This summer I had the opportunity to practice the oft-touted phrase of ‘let go and go with the flow’. My partner, Josh, and I had spent the past few months planning and preparing for a section hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I had a 3-year plan to complete each of the 70-150 mile sections in Washington state by 2020. This year we were planning to hike Rainy Pass in the North Cascades to the northern terminus in Manning Park, BC, Canada. I had been pouring over the maps and trail books, studying campsites and water sources, securing Canada border crossing permits, buying supplies and food, calling ranger stations to discuss conditions and permits. My parents flew into town and had lodging secured at the beginning to drop us off and the end to pick us up. Can you guess where this is going?? Yes, we didn’t get to go. Two days before the start of the hike, the section of trail was closed due to wildfires burning near or on the trail. (If you live in the area, you are probably keenly aware of the devastating season of fires we’ve experienced along with the coinciding poor air quality).
The first night I saw the PCT announcement, I have to admit that I didn’t sleep much, woke up in tears, and cried through most of my work day. I felt both angry and sad, along with a feeling of responsibility for the people who had made plans around our trip (mom, dad, Josh and sister). I was wallowing in the loss of a plan that I had spent so much time and energy perfecting. I was so upset; I could not let go. This trip had been my passion for the summer, preparing for this very section of trail, which was now completely off-limits to me due to circumstances way beyond my control. I also didn’t feel confident planning an entirely new trip at this point with only 2 days to prepare, so the sense of loss was heightened.
Here’s the pattern: attachment to a plan, preparation for the plan, loss of the plan, grief. In Buddhism this is described as ‘samsara’: in figurative terms, a cycle of grief, suffering brought on by impermanence and our own attachments.
I know about this cycle, but it doesn’t make the experience of it it any easier. I had to re-group. I discussed the options with my family and decided to re-do a section of trail that we had done 3 years prior, from Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass. This, in fact, was the only section of trail that you could currently do to completion due to wildfires burning state-wide. Granted, this plan meant that I didn’t get any closer to my 3-year goal of section hiking the WA PCT, but I had to start focusing on the array of positives that came with the new plan: mom could hike 3 days with us, less threat of smoke and fires, revisit a section we loved, get into my favorite alpine lake, etc. I had to focus on the ‘lotus in the mud’. When I focused on what I had lost, it was all grief. When I shifted my mindset, it was more positive. It took a few days to get there, but I was able to see it for what it was. Had we left two days earlier on the section we had planned to do, we would have been in danger, and most likely evacuated by firefighters part-way in.
In what you could see as irony, or perhaps fate, the trail we did hike took our boots through a burn area from 9 years before. This section took on a ghostly beauty. I know that fires (to some extent) are a natural part of a forest ecosystem, in fact some species of pinecone only release their seed under the stress of wildfire. I was in awe of the abundance of wildflowers growing up from the earth. The tree trunks left standing were white and black with char. But the fireweed, a vibrant purple, was thick and thriving. I appreciated the metaphor for my current situation. Things beyond our control often sweep our grand plans away, and we’re left to see the fireweed making its way in the undergrowth.
What are some of your wildfires?
The Obsession with Control
When one understands
The Truth of Impermanence,
One will cease to be obsessed with
While we all may have trouble sleeping from time to time, extended periods of sleeplessness (either trouble falling asleep or trouble staying asleep, aka insomnia) can be a real bummer. I suffer from insomnia occasionally, and have discovered that it goes in cycles, either hormonal or seasonal, and can be stress-induced (like after a death, move, or break-up). I’ll go over some common reasons for insomnia, plus a few simple tips for managing it more effectively. One thing that really helps me is to remember that insomnia is not life-threatening, and the more I stress about it, the worse it gets. Each cycle ends eventually, and there are ways to mitigate the negative effects.
The most common causes for insomnia are:
Poor sleep interacts cyclically with many psychological conditions. Insomnia can either be a cause or an effect of anxiety, stress, or depression; and may cause feelings of panic, dread or hopelessness. I interviewed a naturopathic doctor (ND) who specializes in sleep disorders (Catherine Darley), and learned that many doctors have little to no training in sleep. (When I saw my primary care doctor, her only advice was to try an over-the-counter sleep aid.) Of course, it can’t hurt to start with your PCP, but if you aren’t pleased with the results, continue to seek help from other sources until you are satisfied!
Here are some tips to treat mild/occasional insomnia:
Instead of sharing tips and tricks for getting through the holidays, I wanted to just say that in my experience, holidays can magnify the stresses of everyday life, whether it's around time, family, food, money, travel, work, expectations, etc.... in addition to that, being out of your routine can throw off sleep, eating, exercise, you name it. So I won't share my '10 tips for a successfully unstressful holiday'. There are no quick fixes for stress-- it's a life-long journey to be resourced and to understand what you can do for self-care and stress-management year-round.
