no chance of rain

 

You know that rare, unexpected moment when you look around you and notice that there are no major crises swallowing up your attention? You know the kind of event that seemingly hijacks your life and derails even your daily plans?  None.

In that rare moment, even if you’re experiencing some confusion, minor loss, life dis-order or chronic busyness, the things you’re facing apparently do not qualify for the master list of significant life stressors so should be more or less manageable according to the creators of the master list.

Quite recently, I realized that over a few weeks surrounded by the unremarkable stress of being a living, breathing conscious person, I became increasingly agitated.   And as my general uber-vigilant disposition was not picking up any external signs of an intense struggle to engage or an insurmountable obstacle to overcome, it seemed that I needed to create some concrete struggle internally.

Suddenly my own arbitrary deadlines rose to commandment status with the added pressure of “someone will be waiting on me for this”.  In my own gospel, Never Leave Anyone Waiting is the second commandment after Do Everything Correctly and followed by Everything Matters. My inclination to set regular goals and write lists became a firm attachment to perfectly imagined outcomes followed by an out-of-balance disappointment when they were not realized. My growing acceptance of “this is the way life is” was recklessly abandoned on the meditation cushion with my settled breathing and mind. Slow, mindful movements were replaced with jittery legs and fidgety fingers. Sleep was rest-less and stillness disappeared.

Remember, there was no genuine crisis. Bounty was all around me.  Relationships, life’s work, passions and creative outlets were all within much more-than-rich and satisfying range. Life, as they say, was and is good.

SAM_2124

On a clear, breezy day with no clouds or chances of rain, am I addicted to the chaos of panic and pressure? Do I need to create drama where there is none in order to feel engaged, relevant and meaningful? Does dis-ease become my default position especially when things are going well?

I don’t know.  Now comes the sitting and listening with a curiosity for what comes up and with no predetermined outcome.  If panic asks to take over, I’ll re-read “the “3 steps to pacify the panic” blog I wrote a few years ago and get un-stuck (again!) from this familiar place.

May your summer be full of self-accepting moments where you never give up on the places where you get repeatedly stuck!

 

 

 

 

the matter of grey matter

The mighty mind.  The brilliant brain.  Where grey matter matters.

Many of us view our minds as the essence of who we truly are.  The ‘real’ us. Thereby relegating our bodies to the role of receptacles that house our ever-important thoughts, ideas, visions and brainwaves.

Our minds are the mighty monster machines that leap moments in a single bound; jumping from past to future faster than a speeding bullet.

But our bodies cannot be anywhere else but here. They can’t drift off on fantastical adventures. They are rooted here. They root us here. They are tailor-made for the present moment.

Think of a time when your mind was drifting off from what was in front of you to somewhere else. Then, all of a sudden, a physical discomfort, or tickle or itch brought you back to the moment where the discomfort, tickle or itch actually existed.  Brought you back to your body that was still right where your mind left it to wonder, desire, fret, consider or ruminate.

Trying to think of being in the present moment or attempting to will yourself to be present doesn’t work. Believe me, I’ve tried. The present moment is not in your mind.  Its waiting for you to be discovered in your body.

 

 

Sitting, breathing and settling your restless mind on the grounded-ness of your body is a start to discovering the present moment right there in your body, in your breath.

In this way, the body is like a magnet, pulling the present moment to you and gently inviting your mind to come in. To come in, settle in and rest.

Even right now, this very second, let your mind rest on the breath moving through your body, filling and emptying.

By noticing the breath moving in your body, the present moment is magnetically drawn to you. Your body, firmly rooted in the present, invites, this moment to stop by for a visit.

And the body continues to greet you each time your wandering mind recognizes the breath’s movement, stops to engage and watch then choosing to sit for a moment with it.

  

 

how to manage mind clutter

 

Somewhere along the bumpy evolutionary path,  we have became chronic over-consumers and collectors.  It is absolutely no surprise then that ‘clutter happens’.   And more clutter means more to manage.

