The Enneagram’s Earth Triad

As noted in last week’s post, William Schafer views the nine types of the enneagram through the lens of energy (yin, yang, and balancing) and the clouding over of divine light as a function of shocks to our initial state of bliss. A loss of wholeness, emotional connectedness, and/or trust creates knots in our awareness.

The members of the Earth Triad evidence a deep preoccupation with embodied existence. NINES felt a loss of wholeness, THREES a loss of emotional connection, and SIXES a loss of trust. Each concerns itself with how to blend into, align with, and thrive alongside others in the world.
enneagram earth triad

  • NINES seek a comfortable, harmonious, go-along-to-get-along place in the world.
  • THREES individuate and seek a practical and sustaining, ambitious and productive role in the world.
  • SIXES see a safe and secure, predictable, and certain existence to survive in the world. They straddle individuation and union in service of that agenda.

The members of this type are shut off: NINES from their own action; THREES from their own feelings; and, SIXES from their own thinking.

TYPE NINE TYPE THREE TYPE SIX
Life Force Receptive
(yin)
Active
(yang)
Balancing
(yin/yang)
Emotional Regulation Positive Outlook
(reframing)
Competency
(containing)
Reactive
(expressing)
Center of Intelligence Body
(instinctive)
Heart
(feeling)
Head
(thinking)

Type NINE: The Peacemaker

According to Schafer, NINES have lost sight of the innate loveliness and inner radiance of all Beings – a spiritual endowment of Holy Love. They do not experience themselves as inherently beautiful, lovable, or powerful. They feel insignificant. Survival depends upon being attentive to those who have power and merging with their needs.

NINES tend toward inertia, either staying at rest (asleep) or staying busy. They may find it hard to start a task or to end one in progress. Decision-making proves challenging. Anger and resentment show up as stubbornness.

NINE’s spiritual task is to wake up and welcome discomfort and conflict. Right Action demands that they gain awareness of their own energy and internal world. They must notice with compassion their own reactivity and experience their own thoughts and feelings without judgment. Passivity can transform into active energy and allow them to reclaim Hold Love and open up to all aspects of life energy.

Type THREE: The Performer

According to Schafer, THREES have lost sight of the fact that life force unfolds naturally and creatively according to Holy Law, Harmony, and Hope without control or guidance from us. When losing this sense, they become identified with their own activity, disconnected from vital essence of the original source. With a firm belief that “everything is up to me,” they gloss over their inner emptiness with unrestrained drive and endless “to do” lists.

THREES pump energy outward in multiple directions at once. They burn their feelings as fuel for production, considering them a waste of time. They’re preoccupied with image – successful, productive, useful – and believe you can only be measured by what you accomplish. The compulsion to create and re-create themselves through action renders them prone to exhaustion. Sadly, that predisposition reflects a false stimulation of vital essence.

THREE’s spiritual task is to transform from a human doing to a human being and set aside vainglory in service of Veracity. They need to see the real self and not the produced one, thereby exposing their tendency toward shallowness and gravitation toward image. In that process, the fear of failure (“I cannot act”) can find new life as a choice (“I can not act.”)

Type SIX: The Security Seeker

According to Schafer, SIXES have lost sight of our staying power amid life’s toils and tribulations and the promise that all Beings evolves according to universal love and hope – a.k.a., Holy Strength and Faith. They view the universe as predatory and lean on caution and doubt to survive.

SIXES energies collapse into a narrow preoccupation with safety, security, and predictability. They’re constantly scanning for real or perceived threats and developing plans to address them. They don’t characterize this behavior as fearful; they believe it simply renders them prepared. While they seek authority that is steadfast, solid, and certain, they tend to mistrust it even when found. They rely heavily on mental constructs and give short shrift to direct knowing by the heart or gut.

SIXES must recognize that the doubting, critical mind doesn’t produce certainty; it enflames fear. They need the courage to Trust their own strength and believe the deepest part of Being will care for them.

Another Perspective on the Enneagram

It has been a while since I’ve written about the enneagram, a model of nine personality profiles and three instincts. But since finishing William M. Schafer’s Roaming Free Inside the Cage: A Daoist Approach to the Enneagram and Spiritual Formation, I thought I’d share his perspective on the subject.

