lives. But we have a choice: we can consciously choose thoughts that will make space in our mind and heart for happiness. We can practice doing this again and again. Happiness can become a habit.

In addition, pleasure is all around us. Beauty in nature, the touch of a loved one, savory tastes and pleasant aromas, beautiful music, the feeling of oxygen coursing through our body. Once we accept what is and stop rejecting our reality, we create a still, quiet place for these pleasures to reside. We feel nourished physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We fully occupy the myriad small moments that are gifts of joy, gifts that nourish, experiences that contribute to true contentment.

And contentment? Contentment’s contribution says, “I have enough. I am enough. Life is good.”

The time that we spend postponing happiness, believing everything in life has to be just right before it can happen, is distracting us from the actual life that we have right now, in the present. And it’s only in the present that we can choose to experience the happiness, joy, and contentment that are right in front of us, waiting for our attention.

Links: “How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves” “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life”

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“Sacred Inconsistencies, Sacred Dignity”

MP900382674Working for the last couple of decades with people who are at or near the end of their life has been a remarkable experience. It continues to be both inspirational and illuminating. Many of those clients put forth heroic efforts to survive as long and as well as possible, by:

  • making sweeping dietary changes
  • de-toxing their home environment
  • taking supplements
  • getting acupuncture
  • going to therapy
  • practicing stress management

But there are times when those same clients who have ”moved heaven and earth”, so to speak, get tired of fighting. Some lose hope, while others have a change of heart, perhaps developing a longing for the comforts of their previous lifestyle. I am not here referring to the occasional bad day when the interventions seem cumbersome or overwhelming. Rather, this article refers to times when a subtle shift in belief occurs within the ill person which manifests through words or actions of resistance or rejection.

When this happens, those of us providing support (friends, family, health care professionals) are faced with a tough choice: do we embrace this change of direction, or do we rigidly insist on the “rightness” of previous interventions?

Anger and resentment frequently flare up at times like these. Why does this happen?

Let’s backtrack for a moment.

We have all lost people we care about, and that statement alone points to the underpinnings of the situation and its difficulty: loss. Those who are left behind must learn to deal with their feelings of loss of one who was dear to them, missing them deeply, mourning their absence. We know what these things feel like. We wish to avoid them again if at all possible. As a species, human beings have a strong distaste for pain. And scenarios surrounding this ultimate loss are among our most painful.

So when the ”support team” sees the patient/loved one disconnecting from the very interventions which have offered hope, we can feel betrayed. This feels deeply personal. We can begin to question whether our loved one wants to be with us as long as possible. After all, making the choice to discontinue medical/holistic intervention seems to send a message of readiness to die, not a desire to live. That message appears totally inconsistent with all the hard work that went into the sweeping changes previously embraced. Frequently, families are confused or perplexed.

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was once asked about “sacred inconsistencies” such as the fact that she was still a smoker, while espousing a healthy lifestyle. Her answer was this:

“I think that as you evolve spiritually, automatically your body tells you what is acceptable for your body and what is not….
I survive. Eventually, when my body tells me it’s time to quit smoking, I will quit smoking. But if somebody tells me you can’t smoke, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, the aggravation of this constant nagging is, I think, more damaging to my health than if I listen to my own body and live accordingly.” 

We don’t have to look much beyond our own mirror to see that sacred inconsistencies are part of every human existence. If we learn to respond to these from our best, most spiritual self, we will choose to respond to inconsistency with compassion. Our compassion around freedom to choose contributes directly and powerfully to the ill person’s sense of dignity.

Each person has the right to choose, not just how they want to live, but also how they want to die. All choices have emotional fallout; that is, they affect others. This is especially the case when loved ones make choices we do not agree with, choices that affect us personally. When our dear ones suddenly seem to change the rules on us, here are some suggestions:

  • Remember that they may be grappling with feelings that they are abandoning their loved ones by retiring from their fight for life. Don’t contribute to those feelings by projecting personal fears of loss onto them.
  • Don’t feel that your support has been in vain: all the contributions you made to lifestyle changes were proof of your love for them. When survivors look back on a loss, those who can look back with no regrets fare much better through the grieving process than those who wish they had done more.
  • Recognize the limitations of the emotional state of the ill person. Advanced disease, chronic pain, & heavy medications all limit the ability of the patient to countenance excessive or negative emotional input from friends and family.
  • Discontinuation of interventions (other than palliative) can be viewed, not as a desire to die, but as a desire to live as peacefully and with as little struggle as possible for the time remaining. We can contribute to that peace by respecting their right to make the choice of how to spend their last weeks, months, or days.
  • Some experience a crisis of faith near the end of life. Patient, kind, considerate acts will help reassure the loved one at a time they need it the most.
  • Recognize your own need to express your feelings and be heard, but do so in a proper, constructive venue. Support groups for caregivers, a therapist, or a friend not involved in the situation are good options for accessing necessary support for yourself.
  • Ask your Primary Care Doctor about Hospice. Their experience in dealing with eventualities can be of tremendous comfort to patients and their families.
  • None of us can stop people from dying. But we can give them the tremendous gift of sustaining their dignity as they face the future by lovingly supporting their choices.

