13 March 2014

Meditating Your Way to Healthy Digestion

In my previous post, I described 4 ways that yoga can support your nutrition and weight loss goals. Here, I'll offer some advice about how a mindful meal meditation might move you along in these endeavors as well.

About Meditation & Mindfulness

Meditation is essentially a practice in training one's mind, so it can be done anywhere, using anything as a point of focus. Applying meditative techniques when moving throughout one's day can be thought of as mindfulness. Since we eat at least 2-3 times a day, meal times are a natural opportunity for meditation, using food as our focus.

A Mindful Mealtime Meditation to Try

Light some candles, dim the lights, maybe put on some relaxing background music. Ensure there are no potential distractions, nothing within reach to multitask with. Then, sit down at a table in front of your plate, and take a moment to connect with your meal. Look down at your food, noticing the different colors and textures, as well as the arrangement of the food. You might like to use a simple statement, like, "I eat this food to be healthy and happy, to care for and nourish my body." This prepares your body for a relaxed eating experience.

Take only enough food as will comfortably fit on your utensil. Notice the first contact of the food with your tongue. See if you can identify the flavors: sour, salty, sweet, bitter, and so on. Notice how the food changes form as you chew it slowly. To help you focus on this, it may be helpful for you to place your utensils (or food, if it's hand-held) back down on your plate between bites. If you get distracted or find yourself hurrying, simply notice, take a deep breath and start again.

When your plate is empty, observe that. Bring your attention to your belly, and notice that you are nourished and satisfied.

Note: A nice book for bringing meditation into your daily life is Making Space by Thich Nhat Hanh, from which some of these concepts were adapted.

Why This Matters

In Inside Tract, Mullen et al. state that “mindful eating is one of the most important techniques you can use [to improve your frame of mind and prepare yourself for excellent digestion].” In Digestive Wellness, Lipski posits that "focus[ing]...awareness of the favors in each bite...can dramatically enhance [people's] total digestive function more completely than can enzymes, bitters, or other digestive supplements."

Why? Because eating mindfully and with presence not only activates the relaxation response, but also initiates the first phase in the digestive process, called the cephalic phase. Cephalic means "of the head", and it's how the brain registers that the body is about to receive a meal. It's how the brain knows to "turn on" digestion by doing things like releasing enzymes and activating stomach acids, as two examples. When we don't pay attention to our food as we eat it, we bypass this phase, meaning:
  • our digestive capacity (i.e. ability to break down, process, and assimilate nutrients from the food) is hampered by 40-60%
  • we are more likely to overeat because we are not aware that we are full
  • our digestive system has to work harder overall, which can result in issues like gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and over time, more serious ones like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Note: Why Being Mindful Matters is a nice, readable article on this topic.

05 March 2014

4 Simple Ways Yoga Can Support Your Nutrition & Weight Loss Goals

Here are 4 ways that taking up even a basic yoga practice can support your nutrition and weight loss goals:
  1. Deeper breathing. One of the fundamental concepts in any practice of yoga is its focus on coordinating breath with movement.

    Try this: sit or stand with your spine tall and long. Close your eyes and observe how you feel physically and mentally. When you feel ready, inhale as you reach your arms out to your sides with your palms up, through shoulder height and then up to the sky, where the palms turn to face each other. Then flip your palms out and exhale as you reverse the movement, bringing the arms and hands back down to your sides. How was it to coordinate your breath with the movement of your arms? Just notice. Repeat this a few times, seeing if you can slow the movements of your arms, thereby lengthening your breath.

    Why this matters: Slowing down the breath helps to calm the body, reducing the effects of chronic stress and inducing a relaxation response. When the body is in relaxation response, digestion improves, nutrients are better assimilated, and toxins are more easily released. Bringing this deep breathing off the yoga mat and into our daily lives helps us become more present to what is happening now, so we learn to pay closer attention to our food as we're eating. In other words, we become aware of the colors, textures, tastes and sensations that naturally encourage our bodies to metabolize food as part of the cephalic phase, leading to natural appetite regulation (not to mention, actual enjoyment of our food!).

