What is Mindfulness?

It occurs to me that I have written a few posts about mindfulness without ever defining what is it. Let me remedy that oversight!

I like using Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition. He’s the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the progenitor of the highly acclaimed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. He says:

“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” On purpose, present, and non-judgmentally.

I’ll unpack those three things.

ON PURPOSE: At any given moment, our brains sift through an ocean of input:

  • objects of awarenessFrom the five senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch)
  • From interior signals (breath, heartbeat, digestion, body temperature, etc.)
  • From feeling states (happy, sad, angry, calm, anxious, excited, etc.)
  • And from mental activities (planning, analyzing, remembering, imagining, ruminating, etc.)

We can’t possibly bring conscious awareness to all of that input, all of the time. So, our amazing brains use a lifetime of experience to process and interpret that raw data. (Where am I? What’s happening? Who am I with? Is there danger or opportunity? And so on…) They decide what will be brought into consciousness awareness, what they’ll store, and what they’ll discard. At root, it’s all about keeping us alive and safe.

Imagine that you are out for a walk in the woods, fully absorbed by an audiobook. If nothing of particular import is happening, you won’t notice all of the perceptual work that your brain is doing. But if there’s danger afoot – say the sound of a rattle – then that sound and the attendant fight-flight-freeze stress response will present a call to action.

Conscious awareness functions like a spotlight that focuses on specific stimuli or state of being. Again, it can be sensory data, an interior signal, a feeling, a thought, an intuition. And it can jump around from one to another, sometimes quite rapidly. Mindfulness teaches us to pay attention to what garners the spotlight – in other words, to notice what we’re noticing – to help make choices about where and how to focus attention, and to give us the freedom to interpret that input with interest, curiosity, and compassion.

IN THE PRESENT MOMENT: Human beings spend quite a bit of time with our brains disconnected from what’s happening in the moment. We think about things that transpired in the past or might happen in the future. We image circumstances and run simulations for events that may never come to pass. And we escape into our imaginations.

Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert measured this phenomenon using a special “track your happiness” iPhone app. They gathered data from 2,250 subject of varying ages on their thoughts, feelings, actions, and happiness as they went about their daily business. On average, mind-wandering consumed 46.7% of their time, and the more their minds wandered, the less happy they were. Further analysis revealed that the subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.[1]

If, like me, you are interested in being more content, mindfulness can help us notice when our minds go adrift and invite us to come home to the present moment.

NONJUDGMENTALLY: As noted before, our brains process lots of data, rendering assessments about what is crucial vs. trivial, good vs. bad, friendly vs, hostile, healthy vs. unhealthy, and so on. Of necessity, they are rather judgy. And that characteristic carries over into conscious awareness.

Mindfulness encourages us to notice our judgments while remaining curious, open, and accepting – not to put us in harm’s way, but to provide the means to think, speak, and act wisely.

Mindfulness can be practiced informally as we go about our day-to-day activities or formally through meditation. The latter develops our “noticing,” “now,” and “nonjudgmental” muscles. We learn to pay attention to what arises and put out the welcome mat for the experience. And we train ourselves to bring into consciousness a whole gaggle of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that might otherwise habitually fall beneath our radar.

[1] Steve Bradt, Wandering Mind Not a Happy Mind, The Harvard Gazette, November 11, 2010 (See https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/)

What Dr. Greger Says About Osteoporosis

I regularly avail myself of the short videos available on Dr. Michael Greger’s website nutritionfacts.org. His group of researchers scour and vet peer-reviewed scientific journals to present best evidence on a variety of health-related topics. A recent series on osteoporosis caught my attention. Here are high-level findings that I gleaned from it:

thin boneWeak bones do not present issues in the absence of excessive load caused by a fall or heavy lifting. They generally don’t break in the course of normal life activities. Only 15% of bone fractures can be tied to osteoporosis in women. Roughly 40% of hip fractures are due to impaired balance. Not surprisingly, hip fracture risk increases 13-fold between the ages of 60 and 80 when muscle weakness and loss of balance tends to become commonplace.

