Author Archives: Maren

10 Tools for Embracing Finitude

In my last post, I summarized key recommendations from Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks that carry the intent of helping us make the best use of our limited time on earth. He reinforces these principles in the closing section of the book with ten tools for embracing our finite existence.

  1. what matters mostSet boundaries. We can’t do everything, and a life spent cramming productive activities into every moment isn’t all that fulfilling. No one really cares if we’re a paragon of productivity and achievement or an ordinary bloke leading and ordinary life. Make tough choices. Don’t add a project to the “to do list” until another one comes off. Confine work to a set schedule and stick to it.
  2. Serialize, serialize, serialize. Focus on one big project at a time. Our brains are not wired for multitasking and work far less efficiently in the attempt. Moreover, a multi-project horizon suggests a lack of focus on what’s truly essential. Focus on what matters most and let the non-essential fall away.
  3. Make choices about where to pursue excellence and where to accept mediocrity. Put energy into that which truly matters and get comfortable with showing up and participating in areas of lesser significance. Check in on this distinction from time to time as priorities shift.
  4. Pay closer attention to what has been completed than what has yet to be done. The “to do list” will never empty out. Why feel weighed down by future responsibilities when it’s possible to revel in accomplishment?
  5. Consolidate your caring. Choose which causes, issues, charities, and/or political interests are most meaningful and direct time and resources to them. Dial down the calls for action and funding from all others.
  6. Embrace boring, single purpose technology. A digital “to do list” may promise to make life simpler, but it carries the risk of distraction with other apps when managing it. Manual “to do” and grocery lists work just fine. For that matter, consider getting rid of all those distracting apps from the mobile phone. Make it a tool, not an entertainment device.
  7. Find ways to enjoy the mundane. The endless search for novelty and excitement makes us anxious, unsettled, and unhappy. Joy and satisfaction await those who learn to plunge more deeply into the life they already have.
  8. Be curious. When beset by boredom, anxiety, fear, etc., don’t run away from it by seeking distractions. Explore how the feeling manifests in the body and mind, how it morphs into other sensations, and what happens next. We may realize just how fleeting these sensations really are. We may also learn a bit more about ourselves.
  9. Cultivate spontaneity. Don’t wait until work is out of the way to say YES to an interesting experience. Don’t wait until there’s enough money in the bank to be generous. Acting on impulse can be a good thing from time to time.
  10. Practice doing nothing. Stillness may bring forth poor choices to relieve boredom and anxiety. Go ahead and be a little bored and anxious. It’ll pass. Settle down and reflect before taking action… or just get comfortable with sitting there. It’s OK. Need a little help? Check out Tom Hodgkinson’s book How To Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto for an amusing take on the subject.

Four Thousand Weeks

Oliver Burkeman serves up a great big dish of finitude in his New York Times bestseller Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. He argues that time management should be everyone’s concern and offers some practical advice for making the most of it.

Make hard choices. There’s not enough time to do everything that feels worthwhile or interesting. There’s no peace and contentment trying to cram ever more things into each day. The more we fall into the trap of believing we can do it all, the more likely we’ll invest precious time in activities that aren’t truly meaningful for us. When we discipline ourselves to make hard choices, we make better ones.

Face finitude. We are each granted a limited time on this earth with no guarantees on how long that might be. Confronting that reality can make us truly present for the moments we’ve been given. As he says: “Where’s the logic in constantly postponing fulfillment until some later point in time when soon enough you won’t have any later left?”

Get comfortable with procrastination. Do the right things and let the other stuff slide. Burkeman’s principles include: (i) focusing on personal priorities first to make sure they get done; (ii) setting limits on how many projects you’ll tackle at a time (i.e., top 5, not a top 25!); and, (iii) resisting the allure of middling priorities even if they’ll take consume very little time and resources. That approach may leave some items on the “someday list” for quite a while. If they prove compelling, they’ll work their way up. If not, they’ll fall off.

