Monday, December 16, 2013

Life is but a dream, sweetheart!

Pain as a pathway to presence.

I haven't suffered many injuries. I can count on one hand the times that I've been really stuck in bed. But last Sunday, a searing sensation came out of nowhere, drilling into my shoulder-blade like a hot poker. Unresponsive to stretches and pain relievers, it steadily grew over 3 days before exploding across my shoulders, up my neck, and down my spine. It felt like all my nerve fibers were on fire and twisting themselves into a tight fist in the center of my back. I've never experienced anything more painful.

By Thursday, I was forced to just lay down. It's a strange feeling: admitting you can't move. Unaccustomed to being incapacitated, you will turn your head, nod, shift positions, raise your arms, reach for water, lift things, only to have your body remind you with a sharp whip-crack of pain that moving freely has ceased to be one of your body's talents. It's scary, frustrating, and most of all, it hurts!

Like most people, I'd make a terrible statue. I'm prone to restlessness, I talk with my hands, and I enjoy expressing attitude with my neck. It took many unwise movements for me to realize that I wasn't just exaggerating my pain level; it wasn't going down, and the only way to manage it was to lay completely still. 

Harnessing stillness of mind.

So stillness, eh? I've been talking a big game about daily meditation as of late, but therein I'm usually referring to two easy-little-20-minute-intervals a day. But here I was, flat out, and forced into a state of total non-doing. Question: What's the opposite of doing? Answer: Being. 

I couldn't escape into the realm of doing because I couldn't even watch a movie, or do the many holiday errands and chores on my list. The only thing I could do was listen, focus on my breathing, and observe my state of mind.

I took deep breaths and listened to an audiobook: Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now. (I keep listening to these chapters over and over again because they are a meditation in and of themselves, and such a useful learning tool.) It takes such eloquence, wisdom, and grace to convey mindfulness in a way that awakens the reader. Tolle is so inspiring; he absolutely nails it. His wisdom and clarity cut right through the ego and speak directly to the soul. 

In listening to The Power of Now while laid up, I realized that the incessant thinking that accompanies most of our lives causes us to exacerbate things like pain. Our thoughts continuously tell us the story of our ongoing life situation in an unnecessary way, for example, "OMFG this hurts, seriously, I am in so much pain." Well, your body already knows that without your mind providing any commentary. Thinking about your pain just fuels the fire and adds emotional turmoil to your list of problems. If we can't change the situation, then we must accept it.

The bountiful benefits of simply being!

Pain can be a gift that enables us to see what we commonly take for granted. Laying there, I stared at the things that I commonly walk right past: the Buddha statue on my night table, the view out my bedroom window. It was a reminder of how much more there is to appreciate other than the typical subjects of my mental focus. I also felt so deeply grateful for the kindness of others. As I tried to resist help, my best friend reassured me, "Sometimes you have to take care of someone you love."

A feeling of wonder and curiosity transpires when we really see something or someone, past the surface, to the essence. People and things you've grown accustomed to can reappear as new, in all their complex authenticity. We give others the space to be themselves when we cease to cast judgement upon them. We are awed by our blessings when we stop focusing on our misfortunes. 

When we are present, what lessens: focus on the ego-driven experience of our life situations. 
What increases: love, awe, openness, and appreciation for the simple state of being.

When I am able to carry less subtext into each moment of my experience, I feel less agitation, dissatisfaction, irritability, and all the other emotions that typically tell us that something is wrong. In the context of pain, consider these very obvious equations:

The present moment of pain + several days of pain = An overwhelming amount of pain!!!

The present moment of pain + nothing else = The present moment of pain. Manageable.

When dealt with one moment at a time, the pain wasn't as severe as it was when I added thoughts like, "Jesus, this has been going on for hours, days, I cannot take it anymore!!!" It's usually when you get panicked and fed up that pain becomes overwhelming, and it only intensifies as we freak out! Instead, the anxiety accompanying the pain completely vanished as I focused on letting the pain flow through me, taking cleansing breaths, and relaxing my body as much as possible.

Life is but a dream, sweetheart!

And then, something happened! Something I have had many glimpses of, but have only enjoyed for a few hours at most. The magical present just clicked into focus. Awakening came, and it stayed. I felt a sense of taking an easy, natural step right into sync with the universe, like grabbing hold of a handrail on a bumpy train, or catching the chair lift on a snowy mountain. Suddenly you're not just getting pummeled by life; you're riding with it like a surfer on a wave. 

You know that feeling when you realize you're dreaming? You're suddenly fascinated with the dreamworld your mind has created. You look around, eagerly choosing which button to push, which door to walk through, whether to fly or to kiss someone: in short, the options seem endless and the experience itself seems fascinating and exciting. I think that is just how life should be.

I continued to feel this way for a full 48 hours. (Holy effing shiz that makes me so happy.) The feeling lasted through phone calls with family, at-home interactions, and continuing pain (which at least let me get back on my feet for the most part, after I got adjusted by a chiropractor). The pain still wasn't amazing, but everything else was so ridiculously much more fun! There were more laughs, more interesting conversations, my brain just felt freed, and I felt totally content just looking out the window, watching the snow fall. 48 continuous hours of total presence is absolutely astonishing to me: a major achievement for my practice and a clear sign that continued practice pays off.

If I keep putting money in the bank via daily mindfulness, maybe I can turn 2 days in to 3, and so on. The point, after all, is to make mindfulness the norm and unchecked runaway thinking the exception. What it takes is the full appreciation that the present moment is something truly beautiful that you only have access to right now. If your mind is anywhere else, you've missed it. See it. Breathe it. Feel it. Hear it. Be the present moment. The sense of peace and joy that arises from fully appreciating the present is more pure, pleasurable, and healing than any drug. It's free, and all of its side effects are incredibly positive. 

I stayed in bed meditating by necessity on Thurs and Fri. I enjoyed a brief weekend voyage to enlightenment on Sat and Sun, aah! Today, I was back to work, my back still hurts, but I'm so totally inspired to continue practicing the following:
  • to appreciate the impermanence of everything
  • to listen and receive without judgement
  • to give and engage authentically and without doubt
  • to tell everyone I love that there is an escape hatch out of emotional overload and pervasive thinking
Incessant thoughts seek to hold you captive while something much bigger and better is going on. Stepping out of your mind and into the awareness of this universal moment is not only possible, it's essential. Freedom, wonder, and total body happiness awaits!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Goodbye, nostalgia! Hello, Thanksgiving! Appreciation journals for the win.

As the holiday season approaches, so does nostalgia. The word itself is blended from Greek and Homeric words, combining both "homecoming" and "ache." It's a sentimental, melancholy longing for the past. 

Whether or not we genuinely long for the past, that nostalgic feeling is triggered by smell, music, and weather, so it's no wonder that this season transports us! Among all the ordinary, forgotten events of childhood and beyond, our repeated annual traditions have worn deep grooves in us, like the groove of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," which is playing somewhere right now whether you like it or not. (I'm currently playing it. I like it.)

