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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Mindfulness - Self-knowledge and compassion

Muffet, Flickr

The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm
 we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage 
and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” 

One of my main findings, after two months of practicing mindfulness meticulously, is that I have been, in my life, ignoring (or downplaying) some very real aspects of who I am. By paying attention to my internal state (and the concomitant external circumstances), I am realizing that I still have much to learn and implement when it comes to respecting myself.

Throughout our lives, expectations are put upon us, and we internalize many of those expectations : this is how I should behave, what I should look like, the choices I should make, how productive I should be, etc. We internalize all of it so well that in some cases, we are not even aware that it is not "the real us".

Unfortunately, choosing to ignore (or doing so unconsciously) our true nature, our specific needs and our unique limits can only backfire. Simply think of an introvert who would force himself into more social gatherings than he can handle, or an extrovert who would fail to fulfill her social interaction needs, and you get the idea: both would feel miserable. 

Chronic limitations

Identifying our limits can lead to either one of the following: 1) it can lead us to renounce our goals altogether, or 2) it can lead us to set goals that are more realistic. Personally, I opt for the latter. For example, I have never let my - moderate - asthma get in the way of being active, and I even became a long-distance runner. But I have had to remain attentive to the limits that my asthma imposes, respect my own pace, and accept that no level of training will make me a super fast runner (my half-marathon PB is around the two-hour mark, while most of the same-age friends whom I trained with run it at least a couple minutes faster). 

If you have the same, or any other, physical or mental affliction, it is sometimes easier to deny it - after all, who wants to admit that they have health limitations, and that those health limitations get in the way of their aspirations, or even a "normal life"? The fact is, whether you acknowledge them or not, your limitations exist. They do not disappear through magical thinking. Another personal example: I have learned the hard way (despite all my initial resistance) that I have to address the first symptoms of a migraine vigorously, lest it turns much, much worse. Believe me, I do not enjoy cancelling plans or taking medication, but sometimes, it is a necessity.

Noticing and acknowledging our limits is not to be used as a pretext for giving up. I am all for pushing one's limits, and excessive self-indulgence definitely qualifies as one of my pet peeves. I know that in order to accomplish things and reach goals, hard work and discomfort is necessary. I am also all too aware that living and/or working with others requires compromise and good will - anything one person decides not to do ends up on somebody else's plate one way or another. However, I am becoming increasingly aware that ignoring one's limits often turns counterproductive.

Always pragmatic, I try and turn my self-awareness into a call to action to myself. Instead of sitting on my bum, I like to take matters in my own hands. For example, I have noticed that I can keep a lot of physical and emotional pain at bay by exercising regularly. I don't always feel like it, but time and experience has shown that it's worth it. I have also noticed that I waste my precious energy by trying to remain focused for a long time: with my short attention span, breaking down any task into smaller bits really is the way to go, whether I like it or not. The nice thing about it is that when I respect that particular pace and style of mine, I actually accomplish a lot.  

Temporary limitations

Sometimes, a given limitation is temporary. One of the best decisions I made when my father passed away, for example, was to allow myself to feel the pain, and to allow myself as much time as I needed to grieve. I did not give up my life and activities, but I cut myself some much needed slack, instead of insisting on "business as usual".

By knowing ourselves and our limitations better, by respecting our personal pace and style, we get rid of much frustration and guilt, and we end up getting more done, not less.

Get more done, feel better: it all starts with self-knowledge and compassion.

For more on knowing oneself:

Know Thyself
Who am I

Mindfulness this Week

I will be in sync with my optimal mode of functioning and any particular needs or limitations I may have. 

Tell us what you come up with.

Be part of the process: 

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mindfulness - Making good habits

Dafne Cholet, Flickr

Getting rid of bad habits is important, but making new ones is just as critical. 

First, because you can't simply let go of a bad habit without replacing it with another, better one: facing the void is too hard, especially when the reason the bad habit exists in the first place is to cover some deep dissatisfaction. Personal anecdote: A dietitian I once consulted for advice on how to stop eating my emotions (I would go for sweets whenever I felt tired, stressed or bored) recommended that I find another pleasant activity to engage in, ideally an activity that would prevent me from eating sweets, such as going for a brisk walk, talking to a friend, or taking a bubble bath. 

