Tag Archives: spiritual practice

Why Having Compassion For Yourself Is Important

downloadHave you ever heard someone say, “I am so hard on myself.” or, “It’s not easy for me to be kind to myself”. Truth be told, I’ve said this myself in the past. But I’ve come to realize that being hard on myself makes it impossible to have compassion for someone else. I’m sure the same is true for you too.

What is compassion exactly? My dictionary defines compassion as follows: “Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.” A few years ago, I lived several years of my life single mindedly being of service to my then-new extended family. I don’t say this to make myself sound like a saint – far from it, because I sometimes secretly resented all I did for them with little or no recognition for my efforts. In this era of my life, I became increasingly unhappy and unfulfilled as I ignored my own wants and needs and let myself become preoccupied with the needs and wants of everyone else. My obsession with what “everyone else” needed was not making anyone’s life better, least of all mine.  For me, things had to come to a head and become intolerable before I was able to take a step back and shift my thoughts and behavior to a healthier way of living that reflected a little better who I really was. I learned a lot from this period of my life.

What I now know is that it is a lovely and positive thing to want to help others….if the motivation and intent is right minded. Many people become helpers of others for all the right reasons. But it my case, and in countless others I have since come in contact with, there are those who will nearly exhaust themselves helping others because then they do not have to look at themselves or their own lives. In their minds, they are constantly focused on someone else’s troubles and so have little or no time to really get to know themselves. There can be quite an arrogance in helping others to the exclusion of giving yourself what you need. How easy it is to fix others, compared to the hard work in fixing yourself!

Yes, it can be painful to see ourselves as we really are at times; our pettiness, our jealousy, our judgements. But what a wonderful freedom can be had by doing this. At first, it is so painful to see these traits in ourselves that we quickly look the other way at first glimpse. “Whoa! I don’t want to think about that!” But then, using techniques described in my last blog, you observe, breathe deeply, and feel the emotion. You see that you can survive that first awful blow of recognizing yourself as a flawed human being. Learning compassion, really learning it, is to look right at the awful, embarrassing things you know about yourself; to look them square in the mirror and get closer to that messy, yucky part of yourself that you really don’t want to see. That is the true start of learning compassion. To see these unattractive parts of yourself and not have to turn away, not have to deny. To experience the feelings these parts of yourself bring up in you. Acknowledging them and casting the light of day on these things helps them to melt away, to lose their teeth and claws. Then you will begin to know what it is like to have compassion for others.

The inability to look at oneself in this way, even if one goes to great lengths to be helpful to others, is arrogance.  True compassion is not possible for one who refuses to look at their own shortcomings in this soft and thoughtful way. This is the unvarnished truth about learning to be compassionate.

Start with yourself.

Living With Good Health and Vitality – Implementing The Four Pillars of Health

happy-people-in-the-poppy-field-1280x800-wide-wallpapers-netOur bodies are designed to perform optimally. Knowing this yet seeing the number of people who struggle with feeling good every day can be perplexing.  Why does it seem so elusive for many people to wake up feeling great and to have energy throughout the day?

There can be complex issues that effect our quality of health caused by modern 21st century lifestyles, but in an effort to distil information into bite-size chunks let’s keep this simple. I believe there are four essential foundations for optimum health and that often we leave one or more out of the equation while trying to care for ourselves  The Four Pillars of Health, which form the foundation for great health and vitality, are Diet, Exercise, Good Sleep, and Mental Outlook. Very often people will focus on one, two, or even three of these categories but it is a bit more rare to embrace all four consistently….so at times we get out of balance, or homoeostasis.  The body will always circle back to homoeostasis if we give it what it needs.

All four of these “Pillars” are equally important and support good health, but let’s arbitrarily start with Diet. (This is where most people start when trying to make changes to enhance health.) There are volumes of wonderful blogs and books dedicated to this subject, but in a nutshell what you must do is eliminate, or severely restrict, all processed foods from your diet. You want to eat foods that come from Nature, not from a laboratory. Your body does not know what to do with the artificial ingredients in processed food and they will cause serious problems for you in time. Begin this process by adding in good healthy things to your diet – focus on the plethora of foods you CAN eat, instead of the things you cannot. If you build your diet on what you must stay away from, your willpower WILL cave in time! Ask yourself the question, “What great foods can I add to my diet?” Stop thinking “no,no,no” when it comes to food, and instead make a list of healthy foods you like and have fun creating new meals. Give yourself the tools you need to get started by doing a little research, collecting tasty recipes, and start adding great food to your pantry and fridge. Remember to make the shift to focusing on everything you can eat and don’t browbeat yourself. Begin to crowd the bad stuff out of your diet by adding in the good.