As noted in an earlier post, there are lots of books, websites, blog posts, podcasts, and articles on the subject, along with variations on how each pundit embraces the teachings of the enneagram. For the sake of brevity, here are descriptors that I use to capture the nine types:

  1. enneagramThe Perfectionist (a.k.a. Reformer or Idealist)
  2. The Connector (a.k.a. Helper or Giver)
  3. The Performer (a.k.a. Achiever or Motivator)
  4. The Individualist (a.k.a. Romantic or Sensitive Soul)
  5. The Observer (a.k.a. Thinker or Investigator)
  6. The Security Seeker (a.k.a. Planner or Loyal Skeptic)
  7. The Enthusiast (a.k.a. Epicure or Generalist)
  8. The Protector (a.k.a. Challenger or Commander)
  9. The Peacemaker (a.k.a. Mediator or Team Player)

Schafer suggests a need to study the enneagram to integrate and balance our differentiated parts and reclaim our essential qualities. We begin life in wholeness. Infancy provides an experience of pure presence, joy, wonder, curiosity, interest, and awareness of others’ awareness. Three shocks encumber our bliss:

  • Loss of wholeness upon birth as we enter the physical world
  • Loss of emotional connection when relationships prove variable
  • Loss of trust when caregivers fall short of our needs and expectations

These shocks disturb the natural balance of energies: yin as retractive, passive, and receptive, and yang as active, assertive, repelling, and expansive. In a struggle to survive, our egos either give undue to weight to their yin or yang energies, or hold too tightly to a balance between them. Personality forms around this energetic imbalance.

  • A yin person manifests a lack of edge and aggression. They have a soft, resting energy that either draws us in or demands that we lose energy in order to connect. [Types 4, 5, 9]
  • A yang person moves out with power, force, or intensity. We may feel taken aback by them. [Types 3, 7, 8]
  • A reconciling person neither invites nor overwhelms. In an attempt to preserve both yin and yang, they keep their energy contained. They may be hard to read. [Types 1, 2, 6]

Each type also has a distinctive emotional energy that reflects a distorted view of a holy ideal and virtue. Rather than resting freely in the bounty of its innate endowment, the type develops habits to suppress experiences it deems unacceptable. The more skillful the avoidance, the greater the barrier to personal and spiritual growth.

Type Holy Ideal Virtue Avoidance
1 Perfection Perfection Error, anger
2 Freedom, will Humility Personal need
3 Law, harmony, hope Veracity Failure
4 Origin Equanimity Ordinary living
5 Omniscience Non-attachment Emptiness
6 Strength, faith Courage Spontaneity
7 Work, plan, wisdom Constancy Boredom, pain
8 Truth Innocence Vulnerability
9 Love Right action Conflict

Schafer views the enneagram as a means to reclaim all the initial stages of wholeness. Working with the enneagram challenges us to invite sensations, feelings, and states of mind that we otherwise consciously avoid. Knowing one’s type is less important than inquiring within about the energies and processes that motivate behavior. We are encouraged to be observant, compassionate, nonjudgmental, and accepting in the journey. This approach provides a doorway to consciousness so that we can live freely within our types.

The next three posts will provide a deeper dive on Schafer’s teachings regarding the nine types of the enneagram. They are organized by triads, with each triad containing representations in:

  • The three centers of intelligence: Body (instinctive), Heart (feeling), and Head (thinking)
  • The three great life forces – Receptive (yin), Active (yang), and Balancing (yin/yang)
  • The three forms of emotional regulation: Positive Outlook (a.k.a. Reframing), Reactive (a.k.a. Expressive), and Competency (a.k.a., Containing)

Stay tuned!

How to Sustain Cognitive Health

As a follow-on to last week’s post, my husband and I finished watching Dr. Richard Restak course entitled Optimizing Brain Fitness on Wondrium. I took away a number of recommendations that I’ll put into practice to bolster my cognitive health.

He provided fair warning about technology’s destructive impact on cognition. The near-constant stream of alerts from email, text, social media, pop-ups, etc. diminishes our capacity for concentration. Hypertext links beckon our attention away from the material we’re trying to absorb. We skim and surf rather than engage in deep processing of information. We pat ourselves on the back for our capacity to attend to multiple sensory inputs at once without realizing that cognitive efficiency suffers greatly in the attempt. Depth, clarity, and cohesion of thought take time and focused attention. We’d do well to give our devices and apps a bit of a rest!