  2. Increased body awareness. How were you able to "notice your breath" in point one? Well, there's a part of you called the "wisdom body" or "witness consciousness" in yoga, which has the ability to observe what you're doing, thinking and feeling. In the practice of yoga postures (asanas), instructors encourage their students to "listen" to their bodies--for example, to notice areas of tightness, where there may be more space to move, how to improve their alignment by feeling the body, etc.

    Try this: For one day, set an alarm to alert you every 30 or 60 minutes. (Here's a chime I like, if you happen to work at a computer.) When you hear the alarm, pause what you are doing, close your eyes and pick a word to describe how you're feeling emotionally (e.g.: happy, sad, overwhelmed, frustrated, confused, etc.) Don't think too hard about it, just go with your first, best guess. Then, scan your body for sensations, starting at the crown of your head. Move your focused attention all around your face. Notice the areas around the eyes, the jaw. Feel your neck and shoulders. Scan down your arms to your wrists and hands. Observe the body all around the torso, front and back, along the spine, up and down. Connect your mind to your hips, moving your attention down your legs to your toes, first one side and then the other. Where are you tightening your muscles? Are there any places that feel "uneven" between the right and left sides? Is anything pinchy? Repeat the scan, this time making small adjustments--see if you can relax the tight areas, balance the uneven ones, or tweak your posture to feel better. When you're finished, call to mind a word describe your emotional state. Maybe it's the same one as before, or perhaps a new one. Whatever comes up is perfectly OK. Now continue with what you were doing until the next alarm, when you will repeat this process. See if you can discover places in the body you favor, or whether new areas of your body grab your attention.

    Why this matters: Increasing body awareness has many benefits for nutrition and weight loss. Much like the breath, our body does a lot for us without our needing to attend to it. But in today's busy world, we often "dis-embody"--meaning we tune out important signals, such as when we're hungry, when we're tired, when we're feeling full, when we're holding a shape that's causing muscular stress (e.g. sitting with poor posture), and when we're feeling upset. Dis-embodiment often lead us to overeat and binge eat, since both are "unconscious" activities that are really serving as distractions from difficult emotions and inducing relaxation (which we might find in other methods more supportive of our weight loss goals). By receiving our bodies' signals about when we're naturally hungry, we improve our eating rhythm (i.e. have more regular times of day when we nourish ourselves with food). This reduces the likelihood of us getting ravenous, eating too fast and too much. We also benefit from better regulation of blood sugar and energy throughout the day.

  3. Yoga postures help improve digestion. Arranging the physical body in different shapes offers your internal organs a gentle massage, including the ones involved in digestion and metabolism regulation.

    Try these:
    Seated forward fold, wide-legged standing forward fold with twist, half lord of the fishes pose, cobra pose, bridge pose (or supported bridge). See also Best Yoga Poses for Digestion.

    Why it matters: Yoga postures (asanas) help improve blood and oxygen flow to the digestive organs, are stimulating to the digestive tract, and help to regulate the thyroid gland2 "which is important for not only digestive function, but also the nervous system, reproductive system, respiratory system and metabolism regulation.3"Yoga has also been known to help with chronic digestive issues like constipation and diarrhea, bloating and gas4. A healthy, optimally working digestive tract is critical to meeting any nutritional and weight loss goals. If your system isn't working properly, your efforts will be in vain.

  4. More compassion and self acceptance. Yoga isn't just about physical postures and breathing. It's "a progressive process of replacing our unconscious thought patterns and behavior with new, more beneficial patterns that are helpful towards a better life1." Yoga provides a way for students to experiment with different class styles and instructors until we find some that suit us. It invites us into a safe space where we can explore letting go of our egos, going only as far in a posture as we can in that moment, regardless of what we may have done before or what we hoped we could do. Yoga encourages us to surrender competition with self and others, and to accept that this body is what we have to work with right now.

    Try this: Wearing something form fitting that allows you to really see your body, strike a simple yoga pose in front of a mirror. (Mountain pose is the easiest one to start.) With your eyes open, notice what comes up for you as you sustain the pose for a comfortable time. Are you holding your breath? What are you thinking? Are you worried about doing it perfectly? Are you involved in an internal dialog about a part of your body that you wish looked different? Are you comparing yourself to a photo of someone else in the posture? Do you want to look away? See if you can simply notice these thoughts as they pop up in your mind. Practice accepting whatever comes up for you. If it's helpful, you can imagine putting the thought into a "thought bubble" (like you see in cartoons) and allowing it to float away.