 

clutter

 

Now as the cooler days and crisper nights have us now reaching for sweaters, socks and fleece blankets, ’tis the season to pack up and put away the collected odds and sods of summer living.  And even though we’ll miss the carefree feeling of sun-dresses and flip-flops, there is something so refreshing about marking the change of seasons with a ritual of storing away the old and bringing out new-to-this-year items that have been tucked away for a season or three.

We have methods of organizing summer clutter, but what about the mind clutter?

When do we get around to gathering and clearing the cognitive dust-bunnies that can leave us feeling confused, tired and overwhelmed?

You may have mind clutter if you:

  • have a deep yearning for a simpler life in the face of your competing priorities
  • keep forgetting or losing commonplace things daily
  • find yourself overly-fixated on insignificant issues
  • are more impatient than usual and are chronically irritated
  • are noticing inconsistent self-care and sleep patterns

Either it is merely a minor case of mind clutter or you’re slowly losing your mind. The two can be easily confused but let’s assume it’s simply the former and save learning how to manage insanity for another day.

Mind clutter can be as distracting and easily as much of a hindrance to our daily functioning as can physical clutter.  But how do we deal with what we can’t see?

 

Minimize

When I’m tackling a closet or a basement, I tend to make three piles: “Keep”, “Toss” and “Recycle”. I’ve also found that that same categories come in handy when dealing with a barrage of thoughts and mental preoccupations.

Keep: When held up to the light of reason and experience, is this repeated thought or worry worth keeping around? If it has some value but I don’t have time to sit with it in the moment, it gets written down to be given intentional attention later.

Toss: If the thought is encased in black and white thinking, distortion, generalization or comes from a place of fear, then it is tossed.

Recycle: What have I learned from this current fixation or line of thinking? What life pattern and underlying belief is feeding this fixation? Can I share what I’ve learned with a friend, a colleague or write about it in a blog?

 

Manage

Once the clutter is reduced, it is time to create a management system for what is left. For a moment, think of your mind as a toddler, full of Energizer-bunny exuberance, ideas and untamed curiosity. Then remember that the very same toddler is also impulsive, egocentric and clearly not a pillar of self-discipline.

In the case of an actual toddler, you have compassion for the developmental traits that are expected as a toddler but not quite so acceptable as an adult. And, as the adult in a relationship with the toddler, you’d lovingly, compassionately guide the child towards towards a growing attention, focus, a consideration of outcomes and other general self-regulation tools. You’d also know that growth in these areas would not happen overnight and would be a process with a time-line differing for each person. You would lovingly and with an eye on the long haul, train the child for the long term outcome.

Why wouldn’t your mind need the same kind of compassionate training?  Like a child, your mind impulsively collects distracting worries, pleasures, needs, fears, opportunities and decisions to be made like a toddler picks up rocks, sticks and frogs. Meditation is an effective mind training/ management system to deal with mental clutter.

 

Meditation

Despite it being an endless well of depth to be explored, in its most basic form, meditation is simply sitting with what is. It is not trying to stop the thinking process, nor is it a chance to pronounce judgement on thoughts that will naturally arise in moments of quiet and it is definitely not sitting to create more peace or balance or hope.

It is simply sitting with your rambunctious toddler-mind and warmly inviting its focus back to the breath every time it wanders off to follow something shiny and interesting. That’s it. Sit. Breathe. Bring focus of the mind gently back to the breath. Inhale. Exhale. Sit. Breathe. Bring focus back to the breath. Inhale. Exhale.

Can’t you just feel the clutter fading with each focused breath?

 

Peace

 

Mind clutter is like having too much furniture in a dark room. When the lights are off, you cannot move around the room without stubbing your toe on something!

So turn on the lights with a few minutes of intentional minimizing and simple meditation each day and notice the incredible joy of “less is more”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

performance anxiety

In my role as an educator, it is most certainly during test-taking situations that student anxiety increases to distracting and limiting levels. Blocked by adrenaline power surges inappropriate for the situation and streaming negative self-talk, it is no wonder students are unable to effectively show what they know.