Avoid external distraction. Digital media excels at hijacking attention. Our devices provide alerts to new content and provide effortless ways to tap them. We lose momentum on the tasks at hand and often get drawn in to browsing their curated content. Beyond their disruptive influence, they exert a substantive impact on our attitudes and thoughts. It’s time to reset notification parameters and limit the parties aho are granted instant access.

Avoid internal distraction. When facing difficult or uncomfortable tasks – even things we want to do – our minds can start scanning for ways to pull us off course. Turn on the TV. Check social media. Do busy work. Go to the refrigerator. Boredom accounts for a number of these interrupts. (Daily workouts, meditation, and music practice fall into this category for me… until I get going on them.) Fear accounts for others. (“What if I’m not good enough to get this job done well?”) Internally-motivated distraction chews up a lot of brain cycles while stalling forward progress. Rather than getting caught up in this spin cycle, acknowledge (name) the discomfort, deal with it, and then move on.

Rediscover rest. We needn’t justify our lives in terms of productivity or treat leisure time as recovery for work or yet another opportunity to achieve mastery. It’s OK to pursue hobbies at which we’re mediocre. It’s OK to go on hikes, runs, or bike rides without challenging ourselves to better our prior efforts. In fact, it’s OK to flat out “waste time” and do nothing at all. We’re allowed to just be and put the kibosh on the constant striving.

Practice patience. We’ve become speed addicts, always in a hurry. If traffic jams up, we get frustrated and start honking our horns. When in slow moving lines at the grocers, we get annoyed with the chatty check-out clerks or the folks who take too long with payment. When projects take longer to complete than we anticipated (as they usually do!), we stop enjoying the process and grumble about the unanticipated drag on our schedules. Why opt for anxiety-laden frustration when it won’t change the outcome? Breathe and opt for peace and calm instead.

Cultivate staying power. Life doesn’t always come with easy answers to the problems it presents. Stay in the mix long enough to discern the way forward. If challenged by a gnarly task, chip away at it a little at a time without succumbing to the pressure to race to the finish line. Embrace trial and error; fumble along while learning new skills or accumulating experience. It creates a more satisfying experience while delivering better outcomes.

Connect with people who matter. The cosmos will take little note of our lives on earth. All but a very few of us will make our marks in history. But our lives will be enriched immeasurably by aligning our temporal grooves with the family, friends, and communities about which we most care.

Am I Using My Time Wisely?

“This space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.” – Seneca, Roman philosopher

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
– Mary Oliver, poet

When we are young, we think we have all the time in the world. As we age, the ticking clock gets louder and louder. When our parents pass away and we join the ranks of the family elders, it feels as though time is flying by. And so, I wonder: Is this how I want to spend the final chapters of my life?

If I follow in my parents’ footsteps, I should have a good long while before the grim reaper comes knocking on my door. And yet no power on earth provides a guarantee of longevity. As my meditation teachers often remind me, all we have is this moment… and then the next one… and then the next.

As I reflect on books I’ve read about time management – including those covered in this blog – the content tends to focus on productivity. For instance:

It’s about squeezing more in to the fixed amount of time we have. I think these folks have some really good advice (else I would not have covered them in my blog!) And, as a productivity-conscious, achievement-oriented individual, I eat this stuff up. But perhaps that orientation isn’t entirely good for me.

I suffer under the delusion that I can do it all and work diligently to prove myself right. My mother used to call me “the girl who can’t say no” because I always had too much to do in too little time and found ways to say “yes” when asked to add more. With some sense of pride, I’d meet my obligations, but I clearly wasn’t taking the time to focus on things that mattered most.

I can get so caught in being efficient that I forego the present experience in favor of ticking off the boxes on my “to do list” and moving on to the next task. I can be quite impatient with myself and others when things take longer than expected or interruptions draw me off course. (Hofstadter’s Law says: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.) And when I finish tasks, I find that I keep adding new ones to the list, thereby ensuring that I never arrive at an end point. Life can feel like one long conveyor belt… one that has become my habit to ride.

