Am I OK Enough?

Once, someone important found you lacking. Perhaps this person honestly intended to help you, not criticize you. Or maybe they were just taking something out on you. Someone further back hurt them, and they passed it along.

Now in the present, this internalized criticism lacks any practical value. It’s not interested in solving a problem or improving something. If you’re no good, you might as well not even try to change some imperfection of heart, mind or body. You can’t pull good out of bad.

To flourish, we need to start from a foundation of self-esteem, an awareness of our value. We all know that. But how do we clear away the shame messages and remember that at our cores we are glorious? Whole, shining and alive?

One way is to see ourselves, the unity of our minds, hearts and bodies, more clearly. To reflect on who we are. We do thousands of wonderful things that we see as no big deal.

How would we get through our days were it not for our minds directing us? Minds do the big things: create systems of roads connecting all parts of a country. Enable us to walk onto airplanes and move through the air. Work out peace treaties. Think up games. And little, vital things: we check e-mail and get dressed in the morning.

Our desire to listen to people and heal ourselves and throw birthday parties springs from our hearts. Part of us feels connected to the melting polar icecaps and picks up little kids when they cry. We send money to Doctors Without Borders. We put our arms around our friends and play with our pets when we’re tired.

Our hearts and minds can move around in the world doing interesting things thanks to our bodies. Without our bodies to act, we couldn’t read books to kids. Nobody would go to aquariums and watch sharks. Fabulous brunches wouldn’t matter. Or even exist.

Think for a moment about all the amazing things our bodies do, things we never think about. Our brains coordinate the complex business of keeping us alive. Our blood carries carbon dioxide to our lungs that we breathe out and nourish plum trees with. We experience the extravagance of the sunlight on our skin because we have nerves.

How could a creature who is and does all these things be anything less than magnificent?

In the next post we’ll continue to think about these things in light of a Meditation on Five Aspects of Being. In the meantime —

Readers: How does your mind give to the world?

How has your heart spoken to you this past week?

What do you enjoy doing with your body?

The Secret to Growth

Yesterday, warmth and bright sunshine.

Today, cold and rain.

“I like this! I don’t like that!”

Everything coming and going.

Take what comes and don’t run after what goes.             

–Haju Sunim

My friend, Suzanne, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder several years ago. She usually does quite well, but it’s been a real challenge for her lately.

About three months ago, she started having insomnia and getting irritable, her warning signs that she’s getting sick. Over the past two months her mood swings have settled into depression. As far as her energy goes, she’s working part time right now and reads the rest of the day.

She’s lucky to have a great psychiatrist who’s working closely with her to get her medication right. But until her brain chemistry straightens out, she could remain depressed for quite some time. She just needs to wait.

So how’s she holding up with all this?

“I was pretty angry, especially since it’s been dragging on for so long. But here in the past couple weeks I’ve had a shift. I realized that this is hard, but it’s just hard. It’s not horrible. It’s just hard.

“I know I’ll be stronger on the other side of this. I’m not happy about it, but I’m ok. A couple weeks ago I was not ok. Now I am.”

What is the secret to personal growth? Acceptance. Take what comes. Don’t run after what goes.

Accepting all experience, even the unpleasant parts — that’s mindfulness. What is there to see, to learn? Are there perhaps some gifts here?

If Suzanne fights her situation, she’ll have two problems — her emotional pain and also the suffering caused by resisting. But she gets it that her illness and this current rough patch are opportunities for her growth. When she sees it that way, depression is not a bad thing.

Learning to grow through difficult times starts well before the troubles hit. Reflect today on how precious your growth is to you. Think about how helpful hard times can be. We don’t need to feel victimized by painful experiences. Emotional growth is far more valuable than being comfortable and avoiding pain. If you want to deepen your wisdom and empathy for others, you’ll know that difficulties are a good thing.

If you’re facing some kind of difficulty in your life right now, know that you’re a strong person, even if you don’t feel it. Let this period of your life show you your inner resources of wisdom, peace and balance. We all have these qualities — we just need to realize they’re there and cultivate them.

Try to see this as an opportunity to become a richer person, a more compassionate person. Let this process show you what you need to learn.

Readers: What have you learned from your difficulties? Please share in the comments.



Happiness Habits

Vegetables and fruitWhat would a happier life look like for you?

Would you be healthier? Have deeper friendships? Would you simply be content?

The decisions and actions that make up our lives rest on our habits.

We usually don’t think about our habits too much. Do yours bring you happiness? Do they create enjoyable relationships, activities, feelings, experiences? Or do they pull you down?

Thinking about our lives and decisions lets us figure out what we want. When we then base our actions on our goals, we can craft a life filled with a sense of well-being. We can create habits that move us towards joy.

