ideal conditions

 

It was an unseasonably warm February.

 

A clear sky gently sheltered a light dusting of snow on a path in a secluded wooded area. Under these ideal conditions, a fellow introvert and I dressed lightly and put on our cross-country skis to enjoy the solitude, together.

 

It seemed as if nothing could make the experience any better. Gratitude was abundant. Relating to each other was easy and the mood was light and carefree.

 

 

Two weeks later on a different ski trail, in a distant place, the conditions were much less than ideal. The groomed, high-traffic path was icy as a result of several days of warm temperatures that then plummeted to below freezing overnight,  This meant that the track was smoothed down by the multitude of skiers.

 

With the ice as smooth as a newly-Zambonied skating rink beneath our skis, there was next to no control. Our slip-sliding, wobbly, shuffle skiing brought to mind the adage ‘three steps forward, two steps back’.

 

There was nothing carefree about this experience and the edge in our voices was almost as sharp as the ones on our skis.  Patience was left back in the parking lot at the beginning of the trail.

 

What a difference a little grounding makes!

 

In ideal conditions, it was quite simple to be a calm. To recognize so many reasons for gratitude. To be present and not overthink.

 

When the conditions were characterized by a lack of solid grounding, there was a noticeable increase in thought loops that circled around how bad things were.  I focused on what was not working to the point that the surroundings were all but invisible to me.

 

It’s easy to be mindful when conditions are ideal.  

  • When people are behaving as we think they should behave
  • When situations are going exactly as we planned
  • When we get exactly what we wish for
  • When there are no unpleasant surprises or tragic events

 

 

 

Instead of giving into the wobbly, slip-sliding lack of balance, perhaps we could see these conditions as a chance dig deep to find our gratitude, courageously negotiate the aggravating groundlessness, keep our eyes open and

 

    practice accepting the fact that conditions are, most often, less than ideal.

 

So at least we know there’ll always be opportunities to grow in resilience!

 

 

 

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.

  

 

why i sit

I sit.

Intentionally.

In silence.

(4/365) concentration, meditation, contemplationIt is certainly not because I’m a calm, balanced person who lives devoutly among the pure and the pious. Nor it is because I exude self-discipline. Far from it. Sitting started out simply as my way to overcome the overwhelm, to quell the tsunami of thoughts and lower my oft-rampant heart rate for a sense of overall well-being. It was basically a physical solution to a spiritual problem.  But that has transformed into something more akin to falling down the rabbit hole where the experience has become curiouser and curiouser. While I still get the physical benefits of habitual stillness, my sitting has become a time when I explore previously unknown landscapes and meet the oddest characters who mostly exist inside my own head.

Body-Speak

I sit to notice my body.

Physically, the act of sitting provides an experience of grounding and being firmly rooted to one spot.  From here, there is room to build capacity to get out of my head and notice my bodily sensations. It may be a subtle sensation of discomfort especially if I’m sitting for an extended period of time, or perhaps tightness in one shoulder, a stiffness in a joint or a blunt lack of sensation in one area. During a typical day of non-stop mental information tennis, this quiet time of softens the mind-noise enough to allow me to be keenly aware of my body’s innate wisdom.

Feeling-Talk

I sit to feel the feelings.

The feelings could be connected to my body’s messages or they could be left-over feelings that had never been given permission to be expressed.  Isn’t that the point of feelings? To be felt?  Not all the feelings that come up are easy so I sit with whatever comes up and resist the urge to label the feelings “good” or “bad”. I notice the feelings then give into the fullness of their expression. A gratitude, a sorrow, a desire or even a dark numbness are acknowledged.  The practice is to hold both difficult feelings and the sense of ease and grounded-ness that sitting provides as a balancing act of surrender and release.

Story-Time

I sit to listen to the stories.

I love a good story.  I’m a stubborn idealist with an imaginative flair for dramatic detail so talk about walking the smooth path to self-delusion.  I can rant, rage and rationalize with the best of them.  But I have found that there is absolutely no light at the end of that alliteration tunnel. The mind-stories where I repeatedly have a starring role are fun for a creative outlet but definitely not so useful for living life on purpose and wide awake. Sitting often enough helps me to recognize the stories penned in fear and dread, to unravel the foggy plot-lines from the intricate web of physical sensations, emotions and to recognize the way things actually are.  That is the work. Unremarkable, hard work.

Work that frees.  Releases.  Softens.

And work that begins with sitting.

Just sitting.

Meditation Rock 2

a mindful student’s guide to stress relief

 

Mid-term mania is sweeping through high school hallways like a mid-autumn tropical storm.

Research shows that the adolescent brain is not quite done ‘baking’ yet and is very much still in the developmental stage, so teens cope with stress much differently than adults.  Add an over-commitment to activities in and out of the classroom, teacher and parental expectations for consistently self-regulated behaviour and the increasing pressure on teens to figure out their future plans and you’ve got the makings of the perfect storm.