Exercise: Most of us simply don’t get enough. Our ancestors walked around about 10 times more than we do. (Great quote from Lucas Rockwood: “Sitting is the new smoking” – I love it!) Sit less, and move more. The fact is, the more lean muscle mass you have, the more energy you’ll have. And, even better – the more you will need to eat to maintain your lean muscle (without gaining weight) and keep going.  If you don’t have much lean muscles mass, you won’t have as much energy and you will require much less food to maintain your weight.  So, look into Burst Training (sometimes called Interval Training), and move your body every day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk whenever you can, join a class, and move your body throughout your day in as many creative ways that you can think of.

Sleep:  It doesn’t matter how great your diet is, or how much exercise you get; if you are not sleeping enough consistently, are are not going to function optimally. Full stop. Rest and recovery phases are crucial for healing and maintaining vitality and good health. Sleep dysfunction is tricky because there are so many different causes for lack of sleep.  Good sleep hygiene is essential, and an upcoming blog will be devoted to this topic. But it’s really good and proactive for you to dig into your own research about this, so even googling “sleep hygiene” is a wonderful start. Take even a small step in the direction you want to go and try to let go of worrying and fretting about not getting enough sleep.  I know how hard it can be, because I have not been a very good sleeper at times….but never once was it helpful to worry about it.  Watch this space for more information about improving the quality of your sleep.

Mental Outlook: We’ve all heard how important a positive attitude is for health and happiness, and more than likely you’ve incorporated some of this sage advice into your life already. If so, good for you!  If not, don’t take my word for it – just commit to adding some positive practices, such as positive affirmations and a gratitude journal, yoga, meditation, etc. into your life every day for one month, and then see if your life improves. If it doesn’t you’ve lost nothing.  But you will never know that life can be so much better if you don’t give it a try.

We swing from “vine to vine”, looking for something else (we’re not sure exactly what) because we don’t see we are already whole and complete as we are right now. We just have to wake up and tune into this. For me, a meditation and yoga practice is important for clearing the clutter in my mind and tuning in but there are other practices that can be just as valuable, including Tai’ Chi and Qi gong (pronounced Chi Gong).  I believe a spiritual practice of some sort – whatever that is for you – is important for a sense of fulfilment and vitality. Does the word “spiritual” bother you?  Then pick another word.  But a practice where you can quiet the mind and stop the chaos, and feel a part of something greater than just yourself and your problems is crucial for good health.  This positive spiritual practice will help you plug into things that really nourish and recharge you.  You must nourish yourself! Even if your time is limited, you can set priorities and let something go so you can have a mini-break and recover. You only have 30 minutes while the baby sleeps? Spend it meditating instead of watching some silly TV program. The meditation will leave you more calm and refreshed than the TV. Remember that you can only do one thing at a time well, whatever the hype is about “multi-tasking”. If you try to open up too many windows on your computer, what happens?  It crashes! So will you. Get calm, close some windows, take a deep breath, and focus on the one thing you need to do in front of you. When that is done, you can move on to the next thing. Work on one “window” at a time.

Choose one of these four pillars that you think needs some bolstering (Diet, Exercise, Sleep, and Mental Outlook) and add one positive thing to your life every day. You will be the one to benefit from this positive attention. Please watch this space for future blogs on each indivdual Pillar of Health.

Note: Dr. Pedram Shojai is a wonderful teacher to learn from.  I discovered him while compiling notes for this blog. He is teaching and writing about the very same thing (now I know there is nothing new under the sun!…..ideas, thoughts, and words are part of our collective knowledge base and are constantly being recycled and given a new spin, a new life.) that I am writing about only he calls it The Wheel of Vitality, and Mental Outlook is referred to as Mindset. Follow him if you are interested – a beautiful man with wonderful things to say.

You Can Find The Time to Meditate – Really You Can!

office meditation 2You want to start a meditation practice, but you’re too busy.  Perhaps you work full time, or your children need to get to day-care, you need to make breakfast (and dinner!), you are always running late, and you ALREADY have too much to do in the morning.  All your excuses are valid because you have a busy life. I’ll bet you have other excuses I haven’t even mentioned yet.  But the truth is, you still have time to meditate.