I feel like I’m living in the future. I frequently hear myself say things like: “If I could just get through this project, then I’ll have time to…” “This year has been nuts, but things will ease up in the new year.” “I can’t wait until I retire and I can do the things I really want to do.” Guess what? Much like the greyhound who never catches the mechanical bunny that he chases around the race track, I never quite reach my target.

I’ve come to a place where I’d like to rethink what it means to make good use of my time. I like having goals, but I don’t want to confine my activities to things associated with progress toward them. I like having plans, but I don’t want to get overly attached to them or worry that I’ll somehow be ill-prepared to deal with whatever happens in their absence. (As author Oliver Burkeman says: “A plan is a present-moment statement of intent. The future is under no obligation to comply.”) I want to strike a balance between having engaging and meaningful things to do while also allowing for life to unfold and surprise me.

Would you like to join me on that journey? Stay tuned for some practical advice.

The Pegan Diet

fruits and vegetables

One of the most prominent figures in integrative medicine today is Dr. Mark Hyman. He’s a New York Times bestselling author, a columnist for The Huffington Post, and founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center. After writing several books on wellness, he tossed his hat into the diet ring last year with The Pegan Diet: 21 Practical Principles for Reclaiming Your Health in a Nutritionally Confusing World.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that a physician dedicated to holistic healing would have a few things to say about nutrition. As he says, “Food is medicine.” His principles for healthy eating allow for a great deal of flexibility in meal planning. His use of the term “pegan” suggests that he is as comfortable with a paleo diet as he is with a vegan one… or some combination of the two!

Here are his 21 principles:

#1. Use food as your “farmacy.” Eat with the intention of satisfying your daily requirements of essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Drink clean, filtered water.

#2: Eat the rainbow – i.e., lots of colorful fruits and vegetables. In addition to providing the aforementioned “essentials,” they’re packed with phytonutrients (e.g., polyphenols, resveratrol, flavonoids, isoflavonoids, terpenoids, carotenoids) that boost immunity, reduce inflammation, fight cancer, and curtail the effects of aging.

#3: Fill 75% of your plate with nonstarchy vegetables. That translates into 6-8 cups of said veggies and no more than a half cup of starchy ones (e.g., potatoes, winter squash) daily.

#4: Eat the right beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Soak and boil (or pressure cook) beans to remove lectins. Use non-GMO, organic tofu, tempeh, and miso. Limit whole grains to 1/2 to 1 cup daily; avoid processed grains (bread, pasta). Get omega-3 oils with walnuts, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, and chia seeds (but go easy on them!)

#5: If you consume red meat, opt for grass fed beef and make portions palm-sized. Avoid high temperature cooking – i.e., grilling, charring, frying, smoking.

#6: Choose poultry labeled pasture raised or organic and wild caught fish.

#7: Have a little bit of fat with every meal, but don’t eat it in combination with sugar or starch.

#8: Avoid dairy (mostly). Opt for sheep or goat milk. Ghee is OK.

#9: Buy from farmers who care about the soil. It’s better for you and better for the planet.

#10: Treat sugar like a recreational (and addictive) drug. Just say NO… even to artificial sweetener. Your body and brain will thank you for it.

#11: Don’t rely on coffee to wake you up or alcohol to chill you out. Make filtered water your beverage of choice. Alcohol depletes nutrients and diminishes brain, gut, and liver function. If you imbibe socially or for the sheer pleasure of it, limit yourself to 1 ounce of alcohol 3 times per week – that’s 1 ounce of hard liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 10 ounces of beer at a time.

#12: Work with your particular physiology to eat the foods that upregulate beneficial processes and downregulate reactive ones. If something makes you feel lousy, stop eating it!

#13: Cleanse, detox, and reset wisely. Stick to a sleep schedule to restore body and mind every night.