Long term cognitive health benefits greatly from building up a cognitive reserve through sustained stimulation and challenge. Folks with complex occupations that tax their frontal lobes develop cognitive reserve throughout their lifetimes. Self-education as a lifetime practice also works, especially when delving regularly into unfamiliar territory or challenging ourselves to acquire new skills. As Dr. Retak says: “People with higher cognitive reserve are better at recruiting alternate nerve-cell networks or increasing the efficiency of existing networks in response to age-related change.” In other words, we may accumulate plaque and tangles over time that block certain neuro networks, but a cognitive reserve allows us to chart new pathways to overcome them.

Dr. Restak suggests we approach retirement with an action plan to stay stimulated and engaged. Start with something of deep interest unrelated to chosen career and cultivate it as “a magnificent obsession.” Spend an hour or more a day improving knowledge and/or performance in that area. Dr. Restak chose cooking given is capacity to improve sensory perception, fine motor skills, attention, working memory, and artistry. He also admonishes us to pursue activities outside our comfort levels.

video gameCompanies like BrainHQ provide structured cognitive training exercises that improve our reasoning, memory, and processing speed. Video games can serve the same purpose if used wisely. They’ve been shown to improve peripheral visual attention, 3-D awareness, contrast sensitivity, hand-eye coordination, manual dexterity, reflexes, and concentration. They can also become addictive and damage health, relationships, and social engagement. To gain the maximum benefit:

  • Find apps that match interests, preferably devoted to individual effort; avoid violent games.
  • Set limits on play – 2-3 hours per week with no session lasting longer than 1 hour
  • “Power down” afterwards by reading dense material that forces deep concentration and slower action

Minimize time spent watching television. It’s a solitary, passive enterprise that turns the brain off. Studies have shown a link between high TV viewership and cognitive impairment. If hungering for screen time, the computer provides active stimulation and the possibility for creation and community.

In addition to cognitive stimulation, Dr. Restak asks that we monitor our moods and inner dialog in favor of healthy, positive states. Keeps things in perspective and don’t waste energy on things that cannot be controlled. Focus on what you can do even if it’s merely to adopt a forward-looking attitude. Action and feeling go together. Art and music elevate mood. Optimism promotes cognitive health. So does a good sense of humor!

Finally, eat right, get adequate, high quality sleep, and exercise… preferably with friends!

Tricks to Improve Memory

My husband and I recently watched a Wondrium course entitled Optimizing Brain Fitness by Dr. Richard Restak. He covered quite a bit of ground to which I had been exposed previously. But I took keen interest in his commentary on memory.

My professional and artistic endeavors regularly call upon me to commit substantive quantities of material to memory. I can get the job done, but it’s far from easy for me to do it. And it’s not just a function of getting older. It has always been challenging. But Dr. Restak offered several evidence-based suggestions.

FIRST: Pay attention. Concentrate on what you are trying to learn without succumbing to distraction. Focus increases with interest, so try to become engaged in material that captivates you.

SECOND: Look for ways of making the material meaningful. Try to relate it to something you know or do. See the material in your mind’s eye. Identify personal associations. In retrieval, try to mimic the experience when the memory was first formed.

THIRD: Use as many sensory faculties as possible to create memory pages. Form clear and distinct images associated with the memory. Find ways to use sounds, smells, tactile sensations, and emotions as triggers. The more dramatic the sensory and emotional associations, the more likely they will stick in memory.

FOURTH: Chunk it. Find ways to group the content into logical “buckets.” Work on memorizing each bucket independently and then chaining them all together. (Note: I typically learn “chunks” of material from the back of a speech or song and moving forward. Each time I add a new chunk, I repeat the chucks I’ve already learned as I work my way to the end.)

FIFTH: Use repetition wisely. We don’t retain content by simply jamming it into the brain by rote. We need a depth of engagement in how we structure the memory (as noted above) and how we work with it – e.g., recording it, listening to playback, writing it down, talking/singing along, etc. We also need time for the content to percolate. It’s more effective to do some memory work every day (or multiple times per day) rather than all at once. Neural networks strengthen each time a memory is stored away and later retrieved.