The best advice for preventing hip fracture: Don’t fall. Keep things within easy reach; avoid using step stools. Use non-stick mats in the bathroom and add grab bars to showers and toilet areas. Keep floors clutter free. Get rid of decorative throw rugs. Use hand rails when going up and down stairs. Don’t walk outdoors during inclement weather.

Balance and strength training reduces the risk of falls by 34% and cuts fracture rates by half. They combat age-related risk factors for falls. Moreover, weight-bearing exercise and impact training at moderate-to-high intensity encourages bone growth when pursued consistently. Want a simple bone-building exercise to add to the daily regimen? Hop up and down on each foot 50 times!

Dr. Gregor recommends 9 servings of fruit and vegetables daily. They decrease inflammation and oxidation and promote a healthy acid-base balance in the blood stream. (The body leaches calcium from bones when the blood gets too acidic.) Foods that are especially good for bone health include prunes, onions, leeks, garlic, cruciferous vegetables, and tomatoes.

Stop smoking. It’s bad for the bones and bad for health overall. Enough said.

Even though they are routinely recommended by general practitioners, calcium supplements may not be beneficial. To be sure, the body needs a steady supply of calcium to support bone growth and other metabolic functions. However, supplementation may cause unhealthy calcium spikes in the bloodstream. Dr. Greger cited a study in which 1,000 people used calcium supplements for 5 years. While their usage prevented 26 fractures, participants reported 14 heart attacks, 10 strokes, and 13 deaths that were attributed to calcium supplementation.

Dr. Gregor invites us to get the recommended daily dose of calcium through the diet. Food presents calcium in combination with other substances that aid in absorption while spreading the required amounts throughout the day. Put dark leafy greens such as kale, collard greens, and Bok choy on the menu. Avoid milk due to the presence of galactose (sugar) which causes bone loss due to oxidative stress and inflammation. In fact, studies show that hip fracture rates correlate positively with milk consumption. If a fan of daily, switch to yogurt or cheese; the fermentation process reduces sugar.

Vitamin D supplementation appears to support healthy bones when taken in amounts between 1600-3200 daily. Vitamin D increases calcium absorption in the intestines and stimulates the kidneys to reabsorb calcium from urine. Supplementation more than 4000 IU daily has been associated with higher fall risk.

Dr. Greger takes a dim view of pharmaceutical intervention, listing the most popular medication (Fosamax) by name. Fosamax disrupts normal bone remodeling by killing off osteoclasts (a.k.a. the bone demolition team) and thereby diminishing osteoblast activity (a.k.a. the bone building team). Physicians typically prescribe this medication when osteoclasts outpace osteoclasts, resulting in sustained bone loss year by year. Clinical trials showed that it cut the 5-year hip fracture rate by half. Dr. Gregor argues for a natural approach to reducing fracture risk while avoiding complications associated with disrupting the body’s normal bone remodeling processes.

Father Greg

Father GregI just finished reading an incredible book by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who has served the poorest Catholic parish amidst the highest concentration of gang activity in the Greater Los Angeles Area for over 30 years. Having witnessed the devastating impact of gang activity, Father Greg, his parish, and community members launched an organization to work with those who had been left behind with no hope. Starting in 1988, they put the welcome mat out for former gang members, helped them deal with substance abuse, removed tattoos, and provided gainful employment and training. They also offered critical services to community members in need.

Today, Homeboy Industries is the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. Their organizational model has become the blueprint for over 400 organizations worldwide. They share a common mission in “hope, training, and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated people, allowing them to redirect their lives and become contributing members of our community.”