But students in academic assessment situations are not the only ones who experience a nervousness that impairs performance. An important job interview. Presenting a cutting-edge proposal.  Initiating a difficult conversation. Speaking in public. Even going on a first date!  A little adrenaline goes a long way but too much can knock you off your game and meeting a challenge in a state that resembles being overly-caffeinated may not be the best game plan.

To keep the vein-coursing energy at beneficial levels and to prevent mental blocks, consider the following suggestions as part of any pre-performance warm-ups.

 
1. Come on in and make yourself uncomfortable

Notice where the discomfort has settled in your body. Nerves can manifest in unpleasant heart-pounding episodes, neck and shoulder tightness, stomach clenching, sweating or even nausea. What is showing up for you and where?

Once you’ve located your specific area of tension, begin to notice a place in your body that is feeling just fine. Perhaps your earlobes are feeling particularly dandy and not carrying even a smidgen of anxiety. Or the pads of your fingers. Or the hairs on your forearm. Not sure about you but my arm-hairs are characteristically slothful and rarely get riled up.

Now you will become aware that you are holding two realities at once in your singular experience. Tension and relaxation in balance and harmony within one body, one mind. The anxiety, the nerves and the panic are not in charge even though they obnoxiously make the most noise. Because it is just an illusion, you can choose not to hand over the reins of your attention to the chronically chatty nervous system. With this awareness, the two can co-exist quite peacefully.

 
2. Hit the ground sitting

Grounding can be done in many ways but this method works best when sitting in a chair at a desk or table. Sit comfortably so that the soles of your feet are flat on the ground. Being barefooted here would be even better.  Notice their connectedness to an immovable ground, a solid foundation.

Folding forward, lower your head bringing your forehead directly to the surface in front of you or you can choose to place your hands on the surface first with your forehead on your hands. You may notice immediately the calming effect of folding forward and resting your head. Do you remember in grade school when the teacher, at the end of her classroom management rope, would forcefully exclaim “heads down on your desks!’ Clearly she knew the power of a resting forehead.

With feet on ground and head on table, allow your breath to flow smoothly and evenly through your nostrils into your belly. Recall your specific areas of discomfort, and on each inhale, draw the breath to that area. On each exhale, release the area as if you are exhaling the tension. Do this methodical breathing for three to five breaths. At this point, do a check in with yourself to see if you need to stay for a few more deep inhales and exhales.

Early morning at Malibu Lake in the Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu, California, which is located on the northwestern edge of Los Angeles County, May 1975

 

3. What exactly are you saying?

Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.” Henry Ford nailed this one right on the head. In the face of a possibly ego-toppling performance that is before you, what are you saying to yourself?  What are your “I am” statements? I am going to fail. I am not ready. I am not good enough. What reality are you creating with your own thoughts?

If you have time to challenge the negative, reactive “I am”s before your challenge, then do so. Liberation from them will create a new reality of “I am”s. I am going to do well. I am ready for anything. No matter what the outcome, I am good enough. You can choose your truth by the very words you use.  And without the blockages created by faulty thinking, the currents of performance energy can flow freely.

But, if time is limited, practice ‘shelving’. After the breathing exercise, take the muddying mind clutter and put it on a shelf until you have time to re-script. Shelving can be done by recording concerns in a Worry Journal, by visualizing the thoughts being put on a shelf or by trapping the thoughts in a mason jar like I suggested in an earlier post. Find a shelving technique that works for you.

Practice noticing the discomfort, the intentional grounding and choosing to make your thoughts work for you regularly so when you are faced with a nerve-jangling challenge, these techniques will be at your fingertips.  And if all the stars are aligned, your fingertips will be feeling oh-so-fine and quite sublime!

