Author Archives: Maren

Use Mindfulness to Quell Anxiety

“Worrying doesn’t take away tomorrow’s troubles. It takes away today’s peace.” – Andy Armstrong, musician

My last couple of posts arose in response to Dr. Judson Brewer’s book Unwinding Anxiety. They covered Brewer’s research regarding the use of mindfulness to overcome bad habits. Before moving on to another scholar’s work, it’s worth taking a few moments to examine the titular subject of the book – anxiety.

We define anxiety as a feeling or worry, nervousness, or unease in the face of upcoming events or circumstances with uncertain outcomes. It arises because our survivalist brains want to predict the future accurately; uncertainty threatens our safety and engenders fear.

fear plus uncertainty equals anxiety

Common sources of anxiety include health, safety, job security, finances, politics, and personal relationships. The prospect of public speaking can also send most folks into a tizzy. Even happy occasions can prompt a bout of anxiety, such as impending nuptials, birth of a child, or dream vacations.

Anxiety urges action. We may attempt to satisfy the itch for certainty by seeking more information or developing contingency plans. (Warning: Fake news on the Internet spreads 6x as fast as real news and may exacerbate anxiety!) We may try to ward off undesirable outcomes by clinging to or grasping for that which feels safe. We may have a go at distracting ourselves from worry by indulging in our favorite addiction (although worry may come back with a vengeance after the distraction has run its course). We may even work ourselves up into a full-blown panic attack because that feels as though we are doing something in response to our anxiety, crazy though that might sound!

Brewer identifies anxiety (worry) as a harmful habit that often hides in other bad habits:

WORRY LOOP Trigger Behavior Result
Anxious thought
or emotion;
impending event
Worry Googling, overplanning, overeating, over imbibing, procrastinating, pacing, …

Worrying can trigger more worrying, perhaps resulting in a generalized anxiety disorder. We can even worry because we don’t know why we’re worried! Even though worrying doesn’t work, our old brain keeps doing it because action (however misguided) seems rewarding in the moment.

We need to be able to name anxiety in order to work with it and break the habit loop. Note that it may not manifest as a clear and unambiguous signal. (“Oh, no! I’m worried!”) It could show up as anger, irritability, impatience, fear, craving. The tell-tale sign might be an impulse that takes the prefrontal cortex off-line and with it rational thought, decision making, and planning.

Whenever we feel a bout of anxiety coming on, Brewer recommends that we pause and take a deep breath to stop the downward spiral. Give the prefrontal cortex the chance to come back on line. Use curiosity to take note of the bodily sensations that are taking root, the emotions that are surfacing, and the stories that might be cropping up alongside them. Curiosity helps us process the anxiety rather than distract ourselves from it. It also has the effect of quelling the sensation as curiosity serves as an appropriate action and reward for the initial trigger

Brewer reminds us that what we make of this moment creates the bead that adds to the necklace of life experiences. If we’re anxious, we create a bead of anxiety. If we are anxious a lot, we create an anxiety necklace. But we can step out of the worry loop and create a calming, compassionate, supportive string of pearls.

Three Steps to Mindfully Change Bad Habits

In my last post, I introduced the concept of using mindfulness to break bad habits – even the intractable ones like overeating, smoking, and substance abuse. Dr. Judson Brewer, PhD, MD demonstrated its efficacy in scientific experiments as well a clinical practice and documented findings in Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind.

Brewer’s methodology consists of three steps as follows:

  • Map your habit loops.
  • Update the brain’s reward value.
  • Make your brain a bigger, better offer.

Let’s say that I feel stressed habitually at the end of my work day. My trigger might be sitting in front of the TV after work at night to unwind. By force of habit, I grab my favorite chips and start eating. I tell myself, “You deserve to have something savory to eat after a hard day.” Here’s a map of my habit loop:

trigger, behavior, reward

I may have read enough to know that I shouldn’t be eating unhealthy snacks (plus they aren’t good for my waistline!) Willpower eludes me at the end of a tough day. I’ve tried substituting a short walk after work for stress relief, but the snack habit may rear its ugly head later that evening when I turn on the TV. And I’ve tried emptying the pantry of chips to avoid temptation, but then I’ll just find something else on which to snack. As Dr. Brewer would say, all of these strategies rely upon a discerning cerebral cortex which tends to go off-line under stress in favor of the primal rewards-based learning.

