“Breathe!”

If you’ve attended a yoga class lately at Canyon Wren Wellness Center, or have visited with me as a client, you know how excited I am—in a very calm way, of course— about a simple breathing exercise known as “4-7-8” breathing (a.k.a. “Relaxing breath”).

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Joe Ringo, Maupin, OR

There are many different breathing techniques that are effective in activating our parasympathetic nervous system (the part of our nervous system designed to calm us down), and rhythmic breathing itself is a core part of yoga practice. But I have found the 4-7-8 breathing technique to be especially powerful in providing immediate results, especially when it is practiced regularly, which helps teach the body to expect it to do exactly that when practiced on the spot. 

I learned about the technique from a friend who, hoping to avoid or to minimize the need to take medication for recently-diagnosed hypertension, visited Dr. Andrew Weil’s website (https://www.drweil.com/) hoping to find some effective integrative (combination) medicine  approaches, which is where he found the directions for this technique. To his happy surprise, he has been able to significantly reduce the amount of medication needed to lower his blood pressure (by his report) to healthy parameters, by using this technique on a regularly basis.

So I went to Dr. Weil’s website to learn more, and found that this 4-7-8 breathing can help with many conditions, including anxiety, insomnia (according to an article in Medical News Today some people report being able to drop off to sleep in one minute by using this technique), managing cravings, and controlling or reducing anger responses.

What’s not to like?

How to do it:

1. Find a comfortable sitting position and place the tip of your tongue on the spot where the top front teeth meet the roof of your mouth.

2. Empty your lungs by breathing out through the mouth once, fast and forcefully enough to make a “whoosh” sound.

3. Breathe in quietly through the nose to the count of 4 (about 4 seconds)

4. Hold the breath for a count of 7 (about 7 seconds)

5. Exhale through the mouth, pursing the lips for 8 counts/seconds

6. Immediately breath in through the nose again to begin the next round (you don’t do that initial “whoosh” again between rounds), and repeat the cycle for a total of 4 rounds.

Note that the speed of the count is less important than keeping steady rhythm. The friend who told me about the technique uses a metronome, but as long you feel the count is “even,” and the speed of the count feels comfortable to you, you’re doing it right, even if your count is faster or slower than one second per count.

Dr. Weil recommends practicing the technique at least twice a day, since the effectiveness of the technique when you need it increases the more regularly you practice it. He also suggests that people avoid doing more than four breath cycles in a row until they have more practice with the technique.

Some people feel lightheaded after doing this the. Therefore, it’s a good idea to try this technique when sitting or lying down to prevent dizziness or falls.

As we face the happy-and-otherwise stresses of the Holiday season, what better time than now to add a quick-and-easy (and free!) stress-reducing technique to your repertoire.

 

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Honestly?

In my visits with couples, “problems with communication,” is the reason people most often give for deciding to seek consultation.

And while there are many, many factors that are involved in how the communications can go wrong in individual relationships (though they often involve too much expressing and not enough listening, over all), an understanding of the difference between being “frank” and being “honest” can be an important foundation for reworking the ways we go about trying to communicate with the people close to us, so that our communications lead to more closeness, instead of just widening distance.images

“But aren’t ‘frankness’ and ‘honesty’ the same thing?” you might be thinking.

Far from it.

“Honesty” focuses on our own feelings (like sadness, anger, confusion, happiness, hopefulness, excitement, anxiety and fear) and our own behaviors (including our “thought behaviors”: the stories we tell ourselves about our feelings, and about “how things are.” ). Conversely, “frankness” generally involves blaming and/or judging the other or others in some way, as a way of avoiding (however unconsciously) the vulnerability that comes with actually being honest. “Frankness” is about what I think about you, not how I feel and behave inside me.

From the point of view of this definition, the phrase “brutally honest” really doesn’t make any sense anymore. “Honesty” is never brutal, since it doesn’t get involved in judgements about others; honesty is interested in taking responsibility for self.