Build the Foundation for Change

What do you want to take on? Start by listing some things that would make your life better. Engaging work? Financial stability? A comfortable home free from clutter?

Choose one area, and let’s think about  what small steps you can take towards your dream.

For example, say you’d like to get healthier. Perhaps you want to add more vegetables to your diet. What kinds of habits could get you there?

Eat More Vegetables

Most Americans eat far fewer than the recommended daily five to eight servings of vegetables and fruits. (Readers from other countries: do people in your culture eat more of them, and if so, what advice can you pass along to people in the United States?)

Does that sound unbearable? One serving, though, is just half a cup of cooked vegetables or one cup of something raw like salad. So if you start by adding one serving of vegetables a day and do that for a month, you’re already doing quite a bit better than you were.

Add another serving the next month. Before long you’re up to snuff.

It’s important to note that your goal isn’t to lose weight. You may or may not go after that goal later. Now you’re just trying to eat more vegetables. If you do, you’ll probably lose weight naturally, if that’s what you want. And for sure you’re adding a lot more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and all that good stuff to your life.

If you have an aversion to vegetables, they’ll need to taste especially good or else you probably won’t stick with this. For a few months, then, add a generous splash of olive oil, a sauce, some mayonnaise. We’re not talking about going overboard, but add enough so that you can really taste it.

If you want to move towards little or no fat with them, it’ll be easier to do this as you come to enjoy the taste of the vegetables themselves.

Enjoy Your New Habit

As you’re making changes, reflect often on how glad and proud you are. You’re doing well.

Notice how you feel physically and emotionally — it’s very reinforcing.

Creating a healthy habit can be easy. Do it very slowly, in small steps, and you’ll succeed.

Readers: What new habits have you created? What are you working on, and what’s one small step towards forming a habit?

Savoring Our Food

Green Grapes on the Vine“Wolf…Wolf……..Wolf!” Can you hear that sound at workplaces all over the United States? It’s the sound of us wolfing down our lunches while we sit at our desks, trying to work and eat at the same time. Some of us are under tremendous pressure to produce more and more at work as a condition of keeping our jobs, and personal needs like nourishing our bodies fall off our priority lists. Almost all of us have lives that are over-scheduled to the point where we eat in our cars, eat standing up, rush through meals without tasting our food.

We deserve better.

Savoring our food is a radical act. There isn’t much cultural support for eating slowly enough to thoroughly enjoy food or even to be aware of what we’re eating. You may feel that it’s unrealistic or even weird to close your eyes a few times during a meal to notice sweet, bland, and sour flavors and to feel a crispy food become soft. However, doing this actually changes us. If we start chewing slowly enough to taste our meals and snacks, we begin to carry mindfulness into the rest of our day without even thinking about it.

I love grapes and had some for breakfast this morning. They’re from the farmers’ market and are especially delicious. If there’s any food that is worth eating mindfully, it’s these grapes. I put one in my mouth and closed my eyes. I wanted to eat them quickly because they’re so good. But accepting my desire to rush, I chewed them slowly. After a bit, the delightful sweetness faded, and I noticed how much I disliked that. The textures held my interest: very juicy, a tough skin, slippery beneath the skin. Who knew?

Try this exercise and see what happens.

A New Way To Handle Overeating

Your intention was to not overeat. But now that you’re done eating, you don’t feel so great. You aren’t stuffed, exactly, but you’re uncomfortably full.

Guilt starts rising up. Normally this would be the moment where one of two things would happen, or perhaps both. You’d begin berating yourself: “I can’t believe you did this again! What’s the matter with you?” You might also say, “Well, I’ve blown it, so I might as well keep eating.”

But instead you pause and catch yourself. You’re committed not to perfection and fast weight loss, but rather to freeing yourself from a painful relationship with food.

You’re going to need a moment to regroup, so if you aren’t alone, excuse yourself and head to the bathroom or someplace private for just a second. Now give yourself a hug, or gently touch some place on your body. Remind yourself about some quality you like about yourself, or about some loving thing you did today, or something you do well. You might say something like this to yourself:

I’m a wonderful person. I had some trouble just now, but it’s over and I’m moving on from here. I haven’t committed any crimes. I don’t have to keep eating.

Now close your eyes and take a few breaths. No need to breathe deeply, just notice the air moving in and out of your body. If you’re sitting, feel your legs and bottom and back against your seat and your feet against the floor. Notice the feelings swirling around inside you, and just say to yourself “feelings.” Do this for a few moments, and chances are the swirling will begin to subside. Notice the thoughts running around inside your head. Don’t engage with them, don’t start arguing with them or building them up. Just say, “thinking.” Again, chances are that they’ll start quieting down.