SIXTH: Use a memory palace to string content together. This technique calls upon us to establish a set construct that we can walk through in our minds. For example, I might walk through my townhouse and notice the following 12 items: the sofa, cabinet, and TV in the living room; the table in the dining room; the sink, stove, microwave, pantry, and refrigerator in the kitchen; the hall stairs; the bed and dresser in the bedroom. I memorize those items and the sequence in which I encounter them as I’ll be using this “palace” for many, many memory tasks. When working on a speech, I chunk it into 12 sections and attach a section to each stop on my route, preferably with a dramatic flair. (Note: For simple lists, conjure up a wild, vivid story that incorporates all the items to be memorized.)

Dr. Restak advises against using technology to solve our memory challenges. While it’s a crutch that addresses an immediate need, the resulting atrophy of our memory circuits does not bode well for cognitive health long term. Rather, we should create opportunities daily to exercise our memory even when we’re not required to do so – e.g., learn (and use) new words, practice memorizing strings of digits (and increasing difficulty over time), commit grocery lists to memory, learn favorite poems.

Stress and Illness

Stress. Most of us feel it with some regularity. We typically think in terms of difficult life circumstances – e.g., financial reversals, work-related challenges, loss of social standing, relationship issues, illness. But it can also accompany welcome life events – e.g., marriage, promotions, buying houses, retirement, vacations.

stressed outI don’t like to admit to feeling stressed. I prefer to think that I have everything under control. That whatever life is throwing at me, I’ve got it covered. And I don’t like slowing down when I’ve got a full head of stream or taking things off my plate when I’m busy. Stress can be an unpleasant wake-up call that I’m not interested in answering.

Back in the 1960s, folks started taking an interest in the relationship between stress and illness. Psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe examined the medical records of thousands of patients and correlated the incidence of illness with various life events. They published the following Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale through which the sum of change units in a given year provided an indication of the relative risk of illness. A score of 300+ suggested a high risk of illness, 150-299 moderate, and <150 slight.

Life Event Change Unit Life Event Change Unit
Death of a spouse 100 Child leaving home 29
Divorce 73 Trouble with in-laws 29
Marital separation 65 Outstanding personal achievement 28
Imprisonment 63 Spouse starts or stops work 26
Death of a close family member 63 Beginning or end of school 26
Personal injury or illness 53 Change in living conditions 25
Marriage 50 Revision of personal habits 24
Dismissal from work 47 Trouble with boss 23
Marital reconciliation 45 Change in working hours or conditions 20
Retirement 45 Change in residence 20
Change in health of family member 44 Change in schools 20
Pregnancy 40 Change in recreation 19
Sexual difficulties 39 Change in church activities 19
Gain a new family member 39 Change in social activities 18
Business readjustment 39 Minor mortgage or loan 17
Change in financial state 38 Change in sleeping habits 16
Death of a close friend 37 Change in number of family reunions 15
Change to different line of work 36 Change in eating habits 15
Change in frequency of arguments 35 Vacation 13
Major mortgage 32 Major holiday 12
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30 Minor violation of law 11
Change in responsibilities at work 29

The system purportedly had value for folks like me who might ignore the signs of stress but rack up sufficient stressors to warrant a moment or two of consideration. Having run across this system recently, I got to thinking: Has their research stood the test of time?

An article by Cohen, Murphy, and Prather on stressful life events and disease risk provided several insights based on 70 years of research on the subject. Here are their findings:

