TEN TOOLS TO STAY CALM AND FOCUSED DURING A POLITICAL SEIGE

Needing no stretch of the imagination, North Americans everywhere, including those that have left the country recently or long ago, are startled at how quickly the political landscape has changed and how frightening the future looks only a short time into the presidency of a game show host with a bad haircut and a foul mouth. And while there’s plenty of blame to go around on this one-the media who gave him airplay, the single-issue voters who ignored all but what they wanted to hear, the self-righteous who complained the Democrats didn’t offer a “good enough choice”, not to mention the big pharma that’s dumping opioids all over rural America-the toxic cocktail that brought him to power must be swallowed by all of us, like it or not.

Be brave my friends. 2017 is the Chinese Year of the Fire Rooster. Things are getting hot fast and there will be blood. There already is a shitload of blood that most of us aren’t exposed to in our schools, in our prisons, and in our ghettos. Many of us live outside of this chaos and can pretend it doesn’t exist but Jim Crowe lives on, gang violence is just beneath the surface in every community, while the most dangerous villains invoke religion in the quest to control their oblivious followers.

But while the marches continue, job layoffs increase, fuses shorten and the stock market will soon be so overvalued that it will self-correct, it is up to all of us to find ways to contribute to the solutions instead of be part of the problem.

So what does preparation look like?

  1. Arm yourself with spirit, patience, and courage-you’ll need an ample supply
  2. Keep breathing & help others stay calm (put your mask on first as they say on the plane)
  3. The answer to any crisis includes self-reflection so set aside 10 minutes each day to care for yourself
  4. Decide what your contribution will look like-writing, protesting, feeding the hungry, caring for the elderly, disenfranchised, sick, etc.
  5. Pay attention to news from reputable sources you trust
  6. Be proactive – it will help your spirit (bitching on social media doesn’t count)
  7. Surround yourself with family, friends, community and pets– support is critical
  8. Show up early and often and encourage peaceful change
  9. Things will no doubt get bloody – be prepared for that and stay alert
  10. Your calm brain is more powerful than your angry brain – don’t fool yourself

The above won’t be easy in the presence of the fear that will increase. Soon the threats will intensify and not only will the marginalized communities live in fear but the rest of will be tempted to acquiesce to the rhetoric. There are already large sectors of the population that believe the Hitler references are simply “post-war propaganda”. The white supremacists are well organized and lurking just below the radar. The last 8 years have taught us that racism isn’t even hiding-it lives right next door and targets anyone that doesn’t fit in. Fear and hatred toward gays and transgender is encouraged in many of the so-called Christian places of ‘worship’ in this land of the free. Slavery has been replaced by prisons where we isolate the marginalized unless we’ve found some excuse to shoot them before they are even brought to what is still called ‘justice’ in this country.

The good news is that most of us who threatened to leave this country if the circus came to town and won the election stayed put to fight the good fight. Running from our demons never works anyway and we know that from our history. Our ancestors already did that-they left behind homes, families, and the world they knew to strike out into the unknown for a better life. We are being asked once again to leave the comfort of our sanctuaries and venture into the unknown. Many of us stood up during the Vietnam war to protest an unacceptable situation. But we have been lulled into believing that just because they no longer show our bloody, dead children on the 6 o’clock news that no one is dying in the global turf wars. We’ve become immune to the terrorism justified by our eloquent leaders in expensive suits but let’s call a spade a spade.

My father, my husband, and my brothers, my relations on every side have all fought for their country because many of us have bought into this noble truth of ‘defending our homeland’. It keeps the population in check on the backs of our young and penniless. It gives the illusion that we are powerful and invisible. But our history is littered with dead bodies, broken communities, and a false sense of superiority. Worse yet, we do this in the name of God. Not only in this country but around the world. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is an edict in every religion however all faiths have “exceptions’ it seems. Between you and I, that’s BS. These exceptions are convenient, aren’t they?

