Featured in: Halifax Media Coop, Fine Fit Day, Simplify the Season, La Presse, Filles, Le Canada-Français

Friday, May 13, 2016

Mindfulness - Feeling alive, in the body and in the mind

enneafive, Flickr

Spring is finally showing some timid signs of a comeback in Canada, and many of us are feeling alive again.

It would be tempting to call it spring fever, but really, the way I personally feel is closer to waking up after a long night of sleep. I don't know if I'm particularly excited, or simply aware of my surroundings after a long hiatus. I feel like opening my eyes, stretching, looking around, noticing what is going on.

It's in the little things: 

  • Hearing the birds in the morning, and the peepers at night. In the winter, unless you are walking on crisp snow on a very cold day, everything is so overwhelmingly silent.
  • Smelling the leaves, the grass, the budding flowers. In the winter, unless you walk by a house heated with a wood stove, the absence of smell is striking.
  • Seeing in color again, thanks to the different shades of green and, gradually, other hues as the flowers begin to bloom. In the winter, need I mention, everything is white.
  • Feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin, and allowing the breeze to play with my hair. In the winter we are so covered that nothing gets to us (apart from an unpleasant dampness that chills us to the bone. Or when the wind does manage to get to our skin, it pinches, bites, and burns it's so cold).

It's nothing short of a reawakening of the body, and it has more impact than one could imagine. 

One of the first things I noticed when I "officially" decided to be more mindful was a new relationship with my body. Paying attention in general had the almost immediate effect of making me reconnect with physical sensations that I had been ignoring or downplaying. This had wider implications. At first I mostly noticed the unpleasant stuff - ranging from a diffuse feeling of fatigue, tension or heaviness all the way to specific and precisely located discomforts, aches and pains of varied intensities. One of my first "epiphanies" was that migraine affects me more than I ever allowed myself to admit. On the "lighter" side, I started making clear connections between the way I felt and my posture, my eating habits, my physical activity level, my reaction to stress, how much I had slept, etc. I adjusted my lifestyle to limit the negative outcomes, and to foster physical well-being.

Gradually, this new awareness started encompassing the good sides of the physical experience as well. I noticed pleasant sensations more. The softness of my bed sheets. The warmth of my sweater. The taste of my food. The colors in the sky. If my toes were in the sand, they felt "happy". It was as if all fives senses had gained acuity (and a renewed enjoyment of simple pleasures). 

I realized that one of the quickest paths to mindfulness might be to start with the body. Indeed, meditation neophytes are often encouraged to do a "body scan". I now believe that a lot of my initial encounters with a meditative-like state happened while I was stretching after my workouts. Of all moments that make up a day, the 15 minutes I devote to stretching might be the time when I am most "awake", focused on how I feel in the moment, attentive to my breath, taking the time, completely oblivious to anything that came before or that will come after. 

As my physical awareness increased, so did my overall "presence". I can "sense" things as they happen, and avoid acting or reacting in an autopilot manner: 

  • Faced with a stressful situation, I will spontaneously take a deep breath, center myself, and realize that no action or reaction is actually required on my part at the precise moment. Or that my reaction can be very low-key, subtle, peaceful. (This is particularly true during interactions with "demanding" individuals.)
  • Faced with a pleasant situation, I will also spontaneously take a deep breath, center myself, and realize that no action or reaction is actually required on my part at the precise moment. Or that my reaction can be to simply take it all in, instead of rushing to the next thing.

This has made life easier to handle AND more enjoyable.

Mindfulness this Week

What is your relationship with your body, and how does it impact the rest of your life?

Be part of the process: 

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Friday, April 29, 2016

Mindfulness - What if nobody cared?

Markus Spiske, Flickr

"Oh, you purchased a brand new Lexus? You’re a published author? 
Your job title is X and you earn six-figures? So what!" 
(The Minimalists)

In my quest toward authenticity, I have been pondering whether some decisions I make, and some actions I take, have more to do with what others expect of me than with what I, myself, want out of this life.

I can think of a few examples in my past:

  • Hanging out with the "cool crowd" even if they are shallow, mean, or both (ah! the joys of Middle School);
  • Trying to behave like a full-force extrovert when in fact I am more of a - friendly - introvert: I love to chat and make connections, but I prefer one on one or structured interactions (such as when I teach or give a talk) to big parties, and I need a lot of alone time;
  • Trying to look "feminine" when in fact I have a slightly androgynous disposition: I feel like a clown in frills, dresses, heels, busy jewelry, heavy makeup, or complicated hairdos;
  • Trying to go for a scientific career path when in fact I thrive in languages and humanities; in the same vein, making career choices based on prestige + earning potential when in fact my true calling (and a balanced lifestyle) resides somewhere else;
  • Refraining from expressing certain opinions or feelings for fear that people would disagree or disapprove;
  • Showing off my accomplishments or possessions;
  • Generally trying to get people's approval and "impress" them, instead of just going for what feels good and feels right.

Indeed, my mindset used to be along the lines of "your accomplishments (and your looks) = your worth as a person". Not just any accomplishments, either. Mostly the ones that have to do with wealth and prestige. I had never questioned it until I met the future father of my children, who, despite earning the right to put Dr before his name and a string of letters after, never made any fuss about it, and barely ever mentioned his accomplishments. I was impressed, not so much by his credentials, but by his sincere humbleness.