Whether it's the clean, cold smell in the air on Thanksgiving day, the taste of turkey, or just too many hot spiked ciders, we can easily find ourselves in that holiday time machine that our brains have built for us. Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open time machine, right? Sure, it can be! 

But picture Scrooge beyond the windowpane, during his visit with the Angel of Christmas Past. We can't interact with our memories. Whether they're positive or negative, there they stand, out of reach yet sometimes holding tremendous emotional power over us in the present. When our minds journey to the unchangeable past, what judgments does it make?

Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now describes how, when thoughts are in the past, we either deem the past or the present to be better. Preferring the past can keep us from feeling at peace with the present: we want things back the way they were, and that's impossible. A painful past can also keep us from fully appreciating the present. Some of us "hate the holidays" because of the unfulfilled expectations and psychological injuries of childhood, formative years, or adulthood before dramatic changes like death, divorce, or disease. It's all what you make of it.

If you're like me, holiday memories are like most memories: a blend of happy and horrible. Now that I'm a grown-ass lady, I choose to take the good and leave the bad as much as possible. I'm cultivating the positive traditions that I want to create, like hosting a holiday party for friends. And, I'm making a special effort to focus on the present, and the positive, every day. 

Meet my appreciation journal. Each night, I write down 3 things to be thankful for that day. I've been doing this for a month so far, and almost immediately, I noticed myself reframing my thoughts of the whole day around the good things that happened. This practice grounds me in the present, and it makes me feel wildly fortunate and thankful, which is a total mood enhancer.

My journal.
Awareness of the present is the antidote to preoccupation with the past, and it can also cure melancholy. It works for both past-preferential and present-preferential nostalgics. Those terms sound real right? I invented them, but it's true. The cure for dwelling on how shitty everything used to be is realizing, well, it's not now! The cure for dwelling on how much more awesome everything used to be is realizing, well, lots of things are still awesome! It's hard not to feel more positive when you pause each night to think of the good things. 

A surprise benefit of writing daily appreciations is realizing that even some difficult moments have a silver lining, and thus can be reframed into good things. That's called cognitive restructuring (an actual term) and it will help you move past negative thoughts and experiences. It challenges the black-or-white, irrational thinking that leads to pessimism and the belief that negative experiences are likely to repeat. Recognizing the abundance of positive experiences we have every day tells us, instead, that positive experiences are likely to repeat. The result is a happier, more optimistic, more confident you. Appreciation journals for the win.

Thanksgiving might not be perfect this year. Not for those who can't afford a special meal, maybe not for you and your crazy family, and maybe not for me and mine. Addiction is a disease my dad has, and he's recently relapsed after a few solid years of sobriety. This turn in his life, and in our relationship, breaks my particularly vulnerable holiday heart. 

And although undeniably sad and stressful events like this one have often sucked me down the rabbit hole of similar holiday hurts -- all those unfulfilled expectations of how things ought to have been -- I now refuse to dwell on that. I recognize that doing so would draw my energy into a negative void. Instead, I choose to radiate joy and love toward the people in my life who, like me, are doing their best to live well and feel connected. This doesn't mean I forsake my dad: I hold a positive vision for his health and recovery.

Alongside any and all challenges, there is always someone or something to appreciate, and that's who and what deserves our attention most. Thank who there is to thank today, love who there is to love, and remember that one of those people is yourself. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

This is the thing that frustrates me most about life.

Here it is: the nature of life itself is just so damn needy. Do any states of being last? Anything worth having, loving, or feeling requires such continuous cultivation to maintain! You're never done 'til you're dead.

Let's say you've worked for weeks to create a new habit of daily exercise, better nutrition, daily meditation, or a more positive mental attitude. You begin to enjoy enormous benefits and results! You've got more energy; your body's feeling firm and flexible; your relationships are thriving; and most importantly, you're HAPPY. 

"How could I have lived any other way?" you ask yourself. The old you with those silly old problems seems like some kind of alien. You're convinced that, "this is me, from now on. I have arrived." 

Inevitably, obstacles and distractions creep into our positive practices, sometimes so subtly that you don't even notice until the damage is done. Riding a high of the arrival of health and happiness, you've mistakenly thought that you can work a little less hard and be a little less consistent. 

So it goes. What took days, weeks, or months to achieve takes half the time to let fall by the wayside. Suddenly, your pants are tighter. You've just snapped at your spouse. Last week, you were mesmerized by a beautiful sunset: your whole being buzzed with profound appreciation as you stood and screamed, "life is beautiful!!!" Who the hell was that? This week, you don't even notice the sunset because you're making a beeline for whiskey, french fries, and cigarettes. Instant gratification begins to take precedence; hard work goes bye bye.

Incredibly frustrating, don't you agree? There is, in fact, no such thing as arriving. There is, in fact, only continuous maintenance of how and who you want to be. It's a cycle of living well, riding the high, followed by a fall off the wagon, the return of suffering, and the need to start over and over again. 

Just noticing that you're feeling better as a result of positive behaviors ought to be accompanied by a little reminder that cultivation is the true cure! Wellness lies in the positive behavior itself, not in the outcome. We want to believe that our efforts are a one-time payment; we will receive something everlasting in return; we will be happy forever thereafter. But we've ridden the cycle full circle, and we've come to know that this is not the case. 

So, just keep pedaling. You will gain speed, you will gain altitude, oxygen will flood your blood and you'll feel fan-fucking-tastic! Then, from time to time, you'll hit a banana peel, or get distracted by something shiny. That's okay; it's frustrating but it's life. Mindfulness is noticing when your focus has wandered; it's the strengthening of your mind's capacity to bring you back to the calm, peaceful, loving self that enables you to behave in ways that benefit you and those around you. The more you practice this resiliency, the faster you'll notice that you've strayed, and as a result, you'll fall less far.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

News Flash! You are not your worst moments.

When that thing you said repeats in your mind like an overplayed song...

When a choice you made has affected the course of your life, and you wonder if your choice was right or wrong...

The urge to change something that happened long ago... to go back in time; rewrite your history...

Your most embarrassing, painful, or regrettable moments repeated again and again...

Few but Zen monks keep their minds completely focused on the present. Assuming you're not a Zen monk, repetitive thoughts affect you. Repetitive thinking can be positive when you're savoring past positive moments, or positively anticipating a moment in the future, but more commonly, repetitive thought is like a plague. It's the negative past moments, or the worrisome future moments, that intrude into our experience of the present.

By calling to mind past negative experiences, we relive them. Your thoughts are intangible, yet your body reacts the same way to things that are actually happening as it does to the memories that you are reliving. Think about a heated argument in the past, and your blood pressure rises in the present. Walk your mind through your most embarrassing moment, and your cheeks flush, your heart speeds, your breath comes out in a huff as you shake your head to will it away.