It seems many of the systems that have defined us in the past are being destroyed and will need to be rebuilt. Let’s not do this violently people. I invoke Jesus, Gandhi and Martin. Let’s not start throwing things but I understand that some will feel it’s necessary.  We already have that violent and ignorant world and we need a better model. Step up Boomers. This will be our legacy. All the women and men that marched 1/21/17 around the world could form a perfect coalition and be leaders here. There is no one else, there is only ourselves to do the hard work.

 

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FINDING PEACE IN AN UNCERTAIN WORLD

unknownDuring these times of great uncertainty and radical change, people everywhere are struggling. The shifting landscape demands that we remain centered and balanced, all the while embracing what we need to change within ourselves. When faced with great challenges, we must stretch ourselves beyond previous boundaries and self-doubt. This is precisely when the potential for inner growth is greatest. While the inclination is to hold tight and fast to the past, we no longer have that option and are forced to dig deep within ourselves and live ever more consciously.

While it’s impossible to change others, looking within for the opportunities to affect change will empower ourselves and others to do the same. Left to our own devices, it’s far easier to rest on our past success and dream of the future. However comforting that may sound, this is not the reality we face. Complacency is not an option for any of us. And for those that have reached the age of maturity, it’s also impossible to pretend that the answers lie with the behavior of others. Each one of us must navigate the twisted corridors of our culture by relying on our well-honed instincts. Muster all of your courage and put your best foot forward for the good of all you hold dear.

“It’s called The American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”        Comedian George Carlin

The beloved Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron reminds us that this dynamic process called ‘the life we lead’ is never predictable or stable. She asks:

“How can we relax and have a genuine, passionate relationship with the fundamental uncertainty, the groundlessness of being human?”

Pema often talks about shifting sands, the unpredictability of stability, and the uncertainty of what is to come. And that it is our resistance to it all, even though change is the only constant. Lean in dear friends. Embrace and expect that just when you think you’ve got everything under control, one block shifts and the castle is on the ground once again. The expectation that we’re in control is the cause of our suffering. We are very attached to wanting life a certain way. The more we resist, the more we struggle. Before we know it, we’re stuck.

But if we were to look at these moments as opportunities to grow and change, perhaps we can begin to relax a bit with all of this uncertainty. At first, maybe it’s just a ‘noticing’ how often we are comfortably leading our life and oops…didn’t see that one coming. Or we’re enjoying an afternoon in the hammock and oops….. really? The neighbor must use her noisy blower again? Take these opportunities to catch yourself creating your suffering by resisting reality. Soon you will move to the next step beyond awareness and begin the letting go of annoyance. The practice of opening your mind and heart to these experiences is without judgement will begin to set you free.

Another great teacher, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, offers the following about safety:

  •  To find some safety in the world, you first have to give safety to the entire world. If you’re determined to observe the precepts (moral guidelines) in all situations, you’re giving a gift of safety to everyone, in that all beings, universally, will be protected from any harm you might do. In return, you get a share in the universal safety coming from your present actions. If, however, you follow the precepts only in some cases and not in others—if, for instance, you can rationalize lying … in certain situations, for whatever the end—it’s like building a fence around your property but leaving a huge gap in the back. Anyone, with any motive, can walk right in through the gap.
  • You can protect yourself from the results of your past unskillful actions by training the mind. The fact that we’re born in the human realm means that we all have some past bad karma, so simply avoiding unskillful karma in the present isn’t enough to protect you from suffering. Fortunately, though, while we can’t go back to change our past actions, we can weaken the effect of any past bad actions by training the mind.
  • The primary danger from other people lies not so much in what they do to you but in what they can get you to do. Their karma is their karma; your karma is yours. Even when you’re mistreated by others, their karma doesn’t become your karma—unless you start mistreating them in return.

