Take in the good

Our brain has a built in negativity bias and that was probably a good think when we had to fight to survive.  Identifying threats quickly helped us survive. But we don’t really live in that world any longer despite historical and biological programming to respond more to negative stimuli.

Starting my gratitude list was a huge tilt for me toward taking in the good. Despite my general disposition to be positive and optimistic, I found myself focusing too much on what went wrong, what was difficult, what didn’t get done, and what I was missing in my life.  I was feeling pretty crappy about the state of my life even though “objectively” it was pretty good.

When I started practicing a daily gratitude list, I challenged myself to focus on just 5 things I was grateful for. Sometimes they were simple and seemingly small – the sound of my daughter’s laughter. Sometimes they were more complex and layered – gratitude for a difficult conversation with a colleague that aired tough issues. Some days all I could find to be grateful for were the basics on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – I had food in the fridge, a place to sleep that was warm and dry, running potable water, a healthy family.  Those days were often the days that I felt the least grateful for my life, but reducing it to the basics made me appreciate that (a) I live somewhere where I am not struggling for the basics and (b) I am not struggling to pay the rent and feed the kid. Put into perspective, life can’t help but feel better.

Research shows by programming your brain to focus on good experiences – not ignoring though parts, just changing the focus – you become more resilient, confident and happy. And feeling that, more capable in coping with the tough stuff. 

Slow Down

I knew this wasn’t going to be a linear process.

I’ve been reading through the book and working on the first chapter. But, I’ve read ahead and one of the chapters is entitled “slow down.” It was a message I think I needed to hear today.

I was rushing from one thing to another today. I was frustrated about all that I had to get done. Tomorrow is both garbage day and the day my cleaning ladies come.  Lots of tidying to be done after the teenager had been home alone all day. Garbage to get out. Work to do.  Busy. Busy. Busy.

That chronic feeling of always being on the go, of not being able to slow down, or feeling that way generates a stress response. That stress response fuels a fight or flight response and puts the alarm system of the brain on full alarm. There is not a feeling of being able to slow down and make good and thoughtful decisions.

In the book it suggests to practice a few things more slowly and to find out what’s good in THIS moment. All of this came rushing back to me as I was putting on the garbage, feeling rushed and busy and frantic. And then I looked up at the sky and saw the half moon and the clouds floating by.  In that moment, I stopped and paused and decided to practice that moment more slowly and focus on the food in that moment.

I had been mindless in the garbage. I paused and watched the clouds floating by. I took the time to appreciate the elegance of the clouds floating. All of a sudden I heard birds in the background, and chattering noises of squirrels. I became aware of the smells in the evening air, some musky, some sour, some sweet.  I heard the cars on the side streets and children in the distance. I paused and listened to the sound of breath moving in and out of my body. I felt the frenetic energy slip away.

I slowed down and finished my tidying feeling less busy and less stressed. Going slow and focusing on the beauty of the night shifted my whole energy of what remained of the night. 

Be For Yourself

I’ve started reading Just One Thing: developing a Buddha brain one simple practice at a time. The first chapter is entitled “Be for Yourself.”  The idea of the book overall is that by taking on the practice of simple things every day, you can support and increase your sense of security and worth, and inner peace. I really want that inner peace thing. How you go about practicing these simple things are up to the person themselves, but the truth is that you need to practice in order for things to change.

I’ve decided that I need to focus on one thing a week.  There are 52 practices in the book, so theoretically, I could practice one new thing a week. Seems far too linear for me.  I’m going to practice one new thing, for at least a week. I may stay longer on some practices than others. I may need to return to a practice a few times over and over as I can be  slow learner on things that are particular to self-care. The first practice is “be for yourself.”

Be for  yourself sounds so simple – as do most of the practices in the book. If you aren’t prepared to be on your own side, really, why should anyone else. But what does being on your own side really mean?

One of the questions was to explore the qualities of a good friend and to ask yourself whether I was that kind of friend to myself. The truth of the matter was that I was often not as good of a friend to myself as I am to other people.   When I am having a bad day and I am ashamed of something I’ve done, I’ve yelled at myself and I’ve called myself some nasty names inside my head. Even when trying to shift that negative voice in my head, I’ve not been gentle with myself.