So if you are having difficulty persuading or feeling understood by a family member, coworker or friend, take a look at your own behavior first. Do you focus more on expressing yourself than you do on listening? Is your focus more, that is, on trying to be understood than to understand? When someone expresses themselves to you, do you reply by giving opinions, advice, or otherwise making judgements about what is being said? (newsflash: opinions and advice are both varieties of judgements) Do you express your own distress by accusing and/or placing blame on the other person (“You never want to spend time with me!”), instead of describing the actual feeling (“I miss you”)? In short, do you find yourself trying to have an “honest” exchange by statements that start with leads like “I’m mad at you because you _________ !” Or “What’s wrong with you is __________!”  Or maybe with one of the two classic accusations: “You always ___________!”  and “You never ____________” ? (Newsflash number two: no-one “always” and “never” does anything, so you’ve instantly undermined your credibility with this one)

If any of these sound like you, consider that you’ve been being very, very frank with your loved one…but maybe not yet so honest: after all, there’s nothing in those phrases about you, at all.

So what are more “honest” ways of communicating about disappointments, differences, distance, and other relationship issues, according to these definitions? Does “honesty” just amount to “frankness ‘lite’”?  Does it mean soft-peddling information, or beating-around-the-bush, instead of having the “courage” to speak the truth, to be direct, to say what’s-what?

Actually, the opposite: it takes much more courage (because it’s so much more vulnerable) to be direct and honest about our own feelings and reactions and judgements, than it takes to judge, blame and complain about the other person in the relationship.

Skeptical? Try out these “honesty-speak” statements, imagining you are saying them to someone important to you who you are also angry at…and notice what it feels like inside.

“I’ve been feeling distance [or maybe ‘tension’ or some other feeling-quality] between us, and I’m not sure how to understand it— can you help?” (this statement makes an observation without making up a story about “why,” and invites conversation)

“It’s been seeming to me like I’ve been doing most of the household chores, and I’ve noticed myself starting to build up resentment about that, which tells me it’s time to talk.” (an observation that describes and owns up to your own experience and your reaction to it, but which stops short of accusing the other person of not doing their share).

“To be honest, I’ve been privately judging/blaming you for for my disappointment [or ‘pain,’ or ‘sadness’] about our communication for awhile now…”  (owns up to your blaming behavior, instead of simply projecting that blame itself)

If it feels uncomfortable to imagine actually speaking in this way, welcome to the world of genuine honesty in close-relationship communication!

While blaming, complaining, fault-finding and arguing can feel cathartic and satisfyingly self-righteous in the moment, consider whether these actually do anything to improve communication or closeness (or, as TV psychologist Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”). Truly honest statements and questions like the ones above require that we own our own feelings and reactions…which naturally invites (without demanding) that others take ownership for theirs in turn (thought experiment: imagine your response if your loved one approached you with one of the statements above).

The truth is, unlike the counterfeit bravery and openness involved in being “brutally frank” in our communications with our loved ones (the implicit objective of which is generally to make someone else “wrong,”), real honesty requires real courage: the courage to be vulnerable, and to take responsibility for ourselves.

And while most of us think we want to feel truly close to the ones we love, fewer of us are as prepared as we may think we are for the vulnerability involved, and the courage that calls for, so we go about “communicating” in ways (blaming, complaining, demanding, accusing) guaranteed to keep the other person at a “safe” emotional distance (and to make it the other person’s fault, in our minds), rather than communicate in ways that actually invite them emotionally closer.

As the great family therapist, Carl Whitaker (1912-1995) put it,”We all want more intimacy than we can actually to tolerate.” The great challenge and opportunity of our intimate relationships, then, is primarily not as much about getting as it is about honestly inviting, and then learning to tolerate the vulnerability involved in receiving. 

Not happy with the quality of your communication from your loved ones? Take an honest look first at your own, and make an honest assessment of your own real goals. If you’d rather be right than close (final newsflash for this post: we don’t get to have both; we have to choose), and find closeness a little too scary to actually invite it, then blaming, complaining, judging and demanding (all that frank talk) is the way to go. But if its genuine intimacy that you’re wanting with the one you love, try a little honesty.

