The View

Remember this?

For most of us, this common optical illusion was our first lesson in shifting viewpoint. Did you see a vase, or did you see two profiles? Lots of fun in elementary school–or intro psych class–to try to see both, and explore which friends saw things the way that you did.

I’ve been enjoying this series over at LiveScience called “What The Heck Is This?” It’s good brain-stretching to view their photos, playing the same little guessing game. I particularly like this recent one:

Simple: clouds, right? As to not steal any thunder from LiveScience, you’ll have to click over to their site to get the answer.

Here’s another one:

Others in our world are often the best source of valuable perspective, and this fountain reminds me of that lesson learned from my two year old, years ago. In my best mom-teaching voice, I called out to my daughter in her car seat to “look at the pretty fountain, with the water shooting up!” To which she replied, rather disdainfully, “and falling down again.” I simply hadn’t focused on both aspects. Silly me, in her eyes.

I’m reading a book called Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill

Imagine you are in a small boat in the midst of this:

Your experience? Likely to be tossed around, sick to your stomach, maybe even crash and hurt yourself?

But what happens if you back off?

Kind of pretty, I think. Certainly not threatening. Incredible shift in perspective.

Next time an emotional storm threatens to sweep you crashing into the rocks, remove yourself from it. Tap your fingers. Breathe deeply. Count to ten. Drink a glass of water. Meditate. Take a walk. Talk to a friend. Write. Pound up and down the steps. And find yourself rising above it, able to react in a much less damaging way.

Want to develop the skill to shift your perspective? Join me and a host of like-minded souls in my upcoming meditation training.

The situation on breathing

It’s summer time, season of swimsuits and abs classes. As I was teaching yoga to five people in one room, the abs class next door was a sardine can of men and women, crunching away in pursuit of the elusive six pack. Even now, in the best physical shape of my life, the closest I’m going to get to a six pack is the supermarket beverage aisle. When I was in high school, seems that all the popular people–cheerleaders, athletes–had the taut bellies, firmly establishing the connection that powerful abs were something to seek.

In recent years, the imperative seems to have softened somewhat, at least if the flabby midsections of celebrities showing up on “tell-all” magazine covers in that same supermarket check out line are any clue. Still, we suck in our guts, ever mindful of tightening those muscles to look good. And why is this a problem?

When you’re ever-focused on flat abs, it’s quite likely you never breathe really deeply. We pull in those muscles, concerned about appearance, or toning, or trying to emulate ‘the situation.’ The air doesn’t really fill our lungs completely. With each breath of a healthy breath, we inhale 7 pints of oxygen. With an appearance conscious–or anxious–breath, we inhale only one pint. Not only are we depriving our brains and other organs of the life force of oxygen, when we breath only from the chest, rather than the belly, we are reinforcing the habit. Breathing from the chest restricts the muscles of the shoulders and neck, causing constant tension and constriction in those muscles. In turn, there’s a ripple effect for your abs–which weaken from lack of use in that most basic skill, breathing.

Who says sucking it in is the way to rock hard abs? Reverse this catch-22. Be mindful of bringing all 7 pints of healthy oxygen into your system. You’ll improve brain function and metabolize stress hormones. Breathe in deeply through your nose, filling your lungs and allowing your belly to rise. Then exhale deeply through your nose, pushing your shoulders back and down as you pull your belly button to your spine. It’s easier to restore this healthy habit of breathing if you practice it routinely: two minutes each hour, ten minutes each evening, at each stop light, as you are on hold with that help desk.

As we like to say in yoga practice, you always have your breath. It’s a great built-in tool–use it.

Standards to bear–or not?

Last week, I wrote about the common human misperception that everyone around us shares our world view. When we believe that others think like we do, we stumble into dangerous territory, full of land mines of expectation.

You may recognize this thinking glitch in your own life. We expect others to hold themselves to the same standards that we enforce for our own behavior. “That idiot driver–he should use his turn signal.” “My mother should want the best for me–not be competitive and threatened.” “My friend should say thank you.” “My partner should put some thought into what would make me happy.” “The kids’ dad should play with them when he has them, not park them in front of a movie.” Who says?

Yes, in an ideal world, we would surround ourselves with people who acted just as we strive to act. What happens when reality hits, and many we encounter simply don’t behave in the way we would? It’s a certain recipe for frustration and anger.