In Gandhi’s words “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”. If I want the world to be different, I have to participate. Stop hating my neighbor for using fossil fuels to micro-manage the leaves in the neighborhood. Stop shutting down every time overbearing opinions displease me. Stop it already!! Hating on the bitch in the car next to me isn’t the path to a more peaceful world. Spewing garbage at those professing ignorant ideas I’m certain will bring us to ruin is divisive and there is never a good time to draw lines in the sand and cut off communication. Nor is it a good time to go back into your room and close the door and hope the world improves while you nap. Hope will only contribute to suffering. There is only action now.

Shore up your support groups and gather your friends and family. Do whatever you’re good at – cook for the hungry, call your elected officials, donate socks to the homeless, publish articles, comfort the dying, rock cranky newborns at local hospitals, write letters to those in power, volunteer. Inaction breeds fear and panic. This is a time when we need boots on the ground and voices that won’t be silenced. There is strength in numbers and there is peace in knowing you are doing all you can to affect positive change in the world. Go forward and prosper, Vulcan or not.

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The Possibility of Changing Your Habits

UnknownAs a teacher, not to mention human with a few habits needing attention, I became fascinated with brain science 10 years ago while watching a short clip on addiction. The explanation of brain functioning was not really that complicated. I was also curious about the human will during this time and why we do what we do and continue to do what we shouldn’t. Simply put, I came to realize by exerting the will, similar to exercising a muscle, it becomes stronger and stronger thereby changing behavior and  altering brain pathways.

Let’s say the information highway in your brain looks much like the image above. The red dots are sensory/chemical impressions and the green rivers are neural pathways. (thanks to Cathy S Mendola and her beautiful textile art http://cmendola.blogspot.com/2010/05/neural-pathways.html) When something catches your attention or makes an impression – a headline, a brownie, a person, a picture – the brain, being an organ of habit, immediately fires unconscious connections setting your course down the green river. Before you know it, you are traveling the same path as usual – you read the headline and the story even though you have a desk full of fire drills, you eat the brownie even though you aren’t hungry and don’t need the sugar, etc. etc.

BUT the neuroplasticity of the brain is precisely the reason why habits CAN be changed. You not only get to decide WHY you want to change but the HOW of it is you interrupt the cycle. Now this isn’t about “just say no”. That didn’t work out for Nancy Reagan and drug clubs either. It’s about raising your consciousness to realize that mindfulness – being mindful of your actions and making conscious not unconscious choices – is the key to living your life instead of having your life live you. One decision at a time, you interrupt the way you’ve always done things and bring awareness to your previously unconscious behavior.

There are helpers along the way of course.

  • Make a plan and write it down – this helps with reinforcement.
  • Start with something small – you’re strengthening the will.
  • Build reminders into your day- write them down.
  • Write down your challenge, your motivation, and how you’ll reward yourself.
  • Decide how you’ll defeat the inevitable urges to procrastinate or cheat- write it down.
  • Develop some mindfulness with slow deep breathing, alleviating stress.
  • Don’t do it alone – get a buddy or two.
  • Know your triggers and how you’ll overcome them-write them down.
  • Commit to the process for at least 30 days- consider a journal.
  • Review your written motivations every day – check in with yourself.

A successful life isn’t one huge great decision, it’s a lot of little ones every day. Each moment is a chance to start new – do so with kindness toward yourself.

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Forgiving Ourselves for Our Helpers

occupyearth copyI am the first one to admit to overwhelm. Since the time I was a small child and remember saving a delicious moment until I was home and alone in my bedroom to give it thought, I realized I’m easily inundated with too much information and too much stimulation.  I’m pretty sure you can relate on some level- more or less. But what about the persistent temptation to self-medicate to alleviate the stress? For many of us, that’s never too far off. Age has helped me navigate the complexity of all of this but mindfulness has been the most useful tool by far.

I’ve noticed however that some people are quite forthright with terms like ‘wasted’, ‘smashed’, and ‘hungover’ to describe this temporary lapse in judgement whereas in my day (when kids walked 10 miles to school in the snow) admitting to such shortcomings wasn’t something you’d discuss in public.