#14: Be attentive to nutrient deficiencies if pursuing a vegan diet. Dr. Hyman recommends taking a protein shake with a full amino acid profile plus 2.5g leucine and supplementing with Vitamin D, omega 3 fats, zinc, iodine, vitamin B12, and iron.

#15: Eat for gut health. Remove processed foods, gluten, dairy sugars, refined oils, and food sensitivities. Stay away from antibiotics, steroids, anti-inflammatories, and acid blockers unless absolutely necessary. Bolster “good bugs” with fermented foods – e.g., sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, miso, tempeh. Eat pre- and probiotic rich foods.

#16: Focus on your healthspan, not just your lifespan. Don’t smoke. Get at least 3.5 hours of aerobic exercise each week. Do weight training. Maintain a healthy weight. Give yourself 12 hours between dinner and breakfast.

#17: Eat to feed your mind. Brain-boosting foods include omega-3 rich seafood (salmon, oysters), berries, fermented foods, green tea, nuts, seeds.

#18 Make healthy eating affordable. Buy ugly produce (e.g., Misfits, Imperfect Food). Buy in bulk. Plan meals before going to the grocery store and buy only what’s on the list.

#19: Feed your kids what you eat to inculcate healthy habits.

#20: Make healthy habits stick by: (i) getting clear on your motivation, (ii) securing supportive social influences, (iii) starting small and building slowly, and (iv) learning about the science of change.

#21: Start today!

Dana and the Spirit of Generosity

danaMy teacher at the 6-day mindfulness retreat about which I wrote last week trained at a Buddhist Forest temple in Thailand. Each day, the monks would line up in order of seniority and walk to the village to beg for alms (rice, meat, fish, vegetables, fruit). No matter how little they had, the villagers gave generously because they valued the monks’ work. Having filled their begging bowls, the monks returned to the monastery to listen to a dharma talk, eat their meal for the day, and meditate. They might break in the afternoon to do chores and have a cup of tea. Periodically, they’d gather to chant the 227 precepts and confess any deviations from them. When the moon was full, they remained wakeful and meditated through the night. It was a simple life that dated back 1,000 years.

After leaving the monastery, he became a licensed therapist and trauma counsellor and has served his clients and community faithfully for decades. He remains a practicing Buddhist and dharma teacher. I was surprised to discover that he freely accepts participants to his retreats for a nominal registration fee. While nothing more is required, he provides an opportunity for the experience of giving. He writes:

“In accordance with Buddhist traditions, the teaching, guidance and other services of this retreat were given as dana. Dana is not a donation, which is what one gives to organisations and individuals in need. Dana refers to the economy of generosity where the teachings and services are given freely and those who receive the teaching have the opportunity to reciprocate with a financial gift that they feel is suitable after the retreat has been completed.

“The aim of dana is to cultivate joy from generosity. The amount you choose to give or not give is completely up to you. If you give too much resulting in difficulty, hardship, and regrets for yourself, then it defeats the purpose. Conversely, if you would like to give and do not, or give what is in your mind as very little, then again the function of dana is defeated.

“Dana is also a way of expressing one’s respect and gratitude for the value of the teachings. It is priceless and therefore a price cannot really be given to it. Remember, if you feel you would like to offer dana but have no money, offering the merits of your practice is also dana and as such something that we can all celebrate in.”

I am reminded of the widow’s offering in the Gospel of Mark 12:41-44. We read:

“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything — all she had to live on.”

Both of these teachings call upon us to be intentional about sharing what we have been given. Such gifts should transcend transactional considerations – i.e., if I give this, then I will get that. They should transcend duty and obligation from which feelings of guilt might otherwise arise. They should transcend a scarcity mentality with its undergirding in fear.

Giving freely and generously from the heart confers benefit upon the giver and receiver. When I’m most caught up in anxiety or sadness, I look for opportunities to be generous. It boosts my spirits, softens my heart, and cultivates a quality of character that I want to inhabit.