Repeatedly reliving past negative moments causes stress to accumulate in the body as if those experiences were actually happening over and over again. You age yourself when you live the past more than once. And whenever you relive a negative moment, you add to your stored consciousness of negative experiences. This increases your belief that those same negative experiences will repeat in the future, which leads to increased stress, anxiety, and even depression.

So, cut the shit. Here's a secret (that isn't really so secret): there's not a person on Earth who has never put their foot in their mouth, made a difficult decision that they sometimes question, or fallen up the stairs in front of the football team (metaphorically speaking). Life's not perfect, and you're not perfect. There's a reason why they say "shit happens."

Also, shit happens for a reason. Not only in the sense that everything happens to make you who you are and bring you to where you're going. Not being able to let go of a negative memory happens for a reason, too. Repetitive thinking is your mind calling upon you to face that past experience, head on. Acknowledge it, and accept it, and let it hit you full force. Ask yourself:
  • Why is this memory powerful enough to keep me mentally stuck on it? 
  • What did that experience signify to me? 
  • What can I learn from it? 
  • How can I behave, now, in order to fill my mind with new positive experiences?
When you mess up, it can feel like the whole world is watching, and judging. They're not. It's you who's watching most closely and judging most harshly.

When you mess up, it can feel like you just lost your last chance at happiness, or success. You didn't. Your life is so full of opportunities that you can't possibly entertain them all. To see even one or two of those opportunities, you have to be mentally and emotionally open and present. You can't see that your best moment is happening, or is just around the corner, if you're stuck thinking about your worst moment in the past.

The negative intrusive memories that plague you all have something in common: together they tell the story of your fear. You are reliving past events because you're afraid that event will recur, or you're afraid that event defines you.

"I can't be confident, because I am a person who has had this embarrassing moment." 
"I won't say the right thing because one time, I said something totally wrong."  
"I'm not good at that. Once, I failed at that so miserably that I'll never try it again."

Stop. You are not your worst moments. Replace those old scripts.

"I choose to be confident. Confidence invites a positive outcome."
"I choose to communicate, honestly and wholly. Communication connects me to those I care about."
"I'm thankful for what I learned from that experience. Now, I know more, and I can try again."

Past failure doesn't ensure future failure; only preoccupation with failure does. Each moment is a blank slate upon which you have the enormous opportunity to write your own history. Approach this moment with openness, a willingness to learn, a willingness to listen, apply, and try.

When a negative thought recurs in your mind, remember: reliving the past ages you. Why multiply your negative experiences? Painful things have happened, but they do not need to happen again and again in your mind. Breathe, experience the present, and engage with it as the person you want to be. The past does not define you; the present does.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Relaxation Response Resiliency and Revelations!

Today I embark on a new endeavor. I'm enrolled in The Relaxation Response Resiliency program, an 8-week lifestyle course that is offered through the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. My first class is tonight, and I'm psyched! The program is designed to teach "a variety of mind body skills and interventions to decrease medical symptoms and build resilience." I hope to benefit personally from this expert course on the power of positive thinking and mind body healing, as much as I hope to make connections in this field and learn about how to better share these skills with others.

This blog began as an outlet for tracking my progress in my self-proclaimed Total Body Happiness initiative, to combine optimized physical health and wellness with the alleviation of stress to increase one essential thing: happiness. In reading, thinking, and writing about this subject, I've recognized how much I consider these skills to be of paramount importance. What is more important to the human experience than figuring out how to be happy and healthy? Compared to that goal, what could possibly matter more? There is evidence all around us that money, status, gadgets, clothes, et cetera are not the answer. These are just some of the many ways people attempt to increase their happiness, but they most commonly backfire. Here's what matters to me: physical well being, strength, and resiliency, plus a positive mental attitude, genuine warmth and a listening ear for others. All so simple, all so essential, and at times all so illusive.

In my first blog entry, I discussed the difference between achievable goals and goals that are destined to fail. I summarized that the key difference between them is intention. To succeed at something, it has to be in sync with your most honest desires, not the desires you wish you had (to never eat cake again -- it's safe to say you don't really want that). If you truly want to feel better, you will invoke your higher mind. This is the "knowing" inside you that exists beneath any of the negativity that has held you down and kept you unwell in body or mind. The Relaxation Response Resiliency program teaches lots of ways to tap into your higher mind, including awareness of the present moment through breathing and positive affirmations. I look forward to sharing more methods here as I learn about them.

Today, I am in the mental, emotional, and physical space where I've sought to be, however, I did not arrive here as I thought I would. I have realized that the higher mind doesn't plan, it simply does. The real you, the whole you, the positive you is always there when you're ready to engage with it. At first, I decided that the only way to achieve my goal of daily exercise and meditation was to regiment those activities into my schedule like a Marine. When I began to approach these activities not as tasks I must complete, but rather as activities that I want to partake in, then they more gracefully found their way into my life.

I genuinely want fresh air; I shouldn't need to force myself. I genuinely enjoy my guided meditation CDs; I don't need to wake up half an hour early to sit and listen to them. Taking the pressure off has made all the difference. As a result, I feel better and my thinking and behavior have improved. Perfect timing to learn more through the Relaxation Response Resiliency program.

Goals & Components:
  • Develop skill in a variety of techniques that elicit the relaxation response
  • Reduce medical symptoms of stress, or ailments that are exacerbated by stress
  • Understand the link between stress and physical/emotional problems
  • Learn to turn off stress through new behaviors and attitudes
  • Appreciate the role of positive thoughts and beliefs in support of mind body healing
  • Successfully incorporate mind body principles and practices, including socialization, into personal health
  • Learn the importance of healthy eating and physical activity to overall health and well-being
Anyone With the Following Would Benefit:
  • Anxiety-Related Symptoms (such as palpitations, shortness of breath)
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Skin problems
  • Pain
  • Sleep disorders
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Mild/moderate depression
  • MS
  • Fatigue
  • Asthma-related symptoms
  • Allergy-related symptoms
  • Any disorder complicated by stress

One reminder for the day: breathing is always an option. Never deny yourself a pause, a reset from the moment, a breath. From Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School article entitled Take a deep breath, "Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, this type of breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilize blood pressure." If you're interested in the power of breathing, you must read this article. It discusses such interesting things as how gender roles and body image contribute to shallow breathing, as well as the negative affects of shallow breathing, and the positive effects of deep breathing. Again, so simple, yet so essential. Are we seeing a connection between what is simple and what is essential? I am.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Cortisol, carbs, and colds, oh my!

After my vacation, my routine felt blown. I was so exhausted. I had a general feeling of inflammation throughout my body, and felt like I was getting sick.  These feelings led me to read about the hormone cortisol. It's an interesting hormone with perfectly positive functions, like selecting the right amount of either carbs, fat, or protein from what you eat to fuel what you're doing. Cortisol is also secreted in response to stress. When this happens, the body floods with glucose, and the arteries narrow, forcing your blood to pump harder and faster. In short, "You are freaking out, man."