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion bears witness to Father Greg’s ministry and the individuals who cross the threshold of his open door and open heart. For those among us whose only exposure to gangs comes through mass media, it’s a heartbreaking read. Scads of young people in his backyard grew up amidst absentee (often incarcerated) parents, economic hardship, substance abuse, violence, and precious little (if any) tenderness, understanding, or love. Some managed to find a way out of “the life” and recapture their humanity and sense of worth. Some left this world early in random acts of violence. Others were cut down on the brink of a new and productive life. Again – heartbreaking… and unimaginable.

Suffice it to say, I have tremendous respect for Father Greg and his commitment to this community. But I can’t help but wonder: What gives him the strength to pursue this mission year after year when the toll it takes on the heartstrings must be terrible?

As a man of faith, Father Greg finds inspiration in the life of Jesus Christ, a man who consistently located his ministry among folks on the margins. It was not about being in service to them; it was about his abiding love and compassion for their suffering. As Father Greg says:

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a covenant between equals… a shift from the cramped world of self-reoccupation into a more expansive place of fellowship, of true kinship. We are bound together.”

He references the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus offers nine Beatitudes. Father Greg tells us that this list of blessed ones is not so much a recounting of those favored in God’s sight. Rather, it’s a prescriptive for where disciples of Jesus should locate themselves – amidst the poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, and those who follow Jesus’ example. Father Greg simply heeds that call, even when it’s painful to do so.

When looking past Homeboy Industry’s services and advocacy, a common theme emerges: the healing power of love, compassion, and kindness. In and through relationship, folks discover that they are valued and valuable. They discover their own light and realize that they are right and true and wholly acceptable just as they are. They are exactly what God intended when God made them – talented, gifted, good. Resilience comes from being grounded in this fundamental truth.

Father Greg used a metaphor for helping others that resonated with me. He casts the helper as one who has a flashlight in a dark room. The helper can illuminate light switch, but the one who wishes to come out of darkness must flip the switch and realize that light is better than dark. In the spirit of mutuality, one may wield the flashlight this time but be the one who needs it the next.

A final thought ties it all together: “If kinship were our goal, we would no longer be promoting justice, we would be celebrating it.” Our circle of compassion would be inclusive. We would belong to one another and feel our worth.

Missing Out at Rush Hour

morning commute

In early 2007, the Washington Post conducted a little experiment in collaboration with virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell. They wanted to see how ordinary people would respond to one of the world’s finest classical musicians when encountering his artistry unexpectedly during the morning rush hour. Would exquisite beauty give people pause during the busy-ness of life?

On Friday, January 12th, 2007 at 7:51am, Bell donned street clothes, went to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in Washington DC, took out his Stradivarius, and put some seed money in the open case. He then commenced to deliver a 47-minute concert of six glorious pieces for solo violin.

Three days before appearing at the Metro Station, Bell filled Boston’s Symphony Hall with patrons shelling out $100 each on average to hear him play. Two weeks later, standing room only crowds in North Bethesda, MD were so enraptured by his artistry that they dare not cough for fear of disrupting the experience. But on that Friday, Bell presented himself as just another street musician trying to make a buck.

So, how did he do?

Of nearly 1,100 people who passed him by on their way to work, only seven stopped to listen for a minute or more. A mere 27 people opted to give him money. His total haul: $32.17.

Despite my great love for classical music, I would have counted myself among the throngs of humanity in a great big hurry to get on with my commute and the day ahead. I doubt that I would even have stopped to toss a coin in the case. If I’d opened myself to the music at all, I’d likely have considered myself lucky to have pursued a career in business instead of the performing arts. After all, if a guy that good had to make his living in a subway station, what chance would I have had?!

While that story was brought to my attention several weeks ago, I still find myself in a great big hurry to get somewhere. My penchant for getting things done and checking items off my “to do” leaves me with a kind of tunnel vision that prevents me from taking in the small wonders of life.

As a case in point, my husband and I reside in a townhouse for which we have no yard for the dog. His calls of nature launch a negotiation between us as to who’ll suit up and take him out. When it’s my turn, I generally try to get through it as quickly as possible. My “hurry up” attitude generally flies in the face of an excitable Scottie who’s all about enjoying the moment and exploring the sights and smells of the neighborhood.