In this situation, it’s helpful to take a deep breath and release that expectation. The standards are in your head. The target of your frustration can’t hear–or maybe does not adhere to–those rules in your head. Short of learning Jedi skills to instill the desired thoughts in that person’s head, you really have little control over them. But you do have control over your thoughts–that the party in question “should” (fill in the blank.) That’s all you can control–your expectation of others.

To release that expectation, try saying “huh–imagine thinking that way.” No time to judge; that judgement only fuels your anger. The situation just is. What other people expect of themselves is none of our business. Expect others to be who they are, to act according to the rules in their own heads. That’s what they’re going to do anyway. When you switch your own thinking, you can then either a) ask them to do it differently, in a very direct manner or b) realize that there can be any number of acceptable approaches to the problem at hand.

Control what you can: the thoughts in your head. Let go of the rest. That’s truly the full scope of your influence, after all.

But if you locate a Jedi mind training course, let me know. I’ll be right in line, signing up with you.

Who’s in my head?

Never ceases to surprise me when a client says some version of “last week you said X, and I can’t tell you how much that helped me. As a result, I’ve made shift Y in my thinking/behavior. I feel completely transformed.”

As I try to control any visible chin-drop-mouth-hanging-open expression, I conduct a search of my memory, to retrieve what I thought I said. Too often, I recall nothing. I remember what the client said–just can’t pull up my own words, the nuggets that my client has so eloquently restated and imbued with wise meaning. Maybe I really do deserve the credit. But I think it’s much more likely that my words clicked for the client, activating some inner wisdom based on his/her own experience.

The process of therapy, just like life, is not the same for me as it is for my clients. The way our brains work leads us to believe that everyone around us is experiencing the world in the same way. Think back to the ancient (okay, 1960s) kid game “telephone.” Sitting cross-legged on the floor, the first child whispers a phrase in the ear of the second child, perhaps “dogs don’t bite.” By the time the words have worked their way around the circle, retold through progressive whispers, the phrase has been transformed into “frogs don’t fight” (though often much more hilarious than that meager effort on my part to recreate the process.)

Who is in my head? Only my unique collection of world view, lessons, and beliefs that color my perceptions. I was comparing notes with a friend about our shared yoga class and the passage of time. She related how it drags on and on, with constant clock-watching and exasperated repetition in her head of “aren’t we done yet?” My experience, on the other hand, engaged in one of my favorite activities of the week, is “wow, an hour gone already?”

It’s often a matter of selective attention. We tune into what fits with our internal framework, or the instructions we have, whether from the brain or externally, as illustrated in this fun video:

Consider this with wonder. While we are all connected and share numerous experiences, each moment is processed through the filters of meaning in our heads. There’s no one in my head but me.

Remembering this allows me to extend greater patience and grace with others, rather than frustration over a pile of “shoulds.” Next week, I’ll say more about avoiding the pain and anger of that particular pile of expectations.

Kindness exercises

As an addendum to the last post on being kinder to ourselves, here are two exercises to implement the goal of increased self-kindness.

1) Loving-kindness meditation is a classic strategy to open the heart and increase positive feelings toward self. While seemingly simple, this exercise can be incredibly powerful in releasing pent-up negativity toward self, allowing the love in your heart to rush in for YOU. And you only need three minutes.

Settle into a quiet, comfortable spot and close your eyes. Begin to focus on your breath, simply noticing the in and out process. Feel your lungs expand, feel your chest and abdomen rise and fall, notice the air moving past your nostrils. Once you feel the rhythm of your breath, repeat to yourself for several minutes:

May I be safe. May I be happy. May I feel love. May I live with ease.

On Thursday, when I posted the most recent post, I was upset about a decision I’d made, chastising myself for trusting someone else to do a job that I could’ve done. The perfectionist in me was running rampant with insults after the job was NOT done to my satisfaction: “How could you have been so stupid? You could’ve saved the money and done it yourself!” Suddenly, I remembered what I’d just posted about being kind to myself. I still seemed unable to turn it off. I closed my eyes, repeated the above phrases ten times, and was able to let the event go.

2) I’ve addressed bragging before, and how nice girls DON’T. So I thoroughly enjoyed this post over at Inviting Joy last week. Seems like a wonderful way to be nice to yourself, so take a few minutes to compose your own highlight reel today. This week, mine includes that ability to switch gears from perfection-driven harpy to calm self that I refer to above.