  1. Stressful events may arise based on the amount of adaptation or change required of an individual, the imminence of threat or harm, a level of demand exceeding resources, an interruption of goals, or any combination thereof.
  2. Stressful events influence disease onset through a variety of mechanisms. As discussed in a prior post, excess stress may lead to hypertension, high cholesterol, disrupted digestion, bone disintegration, suppression of immune function, and neural network damage. The affected individuals may also adopt poor health behaviors as coping mechanisms – e.g., faulty nutrition, poor exercise habits, substance abuse, dysfunctional sleep patterns.
  3. Most people exposed to stressful events do not get sick. And despite increased risk for mental disorders, stress does not necessarily lead to depression. People with greater perceived control, self-efficacy, and a generally optimistic outlook tend to be resilient.
  4. Excluding natural disasters, stressful event exposure correlates with socioeconomic status (i.e., low status yields more events) and personality factors (e.g., agreeableness, conscientiousness, positive or negative attitude, attachment styles, neuroticism).
  5. Stressful events may not cause disease in otherwise healthy people. Nonetheless, biological wear and tear caused by chronic stress may result in increased disease risk, and stress may tip the balance toward disease in a system made vulnerable by other causes.
  6. Certain stressors are more impactful than others, notably those which threaten an individual’s sense of competence or standing in areas that reflect the individual’s core identity. These stressors generally fall within the domains of interpersonal problems, social status, and work difficulties. In particular:
    • Stressful interpersonal events have been associated with heightened risk of depression, upper respiratory infection, hypertension, heart disease, physical disability, and premature mortality.
    • Folks experiencing social rejection have shown decreased anti-inflammatory gene signaling and increased asthma symptoms.
    • Unemployment and underemployment has been associated with increased risk of depression, cardiovascular disease, and premature mortality. Even a month’s worth of unemployed and underemployment increases susceptibility to cold-causing viruses.
  7. As a rule, persistent stress and chronic intermittent stress prove more deleterious than acute stress. Acute stress proves problematic when it accelerates a pre-existing disease process or sets off longer-term trauma (e.g., rape).
  8. Multiple events may or may not be more potent than individual ones. Studies have not done a good job accounting for multiple distinct stressors versus several events tied to a single root cause (e.g., divorce and associated changes in financial status, residence, church, social circles, recreation, etc.)
  9. The impact of stressful events varies as a function of when they occur during a life. For example, the death of a spouse at middle age with teenaged children proves more impactful than in one’s senior years. Moreover, there are sensitive periods in life when stressors exact a higher toll, notably childhood.
  10. Men and women respond to stress differently based on evolutionary pressures and cultural norms.

The Breath

The rule of threes for survival:

  • You can survive three minutes without breathable air.
  • You can survive three hours in extreme heat or cold.
  • You can survive three days without drinkable water.
  • You can survive three weeks without food.

Each one presumes that the preceding requirement has been met. Ample food and water make no difference if the individual has no air to breathe or has been plunged into the icy depths of artic waters. Higher temperatures increase the speed at which dehydration occurs. And individuals might train themselves to extend their capacity for survival. Magician David Blaine famously held his breath for 17 minutes, setting the world record for such a feat. Nonetheless, ordinary folks need be mindful of these “rules” should they wish to keep living.

I raise this issue simply to note the primacy of air. The breath. It’s the singular sign of life when we exit our mother’s womb to become part of this world. And the absence of breath is a clear marker of the end of life. I know. I was at my father’s side when he took his last breath.

meditationWe use the breath as an “anchor” for meditation practice. Breathing in, and breathing out. Breathing in, and breathing out. In writing about mindfulness of the body, I noted that I use mindfulness of the breath to steady my mind and sustain focus – noticing the length of each breath, attaching a word to an inhale and another to an exhale, and counting the breaths. It gives me an object of attention to quell my tendency toward distraction. But the breath is more than simply a place to “tag up” when the wandering mind takes flight.

The breath provides the means to be present to direct experience, the essence of mindfulness practice. It opens us up to noticing bodily sensations:

  • Cool air passing through the nostril and exiting with a degree of warmth
  • A tingling sensation at the back of the throat at air passes into the lungs
  • The rise and fall of chest, perhaps with a hint of expansion of the rib cage
  • The movement of the belly as if it is an expandable bellows that stokes the fire of life

Those of us who play wind instruments or train as singers have become quite familiar with the latter. Breath control makes all the difference in producing a quality sound and sustaining musical phrases. We must be conscious of it to ply our trades. Mindfulness practice helps… though I’ve often quipped that my next instrumental skill will not require breath control!

So, the next time you find a quiet moment to meditate, be curious and attentive to the breath – to the various sensations it evokes while providing life-sustaining energy for the body. It’s a simple yet powerful means of experiencing mindfulness.

Sleep and the Brain

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled Why Sleep Matters while drawing attention to the fact that 40% of Americans do not get the recommended 7 minimum hours of sleep per night. As noted, sleep plays a critical role in physical regeneration, memory consolidation, emotional regulation, and longevity. When falling short on restorative sleep, we have difficulty sustaining alertness, absorbing new information, and thinking clearly when making decisions. And given slower reaction times, driving while sleepy can be as dangerous as driving alcohol-impaired.

If we’ve struggled with sleep or found occasion to pull an all-nighter, we’ve experienced what’s it’s like to operate at less than full capacity. Yet it’s easy to brush it off under the guise of simply powering through. After all, we’re made of tough stuff! But we may well pay a hefty price in later life for the bad habits we instill today.