A snowpocalypse arrived in the Portland Metro Area last weekend, plunging temperatures into the teens and far lower with wind chill. On the blustery walks, I had an understandable desire to get back in the house as quickly as possible. Even my dog got on board with that! But during the final walk Saturday night, I had a transcendent moment. The snow-covered streets and sidewalks reflected the light from the street lamps, making the whole area glow. No one else was out and about; no cars were on the move. The opening lines of Silent Night filled my head: “Silent Night. Holy night. All is calm. All is bright.” That ordinary moment was peaceful and joyful and breathtaking.

I doubt that single moment will break me of the habit of rushing when life does not demand it of me. But I will make every effort going forward to slow down and take in my surroundings… perhaps even pause to listen to the birds sing and catch a whiff of the clean, fresh air.

Finding Joy

“In their quest for happiness, people mistake excitement of the mind for real happiness.” – Sayadaw U Pandita, Myanmar Buddhist monk

My last post examined Dr. Judson Brewer’s work on addiction as discussed in The Craving Mind. It focused on our need for distraction in the face of unpleasant feelings and how that inculcates unhealthy behavior patterns. There’s another aspect of craving that bears a moment or two of reflection – i.e., the thirst for continuous gratification.

Like it or not, we are pleasure seeking beings. We crave people, things, feelings, and experiences that feel good and avoid ones that don’t. Moreover, when we sense a lull in action or feel disengaged with what we’re doing, it’s easy to look for some form of excitement to get our juices flowing again.

Daydreaming can stoke our fires. We imagine a life filled with our heart’s desires and, perhaps, contemplate a journey that might get us there. We may run simulations in our brain to assess the likelihood that we could make it happen. Or, we may simply abandon all sense of reality and create a fantasy world into which we escape.

Shopping can be an allure for others. Companies spend billions of dollars in advertising to convince prospective consumers that the key to happiness lies in purchasing their products. We feel the rush of excitement when the coveted item becomes ours. Unfortunately, the feeling doesn’t last long, and we set ourselves up to buy the next new toy. (When we downsized last summer, I was struck by how much stuff we’d purchased over the years and rarely used. Such waste!)

Adrenaline junkies seek intense and thrilling activities that deliver a physiological rush – e.g., sky diving, extreme sports, dangerous lines of work. These activities cause the body to produce adrenaline which increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It sharpens the senses and boosts energy in response to a perceived danger. But again, the feeling doesn’t last, and its pursuit can be costly physically, emotionally, and financially.

On a much smaller scale, click bait can give us a tiny hit of dopamine to break us out of the doldrums. The thrill of anticipation piques our interest; clever marketers use evidence-based methods to capture our attention once we get there.

All the foregoing work against our being sustainably awake, aware, and embodied in the present moment. We become slaves of our wandering minds, our cravings, and the false sense that happiness is somehow “out there.” We lose sight of the path to true happiness and well-being.

There are several antidotes for our attachment to continuous gratification.

Positive psychology guru Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi found that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow. This state happens when we are fully engrossed in voluntary activities that stretch our bodies and/or minds to accomplish something worthwhile. In such activities, we act with such deep and effortless involvement that we temporarily let go of everyday worries, responsibilities, and frustrations. We’re “in the zone.” In my experience, the activities need not be Herculean. I get “in the zone” when engrossed in a good book; I’m bored and restless when watching TV.

Mindfulness helps break the allure of continuous gratification. As discussed in last week’s post, we can observe with curiosity the mind’s tendency toward craving – in this case, its thirst for excitement. If we succumb to the temptation, we can notice the feelings that arise, the length of time those heightened sensations stick around, and the place to which we return thereafter. Was it worthwhile? Were there better uses of our precious resources? If we resist the temptation, we can notice how the impulse to act increases in intensity and then attenuates, soon to be replaced by other thoughts and impulses. A craving is just a craving until we get sucked into it!

