We all have stress, but one of the best ways to manage it is to first become aware of it. To help build your awareness of stress and its impact on your life, try the practice of “mindfulness.”
Happy New Year! By now, everyone has been into 2017 for two days. That’s two days into the new goals, resolutions and intentions for yourself this year. One that has been on my list for a couple of years has resurfaced again…. a formal meditation practice. Most of us know nowadays that meditation is a good thing. But so far I have not been able to stick with it because I’ve allowed myself to become too busy too often. But this year will be different. I’ve decided to do the following:
- Start small, meditating only 3-5 minutes (or less if need be). Slowly take one deep breath in and think, “I receive life.” Exhale slowly and think, “Life is good.” Then repeat for at least two more rounds and you will be energized significantly because more oxygen has entered your blood stream than usual. The longer and slower you do this, the more alive you will feel.
- Understand that this simple breathing exercise reduces stress, calms anxiety, erases irritability and clears your mind. The process is called “mindfulness,” which at first seems contradictory. “Mindlessness” is more like it because your goal is to clear your head of all thoughts except for breathing and exhaling. This increases your resilience to stress and induces a calming effect on your nervous system, thus erasing anxiety.
This makes sense given that meditation allows you to focus on breathing in and breathing out while everything else that clouds your mind disappears. If you feel that your mind is drifting, simply go back to thinking only about breathing in and breathing out.
- Understand the principles of meditation. Beginning meditators often think the goal is to get to the point that they can focus without becoming distracted. That goal is difficult. Instead become aware that your mind has drifted, redirect your attention back to your point of focus without criticizing or judging yourself.
- Do meditation in your own way. It’s alright to do more while concentrating on your breathing. Some people find that a walking meditation is the way to go. This increases your heart rate and distributes more oxygen throughout your system. Jogging is even better. Just remember to stay focused on your breathing. If your attention drifts to past, future or evaluative thoughts, remind yourself that you’re breathing in life and exhaling the phrase, “life is good.”
- Do away with all-or-nothing thinking. If you can’t do 30 minutes of meditation, then do 15. The idea is to learn how to clear your mind and focus only on your breathing. On those days when you have more time, you can gradually build up to 30 minutes if that’s your preference.
Doing at least 15 minutes of a formal practice when you begin meditation will allow you to try different types of meditation. It will also increase your comfort and familiarity with meditation so you can restart a formal practice if you’re going through a period of stress or overthinking.
I am only one week into it right now, with a goal of continuing to do so at least three times a week throughout January. Won’t you join me?
Last week’s post noted that using what is known as “the happiness advantage” is a great way to improve both your personal and professional lives. One of the ways I mentioned to raise your level of happiness is to briefly note on a regular basis those things for which you are grateful. A helpful internet application (“app”) which allows you to record your “gratitudes” is Gratitude Journal 365.
I enjoy keeping a daily journal in which, among other things, I write down three things for which I am grateful. I suggest that one of your happiness-advantage techniques is to give it a try to do this at least three times a week. Simply write down three things for which you are appreciative. Don’t simply do this in your head. Write them down.
Start out simple with things like “my morning cup of coffee” or “the sound of rain on the roof,” then go on to bigger things like “my daughter gave birth to a healthy baby boy” or “I’ve paid off the credit card and cut it to pieces.” The goal of the exercise is to remember the good things in your life and savor the happiness that goes with them.
As your write, here are some important tips:
1. Be as specific as possible. Specificity is the key to fostering gratitude. “I am grateful that my husband cooked supper for us when I had to work late on Tuesday.”
2. Go for depth over breadth. Elaborating in detail about a particular person, thing or event for which you are grateful carries more benefits than listing superficial things.
3. Get personal. Focus on people to whom you are grateful. This has far more impact than those things for which you alone are grateful.
4. Consider what your life would be like without certain people or things, rather than just tallying up all the good stuff. Be grateful for the negatives outcomes you avoided, escaped, prevented or turned into something positive. In other words, try not to take good fortune for granted.
5. See good things as “gifts.” Doing so guards against taking things for granted. Relish the gifts you have and received.
6. Savor surprises. I love the word “savor” because it allows you to linger on gifts that are unexpected. Savoring is a stronger level of gratitude.
7. Revise if you repeat. In other words, writing about the same people and things over and over again is OK, but writing about a different aspect of each person in greater detail is even better.
8. Write regularly. Whether you chose to write every day or three times a week, commit to a regular time of day to journal and honor your commitment.
9. Don’t overdo it. This is supposed to be enjoyable. No one savors a routine chore.
10. And remember, it only takes minutes to unleash everything great in your life.
Just the thought of another South Carolina summer wears me out. It may be debatable about what is causing more and more heat year after year, but there is no doubt in my mind that climate change is real.