The first hurdle is, of course, to make it a priority. You would be surprised to learn how many very successful (and busy) people make time to meditate every day (I read that Oprah Winfrey sits in stillness 20 minutes twice a day).  Sometimes, to hear “If they can do it, so can you” sounds almost shaming, so reframe any such thoughts to be reassuring. It really can be done, and it really does not have to feel overwhelming.

The best time for a busy person to meditate is as soon as you wake up. You may already have to wake up earlier than you want to but chances are you will not even notice getting up 5 or 10 minutes earlier and these few minutes will belong to you. Here’s all you need to do to get started, after you open your eyes:

  • Get out of bed
  • Take care of your bodily functions (pee, have a drink of water…)
  • Meditate

Don’t even think about these steps; just do it.  Get up, take care of your physical needs, sit down to meditate for 10 minutes.  Five if you are an absolute beginner.  Buy a kitchen timer, set it for the allotted time, and be with yourself for these first few minutes of the day. Once you feel good about it and it is part of your routine, you can increase the time.

You can also sneak in meditation breaks throughout your day.

Lunchtime can be a good time, either a few minutes before you eat or a few minutes after. It can be nourishing to eat your lunch slowly, quietly, and mindfully as part of a mindful exercise, and it is helpful to have something so concrete to focus on, such as chewing mindfully and being aware of the taste of your food. Try it for even a couple of minutes the next time you find yourself eating alone.  You may discover that you are really tasting your food in a way that just isn’t possible when you are trying to eat, talk, text, or otherwise multi-tasking.

Immediately after work when you first get home can be a good time, and a lovely transition between work and home life. The key is consistency, even if it is only for a few minutes.

Actually scheduling a 10 minute meditation on your calendar can be the key for some people. If you meditate in the middle of your day, there are some wonderful aps to support you with this. They can be helpful is you need a little more focus. To name just a few:

  • Omnava
  • Headspace
  • The Mindfulness App
  • Insight Timer

With your marvellous creative mind, you can probably think of other moments when you can squeeze in a few minutes of meditation. We can all relate to the feeling of not having enough time, but meditation actually helps us to become more productive so is worth the small time commitment. We all face countless distraction all day long (I don’t have to list them!) and slowly building a meditation practice will increase your ability to focus on priorities and minimise these distractions. Please don’t worry about whether you are “doing it right”. Just do it.

(Please see Meditation page of this website, and/or previous posts on Meditation for more information).

Love Is All There Is – in memory of Debra Genevie Parsons

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For the second time, I’ve just lost a sister.  She slipped away in the early morning hours of May 14th, 2014.  She was alone at the time of her death.

Her journey in life was not an easy one, and she developed a serious food addiction that she never owned up to, not even when she weighed 400 pounds and had secret stashes of candy and salty junk food all through the house.  She detested exercise because it made her uncomfortable.  If I were carrying around 250 pounds of extra weight, it would make me uncomfortable too.

Her family, me included, was sometimes angry and resentful when her health started to fail and she continued along her unhealthy path to an early death.  There were perfectly good reasons for our anger and resentment because even though it was “her life”, her unhealthy choices impacted all of us hugely.  She developed Type 2 diabetes but did nothing to change her unhealthy habits.  Eventually, the disease wrecked havoc on her kidneys.  Her daughter stepped up to donate a kidney because my sister could not lose the weight necessary to be eligible for an organ donation.  Did her daughter get angry when my sister continued with her overeating/no exercise habits?  You bet she did.  Did it make a whit of difference in my sister’s behaviour?  Nope.  Eventually, her heart and lungs were affected and she was unable to sleep unless she was sitting up.  She still maintained that it was all the drugs she had to take that prevented her from losing weight.  We could all be unhappy and resentful from time to time due to what she was doing to herself, all to no avail.

After the death of her husband there was no one to take care of her.  Four months after his death, she had a fall trying to get to the bathroom and could not get up.  Luckily her grandson was there and called 911.  After being taken to hospital, she never returned to her home again and lived the last few months in a nursing home because she was not ambulatory and no one could lift or transfer her without professional help.  These last few months of her life were not very good.  We can leave it at that as I’m sure you get the picture.

It is all very easy to say my sister created this situation and no one should feel blame or guilt over the fact that she died alone.  Given what she had “done to herself”, perhaps a little self-righteous anger or resentment would be a little more understandable.  The truth is, one or all of her family members felt all these emotions from time to time over the months.