    Why this matters: Finding a style of yoga that you enjoy can replace the punishing exercise that you may do solely for the sake of calorie burning. (Note that over-exercise and exercise one doesn't like can contribute to the stress response, therefore defeating our best intentions at improved metabolism and weight loss.) Yoga's focus on acceptance and self-love can also help improve body image issues for those of us who struggle here. As Marc David says, "acceptance moves energy". Meaning, when we become more aware of our self-criticisms, self-judgements, and ways we habitually cause "self-induced hate stress", we can figuratively and then literally "lighten up". If you're someone who constantly beats yourself up over losing that last 5-10 pounds, or feel impatient at your progress if you have a lot of weight to lose, this refined view of the situation may be just what you need to not just let go of body weight or fat, but also toxic beliefs about yourself and the importance of these things in the grander context of your life.
Notice that I've said nothing about what food you actually eat. ;-)

06 January 2014

New Year Green Smoothie Recipe

Ingredients:
  • 1c hemp (or almond) milk
  • 1/2 banana
  • 1 Tbsp ground flax seeds or 1 squirt Flax oil
  • 1c kale
  • 1c spinach
  • 1/4c flat parsley
  • 1/4c pea sprouts (optional)
  • 1/4c blackberries (or raspberries)
Instructions:
  • Combine ingredients in a blender, preferably in the order listed above.
  • Drink up and enjoy!

Different Ways to Welcome the New Year

Like many people, I look forward to the "clean start" that a new year brings. Yet this New Year, I'm doing things differently. This New Year, I will NOT:
  • Write down a bunch of resolutions or goals that make me feel good temporarily, but then turn into obligations that I can't reasonably meet and resulting in me feeling like a failure.

    Instead I will have a loose "intention" to surrender the direction of my life to the Universe, trusting that each step I take is the one that is best for me in the moment that it happens, and is leading me to my true purpose.
  • Look back on the prior year, noting all the things that had gone wrong. I will not think "good riddance", because all the trials and tribulations have taught me important lessons, and I'm a better, stronger person for having experienced them.

    Rather, I will say goodbye to the prior year with respect. I will keep the lessons I learned in my mind and close in my heart as I move forward, so I don't make the same mistakes and create the same suffering for myself and others.
What will YOU do differently this new year?

26 October 2013

Yoga and Chiropractic Care: Gentle, Complementary Ways to Heal Your Body

Dr. Ellen Wolk is a Waltham-based chiropractor I had the pleasure of meeting a few months back. Since that time we've had some fascinating discussions about how yoga and chiropractic care complement each other to encourage the body to heal itself, and Ellen has dispelled many misconceptions that I know I had about chiropractors! I've been personally adjusted by Dr. Wolk several times, and I was thoroughly impressed by her gentle touch and the lasting results, especially around a hip imbalance that has plagued me--and my yoga practice--for years.

In this guest blog, Dr. Wolk answers a few of my burning questions about chiropractors, how chiropractic care works, and how it jives with yoga. Isn't it fortunate that there are so many choices when it comes to self-care, health and wellness? Hope you'll find this post interesting and explore a new modality in the near future. :-)
  1. How did your interest in chiropractic care begin? 
    I had always been interested in healing, even as a young child.  Then in my 20's I had a fairly serious car accident and experienced whiplash and shoulder injuries.  I went the "traditional" route of seeing an orthopedist who gave me drugs that did nothing but make me sick to my stomach. He also sent me for physical therapy, which felt good but months later I was still struggling with the effects from this accident.  I finally went to see a chiropractor and was astonished at how quickly I felt better!  I began talking with my chiropractor and decided that this was where my interest in healing was meant to go.