Recognizing the importance of our brains to sustain all manner of physiological function, our bodies have been designed to protect them from unwanted or harmful substances in the blood. A blood-brain barrier allows passage of small molecules by passive diffusion and selective transport of nutrients, ions, organic atoms, and macromolecules (e.g., glucose, amino acids) crucial to neural function. While it’s clearly beneficial to filter out toxins from fluids entering the brain, the question remains: How does the brain get rid of its waste material?

In 2012, scientists discovered a transport system that provides the means to remove the brain’s waste products. Dubbed the glymphatic system, these fluid-filled tunnels collect unwanted materials and “milk” them via pressure variances associated with arterial heartbeats into the cerebral spinal fluid surrounding the brain. This pulsating mechanism does most of its work at night with the greatest activity during slow wave sleep (SWS). These tunnels clamp down when we’re awake, reducing glymphatic flow by 90%.

As discussed in an earlier post, 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. We now know that it’s also an imperative to eliminate potentially neurotoxic waste products like amyloid-beta which is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps that’s why folks who consistently get less than 7 hours of sleep per night are at greater risk of cognitive disorders.

Glymphatic brain filtration declines with age. Tests on old mice show that they have 10-20% the filtration capacity of young mice. Older adults enjoy about half the slow wave sleep of young adults, and age-related arterial thickening reduces the pulsation that drives the glymphatic pump. As such, we need to take steps to counteract these physiological deficits if we wish to maintain good cognitive health.

Roughly 1 in 10 individuals globally and up to 30% of the elderly experience sleep apnea. This disorder causes repetitive pauses in breathing, periods of shallow breathing, and/or collapses of the upper airway during sleep which results in sleep disruption. A positive diagnosis of sleep apnea attends to persons with 5 or more events per hour. Beyond the deleterious effects of daytime sleepiness, the afflicted likely sustain an above-average accumulation of brain toxins… and that can’t be good!

A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device helps keep the airway open and significantly reduces disruptive events during sleep. My husband’s device sits on the nightstand and connects to a facial mask via a flexible tube. The first few nights of usage were a bit rocky while he became acclimated to air pressure and the mechanics of working the system. But he now enjoys a precipitous drop in wakeful events and the attendant boost in sleep quality and daytime energy.

For those with or without sleep apnea, sleeping on one’s side allows for improved glymphatic transport. For those used to sleeping on one’s back or front, positional training is possible though use of night shirts that have tennis balls affixed to the front and/or back.

Of course, simply getting enough quality sleep matters greatly. I’ve summarized evidence-based tips in How to Prepare for a Good Night’s Sleep.

Putting Down Roots

I’ll confess. I’ve been feeling rather rootless for a time now.

Going on 2 years ago, my husband and I experienced the glowing embers of realization that our life in Beaverton needed to change. We’re getting on in age, and a 2-story, 5-bedroom house with a big yard didn’t make sense for the next chapter in our lives. So, we started exploring possibilities throughout the Pacific Northwest. While we didn’t reach any conclusions, we elected to sell our home in a favorable market last summer. We downsized big time and found a lovely townhouse to rent while we sorted things out.

For a time, I thought we could just chill out here until the clouds parted and a blinding ray of light illuminated the path forward. I kept doing bits of research here and there all the while mulling over our life circumstances. Far from receiving a grand gesture from the heavens above, things just seemed to get murkier the longer I sat with the decision process. It got me to thinking: What is it about buying a home that makes me feel so anxious and (dare I say) indecisive?

The obvious: A home represents the largest single investment in our portfolio… and a somewhat illiquid one at that. We don’t make these decisions often, and I want to make sure we make the right one. (My husband stresses about it far less than I do!) But it’s a bit more than that. Buying a home makes a strong statement about our lives. It says: Here’s where we stand. Here’s the community to which we belong. These are our people. Here’s where we’ll set down roots. And at our age – with the prospect of becoming more dependent on others in the coming years – those statements carry added weight.

Also obvious: Having lived in the same place for 15+ years, we have networks of connections that sustain us and would be effortful to rebuild – e.g., friends, social outlets (e.g., master gardening, choral groups, square dancing clubs, theater groups), doctors, dentist, hairdressers, et al. While I’ve built these relationships before and could do it again, medical care turns out to be a sticky wicket. With a nationwide physician shortage, it’s hard to get care as a new patient, and we may or may not wind up with folks we like. We’re pleased with our current care team, and we’re covered so long as we stay with them. Given the breath of our needs, that’s a major decision factor.