An Extended Practice of Mindfulness

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to engage in my first extended period of mindfulness, a 6-day meditation retreat. Due to COVID, I chose an on-line option and moved into the guest quarters to simulate the residential experience. It worked quite well.

I’d read a couple of accounts of first-time retreat participants that foretold of the difficulties of transitioning from Type A style living to sustained stillness for days on end. I was also aware of the requirement to maintain noble silence during retreat – a feat not easy for this chatty extrovert. But I knew I’d figure out how to make the adjustments.

Here’s the schedule we followed during retreat:

Day One (half-day) Days Two through Six Day Seven (half-day)
Welcome, orientation, and introductions (135 min)

Break (60 min)

* Begin noble silence *

Dharma talk and guided meditation (90 min)

Yoga (60 min)

Guided meditation (30 min)

Break (75 min)

Dharma talk and guided meditation (90 min)

Break (30 min)

Silent, self-guided meditation (90 min)

Break (120 min)

Silent, self-guided meditation (90 min)

Break (30 min)

Silent, self-guided meditation (90 min)

Break (60 min)

Dharma talk and guided meditation (120 min)

Yoga (60 min)

Guided meditation (30 min)

Break (75 min)

Dharma talk and guided meditation (90 min)

Break (30 min)

* End noble silence *

Closing circle (90 min)

It turned out that noble silence wasn’t all that difficult for me. In fact, I rather enjoyed the quiet. The extended periods of silent meditation proved more challenging. As one who is relatively new to the art of quieting the mind, it was effortful to try and keep my mind focused on the present moment. I’d use an object of attention – e.g., the breath, body scan, foot placement, sound – but would find my focus drifting again and again and again. Early in the day, I’d catch myself readily and return to the object of attention. As I grew fatigued, I’d experience quite a lapse in attention before I’d take note of it and reset to the present moment. Fortunately, I did not grow anxious or frustrated in the process. I just stayed with the practice.

I discovered that thoughts are my most frequent attention grabbers with a tendency toward planning or imagining something in the future. That experience tracks with a lifetime of goal setting and investing time and energy toward the realization of a future state. I’ve definitely experienced extended periods of flow where I’m completely absorbed in the work that I doing. That being said, I rarely just sit and take in the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and feel of the moment as it presents itself. My idle mind usually starts planning.

What strikes me about this future orientation is that I never really arrive and enjoy. Once I’ve reached a milestone or destination, I get busy contemplating the next one. Life coaches and productivity gurus may applaud this tendency and point to all that could be accomplished with that life strategy. I think it robs one of the experience of living.

I’m not planning on becoming a slacker. I still like to set goals and explore new horizons. But I plan to be mindful of all the moments big and small that show up along the way.

How Your Five Senses Can Help You Sleep

My last post covered all the things we should consider during the day to give us the best possible chance of getting restorative sleep at night. Now, it’s time to focus on our five senses and what they need to support a good night’s sleep.

According to sleep expert Dr. Michael Breus, our bedroom environment matters – big time – when it comes to sleep. First and foremost, make sure you have a really good mattress and pillow. If you’ve had yours for quite some time, it may be time for an upgrade. You may also have reached the end of life on the existing equipment if it has been exposed to dust, mites, sweat, and bodily fluids long enough to produce allergens. That kind of spending may not induce a great deal of enthusiasm, but remember: It’s where you spend a third of your life!

TOUCH: Buy high quality products that feel good on your skin. Use natural, breathable fibers – wool, cotton, down – not synthetic. Dr. Breus likes Egyptian cotton sheets, Pima cotton sheets, Modal fiber, and Lyocell at 200-400 thread count that fit the mattress. bedroomA removable pillow cover separate from the pillow case helps with pillow hygiene and potential allergens. Keep things moderately warm to cool; the ideal ambient room temperature for sleep is 65˚-70˚F. Lean toward the lower.