Interestingly, cortisol is normally released during these three events:
  • waking up 
  • exercising
  • acute stress
Isn't it sort of interesting that the body puts acute stress and (potentially strenuous) exercise in the same category as waking up? I think most people agree that waking up is hard to do, so I guess this is a signal that our minds get from our bodies. We don't like it, and we struggle with it, because it's somewhat physically strenuous.

All this makes me think about chronic stress conditions, and the effect that feeling regular surges of stress has on the body over time. It turns out, constantly secreting cortisol is really bad for your health (no shocker).The whole-body process that occurs in response to stress is in itself strenuous for the body to endure and recover from. From Today's Dietitian, effects of elevated cortisol include:
  • blood sugar imbalance and diabetes
  • weight gain and obesity
  • immune system suppression
  • gastrointesinal problems
  • cardiovasular disease
  • fertility problems
  • other issues such as insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, and more
Well, I don't want any of those. The #1 piece of advice for stopping frequently elevated levels of cortisol from damaging your health is to reeeeeeee....laaaaaaax. (Go ahead, take a breath or two. They're free.) 

Ever start to feel like your thoughts are taking over? Or that you're submerged in a stressful situation, with no way out? Remember, there is another way to be. Stop the stress response before it takes you for a ride. Focus on your breathing. Feel the living energy that hums beneath your skin. Listen, instead of speaking. 

You can decrease your cortisol levels and increase your Total Body Happiness through better sleep, deeper and more mindful breathing, acupuncture, acupressure and other forms of massage, exercise, and therapy. Which of these are you doing regularly? Which ones appeal to you most? 

I've also been cutting out starch, because bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes have a high glycemic load, which is a contributor to inflammation. The goal to get most of my carbohydrates from vegetables has been leading to far less consumption of starch (not abstinence). I've been enjoying spaghetti squash as a pasta replacement and a filling ingredient to casseroles, and I'll post some recipes soon. For now, just a photo of my breakfasts lately -- this is how I've been keeping my head up in the morning:

The trifecta.
The main ingredient in my morning smoothie is Raw Meal (raw, organic, vegan, gluten free, containing probiotics, enzymes, and superfoods, protein, soluble and insoluble fiber -- there's so much in here, I can't describe it). This 2.5 lb cannister is about 1/3 of the price for the same amount of Shakeology, so bam, no contest, I'm sold.

This product tastes a little green, so I'm experimenting with what to add.  I'm using a little bit of the chocolate whey, and a little bit of the Miracle Reds, mostly for flavor. Miracle Reds also has major antioxidants, nutrients, and immune boosters. (Dave is coming down with the bad cold that everybody at his work has, and right now the right side of my nose feels stuffy, so we'll see if Miracle Reds can keep me out of the snot club. Hope hope!)

Today, I put a banana, Raw Meal, and almond milk into the Magic Bullet, and it was totally tasty. I could easily save my whey for recovery from my next hard workout. Another shocker: I've been slacking in that department too. It's getting darker earlier, and colder overnight, so maybe I'm just in a sort of transitional phase, I don't know.

My upcoming birthday's giving me lots of thoughts about what I want to do with my life and I've been spending some free time researching grad school, starting to study for the GRE, and I even published some articles on The Examiner. Here's one that relates to my birthday plan -- October camping in NH! What to Bring: The Top 5 Essentials for Fall Camping in New 

I'm so going to work out today, I'm so going to work out today, I'm so going to work out today...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Find your happy place

On Saturday, August 24th, Dave and I packed the car to the brim and started driving. With a couple stops and 6.5 hours of driving, we arrived at Elk Neck State Park in North East Maryland, just before dark -- in time to set up our tent, and go out for a date to Woody's Crab House.

At home in the trees!
At home at Woody's Crab House!
We drank ale and ate lots of fresh fish, vegetables, and potatoes. I was in heaven with the atmosphere, and the knowing that an evening campfire awaited us.  As Dave navigated the dark country roads from the restaurant back to the campground, we began to realize we'd gone the wrong way.  He skidded to a stop as we reached a dead end with a sign that said, "Danger!  Cliffs ahead!"  No matter, we survived, laughed, and found our way back soon enough. That night was so much fun.  We joked with each other by the fire, got our faces sticky with s'mores, and had fun in the tent.  Camping hack: strap your headlamp to a gallon of water for an ambient lantern.

Our campsite was near the bathhouse, which was clean and cabiny.  I woke up around 8, washed up, made a fire to heat my tea over and sit by while I read my book (Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, totally recommended).  Dave slept for a few more hours, and by the time he got up, I had gotten sleepy and decided to take a nap.  So, a restful morning preceded another long day of driving.  By 1pm, we packed up camp and got back on the road for the ride to our ultimate destination, the Outer Banks, North Carolina.

That day's driving felt more exhausting.  We had about 50 miles more highway road to cover than on the first leg, but worse, I had been so happy at the campground that the last thing I wanted to do was pack up and get right back in that car!  But we had plans to keep, and so we drove all day and into the darkness. Bluegrass and bible thumping dominated the radio as we passed through the farmlands of Virginia and North Carolina toward the Outer Banks.  Finally, we began to drive in the pitch black night over the long bridges that connect Hatteras Island to the mainland.  Past water, and sandy road spotted with deer, past beach shops and mansions, we finally came to our destination, Quinnebaug House, around 11:30pm on Sunday.

Dave's mom greeted us, as did Fuji the Shiba Inu, who woke up his owner, Dave's sister.  We were tired. After a quick tour around the house, which they had arrived at earlier in the day, we brought our bags in, unloaded our food from cooler to fridge, and went to sleep.  The next morning we could really see how lovely Quinnebaug was, with its position on the sound, 3 bedrooms, 3 baths, long boat dock with a swing at the end of it, a short walk to a general store and a long walk or short drive to the beach.  A perfect home away from home!

Right on the sound side, at the end of Hatteras, so that the surf side (beach) was only minutes away.
You can't see it, but there's a porch swing in the gazebo.  I totally fell asleep on it one afternoon; awesome.
We spent our days at the beach, driving Dave's dad's truck right up over the dunes and up to the shore. There were 6 of us (Dave's mom and Dad, Dave's sister and her friend) so Dave and I sat in the bed of the truck, bouncing over the dunes and getting the full view of the sky and terrain. Almost like being on a motorcycle; just my speed.  At the beach, we'd set up a sunshade and our chairs, and I devoured Gone Girl, sandwich lunches, and cold beer (which is legal on the beaches there... in other words, the south is way more fun).  Nobody got too burnt and there were only a few scrapes, stings, and bites among us.  We walked into the (comparably big) waves to swim, scuba, and play Frisbee.  It was an awesome end-of-summer beach-centric week after not spending much time at the beach at home.  The ocean is my happy place. What's more beautiful, or more grounding, than its vastness and power.

This was right after we saw 3 dolphins swimming right where we'd been swimming!  Magical!

Lovely Denise

Beach boys

Each afternoon, we returned to the house and made drinks in the kitchen, had some downtime for showers and naps and planning for dinner, which we mostly cooked and ate together at "home."  My favorite dinner was the first, where we caught a perfect, crimson sun setting over the sound as we sat on the screened-in porch to enjoy fresh pieces of fish, hot bread, and refreshing salads.