  2. When I first heard the word "chiropractor", I thought of people who crunch you and crack your back. Yet, your approach is gentle, nothing like that perception.  What do you want people to know about chiropractic care that is different than they might assume? 
    First off, I specialize in "gentle" chiropractic care which means I use only low and non-force adjusting techniques.  I have an instrument that I use that uses very gentle impulsing to move vertebrae and other bones back into alignment just enough to get the pressure off the nerves, then the body can heal itself.  I also make non force adjustments using my thumbs and use muscle work to relax the muscles so the adjustments can hold better.   People feel VERY relaxed with these techniques that are so gentle yet very specific.   There is no popping, snapping or cracking.  What many people don't realize is that the major premise behind chiropractic is that the body can heal itself.  However, when you have pressure on the nerves (also known as "nerve interference" or "subluxation") the body can NOT heal. So, we are freeing up the body's natural ability to heal itself. And the body can heal from amazing things when it has proper nerve flow.  The profession of chiropractic began when a janitor in D.D. Palmer's building in Davenport, Iowa, was checked by D.D. and had his hearing restored with an adjustment.  Yes,  a vertebra was found out of place; it was the vertebra that provides nerve supply to the ears so chiropractic is really about full body healing.  Pain may be in the low back, the neck, the arm, headaches, etc. but the nerves that are causing that pain to let you know the body is not getting proper nerve supply also supply every organ, muscle and gland in the body. This is why people are often surprised to find their allergies, fatigue, sinuses, PMS, reflux, etc.,  improve along with their spinal or joint complaints.  The only thing that chiropractors "treat" is nerve interference; this however, has a major effect on everything in the body.  With 100% nerve supply we have the best chance for full and robust health--and who doesn't want that!!!

  3. What is the most common issue you see in your patients, and how do you help them heal? 
    Nerve interference can occur anywhere in the spine or our joints.  I would say that the most common symptoms that bring patients in to see me are low back pain and shoulder/arm/hand problems (numbness, tingling, pain down arms/hands).  A big part of both those complaints is related to folks sitting on computers all day at work.  Symptoms are most often what bring folks into a chiropractor but then they learn how good they can feel without constant nerve interference in their bodies and often will continue to get adjusted on some regular basis in order to stay healthy,  in balance and prevent bigger problems from recurring.

  4. You do yoga and meditate. What are your thoughts about the relationship between chiropractic care and yoga?  
    Chiropractic and Yoga are a terrific combination. I know that I personally find that I hold my adjustments better when I have some kind of regular yoga practice.  I find the same with my patients. Especially, as we age, yoga is so great for maintaining flexibility, for balance and in general, to help our bodies deal better with stress.  Meditation is also wonderful to help with "de-stressing" our minds and bodies.  Stress is what causes "nerve interference", be it physical, chemical or mental/emotional stress.  Our muscles tighten up in response to stress and the job of muscles is to move bones.  Once bones in the spine ("vertebrae") move far enough out of place, they put pressure on nerves and the body will at all costs try to protect that nerve.  The way the body protects the nerve is by tightening (sometimes "spasming") muscles  and creating swelling around that area--none of this feels good, but it will limit our ability to move fully or to move with comfort so we won't create further pressure in an area where nerve interference already exists.  Anything that will reduce stress on our  bodies and minds including chiropractic adjustments, yoga and meditation will help our bodies have less nerve interference.  Chiropractic care can allow bodies to have more "ease" in doing poses.  Sometimes yogis find that one side is much tighter than the other, this can often be due to muscle tension resulting from nerve interference so many yogis see me for care and find more ease in their practice.

  5. Many people today live fast-paced lives and are extremely busy.  How do you work with people who think they just don't have time to take care of themselves? 
    This is VERY common. Most of us live lives that are extremely fast-paced and busy. Taking 15 minutes out of that busy life, on a regular basis, to make sure your nervous system is functioning at 100%, allows the body to better deal with the constant stress coming at it and for folks to be as healthy as possible.  The nervous system controls all other systems of the body so if someone is under constant stress eventually their immune system will not be able to work at 100% and they will be more prone to getting sick.  The nervous system controls the immune system.  So, often my patients who get adjusted regularly seem to get sick much less frequently because their bodies can work as well as possible to fight illness.  First thing I do if I am feeling run down or perhaps something is "off" in how i am feeling, is get adjusted.  Yoga can help with decreasing the stress load on the body.