Since starting to be more mindful, I’ve been trying to be much kinder to myself, even before starting to read this book.  Trying gentleness in re-directing the negative script in my head.  Reminding myself that how I was talking to myself was NEVER how I would have talked to anybody else.  Letting go of not only the negative self talk, but practicing gentleness to myself in shifting that negative talk into more encouraging words was a process that has taken some time.  I had to learn how to be in my own corner.

Practicing “being for myself” has meant that I’ve started to ask myself at various points of the day which course of action would be in my best interests. By best interests that did not mean just what I wanted to do in a particular situation, but really taking the time to stop and think about what action would serve me best. It meant being conscious in my choices that I was making and being intentional in what I was choosing to do.

Taking care of yourself is about putting your own oxygen mask on just like they tell you to do on the airplane.  You can’t save anyone else, or yourself, if you don’t put your oxygen mask on.  As it states as the last point in this chapter:

“When you take good care of yourself, then you have more to offer others, from the people close to you in the whole wide world.”

Hiking as Mindfulness

Today I went for a hike in the Gatineaus (Quebec). I’m on holidays for a couple of weeks and I just wanted to be by myself in the woods for a bit.

I headed out of Ottawa and up to the National Capital Commission and Lac-Phillipe, the Lusk Cave Trail. I left my ipod behind and headed out on the 12 km trail with just my own thoughts. It was a cool day, a welcome relief from so many of the hot and humid days that we’ve had. The sky was largely overcast and there was (thankfully) not many people on the trails. I also planned my trip to be there as soon as the gate was opened for day visitors, so there weren’t even that many cars in the parking lot.

I headed out onto the trail. I soaked in my surroundings, taking time to just listen to the crunch of my hiking boots on the gravel.  For several minutes I focused my attention on how each foot step sounded on the gravel. As the texture of the path changed, so did the sound of my footsteps. I enjoyed the transition from gravel to sand, to the branch covered paths.

After a while, I let my attention move from my footsteps and take in all the sounds around me. The wind blowing gently on the tree tops.  I opened my ears to the chatter of the birds, and the sound of a flock of crows taking off in a cackling hurry. I let my senses fully opened and smelt the fresh air, the mud on the ground, the rotting of some of the dead foliage and trees. I soaked it in and connected those sensations deeply into my body.

For a little over four hours I hiked all on my own. I alternatively focused my attention on my surroundings, taking in the details of the forest and then on just letting my mind wander wherever it wanted to go. I enjoyed not numbing myself out with music as I typically do when I run or walk on the streets of my town. I enjoyed sometimes focusing on the exertion of my body up an incline, paying attention to my breathing, my muscles and the feeling of joy of making my body move.

At one point on the hike, a mother and daughter entered the trail from another path. They were chatting and wanted to talk to me. I really just wanted to sink into my own meditative hike.  After several efforts to separate myself from them by either trying to speed ahead of them, or stop and let them get far enough ahead of me, and somehow we kept bumping into one another over and over, I indicated to them that I appreciated their friendliness but I just wanted to be on my own for the hike. They were offended and told me that they were just trying to be friendly.  It was clear to me that it was hard for them to understand why I just wanted to be alone.  They were determined to ensure that I was not alone as if this could not possibly be what I wanted.

I decided to strike off onto another part of the trail, away from their need to connect with me because what I needed more than anything was to continue to connect with my inner thoughts and the awareness of the nature around me.

Fortunately for the remainder of my hike as I meandered down another path, I was left to myself.  It was easy to return my attention into my own body, into the awareness of the forest around me.

Returning to my car, I took a few moments on the park bench and closed my eyes. I practiced some deep breath and started at my head. Each breath I breathed in, I focused on a part of my body. The crown of my head, the tips of my ears, my cheekbones, my neck, my shoulders, and all the way down to my toes. I breathed in and out awareness of my body and its stillness. I breathed in and out contentment and joy at the time spent on the trail. I gathered my senses back into myself and just held that moment for a second longer.

When I got in the car and headed back to my friend’s house, I felt an amazing sense of calm and gratitude.  It was a powerful reminder of how much I depend on time alone and in the bush to re-calibrate and ground myself.