Nowadays I strive to nurture my authentic self, even if that means less overall approval or admiration. I still value good manners, kindness, and personal hygiene, but other than that, I avoid worrying about "what will people think". When I do "show and tell", I do it to inspire, not to impress - which means I approach it in a very different manner, and for very different reasons.

So my question, today, is the following: 

If nobody's opinion ever mattered whatsoever, what would your life look like right now? What, about it, would be different?

Would you have the same job?
Would you live in the same place?
Would you hang out with the same people?
Would you date the same person?
Would you have the same hobbies?
Would you own the same objects?
Would you dress/talk/behave the same way?

Mindfulness this Week

What are you ready to change for the sake of authenticity?

Be part of the process: 

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Friday, April 15, 2016

Mindfulness - Consumerism

Adriano Makoto Suzuki, Flickr

Throughout my minimalist (Less is More) project in 2015, I gradually increased my awareness of my relationship with "stuff". At first the project was simply about not acquiring new things (other than the necessities, such as food, gas, new shoes for the kids, etc.) Instead of bringing new objects into the house, I focused on getting "old" objects out of the house, in an effort to declutter and share with those in need.

I wasn't sure of how easy or difficult this would be, and I had no way to predict the outcome. After a year, reflecting on it, I could say without hesitation that minimalism had completely changed my outlook on "stuff", and on life in general.

Simplicity made me mindful.

1) Mindful of the way I use my time, my money, and my space

When shopping (a common pastime in a consumerist society) is not an option, you find yourself with an extra amount of free time, as well as an extra amount of money. After decluttering, you also find yourself with an extra amount of space. What to do with all this time, money and space? 

Space: In that case, the answer was easy: I did nothing at all. I was certainly not going to refill the space I had freed. I simply enjoyed it, and its effect on my mental states; less physical clutter often means less mental clutter. I also got rid of some bins and shelves that were no longer needed. I started wondering if the house wasn't too big (a reflection that's still in progress). What would you do with extra space?

Money: I have been rather reasonable, investing most savings toward mortgage and retirement. However, enjoying life is still in the cards, and I have been treating myself and my loved ones also. The difference is that instead of buying things, I buy experiences, which are shown to create more happiness than any material belonging. In general, I find that I don't have to spend as much money as I used to in order to achieve the same level of contentment. What would you do with extra money?

Time: Minimalism is a time savior in at least three different ways: First, eliminating shopping as a pastime frees time for other pursuits. Second, by owning less, you spend less time looking after your stuff, less time choosing your outfit, etc. Third, you regain some time, indirectly, by needing less money: Once you significantly reduce your consumption, it becomes possible to actually work less - since you don't need all the money anymore. For me, reducing my workload means more time for creative endeavours (such as writing), for sharing my talents and resources, for social interactions with friends and family, for health-related activities (exercise, cooking, gardening, etc.), and - let's be honest - for rest. What would you do with extra time? 

2) Mindful of how brainwashed we are by advertising

I cannot even begin to explain how brainwashed we are. Our whole lives revolve around consuming. We consume houses, vehicles, clothes, accessories, personal products, home products, decorative items, electronics, toys and games, processed food and drinks, books, music, ... the list is endless. We are brainwashed enough that we are willing to slave away at jobs we don't particularly enjoy (to afford all the stuff) AND to slave away at home (to tend to our belongings). Our system of values is completely skewed by consumerism - do we even know what was truly important to us in the first place? We are so brainwashed that we rarely question any aspect of that system. Avoiding exposure to advertising is virtually impossible, but I look at it with new eyes. Advertising will not succeed at convincing me I have needs that can be fulfilled with such and such product, and that I have to make as much money as I possibly can to afford it all. 

3) Mindful of my true needs

Acquiring new things, being surrounded by clutter, working long hours doing something you don't enjoy, and generally chasing your tail does not fulfill your deepest needs. What does, then? For me, I am happiest in a simple environment, with a slower pace of life, making a living doing something meaningful, enjoying healthy food, physical activity, nature, music, and sharing and connecting with others.

4) Mindful of my health - and that of the planet

Apart from generalized over-consumption (which can be fought by buying less, and/or buying secondhand, and/or bartering), a lot of the "stuff" we consume has the potential to harm our health and our planet: personal products, home products, food and drink items, etc. I was already using a lot of the simpler, "cleaner" versions. I gradually got rid of many remaining "mainstream products": things that contain bleach (not only in cleaners, but also in feminine hygiene products), paraben, fragrance, coloring, refined sugar, etc. In general, anything that comes with a long list of ingredients elicits my suspicion. In my bathroom nowadays, you will find baking soda, vinegar (white and apple cider), coconut oil and its derivatives, Epsom salt, etc. In my kitchen, you will find less packaged products and more of the fresh stuff (looking the same way it did when found in nature). Of course, this is a work in progress, but every step is worth it.

5) Mindful of my relationships

My - wise - father-in-law once pointed out that some people talk about "stuff" almost exclusively, and that he was veering away from those relationships, focusing instead of those were one discusses ideas and values. "Impressing others" with possessions has an appeal, otherwise no one would do it, but there are better ways to feel good about oneself. I choose my friends based not on the way they (or their house, or their car) looks, but on how much fun we have together!

Mindfulness this Week

What are you willing to do to regain your space, time, money, and freedom?

Be part of the process: 

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