Spent much time in this room, as people tend to do.  Love a great kitchen!

Now since this is a blog about what I'm doing to lower my stress levels, coexist with my emotions, and increase my body's happiness, you may think this is a post about how going on vacation does just that.  But here's the twist: it threatened to be just the opposite.  Between the stress of the driving, the pressure of wanting to be a good guest and vacation companion to Dave's family, and the changes in diet, exercise, and general routine that accompany travel, my body and mind were definitely in a stressful state for much of the trip. Here are the things I did, and tried to do, to get myself through the foray away from my home and comfort zone:

  1. First and most importantly, I tried to remind myself that wherever I am, and whoever I'm with, I'm still me.  Be in your body.  Attempt to have an experience as fully as you would if you were meditating, alone.  This is mindfulness on the go.  It can counteract the feeling of being overwhelmed by your surroundings.
  2. Be as generous and helpful as possible.  As a teacher once told me, keep your side of the street clean: this refers to focusing on your own behavior, and keeping your conscience clear at all times. It made me feel good to do whatever I could do to help our entire group, be it cooking or shopping to contribute to meals, setting up, cleaning up, or just being present and open for interaction and conversation. Keep your side of the street clean and serve others as much as you are capable.  It's not always the easiest thing to do in the moment (arguably letting others serve you may be easier) but it will leave you feeling best in the end.
  3. Maintain your routine as much as possible.  I had my shakes for breakfast every morning and made sure I got the grocery items I know I need to feel best, ex. bananas.  I did take the week off from exercise, but I got lots of sun and fresh air and slept really well all week.
  4. Valerian root.  I'm so into it.
Sunday, September 1, was our last morning on Hatteras.  After packing up our cars, cleaning up the house, and writing in the guest book, we all took off on our separate journeys home.  Dave and I drove 8 hours, back through Virginia (where we stopped to buy a big piece of hog, locally grown peanuts, some funny/awesome Jim Beam drinks you can't get here, farm-stand vegetables, and fireworks) and on to Pennsylvania.  We arrived at the Appalachian RV Resort after dark and it was totally lively there, with fireworks in the sky, kids riding bikes, people in a long line waiting for ice cream, and later, a band played until midnight.  I loved this place and I want to buy an RV and have 5 kids just to go back for the full experience.  (I'm joking and not joking simultaneously.  This place rules.)

It was after 9pm, we hadn't had dinner, and we had just set up the tent and started a fire.  It was incredibly buggy and muggy, and I thought about being cranky, until I cracked open a Jim Beam and cola.  We unpacked our cast iron skillet and cut up the fresh tomato, chicken sausages, and spinach we had bought. We stuck cobs of farm-stand corn right into the fire and had a feast in the dark at the picnic table by lantern light. Afterward, we lit our sparklers next to the fire, talked about the trip, and listened until the band stopped playing, and only the crickets and other bugs buzzed.

...speaking of buzzed...
Finally, back at a campsite, I could really relax again.  In truth, the stress of trying to be on my best behavior, with regard to sharing space with, and trying to make a great impression on, Dave's family, had been a lot.  I struggle with finding a balance between being myself and being what I think of as my best self.  The pressure I put on myself and my behavior leads to tension and anxiety.  Maybe I need to let go more, in lots of ways, and I think that's why I love camping so much.  The more in tune I feel with my surroundings, the less I tend to get trapped in the stressful environment of my own head, and in the interpersonal dynamics I have with others.
We had a really beautiful campsite to end the trip!
Back in the car for one final day of driving.  It was the first time that it rained on us in 10 days.  We had just enough time to pack up the campsite before it began to pour.  I navigated through highways, happy to be headed home, happy that all the bugs we had killed with the front end of the Honda were getting washed away!  I'm so thankful to Dave's family for not only sharing their vacation with me, but for giving me an opportunity to stretch outside my comfort zone and practice my Total Body Happiness skills.  I give myself an A for effort and a 7 out of 10 for Total Body Happiness maintenance.  ;)  I had a whole lot of stomachaches.  :(  I managed them as best as I could, and hopefully, remembering all the successes I had on this trip will give me even more confidence for the next foray out of my comfort zone.

Your happy place always surrounds you, once you realize that your body is your home.  <3

Don't worry, be happy!  and/or goofy.
Have you stretched yourself to do something new and challenging lately?  How did it go?  I'd love to hear about your travel experiences, challenges, and successes!

p.s.  30 days 'til my 30th!  Started Beta phase of T25!  Will post more on Beta soon.  :)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Let the sun shine in

This morning, I read an open letter from a old friend to her business partner, documenting the wild and awesome adventure that the past year of their lives has been.  Here is some of what she wrote:

"A year ago, I opened up [Roost House of Juice, in Portland, Maine], the city I love, with someone who has now become one of my best friends and part of my family.  This last year has been wild.  And I am proud to say that [we] have stayed committed to this path of sacred commerce, using business as a path of (and to) awakening.  I have awakened in so many real human ways.  I have learned so much about honoring the flow of life.  I have learned that open, honest, loving communication is one of the most precious, divine, radical, and transformative things in this world, and bringing yourself into relationships and showing up as you are is of utmost importance AND it is so unbelievably awesome to be around people that not only accept all of you as you are but so thoroughly encourage you to be all that you are.  We all learn these lessons in different places, on our different paths, and all we can do is do the best we can and hold space for it all.  I am Grateful for being willing to take a risk, to dive deeply, to be okay when things don't work out and to be present for when things do.  There really is no destination in this life... Just really be in it fully, genuinely, deliberately, and who knows what will happen..."

I could not have thought or said this better than she did!

After reading (and "liking") this inspiring post, my first thought was "how cool, she's so smart and brave." Next I thought, "I want to move to Maine and open a store! become a yoga instructor! eat only organic!" So why do some people live the lives we think we want? Why don't we all live the lives that we think we want?

As I said in my first post, I believe the lives we lead are in every way a reflection of what's in our hearts.  All you need to do is observe your life in order to see a visualization of what you've prioritized, up to this moment.  Each choice we make is a demonstration -- actual proof of what's in our hearts. What kinds of things have you prioritized in your life, and what is the result of those choices?

For one, I am grateful that when I scroll through my Facebook news feed, I am still acquainted with people like Jeanette, who I haven't physically shared a social circle with in many years.  I know I have prioritized maintaining connections with good friends, and some level of contact with amazing acquaintances. As I continue to scroll my feed, I see other yogis, fitness enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, nature lovers, animal lovers, music lovers, and all kinds of others -- many posting inspiring or interesting things they've written, done, or photographed, or re-posting inspiring or interesting things they've read or seen. When I stop to think about it, I am fiercely grateful to be connected to so many amazing people. (I am also fiercely grateful that I've remembered to stop, and be grateful.)