It won’t take long to find out if you’re actually up for it.

 

Resolution Revolution

With the winter holidays behind us and a fresh year ahead, the tradition of “New Year’s Resolutions” are on the minds of some of us. This is the year we’re going to start exercising, lose weight, pay off our credit cards, or quit smoking or drinking…really!

Really? Well, according to statistics cited in an article in U.S. News and World Report), 80% of us will have given up on our efforts to achieve our resolution-related goals before the end of the second week of February.

So why are New Year’s resolutions so prone to failure?

One big reason is that resolutions are often based in those very powerful-in-the-moment, but not very effective-in-the-long-run feelings of shame and self-judgement: the feeling of being “bad” somehow. And when we feel like we are “bad,” we tend to go about “self-improvement” goals in self-punishing ways: by diets, for instance, that exclude foods we actually enjoy (or that we could, if we had a different attitude about them), or by going about exercise in a grimly-determined way, rather than seeing it as a form of enjoyment we have yet to explore. After all (reasons the mind subconsciously), if we are “bad” for being “out-of-shape,” shouldn’t the process of getting in shape be difficult and unpleasant? From that starting point though, it doesn’t take very long before we start feeling the need for relief from all the self-judgement-based punishment and deprivation we are putting ourselves through. And when we do look for relief, what do we turn to for self-soothing? Most likely the substances or behaviors we were trying to eliminate or change in the first place: food, alcohol, nicotine, spending, T.V.-watching, video-gaming— whatever.

The solution to the “resolution”? Rather than identifying a behavior you want to change, identify a “theme” that you would like to keep in mind for the coming year. This could be a word or a phrase that has meaning for you, and that represents something that has been missing from your daily life. Then, instead of vowing to achieve a specific behavioral goal, simply keep your theme in mind, and allow the year to unfold from there, checking in with yourself now and then to ask whether or not your current behaviors reflect that theme, or not. The results may surprise you.

I did this myself a few years ago, having realized that a broken ankle I experienced had been the result (at least in part), of how fast I habitually move through the world, and how much I try to get done in any given amount of time. My theme for the following year? “Half as much, half as fast.”

Here are some other examples of possible themes to consider for your New Year’s theme:

Theme: “Relaxation.” Constant activity without down-time takes a definite toll on our physical and mental health, and taking time to relax (whether with meditation, massage, a daily nap, or any playful-versus-goal-oriented activity)  can help to curb overeating, as well as helping with chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, hypertension, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Theme: “Enjoyment.” There’s a saying that “It’s not the cart that pulls the horse, it’s the oats!” We are much more likely to do things that are good for us if we actually enjoy those things. Try expecting to enjoy (instead of just endure) health-supporting behaviors. Find a physical activity that is fun for you, and have fun expanding the range of the kinds of food you enjoy by experimenting with unfamiliar, healthy ones, with the expectation not just of feeling “virtuous” but of actual pleasure.

Theme: “Movement.” Our bodies are made to move, but modern-day life often involves a lot of sitting—we even sit in the process of transporting ourselves from one place to another! Keeping “movement” in mind as a theme may make us more alert to opportunities to walk to the store instead of driving, take the stairs instead of an elevator, or to meet a friend for a walk instead of (or before) coffee and donuts.

Maybe your theme will be “Kindness” or “Listening” or “Joy,” or “Patience” or “Gratitude” or “Self-Care”— qualities you would like to cultivate by bringing more attention to them in the year ahead. Try it…and see if the behaviors that support them don’t start to develop naturally, as a result of your intention.

As for my “half as much, half as fast” intention/theme? Well, it’s a process! I can’t say I’m down to “half” yet, but I have slowed down considerably by keeping my theme in mind, my theme reminding me to ask myself more often, “does this particular activity need to happen at this much speed?” …and to respond accordingly. 

Whether your 2019 involves making formal resolutions, establishing themes, setting intentions, or none of these, may our individual and collective hearts open to, be filled with, and stirred to action by all that decreases division and increases love.

Happy New Year!