A couple of weeks ago, our realtor and dear friend suggested we dip our toes in the waters of three new construction subdivisions that are within a few miles of our old homestead. We had nothing better to do and always enjoy her company. So, off we went for a look-see. Wonder of wonders, we wound up making an offer on a not-quite-perfect-but-close-enough single-story home within a mile-ish of a shopping center, medical center, and fantastic gym. Having signed a gaggle of papers and made selection for interior finishes, we’ll likely move around the time that our lease ends. Whew!

I had a moment while processing this turn of events and very nearly took a walk from the deal. But when I looked at the decision logically and saw how much my husband was looking forward to living there, I settled right down. I knew it was the right choice at the right time. And now that we’ve sorted out the financing side of things, we just need to cool our jets for 3-4 months while they finish building the house.

I’ve already started thinking about the ways in which I can make our home a place for social gatherings. For the first time in our marriage, we’ll reap the benefits of having a great room that will accommodate goodly-sized crowds and a large kitchen island around which food preparation and consumption will go hand-in-hand with lively conversation. And given that I’ll be within a few miles of my choral group’s rehearsal space, I’d like to reinstitute pre-rehearsal dinners for folks who’d like to socialize before we sing. We used to do that pre-COVID when I sang with ISing Choir, and I loved camaraderie forged at meal time while watching The Great British Baking Show.

For now, life has afforded me the opportunity to exercise one of my least favorite “muscles”… patience!

Is Mindfulness Always a Good Thing?

I believe in mindfulness and count myself among its practitioners. Through the twin aspects of awareness and kindness, it helps me relate to and cope with what’s happening in my inner and outer worlds with greater freedom and ease. I feel more connected to my body and listen more attentively to the signals it provides. I’m less likely to get stuck on repetitive thoughts or vexing emotional states. I’m gentler on myself and others. And the research would suggest that I’m realizing improved health with reduced stress, lower blood pressure, less inflammation with the attendant calming of immune response, and so on.

It all sounds so great. Yet, are there times when mindfulness isn’t such a grand practice? Well… yes.

emotional traumaIt turns out that mindfulness may be contraindicated when undergoing emotional trauma. When I speak of emotional trauma, I’m talking about a threatening, overwhelming experience that robs us of our sense of security and safety. It takes away our capacity for being the “observing self” that can explore such sensations with openness and curiosity. And in lieu of placing these emotions amidst a vast ocean of experience, we may feel caught up in a patch of seaweed, unable to extricate ourselves and breathe. In short, asking ourselves to connect mindfully with trauma may escalate anxiety and suffering rather than quell it.

The vast majority of us experience trauma at some point in our lives. Ideally, we find our way through it without undue harm or risk of triggering it in response to future stimuli. We may need to avail ourselves of professional help, or the love and support of trusted associates. We may heal with the passage of time.

We don’t have to forego meditation or mindfulness entirely when processing trauma. In reading David A. Treleaven’s book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, I came across several strategies that can help us remain in practice while exercising appropriate self-care.

FIRST: Stay within the window of tolerance, avoiding the extremes of agitation (aroused, hypervigilant) and numbness (foggy, listless). Be aware of bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts during practice and apply the brakes, as needed, to stay within the window. Return to the breath, perhaps taking deep breaths to calm an agitated state (hyperarousal), or trying short, intense breaths to counteract listlessness (hypo arousal). Consider use of a soothing touch (e.g., hand to the heart) while breathing. And, of course, it’s always an option to open your eyes and be OK with a shortened practice.

SECOND: Direct your mind and energy to neutral stimuli versus sustained focus on the trauma. Where possible, use stable anchors of attention when meditating (breath, sound, bodily sensations). Open your eyes and focus on the objects around you to ground yourself in the present. Try focusing attention on what makes you feel safe, loved, resilient, strong, energized. If you connect a place, activity, memory, or person to a state of well-being, lean into it. Consider taking a walk or sitting with a friend. Note that these activities are not intended to bypass or put a band aid on the trauma; they simply provide resources to get back to the window of tolerance.

THIRD: Stay with the body even though it might be tempting to dissociate from it. Trauma can make us uneasy with bodily sensations. We lose sight of what’s safe versus threatening and may tend toward shutting down. A waking meditation may prove useful as movement makes it easier to reconnect with sensation. It also provides a neutral focus of attention.