I realized that a lot of stress in general and especially around the holidays is either an attachment to the past; positive or negative (ie nostalgia OR resentment), or an anxiety around the future (near or distant). The absolute best thing you can do for stress is to re-enter the present moment-- every sight, sound, taste, and sensation of it. Breathe in, breathe out, label everything that crosses through your mind as either a thought, emotion or sensation. Does this sound familiar? It's meditation in action.
Instead of sharing any profound wisdom about the holidays, my best offering is to re-post my deep relaxation practice. Do this type of relaxation and you will reset your brain, body, and emotions, and may find it easier to enter the present moment with ease.
This isn't one more thing on your to-do list, it's one less thing to do.
How many of you are annoyed at how much you use your phone? Are you bothered when a friend or partner uses his/her phone in front of you? How about when you see people walking down the street, sitting on the bus, eating, DRIVING with their head tilted down staring into the screen? The common thread here is annoyance. It's like a nagging stupid little bug that buzzes and buzzes and never goes away. I know I'm not the only one, and I don't see how this pattern will get better as we move into the future.
One glaring aspect of this phenomenon is that many of us check our devices to find a sense of connection through social media. I know I do! However, the reality that I've experienced is that I feel empty and less connected after checking my news feed. And very often it actually takes me away from present moment social interactions. The connection I feel through the device is false, temporary and illusory.
As a health coach, I specialize in behavior change. What a perfect situation we have here for an experiment! I've been annoyed for a long time, but in the past week I decided to take steps towards changing my behavior (remember, you can only change YOUR behavior... your partner has to make his or her own choices and you can choose how you react). One thing I've noticed is that the first step is mindfulness. If you don't even notice you're using you're phone, how can you change the pattern of addiction?
Here are a few tips for changing phone/device behavior:
1- Move your apps around to break your habit. My first step was to move my Facebook app off the toolbar on my home screen and into my entertainment folder. I noticed my checking pattern reduce dramatically when I had to take 3 extra steps (slide, tap, tap) to check the app.
2- Don't take your phone bed. I check my phone last thing before bed and first thing in the morning. And I use my phone as alarm. WHY is it so hard to get myself to meditate for 10 minutes per day when I scroll mindlessly through Facebook for 10 minutes every morning? WTF? I'm buying a wake-up light RIGHT NOW........... as soon as it arrives, the phone will stay charging in the kitchen at night.
3- Track your app usage. Why not fight fire with fire? The irony of using an app to diminish your app usage is not lost on me. There are numerous free apps that can track your usage and either gently remind you or kick you off when you've reached a self-imposed usage limit. Here's one article. Let me know if you find an app you love! I just downloaded Moment for my iPhone. My sister is using a program called "waste no time" on her work computer. Do you like it, Sarah @blueyedgenes?
4- Take a technology fast. Here's one you can do with a friend or partner! Designate a day or part of a day where phones are off or silenced. The very act of putting your phone away from arm's length will automatically make you check it less. Maybe you'll find another activity you love... like interacting with a human! :) You could even use this as a chance to use an 'I' statement: 'When you read your phone while we're having a conversation, I feel like our connection is lost. I feel dismissed and diminished.'
5- Try something new. What are some ways you can think of to change your technology behaviors? With just 3 seconds of brainstorming I came up with 1- leave the phone at home when I go out for socializing, 2- take a 5 minute walk outside instead of catching up on notifications at work 3- silence or disable all notifications on the phone 4- post less and check less 5- take yourself off or interact less with unnecessary apps (Twitter or Instagram not fun anymore? WTF is Vine?) 6- put it on airplane mode when you're feeling 'checky' 7- designate a day for checking Facebook and stay off the rest of the week 8- use a language app to learn new skills instead of reading through a newsfeed (yes you're still looking at your phone, but it's fruitful!)
I'm so excited that I don't have to be stuck in a behavior I don't like. Will you join me in ending the epidemic of 'scrolliosis'? You don't have to quit cold-turkey to change a behavior. Little changes can make big impacts.
Here is the completed video for my deep relaxation practice. Hopefully you'll have your eyes closed, but just in case you peek, there are some nice flowers and landscapes to look at :) Happy relaxing!
I've recorded a 15-minute progressive relaxation guide.
The irony is that in trying to figure out just how to do a recording like this, I came across a few technological hurdles... I won't go into the details, you'll get bored. Needless to say, instead of having a beautiful Youtube video with pictures of sunsets, I have a simple mp3 audio file for your enjoyment. Do you ever want to punch a computer? I do! I'm going to listen to my relaxing recording right now to calm down :)
Here's a picture of a sunset and a flower. Recording is below...