Navigating the Holidays After Major Loss

 

So many people I know (myself included) have experienced major losses over the past year that I’ve been thinking about it a lot as we enter this winter holiday season.

The winter holidays can be stressful under any circumstances, whether we experience their stressors as welcome or unwelcome. There are gifts to purchase, expectations (real or imagined) of others to face, invitations to events that we may welcome or dread (or both!), winter travel to navigate, crowds in town, strains on finances, the presence of friends or family members we may not like that much, or the absence of those we do…and on and on.  And for those who have experienced loss, the usual seasonal stresses may be significantly  amplified.

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http://www.chabad.org, photo by Flash90

The loss of a loved one through death, divorce or estrangement brings with it an array of related losses during the holidays, some of which can be anticipated and prepared for, and many of which can’t. Maybe your wife always put the lights on the tree, or your daughter and son-in-law brought the grandchildren to visit, or dad gave a dramatic reading of  “T’was the Night Before Christmas”. While you or someone else could decorate the tree, put the lights up, recite a poem, or fill the empty chair at the table, especially in the first year after a loss it may feel much too soon to “fill the hole” by taking over (or asking someone else to take over) the absent person’s role: after all, the loved one’s absence is their presence in the early stages (and by “early,” I mean at least the first 2 years) of mourning. And there are so many individual, little decisions to make. Do you send a holiday card this year, or not? If so, what’s the message? And what about that traditional family picture greeting card, after a child has died? Then there are the unanticipated emotional “stings”: the sight in the closet of that holiday sweater he always wore. Or you’ve decided to send a card, but then oops, that’s right: it will only be you signing it this year, not the two of you. Or those toys the grandkids loved to play with that will stay on the shelf this year.

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Christmas lights, Bokeh effect

For these reasons, even those of us who have been coping okay with a given loss can find that the holiday season “pushes the refresh button” on our grief, as we encounter the specific losses associated with the holiday season— losses that can’t be grieved until they come along.

What to do? Anyone who knows me very well has probably heard me say this a bazillion times, but it bears repeating: Grieving itself is the way through grief. Feeling, acknowledging and getting through are all that is really called for…and that is plenty.

That said, here are some specific things that can help ease holiday stress, during early grief.

1.  Don’t avoid the holidays. They’ll come anyway, and avoiding them now will mean dreading them again next year. Feel your feelings, and prepare as best you can for the hardest days.

2.  Make plans with others tentative.  Because the emotions of grief are so unpredictable, it’s hard to know how you’ll be feeling when the time comes for a given event. When accepting invitations, let others know that you may change your mind, and why…and then do what feels right when the time comes.

3.  Do only what has meaning for you. Think about what supports you and makes you feel most comfortable, and do only those things. If you are reluctant to disappoint others, remember that taking care of your own needs when you are grieving will make you more available to others again in the long run.

4.  Consider shopping early or online. As Julie Siri of Journey Through Loss puts it, grieving people often see reality through distorted lenses.  If you have lost a spouse, it may appear that all the world is “coupled”  with happy , healthy, married people […] If you have lost a child, everywhere you gaze you will see only energetic, rosy-cheeked children with smiling parents.   During the holidays these perceptions can be accentuated:  the malls are filled with joyful shoppers, Holiday music, colorful decorations, and an exciting hustle and bustle in the air. A grieving person may feel alone and depressed in this environment.

5.  Let others know what they can do. people who care about you can’t  know how to support you unless you tell them how you feel and what you need, as there is no formula or single “right way” to support a grieving person. Saying honestly that “Today is a hard day for me, and I’d appreciate some company” (or “…and I feel like being quietly alone”) lets people know what would be (and not be) supportive at a given time.

6.  Choose who to be around…and not. Spend time people who can be okay with tears, and who won’t tell you how you should and shouldn’t feel!

7.  Remember that our important relationships don’t end, they change. For many people, spending time with people who had a relationship also with the person who left or died— people you can reminisce with— is an important part of making that transition from how you were with the loved one then, to how you are with them now. Julie Siri again:  You are still impacted by your loved ones’ love, guided by their words, touched by their sense of humor.  Acknowledge the person who died, write them a card, get them a gift.  Honor this relationship in whatever manner you find helpful. Reminiscing with others about a person who died is an important way that we develop and nurture the new way (through our memories) of continuing to be in relationship with the people we love.