The promise of a consistent practice of mindfulness lies in the quieting of that part of the brain that activates in response to boredom, notably the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). These regions are associated with self-referential thinking and are linked with OCD, daydreaming, rumination, and craving. They settle down when concentrating with ease on the present moment.

Until we define happiness for ourselves and see clearly the difference between excitement and joy, we’ll be ensnared by craving. Excitement brings with it restlessness and a contracted urge for more. Joy that results from curiosity activates a healthy imagination and creativity and yields peace, openness, and deep well-being.

Why We Crave

When the earliest incarnations of human beings roamed the earth, survival loomed large in every day life. Those who lived became adept at laying down patterns of behavior in response to environmental cues. Establish relationship with friends; run from enemies and predators. Move toward nutrients and away from toxins. Approach pleasant; avoid unpleasant. Memory engrams combined with dopamine hits in the brain codified these patterns into habits. Good habits kept one alive.

With our ancient brains now living in a modern world, that evolutionarily beneficial learning process now works against us. While we don’t face the same environmental threats, our brains still run the same programming:

  1. We have an experience that registers in the five senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch) and/or our emotions.
  2. We render an interpretation of that stimulus based on past experience.
  3. Our assessment results in a “feeling tone” – i.e., pleasant or unpleasant.
  4. We’re wired to approach (and crave) what’s pleasant and avoid (or ignore) what’s unpleasant.
  5. We take action reflexively based on this rapid and largely unconscious mental process.
  6. We lay down a memory engram that increases the likelihood that we’ll repeat the process the next time we encounter that stimulus… as well as ones that register as similar.

Feel stressed, bored, frustrated, angry? Our patterned behavior might trigger eating, drinking, smoking, doing drugs, checking social media… anything to distract ourselves from the unpleasant feeling. But here’s the rub: However pleasant these distractions may seem, we’ll only get a transitory hit of dopamine when pursuing them. Worst yet, the hit attenuates the more we chase after that activity, thereby requiring a more extended engagement for the same measure of pleasure. And when it wears off, we’re still left with whatever feeling we had when we hopped on the bad habit bandwagon.

Dr. Judson Brewer explores this terrain in The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love. In particular, his research focuses on the neurobiology of substance and behavioral addiction and its treatment via mindfulness. It’s a really interesting read. Let me illustrate a small piece of his work through the lens of social media.

Using fMRI technology, neuroscientists have identified the nucleus accumbens as the brain region linked with addiction. It also lights up when we talk about ourselves, listen to others talk about us, or get self-relevant feedback. This wiring likely reflects the fact that our ancestors increased their chances of survival when they mattered to others. It meant that others took a vested interest in their well-being under the auspices of mutual interest.

Technology causes us to overuse this neural pathway. We post on social media to get noticed and pay close attention to who “likes” what we shared. We feel great if a lot of people give us a thumbs up – especially those who we deem special – and feel deflated if few bother to register a response. Ironically, extensive use of social media has been correlated with diminished self-worth and increased withdrawal. We get caught up in comparisons, ruminating on how others’ lives are so much more exciting than ours. We get drawn in to the on-line world rather than revel in real experience. We want to matter. But in the end, social media makes us feel worse.

So, what’s the answer?

Dr. Brewer suggests a counterintuitive response: Lean in to the discomfort rather than attempt a bypass through addictive distraction. Activate curiosity to see how discomfort manifests in the body. Curiosity creates emotional distance from the sensation and makes it less personal. It also affords the space to “pause” before engaging in habitual responses and see what we’re actually getting out of them. Do we really feel better long term, or are we just getting some temporary relief and winding up worse off? Moreover, given time, we may notice that our impulse to act – out of craving or aversion – likely reaches a peak and then falls away. If we just stay with it, we can ride the wave until it finds its own natural conclusion.