Upon being a good citizen

The big fat “should” parading through my office and my life lately is that “I should be an informed citizen”–and that implies keeping up on the latest world/national events as a key component of good citizenship.

Who says?

Now, caveat emptor, what I’m about to write might sound like one big rationalization coming from me. Oh well. I’m the one that burst out laughing years ago when my spouse was talking about a coworker being shipped off to Kazakhstan on business. My husband is a teasing sort, enjoys making up new words, and I was certain this was a country in that vein. Kazakhstan? Really? I swore he was making it up; he swore it was a real place. I’m also the one that found out about Bin Laden’s capture/death from the tile guy, the next morning. I’m clearly not Ms. Carrie Current Events. Guilty as charged.

But I’m also a fairly sensitive person. Pain imbues much of life sitting in my office each day. I began my career working with emotionally, physically, and sexually-abused children. And I had to make a conscious decision, again years ago, that the news–especially with video involved–was too much on top of all that my work required me to encounter. Ditto for television shows, films, and books that are packed with harm and pain. NOT entertainment, and too much a toll on my emotional equilibrium.

Therefore, I avoid most of the news. I educate myself about issues that I can affect, by voting or writing letters, following through to control what I can within the political process. But aside from practicing loving-kindness meditation for the world’s people and donating to charities which support my philosophy as they do good in the world, what influence do I have? I really don’t think reminding myself about terrorism or natural disasters contributes to my value as a person.

If you’re also a sensitive type, as many are, and this element of our lives, with the 24 hour news cycle that cable TV and the internet have wrought, stresses you, cut yourself some slack. Find another way to contribute to your world and turn off (or tune out) awareness of the violence out there. With no shame.

And if you need fodder for conversation at the next party or even the evening dinner table, check out Good News Daily or, my favorite source of the week’s news, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me on NPR.

On gratitude and great weather

We hear much about expressing gratitude these days. Everyone from Oprah to Deepak Chopra to research psychologists asserts that taking time to acknowledge, to yourself and to others, the many assets in your life significantly enriches your life. Taking in the good, and thanking others, simply makes us happier, individually and in relationships.

This is always in the back of my mind, and while I may recommend that clients keep a gratitude journal, I simply never have started one myself. Over the last few days, however, there is something about our incredibly fabulous weather here in Dallas that makes me simply brim with appreciation for my life. Maybe there’s some research out there that says cool, windows-open sleeping weather and perfect, sunny days in the low 70s, all against a backdrop of incredibly blue skies and green, lush, blooming trees and grass, contributes to emotional well-being. My personal research project this week, when I’ve spent every available moment either on my back porch, gardening, or parked on a cafe patio, has led to the conclusion that relishing these perfect conditions definitely improves my life satisfaction.

Research states that gratitude works best when it’s a mindset, not a blip on the screen of your life. And this lovely weather and verdant surroundings are a good foundation for my gratitude mindset.

Before it heats up for summer, grab a notebook, get outside for a few minutes, and list what you are grateful for in your life. I’m thankful for my incredible back yard, friends and loved ones to share it, and this great weather, while it lasts. Every day below 80 degrees feels like a gift. What’s on your gratitude list?

Ann’s backyard

Do nothing–like me this week.

The benefits of doing nothing are priceless, given our rapid pace of do, do, do. Most of our daily tasks are repetitive and mind-numbing. Like laundry or dishes, these constitute an endless list in life, needing done again as soon as you finish. Our bodies are so used to this perpetual hamster wheel that the “flight or fight” response stays constantly revved up, leading to sleep problems, stress-related illnesses, anxiety and panic, to name a few. Lately, I’ve been lauding the health benefits of meditation, and this week I am lucky to develop my skills at the Chopra Center Seduction of Spirit Retreat. I’m sure that “doing nothing” will be hard work.

funny pictures - Doing  nothing  is  very  hard  work. You  never  know  when  you're  finished.
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Practice a bit of down time of your own this week. Even three minutes daily to stop and breathe is beneficial. In the words of the Tao-Te Ching, verse 48:

In doing nothing there is nothing left undone.

How often do we get to claim that? I’ll bring you a full report soon.

The Zombie epidemic

You know the experience of mindlessness: you arrive at your destination, with a sudden flash that you simply don’t recall the drive. Or you walk into a room in your home and come up blank on your purpose. Or my personal Achilles’ heel: you are cooking dinner and suddenly realize you’ve polished off half a box of crackers. Multi-tasking, that supposed skill essential to accomplish ALL, feeds right in to mindlessness.