8. Connect with the larger community of grievers as an additional way to share experience and support during this time. Local hospice programs always have special holiday programs and holiday-focused information and resources to share, and there are a lot of good online sites that provide information and connections with other grievers. http://www.journeythroughloss.com, and www.griefshare.org are two of many.20161204_180331

In the end, there’s “no way out but through” the special emotional challenges that the holidays bring to the ongoing process of grieving, and no right way to navigate them, nor formula for easing the pain. But acknowledging, accepting (and for some of us, talking about) our feelings and experiences, without judging ourselves for what we feel (or for what we don’t feel, like “cheery”!) during the holiday season can go a long way toward relieving the additional pain that comes from thinking that “However I am I should be some different way.” However we are is exactly how we “should be,” as grieving itself navigates our course through it.

 

 

“The Journey”

In a post in 2015, on the topic of  “Books that have changed our lives,” several contributors wrote about the way in which their lives had been changed the most by books whose central message is that we each can and must take responsibility for our own heath and happiness. For women, especially, socialized to respond to others’ needs and demands first (and to think that putting ourselves first is “selfish”), this can be not only news, but a major change in our whole orientation.

Far from being “selfish,” taking responsibility for meeting our own needs (whatever that means to us each, but maybe especially for rest and for nurture) actually does take care of others, even as we are taking care of ourselves. How? First of all, it removes the burden of responsibility  —whether intentional or unintentional— from those we love, for doing something no-one else can do for us anyway (no-one else can receive what we need for us). Secondly (but related), it relieves us of the inevitable resentment we feel when others don’t deliver to us what they can’t give us anyway: our own self-care!

A realization of my own around this came when a wise health practitioner asked me once, “Who is the most important person in your life to take care of?” When I answered “my husband,” she replied “Wrong answer!” Then sh

 

e asked me, “What would he want your answer to that question to be?” It was a startling question to be asked…and yet I immediately knew the answer: “Me!” Which was the answer I would also want him to give if he were asked the same question: that he, and not I, was his “number one” care-giving priority. After all, if he didn’t take care of himself, how would he be able to take are of me?IMG_2255

Consider the instructions that flight attendants give on what to do in an emergency, which include the instruction to “put the oxygen mask over your own face first,” and only then over a child’s or companion’s face. Which makes immediate sense, right? It’s obvious in a situation like that that unless we first make sure that we ourselves are getting the oxygen we need, we are not even going to be around long enough to take care of others’ needs.

That said, as usual poetry goes to the heart of the matter as only poetry can; in this case, the poem “The Journey” by beloved American poet Mary Oliver. It’s a poem that I have found powerfully challenging and orienting, both, at times in my life (and there have been many!) when taking responsibility for listening and responding to what life and love were calling me both toward and away from was especially urgent for my own physical, mental and spiritual health.

If you, too, recognize yourself in this poem, may you know what you have to do, and begin.

 

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
I
t was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
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the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

(from Dreamwork, by Mary Oliver, 1986)

Crazy

“How’s business?” someone asked me at a party recently.

I responded with my standard (and true) answer: that I’m happy in my work, and happy that I get to do it. Then came the joking next question, “So I guess there must be at least as many crazy people around these parts as there are in the city?”

It was a version of the reference to “crazy people” in connection with the work I do that I have heard more times than I can count, and yet it takes me off guard every time, since “crazy” is not a way I think of anyone I see or have seen in my therapy practice. It’s as if someone were to ask me, “Are there as many two-headed green space aliens around these parts as there are in the city?” To which my answer would be easy: “I wouldn’t know— I’ve never seen any.” 

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drawing by “Turnabliss” @ drawception.com

The fact is, the term “crazy” says more about the fear and judgement of those who use it than it says about anyone it is used to describe. Think about it: when you have described yourself or someone else as being “crazy,” haven’t you used it as a term of scorn, a shorthand way to judge, write off, and distance yourself from someone you see as not being able to cope as you think they should, or whose behaviors annoy you, or who seems eccentric in a way you fear?

