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Friday, July 22, 2016

Mindfulness - It will change your life

Cea, Flickr

Once upon a time, tired of lugging around extra weight from my pregnancies, and unable to lose it no matter how hard I tried, I opted for a time-consuming method I had put all my remaining hopes in: journaling my food intake (each and every bite), journaling my exercise (each and every workout), and finding someone to hold me accountable of it all (a personal trainer - but it could have been a friend or family member). In one word, I forced myself to be mindful of my caloric input and output. Guess what? It worked. By the end of the year (I like to make my projects last a year), not only had I lost the weight, I had also improved my strength, flexibility and cardio, enough to run half-marathons and participate in Spartan races. I felt amazing.

In 2015, I decided to tackle another goal, which was to regain control of my relationship with money and stuff. I was NOT drowning in debt. I was NOT a hoarder. I had NO intention of making a vow of poverty. I DID like my job. But I felt the need to shed some light on my spending and owning habits. My hope was that this new awareness would enable me to tailor my use of money and ownership of goods to my true needs (as opposed to the needs advertisement tells us we have), which would hopefully have a positive impact on my wallet, the environment, and my peace of mind. To make sure the change was significant, I committed to a form of minimalism: buying absolutely nothing but necessities (e.g. food) for a year. During that non-spending year I also got rid (mostly by donating) of a lot of objects I wasn't using. It ended up being easier and more enjoyable than I had imagined. I felt like I was no longer falling for the false needs put forward in advertisement: I became acutely aware of how marketing preys on us. Being surrounded by less things through decluttering also made me feel lighter. The process made my spending and owning intentional. Even if the "no spending year" is over, I remain very mindful of my relationship to money and stuff. In stores I act as if I was in a museum: if I see something beautiful, I admire it, then walk away from it. The fact that I love an object and/or that its "price is right" is no reason to purchase it. I don't bring anything in the house unless it fulfills a true need.

This year, as I keep striving to increase my overall levels of mindfulness (in the hope that it will make me a happier AND more responsible citizen), I started meditating daily, which led to both good and "bad" outcomes (for more on that, see my article on Tiny Buddha). In the process, I put new issues under the magnifying glass. One example: in the first few months of 2016, I tracked my moods and physical states and made adjustments accordingly. This has led me to increase my sleep intake while I practically eliminated caffeine intake, among other things. It also changed my approach to the media, relationships, work, self-worth, and a panoply of other issues. One important discovery was that more often than not, I need to slow down and put less pressure on myself. It may seem counter-intuitive, but adopting a slower pace and practicing self-care and awareness has actually helped me accomplish more, or more of what really matters (feeling better in the process, too). Which leads me to the area I want to tackle now: my use of time. As aware as I am of my eating and spending habits, I realize that I am still often mindless in my use of what probably constitutes my most precious resource. My to-do lists fill up with new items faster than I can actually check off items. There always seems to be too much to do, with too little time to get it done.

Or so I thought. Just like any budget and the food/exercise equation, there is nothing mysterious about time management: put some in, take some out - numbers don't lie. With the difference that we all are granted the same amount of time: 24 hours per day. If you eat too much, you can always exercise more to burn the extra calories. If you want to spend more, you can always try and increase your income. But the 24 hours a day is a fixed number. The only component of the equation we have power over is our use of time. We need to be honest about 1) the time we need to do things - many of us tend to underestimate it and 2) which things really need to be done, as opposed to the ones that are optional. 

My quest for a better use of time is far from being over. I hope to come back with insights. In the meantime, please don't hesitate to share your wisdom in the comments below!

Mindfulness this Week

How do you manage your time?

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Mindfulness - Perspective

 NancyNance, Flickr

When stuck in a rut, having a hard time experiencing gratitude, unable to find clear answers to our questions, confused about what should take priority in our lives, a simple change in perspective can help.

It struck me as I was sitting in a corner of the house I almost never "visit", on a chair I almost never use. From that standpoint, I had a completely different view of the room and of the garden outside the window. It wasn't anything I hadn't seen before, but the angle was new. It wasn't any better than my usual view, and it wasn't particularly exciting, but somehow it made me feel refreshed and serene.

Opportunities to "refresh and reframe" are everywhere if we are willing to get out of our comfort zone, or simply to slow down and notice. Trying something different and new can work wonders. So does taking the time to actually feel what is going on inside and outside of ourselves. For example, lately I have been allowing myself to stop and observe nature. If there is a pleasant sight, sound or smell, instead of going on with my day, I fully immerse myself in it, for as long as it takes to reach a state of inner joy.

In the past few weeks I had many other opportunities to reframe, ranging from the very mundane to the very distressing, and everything in between. For example:

  • The various house and car problems I mentioned in my last post, which entailed both hassle and expenses.
  • Being stuck on the tarmac for 2 hours waiting for the plane to be refuelled before take-off... and then experiencing a rather bumpy flight that left me with sweaty palms, numb fingertips and other manifestations of a fight or flight response.
  • Learning about friends' financial and/or relationship and/or health-related problems.

All those issues helped me put other issues into perspective - suddenly it didn't matter so much if a huge pile of laundry was accumulating, or that I hadn't found the time to practice my guitar, or even that my career was kind of stalled. More urgent issues, or bigger problems, were happening around me, and all my attention was on them.