Mindfulness starts the change process by paying attention to the behavior and examining the actual reward that gets delivered as a result. With mindless eating, it’s often the case that we don’t really savor what we’re eating. As there is lag time between the filling of our bellies and the hormonal signals to tell us that we’ve had enough, we often pass the point of satisfaction and head into disgust before we actually stop. Then we’re left with that uncomfortably full sensation that lingers through the evening and may even disrupt our sleep that night. And, of course, we feel all the more stuffed should we try to eat a regular meal on top of our snacks. Does that sound rewarding to you?

Oddly enough, our “old brains” are wired for action. So, when we first laid down the snacking habit with a favored treat, the brain said, “Great! We’re doing something to address this stress thing. I’ll count that as a win.” Unless we update that value with new data, it’ll keep feeding the habit loop!

The data that matters is not cognitive; it’s somatic. We need to slow down and take note of what it feels like to continue with this behavior – not just in the moment, but in all the moments that fall thereafter. We need to notice that we aren’t really tasting our food. We need to feel into the fullness and the physical and emotional discomfort that comes with it. We need to remember how it felt the following day. That input helps reset the reward value so that the habit loop ceases to have the allure it once held. (Note: When a long-time smoker availed herself of mindfulness, she realized that smoking “smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. Yuck.”)

While these insights may prove sufficient to break the hold of a bad habit, we can seal the deal by giving the brain a bigger, better offer in response to the trigger – one that doesn’t feed the habit loop. So, what works?

Brewer suggest that we simply bring a kind, curious, nonjudgmental awareness to the sensations and feelings that triggered the loop in the first place. We needn’t rush to fix them; we can simply observe the experience. We might say to ourselves, “Hmmm. What name would I give this sensation? Where do I feel it in my body? What emotion seems to go along with it? What stories am I telling about it?” We’re not dissecting it or trying to answer the why of it all. We’re just describing what is happening.

Curiosity has a calming influence. It open us up to insight and learning. It brings out our childlike wonder. It effortlessly pulls us in because it feels good and rewarding. And in all likelihood, the sensation or emotion that triggered the old habit loop simply dissipate of its own volition.

These three steps take practice, but they’re not hard to institute. Map habit loops. Make space to look at the real results of the behavior. Practice riding out urges. Learn to be with whatever thoughts and emotions arise. Have faith that you can do it.

Can Mindfulness Help Break Bad Habits?

I marvel at the human brain’s capacity to function on autopilot, navigating hundreds or thousands of routines with no (or minimal) conscious thought. The first few times we perform a new task – like tying our shoes – it’s a bit effortful. But once we’ve mastered a skill, we can execute it while thinking about other things.

Habits largely live in the realm of the unconscious. We encounter a trigger that sets forth a behavioral routine which results in some form of reward. The reward generally draws us toward something pleasant or away from something unpleasant/harmful.

See donuts.
Eat donuts.
Savor the delicious flavor and survive.

Hear rattling sound in forest.
Move away from sound with all due haste.
Avoid poisonous snake bite and survive.

We find this survivalist wiring in all sentient life. The degree to which we’re drawn to a particular behavior in response to a cue or trigger lies in the reward value that we’ve assigned to it. The higher the reward, the easier it is to trigger the behavior.

So, how do we get stuck in bad habits?

If we’re uncomfortably and unhealthfully overweight, we know we should eat less and focus on healthier food choices, but we can’t seem to avoid the allure of salts, sugars, and fats. If we smoke cigarettes, we’ve been bombarded with all kinds of messaging about how bad it is for us (and may even experience life-threatening symptoms), but we still light up. A similar logic goes along with alcohol and drug addiction. Our higher order thinking may know that our behavior is not life sustaining, but we have real difficulty changing it.