Which is not to say that there are not people who don’t suffer terribly and persistently from disabling, disorienting, mental or emotional conditions (conditions which are usually treated with medication and case-management anyway, and not counseling). But to call people with severe and persistent mental illness “crazy” is to replace our compassion and curiosity with an all-purpose, scornful write-off label that only contributes to the stigma and isolation that they live with everyday, adding insult to injury, very literally.

Far from being either “crazy” (whatever that means) or being two-headed green space aliens, the people who go to therapy are just like you and me: humans grappling with the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary challenges of being human. Some are dealing with mental illness, which (like any other illness) takes a lot of energy and patience and skill to cope with on a daily basis. Some, faced with a difficult decision, life transition, or loss to navigate, use counseling to create a space in which to hear themselves think and feel themselves feel, the better to figure out for themselves what to do. And the purpose of counseling is to hold that space– a space for people to have a conversation with their own wisdom and emotions, not to get advice, have their problems solved by someone else, or be told how they “should” feel (our friends and families are happy to do that for free, right?)

Over the past several decades of my own adult life, I have personally seen a therapist on 4 different occasions at least, and each therapist I consulted was invaluable in helping me identify and effectively navigate the particular challenges I was working with at the time. One helped me see the need to develop more self-compassion, and taught me practices to cultivate it which I use and teach to this day. One helped my husband and me endure the challenges of parenting teens more effectively (and I hope more gracefully). Another offered me the kinds of questions to ask myself that made it possible for me to more clearly evaluate and take action on a difficult workplace situation. And one offered simply the anchor of her calm, reassuring, confident, listening presence that I needed to get myself through a scary episode of depression, until it lifted.

Could I cope with these myself without counseling? Of course— I was coping, just like everyone alive is coping: coping is what keeps us alive. The problem for most of us isn’t located in a failure of “coping,” it’s that “coping” alone reduces our experience of living to strategies focused on avoiding pain, at the expense of feeling fully and exuberantly alive. So when people come to therapy, it’s rarely about not being able to cope; it’s about being tired of paying the price of “just coping,” and wanting to also feel more fully (and joyously) alive.

Which makes me think, as I write this, that maybe that is actually a good definition of “crazy:” “being fully alive.” If that makes me crazy, I’ll take it. I’d be crazy not to.

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Making a Habit of Happiness

In my previous post (“On Happiness” Part 1), I described how I got over my…well, my unhappiness about happiness.

Since then, I’ve been enthusiastically reading up on what’s understood about how it works, and on how to cultivate and incorporate happiness as a stronger strand of experience in our lives. 

There’s been a lot of attention in research and in therapy in the past few years to the principles and approaches of  “positive psychology,” which field has to do with the ways that we can deliberately influence our experience of overall happiness. Some research has concluded that we each, individually, have a “happiness set-point” that largely determines our overall sense of well-being. Experiences that feel positive can temporarily raise our mood levels, and losses or disappointments can lower them, but generally our moods tend to cluster around this set point, and to return to it— it’s kind of like our personal “mood climate.”

While it’s thought that these basic mood level “set points” are partly determined by our genes and our upbringing, it turns out that about 40 percent of our personal happiness-climate is within our control, and can be changed by making conscious choices to behave in ways that increase positive feelings. Simply by taking our thinking (and other behavioral) habits off “automatic” and putting them on “manual,”  we can add much more happiness to our lives than may have seemed possible before.

A keyword here is the word “add:” happiness is not made by covering over our sorrow and suffering with a smiley-face sticker; it’s about expanding the scope of our experience to include happiness as part of it. About choosing to invite happiness to live and to grow side-by-side with our other moods and experiences. In fact, our ability to successfully navigate life’s disappointments and losses (and even to cope with depression), is in great part dependent on our ability to look for, receive, cultivate and savor positive feelings and experiences also.