I’ve put this advice into practice. Sweets – notably chocolate truffles and ice cream – are my go-to “remedies” for stress, boredom, and various forms of upset. Sugar alone triggers an addictive response; my use of it for palliative care makes it doubly vexing. When I give in to the craving, the sensory experience lasts but a few minutes. Then I experience a sugar rush followed by a crash and (usually) disruption of sleep. And after my brief distraction, I still have to deal with whatever triggered the habit loop in the first place… with diminished physical reserves.

Using Dr. Brewer’s advice, I stop and take notice when craving for sweets arises. I remind myself of the fleeting nature of the “happiness hit” and the long tail of the unpleasantness post-indulgence. Then I get quiet and explore what’s really going on in my body and what it might be telling me about my life. With that little bit of mindfulness, I set myself up for right action.

The Cost of Inertia

in·er·tia (iˈnərSHə): a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force

My husband and I hung on to our landline for several years after we’d pretty much switched to cell phones. We rarely used the line but for answering those annoying telemarketing calls. And it cost us a chunk of change every month to keep it. But we had dozens of places where that number was listed as a point of contact, and I simply lacked the motivation to chase them all down… until we moved and changed our address when it became an auspicious time to nuke the line.

Speaking of cell phones… we’ve had the service provider years. It doesn’t cost a lot, but our data plan is so low that it constrains usage. We’ve accommodated the limitation because changing plans would cost an arm and a leg, and changing carriers is a nuisance. Then came the killer app that made switching carriers worth the nuisance factor. As of this writing, it’s a work in progress…

Businesses count on inertia. Don’t believe me? Wait until the first of the year drives hordes of folks to sign up for gym memberships so they can lose weight and get in shape in the new year. Watch how they follow through with their plans for a while before giving up the ghost… yet still paying for their monthly fees. Been there, done that.

It’s easy to let inertia hold sway over these seemingly insignificant decisions. After all, the monthly costs may be relatively small and simply fly under the radar. (For example, a classic membership at Planet Fitness runs $10/month.) But, when you multiply those costs by 12 and consider the years across which unused services stay in the pipeline, those dollars and cents stop making sense. (Four years of a functionally inactive Planet Fitness membership nudges toward $500… and those are after tax dollars!)

sharp pencilSo, I’m starting my year taking a good hard look at all the monthly services that get deducted from our accounts and ask myself: Do we really use these services? If not, are we likely to get on board with them in the New Year? (I’ll set a timer on planned reintroduction of unused services and pull the plug if our good intentions do not materialize.) Are we getting competitive rates for the services we use? If not, what options should we consider?

I’ll cop to the fact that I don’t like going through the hassle of making changes and that the value of my time is non-zero. But I also know that a few dollars here, a few dollars there, etc. can add up to some real money. Even if I don’t choose to put them in my piggy bank, I can imagine using the funds for a far more memorable experience than lining a vendor’s pockets.

Time to sharpen that pencil and run some numbers!

A Sense of Community

I was lucky growing up. I lived in the same town and completed my K-12 journey with the same kids who started out with me. I took advantage of a wide array of extra-curricular activities. I walked, bicycled, drove, and even rode horseback from one end of town to the other. I knew it like the back of my hand. Two grandmothers, two uncles, and an aunt were on hand to share in family celebrations. I belonged.

Of course, things changed when I went off to college. My hometown became a place that I visited; my life was on campus. By the time I returned to my old haunts, the once-strong relationships had waned, my parents had moved, and the remaining family members had either passed on or moved out of the area. The workplace with its long hours and substantive travel requirements became my life’s primary anchor.

I made an effort to connect to community when relocating to North Carolina by joining a church, a women’s organization, and (for a time) a community choir. Yet work and a second round of graduate school continued to impinge on my community building efforts. But for a glorious experience with Special Olympics World Sumer Games, I didn’t recapture the experience of belonging that I’d had in my youth.