Le main de Madame Hugo

my precious morning routine

“I am not a morning person. I have to ease into my day slowly. First I have my coffee. Sans eggshells or anything else one tends to pick out of the garbage. Then I have a low fat, high fibre breakfast. Finally I sit down and read a crisp, new newspaper. If I am robbed of the richness of my morning routine, I cannot function. My radio show suffers, and like ripples in a pond, so do the many listeners that rely on my advise, to help them through their troubled lives. I’m sorry if this may sound priggish, but I have grown comfortable with this part of myself. It is the magic that is me.”

The above “priggish” speech was pompously delivered by the tight-lipped yet lovable radio psychiatrist in the 80’s sitcom, Frasier.  He was defending his right to keep to his intensely, precise morning routine in order to perform his best throughout his day.  

After my last post about how often the pressure of time significantly increases my stress level, the scene from this episode came to mind along with the memory of the dismissive eye-rolling from the supporting cast and from me. .

I began to consider strategies I use to manage my weekday mornings.  Here are my three simple methods of creating space, stress-free morning moments and a way to ease into a world geared for moving constantly in fifth gear.

1.  Night Vision

My mother tells the story of a time she came into my bedroom to wake me for school to find me still asleep but already fully dressed for the school day.  Apparently, I had put on my clothes the night before. And even more apparently, I was quite an odd child with the quirks to rival those of a sitcom character!  Perhaps my motivation was to find calm in the chaos of a busy school morning filled with getting my turn in the bathroom, practicing piano, making lunches, eating breakfast, doing the dishes and packing my schoolbag, all alongside my three siblings who were also doing the same things.

Currently my mornings do not involve jockeying for position with siblings or piano practice but can still induce a level of nerve-jangling tension when the clock ticks closer to the time I need leave for work.  For this reason I decided to use the night before more wisely.  No, I don’t sleep in my work clothes (often).  But I do prepare my lunch, choose my outfit, pick up some of the excess clutter and create a to-do list all before I go to bed.   This all takes me no more than half an hour.  Not too much work for a huge benefit of a slower pace in the morning.

2.  Rush No More

Realizing that rushing is a genuine energy-sapper for me, my goal is to pace my mornings so that there is no need to hurry.  To make this happen, I choose to get up as early as possible to leave morning space to pause, to linger, to, heaven forbid, dawdle!  By getting up earlier, I have time to sit for a short time of meditation, practice some simple yoga stretches, record three ‘gratitudes” in my journal and enjoy a leisurely breakfast while considering my day ahead.  There are those days when getting up so early is not so easy as others.  My routine is too precious to be written in stone so there is always room to change it according to the situation.  But there is a noticeable difference in my energy levels on the days that begin early with this settling routine.

There was a time that I would regularly check my work email in the morning but I quickly realized that it only served to put my nervous system in work-mode high gear and encroached on the unhurried pace of my personal time.  I was no further ahead when I got to work by knowing what new things were going to be added to my ‘to-do’ list and instead, I’d arrive depleted of energy that would be necessary for later in the day.

3.  Leave Stuff Undone

A problem for many of us with Chronic Productivity Syndrome, is that we feel the need to fill in any extra space with productive activity.  This is true for me.  I look at the clock, see that I’ve got plenty of time before I need to leave so I attempt to fit something useful into that space.  Wash the dishes, pay a bill online, clean the kitty litter, email a friend or whatever.  The pausing, lingering and dawdling are tossed out in favour of “getting something done”. The conflict occurs when I realize that I am soon going to leave my home for a job where i am expected to be “getting something done” for the next 8 or more hours.  Where’s the balance?

And if you’re like me, you’ll begin a task that will keep your steady focus on it until you look at the clock and realize that now you’re running late.  Nervous system is on high alert and deep breathing becomes more shallow and less nourishing.  The trick is to consciously, purposefully leave something undone in favour of a moment of just being.  See the task, notice your desire to attend to it immediately, to fix it , finish, manage it, then just leave it!  You know it wil still be there later.

