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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Mindfulness - Food

Tighten Up, Flickr

(Guy Fieri)

I don't know for you, but I have a long history of finding comfort through the mouth: I sucked my thumb longer than most kids, and when I stopped, it wasn't long before I replaced it with another bad habit: a tic that involved biting the inside of my cheeks. I also developed a sweet tooth early in life. And apart from early childhood (a period during which I am told I was not a big eater - perhaps the thumb blocked the way?), I never really knew when or why to stop eating: feeling full wasn't a notion I even considered. I never focused on the stomach. If it looked, smelled and tasted good, and I still felt like eating, I ate. It seems like my mouth enjoyed working overtime. I even talked too much. If I hadn't been so terrified of the side effects, I would have been a prime candidate for smoking.

Regular physical activity probably "saved" me from becoming overweight (apart from a short period after my second child was born), but I am scared to even think of the amount of sugar that has entered my body in those forty years of life.

A few years ago, with no more than ten pounds "to lose" (BMI was already fine), but tired of my relationship with food, I decided to take the bull by the horns, met with a nutritionist, hired a personal trainer, and started journaling the entirety of my food intake, every single day, for a full year. What did I learn? 

I learned that I need way less food than I thought I did: portions shrank and shrank to the point where my plate looked like a toddler's, but interestingly, it did not make me hungry. 

I learned to incorporate more of the good stuff (leafy greens, berries, seeds) and less of the not-so-good stuff (for me, dairy and sweets). 

But more importantly, I learned to listen to my body. In fact, I learned to listen to specific parts of my body. My mouth was always up for more food, especially the sweet type. Now I learned to listen to my abdomen and to my head instead. I realized that they had a lot to tell me if I paid attention. My stomach had a message I had been ignoring: "I'm full!" (It was surprising how fast my stomach became full, long before my mouth was even considering taking a break.) My head, too, had some unheard messages for me: "Please don't eat/drink this, it will hurt!"

As it turns out, some of my favorite foods were doing me the most harm: Sugar. Dairy. Red wine. It was a sad discovery. It was also a thrilling discovery: by avoiding sugar, dairy and red wine, I felt much, much better, both in the belly and in the head. In the process, I shed a few pounds, and lowered my body fat percentage. I was full of energy, mental and physical.

I do not want to make this journey sound easier than it was: there were a lot of challenges, frustrations, and discouragement. One of my realizations was that my relationship with sugar was closer to an addiction than I had ever been willing to admit. And more often than not, my mouth tried to scream louder than both my stomach and head: "We're not done! I want more foooooooood!"

But all in all, my main victory, and the secret to the success of this endeavor, was mindfulness. Slowly but surely, I became mindful of my relationship with food, how I felt about food, how I reacted to food. I already knew that I ate some of my emotions (stress, boredom, fatigue). Now I noticed that I was often on automatic pilot when food I liked was on display (at parties, for example: I would just reach out and get it, even if I wasn't hungry). I noticed I reacted to ads about food (where else would a sudden, intense craving for a specific type of cake or ice cream come from? Once I saw an article about a power plant in France that uses cheese as fuel, and that was enough to make me crave a piece of Camembert.) I noticed that I ate too fast. Reading Thich Nhat Hanh, I learned to eat slowly, mindfully (my trick: practice with grapefruit; it takes so long to prepare that you have no choice but to slow down and enjoy). I realized I don't even like S'Mores, so why do I always have a few when I go camping? And so on.

My mindfulness toward food did not stop there. I started wondering: Where does my food come from? Is it produced locally? Ethically? Is it fair trade? In season? Wholesome? Humane? Environmentally friendly? I was already not a big fan of juice boxes and steak, but this new perspective made me even more aware. To paraphrase Socrates, I began to say "The unexamined food is not worth eating".

Mindfulness was the most important tool I used to conquer my relationship with food, and I had not invented the concept: it seems that mindfulness can indeed help you achieve your weight goals.

Mindfulness this Week

How is your relationship with food? Please share!

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Saturday, March 19, 2016

Mindfulness - Comfort and joy

Julie Saint-Mleux - Nova Scotia, March 2016

I have been reflecting on the sources of comfort and joy in my life. Without comfort, life can be stressful and painful. Without joy, life can be bland and boring. Even the most privileged need comfort from life's vagaries and existential angst. Even the sickest and the poorest find ways to instill joy in their lives. Together, comfort and joy make happiness possible. Whether it takes the form of pleasure and excitement (the youth's definition of happiness) or fulfillment and serenity (the old's definition of happiness), we all yearn for it.

