Sometimes life is like a difficult yoga move and you just have to breathe your way through the pose.
Twisting. Wrapping. Forcing.
Freaking out while trying to get somewhere stupid, like touching your nose to your shin, never made anything better. The idea of yoga, as I’ve experienced it, is to simply breathe deeply and be aware of what’s going on. Having anxiety that I will tumble over while balancing on one leg, with arms flailed out to the sides like wings, isn’t going to help me with my balance. Thinking about the next pose while being off-balance in the current pose isn’t going to make me more balanced in the next pose, either. Anxiety and getting lost in the thought of the next move causes more anxiety and imbalance in the present pose. By the way, making a face and having an attitude…also not helpful.
Same holds true when we approach stressful situations in our lives. Sometimes, all that’s required is backing off a little. Getting focused and having some grit to move further into tough situations with grace is a better option.
Why is it so hard sometimes to calmly deal with what’s in front of us?
Habit, what we’ve been taught or experienced, fear, shame, self-doubt, or ego. Defense mechanisms.
I’ve never seen a situation improved by overdoing anything, forcefully trying to get ahead, showing off or getting aggressive. But we all do it and see others doing this every day. Everything is pretty awesome but we’re bent out of shape because of our own twistedness.
One of my favorite things about yoga is drishti, or “focused gaze.” Throughout the poses it isn’t necessary to glance around and see what other people are doing for comparison because the focused gaze is generally off the tip of the nose. All you need is awareness of the poses and then try to land somewhere between giving up and over-doing. When someone brings ego into yoga class, she may think others are watching and that her classmates care how skilled she is. (We don’t).These are the people doing a random backbend while the rest of us are in downward dog with brittle shaking arms. It’s nice to be in your own space and breathe. It’s a space of minding our own business with awareness and a side effect of strength building.
Something to try: The next time a difficult emotion shows up, try letting the emotion show up and simply be curious about it. Most of us immediately react when an unpleasant emotion shows up. We label the emotion “unpleasant.” Notice what fear (or anger or sadness) feel like in your physical body. What color and shape is the emotion? What’s it like to just sit with the emotion without taking it, or letting it take you, on a ride?
“I feel sad.” “I feel angry.” “I feel scared…” “This is what it’s like to feel _____________.” Sit with this for at least 5 minutes without blaming others or outside events for your feelings and without having self-judgment. Notice what happens.
My mother and I were sitting at a table in an Italian restaurant waiting for our order. I noticed the plant sitting up just inches to the left of my head. Perched in a nook in the wall. Dividing our table from the one on the opposite side from us.
“Is that plant real?” I asked my mother. “Not sure,” she replied.
I touched the leaf to see if there was any indication of life. The leaf felt waxy. The plant looked vibrant. Bright green leaves. Symmetrical. Cheerful. Friendly.
There was my answer. No tiny little brown edges on the green leaves. No drooping or discolorations. No signs of new life or tiny buds. No shriveled blooms on their way out. No dirt. No fallen pieces surrounding the pot. No stains on the wooden wall from the occasional over-watering. It was a fake.
Natural things aren’t supposed to be perfect. People aren’t supposed to be perfect.
Have you ever noticed that the most interesting people have some quality of depth about them? A depth that stems from some type of imperfection? Stories they share are interesting because there is always something to learn. Something to take from the conversations about past mistakes, unexpected mishaps, an adventure gone awry, a left turn when it should have been a right, a figuring out of things when all was stacked against them.
The world can be superficial. Full of people trying to capture a feeling by buying things. Full of confused middle-aged people relentlessly trying to smooth and correct. Neighbors who spend thousands to convert their patio into a mini-Tuscany. Conversations feel more like a networking event leaving me wondering who this or that person really is? Shallow. Boring.
I recently found some childhood photos of my grandparents’ property. I was taken with how beautiful it was. Unspoiled. Cows roaming in the background. Barbed-wire fence behind the house. Green grass and dirt patches mowed without any fancy borders or edging. Watered by rain. An enormous sweet gum tree where we’d painfully find the “fruit” with our bare feet in the front yard. Sticker-burs. Painful and imperfect.
There is such beauty in natural surroundings. Strength, wisdom, empathy and understanding are the rewards of accepting thorny imperfections. More beauty in the perceived defects than in the contrived.
Having depth requires leaving the surface of the water. Maybe leaving those points near the surface is too frightening for some. But all of the good stuff happens deep beneath. The most profound experiences happen after diving in.
This is the time of year where gratitude gets a lot of attention. It’s nice to have a holiday that’s based in acknowledging all that we’ve received. As Thanksgiving comes and goes and life happens, it may be difficult to maintain that mindset of gratitude. I’ve been reading a book titled, The Upward Spiral, by Alex Korb. Korb does a great job of explaining neuroscience and depression including some very practical things we can all do to increase our happiness and well-being,
I hope some of this information will help inspire you to have a mindset of gratitude throughout the year.