With this precious morning routine, I clearly understand that I will most likely be considered priggish, hyper-sensitive, and a quintessential introvert to the n-th degree, but I’m okay with that.  This routine provides me with the pace I like, the space I need and energy I love to be the magic that is me.  (Cue the eye-rolling!)

Make it a morning of unhurried moments.

Egypt

3 steps to pacify the panic

As a young student, I quite enjoyed going to school. Despite my social awkwardness (and maybe because of it), I was able to achieve relative academic success especially in tasks that allowed me to work alone. I had never considered myself slow to process information but I do recall that the subject where my comprehension was the lowest and slowest was the one that coincidentally caused the most personal panic. Math! Ugh!

Math seemed much more like a foreign language to me than French ever did and, for some reason, Math had the added element of time pressure.

 

Pen en papier / Pen and paper

I can still recall sitting round-shouldered over my math facts sheet and gripping my pencil too firmly with sweaty fingers while a humourless teacher/ drill sargeant strutted through the room with stopwatch and counting down the time remaining. I’d quite literally freeze. Letting my head fall on my desk, I’d be numb, barely breathing until the litany of stories about why I was stuck began. “I’m stupid”. “I can’t learn Math”. “He is a terrible teacher.” And the downward cycle of fear and failure was in full gear leading nowhere fast.

This past week, I wasn’t working on math but in the process of breaking old patterns, learning new skills and some self-imposed due dates and deadlines, I was suddenly back in 7th grade at my desk writing a Math test. I did not enjoy being thirteen years old the first time so was not about to re-live that age of adolescent angst as a, for the most part, high-functioning adult. But ever-so-subtly, the disquieting panic began building until it developed into the full-fledged discomfort of a houseguest that would not leave!

After a few days in a deep-freeze of panic, I decided to warm my icy nerves with three steps to begin the thawing process and move me from overwhelmed to okay. Perhaps these steps will help others who are prone to panic when their time seems to be running out.

1. Observe Your Body

Observing takes a commitment to being still. Even with deadlines looming and the expectations of others in the balance, noticing where the panic is settling in your body will not be clear in the midst of fussing and fidgeting. While indulging in activities intended to numb or distract, your awareness to your body’s sensations is in slumber-mode. Sit comfortably and do a slow, simple body-scan. Begin at the top of your head and move downwards. Where are you tight? Where is there discomfort? For me it’s a deep buzzing sensation in my solar plexus. It’s a constant heavy hum that makes taking a deep calming breath challenging.

2. Breathe To Your Capacity

This breathing exercise works best when you are lying on your back stretched out. If you feel that you don’t have time for this exercise, check to see how much time has become unproductive or lost to the frozen-feet syndrome. Once on your back, you may feel a temporary increase in heart rate or a feeling of being exposed. This is common. Breathe as naturally as possible to give your body, mind and breath a chance to settle.

      • Place your hands on your lower abdomen with middle fingers on either side of your navel. Breathing slowly and evenly through your nose, fill your belly with air, allowing your lower abdomen to rise and separate your middle fingers from each other. Exhale slowly and evenly through your nose, allowing your belly to collapse and your middle fingers to come back closer together. Do this for three full breaths. Return to natural breathing.

 

      • Next, place your hands at the base of your rib cage with the webbing between your thumb and first finger on your side body. Thumbs will point toward your back and fingers will be on the front of your abdomen. Using the same method of nose breathing, inhale slowly and evenly until your ribs expand sideways allowing your side body to rise into the webbing between your thumbs and first fingers. Do this three times deeply then return to natural breathing.

 

      • Third, place pads of your fingers directly below your collarbone and find the tender spots between your collarbone and uppermost part of your rib cage. Using the same method of breathing, inhale slowly and evenly to fill your abdomen all the way up to your finger tips. Work to see if you can cause your fingertips to rise slightly with your breath. Repeat three times deeply then return to a regular breathing pattern.