FOURTH: Cultivate trusted relationship. Trauma proves challenging when processed in solitude. It’s difficult to get unhooked from it when facing it alone. Other people can be a wellspring of support, both trained professionals and level-headed, compassionate laypersons with whom you feel seen, heard, and safe. I feel immeasurably blessed to have several people in my orbit who have lovingly provided just the right support when I’ve needed it.

FIFTH: Learn the flashback halting protocol: “Right now I am feeling __________ and am sensing in my body __________ because I am remembering __________. At the same time, I am looking around where I am now in [month or year] and can see __________ and so I know __________ is not happening now/anymore.”

More on Mindfulness of the Body

awake here and nowIn an earlier post, I talked about how mindfulness practice directs us to connect with the body and bodily sensations, NOT transcending it. When we are awake in the body, we live life in the here and now – not reflecting on the in the past, not anticipating the future, and not lost in thought or imagination. The body confers several other benefits as well.

The body can help steady the mind. My go-to resource is mindfulness of the breath using the body’s natural rhythm. Admittedly, it can be easy to get distracted after two or three breaths. I take advantage of several practices to sustain focus:

  • Naming the length of the breath – e.g., “breathing in short, breathing out short, or breathing in long, breathing out long. Not forcing the breath to be short or long, but simply being an attentive observer.
  • Adding words to inhalations and exhalations – e.g., thinking PEACE while breathing in and EASE while breathing out.
  • Simply counting the breaths.

Sound can serve as an alternate anchor – noticing what’s in the foreground, what’s in the background, perhaps giving names to them. Noticing what arises and fades away. In all cases simply observing and not getting caught in thoughts of what might be causing the sounds, or what they mean.

The sense of touch can also serve as an anchor – the touch points with the floor, chair, body parts against each other – and naming the sensations (warmth, coolness, hard, soft, lightness, heaviness, moisture, dryness). I regularly sense the touch points in the car seat and my hands on the wheel when I find myself distracted while driving. It’s a quick way to drop out of being lost in thought and focus on what I’m doing.

The body can be a place of refuge. When caught in a rising tide of worry, a flood of frustration or irritation, or hailstorm of anger, connecting to the body can have a profoundly calming effect. To break out of spinning in my head, I stop and notice the touch points of the body with my surroundings and then glance around the room and whisper the name of things around the space I’m in. It’s grounding and gives me a chance to experience the ever-powerful PAUSE.

The body can be a kind of barometer. When sensitive to the body, it provides a wealth of information. Standing at a fork in the road: Do I take (or keep) this job? Should I tackle this project? Should I invest in this relationship? The body provides a more truthful response than the mind as it’s not weighed down by shoulds, peer pressure, guilt, etc. Also, checking in with the body and asking: Does this possibility make me feel relaxed, open, interested? Or is my heart in my throat, my stomach churning, my temperature rising?

The body can be a teacher. It provides an ongoing lesson in impermanence. Those of us with a few years under our belts know that bodies do not stay the same. But when we pay attention in the moment, we even notice that sensations in the body change. Itching comes and goes. Cravings rise and fall. Pain changes in nature if we are patient enough to sit with it and observe it.

Physical sensations also provide an object lesson in making the distinction between direct experience and the add-ons we bring to it. For example, we may feel tension in our backs and think to ourselves, “I’m always stressed out. I’ll never relax. I’m too uptight!” In reality, we are just feeling tension in our backs. We don’t need to pile on absolutes or character assessments.

Beyond focusing on the breath, sounds, or touch points, what are ways that we can experience mindfulness of the body?

We can be attentive to our posture, finding positions that give us comfort, ease, and stability. Our postures can be lying down, sitting, standing, walking, running. And we can be mindful of transitions from one posture to another.

We can be mindful in our daily activities. Showering. Dressing. Fixing a meal. Eating. Washing dishes. Doing chores. We can ask: Am I putting any unnecessary tension into this activity? Am I rushing to get through it, as if to say: “This moment doesn’t matter; let me get it out of the way so I can get to my real life!” Or, can I welcome every activity as part of the here and now?

We can experience the body as being part of nature, sharing in the ancient elements of earth, water, fire, and air. Tissues, bones, teeth. Blood, saliva. Temperature. Breath. As we read in Ecclesiastes 3:19-20:

“For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”

We are all connected. A part of the great circle of life.