Dr. Judson Brewer, MD, PhD has devoted his life’s work to helping people break the cycle of addiction. He tells us that willpower and self-discipline alone are not sufficient to overcome this seemingly intractable foe. They rely upon the faculties of the newest part of our brains – the prefrontal cortex – to exercise control. Regrettably, that’s the first part of our brains to go off-line when we are under stress, which is when bad habits are most likely to engage. They spring forth from ye olde reward-based learning that triggers behavior based on a cue in anticipation of a reward.

CUE: I feel anxious, upset, bored…
BEHAVIOR: I eat chocolate, light up a smoke, down a drink, take a pill…
REWARD: I avoid having to feel anxious, upset, bored… in this moment

Dr. Charles Duhigg served up the Golden Rule of Habit Change to address this circumstance: Keep an old cue, deliver an old reward, but insert a new behavior. For example, go for a brisk walk in nature the next time you feel anxious, bored, upset… While that’s a healthier alternative to overeating, smoking, or substance abuse, it keeps the old habit loop intact, making it easy to revert to the old behavior. Besides, do we really think a habit loop designed to avoid feelings is a good thing?

As a long time meditator, Dr. Brewer wondered to what extent the practice of mindfulness might benefit those struggling with addiction. He identified several factors favorable to its use:

  • Mindfulness takes behaviors that have been unconscious and brings them into awareness with compassion and without judgment. It creates the space for making different choices.
  • Mindfulness recognizes that physical sensations, mental states, and feelings rise and fall away. Whatever impulse drives undesirable behavior, it’ll go away.
  • Mindfulness brings curiosity to impulses and reward systems. Impulses feel less compelling when examined from an interested but dispassionate stance. Rewards may not be so rewarding when taking a longer view. (“Mmm. The chocolate tasted good for the few minutes that it took to eat it. But then I felt bloated and guilty. It also disrupted my sleep, and I felt lousy the next day.”) If you reset the reward value, the habit loop may die on the vine.

Dr. Brewer tested his theory with smokers who were highly motivated to quit. Half of the group got the prevailing gold standard treatment protocol for quitting smoking; the other half received mindfulness training along with a related app for their Smartphones. The mindfulness group demonstrated a success rate 5x that of the gold standard group! He applied the technique to overeating and witnessed a 40% reduction in craving-related eating.

Want to learn more? Read my next post or watch Judson Brewer’s TED Talk entitled A simple way to break a bad habit.

Everyday Awe

yosemite valley

I’ve spent the last six-and-a-half years exploring strategies for living a good and healthy life. Today’s post serves up a simple yet impactful addition to that list. It comes from Dacher Keltner’s book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.

I was skeptical when I picked up the book. By definition, awe is “an emotion variously combing dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime.” It’s a feeling of being in the presence It’s hardly something I’d consider commonplace. But Keltner invites us to look at the world with new eyes and tap the wellspring of awe daily.

Awe affords us a gaggle of benefits. It turns our attention outside ourselves and quiets the nagging, self-critical, controlling, status-conscious ego. It opens our minds to wonder and activates a mental state of questioning, curiosity, and creativity. Our thought processes gain a burst of energy and rigor as we seek to place newfound mysteries within our complex systems of understanding. And our sensibilities express themselves communally through an expanded circle of care and instinct for survival. Awe awakens our better angels to act in self-sacrifice and generosity.

I’ve been awestruck by nature when visiting Niagara Falls, our national parks, forests, mountains, lakes, and beaches, and while gazing at magnificent sunsets. And I have a visceral understanding of what it means to come together as a community in the wake of disaster – e.g., the Loma Prieta earthquake, Hurricane Floyd, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Again – such experiences have been rare blips on my life’s radar, not daily occurrences.

Keltner makes the argument that everyone has the capacity to experience awe. All we need do is tune our antennae to receive it and create experiences that evoke it. He and his team of researchers conducted a global, cross-cultural research study to identify domains in which we are most likely to experience awe. They are:

  • The strength, courage, and kindness of others
  • Collective effervescence as manifest in group activities – sports, performing arts, ceremonial rituals (christenings, graduations and other rites of passage, weddings),
  • Nature in all its beauty and power
  • Music
  • Art and visual design
  • Mystical encounters
  • The mystery and miracle of life and death
  • Epiphanal moments that reveal the essential truths of life

Legendary primatologist Jane Goodall noted that chimpanzees are exemplars of awe-filled lives due to their capacity to be amazed by things outside themselves. The raw materials for wonder are all around us. We need but get out of our own way and notice them.