In my life, I guess I have prioritized a sense of security. I've calculated risk and kept it minimal. I followed the path of my college major into a solid career that I've been at for the past seven years. At 25, I bought my first piece of property -- my fifth anniversary of living here is in two weeks. When I compare my life to some of the adventures other people are on, I worry, is my path too straight? Why have I prioritized this kind of stability over more creativity, when I have so many, oh, many! creative dreams and desires? What kind of life am I creating?

I guess my goal has always been to strike a balance. (I took my Libra sign of the level scales to heart.) I'm trying to do what I love and find a way to make it pay, as I always felt The Goal to be. Growing up, I saw that poverty can be devastating -- a serious challenge to Total Body Happiness in so many ways (including increased stress and improper nutrition). I also witnessed the effects of truly poor choices on your life and the lives of those you love: drug addiction, crime... I guess all that scared my personality right into playing it straight. So, too, I'm sure, is everyone upon whose paths I admire attempting to do what they want to do and find a way to eat. You do what you know based on your experience; you follow your strengths and go where they lead you. Given that this is my personality and I am who I am, I can't honestly say that I would be happier living any other way. Your life is as it is for a reason.

As Jeanette says, "We all learn these lessons in different places, on our different paths, and all we can do is do the best we can and hold space for it all." AND, "showing up as you are is of utmost importance."  So my advice to self today is, appreciate others as fully as you possibly can.  Appreciate them until it makes your nose sting and your eyes well up with tears -- love them so hard that it makes you cry. Be so proud to know them that your ribs expand and you feel like your heart is going to burst out of your chest. Then, take a breath, and return to your present moment. You have appreciation for others, and that is beautiful.  And your path is beautiful too, because it is uniquely you. To be genuine, and to experience the present without criticism -- that's the real path. You can be on it, or off it, no matter what you do from 9 to 5 (or 7 to 11, 3 to 12, no matter what you do)!

Often it's much more difficult to see the mystical beauty and genuine goodness in ourselves and in our own lives, but you're doing something right if you can appreciate it in others. You're doing something right if there are others around you to appreciate. If you feel bored, if you feel boring, if you feel lonely or lost, just look for that light in everything and everyone you see around you. Know that you are a piece of the source of all of that, and your light will shine just as brightly as anyone who you admire if you choose to continually cast off darkness, despair, and doubt, and just let the sunshine in.

Open your heart: in comes the light. Keep it open: the light returns to others. 
Namaste, Jeanette!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Live the life you want to have lived!

The life you're living equals the life you will have lived... so you better attempt to live it with intention.

The past 2 weeks have shown me how important it is to maintain a big-picture view of life, in relation to goals. There are so many opportunities that can present themselves, and whether you accept or reject the challenge shapes not only the kind of life you live, but the kind of legacy you'll leave behind.  

My great-aunt died this past weekend.  I think of my memories with her in the mornings of my early childhood.  We'd come down from our 3rd floor apartment above the family's 1st floor heating oil office in Roxbury, Massachusetts.  She would be on the phones and doing the billing on a typewriter and I would come and sit on her desk, age 2, 3, 4... She said she could often hear me coming because I'd sing all the way down the stairs. (As a singer, I found it especially sweet of her to relate this anecdote to me.)  The sun'll come out, tomorrow, still a favorite song.

Later, when we didn't live above the oil office anymore, my grandfather still picked me up after school one day a week. We'd get a snack at the Ho Jo off the highway, and then go back to the office, where I was always glad to see Auntie, and Auntie always seemed glad to see me!  Maya Angelou says that children's opinion of themselves is shaped by the look you have on your face when you greet them.  Auntie always had a warm, welcoming face, and gave big hugs into her ample bosom! Throughout her life, she really was a gentle woman (so, the singing of that hymn made us all cry in church).  She was also tough when she needed to be, like in the office, standing up to a bunch of grouchy men stained with oil.  Auntie was caring, kind, and a sweetheart.  Her life touched many lives.  She will be missed by my whole family.

At her funeral mass, I learned that for as long as she was physically able, she cooked for other people in her apartment building who were not able, creating her own little meals-on-wheels program.  That struck me, because toward the end of her life, she had unbelievable swelling in her legs and had a very hard time getting around.  I know there must have been a time when she pushed through the pain in order to do what she loved: cooking, and helping her friends and neighbors through her cooking-kindness.  As the priest said, "this is the way that she imitated Christ."

Thoughts about mortality in the wake of a death...  
Who you are today will be who you are tomorrow, and so on and so on, until your last day of life.  No metamorphosis will turn you into some old person version of yourself.  Day after day, you will continue to look out at the world through your eyes (which will have seen many decades go by if you're lucky). This concept brings up a lot of thoughts and emotions for me.  In relation to Total Body Happiness, it reinforces these main objectives.

It is important to:
  • Be happy.  Your happiness radiates unto those around you, and this is no small thing.  You have the power to positively impact the lives of those around you, either lessening or increasing their burden and stress. Who do you want to be?  What affect do you have on others?
  • Be healthy.  Just as you don't suddenly turn into "an old person" one day in your mental and emotional outlook, so too does your body age gradually, day by day.  You have the power to maintain your core strength and go into each year of your life with as much vitality as possible.  This will affect how you age over time.  I look at my aunt, who suffered immobility in her later years.  She was a big lady for a lot of her life (although she still lived to be 86!).  Keeping the body strong and agile today impacts tomorrow and tomorrow.  Do squats while you can.  Someday, your years of squats will help you get in and out of a chair.
  • Share your life with other people.  On a path to self improvement, it can seem easier to be more solitary than social.  From a mental health perspective, it's more difficult to multiply other people's issues and agendas to your own. From a physical health perspective, social activities can also present challenges: "I can't go out tonight because I have to do my workout," or, "Beer and pub food aren't on my diet."  Nurturing and expanding your relationships with others can require active cultivation of your psychological and emotional flexibility.  It's a challenge, it requires practice, and it's worth doing because in the end, all we really have are the lives we've touched and the impact we've had on the people and the world around us.  As for the beer and pub food, that's where it's important to strike a balance, and set your goals high.  If you're on point with your exercise and nutrition on the large majority of days, you'll have plenty of room for french fries with friends occasionally.
Between work, family, and all things life, I've had some ups and downs with my completing daily goals in the past week and a half.  I'm repeating week 4 on my workout calendar.  As my mom reminded me yesterday, just having a goal means you're still doing better than you would be if you didn't.  There have been times when I had no goal, and months upon months have passed without a real workout.  When I aim to nail a workout every day, I tend to at least go for a walk on days that I don't work out, or I fit in some other kind of exercise.  Last week, my boyfriend and I took 2 ballroom dancing lessons, and that was pretty awesome.  

I've also noticed that life really does not get in the way as much when I achieve my goal to get up early and work out in the morning.  The only obstacle I face in the morning is getting out of bed early enough, which is undeniably hard for me, especially if I've had less than 8 hours sleep. But lots of things can arise in the course of a day to prevent me from being able to work out after work.  So, I still see become a morning person as a totally worthy goal toward my total body happiness.  It's not always convenient or comfortable, but I believe it will improve my life, so I'm going to keep trying.