The autopilot mindset that is mindlessness is rampant. Cultural forces (from ever-present technology that fosters work addiction to sleep deprivation) threaten to suck out our brains like so many zombies. You know this is true when the comic strip Doonesbury devotes a whole week to the topic, as it did January 31 through February 4. (Enjoy it by clicking here.)

Why is this a problem? Extra calories and pounds, accident potential, and the frustration of standing in a room wondering what you were going to do next aside, so what? Why not drift through life, oblivious?

The opposite of mindlessness is mindfulness. Mindfulness connotes awareness, attention, and remembering. Implicit in healthy mindfulness is an attitude of acceptance and lack of judgment. It is popularly talked about as ‘being in the now’ or ‘living in the moment.’ Mindfulness directly translates into what Oprah calls “living your best life” or Gretchen Rubin, in The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, calls “living the right life.”

Mindfulness enables us to:

  • see and accept what is
  • be less self-obsessed
  • experience the richness of life in each moment
  • act more purposely to get what we want
  • smooth interactions with others

Mindfulness makes us less likely to drift through life at the whim of random forces. With mindfulness, we can fully live our lives, the master rather than the servant; the driver, not the driven.

Mindfulness, while seemingly not innate given cultural pressures, isn’t hard. It doesn’t take much time–but it does take practice to develop the skill. In the words of John Teasdale, founder of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: “mindfulness isn’t difficult. What’s difficult is to remember to be mindful.” Your grandmother was talking about mindfulness when she said “stop and smell the roses.”

To develop this skill, just truly notice. Check in with your five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing. Where are you? What is your body doing? What are you feeling? What are your thoughts? If you sense your sixth sense, trust that intuition as well. Let these perceptions register–remember that just 20 or 30 seconds at a time can enable your brain to develop this skill.

Here’s the hard part: offer yourself acceptance, not judgment about where you are, what you are feeling in each moment. Speak to yourself as nicely as you would a loved one. Acknowledge that we are always doing the best that we can do. Embrace your humanity. It’s just what is. Take a deep breath and move forward with change, if needed, ever mindful of controlling what you can and letting go of the rest.

Best way I know to forestall the Zombie apocalypse.

Worry dies hard–for worry die-hards

One of my all-time favorite movies, Defending Your Life, features Albert Brooks in “Judgment City” after his untimely death, defending his behavior during his just-ended life. A central tenet of the film is that anxiety is a given in human beings which we must all struggle to overcome. In the film, Brooks’ character will either ‘move on’ to the next level or get sent back to tackle his anxiety one more time.

Examining my own life and watching the lives of others unfold has convinced me that this is an innate truth.  Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain, who I heard speak in January, talked about how our brains are conditioned in this way for survival. A prehistoric human, obliviously waltzing through the meadow picking flowers, was likely to be the victim of a sabre-toothed tiger. Snap, crack, crunch–end of that lineage. Only those worriers who were constantly wary, watching for danger around every bush, survived to reproduce. This means most of us have the worry habit pretty well locked in, after eons of reinforcement.

Face it: this habit is no longer necessary for survival. Worriers often argue that point, feeling that the energy invested in worrying does somehow protect us. We think that if we relax our brains, and don’t tune into all the negative, we may miss a chance to protect ourselves, to react in time. Proponents of positive thinking insist the opposite is true. The more we invest in looking for negative, the more it’s what we see. This is what Hanson said, too: each time we fuel that habitual worry with attention, the related brain connections are strengthened.

Time to banish this energy-draining habit–or at least reduce it’s hold. Anxiety need not be the basic human condition. My favorite tools to reduce anxiety are:

1) labeling the anxiety as just that. “It’s anxiety–it’s not real.” This is powerful for me, leading to a deep breath and letting go. Just because the habit has kicked in and the brain circuits are activated, doesn’t mean that’s TRUTH.

2) Mantras: mind vehicles. These are phrases I repeat to make NEW brain connections that eventually will override the old habits. You may have your own; here’s the latest that’s really speaking to me:

Fear is a down payment on a debt you may not owe.

I detest paying good money for something I’ve not yet received and that may never even be delivered. These words have been a great reminder, as a way to activate the idea behind that little charm on my key ring to “free your mind from worries.”