Moving in unison stirs the awe of ritual, sport, dance, religion, and public life. Keltner encourages us to find occasions for collective awe. We can join groups that present these opportunities, or gather folks around us to revel in experiences we originate.

Per Keltner, music, theatre, film, visual arts, fiction, poetry, and other creative expressions “share in experiences of awe so that we may understand the vast mysteries we face together in a culture we call our own.” I feel that sense of excitement when watching a movie with others on the big screen, experiencing live theater, or sitting in the symphony hall or opera house. There’s a surge of energy in the moment; there’s joy in sharing the experience with others later. (It’s particularly thrilling when performing as part of the ensemble!) It’s a strong argument for getting away from our large screen TVs and pursuing entertainment collectively.

One’s experience of the Divine also confers a sense of awe whether through traditional religious rites/services, spiritual practices, or other mystical experiences. All such settings provide the means to transcend the self and integrate one’s life into larger patterns of purpose and meaning. We can say: “I am part of something larger than myself.”

Beyond its favorable effect on emotional states, awe is good for the body. Persons who regularly experience awe quell chronic inflammation produced by an immune system that might otherwise be triggered by anxiety, rejection, loneliness, and other stressors.

Want to add a little awe to your everyday life? Follow Keltner’s 3-step recipe for a daily “awe walk”:

  1. Tap into your childlike sense of wonder.
  2. Go somewhere new.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

Man in the Arena

America recorded the birth of its 26th President one hundred sixty-five years ago this past week. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was a statesman, soldier, conservationist, naturalist, historian, and writer who led a progressive movement from within the Republican party. His “square deal” domestic policies called for conservation of natural resources, control of corporations through sensible regulation, and consumer protection. His many accomplishments included establishing the national park service, enacting anti-trust laws, and instituting numerous legal provisions for food safety. His successful efforts to broker peace for the Russo-Japanese War garnered him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.

Today, I honor him for a particularly inspiring quote from his Man in the Arena speech:

“It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

In a time characterized by an unending supply of critics on social media and elsewhere and its deleterious impact on the character of the nation, I hope and pray that those who speak truth to power take inspiration from a man who ranks consistently among the country’s greatest Presidents.

Default Mode Network

In 1924, an enterprising psychiatrist named Hans Berger discovered a means to record the electrical activity of the brain. Though initially dismissed by his peers, Berger’s findings were validated by British electrophysiologists Edgar Douglas Adrian and B.H.C., Matthews in 1934 and gained widespread recognition in 1938. Berger’s electroencephalography (EEG) remains a cornerstone of modern medicine.

In 1929, Berger published a series of paper in which he postulated that the brain was always active. As evidence, he noted that his device recorded electrical oscillations even when subjects were at rest. Yet again, his contemporaries did not take his findings seriously, holding to a strict belief that the brain activated only in response to a targeted activity or thought. The invention of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in 1990 provided the means to challenge conventional wisdom and validate Berger’s hypothesis.

default mode networkAn fMRI detects variances in blood flow across brain regions with blood flow being an established proxy for neural activation. A typical experiment would commence by asking subjects to clear their minds, thereby establishing a baseline metric. Once given a focused mental task, scientists would note which areas of the brain lit up in response. To their surprise, they discovered quite a bit of brain activation in the medial frontoparietal network during the resting state. While it became less active during a targeted task (e.g., generating words), the net increase in brain energy resulting from a task proved relatively small. Understandably, this finding launched a series of inquiries into the nature and function of the newly dubbed default mode network (DMN).

Self-reported data from study participants revealed that their minds wandered when demands to engage the external environment relaxed. They thought about past events or future goals and experiences. They daydreamed. They reflected on personal relationships and how they impacted their lives. These findings prompted American psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and author Judson Brewer to describe the DMN as a “narrative network” because it is caught up in self-referential processing, a.k.a. “the story of me.”