Second, because good habits are the number one step toward structuring our life in a way that enables us to live according to our values, and reach our goals. Forget about your bad habits: the only way you will build a life that makes you feel good about yourself is by adopting good habits.

The thing is, implementing (and maintaining) good habits is hard. That's because it takes us out of our comfort zone... but I think it is also because we look at them from the wrong angle: we see good habits as things we "should" do... if only we were a "good" person. I have a different take on them: good habits are the things that ultimately make you feel good, physically and mentally. Therefore, good habits are a gift we give ourselves. NOT some sort of painful coercion.

Of course, going from theory to practice takes some time - and a lot of mindfulness. We need to reconnect with how we really feel. We - erroneously - tend to think that our bad habits are what makes us feel good: after all, spending, eating, drinking and the like tend to give us a "high" which we tend to confuse with actual happiness. Paying attention and being honest with ourselves is the only way to rediscover the true source of well-being. (No, bingeing on beer or chocolate cake is NOT it.)

We also need to take baby steps. It will be difficult, but the beautiful thing about good habits is that they generalize to other good habits: for example, my first yoga instructor used to say that when she started meditating, she automatically started eating healthier, even if she had not consciously planned to. I believe this is true for many good habits. (Smokers who start running have an easier time letting go of smoking.) I personally still tend to gravitate toward sweets when I am tired or dehydrated... so I make sure to sleep enough and to drink water throughout the day - those two good habits help me resist a bad one.

Which takes us to some of the good habits you might want to start forming. (I recommend starting with one, and only adding additional good habits one at a time, when the previous one is more or less "mastered".)

You could make it a habit to:

  • Go to bed earlier
  • Wake up half an hour earlier in order to squeeze in some exercise or some meditation (both wonderful ways to start a day, they energize AND make you peaceful at the same time)
  • Eat a tall glass of water as soon as you get up, and carry a water bottle with you all day
  • Include actual fruit with each breakfast (better than juice)
  • Carry a healthy snack with you for sudden cravings
  • Make sure both lunch and supper include a big portion of vegetables
  • Walk or bike whenever possible (as opposed to taking the car)
  • Do simple body weight exercises and stretches while you watch TV (if you watch TV)
  • Do a quiet activity before bedtime, such as reading a book, writing a gratitude journal, or taking a bath

Whether I "feel like it" or not, I know for a fact that whenever I include those good habits in my daily life, I feel much better. Even if the rest of the day doesn't go quite according to plan, I know that I did at least a few things right, and I feel more motivated to make other right choices.

What new habit do you feel like making?

Mindfulness this Week

I will look at my daily schedule and see if I can tweak a few things in order to include more of the "right choices". I will NOT focus on my bad choices. I will trust that by implementing good habits, the bad ones will slowly fade away.

Tell us what you come up with.

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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Mindfulness - Love thyself

gags9999, Flickr

Following last week's post on getting rid of bad habits, I was planning to write about making good habits, but inspiration came to me in the form of Cupid. 

Valentine' Day is the celebration of love, with all kinds of consumerist and non-consumerist exhortations to treat others and show them our affection... but how often do we take the time to celebrate our love for ourselves?

This has nothing to do with narcissism or megalomania, but rather with a healthy approach of our self-worth.

It has nothing to do with lowering our self-expectations to the point of settling for mediocrity, but rather with knowing our limits and setting realistic goals accordingly.

As parents in particular, we often put our needs - and our wants - aside in order to attend to those of our children. Those who care for an aging parent or other vulnerable family members might also tend to put their own needs on the ice.

Many of us are also demanding and hard on ourselves, leaving little room for self-kindness: the flaws we would easily tolerate (or even find endearing) in others become intolerable in ourselves.

How about being kind to ourselves, for a change? Here are some ways we can apply kindness to ourselves:

Self-respect: I will avoid negative talk. It is so insidious than we often don't even notice that we're doing it - but it happens a lot: in front of a mirror, after an awkward interaction with someone, in the middle of a difficult task. I will pay attention to my internal dialog. If I catch myself in the act of self-deprecation (which is akin to insulting oneself), I will stop and replace the statement with a positive one, or at least an accurate one. Examples: 

I am not ugly - I have beautiful (fill in the blank: eyes, or hair, or feet, or muscles, or soul, intellect... whatever you like about yourself)

I am not lazy - I have a limited supply of energy, and I know when to rest.