Music by Laraaji
Last week we went to Austin, Texas for a mid-winter vacation and a reprieve from the dark gloom of the Northwest (see SAD). I decided to apply elements of wellness coaching to the trip, and Josh (so graciously) was totally game. During our planning, we brainstormed ideas and expectations we had about the trip, and I wrote up a Vision Document. This includes a 'vision statement' (the big picture) and 'intended outcomes' (how we'll achieve it). When we got back, we read it over and rated our success on a 10-point scale.
It was an energizing, unique, fresh and inspiring trip. We explored a new city, checked out the live music, ate great Mexican food, learned to dance the Texas 2-step, visited Canyon Lake (pictured) and bathed in some sunshine! I also decided that margaritas count as my fruit servings for the day :) We agreed that the vision document was a nice way to organize thought and intention, and was the backbone of our trip planning process.
For my self-care, I received a massage and dropped in on a yoga class. For exercise, we walked 8 miles through the South Congress neighborhood on Tuesday, 12 miles through downtown on Saturday, and had two nights of Texas 2-stepping. At Canyon Lake we rested, watched the deer, and did some wine tasting and pizza delivery. Back in Austin, we saw 7 live bands, including Dale Watson (an Austin icon). Josh met one of his philosopher idols, Matt Dillahunty, and got to geek out at the taping of one of his favorite podcasts. He also came in $52 under budget. We were able to strike a nice balance between rest and activity. Sure we had our tired moments, and some places we wanted to visit were closed, but flexibility and unpredictability were both part of the plan.
Our vision document is posted below. Words we'd like to add after the fact are 'music, dance, exploring, tacos' :)
What would your ideal vacation vision be?
Vision Statement & Intended Outcomes for Josh and Laura in Austin
We are energized by a fresh, unique and inspiring vacation.
We have a plan to reference, but allows for improvisation. Priorities to visit: Barton Springs, Canyon Lake, Continental club, Laura’s massage, and the taping of the Aetheist Experience podcast.
We keep expectations in check, being willing to have a good attitude if things aren’t optimal. Sub-optimal circumstances are part of the plan.
We remain open-minded and flexible. We can laugh at obstacles and enjoy the journey.
We treat ourselves (and each other) with gentleness while being in a new place and learning how to get around.
We walk daily.
We feel free to drink but not overindulge daily.
We are free and open with money, trusting our instincts to not overspend. Know that we can have a fancy night out if we want! Josh has a cash budget of $100/day.
This year my sister Sarah told me about a course offered at UW called 'Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives'; and for a January resolution, she decided to interact more mindfully with her phone-- before turning over the phone to check it, she will take a breath.
This class and resolution encouraged me reflect upon how I interact with technology as I'm sure many of you do as you go through your day linked to devices, accounts, media, texts and emails. In one sense, it's pretty amazing that we have these tiny computers we carry everywhere... we have all the information we could ever want or need RIGHT there with us at all times. We can chat and connect with almost anyone immediately. We are NEVER ALONE... dun, dun dunnnnn.
The flip side of this marvelous ability to connect is that we are not often alone with our thoughts either, and rarely do we sit there and just do nothing. Have you noticed this in your life? Do you ever find yourself scrolling and scrolling and thinking, 'I don't really want to be doing this right now'? If you're like me, you may have a love-hate relationship with your devices.
One way to turn this relationship into a more functional one is to start by noticing those moments, and noticing your reactions to your interactions. When you are scrolling or reading, notice the feelings and emotions that arise, label them, and address them. Are you reading something, becoming mad, and then just getting madder as you go? Do you become tense or start holding your breath? What other options are available to you in that moment? And before the urge to read or check something even arises, what options are available to you? Do you stop and notice the urge and then check? Do you stop and notice the urge, and then decide not to check? What new pathway could exist for you in that potent moment? If you ever feel like your device is controlling you, take a step back and see if you can remind yourself where your power resides.
You may even find that taking a 'technology fast' suits you. How long would you like to be unplugged from your devices? What would feel refreshing? What do you have to lose or gain from disengaging? I'd love to hear what you come up with.
This week I have been thinking a lot about the nature of grief and suffering. I see it all around me, in me, and pervading the consciousness of our world. I've been reading a book by a Buddhist nun Pema Chodron called "When Things Fall Apart". I am not a Buddhist, but I have found the teachings to make more sense to me than any other philosophy or religion, and as a non-theistic religion, the teachings apply to our human experience versus a spiritual realm and much like Yoga, can aptly be applied in anyone's life.