When I paused to think about it, I realized that few pleasurable activities are harmless. In our use of happiness-promoting activities to cope with and enjoy life, how can we make sure that we do not harm ourselves or others? The following - and very popular - activities can all have a negative impact on our health, relationships, wallet, or other live things:

  • Drugs - illicit and licit (alcohol, cigarettes, etc.): disqualified
  • Food consumed for pleasure, especially if it's low in nutrients and/or high in unhealthy ingredients such as sodium and sugardisqualified
  • Screen time/electronics: disqualified
  • Most of the media (magazines, TV): disqualified
  • Shopping for the sake of shopping: disqualified
  • Sunbathing - disqualified
  • Long, hot showers - disqualified
  • Crushes and sex for the wrong reasons: disqualified
  • Workaholism/overtraining: disqualified
  • Even traveling, which I love, is polluting: disqualified

I am not saying that those things, consumed in moderation, are all and always bad for you: an occasional glass of wine, piece of cake, movie, video game, purchase (especially if it's local and/or fair trade), etc, will probably be harmless. The problem arises from the frequency at which we resort to our sources of comfort and joy: for many of us, many of those soon turn into a regular habit, or worse, an addiction... with the results we know too well. What are we to do? Can a healthy, balanced, moral and ethical person have fun in this life? I gave it some thought and here is what I came up with. Harmless sources of comfort and joy:

Challenges that are "just right" - e.g. training for and running a race
Creative activities - building/creating something (ideally out of recycled/repurposed materials!) 
Discovery/learning new things - makes you feel young and alive
Healthy foods that we love - if unhealthy foods are not the best option, perhaps we can redirect our enthusiasm toward healthy ones? I know I get pretty excited when I see that asparagus is in season. What are your healthy foods?
Meaningful activities - sharing your time, your talents, your ideas
Meditating - self-explanatory
Music - listening, playing, singing, composing
Nature - that can take so many forms: hiking, camping, birdwatching, gardening, going to a farmer's market, listening to the rain, admiring a sunset, interacting with your pets
Playing - go back to the basics with water, snow, board games, cards, etc.
Physical activity that you enjoy - exercising is great but not always fun; find something that you truly like to do
Reading - anything that you enjoy
Socializing - ideally with pleasant, interesting, like-minded people
Snuggles - with a loved one, a child, a pet. Giving or receiving a massage also works; it's all about the contact
Spirituality - to some this equates faith/religion, but it does not have to. All you need is to be aware of something bigger than you, that transcends your five senses.

To maximize the effect of those pleasurable but simple activities, you will have to make yourself more receptive to pleasure. How do you do that? By retraining yourself - children know how to enjoy life and get excited about things as simple as a caterpillar. When was the last time you got excited over a caterpillar? We may have lost that ability but we can find it again; here's how:

  • Be grateful - take time to fully recognize the positive in your life
  • Deprive yourself - by allowing yourself the big sources of pleasure less often, you will appreciate them more 
  • Cultivate mindfulness - be in the moment, pay attention - notice the little joys. And if you are going to indulge in your "vice" (mine is anything chocolatey), put all your awareness into it

It might take hard work, but I strongly believe that the comfort and joy you will get on that basis will be the purest and most fulfilling. 

Mindfulness this Week

What are your sources of - harmless - comfort and joy?

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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Mindfulness - The calendar method

DafneCholet, Flickr

When this mindfulness project started, some 10 weeks ago, I didn't quite know where it would take me, but I knew I had to make it concrete. Mindfulness can be quite the abstract concept, but I wanted my quest to be anything but abstract. Apart from the regular practice of meditation, I felt that I needed something tangible, some kind of "tool" to keep track of my progress in the field of mindfulness.

I was looking for something simple, effortless, not time-consuming. 

I looked at my calendar - the traditional, paper version of it. 

And I began thinking of the things I would like to keep track of.

There were mostly two: my physical state, and my mental state.

So on January first, I began putting the "daily face" on my calendar. At the end of each day, I would draw a simple emoji: A smiley face meant my mood had been mostly good, a neutral face meant my mood had been okay, and a frowning face meant my mood had been mostly negative (e.g. significantly sad, agitated, or irritable).

To account for my physical well or ill-being, I used a color code: Green meant no physical discomfort, blue meant moderate physical discomfort (e.g. soreness, headaches, digestive issues and the like), and red meant significant illness - red would mean, for example, that I had to take a full day off. (Knock on wood, no such day yet, even if migraine has forced me to change some plans.) 

Out of curiosity, I also kept track of the days I did meditate, of whether or not I had exercised, and where I was in my menstrual cycle. On my "not so good days", I added some additional information such as the weather, any particular stressful events, and whether or not I had certain foods which I had been suspicious about.

I am still writing on my calendar daily. All in all, this new habit only takes up a few minutes every day, and that time is very well-invested: After one month, I was already making interesting discoveries. After two, I could see trends emerge. Now well into the third month, I can almost anticipate some of the patterns

Using the "calendar method" allowed me to discover (or to confirm) the factors that influence my physical and emotional well-being. It was great news in two very different ways:

Factors I have control over: By knowing precisely what is good and not so good for my levels of well-being, I can tweak things, and trust that I will feel better. I am taking responsibility. This is empowering.