 

If you feel comfortable with this process, the next step would be to do draw the breath to all three places in one breath starting with the lower abdomen, to the side body, then to the upper chest. But even simply doing the first step of three deep breaths in each area brings me immediately to a state of calm. And being calm is necessary for the next step to pacifying the panic.

3.  Prove-Proof Your Space

I once read a book by Anne Lamott who was giving advice to writers whose tendency to self-edit resulted in low productivity. She suggested putting the “voices” that make up your inner critic in a mason jar and screwing the lid on tightly until the task at hand is completed. Choose any voice that is asking you to prove your worth to them. These voices may be clearly attached to a person, past or present, or may be a collective voice of all those who caused you to question your value. If it helps, keep an actual jar in front of you as a token of your determination to quiet the panic that comes from constantly trying to prove yourself.

This week, after I noticed the jackhammer hum in my solar plexus, the telltale sign for me that panic wants to keep me stuck, I did the three-part breathing exercise then I jarred the voice of my inner critic. Since then, the fuzzy-headed feeling has dissipated, the spiral of negative thinking has ceased and the frozen feet have thawed.  And for the moment, I am unstuck.

Meditation

This has become my standard practice and you may find that one or more of the steps works for you. Or maybe you have your own methods. Do tell!

How do you pacify your panic?

 

time after time

 

“Don’t wish time away”.  I heard this phrase many times growing up.

But we do that very thing every time we unconsciously use languaging like “I can’t wait!”,  “I wish it was already the weekend.”, or  “Is it 5 o’clock yet?”

More subtly, we do it whenever we rush.  We scurry from one activity to the other without lingering because we’ve got so much life to live and so little time in which to do it.  A full day of the flurry of hurry finds us slumping into our easy chair with an exhausted sigh at the end of it.   A long week of this and no wonder we’re all waiting for the weekend.

But seriously, what’s the rush?

I was recently on my way to meet a friend and I found myself rushing significantly.  It was to the point that my body began giving clear signals that this was not okay.   My mind was so distracted and scattered that I couldn’t find my keys that were right in front of me.  My heart was racing to keep up with my manic multi-tasking and my abdomen felt like it bound was in a vice-grip with no sense of softness or room for breath.  So I stopped.   I took a few deep belly breaths and asked myself why I was rushing. The following inner scripts came quickly to light:

1.  Being late is morally wrong and is a sign of disrespect
2.  The person waiting for you will think poorly of you, if you are late
3.  Time is running out

Some of these underlying beliefs may sound familiar to the perfectionists in the crowd.  Or maybe you have your own stories.

The Passage of Time

Clearly it was time for a script re-write!

!.  Being late is not a sign of immorality or disrespect. It is a sign that you planned too much and didn’t realistically balance with how long things would take you.   It is merely a sign of poor time management, not of your value as a person.

2.  The person waiting for me will think “She’s late. She’s usually on time so something unexpected must have held her up.  No big deal.”   (And why does concern about what others will think take precedent over genuinely enjoying this moment?  Another inner script begging for a re-write?)

3.  Time doesn’t run out, it simply is what it is.  It is one moment after the next.  This moment isn’t running anywhere but you are rushing to get to the next and the next and the next moment based on falsehoods and fantasies.  All the while you’re missing this amazing moment right now.

I once had a yoga teacher who implored his students to be authentically present and aware in the pose he was teaching wherever they were that day.  A simple yoga pose is multi-leveled and our openness on any given day allows us to explore the depths or stay at the surface and learn there. His experience led him to say “I’ve been to the end of this pose and there’s nothing there.” Perfecting the pose, taking it as deep as possible doesn’t get us to any promised land or to ultimate answers.  It’s the process that matters. The journey of each step is where the abundance lies.

Turkey Yoga Pose AsanaInstead of wishing time away, how about witnessing each moment as an eternity?  There is more than enough time to be present in this moment.  And this moment is the most important one you’ll ever have.

What will you do with it?