See the big picture.  Extend some patience, forgiveness, and kindness to yourself and those around you.  Don't let any slip-ups lead you to believe that your goal is no longer worthy or possible. It's never too late. Just keep trying. 

Can I become a morning person by my 30th?  Less than 2 months to go!  The challenge is on.  :)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

"God damn it, you've got to be kind."

Being kind isn't always easy, for lots of reasons.  Two main reasons (revenge-seeking behavior, and attention-seeking behavior) seem to be the most common kindness-obstacles that I face.  I don't necessarily have the answers, but I have thought of some questions.  These are the things I'm asking myself when these situations arise.

Someone has been unkind to you: Maybe a stranger has rudely cut you off in traffic, or worse -- stolen from you, or victimized you or a loved one in some other way. Maybe a family member or friend disregarded you, or made you feel insulted or unloved.  When someone is unkind to you, why should you feel or show any kindness to them?

I love the quote that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other guy to die.  Whose mind do all these hateful and negative preoccupations live in?  Yours, and only yours.  Awareness (aka the mind) is like a huge empty field: you can hold whatever you want in there!  Do you really want to fill up your awareness with anger, negativity, and unkind thoughts? These thoughts raise your stress level, thereby lowering your Total Body Happiness.  Instead, here's a game plan for what to do when someone is unkind to you:
  1. Evaluate the perceived unkindness.  On your journey to mindfulness, learn to be aware of what you're doing, and the consequences that your actions have on others. You also must realize that others might not be as aware of themselves as you're learning to be. Was their hurtful action intentional? Was it intended to harm you personally? People say and do a lot of things without "thinking." Try not to be insulted when someone doesn't instinctively realize they've hurt you.  Only certain very gifted people can read minds. :)
  2. To vent or not to vent?  That is the question.  Yelling profanity out the window may yield little benefit, and could put you in a dangerous situation.  Singing out a string of swears in your car, on the other hand, might release some of the tension you feel and make you laugh.  Try, "I will fart on your mother, you scum-sucking snake!" (When you're venting, steer clear of racial slurs; those are seeds of violence and hate -- plus why be cliche when you could be original?) Then, move on -- and that is key.  Remember, mindfulness is about staying in the present moment without judgement. See things for what they are: if you're alive, you're okay.  Redirect your attention to something calming and appreciate what there is to appreciate: a good song on the radio, the sunset beyond your windshield, the fact that you are taking lots of lovely breaths without even having to think about it.
  3. Evaluate the benefit of voicing your feelings to a family member or friend.  Sometimes it's worthwhile to talk to the person about how their actions made you feel; other times it's not.  If you think talking about it will produce understanding between you and the other person, and prevent the situation from happening again so frequently, then tell them how you feel in a non-accusatory way. We have to establish our boundaries with other people: it's possible the person does not know when they've crossed the line with you, emotionally, because everyone's different.  However, if this person continually crosses the line, and projects negative emotions compulsively, it's a good bet that they won't completely change as a result of your feedback.  In that case, you may want to save your breath.  
  4. Keep an open heart.  Keeping an open heart doesn't mean making yourself a doormat, ready to be stepped on and sullied with the dirt of everyone who would choose to wipe their feet on you.  It means not carrying around anger.  When your heart is open, emotions flow in and out of it, just as breath flows in and out of your body. Try to find compassion for the person who has wronged you. "She is criticizing me because she thinks I can take it.  She perceives me as strong, and perhaps she feels weak.  Perhaps she is trying to increase her strength by diminishing mine. It must be exhausting and hellish for her to feel that way."  There are a wide variety of things that could be going on in someone else's experience that would cause them to be negative toward you. The second you even start to attempt to find compassion for them, you'll notice that you feel less anger.  But once you've put yourself in their shoes, you don't have to stay there.  People have all kinds of problems: some of them will never be fixed, and even fewer of them will be fixed by you.  If you're dealing with someone who consistently treats you with unkindness, pray for their happiness -- from afar if you have to.  Cultivate your own happiness, whatever it takes.  
Is it boring to be kind?  We live in a culture of tabloid rumors and extreme closeups.  Societally speaking, people seem eager to discuss everybody else's flaws and shortcomings.  You don't have to buy tabloid magazines or watch TMZ to be part of that.  Most of us have friends who like to pick other people apart, for comedic sport.  Some of us even take part in this ourselves.
  • What do you do when you're in a social situation where the tone of conversation among others is consistently negative or derogatory?  Personally, I find that incredibly boring and unpleasant, but lots of people seem to find it funny. The bottom line is, people who put other people down are unhealthy to be around.  You will find yourself repeating their behavior to participate in the conversation. Your mind might even begin to look for other people's flaws as compulsively as your friends do.  This is not a worthy use of your time or attention.  Focus on the positive. Should you try to defend everyone that your friends verbally attack behind others' backs, and attempt to squelch their negativity with kindness? You can try, and I wish you luck! People who exhibit compulsively negative behavior are often not open and receptive to changing, just because you point out the good in what, or who, they're criticizing. Sometimes it's best to walk away.  Consider the steps: 
    • Is the person even aware of the implications of their actions? 
    • What is really behind their negativity? 
    • Will telling them how you feel improve the situation?  
    • If this is the way they often behave, do you need to distance yourself from this person? 
  • What do you do if you notice that you are constantly criticizing others?  Ask yourself the same questions.  Consider how what you say affects other people.  Remember that other people are just as complex, important, and worthy of understanding as you are.  If it's just a bad habit you need to break, then educate yourself to find better things to talk about. There are plenty of critical, interesting conversations to be had.  If you can't think of any, consider broadening your horizons by learning something new, reading more, listening to news radio, and/or taking your head out of your ass and observing the world around you. If you feel consistently irritated by something someone says or does, remember that it's not always your responsibility to tell them what you think.  Try to figure out if there's a deeper cause of your irritation. Relationships are difficult, but they become easier when you take responsibility for yourself instead of dumping all your feelings onto others.  You have a responsibility to behave as kindly as possible, and if you find that impossible, then you have a responsibility to accept that chronic negativity and putting down others is a problem that you need to solve, for the benefit of yourself and those around you.  
Kindness is like mindfulness: you don't just arrive at it one day and stay there. You have to consistently cultivate kindness for it to stay alive. Every time you are challenged with the temptation to be unkind, whether it's motivated by the company you keep or feelings from inside you, you have an opportunity to stop, breathe, and choose your behavior.

Treating other people negatively will never benefit you.  People who laugh at your jokes about other people, or who feign interest at the negative things you have to say about others, will keep you at a distance because they know that no one is exempt from your criticism. Decide what kind of person you want to be and consistently keep that inspiration as your primary focus.  It's not always easy, but it's always worthwhile.