You might be aware now of something else that’s bothering you. If so, reassure yourself that whatever it is, you can handle it. If you have time, take a moment to think about it and see what solutions might present themselves. If you don’t have time for this, promise yourself you’ll get back to this before the day is up.

Now go back to whatever you need to do next knowing that you just turned around a moment that could have spoiled your day.

The Journey From Overeating To Trust

How do you feel about your body? If overeating is a problem for you, especially if you’re heavier than you’d like to be, chances are you don’t feel very good at all about it.

People who overeat generally distrust themselves and dislike their bodies. You hear people express this: “I have no self-control when it comes to chocolate….I hate my thighs….my stomach is a bottomless pit….”

But reflect on the wisdom of your human body. We take it for granted that we can walk, see, drive, listen to our kids, but we couldn’t do any of these things were it not for the wise bodies that so many of us dislike.

Chances are you don’t spend much time thinking about how it is that you pick something up off a table. This simple activity relies on information your body gives you. You decide you want that glass on the table and you extend your arm.  You know you’ve touched the surface of the glass by the feeling you get in your fingers and hand.

Your appetite works in a similar way. Just like you know how it feels when your hand makes contact with the glass, you can tune in and feel from your body what kind of food it wants and how much of it.

Try something right now: close your eyes, tune in to your stomach and abdomen area, and find out what they have to tell you. Are you full? How full? Give yourself a number between one and ten. Are you hungry? Rate your hunger — not very much? Somewhat? Very? Whatever you find out is neither good nor bad; it’s just information.

This exercise may be hard for you if you’ve distrusted your body for many years and consequently come to override your hunger and fullness signals. But don’t worry — it will simply take you a little time and practice to remember how to do this.

Information is power. As you learn to consciously pay attention to the hunger and fullness signals that are always available to you, you build trust in your own wisdom. This trust is the foundation of a whole new relationship with yourself, which in turn will help you heal your relationship with food.

How To Cool Down Arguments

Sometimes a good fight clears the air. Too often, though, heated arguments just hurt a relationship. One or both of you say mean words that you can’t take back. Feelings get hurt. Resentment builds.

This is not to say that you’re supposed to sit on your feelings or that you shouldn’t get angry. Anger is a part of life, and it certainly comes up in every relationship. It’s just a question of how you manage your anger.

“Pause” is the key word. Not “stuff your feelings” but pause, step back and think. Buy yourself some time. You can teach yourself to stop, go inside yourself, and practice a healthy self-restraint.

“Sounds good,” you say, “but how in the world do I do this in the heat of the moment?”

The first step starts long before the argument begins. Decide that, from now on, you’re not going to go to that destructive place. A decision like this is powerful and can help you remember to stop when things start to go out of control. If you argue frequently, remind yourself daily that you’ve decided to practice self-restraint because you love your partner. And because you want to become more mature.

The second step also takes place before an argument. Take responsibility for your own misbehavior. It’s too easy to blame your partner and see him or her as “the problem.” We have a harder time realizing that we are the problem the moment we begin to blame. Fortunately, we are also the solution.

If you do these things, during an argument you won’t so readily indulge the feeling that this other person is wrong and that they need to agree with you. Just stop talking. Do this gently, without glaring or making a face. If your partner takes this as a hostile gesture, tell them you’ve just realized that you’re creating a problem with what you’re saying, and you need to take some time to compose yourself. When you’ve both calmed down, you can have a productive discussion about what made you angry.

This will take time and practice. Don’t judge yourself when you don’t “do it right.” Instead, give yourself a pat on the back for deciding to nurture your relationship and further your own growth.

The Unhappily Married Man

There lived a man who was absolutely miserable with his wife. Once deeply in love, over the years they first grew apart and later began to treat each other with contempt. They would have terrible arguments and then go for weeks in tense silence.

The man ruminated day and night about how to solve his dilemma. Divorce or separation was out of the question because of the customs of their land. Finally he began to ponder a most drastic solution.

He went to a wise elder in his town and said, “I hear that you’re able to mix up poisons that kill people slowly, so that no one will suspect foul play. You must make up some poison for me so that I can give it to my wife. Living with her is unbearable, and the only way out of my misery is to kill her.”

“I think I can help you” the elder replied. “But I’m not sure you’ll be willing to pay the cost of this solution.”

“I’ll pay anything. Anything! Whatever you want from me, I’ll do it.”

“Very well,” the elder replied. “It will take me one month to prepare the poison. Give me no money now. The only thing I require of you is that during this next month, you treat your wife as though she was the most precious, lovely, desirable woman in the world.”