I find one of the most beautiful, living testimonials to the power of personal choice in the cultivation of happiness in my friend and mentor, Colleen B, with whom I spent a weekend recently at her home on Vashon Island. imagesNow in her eighties, Colleen has lived a rich and loving family life with her husband and 5 children, and now also many grandchildren. She is one of the most deeply, even radiantly positive people I know, which radiance seems to only brighten –and her vitality deepen– as she ages. So much so that if you did not know her history, you might assume that she must have lived a charmed life, relatively untouched by loss.

In fact, the opposite is true: between 2004 and 2015, both of Colleen’s sons, her husband, and a daughter died, with the three most recent of those deaths coming only 2-1/2 years apart. It goes without saying that each one of these losses has been profound. Collectively, they are hard for me to imagine even living through.

But as I have watched and listened to Colleen speak about what it has been like to accept and digest these losses over time, I have seen in action the ways in which her dedication to, and faith in, all that is life-giving (which is perhaps, in essence, what happiness is made of)  has made it possible for her to incorporate these losses into the whole of the experience of continuing to fully live, instead of either repressing grief by pasting a false smile over it, walling it off in some other way, or giving in to despair. Rather, happiness for Colleen is what makes the sadness bearable; the warp on which the weft of sadness is woven in the fabric of her life.  Or as Colleen put it (in our text exchange just now about what I was planning to write about her here):  “It is important to say that I experience feeling sad and happy at the same time. It took me awhile to recognize that in myself: that one does not cancel out the other.” 

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So how does one cultivate happiness, so that it’s there when we need it (and don’t we need it every day)?

The thing is,  it does take intention and effort to keep happiness strong and alivesimply because the positive does not shout for our attention in the way that fear and disappointment do. As organisms, our brains are wired for fear to have the first and loudest voice…which wiring helps us survive, but it’s not what helps us thrive.

Here are 5 practices that can help to cultivate happiness (all of which, as it turns out, Colleen herself does on a daily basis).

Keep a gratitude journal. Each night before going to bed, write down three new things for which you are grateful. It’s important to write these down, not just review them in your mind: new habits of mind tend to take root more easily when the body and is involved. Doing this every day for 3 weeks will make it a habit, meaning your brain will start automatically looking for more things to appreciate.

Regularly notice and savor the positive. Maybe your practice will be to jot down at least one positive experience you’ve had in the last 24 hours, and take the time to really appreciate it. Maybe it will mean really savoring the taste of a sandwich while eating it, instead of reviewing and savoring a grudge during lunch.  As with the gratitude practice, you’re creating the habit of noticing and really “taking in” positive experiences automatically, by looking for them each day.

Make intentional acts of kindness a daily habit. There are so many opportunities for these throughout every day, it’s just a matter of taking them! Make a practice saying a kind word in place of a complaint (or instead of no word) to the person who checks out your groceries, answers the phone at a business, or pumps your gas. Do or say something thoughtful for a family member or friend. Kindness reaps what it sows in us, so notice whether or not you might start feeling more kindly toward yourself as a result of making a habit of kindliness.

Move your body every day. There’s no question that exercise and other physical activity reduce stress levels and boost the “well-being” chemicals circulating in the brain and bloodstream, as well as helping our bodies be more energetic and healthier in the long run. Once again, a commitment to a daily practice of exercise teaches the body to expect it, as well as to expect its positive results.

Sit in quiet attention for a period of time every day. Spending even one minute each day (but the more the better) just sitting quietly without “doing” anything else, just noticing the moment within and without, gives the mind a rest from all the reacting and story-telling it does otherwise. It’s not even necessary to “try to relax” or “try to be calm” (which can backfire anyway, since these involve “trying”). Just taking some time each day to sit still with whatever thoughts and emotions are going on can have a profound settling effect, boosting those well-being chemicals in the brain. My own practice is to do this 30 minutes each day…and I can tell the difference when I don’t!

I’ll end this post with one more (my current favorite in these difficult-in-many-ways days on the planet), which Colleen gave me during our visit. Here it is in her handwriting, as she’d copied it into her journal:

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