  6. If someone doesn't have an acute problem, would they still benefit from a chiropractic session? 
    ABSOLUTELY!  I have many patients who seem me for what is called "Wellness Care".  This means they are past any acute problem/symptoms and we are able to address the root cause of the problem--nerve interference (also known as "subluxation").  In this way we are able to get them past the symptoms (Symptoms are the last thing to show up and the first thing to go away, when there is a problem.  Bear in mind, that "lack of symptoms" is not health.), get them healthy and keep them well. PREVENTION really is the key.  In the same way we want our dentist to find a cavity BEFORE we have intense pain, we want to find nerve interference, BEFORE your body has to let you know with intense pain.  I would say that most patients come due to an acute problem/pain.  When they see the many positive changes in their health that come from getting adjusted regularly, often they come to understand that they are healthier with getting adjusted and want to stay that way.

  7. What would you recommend to people to have a healthier spine?
    Get adjusted and MOVE (yoga is great for that).  Don't sit a lot. Stay hydrated.

Dr. Ellen Wolk is conveniently located in Waltham.  She can be reached by phone at 781-894-4890 or by email at: drgentle@verizon.net. If you want to know if chiropractic care could help you or if you have questions, a FREE consultation is always available. Start on the road to better health NOW!

22 October 2013

Butternut Squash & Leek Soup

  • Olive oil
  • 1/2 butternut squash (cut lengthwise)
  • 1 leek
  • 3 scallions
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic or 1 Tbsp chopped garlic from a jar
  • The tops from one fennel bulb
  • 2 c water
  • Salt and peppa
To soften:
  • Roast the squash in the oven until really soft. Cool until you can scoop the innards into a bowl.
  • Roughly chop the garlic (if fresh), leek, the scallions, and the fennel tops. Then heat a medium-sized pan or wok over medium heat, adding a few Tbsps of olive oil. When the pan is hot, add the garlic, scallions, leek, and fennel. Sauté until they soften.
To soupify:
  • Place the quash innards and the sauté mixture into a pot. Add the water, salt and pepper.
  • Cook on medium-high heat for 30-45 minutes, or until everything is squishy.
  • Place near soup mixture into a blender (I love my Vitamix!). Run it through until the soup reaches your desired consistency. (I did mine by moving slow through variable speeds 1-10 and then quickly back down.)
  • Ladle into a bowl and ENJOY!

08 October 2013

Protecting and Respecting Spaces (Chapter 8)

Here's chapter 8, the last chapter of my unfinished book. Thank you to all who read it. I hope you enjoyed it. Now I can put it down.

“…it’s important to be in balance. To not let fear get in the way of things, to not worry so much about protecting yourself all the time.”
- John Frusciante -

Many behaviors stem from a need to protect your home (and its surrounding areas), as well as your internal boundaries. These needs can bring up feelings and emotions that are unnecessary automatic defenses, established at a time when they were needed to see you through something difficult. Or, they may result from completely reasonable (yet unmet) expectations of respect from people with whom you interact. The past can help explain some of the “why's” behind your reactions, and may be enlightening to consider—especially for those of you wanting to better navigate your physical and emotional surroundings.

Aural Intrusions

Noise is something I try to protect myself against, regardless of the environment I’m in. Still, noise manifests in my life daily, in different ways: the neighbor’s kids running around and being encouraged by their screaming, cooing parents while I’m trying to peacefully sunbathe in our back yard, my husband blaring music videos while I’m trying to write, colleagues chatting loudly in the hallways or on speakerphones when I’m needing to concentrate on something complex, and so on. While I might chalk this aversion up to “getting old”, I also think that whenever something (like true “peace and quiet”) is scarce, you just end up craving it more.
But in the spirit of being more emotionally accepting of whatever comes into my physical environment, the fundamental question to ask is, “why am I so sensitive to noise?” That’s an easy one: noise occurring in my house growing up was never a good thing. It was most often at night when trying to sleep that I would hear noises that sounded like my parents fighting. When I was around twelve years old it became my job to leap out of bed, run downstairs, and “break it up”. I felt that if I threw myself into the middle of the argument, no one would end up getting hurt. So now, especially at night, I feel an overwhelming need to respond vigilantly to any little noise I hear. What’s worse is that as an adult, all the feelings of anger and resentment that I felt toward my parents for putting this responsibility on me comes out too. My emotional sensitivity to noise (and how I respond to it) can make the most easygoing roommates crazy!  Like any undesirable habit, I logically recognize this behavior is no longer necessary and that I need to change, but in practice it’s not so easily done. Check out the “Thought Experiments” below for some of techniques I have tried to lighten up about auditory intrusions.