But backing up a step or two, let’s discuss options for when you do become buried by the expectations of life and you are desperate for relief. You’ve once again made decisions you aren’t necessarily proud of but have awakened the next morning nonetheless. Should you:

  1. go back to bed after a quick check to make sure your phone and car are where they should be
  2. get up and have another drink before getting ready for work
  3. turn on something loud enough you don’t have to think about last night
  4. Flog yourself mercilessly all day, telling everyone about your bad judgement
  5. drag your ass out of bed, vow to do better next time and move forward

So all of the above are options – some better than others of course. But meditation has at least taught me one thing – it isn’t necessary or helpful to judge your behavior. You’re probably not so proud nor does your body feel great and chances are that this type of thing is happening a little too regularly. I won’t tell you you’re a victim of your culture however there is some truth to that. All the more reason you really have 2 choices along with #5 above (possibly the best choice) – get help or help yourself. And they are both just as valid and viable.  You decide what’s best.

But action IS required unless you intend to wake up on another morning, years from now, and realize that this destructive pattern has been with you way too long and needs to change. So don’t beat yourself up – in fact congratulate yourself for being wise enough to realize there’s a problem. And don’t ignore the issue if you even have a glimmer of self-discernment.

We are humans and we are far from perfect. We must accept that but also forgive ourselves for our actions. There’s nothing to gain from a self-inflicted flogging. Growing up and taking responsibility is a long process and it isn’t linear.

The practice is the same, day in and day out. Get up and start anew. Some days will be better than others but the will becomes stronger with practice.  It’s called will power for a reason. The will is like a muscle – the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.  One foot in front of the other, again and again.

 

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Leaders Needed- Step Forward Please…

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The Care and Nurturing of Humanals

In this series, we’ll be exploring the area of self-care. In Western culture, we pay lip-service to the idea that we indeed take care of our bodies, minds, and spirit as we should however when questioning folks about exactly what rituals and activities this includes, how do they truly alleviate stress and bring their systems back to whole, I get blank stares.  My informal research, based really on the adults in my life – both young and old – indicates that women and men alike are doing a pretty poor job setting up routines that support good mental and physical health.

Women, undoubtably, are raised and wired to be care givers and we do a fantastic job of proliferating the species and raising those children to adulthood. So we nurture everyone else in our lives but not necessarily ourselves. This is nothing to beat ourselves up about but I have a sneaking suspicion that this is a contributing factor to PMS, postpartum depression, migraine head aches, and a whole host of other hard to define, explain, and treat ailments.

And with most men, the mainstream expectation that you will provide for the family and bring home the bacon becomes primary and family is a close second. Men have their own list of vague ailments that Western medicine finds difficult to explain.

And I will admit that nothing in my upbringing helped me to understand this topic nor did the older women in my life set a good example or provide a role-model to show me this path. I was probably raised like most boomers in the 60s and 70s. Both of my parents were busy with raising a family, working outside the home, volunteering as scout leaders, with the occasional family vacation – by car of course – thrown into the soup pot. Neither seemed to do very little to nurture themselves short of going out to the officer’s club occasionally, attending parties, and 45 minutes of mass once a week. They didn’t seem to have stress relievers in their life yet any household with 9 children has plenty of tension.

So where in all of this do we find not only the time but the energy to insert anything else? It wasn’t until my own children were much older that I became interested enough to investigate and admittedly, it was because my own systems were broken and not serving me well. The PMS was probably the first indicator but before that I was relying on other substances and activities to alleviate my stress. By the time I had the migraine headaches my marriage was already in trouble. So life really forced this all on me and it took years of questions, healers and practitioners of all sorts, trial and error, and of course time to assimilate what I now realize was a completely new way of living to begin to make changes. And life began to get better starting day #1 – the key is to start. Start somewhere, start somehow, just get started.