The last few weeks of her life I noticed a change in her.  She became less demanding and more loving.  This may not happen to all patients in her situation, but it happened to her.  I spoke with her by telephone on the last night of her life, just before I went to sleep 5000 miles away.  She told me she loved me and how happy she was that I was her sister.  It was very touching to me, but I did not even realize she was saying goodbye.  What I did realize, however, was that I no longer felt angry that “she had done this to herself”.  I only felt love for her and wanted her to be comfortable and at peace.  None of the things she could have done differently in her life mattered to me anymore.  I was empty of all those “could have, should have, would have” statements.  I got the call the next morning that she had stopped breathing between 4 and 5 a.m.

My feelings were sadness at the loss of her, a profound grief that I wasn’t with her when she took her last breath, and awareness that her swift death had been a sweet mercy for her and for all of us.  The feelings of anger and blame were gone completely, as if someone had pierced my heart and they had gushed out like air from a popped balloon.  I got so clearly the old cliché “love is the only thing that matters”.  Intellectually, I often have that saying in my mind and it is always flying around in my orbit but sometimes doesn’t make it in to the core of my being.  This time, I really got it deep in my bones in regards to my sister’s life and death.  Love is IT, and all the rest is just stuff we go through to get back to love.  Next time I feel anger or resentment at someone I love, I will at least practice this simple (but not easy) concept.  I will try to skip all the “stuff” and just get back to love.

A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation

Science is catching up to what many of us have known for a long time – meditation is very good for you. Neurologist researchers have concluded that we have between 15,000 and 50,000 thoughts each day, and that the majority of these thoughts are fear-based or negative. Of these, 80% are re-runs, or thoughts we’ve had before – sometimes over and over. That, folks, is bathing our brain in negativity for a large portion of our day.

If you keep track of your thoughts for even a few minutes, you’ll see that there is a lot of busy-ness up there in your head. In yoga, this busy-ness of the mind is called “monkey mind”. In the office or at home, it might be called “multi-tasking” – but whatever you call it, it can be wearing and exhausting for the mind and contributes to our stress levels. Meditation is a great technique to help curb this tendency. It is a remarkably simple technique that, with practice, all of us can learn. Though simple it is not  necessarily easy because of our tendency to judge ourselves and become uneasy when our untrained mind becomes still.

Here are three steps to begin your meditation practice that I teach in my meditation classes. My heartfelt thanks go out to two of my meditation teachers, Christopher Baxter and David Nichtern for helping me learn and master these steps.

1). Taking our Seat:

Sit cross-legged only if this is comfortable, otherwise it is far better to come to a kneeling position (with support) or to sit in a chair. Rest your hands on your thighs with torso upright but relaxed. Chin should be slightly tucked in toward your chest with the back of the neck feeling long and relaxed. Your posture should feel uplifted but not stiff. Your back should be as straight as possible with a feeling of rootedness through the sitz bones and tail bone, and a feeling of rising up through the torso and chest. Feel a sense of settling down and reducing your sphere of activity.

2). Placing Attention on the Breath:

Begin to pay attention to your breathing. Have a light touch here, not too intense. Just a relaxed focus on the breath going in and out of the body is all you need. Once you notice your awareness has shifted elsewhere (and it will shift elsewhere! – This is not a failure.) simply bring your awareness back to your breathing without judgement or criticism of yourself. Just keep bringing your awareness back to the breath as many times as you notice it is wondering away. Your focus is soft and relaxed, not hard and intense.

3). Labelling Thoughts:

When you notice you are thinking about something, just say to yourself, “thinking” and bring your awareness back. It is helpful to take a “democratic” approach to thoughts – ie., no more importance is given to one thought over another. So, whether you are thinking about what you are going to have for dinner or about climate change – it is all just labelled “thinking”. You are neither repressing your thoughts or focusing on them. You just label each thought “thinking” and come back softly to focusing on your breath.  As the body continues to settle down, your mind will as well. Be patient and loving with yourself, just like you would if your mind were a toddler that kept wandering off. Label that wandering off “thinking” and patiently come back to your breath. It is always there, waiting for you to come back.

If you need to move to restore circulation, go ahead and do that without any frustration or self-criticism. Fix the problem, resettle, and continue where you left off….focusing on the breath.

In future blogs, I will write about other techniques. For now, practice these three steps for 10 minutes every day for the next 7 days. Increase to 15 minutes the second week.  Finally increase to 20 minutes on the third week. There is no need for any expectations because all you are doing is making a date to be with yourself a few minutes every day. Nothing woo-hoo needs to happen, so don’t worry about seeing colours or having a peak experience. All you are going to do is sit quietly with yourself and observe the breath. Try it for the next 21 days with all my good wishes.