Thought Experiments
  • Whenever you’re distracted by a noise in one of your environments, repeat an affirmation. As long as it is positive, addresses your issue, and speaks to you, this statement can be one you find online or make up yourself. (For example, “I am safe and so are my loved ones; there’s nothing I need to respond to right now.”) Observe how using the affirmation changes how you feel.
  • Notice which areas of your body (your closest physical space) respond to different noises. When you identify parts that are tense, take a deep breath and “send” your breath to them. Try to consciously relax them for just a few moments. Afterwards, take notice of whether the offending sounds seem as bothersome.
  • Search your heart for a time in your life where noise (in general or a specific one) was disturbing to you emotionally. If you find one, see yourself in that situation by visualizing it in your mind. Ask the younger version of yourself what s/he’s thinking and feeling in response to the noise(s), and provide reassurance about how things are different now.
  • Take the aversion out of noises by turning them into a “listening” meditation—focus on the sound thoroughly rather than trying to avoid it. See how much subtle texture you can find in the sound, and observe what really letting it in does to your perception of it.

Invading Creatures

Our first spring in the new house, I was eating breakfast in our little kitchen nook, which has a nice view of the back yard. This yard is intentionally small, consisting of a deck, some grass, and a landscaped area designated by a rock wall and two neighbor’s fences. As I was admiring the flowers we recently added to the landscaped area, I spotted a chipmunk scurrying around in the rocks. “Awww...how cute!” I thought. My husband was suspicious, but I enjoyed watching the little fellow, and was fine with him living in our rock wall. I soon learned from other homeowners that the insane amounts of snowfall in New England the previous winter meant a sharp increase in the chipmunk population, and sure enough this guy was the first of many. The next week, I watched chipmunks dig up the vegetables I was growing on our deck, and saw the holes they were burrowing under it. I sat in amazed infuriation one morning as a chipmunk dug a hole deep enough to toss a half-foot high pile of dirt on top of our nicely spread redwood mulch, popping his head up every now and then as if to spite our hard work. Over the course of a month, these tiny creatures went from cute to pest. But why did such a change in perception happen inside me? A creature like the chipmunk behaves as I’d expect—it doesn’t have a concept of “my home versus your home”—it’s wild, after all!
Well, our home was brand new. Built only a year before, my husband and I are the only ones to have ever lived in it, which implies that we are the only ones who will ever allow it to “degrade” from the state of absolute perfection in which it was handed over to us. I often remind myself (and my husband), upon the discovery of a chip in a wall or the beginnings of crabgrass in the front yard, that the areas in and around our home will never be as it was the day we got the keys. We have to keep things in perspective, balancing our desire for things to work and look nice with the ever-present inevitability of change. Over time, it’s likely that some creatures (that we may not even notice) will do damage. We should prevent or fix this as best we can, and we don’t need to allow these events to cause us emotional stress and frustration too! But because of my father and the environment I grew up in, this goes deeper for me. I clearly recall our second, newly built home, where even minor flaws were promptly detected and immediately followed by harsh words and actions, all of which frightened me deeply. So I know that this seemingly simple situation has the power to trigger some deeper fears about safety in me, based on my prior experiences.
Of course vermin aren’t the only home invaders, and it’s interesting how one’s initial perception of a creature can influence how one receives them. I remember how one of the few neighbors we had near my first house when I was growing up threatened to kill my dog because she wandered through the fence dividing our land. As a child I was upset and still don’t condone his behavior, but I’m not really a dog person, so I can sort of see his point of view.  My husband and I can get really upset when people walking dogs in our neighborhood allow them to pee in the front part of our lawn, leaving all manner of little yellow patches where our nice green sod used to be. In contrast, I am a real cat person. So when three of the neighborhood kitties come to visit the cat mint we’ve planted near the fence (even when they do their business and bury it in the mulch), I feel happy they’ve had some enjoyment from the plants we’re growing, and am always eager to see a new feline face discovering this botanical jackpot. And when my boys howl at the bedroom door in the morning, or repeatedly leap across the bed when we forget to close that door at four in the morning, it’s mostly a forgivable (and sometimes even cute) annoyance.
The way I see it, one has two choices for dealing with invading critters that aren’t technically vermin (which is its own and individual moral dilemma): make peace with the creatures by reassessing how you perceive their presence around your home, or take specific actions to prevent them from invading in the future.