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farmlandAs the last of the cotton crop is harvested from the rural areas east of us, the scenery changes dramatically. The fields, once draped with deep greenery and embellished with puffy bolls of cotton, are one by one plowed under, leaving the bare earth exposed.

The season is changing.

Though we still perspire under the burden of 90-plus degree heat, any pre-dawn venture outside these days whispers quietly of the cooler temperatures of fall.

Seasons, and change, are an inevitable part of life. Each serves its purpose. Autumn is a time of rest, a time to recharge the soil’s energies so the earth will be fruitful once again at its next cultivation. The harvest completed, success is evaluated, failures accounted for. Areas needing improvement are noted. Nothing is wasted: even the fibrous leftovers of the crop are given back to the earth to nourish it for what’s to come.

If we take our cue from nature, we recognize that nourishing ourselves sometimes calls for acts that seem at odds with our driven, high pressure lifestyle. While we may feel compelled to work 20 hour days like (we think) everyone else is, or to keep pushing ourselves with no regard for natural human limitations, those feelings don’t serve to nourish us, and cannot contribute to a sense of peace. Rather, feelings like these uphold the belief that there’s never “enough”-achievement, education, accolade, money, possessions, power.

Just as our planet has limitations, so too does the human body. For some, the title of this post, “Fallow”, may conjure images of uncultivated, unproductive land. Perhaps even land that no one cares for. But fallow can also be defined as “dormant, quiescent potential”. To access our own sense of potential, we must wait patiently, free from distraction, for it to quietly surface.

How fruitful is our life? Some seasons are more productive than others. And the more productive the season, the more care, preparation and recharging are required beforehand. When we learn to accept this fact, it’s as if we’d stepped outside in the morning to find a refreshing change in the air.

Just as we can see the beauty in a freshly plowed field, its symmetry embracing the contours of the landscape, so too we can learn to watch for the seasons of our own life.  When we sense a time for change, quiet contemplation allows us to fully experience the moment. We can turn over new soil.  We can use the leftovers of past experiences as soul nourishment and fertilizer for what’s next. We can learn to respect the fact that germination and gestation of new ideas and personal growth take time. Time when there may appear, on the surface of things, to be nothing much happening. 

But we know better. We give ourselves permission to enjoy the process. And we look forward to our next season with curiosity and anticipation.


Lessons in survival

MP900341418As I spend time with clients and friends, I am constantly struck by the indomitable beauty of the human spirit.

We all face situations when we feel we have no control, feel trapped, and are sure we are powerless. Our emotions and negative thinking predict failure, and we can doubt our ability to carry on.

How do we respond to those situations? For the most part, we strive to face them with courage. But often the hardest part of those situations is knowing how to deal with our painful thoughts and feelings. Fear is so powerful. It can be paralyzing. Is there something stronger with which we can subdue it?

Amanda Lindhout, author of “A House In the Sky”, is a true survivor. At age 27, Amanda, a reporter, was kidnapped in Somalia and spent 460 days in captivity, in unthinkably cruel conditions. While in this situation, her survival literally depended on being able to re-frame her thoughts and feelings, since she had absolutely zero control of her own environment. Her account, while harrowing to read, points to two fundamental survival skills: counting her blessings with gratitude, and learning to self-soothe.

She writes that she would daily review small things to be grateful for:  “my family at home, the oxygen in my lungs,” the fact that one of her captors “set my food down on the floor instead of throwing it at me.”

Starving, feverish from multiple infections due to injuries, and in total darkness, she still managed to harness the power of her mind.

She would imagine a “house in the sky,” in which “the voices that normally tore through my head expressing fear and wishing for death went silent, until there was only one left speaking.” This voice, the voice of her true self, her unflinching spirit, asks, “In this exact moment, are you O.K.?” Her answer? “Yes, right now I am still O.K.”

These two practices allowed her to withstand her fear and isolation. Soothing herself with the fact that she was still O.K., despite the trauma, meant that she was surviving everything her captors threw at her. Gratitude for small blessings allowed her to feel peace.

In the privacy of her own brain, once she accessed her true spirit and will to live, nothing could touch her. 

What a beautiful example for all of us: in spite of our circumstances, we can re-direct emotions and beliefs that are not serving us, and by reminding ourselves that we, too, are O.K., we can nourish our human spirit .

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The Inspirational Diana Nyad

butterfly swimmerMuch has been said and written about the amazing feat of Ms. Nyad, age 64, and her successful 100-plus mile swim from Cuba to Florida. Her physical exertions are mind-boggling to contemplate, but it’s her mental exertions and preparation that I want to discuss here.

On her fifth attempt at this Herculean task, she succeeded. Her previous attempts had all been newsworthy, and much discussion after each failed attempt focused on the factors that may have contributed to the failure.

Few of us have failed so publicly, on four televised consecutive “tries” which were then dissected and discussed at length, as Ms Nyad has. How did she discover the strength and courage to try again? How did she find the passion and energy that led to an unswerving belief in her own abilities? She summed it up with these words:  ‘”We should never, ever give up . . . You never are too old to chase your dreams.”

How do we respond to our own failures? How easily do we throw in the towel? These are questions that are well worth our time to answer. But Diana Nyad’s example leads me to think that failures, rather than being reasons to shut down and withdraw, are the building blocks of success.