Our move to the Pacific Northwest 15 years ago provided the opportunity to craft a new relationship with the place I lived. I established a Portland Metro Area consultancy (with minimal travel!), joined the Chamber of Commerce, signed on for Leadership Beaverton, and attended the Beaverton Citizen’s Police Academy. (It was fascinating!) The area’s agrarian sensibilities led to training as a Master Gardener, regular patronage of the Beaverton Farmer’s Market, and subscriptions to Community Supported Agriculture. I also joined ISing Choir and reveled in making choral music and great friendships while supporting local charities. (ISing has raised over $400,000 to date!) Those efforts paid dividends. I’ve loved living in this community.

As we’ve gotten on in years, we’ve felt the tug to relocate in close proximity to our extended family. We’ve looked somewhat seriously at housing options out of state but opted to stay in the Portland area (at least for the moment) once we sold our home. We currently reside in a rented suburban townhome that’s walking distance from a shopping “village” that provides for all of life’s necessities in addition to a library annex, restaurants, medical services, and full-service gym. The “village” even supports a handful of social events to bring the neighborhood together. It’s lovely, and I enjoy the feeling of being in a small town within the context of a large metropolitan area.

I’ve been reflecting on Dr. Vivek Murthy’s book Together in which he chronicles the deleterious impact of loneliness. He reminds us that human beings are wired for connection; it is our key to survival. We thrive when our orbits regularly include connect with:

  • Intimate partners (i.e., family members and close friends)
  • Relational allies (i.e., our core social group)
  • Collective affiliations (i.e., people with who we share interests and values)

I enjoy a bounty in all three domains. As such, I am understandably reluctant to move out of an area in which I’ve worked hard to forge a sense of place and the social networks that go with it. But, here’s the rub: Things change whether we like it or not. People in close connection move, pass away, or reorient their priorities in response to their changing landscapes. (I just spent the weekend bidding farewell to a close friend who is moving out of state for her dream job.) Organizations that were once cohesive lose key elements of their connective tissue. Changes in physical, cognitive, or emotional capacities influence the activities and relationships that can be pursued.

I’d love to be once-and-done with crafting a sense of community, but that’s not how things work. I’m grateful for the relationships that have stood the test of time and the array of community-based organizations of which I am a part. I’m also grateful for the opportunities to keep in touch with folks who don’t live in close proximity through Zoom, social media, email, and texts. I’ve even availed myself of these technologies to re-establish ties to folks with whom I’d lost touch. But I also realize that community-building never stops. It requires sustained effort, continuous renewal, and perhaps the spirit of adventure to remain vibrant.

I’m up for the challenge. I’m too social not to be. And my health and well-being depend on it.

Take a Self-Compassion Break

Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

– Excerpt from The Rainy Day by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

My life has had its share of ups and downs. While I consider myself to be richly blessed, I’ve faced a few challenges in recent years.

I provided oversight of my parents’ care during their final years of life. Dad was plagued with physical infirmity as well as geriatric dementia. Mom developed full blown Alzheimer’s disease. It was difficult to bear witness to their gradual deterioration and taxing to manage their care. Dad sustained relatively good cheer to the end; Mom had a rough go of it. Through it all, my husband and I endeavored to provide loving support and address needs as they arose. We stopped traveling to make sure we were there for them.

Just when that chapter of our lives reached its conclusion, COVID happened. Our plans for a recreational respite went on the shelf. I was disappointed, but we found ways to entertain ourselves within the confines of our home. Yet as the country started opening back up, it was our household’s turn to get in on the healthcare action. Some things have been resolved; others remain vexing. And again, our travel plans have gone up in smoke.

having a hard timeI wish that I could report that I’ve taken life’s set-backs in stride and sustained a cheerful attitude. While I strive for a positive attitude no matter what life throws at me, I’ve managed to throw myself some decent pity parties. I lament the fact that our “golden years” aren’t as golden as I thought they’d be. Then I chastise myself for complaining when I have so many things for which I am truly grateful. But here’s the rub: Life throws curve balls at you, and things can be legitimately unpleasant. What do you do with all the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth? My attempts at stuffing those feelings haven’t worked. They just pop up again!