Thought Experiments
  • If you have an invading creature, consider your feelings toward that species, as well as where and when in your life these feelings were established. Is the discomfort you’re feeling around their invasion of your home really about something else? (If the creature is wild, as in the case of our chipmunks, this can reframe the issue into one that is more under your control.)
  • If you have ever felt affection toward some type of animal, can you understand how owners (of even less-than-desirable) creatures might care about them, and not be aware of your discomfort when they trod into your yard? Can you use these feelings to cultivate some compassion and kindness, prior to initiating a conversation with the owner about having more respect for the areas around your home?

Technological Advances

Technology today is really pretty nifty. Telepresence systems are being implemented at companies to foster collaboration while keeping travel expenses down. Long-distance friends can maintain relationships using Skype or Google+ hangouts. But technology like this does raise questions about privacy, particularly if you happen to share a living or working space with another person. For example, the other day my husband and I happened to be working in our shared home office before heading up to New Hampshire for our company’s annual summer outing. Since he’s on a team that’s evaluating a telepresence system, it was a perfect scenario for him and his colleagues to test out some of the features. While I had heard my husband talking with someone via a headset, I was surprised and a bit unnerved when his boss—who I sometimes work with as well— said, “Hey, I can see Jen in the background!” Though relieved I hadn’t been working in my pajamas, I did feel like I should have been given some warning. It reminded of how you tell someone who is in a room and ask their permission before putting them on a speakerphone, but the etiquette here is even more important, since you could be seen. And it’s not just you that’s being seen, it’s also your physical surroundings. With video conferencing like this, you’re essentially letting someone into your house—especially when they can see enough to comment on your new office furniture! Our situation might be somewhat unique, but as technology usage becomes more common, those in shared living and working situations will need to think more about their boundaries, and communicate clearly about what they do and do not feel comfortable with.
The other interesting thing about technology is how the virtual world can intersect and impact people as they try to relate in the real, physical world. Smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices allow us to stay connected to colleagues, friends, and acquaintances all...the ...time. As someone who personally owns several of these devices, I must admit to engaging in activities that are probably less than ideal—for example, checking Facebook while my husband and I sit at a restaurant waiting for another couple to arrive. When I’m with someone who does that, and they are online for more than a minute or two, I almost feel compelled to do the same. I think I feel slighted when the person I’m sharing honest-to-goodness physical space with decides they’d rather pop into a virtual space with some of their other friends. I end up wanting to get some reassurance that I have other friends too!  Have you ever noticed how one person doing such a thing causes a chain reaction? One person pulls out their phone, and soon everyone is checking their phones instead of interacting with each other.
People say technology has reduced the quality of human interaction, and that’s probably true. I also believe virtual spaces improve one’s emotional state, and reduce the likelihood of one being inconsiderate: for example, when you happen to be alone, waiting. You have nothing to do, nowhere to go, and you don’t know anyone around you. Rather than trying to strike up a conversation with a stranger—which may be uncomfortable for the shy and undesirable for those in a hurry—you can pull out a device and see what the people you care about are up to. You control the interaction, starting and stopping it when you want. So when you have to stop, you’re not hurting anyone’s feelings. (Ever try to get off the phone with a well-intentioned but overly talkative friend?) Most importantly, even though you are physically alone, you don’t feel lonely. And although you might be missing an opportunity to meet new people, you get emotional comfort from connecting with the friends you and family you already have.

Thought Experiments
  • If you work from home, do you have a designated area for that activity, or do you allow your work to bleed into other rooms? Does the arrangement affect when and how much you work, or your willingness to let others into your life?
  • Notice when and how you interact with people online. Are you sacrificing real-world interaction because you are more enamored with virtual variety? If so, what emotional or mental satisfaction is this giving you? Are there changes you can make to bring more of what you’re missing back into the physical world, to re-establish balance?