SIGHT: Ideally, bedrooms should be relatively dark (to boost melatonin) and feature a tranquil color scheme. Forty-watt, blue-light blocking bulbs work quite well. Dimmer switches support those who want the option of a bright light during the daytime. Red or amber night lights can provide illumination for nocturnal bathroom visits. Use a sleep mask if sensitive to light, but wash after each use to prevent eye infections. (I rotate through my collection of 10 inexpensive masks.)

SMELL: While our bodies like freshness, they can make the bedroom fragrance anything but fresh. Open windows at least weekly to circulate some fresh air – and fresh smells – into the boudoir. Regulate humidity, and circulate clean, filtered air when the windows are closed. If you like aromatherapy, try lavender or chamomile, but avoid minty scents.

SOUND: If you cohabitate with a sonorous bedfellow, try using ear plus rated for a noise level of 32 dB or below. At the other extreme, if the room is too quiet, it may make the ears more sensitive. Try using a sound machine set to a low volume. And don’t settle for an old fashioned alarm clock with its jarring blast of sound. You can awaken to a pleasant sound, a light, or vibration and start your day in a happier frame of mind.

TASTE: Though eating is discouraged within 3 hours of bedtime, a sleep-supportive beverage could be just what the doctor ordered. Try making a cup of banana tea by immersing a whole banana in boiling water and discarding the pulp after brewing. It contains three ingredients that can help improve sleep: potassium, magnesium, and tryptophan. If that doesn’t strike your fancy, brew some guava leaf tea and add a teaspoon of raw honey. It tastes good and helps stabilize blood sugar until morning.

How To Prepare for A Good Night’s Sleep

sleeping man

For those of us who struggle with falling and staying asleep, sleep guru Dr. Michael Breus serves up a lot of good advice. This post shares a host of things we need to do during the day to make sure we’re ready for “lights out” at night.

Set a regular schedule for when you sleep and when you rise to support your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle (a.k.a., circadian rhythm). The adrenal gland works in tandem with the pineal gland to manage this biological rhythm. The adrenal gland produces cortisol which acts as a stimulant; the pineal gland produces melatonin, which makes us sleepy. They function best within a context of consistency.

Start the day with a morning routine to send your body a clear signal that it’s time to start the day. As you open your eyes, sit up straight and take in five deep, slow, deliberate breaths. Consider doing a few morning stretches to clear your head and get your body moving. Grab 15 minutes of sunlight within 30 minutes of awakening (or use a full-spectrum light source) and drink 16-20 ounces of water before your morning coffee or tea. (We lose about a liter of fluid while we sleep!) Put on some high energy music and feast on a high protein, low carbohydrate breakfast.

Get aerobic exercise, preferably in the morning. It gets the blood pumping, improves blood pressure, reduces stress and anxiety, and helps you fall and stay asleep at night. Fitness buffs also produce more growth hormone which improves cellular repair and boosts immune function. All of these benefits kick in over time. (Yep – you’ve got to work out consistently a minimum of 20-30 minutes per day!) Avoid evening workouts as they prove stimulating and do not allow for sufficient time for the elevated core body temperature to drop back down.

Go outside at midday to stop a premature surge in melatonin. It will help you stay alert during the afternoon while continuing to maintain your body’s sleep-wake rhythm. If tempted to nap, wait for 7 hours after waking and give yourself a 25-minute cat nap (light sleep) or a full 90-minute sleep cycle. However, if you struggle with insomnia, don’t nap! It’ll hurt your chances of falling asleep at bedtime.

Watch what you eat and drink in the afternoon and evening. Stop drinking caffeinated drinks by 2pm (although it’s best not to use caffeine at all). Eat sparingly at dinner and go easy on protein and spices to avoid indigestion. Our metabolism slows during sleep and doesn’t have the means to process a heavy meal. Include whole food plant based carbs to increase serotonin. No meals or snacks within 3 hours before bedtime.