Before I talk about some of the benefits of being grateful, you might have wondered what to do if you have a hard time getting into a space where you can begin a gratitude practice. Research has shown that identifying your emotions that are causing you to feel down will help. In other words, give your emotions a name. Feeling frustrated or sad or anxious? Say it. When you’re overwhelmed with ill feelings, simply stating what it is you’re feeling will keep the emotion from lingering around…sort of like family members during a holiday visit at the Griswolds. : )
In other words, the negative feelings get processed faster when you name them. The amygdala in your brain, where emotional reactivity occurs, will be less likely to get hijacked if you name your emotions. An amygdala hijack during the holidays will not be pretty. If this sounds too simple or stupid, research shows that while suppressing emotions may give the appearance that all is good on the outside, your limbic system is as aroused and sometimes more aroused than if you hadn’t suppressed the emotion. Your limbic system controls your basic emotions like fear, anger, pleasure. Suppressing emotions will potentially make you more reactive. This doesn’t mean that you need to be reactive, yell or scream to express your emotions. It simply means that you just name the emotion you’re feeling without getting reactive and this will help process what you’re feeling so that your brain doesn’t get hijacked. and you can get back to the thinking part of your brain.
Getting back to developing a gratitude practice…
What happens inside your brain when you’re grateful? A really interesting fact—when you’re scanning your brain for things that you’re thankful for, then you’re automatically targeting or putting a spotlight on the positive things in your life. When you do this, your serotonin increases. How cool is that? A natural way to increase your serotonin levels without a pill or spending any money. Serotonin is a chemical in your brain that is linked to feeling good and living longer.
If you’re truly stuck, because you’ve experienced some extra tough times or setbacks and you can’t come up with anything to be grateful for..it doesn’t matter. Just the act of scanning your brain for things to be grateful for still increases serotonin even if you can’t think of one single thing to be grateful for. It’s the act of searching that increases serotonin.
Another interesting thing about being grateful on a regular basis is that over time, your brain will change in such a way that being grateful will take less effort.
If you want to develop a gratitude practice, you might start by writing down three things you’re grateful for every morning when you wake up or every evening before you go to sleep. Or you can make it a habit when arrive at work each day to think of three things you appreciate about your life.
If you want to get the ball rolling and you want to increase your feel good chemicals, you’re welcome to list some things you’re grateful for in the comments here. I’ll leave the name of the reference I used for the majority of the information discussed here below this post.
Book referenced: The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb
How to become happier
Is it better to give than to receive?
If it’s happiness that you’re after, then the answer is yes, according to the latest brain research! As it turns out, money does buy happiness, but only if it’s spent on others. Spending money on others will make you feel happier. Spending money on yourself won’t make you feel happier. Spending money on yourself won’t decrease your happiness, either…it just doesn’t do anything to make you feel better. Yet, it’s a material society we live in with so many people buying things for themselves in an effort to increase self-esteem, compete, and out-do everyone else. Nothing wrong with buying things for yourself. Just know that you will be disappointed if you think it will make you feel happier and science now supports this.
But doesn’t having more material items increase happiness?
Nope. Past having your basic resources covered, having an increase in material items doesn’t increase your happiness level. Although, not having your basic resources covered and living in poverty will decrease happiness. Some people, who are able to pay their bills and have basic resources, may waste time trying to figure out how to become rich quick because they believe this will make them happier. The desire for overnight success, joining all sorts of multi-level marketing scams and seeking ways to get rich quick is popular because of this belief.
But what about my trust-funder friends? Aren’t they happier than me?
Quick note about those who have unearned “success.” This actually leads to unhappiness. If your trust funder friends are happier than you, then it’s not necessarily because of the trust fund.
Where do I begin to find happiness?
According to one happiness researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, happiness is found where you have a medium skill set and you are challenged to use those skills. Csikszentmihalyi calls this “flow.” People become stressed because they confuse success with biting off more than they can chew yet do not possess the skills or experience to get the job done, resulting in anxiety. Many of us have to go through this phase when we are brand new on the job. It can feel like being thrown to the wolves when you are inexperienced and the job calls for more skill than you’ve had time to acquire. After gaining experience, our skill set increases and our anxiety level generally decreases. If you find yourself with high anxiety on the job, is it because you really need more experience and skills? If so, seek out ways to increase your skill set and find a mentor with more experience and knowledge.
With a medium (instead of low skill set), you can start enjoying your work and get into flow. Enjoying your work will give you more happiness.
On the other side, those with experience and skills that surpass the job at hand may underachieve, feel anxious or bored, or chronically dissatisfied, leading to other destructive behaviors. Some of the more common destructive behaviors I see in clients are the use of drugs, alcohol, sex, affairs, and porn addiction without motivation to gain any real insight. Immaturity and a sense of entitlement combined with the numbing behaviors above often leads to blaming others for their own unhappiness.
But if people would just act right, wouldn’t I be better off?