Gender Transgressions

I sometimes go out with a group of girls from my West Coast Swing dance community, because we don’t get the opportunity to bond much in that environment. One evening, after having enjoyed ourselves learning a dance outside our normal genre, we decided to check out a nightclub in Allston, a western neighborhood of Boston. I was worried we’d end up with a lot of college-aged kids in a tightly packed, loud place where you’d get bumped into and have your drink spilled. Fortunately it was still early, and the Wonder Bar hadn’t gotten busy yet. At the front under the windows, they had a raised platform area with a long booth that wrapped around in a semicircle facing in, with two round tables and good access to the bar. The space was perfect for our group of ten, and we quickly claimed it.
We were having great fun drinking and dancing in our little area. When the club got busier, a man approached me, and his friend went up to the girl next to me. They were both gentlemanly enough in their approach, but didn’t realize that half of us were married and the other half in relationships. One of the married women on the opposite side of me saw this occur, and yelled across the table for me to “show him my ring!” While I didn’t think it was necessary to flash my diamond, I did it as kindly as I could, and the two men left us. After we left that night, I recalled the incident and felt this woman’s reaction was a bit extreme (as did some of the others). Clearly she perceived the platform area as our territory, and was therefore very particular about who came into it. But why would the venturing of two men into our space trigger such a strong emotional reaction? Only she knows for sure, but I’ll speculate for a moment.  Perhaps she believed that socializing with other men in a club was not appropriate behavior for married women, or, she had a fear of participating in an activity that could be perceived as inappropriate by others. Maybe she or someone in her life had been cheated on, and she had strong feelings about any potential beginnings of something similar. Maybe she thought she was protecting us girls in a “mother hen” kind of way—looking out for our best interests. Or maybe she was thoroughly enjoying spending time with us, and didn’t want the dynamic to change with the introduction of these male interlopers. Despite what I’m sure were good intentions, it was her quick assertiveness that felt invasive to me, because her reaction implied that I wasn’t capable of handling myself in that kind of situation!
At the same time, however, I can relate to her strong reactions, and know they’re not always about what they seem. An example of where I am overly protective of my personal, physical space happens when I’m sick. Whether I have a flu or stomach virus, I am not the type of person who likes to be taken care of.  In fact, I want to be left completely and utterly alone. This caused problems when my husband would try to be kind, keep me company, or do things for me—I would loudly protest and plead with him to just leave me be. I don’t have to look far to know that this reaction is directly correlated to how little empathy I received whenever I was sick as a child. Growing up, being sick meant I was an inconvenience, that I were disturbing the peace (for example, by being unable to control my coughing in the middle of the night), and that I needed to be quiet and get well as soon as possible—ideally also without making any mess. Naturally, I developed heightened concern about inconveniencing anyone when I’m sick. I tend to lash out at anyone who tries to help, because there’s also a pride I developed in being independent. I don’t need anyone to take care of me, I can do it myself!
Because I’m aware of all this, I frequently use these situations as a way to practice changing my automatic responses. Whenever I start to feel uncomfortable because my husband is trying to help, I take a deep breath. I acknowledge that being sick is a simple fact of my existence, and it doesn’t make me good or bad—it just means I’m alive.  I remind myself that my husband feels useful and loving when he takes care of me, and try to be open to the idea that his behavior is normal, appropriate, and kind, and that it’s okay to need him sometimes.

Thought Experiments
  • Are there any rooms in your home that you’re overprotective of, or don’t let others into? Any areas of your heart that you throw walls up around? What are you trying to protect yourself against?
  • Question whether your feelings about a threat are accurate, or whether they are simply perceptions created by filtering information through the lens of a difficult prior experience. Are you trying to avoid feelings from the past that are brought up because of a similar experience in the present?
  • Whenever you feel yourself getting anxious over a real or perceived invasion of your personal physical space, pause and breathe. (A favorite of mine, particularly because of the context, is when someone drips sweat on my yoga mat!) Do you find that anxiousness release a little bit?