Shut yourself off from alcohol at least 3 hours before bedtime and drink a full glass of water for each alcoholic beverage consumed. It takes roughly an hour to metabolize one alcoholic drink. In the United States, one such drink contains roughly 14 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in 12 ounces of regular beer (~5% alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (~12% alcohol), or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (~40% alcohol).

Create a bedtime routine to shut down your brain and help your body relax. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula; you’ll have to experiment to see what works for you. Dr. Breus offers the following suggestions:

  • Shortly after dinner, capture what you need to do tomorrow (or the next few days) and anything about which you might be concerned. Jot down a few ideas to address your worries, and then set all such thoughts aside. They’re on the list; you don’t need to think about them until tomorrow.
  • Take a hot bath 90 minutes before bedtime, leaving enough time for the body to cool down again. (Our body temperatures drop when we sleep!) Or, take a cool down shower 30 minutes before bed.
  • Turn off screen time at least 90 minutes before bedtime. The blue light that these devices emit shuts down melatonin. If that won’t work for you, use blue blocker glasses.
  • Create a “Power Down Hour” right before bed that consists of 30 minutes of mindless chores, 15 minutes of hygiene, and 15 minutes of calming activity (e.g., stretching, yoga, meditation, guided imagery).
  • Spend 30 minutes connecting with loved ones right before your power down hour… but don’t launch into any serious, upsetting, or tension-filled conversations.
  • If you enjoy reading a good old fashioned book right before bed, use an amber reading light. If you read on an iPad, Smartphone, or the like, use blue blocker glasses.
  • Write in a gratitude journal right before bed.

Renewed Focus on Sleep

restorative sleep

I envy people who consistently get a good night’s sleep. My dad was one of those folks. He felt he’d had a rough time getting to sleep if it took him 5 minutes to nod off. I can lie awake for hours waiting for Mr. Sandman to show up and bring me a dream. As I’ve recently gotten the message – again – about the importance of a good night’s sleep, I’m putting more effort into it. And I‘m also relying on expert advice from Dr. Michael Breus, author of Good Night: The Sleep Doctor’s 4-Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health and host of Wondrium’s Sleep Better with Dr. Michael Breus.

Sleep consists of a five-stage cycle that takes 80-120 minutes and repeats 4-6 times per night. We need the experience of all five stages to be mentally and physically restored upon awakening to start a new day. They are:

  • Stage I: As we drift off to sleep, the brain’s electrical activity slows down as does our eye and jaw muscle movement.
  • Stage II: We get a light yet restful sleep during which our body temperature lowers and our muscles relax.
  • Stage III and IV: This deep, slow wave sleep allows for bodily restoration.
  • Stage V: Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep supports the neural network’s processing and organization of memory. It’s the period during which our eyes twitch and we experience our most intensive dreaming.

Dr. Breus tells us that loss of a mere 90 minutes of good quality shut-eye can make us one-third less alert during the ensuing day. It also messes with our eating habits. Inadequate sleep boosts ghrelin (the hunger hormone), downregulates leptin (the satiety hormone), and stimulates consumption of fatty, sugary, starchy foods. In addition to the risk of weight (fat) gain, our ability to process glucose drops 30%, causing sugars to circulate in the blood. Yikes!

What are some of the common causes of a poor night’s sleep?

  • Inconsistent sleep habits may have us going to bed and awakening at different times every day, making it difficult for the body to regulate its 24-hour sleep-wake cycle (a.k.a. circadian rhythm).
  • We may be trying to sleep at times that are inconsistent with our chronotypes, i.e., our natural propensities to sleep at certain times during a 24-hour period. (As I can attest, night owls do not do well in a morning person world!)
  • The foods and beverages we consume may interfere with sleep.
  • Our bed partners may disrupt our nocturnal mojo.
  • We may be spending too much time in bed or napping to excess and find that we just aren’t sleepy when it’s time to go to bed.
  • We may have a bona fide sleep disorder that requires professional intervention.