I love this one. Let’s be clear: People don’t act right. I’ve started using the acronym: P-DAR. People don’t and won’t ever act “right” or according to you standard of what “right” may be. Funny enough, you are the person who isn’t in line with someone else’s standards, even if you aren’t aware of this.
Control of the outside world is temporary and illusory. The more arrogant we are, the more negativity enters our minds and the more miserable we feel. It can actually be a relief to know that people don’t act right and accept that we don’t have the capability to control others.
“We try to fix the outside so much, but our control of the outer world is limited, temporary, and often, illusory.” -Matthieu Ricard
If you truly feel upset with certain behaviors in this world, then volunteering or putting effort towards the injustices you see will go a lot farther toward change than complaining to your family, ranting on Facebook or trolling on social media.
Bottom line: it is a delusion that other people need to behave a certain way for you to feel happy. If you hold the belief that others need to act a certain way for you to feel happy, then you won’t feel happy.
Exercise & Nutrition
Exercise affects the chemicals in your brain in such a way that it wards off depression, improves mood, decreases anxiety and prevents a plethora of medical conditions. Good nutrition will provide you with “phyto”-chemicals that “fight” off disease. Sure, you can decrease calories to a certain number per day and lose weight, but the foods you choose to eat can be like preventative medicine.
Feel Good Brain Chemicals
Being grateful increases serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is a feel-good chemical in your brain. Even if you scan your brain for things to be grateful for and can’t think of anything, serotonin still increases. It is the act of searching your brain for things to be grateful for that increases serotonin.
I was in the dressing room at Macy’s where I had the very entertaining opportunity to listen to my “neighbors” trying on clothing in the dressing room next to me: Mom and her pre-teen daughter.
It was a busy day so the mom-daughter duo were sharing a dressing room. The mother was quickly approving and veto-ing clothing that her daughter was trying on. At one point, the mother tells her daughter, “Uhm. No. It looks like your selling something you don’t have.” The daughter didn’t respond.
I’m not sure she comprehended what her mother was saying, exactly. But mom definitely had a point. It must be a challenge to find clothing for pre-teen girls, little girls or adolescent girls these days. Especially, if mothers are developmentally confused, themselves. The boundaries are blurred between clothing for women and girls. I see mothers dressing like their five year old daughters and 5 year old daughters being dressed like much older women.
Sexualization of women occurs on a spectrum from sexual violence to sexualized evaluation. Sexualized evaluation is often subtle and gets played out through, “gaze.” One of my friends calls it, “the scan.” What’s fascinating about “gaze” is that women have no control over being gazed at, yet, as many feminist theorists have argued, the majority of women take on the view point of the “gazer” about themselves! Over time, girls and women internalize the observer’s perspective and begin to view themselves as objects. This is self-objectification.
What are the consequences of self-objectification?
Shame: having a negative opinion of yourself while also fearing being judged in a social context. Shame is a moral or social emotion. It’s the feeling that one doesn’t measure up to some social ideal. It’s the belief that you are responsible for someone else’s opinions or feelings.
It’s quite confusing for women because success in relationships and work have been shown to be evaluated by physical appearance. Research tells us that “beautiful” women have more power in our society. Women are caught in this push-pull of needing to be attractive in order to achieve, yet feel shame when not meeting the over-idealized images we’re exposed to in the media, day after day.
Anxiety: Appearance anxiety. Studies show that women experience more appearance anxiety than men. Women have anxiety about their appearances because they don’t know when their bodies will be judged and evaluated. Then, in a very subtle way, we internalize those judgments of others.
Eating disorders: anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Women make up about 90% of this population.
Not to mention, every time a sexualized woman is viewed by others, the perception of all women are unfavorable by the viewers. This is called the spillover effect. Even when the non-sexualized woman is modestly dressed. Great! : (
There is no arguing that there is a pre-occupation with the appearance of women in American culture. This is a form of outside validation or relying on someone else’s opinion of your appearance in order to gain self-worth. Our society is so far into this mode of validation that it’s doubtful that we’ll turn it around; but, we can still be aware of what we teach young girls (and boys)!
Some mothers confuse letting their daughters wear skimpy clothes with power, freedom and women’s lib. It’s none of those things if you look at any piece of research. Many have to learn the hard way, though. Girls are becoming depressed, have no sense of self-worth beyond the next cute outfit and fall behind in academics. Does this sound like a good start to having a healthy, successful satisfying life?
Sometimes, I get frustrated because our critical thinking skills are quickly being replaced with cleavage. Then parents want to bring their young daughters in for therapy sessions because they are depressed, anxious, have eating disorders and are generally lost.
At the risk of sounding cynical, I’d prefer parents come in for therapy (instead of their children). We have an enormous opportunity to help boys and girls develop healthy self-concepts and respectful, healthy views of one another. When men and women don’t have healthy self-concepts or healthy, respectful views of others, we can’t expect that our children will either. At the very least, we need to teach our children how to have conversations about healthy sexuality. This won’t make sense to them without parents placing a focus on helping children develop a solid sense of self.