“What?!! I can’t do that! I hate her! It’s absolutely impossible to treat her as though I love her.”

“But you said you’d do anything to get your hands on the poison.”

The man swallowed hard, grimaced, and said, “Fine. I’ll do as you say. I’ll do anything to escape my misery.”

So the man bought some flowers and went home to face his wife. Sure enough, she greeted him at the door with a sneer of disgust.

“What are you doing with those flowers? They’re hideous. You’re hideous.”

“These are for you. I want to make peace.” He felt nauseous as he said the words, but he put the flowers in a vase and placed them on the table.

Over the next two weeks he spoke to her kindly every day, asked for her opinions, did the dishes, and tried his best to act as though he loved her. At first he could hardly bear to do these things, but he wanted the poison so much that he was willing to do anything. She responded at first with hateful words, then with silence. And strangely enough, it began to get easier for him to treat her well.

And even stranger, his wife began to be a little less hateful. And strangest of all, by the third week they were no longer enemies. And by the fourth week, they were enjoying each other so much that he forgot all about the poison.

A month or so later he encountered the elder on the street. “I have a package waiting for you,” the elder said.

The man looked at him, puzzled. “Don’t you remember?” the elder asked. “You asked me to make up some poison for you. For your wife. Why didn’t you ever come to collect it?”

The man shook his head in horror. “Poison my beautiful, wonderful wife? Never, ever in a thousand years could I do that!”

The elder smiled and walked away.

Healing Self Esteem

So many of us are self-critical to the point where we dislike ourselves.

The Dalai Lama was meeting with a group of Western psychologists when the subject of poor self-esteem came up. He indicated that he didn’t understand this concept. After much discussion with his translator he finally said: we just don’t have that issue in Tibetan culture. Not only do we not have words for this, this condition doesn’t exist for us.

Would that we could say the same thing in the west. Those who were most severely criticized, rejected, or abused as children can suffer terribly with self-criticism and dislike of themselves. Even if we were mostly treated well as children, it’s hard to find someone in our lives who doesn’t struggle in some way with self-esteem.

There are people who seem to have too much self-esteem, but if one’s sense of self isn’t based on a balanced and realistic embrace of weaknesses and strengths, an over-aggrandized sense of self-importance will deflate in the face of real hardship. When this person falls, they fall hard.

“Ok,” you say, “I know I’m too hard on myself. I’m much kinder to others than I am to myself. But I’ve always been this way. What can I do?”

Beginning a practice of the Loving-Kindness Meditation could help ease your harsh judgments of yourself.

The Loving-Kindness Meditation is a short series of intentions you can say to yourself silently or aloud:

May I be filled with loving-kindness.

May I be well in body and mind.

May I be free of anger and anxiety.

May I be peaceful and at ease.

A number of my clients have begun repeating this meditation to themselves a few times throughout their day or perhaps for a longer period of time in the morning or evening. They always say it helps. Often within the first week they notice a significant shift in how they feel about themselves.

“Those are nice words,” you may say. “But I don’t believe I could ever be that way. Really loving to myself? Free of anxiety? It would feel like I’m just going through the motions if I tried doing that meditation.”

So take the risk and try it anyway. As you say the words, they become a part of you.

Mindfulness and Strong Feelings

Mindfulness enables us to help ourselves with strong feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, and more. The key is getting out of our heads and into our bodies.

Emotions express themselves as physical sensations. You may feel a lump in your throat when you’re very sad, a tightness in your chest when anxious, a clenching of your hands and forearms when you’re angry. Finding that place in your body and simply feeling it often brings great relief and always provides useful information about potential solutions to our difficulties.

How does that lump feel? Is it heavy? Constricting? The tightness in your chest may feel solid one moment, and then open up. The clench in your hands may feel hot and shaky.

Our tendency is to try to think our way out of strong feelings. It never works. Noticing what our bodies feel like, though, allows us to process our emotions and extract valuable information from them for solving our problems.

For example, you find that your jaw is so tight it hurts. You take a moment to notice how it feels like solid rock, and find that you’re holding your shoulders up. When you soften them and bring them down, your jaw also relaxes a little.

Going further, you ask your jaw and shoulders what they’re trying to tell you. You realize you’re afraid that you won’t adequately handle some unpleasant upcoming task, that you “won’t do it right.” You weren’t aware that this was bothering you, but now you can remind yourself that you’ve handled situations like this in the past, and that you’ll do ok.

We often think that sitting with the physical expression of an emotion will make it worse, but generally the opposite is true. I’d like to hear your comments about experiences with this or your thoughts about it.