But the most important - and awakening - event was the passing of my maternal grandmother. Because she was old (98 years minus 2 days to be exact), one could assume that it was easy to accept. But it wasn't. As I said to a cousin who came to the funeral, "You're never ready to lose someone you love". It didn't matter how old she was - she was amazing, and I will miss her tremendously. 

This event forced me into a new perspective - when a loved one dies, what matters more than your sorrow? Other sources of negative emotions suddenly seemed so trivial. I had no time or energy to sweat the small stuff. What mattered was to be around friends and family, and to fully appreciate their presence. My grandmother would have approved of this reframing - if I had to list her best qualities, the number one would be her bright outlook on life. She found the positive in every situation, and got back on her feet after each setback.

I know that I will keep learning from her even if she isn't here anymore. Her unique perspective will stay with me and with everyone who had the chance to know her.

Mindfulness this Week

What event(s) have changed your perspective? Was it a good or a bad thing?

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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Mindfulness - Relationships

JD Hancock, Flickr

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget 
what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." 
(Maya Angelou)

These past two weeks, while D was on the other end of the planet (literally - he was in Japan), and then sick, I had to face a few crises on my own, including the loss of a loved one, two basement floods, an insect infestation, and car problems. In the midst of it I also turned 40.

Those events taught or reminded me of a few things:

  1. First, that in any difficult situation, taking a deep breath is always a good option.
  2. Second, that paying real close attention to what is going on (inside or outside of yourself) usually helps you cope with the situation at hand.
  3. Third, that we all have hidden sources of strength, resourcefulness, and resilience.
  4. Fourth, that the things we think are important really aren't that important in the face of a crisis.
  5. Last, but not least, that in most cases, others, and our relationship with them, make an immense difference.

If it hadn't been for wonderful family members, friends and neighbors, those two weeks and the events that punctuated them would have taken a whole other direction. More importantly, they would have felt much different for me, and not in a good way. 

That is not so surprising since, in this life full of good and bad surprises in equal measure, relationships are often what "makes it or breaks it".

Think of times in your life when you felt lonely, misunderstood, ignored, disrespected, unloved, rejected. Chances are it took over everything else, and made you feel miserable independently of what was going on in the rest of your life.

Now think of times in your life when you felt well-surrounded, validated, included, recognized, respected, loved. Chances are it made everything else easier to deal with.

This is how important relationships are: they change everything.

Indeed, happiness is closely related to the quantity and quality of your relationships. A Harvard study, presented in a TED Talk by Robert Waldinger, has demonstrated that relationships are the number one criteria for a good life. Feeling connected is crucial for overall well-being. I know that even in good times, when I don't need help or support, and despite my love of "alone time", a pleasant interaction with someone can be the most rewarding part of the day. I love the feeling that stems from helping someone, or simply from having a stimulating conversation.

This need for human connection is so important that researchers have now established that "the opposite of addiction is connection", suggesting that your relationships (or absence thereof) could prevent or exacerbate drug abuse. 

On top of influencing our well-being and whether or not we become addicted to substances, relationships have an effect on our physical health:

"When others betray us or we feel neglected, when we feel angry and sad at the way others have treated us, the power of our immune system declines dramatically." (Dalai Lama)

This is not to be taken lightly. Our interactions with others leave a trace. Some states of mind would even be contagious. For example, one can be exposed to "secondhand stress" and suffer the consequences. Don't you get tense around anxious or angry people, even when you have nothing to do with their negative emotion?

What this all means is that while we need to feel connected in order to remain healthy and happy, we also have to pay attention to the type of connection we have with others. To that effect, mindfulness is the best approach.

In my adult life, I have become aware of the nature of my interactions with others, and it has changed my approach drastically, in three main ways:

  1. I remain authentic no matter what - I stepped away from trying to gain approval and admiration, because too often, that means being untrue to yourself. I respect others and strive to treat them fairly, but I respect myself, my needs and my values just as much.
  2. I invest more in the interactions and relationships where both protagonists leave feeling good.
  3. I invest less in the interactions and relationships that don't feel so good.

The third case has been my main challenge, as I grew up thinking that I had to get along with everyone, and that no effort was too big to that effect. Consequently, in my younger years, I devoted time and energy to the wrong relationships, tolerated more than I should have, or tried to change others. Some relationships do deserve a certain amount of compromise, but there is a line to be drawn. If someone demeans you, uses you as their therapist (as opposed to mutual confidences and support, which feels very different), or tries to control you, it might be time to step away.

Now, one crucial aspect of stepping away is to do it quietly. There is not need to argue, confront, justify, or take all the blame. If simple, respectful communication has not worked, then it might simply mean that the individual needs and wants are not compatible. This is especially important in cases where something more powerful is at play, such as a personality disorder

The point is not to diagnose people, of course, but to realize that some situations stem from complex and stubborn factors that we would be wise to avoid fighting, lest we turn ourselves in some form of modern Don Quixote.

I take people as they are, focus on the positive, stop holding specific expectations about how they should treat me, do communicate how I feel, but definitely don't try to change them. Then if it turns out that the relationship feels draining, I can simply let it go, or at least take my distances.

If, on the other hand, I am pleasantly surprised by the direction a relationship is taking, I know it would be wise to nurture it. These two past weeks made it impossible to ignore the love, generosity and kindness I am surrounded with. I feel very, very grateful for that, and I hope that I will be able to respond in kind. 

Mindfulness this Week

How do your interactions and relationships affect your daily life and your overall state of mind?

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