As I move through emotions such as sadness and grief, I notice not only thoughts pervading my consciousness, but also specific feelings in my body... constriction in the chest, tension in my neck, tightness in my gut, clenching of my jaw. For this, I rely on self-care techniques such as deep breathing or kapalabhati breath (breath of fire), I've done a heart strengthening kundalini practice, and received acupuncture to help with the subtle tensions of my body. Self-care, self-care, self-care. It also helps to name the emotion, name the physical sensation, and sit with it, instead of constantly fighting against it.
As I work with the subtle body, I find the words of Pema Chodron help align some of the disconnect and discontent. As things as you know them break down around you, see if this phrase rings a truth, "Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation, can that which is indestructible be found in us." You may start to notice little deaths in each moment-- the sun sets at the end of each day, the bottom of your delicious cup of coffee, the close of a delightful hug, your child waving as she gets on a school bus and out of your sight, you see that each petit mort, little death, prepares you for the bigger losses-- ultimately your own mortality.
So often the temptation is to cover up, draw away, or escape from the suffering that comes from each little loss-- reaching for a pill, a distraction, anything to take our minds off the feeling of pain and loss. Yet, "thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly." Our suffering is based on the misconception that things last, that they are permanent (the 'good' and the 'bad'). Yet everything is subject to change and alteration, "decay is inherent in all component things". And more importantly, our suffering is a direct reaction to the belief that things are permanent and unchanging. Suffering is "inevitable" for humans as long as we cling to the belief that things last, and "that they can be counted on to satisfy our hunger for security".
So my challenge recently has been to sit with feelings of grief and sadness, open myself up to the changing nature of all things, and be gentle. Use a light touch, notice the range of emotions that come and go... over seconds, minutes, days. A feeling, thought or emotion crosses across your experience like clouds in the sky, ever changing and impermanent. As I open up to the experience, I no longer cling to the feeling or thought, knowing that it, too shall pass. As I move through anger, sadness, denial, acceptance (in a circular, not linear way), I see each moment as a way to be a friend to myself. "Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy." I know that when the joy comes after the grief is passed, that it, too, is not permanent. All things arise and disappear, and that is the nature of reality. All we have for CERTAIN is the present moment.
The cherry blossom falls after its short beautiful bloom.
It floats gently down to earth. Its life is over, but the limitedness of its existence is one of the biggest reasons the blossom is so gorgeous. If we knew that the blossom would last forever, it wouldn't have the same poignant beauty, and we'd take it for granted. - Leo Babauta
Last Sunday I celebrated the end of my cleanse with what I jokingly call a 'retox'. I bought a delicious bottle of Indian Wells Red Blend from Chateau St Michelle. I swear it's the most delicious red wine you can get for under $20! I am not a connoisseur, but I can usually discern a great wine from a not-so-great wine.
I'm writing about wine today because I feel drawn to discuss finding a good balance in life. We probably all know people who are 'extremists'... who tend towards an all-or-nothing approach. Someone who decides they love running and they do it every day rain or shine through injury and illness. Maybe they find a game they like and it's a daily event, at the exclusion of all social activity, or they go raw vegan and never turn back. And then there are the people who get fed up with Facebook, make a big announcement that they're leaving... but usually a few months later they quietly creep back on (I knew they would!). Some people thrive in that extreme environment.
For me, and probably for most of us, there is a middle ground, a delicate balance between effort and ease-- like in a standing yoga pose where you ground down to reach up, you find a strong base, you stretch your spine up, and then relax your shoulders and face, unclench your jaw. You let go of tension in order to move forward.
Some clients worry about telling me that they like to drink wine at the end of their day. It usually makes me laugh a little... the misconception that 'wellness' or 'health' means never drinking or having a treat. I find great joy in sharing the theory that 'healthy lifestyle' allows for treats, it allows for letting go, it means you thrive in a healthy balance. A good rule for me is the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time I know I am making choices that fully support my physical health and wellbeing. This allows for 20% of 'flex spending'... maybe a treat I wouldn't normally choose, maybe a nap instead of a walk, maybe a TV show when I 'should' be reading. These treats allow for balance in mind and soul, and take the strain off of an extreme approach. It also keeps you from beating yourself up when you make what may be conceived as a less-than-perfect choice.
In a great book "Zen Mind, Beginners Mind", the author explains "to give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him". To me this means, allow yourself to roam around in a zone where there is room to play and enjoy your life, knowing that you will not be lost. The tighter you hold on to control, the more suffering you instigate. The more you keep yourself from your desires in a strict, stuck way, the more the desires and cravings will control you.
So... I open up a delicious bottle of red, I aerate it into my glass, I swirl and smell it, I enjoy a first sip. I taste the flavors balanced and symphonic in my mouth. I feel my life is balanced and in harmony.
I am a lifetime learner and researcher in happy, healthy, fun living.