I shared this dilemma with a friend in my mindfulness meditation cohort. He said: “Why don’t you try self-compassion?” Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?!?

Self-compassion acknowledges that life entails suffering and creates an opening for sympathetic concern. It neither rails against suffering nor diminishes its painful impact. It simply invites lovingkindness in its wake.

Here’s a self-compassion break to help process those troublesome sensibilities:

  • Stop and notice the upset. Name the emotions, explore how they show up in the body, and see what stories might be surfacing around them.
  • Remember that everyone suffers. “Into each life some rain must fall.” We are not alone.
  • Ask: What do I need to be kind to myself in this moment? Time permitting, I could go for a walk, listen to wonderful music, take a luxurious bath, share some quality time with a friend. Or, I could simply repeat one or more of the following phrases in silent meditation: May I be strong. May I face this circumstance with equanimity. May I find love in myself and others… While I’m generally not big on affirmations, I’m surprised at how effective they can be to soothe an aching heart.

Practicing R.A.I.N. With a Partner

Two-plus years ago, I wrote a post entitled Take a Pause and Practice R.A.I.N. to shine a light on a wonderful tool for processing emotions. I learned about it from renowned psychologist, author, and meditation teacher Tara Brach. It goes like this:

  • Recognize: Pay attention to thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they arise.
  • Allow: Let the thoughts, emotions, and sensations just be. Don’t try to control or judge them. Don’t label them right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate. Just say “YES” to them and invite them to sit with you.
  • Investigate: Bring an interested and kind attention to the experience. Notice what bodily sensations, emotions, and narratives arise without analyzing them. Just be curious.
  • Nurture: Call for a response from the wisest and most compassionate part of your being. Allow yourself to feel loved, supported, and worthy.

It’s a simple yet powerful practice that has really helped me work through some intense feelings and get unhooked from them.

In my Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program, the leadership strongly encouraged us to practice R.A.I.N. with a partner. I dismissed the notion at first given the difficulty I perceived in finding a compatible partner and (frankly) because I just didn’t think I’d get that much out of it. Yet members of my peer group had such great success with it that I put out a request for a partner and was blessed with a perfect pairing.

When practiced in partnership, the process goes like this:

  • RAIN partnersBoth partners reflect ahead of time on a matter in which they feel vexed or stuck. It can be something related to work, personal relationships, health, a troublesome behavior, the community, a news article, …
  • When coming together, the session starts with a period of quiet meditation – between 3 and 10 minutes – to bring a sense of calm and centeredness to the space.
  • Each partner takes 3 minutes to described the issue at hand while the other listens attentively.
  • The ensuing 10 minutes of silence provides the opportunity to consider the A, I, and N elements of RAIN.
  • Thereafter, both parties reflect silently on the process for 2 minutes to see how things have shifted for them.
  • Each partner takes 3 minutes to express to the other what was challenging about the practice and what they experienced or learned as a take-away.

Several things happen when I work through an issue with a partner.

  • Giving voice to the issue in front of another person makes it more real. It starts me on the path of really feeling it rather than getting stuck in my head just thinking about it.
  • I slow down and give RAIN the space to do its magic. When practicing RAIN alone, I tend to rush through the steps and give short shrift to the curiosity that comes with investigation and the genuine nurturing that helps me move through it. A slow pace gives me more time for exploration and self-compassion.
  • I feel supported deeply by my partner. I don’t feel alone in my struggles.
  • Quite often, the issues my partner raises resonate with me. It’s like getting a two-for-one RAIN bonus.

I don’t know how long this partnership will last, but I’ll be inclined to work with others going forward. It’s a moving experience that really drives insights home.