In the next couple of posts, I’ll share some of Dr. Breus’ recommendations for improving sleep. These practices take a little time and effort to put in place, and their efficacy may vary from person to person. Some combination of them an work for folks like me. In the meantime, if you have one of those nights where you’re struggling to get to sleep, here are some things to try:

  • Practice mindfulness to steady the mind and alleviate distractions. Focus on the breath and return to it every time you sense the mind has wandered.
  • Listen to a bedtime story. It can draw your attention away from random thoughts and mental rabbit holes without providing the kind of stimulation that engages your attention. I resisted the idea when first presented to me, but it has proven quite effective. That being said, I usually fall asleep before I hear the end of the story and wonder what happened!
  • Breathe in for a count of 4 and hold for a count of 7 to fill the lungs with oxygen. Breathe out for a count of 8 to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The latter helps calm the body.
  • Count back from 300 by 3s.
  • Keep a worry journal by your bedside. Worries may show up at night because you’re too busy during the day to pay attention to them. Jot them down, and then tell yourself that you’ll handle them in the morning.
  • Try not to stress out about not sleeping. Tell yourself it’s O.K. to simply relax and enjoy a restful moment.

Empath Survival Guide

My last post marked the second anniversary of COVID-19 quarantine with a discussion about adversity and resilience. I shared strategies for getting through a tough time, among them having support from family, friends, colleagues, and/or folks who share your experience.

handsI’ve been blessed to have such a collective to weather challenges that have cropped up throughout my life. I’ve offered my shoulder to cry on plenty of times as well. Yet engaging deeply with others’ difficulties has often proven problematic. I wind up losing sleep, living with pain and sorrow for days, or feeling anxiety over what their future holds. When sharing a recent episode with a friend, she introduced me to Dr. Judith Orloff’s Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People.

The human brain comes equipped with mirror neurons that fire when an individual performs an action and when the individual observes the same action performed by another. They play a critical role in learning and serve as an underpinning for empathy. An empath can be said to have a hyperreactive neurological system that readily absorbs the positive and negative energies, emotions, and/or physical symptoms that others transmit. They’re sensitive to body language, tone of voice, and other cues. They may lack filters to shield themselves from sensory input. When overstimulated, they may experience emotional burnout.

If you happen to be a deeply feeling person and don’t want to hide in a cave to protect yourself from emotional overload, Dr. Orloff offers several pieces of practical advice:

  • Make it a habit of taking excellent care of yourself – eat well, exercise, breathe the fresh air, relax, meditate, sleep. Keep your “batteries” charged to full capacity.
  • Learn to inhabit an imaginary shield to protect you from negativity. Perhaps visualize a white or pink light surrounding you from head to toe.
  • Get grounded in nature – literally. Feel the earth beneath your feet. Imagine that you are a tree with roots that provide a firm anchor. If you cannot connect with Mother Nature in the moment, visualize the experience.
  • Create a tranquil inner space that you can visit on a moment’s notice.
  • If at peak physical or emotional capacity, pull back and unplug for a time. You cannot be present for others if you’re tapped out.

If you face a particularly toxic energy that cannot be avoided, Dr. Orloff serves up another collective of useful strategies:

  • Ask yourself: Do these emotions belong to me or someone else? If the latter, return to sender.
  • Step away from the source of negative energy – at least 20 feet – and limit further contact.
  • Set boundaries without discussion or apology.
  • Visualize cutting a cord between you and the source of your discontent.
  • Plan alone time to regroup and rejuvenate. Consider taking a hot bath in Epson salt. It’s heaven!
  • Spend time in nature – the real thing!
  • Take a technology break. Life can do what life does while you’re off-line.
  • Practice loving kindness meditation – for yourself and others.
  • Get plenty of sleep; take power naps.
  • Be fully present in your body. Notice what you’re feeling without judgment or recrimination. Remind yourself that it will pass.
  • Breathe!