Fear not, oh overwhelmed adolescent!   Not only does it get better as you get older, there are strategies that can help you weather the high winds and choppy seas of high school life.

 

student_in_tilburg_centrum_mei_2008_cc

 

NAME IT

Name what is actually happening.  Don’t rationalize, blame or give the power to change your situation over to anyone else.  Stand up.  It’s your choice.

Right now, I choose to procrastinate. Instead of taking even a tiny step forward, I am distracting myself from the discomfort of having too much to do with other things like friends, electronics, music or just zoning out to temporarily help me create the illusion that I have nothing to do.  I choose a temporary fix over a long-term solution.

My expectations are much higher than is reasonable and is rooted in my need to please everyone, to be accepted and to prove my worth to those around me. I choose to keep thinking in this concrete way even though I know, at some level, my value is not connected to how well I perform.

I am attached to this heightened level of panic because it is what I know and I am only  comfortable when there is some drama and chaos.  Plus, it also gives me an excuse as to why my performance and achievement is well below my capability.   

Naming it may not be pretty.  But it is potent and is always your choice.  By taking responsibility for what is really happening and not blaming others, you will become free and more empowered.  Since you are responsible then you can not be a victim to an external source.  Taking responsibility give you all the power to change things and make a difference.

 


NUMBER IT

On a scale of 1-10, rate your current stress level.  We all know a little stress is okay and, for the most part, manageable. But how much is too much?

Level 10 would be the hyperventilating, off-the-charts panic mode when the sound of your heart beating wildly in your ears drowns out all other noises.  Overwhelming anxiety, irrational fears and phobias showing up, and being mentally frozen or unable to act could be possible signs of this level of stress.  Save Level 10 when your life is danger.  In my experience, no one has died writing or even failing a math test.

Level 7 is not a bad place to be during times of evaluation like tests, exams or a performance of some kind but it is definitely not a desirable place to live, work and play every day.  Staying at this level consistently could easily lead to emotional, mental and physical dis-ease.  You need to go lower.

Level 4 is quite comfortable, bordering on relaxing, but with just enough energy to get things done.  This is more like it.

Level 1 is like a quiet, restful slumber that seems to only come when you are on summer holidays and you know you have no tests or assignments due the next day so can sleep in as long as you want.

Notice your stress level throughout the day and become aware when it begins to crawl ever-upwards.  Once you know where you tend to live, you can intentionally level out to a healthier, more functional place.

 

Student in Starbucks, Fremont Seattle

 

LEVEL IT

The best strategy to help you to quickly bring down your stress level to a healthier number is deep, belly breathing.  You can also try other relaxation techniques that work well for you, exercise, yoga, meditation or calming music. The benefit of focused, deep breathing is that is accessible wherever and whenever you need it.  It so simple to do and the results are powerful, predictable and grounding.

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take deep, smooth, belly breaths.  Evenly inhale and exhale allowing your lower belly to expand like a balloon and contract with each breath.  Do this slowly 3-5 times.  Check in with your level.  If you are still floating up to any number beyond 5, then repeat.  Practicing this type of calming breathing regularly in non-stressful times will make it more automatic and have a greater impact during times of stress.

 

RE-FRAME IT

Visualize yourself stress-free and living large at a Level 4.  What does it look like?  How do you feel?

What is working in your life right now and already fits with that picture of what you want your life to look like?

Are the thoughts that you are having true and useful?  Is your thinking distorted with over-generalizations, blaming or catastrophizing?  And which thoughts are cleverly distorted to match the story you keep telling yourself where doom is the only outcome.

What steps have you tried already to change the situation from stressed and striving to calm and thriving?  Did they work?  Why or why not?

Where else could you go for support?

How can you break down your tasks to their smaller, bite-sized portions? Checking things off your to-do list is energizing and smaller tasks mean more chances to check!  And how does doing this impact your level of stress?

What itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny tiny step could I do RIGHT NOW to start?  Take three deep breaths?  Make a list?  Ask for help?  Be grateful for what is going well?  Name the situation courageously where you are responsible?  Notice your level as you take one step.

 

GROUND IT

Now that you can visualize what a stress-free ‘you’ looks like, recall a time when it was true.  When was the last time you felt amazingly at ease, comfortable, relaxed and in charge of your own life?  It could be as recent as the beginning of the school year when you vowed to stay on top of things.  Or maybe you have to go back a few years when life seemed simpler.

After you have a mental picture of the way your life looked and how you felt back then, find some token to reflect that important memory. It could be a picture, an object, an action, some music or whatever else will remind you of the experience of being at peace. When you find your stress level inching higher, remember your grounding token. Hold it, look at it, listen to it do the action that reminds you to settle and breathe deeply.

 

Student

 

Stress is unavoidable but managing it is a life-long skill that takes practice and is worth every moment you commit to doing just that.

Start now. Take a deep breath and choose to take that first step to managing your own mania!

 

 

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