We hear a lot about stress in the press today. We know that it’s inherent in life, that the body is uniquely designed to handle it and in fact, that we need some of it to keep us on our toes. We also know that too much will kill you for sure, and that learning ways to relax and renew are critical for a well-balanced life. But many of you reading this article will admit that you have limited ways of alleviating it. Like dust collecting in the corners of your home, you don’t notice stress until you are faced with a crisis and you are desperate for relief. Perhaps it’s a drink or two … maybe 3. Perhaps there’s a pill that takes the pain away. Perhaps it’s someone that helps you forget. Or a shopping trip. We all have our methods however many of them come complete with some madness on the other end. See https://zendances.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php But as I matured, I began to realize that everything I thought I was doing to dull my pain seem to magnify it the following morning. Not only was I faced with the original crisis but I had this renewed awareness that my coping mechanisms were failing as well- they were simply becoming yet another problem.

 

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The Under-Rated Bath

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

I visited one of my oldest friends at her place in beautiful Southern Utah last year and was amazed that not only did she and her tall spouse live in the small confines of a trailer (long story) but even more so that she could survive without a bathtub. As a former dancer with a well-honed intensity to all my physical pursuits that typically result in some kind of pain the following day, that’s just not acceptable in my idealistic world. I’d even trade my house for the trailer if it meant the difference between having and not having my tub. So naturally, one of the most expensive upgrades I’ve treated myself to over the years is a large tub big enough to submerge my well-seasoned body on a very regular basis. And when I go to that zen place/my bath, when I allow myself to leave the real world behind for at least 30 precious minutes of a day, I’m continually amazed that more people don’t sing the praises of bathtubs. Practically speaking, I’m not even sure my body could function without that monstrosity in my life but by now you’ve guessed I would never go without.

But really this brings up a much more serious issue in my mind that is even larger than my indispensable tub. Here in the US anyway, we seem to be a culture that refuses to calm down. Our ideas around wellness lean so far into the ‘beat yourself up’ realm that it seems obvious to me that there are A LOT of things we don’t want to talk about. And yet stress related illness not only is killing us off at a rapid rate but our ‘health clubs’ promote the idea that you must have sweat drenched clothing when you’ve finished a work-out or you just didn’t kill it like you should have.  And not only are we doing a poor job of integrating health and well-being into our crazy lives but we flock to classes with names like Bootcamp and Insanity! Indeed!!

A young friend sent fathers’ day accolades on FaceBook mentioning that he and his dad spent the day before working 40 hours straight setting up an outdoor performance venue- what a legacy to leave your children….. my dad taught me the importance of being a workaholic 😦

They say there are very few activities that effectively calm our parasympathetic nervous systems – yoga, meditation, mindfulness, taking a bath (*wink) – but sages of all sorts agree that the balance between that and the sympathetic nervous system is critical for good health. Ya see where I’m going with this-today’s break neck speed of chaos and conundrums has us wound tighter than a cheap watch and we haven’t enough of these habits to find balance. 

Ariana Huffington’s book, the third metric gives me hope that I’m not the only one perplexed by this – AH worked herself into an emotional collapse before realizing that there might be a better approach to life than all work and no play. I heard her interviewed on a sounds true podcast and was gleeful to hear this giant in the business world state she now has nap rooms in her offices so employees can rest when necessary-blew me right out of the water it did!

So what to do??? I often ask my kids when they phone- you know things are really bad when they actually phone you-how are you taking care of yourself these days? Tell me one nice thing you’ve done for yourself today? You might ask yourself those questions and make sure you like your answers because you’re growing older and there’s no backsies in life, or not many anyway.

I come by these small bits of wisdom honestly as it took me years of high cortisol living to realize I too could change. Stress is often a silent killer as in my case. I was smart enough to know I had much to be grateful for but not clever enough to know that stress was winning. Until the migraines started and they weren’t backing down easily. So while there is a lot of stress is our lives we can’t easily change- traffic, climate change, world peace- you can take control of your habits. So make that list of all the things that make you feel pampered, loved, and cherished. Share it with your beloved. Talk about it to your children and wear it proudly. Say no to half the things others expect from you and you have my permission to have at least one rest day a week. I’m pretty sure that was in the Divine plan, right?

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