I am not stupid - I don't know everything, and I sometimes make mistakes, that is all.

Which leads us to...

Self-compassion: I will have sympathetic concern for my own struggles, instead of self-loathing. Like anybody else, I have physical, mental and emotional limits. Why do I try to function like I'm some kind of Super Woman or Energizer bunny? I cannot go, go, go. I need breaks, I need time to rest, to reflect or to pull myself together. I need to progress at a reasonable pace. I need to admit that in some instances, I might even - imagine that - need help.

Self-care: I will take care of myself like I would for anybody else who's under my care: I will attend to my needs and listen to myself.

Self-love: I will recognize that even if I strive for growth and improvement, try and do my best, and always will... I am already enough

Mindfulness this Week

Let's focus on one very simple question this week: Am I being kind to myself?

Be part of the process: 

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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mindfulness - Getting rid of bad habits

Schnappischnap, Flickr

Bad habits. We form them, we maintain them, we curse them. They make our life miserable yet we fail at getting rid of them.

Very few of us could claim to have complete control over what they put in their mouth or what they do with their time, energy and money. Outside, stronger-than-us forces seem to be at play. This is not without consequences for our health, well-being and overall enjoyment of life.

There is a whole market based on helping people get rid of their bad habits. Or, more aptly put, there is a whole market based on making money out of people's dissatisfaction with their bad habits. Most of us are desperately looking for a way to get our life back on track, and most of us are willing to open our wallet in the process, whether we purchase goods or services that offer the promise of a better life. Nutritional supplements, kitchen equipment, storage systems, various accessories, training equipment, programs... they seem to hold the way to our individual holy grail, so we succumb and, over a lifetime, pour hundreds or thousands of dollars into them. Look around yourself and at your credit card statement... most likely you will see things that you purchased in the hope of a better life. Has it worked? Have you lost the weight? Have you reached your goal, whatever it is?

There is also a whole market based on making money out of creating and maintaining bad habits - ask any cigarette or junk food manufacturer, or any casino or shopping mall owner. 

But if dishing out money isn't the solution to getting rid of bad habits, what is? To find an answer to that, we must first identify our most common mistake.

When tackling our bad habits, we tend to focus on the future: in the future I will get rid of this habit. Beginning tomorrow, or January first, or when I turn forty, I will (fill in the blank):

  • eat healthy
  • exercise daily
  • stop smoking
  • stop drinking
  • consume less caffeine
  • go to bed earlier
  • only buy what I need
  • save money/get out of debt
  • get rid of a tic (e.g. biting nails)
  • control my temper
  • invest in good relationships
  • get organized 
  • stop procrastinating
  • get started on that book I want to write
  • meditate daily
  • ditch video games
  • spend less time on social media

After trying to implement change, and seeing that it failed, as it unfortunately most often does, we move to the next step: we try again. It usually fails again. A quick look at the statistics for smoking cessation or weight loss and maintenance will illustrate that clearly. 

Trying and trying might (if we're lucky) take us closer to our goal, it still doesn't tackle the root of the problem, which is: 

Why did we make that bad habit in the first place? 

There is always a reason. Our bad habits don't fall from the sky randomly - they serve a purpose. As long as the purpose is there, our bad habits will thrive. At best we will replace a bad habit with another. But we cannot hope to free ourselves from bad habits as long as we don't stop and think about their origins.

Before we even look at HOW we can change our life, we need to ask ourselves WHY we are not living the life we want to live, WHY we are not reaching our goals, WHY we keep self-sabotaging.

Before we look at the future, we must first determine what, in our past, contributed to the formation of the bad habit, and what, in our present, helps crystallize it, day after day:

What happened in my past that led me to adopt this habit? 

What happens on a daily basis right before I engage in the behavior?

Mindfulness this Week

When I find myself engaging (or about to engage) in a habit I am trying to get rid of, I will ask myself what preceded it:

What happened right before I engaged in the bad habit? What was going on? How was I feeling?

Is this a common pattern for me?

What, in my past, might be the source of this pattern?

Tell us what you come up with.

Be part of the process: 

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