My goal is to be consistently kind.  I hope that will increase my happiness, as well as the kindness and happiness of those around me... and if it doesn't, my heart will remain open to you -- from afar!

One last point: as in Vonnegut's quote (pictured above) don't take yourself too seriously, and keep your sense of humor intact as often as humanly possible.  I am learning to let more things go, and the result is that I find myself being offended much less.  Almost everyone is doing the best they can, and most people are not trying to hurt you.  Cut others a little slack, and if they really don't deserve any, try killing them with kindness.

I'd love to hear your thoughts! Have you ever known someone who is compulsively negative? What challenges do you face when it comes to being kind? Are you part of a community of kind and caring people?  

Thursday, August 1, 2013

With awareness and discipline, anything is possible.

There is a moment of choice in the midst of every bad decision.  Before we hit that extra Snooze that really makes us late; before we eat or drink something we had planned to avoid; before we say something we don't mean; before we gamble away our last $50; there is always an opportunity to stop and redirect the behavior.  What differentiates the times when we are able to resist temptation, from the times that we choose not to, or the times that we don't even stop to think about our options?

My answer is blindness: the opposite of awareness.  Other words for this could be unconsciousness, indifference, or detachment. If awareness is continuously awakening to the present moment, then blindness is being led into darkness by temptation, as if self-awareness doesn't even exist in that moment. The Snooze button drives us.  The cookies drive us.  The excitement, or the rush, or the distraction drives us, and we forget ourselves and our enormous capacity to control our behavior if we choose to take the reins.  

In Buddhism, the demon Mara tried to distract the Buddha with temptation in order to bring him away from his quest to become enlightened.  Mara represents temptation toward all kinds of alluring things that provide instant gratification, which a disciplined spiritual life doesn't necessarily offer.  The Buddha was able to resist Mara's temptation.  He touched his hand to the Earth (symbolizing connection) beneath the Bodhi tree where he sat (symbolizing wisdom, growth, beauty), and that is said to be the moment when he first became enlightened.  

The Buddha beneath the Bodhi tree, resisting Mara, the demon of temptation.
Remaining in a state of awareness requires continuous effort.  You don't just arrive at it one day and remain there.  Some days you feel connected; other days you feel lost, and sometimes you feel connected in the morning and lost by the afternoon.  You have to laugh at how difficult something so seemingly simple can be. It takes continuous effort to remain mindful of the present moment.  It also takes continuous effort to remain mindful of a greater goal.

I've been thinking a lot about how those two aspects of being alive intersect with one another: the present, and remaining in it, alongside having a greater goal.  Here's what I know: No goal that's not in line with who you essentially are and what you essentially want will be successful.  The word "essentially" is key here. Who you are may always be changing slightly but essentially, you are always the same person.  Create a goal that's like that: big enough to accommodate your ever-changing self.  Goals like health, balance, and calm will always be compatible with the best version of yourself at any given moment.

If you have carefully considered your goal and determined it to be a truly worthy one, perhaps this is where self-discipline comes into the picture.  Learning to train the mind, and the self, is not easy.  If it were easy, everyone would be walking around totally self-actualized, living fully to their own personal potential.  Instead, most people have something, or many things, that they're capable of doing better in their lives, but they lack the necessary discipline.  Perhaps they haven't created a plan to get themselves away from negative behavior,  toward a determined goal, or if they have, perhaps they haven't stuck to it.  Or, maybe there was a flaw in their plan for self-improvement, and instead of revising it, they've just given up altogether -- perhaps time and time again.  Whether or not you can stick to a plan when it's not fun anymore, or when it's not exciting and easy, must be all about 1) whether your goal is worthy of the effort, and 2) whether you're disciplined enough to do the work and see it through.

I'm at at a crossroads.  In one direction, I see a path that stretches far into the future.  Maybe I've mastered this mindfulness thing so well that I'm mindfulness trainer.  I have overcome my anxiety, chronic stomach problems, and bouts of irritability and depressive mood.  In other words, I have seen the full realization of my goal.  Here's what it looks like, practically speaking, in relation to the Total Body Happiness guidelines I've created:
  • Waking up early becomes natural to my body.  I feel ready to get out of bed at 6:30.
  • Exercising in the morning becomes natural to my body.  I wonder how I ever lived without it.
  • Meditating daily becomes natural to my body and mind. I benefit from connecting to my body, my surroundings, and the source of all awareness, and I've found a regular time that works for me so that it's more natural than forceful.
As a result of this routine, I benefit from:
  • better connection to the natural circadian rhythm
  • more exposure to sunlight, instead of sleeping through it with the drapes closed
  • more hours, and more spaciousness of time, within my waking day
  • faster metabolism as a result of eating and exercising in the morning
  • routine, and the stress reduction and improved physical well-being that comes with it
It's Thursday, and I've only sat for formal meditation two mornings this week.  I've exercised in the morning once, although I've still worked out every day as scheduled.  If I continue to release the grasp I have on my goal, by losing sight of the reasons why I want to wake up early and the benefits I anticipate having from it, then this experiment will fall into the ranks of other failed experiments.  I will have given into temptation, because discipline is more difficult than instant gratification.  (In my case, Snooze, Snooze, Snooze).  I will fail to grow and improve as a result of overcoming the morning-discipline challenge toward Total Body Happiness.  

I need to redirect myself.  Do you?  Here's how:  

Be gentle.  Be as kind and compassionate to yourself as you possibly can, as you would be to someone else: your mother, your brother, your friend, a total stranger, a beloved pet.  It really is okay.  Give yourself credit for the things you've done right:
  • I've nailed every workout this week.
  • I haven't had any panic attacks, and if I've had the faintest inkling of anxiety, I've quickly reminded myself that panicking is a choice that I don't have to make, and I've snapped out of it and back into awareness.
  • No stomach pain or lingering headaches.
  • I've been practicing informal mindfulness "minis," such as breathing exercises, throughout each day even though I haven't sat for formal meditation as much as I've planned to.
  • I've identified that I've started to lack discipline, and I'm taking action to regain it.
Identify the reasons why your goal is becoming more difficult to achieve, and be honest!
  • I haven't been going to bed early enough.  
  • I've been hitting Snooze mindlessly for an hour because I'm tired, instead of summoning the awareness inside of me that knows I will feel less sleepy once I'm up and about.
  • I've told myself, "I've been feeling much better lately," as if I'm cured.  I shouldn't tell myself, "I feel better, so I don't have to do this anymore."  That really makes no sense. Feeling better should tell me that my experiment is working, so I would benefit from keeping at it.  I should say, "I feel better, so I will keep doing this."
With mindfulness, you always get a clean slate.  There is no need for guilt nor punishment.  You haven't failed, you've just learned something new about the challenge.  (I'm SO giving myself a pep-talk right now.) New breath = brand new opportunity.

I believe that waking up early and establishing a positive morning routine is possible for me.  Anything is possible.

I look forward to my cardio workout this afternoon, getting to sleep on time tonight, and an early morning wake-up tomorrow.  :)