Drs. Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert explored the frequency with which the DMN activates during waking hours. They gathered a group of test subjects with Smartphones and pinged them randomly throughout the day to capture what they were thinking and doing. It turned out that people engaged in the kind of spontaneous mind wandering associated with the DMN about as much as they were attentive to what was actually happening around them. Moreover, mind wandering was prevalent during all kinds of activities. And here’s the kicker: this behavior pattern did not make them happy.

As noted in an earlier post summarizing Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, we are happiest when fully engrossed in voluntary activities that stretch our bodies and/or minds to accomplish something worthwhile. Such engagements take us out of “the story of me” and immerse us in a broader narrative that unfolds moment-to-moment. The DMN reasserts itself to the extent that we become bored or distracted.

Much like “flow,” Judson Brewer’s lab has shown that mindfulness meditation correlates with decreased DMN activity, notably in the posterior cingulate cortex. This effect can be induced with a relaxed focus on the breath and disrupted by distraction, a wandering mind, and trying too hard to be mindful.

Experienced meditators evidence less DMN activation and greater happiness than novices. That alone piques my interest. But I’ve surfaced another motivation to become a relaxed, proficient, consistent mindfulness practitioner. Sleep-onset insomnia has dogged me for most of my life. My head hits the pillow, and my brain starts thinking thoughts spontaneously. It can go on for hours. I now understand this phenomenon to be the inner working of my DMN. As such, I’ve started experimenting with mindfulness meditation as a bedtime routine to see if I can make a dent in my sleeplessness. The happiness boost from a less energized DMN combined with a rested body could be sheer delight.

Time to Read

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” – Joseph Addison, 17th Century English writer

I joined the ranks of avid readers several years ago. This decision was driven in part by a thirst for knowledge to improve my ability to enjoy my senior years in good physical, cognitive, and mental health. I’ve been bowled over by the wealth of accessible, evidence-based materials to satisfy this thirst! It was also motivated by a quest for engaging entertainment that would prevent overindulgence in streaming video and settle my mind in the hours before bedtime.

The public library system has proven to be a magnificent resource for my reading habit. With on-line access to the Washington County Cooperative Library Services, I can order a book, CD, or movie from any of the participating local libraries and have it delivered to my home library. I can also borrow eBooks and audiobooks using my electronic devices. I can put books on hold and wait for their arrival (and even pause receipt if I’m not quite ready). And the app lets me keep track of books I might like to read.

Having declared my interest in reading, I’ve gotten lots of recommendations from fellow readers on what to read. They introduce me to material I might not have found on my own. And, of course, we get to talk about books once I’ve finished reading them. I’m especially pleased when I find book series that I enjoy as it makes it easy to figure out what to put on hold at the library!

My uptick in reading flies in the face of Gallup research that suggests Americans’ reading habits are on the decline.

average books read per year declining

I’m not surprised. As noted in a prior post, Americans watch a smidge over four hours of television per day and log another six hours on the Internet via computers, notebooks, SmartPhones, and tablets. That’s a lot of screen time! It’s easy to fall into the trap of staring mindlessly at the boob tube when streaming services automatically play successive episodes (or suggest other shows and movies). Internet content proves likewise addictive… by design. But at the end of the day, it’s not all that stimulating. Many of us are checking multiple devices concurrently to avert boredom with regular breaks to prepare snacks. Not so good for physical, cognitive, or mental health!

By contrast, when I settle in with a good book, I’m completely engrossed in the narrative. I picture all the characters in my mind’s eye and see all the scenes where the action is taking place. I can’t wait to read what comes next. I enjoy entering the characters’ inner dialog to see what they’re thinking and discern what drives them. There’s a richness there that you just can’t get on film. And, of course, I just love great writing.

Research affirms several tangible benefits of reading:

  • Fiction readers demonstrate a superior ability to process, store, and apply information about other people and social situations. Neuroscientists theorize that this proficiency relates to the fact that reading fiction and social cognition both recruit the brain’s default network, a neuro structure that supports our ability to simulate hypothetical scenes, spaces, and mental states.1
  • Reading fiction correlates positively social ability; non-fiction readers d not enjoy a similar boost.2
  • Reading promotes vocabulary development.3
  • Reading, yoga, and humor all have salutary effects on stress.4
  • Bibliotherapy has proven effective in managing depression.5
  • People who read books tend to live longer.6
  • Reading is associated with reduced risk of cognitive decline in older adults.7

With all these benefits close at hand, isn’t it time to pick up a good book?