My husband and I are rejuvenated every summer when we take a short up I-26 to the mountains. Not only do we have fun together, traveling also is healthy — physically and spiritually. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits:
Studies show that people — especially men — are less likely to have a heart attack if they take at least one vacation per year. One nine-year study of 12,000 men found that those who took a well-planned trip were 30 percent less likely to have major heart problems.
Leaving town on a pleasant vacation is also a great way to kick the blues, and women appear to benefit most for this, studies show. There are several ways to fight depression, and travel is one of the most effective. I like to think of the mountains as one of only a few “thin places” on earth. A slow hike up a mountain obviously exercises my heart, and it is at the top where I feel closest to God.
Vacation travel reduces stress on you as well as your mate, not only during the trip, but well after you get back home. Studies of regular travelers show most are less bothered by stress hormones. (But not at airports, I might add.) Other studies show that workers who take pleasant trips have lower rates of absenteeism and burn out, plus higher productivity levels.
Travel is a learning experience, too, which is not only enjoyable but an excellent way to exercise your brain. New cultures, cuisines, sights and sounds combine to keep my memory sharp. How about you?
Being blessed has everything to do with being happy. Christians and Jews especially understand this, as well as members of most other major faiths and persuasions. But happiness often requires an attitude-adjustment technique.
- Sleep in a comfortable bed. A saggy mattress will not do.
- No matter what, make it a point to wake up each morning thankful you’re still alive. You have lots of good things to do for others as well as yourself.
- Your home, apartment, room or wherever you live is your castle. Keep it clean. There is no room in a happy life for confusion.
- Surround yourself in light. Flip on the switch, open the curtains, lift the shades, step outside. Light is energy. Darkness is depressing.
- Keep a fresh coat of paint on your walls, and decorate them with beautiful art. And make sure each piece means something positive to you.
- Same goes for music.
- De-clutter your house and your mind will follow. But remember, one room at a time.
- Count your blessings. Your life is full of them. It’s all a matter of attitude.
Make Life Meaningful
Happiness, resilience, connection and kindness — the key ingredients for a good life — do not come naturally for everyone. They thrive with practice. Here are two simple ways to stay in good shape:
- Live in the present. Stop fretting over the past and quit worrying about the future. Be mindful of what you are doing in the present. Mindfulness helps each of us to tune into our own senses. So practice paying close attention to your thoughts, feelings and sensations in a non-judgmental way. This reduces stress and opens the mind to the good things in life.
- Practice mindful eating. This fosters a healthier relationship with food. Hold a single raisin between your thumb and forefinger. Focus on it. Turn it in gently, notice the folds and ridges and the areas that shine and those that are dark. Roll it at your fingertips, exploring the texture. Close your eyes as you hold it and imagine how it tastes. Bring it close to you nose and appreciate its fragrance. Bring it to your lips, then gently place it in your mouth. Enjoy the initial taste. Bite it in half. Note what is happening in your mouth as you slowly chew. Now slowly swallow. Feel it moving downward into your stomach. Consider the next one and start again.
By increasing awareness of internal and physical states, you are practicing mindfulness. You are living in the moment. You are practicing control over your thoughts, feelings and behavior right now. You are also becoming more attuned to hunger and fullness, and therefore eliminating emotional eating.
“When we taste with attention, even the simplest foods provide and universe of sensory experience,” notes mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. So take time to practice this everyday and at every meal. And enjoy!
The exercise of gratitude as a tool for happiness has been in the mainstream for years. Studies support its effectiveness, suggesting that a positive, appreciative attitude contributes to greater success in life. While many acknowledge gratitude’s list of benefits, it can be difficult to sustain. Many of us are trained to notice what is lacking in our lives. For gratitude to meet its full healing potential, it needs to become more than just a one-time thing. We need to find a new way of looking at things and create new habits.
Practice makes perfect. If we practice giving thanks for all we have, instead of complaining about what we lack, then we give ourselves the prospect to see all of life as an opportunity and a blessing.
Gratitude focuses on where we put our effort and attention. Gratitude balances us and gives us hope.
Some Ways to Practice Gratitude
• Keep a gratitude journal in which you list things for which you are thankful. You can make daily, weekly, or monthly lists. Greater frequency may be better for creating a new habit, but just keeping that journal where you can see it will remind you to think in a grateful way.
• Make a gratitude collage by drawing or pasting pictures.
• Practice gratitude around the dinner table or make it part of your nighttime routine.
• Make a game of finding the hidden blessing in a challenging situation.
• When you feel like complaining, make a gratitude list instead.
• Notice how gratitude is impacting your life. Write about it, sing about it, express thanks for gratitude.
As you practice, an inner shift begins to occur, and you may be delighted to discover how content and hopeful you are feeling. That sense of fulfillment is gratitude at work.