(Depending on your profile and specific issues, examples might include the impact of exercise, water intake, meditation, sleep, screen time, social interactions, etc. on your well-being, as well as food-related sensitivities and other reactions to your environment. In all those cases, if you can do something about the causes, you might as well take the bull by the horns to ensure your optimal well-being.)

Factors I have no control over: By knowing that some external, uncontrollable factors also have an impact on my well-being, I am less taken by surprise, and in turn, less frustrated - I accept the situation with more serenity instead of fighting it (or worse, self-loathing). I cut myself some necessary slack. This comes with a new respect for some of my vulnerabilities.

(Depending on your profile and specific issues, examples might include weather-related flare-ups, PMS and other hormonal symptoms, as well as feeling tense or down after a rough day. If you can do nothing about the causes, you might as well face the consequences with a zen attitude.)

It has only been ten weeks, but it already qualifies as an eye-opening journey, and I cannot wait to make new discoveries!

Mindfulness this Week

Have you noticed any trends by paying attention to your well-being and by focusing on the possible causes? What are you doing about it?

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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Mindfulness - Was William Shakespeare a Buddhist?

Marilyn Roxie, Flickr

Guest post by Shawn McKim

Mindfulness is a way of communicating.

I must come across as someone who either a) is mindful or b) is mindless. 
Either way, it would do me good to think about thinking, and then write about it.
So here I am, thinking about thinking. Actually, I’m procrastinating. But
I’m thinking about it. Does that count? Can mindfulness be an exercise in
stream-of-consciousness? Can it be a journal-style entry? Are there ever
any rules for writing about such a topic?

I thought about creating a character and revealing this character through
a monologue. The monologue would in turn reveal what the character was
thinking, since that is a monologue's primary function. But if you think
about it, it would really be about what I was thinking, since I created
the character and wrote every single word the character said/thought. This
had me thinking even deeper. Is Shakespeare all of his characters? Most of
them have monologues, which reveal their true intentions. Most of them
have deep thoughts that they would never admit to other characters. The
device becomes useful when the audience needs to know something about a
character that the playwright isn’t ready to reveal through action.

Shakespeare’s characters’ thoughts are really only his in part. I say this
because his characters represent all kinds of realms of the human psyche.
They represent greed, loneliness, jealousy, anger, love, passion, sanity,
and insanity, among other things. Is Shakespeare all of those things? Of
course he is. But not at the same time. That would be confusing. Like all
of us, Shakespeare suffered from the human condition, so therefore he
wrote about the human condition. And since this human condition is all
about feeling different things for different reasons; feeling confused;
feeling unbalanced... writing about it helps us make sense of it - both to
ourselves and to others.

So maybe that’s why I’m writing about this stuff. I’m suffering from the
human condition. I am everything and nothing at the same time. I am trying to make sense of everything and nothing by writing about it. I choose the
topic of mindfulness because it is bringing my thoughts to the forefront.
I am forced to deal with them straight on. There is no hiding whilst
writing. Naturally, my head turns to soliloquies, monologues, and
speeches. The literary way to express one’s feelings and thoughts. And who
wrote some of the most famous soliloquies? Shakespeare.

Upon my initial research, I am finding that most of Shakespeare’s famous
speeches involve the topic of mindfulness. Sometimes it isn't obvious but
sometimes it is. For example, in Macbeth the title character finds out his
wife has committed suicide. In response, he says to himself:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
—To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth is thinking about life. But Shakespeare is thinking 
about thinking about life. I try to remind myself that these characters are not real. They are creations by an author. A real person. A real, thinking, feeling,
writing person, not unlike myself. Macbeth is just one of many extensions
of Shakespeare’s psyche. He has to be. Otherwise, where did these words
come from? In order for Macbeth to compare life to a walking shadow or a
frustrated actor, he would have to feel this way himself; at least
sometimes. Is Shakespeare always frustrated and concerned about life?
Perhaps not. Does he really feel like there is no use for anything? Maybe
sometimes. But not all the time, because Romeo was full of life and love
and hope:

Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp. Her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See how she leans her cheek upon her hand
O that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!

Romeo barely knows this girl and yet he has fallen deeply in love. He is
comparing her eyes to the stars and is, for all intents and purposes, in
heaven just by looking at them.

Is this not Shakespeare as well? Remembering what it was like to fall in
love for the first time? How could he be both Macbeth and Romeo? They are
so conflicting in their worldviews. So conflicting in their attitudes.
Easy. Shakespeare, like all of us, is all kinds of things. He is greedy,
lonely, jealous, angry, loving, passionate, sane, and insane. It’s his job
to write about these feelings for his audience is all of us, and we are
all of these things as well.

Mindfulness is a way of communicating. Perhaps not in the traditional
sense of speaking aloud to another person. Conveying a message is not
always that simple or empirical. It can be as complex and deep as a
character in a play, soliloquizing about anything, everything, and
nothing, all at the same time.

Mindfulness this Week

If you would like to submit a piece on your mindfulness thoughts and processes, please address it to mleuxj at gmail dot com.

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