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Creativity, Community, and Joy

Last Saturday night, the Oregon Chorale hosted a fundraiser featuring a diverse collective of tunes from musical theater. The 80-voice group performed 4 numbers, and the balance of the program featured soloes, duets, and small group acts assembled by members of the Chorale. I was privileged to participate in one group act and lead another (Hail Holy Queen from Sister Act). We put on a great show and raised a bunch of money. Yay team!

I’ve written previously about the benefits of choral singing for mental health, community building, adaptability, resilience, and more. But these treasures are not without its costs. One must commit to attending rehearsals, working on parts outside of practice, and being a good team player in the run up to and during performance. (I really have to draw on my reserves of team spirit during lengthy tech rehearsals!) Even though all aspects of music making can be fun and rewarding, it’s still effortful to do them.

Leadership brings additional challenges. One must visualize the end product, organize the material, recruit singers, schedule practice time, and provide inspiration to help singers bring their “A games.” It can be frustrating when attendance proves spotty and/or rehearsal time must be negotiated with other groups. On the other hand, it’s incredibly energizing when group members lend their creativity to the effort and bring that extra spark of enthusiasm that makes the performance really pop.

I very nearly passed on the opportunity to lead the women’s ensemble. I’d been consumed with putting our house up for sale, downsizing (big time!), finding a new place to live, and moving. I felt overwhelmed by life and thought that I just couldn’t add one more responsibility to the mix. But I changed my tune during the inaugural rehearsal. The project had been my brain child, I knew had the wherewithal to pull it off, and, at the end of the day, it brings me joy.

At the start of our rehearsals, I only knew a few of the folks who signed up for the group number. Things came together musically rather quickly. As we started to have fun with the material, we transformed from a random group of singers to a tight little community. Casual acquaintances became friends. And with a successful performance behind us, we have a shared memory that will sustain the bonds we formed. A real blessing!

The show also helped me go from being a “new kid on the block” to someone who feels like a solid member of the group. A similar dynamic took place in my former group. Small group interactions really do build connective tissue that makes the whole organization hang more tightly together. I must have forgotten that lesson when hesitating to leap into the fray.

I know, I know. I just finished writing a piece about my tendency to be the “girl who can’t say no” when taking on organizational responsibilities. But setting and sustaining boundaries must consider what makes me feel creative, alive, joyful, and connected. I need to make sure I have plenty of that amidst all the other things on my “to do” list and start weeding out elective activities that don’t measure up.

Let Go

fall leaves

“Autumn teaches us the beauty of letting go. Growth requires release – it’s what the trees do.” – Ka’ala, native Hawaiian author

A dear friend shared a blog post the other day about distraction. It caught her attention in the wake of a missed appointment due to the competing demands of another engagement. Those of us who read the post could so relate! I haven’t missed appointments, but I’ve developed a pattern of leaving things behind after meetings rather than collecting everything up in my tote bag. Mercifully, my colleagues have had my back, and nothing has been lost. But I can’t help but wonder: What’s up with that?

The author put forth a clear remedy for this form of distraction: Slow down and lighten up your load! Autumn seems like an especially auspicious time to do just that.

The past week has seen a dramatic drop in temperature in my neck of the woods. The trees have taken notice. The green leaves are turning to vibrant Fall colors with the first of them starting to drop to the ground. They’re lowering their demands for energy in anticipation of weathering the colder, darker days of late Fall and Winter.

With nature’s clear reminder of changing times, it’ s odd (and frustrating) that I have such difficulty getting the message. I revel in taking advantage of new opportunities as they present themselves – especially if there is a strong social component to them. And when it comes to volunteering my time for the good of the organizations in which I hold membership, I have leaned toward being “the girl who can’t say no” (as my mother was wont to remind me). I leap into the fray when I see a need and have the skills and experience to do something about it. I then wonder why I’m habitually tired and stretched thin.

It’s time to take a step back and rethink my commitments and priorities. Like the trees, I need to consider my available energy and see how many commitments I can reasonably sustain during this period of my life. That process will inevitably mean that some activities I’d love to hold dear must be let go while I find a healthy equilibrium. I will remind myself that such decisions do not mean that I won’t participate actively in my community. It simply means reining in my involvement to a reasonable level.

The second half of the tree analogy considers the new growth opportunities once the light of day is allowed to shine through. I’ve clearly given short shrift to some educational and personal development opportunities in favor of my external commitments. One wonders what new insights might arise if I step back and allow for that work to percolate and insinuate itself more deeply in my life.

Maybe this old dog might learn new tricks this autumn.

From Role to Soul

As a former caregiver for nonagenarian parents, I’ve spent a good deal of energy consulting the experts on what it takes to sustain good physical, mental, and emotional health into old age. I’ve been putting that advice into practice in hopes that it will pay dividends as I continue racking up the years. My latest read dives into the psychology of aging with the intent of giving readers a new way to view and inhabit the journey.

spiritual elderIn The Inner Work of Aging: Shifting From Role to Soul, Dr. Connie Zweig provides a process by which one becomes attuned to the soul’s inner longing and emerges as a vibrant spiritual elder. It’s a process of transformation from the inside out through which one confronts denial, resistance, and shadow personas en route to a vital and genuinely meaningful life.

In a highly youth-oriented culture, it’s no surprise that denial and resistance rear their ugly heads. I remember when young folks used to talk about never trusting anyone over thirty (which they now refer to as the “dirty thirty.”) Then there were the funerial decorations that went along with fortieth birthday parties. By 50, the jokes stopped being funny as folks started bumping up against job discrimination. By 60, there was the full-court press to sign up for anti-aging products and procedures that would help keep up youthful appearances. To the extent that we internalize these messages, we lose sight of the inner vibrancy that welcomes advancing years and the wisdom that comes with them.

And what of the shadow personas? Our performance-oriented culture has us believing that we are what we do. So even if retirement becomes an option, we may still be so addicted to appearances that we drive ourselves to be “successful” in the eyes of our peers – perhaps on the volunteer stage, or the wild travel adventures stage, or whatever projects a winning image on social media. We may also be inured to caregiving and allow our unmet needs to go unnoticed.

Dr. Zweig shares three portals through which we can launch our inner journey:

  • Shadow awareness helps us remove inner obstacles that block us from finding the treasures of late life. She provides lots of tools and examples to plumb theses depths.
  • Pure awareness allows the silent, dispassionate witness to unfold. It is a state of mind that is silent, open, resting, and aware of awareness (a.k.a. mindfulness meditation). It brings us back to an experience of the present moment through the sensory doors.
  • Mortality awareness calls us to live fully in the present with a keen awareness that our days are numbered.

Two “divine messengers” may spur us on toward the inner path. Retirement disrupts our habitual patterns and offers the opportunity to explore new ways of being. For some, this newfound freedom may be paralyzing. They’ve become acclimated to their routines and have no idea what to do with themselves. They may profit from the wisdom and guidance of an experience coach. Others use the time to explore longstanding passions as well as new opportunities all the while listening to their inner voices to see what truly resonates.

Illness may also prove disruptive whether experiencing it as the afflicted or the caregiver. It’s a tricky teacher. It can be the doorway to profound lessons and insights so long as the affected individuals do not get stuck in martyr/victim roles. I’ve definitely trafficked in the latter. (It’s easy to do!) A change in attitude does not lessen the burden of an illness, but it can avoid the needless suffering that goes along with it.

Amidst all the thoughts, case studies, and exercise provided in the book, I took away the lesson that one’s elder years can be a deeply fulfilling journey of coming back to oneself and finding deep-seated contentment and purpose. While I haven’t reached the culmination of my inner journey, I can attest to the merits of its pursuit. Per Zweig, the rewards of the journey include:

  • Spiritual depth
  • Equanimity in the face of challenges
  • Openness, rather than judgment and premature closure
  • The ability to focus attention here and now
  • Clarity unclouded by desire or fear
  • Compassion for the suffering of others
  • Big-picture knowledge
  • Humility beyond ego