30 September 2012

Where is your mind now? And now...and now?

I believe that everyone should strive to be mindful, in everything we do--throughout our moments, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and lives. This post focuses on the what, how, when, and why of mindfulness practice.

A moment's insight is sometimes worth a life's experience.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes 

What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is:
  • Being fully aware of each moment as it's occurring
  • Accepting that moment just as it is, without judgment
  • Not being attached to continuing this moment, or wanting to push it away
Although mindfulness technically is a form of meditation, I tend to think of mindfulness as meditation "off the cushion". Like me, some of you may have a regular meditation practice and find it easier than you used to to focus your mind when sitting in a designated space, with minimal distractions. But when the world is moving quickly around us and we're moving around in the world, it's easier for our minds to run around unchecked.

How to Be More Mindful
Whatever you're doing in this moment, bring your full attention, your "heart and soul" as it were, to it. Keep your mind out of the past, out of the future, and completely in the here and now. No mental time travel! You will quickly observe that this is difficult. Try repeating, "I'm doing X" over and over as you're doing X, anytime you notice your mind wandering. You may not notice your mind wandering at first, but with practice, you will come back to a mindful state more quickly. I don't think it's coincidental that it's called "mindfulness practice"--it's not something that comes easily. We all have to work at it.

Where to Practice Mindfulness
Here are some ordinary yet challenging situations where you might practice being mindful:
  • Driving your car to and from work
  • Exercising (e.g. running on a treadmill, using an elliptical machine or a bike)
  • Washing a sink full of dishes
  • Eating meals
  • Cooking a meal or preparing a snack
  • Walking from place to place
  • Taking a shower and other tasks related to personal hygiene
  • Performing a task at work
  • Talking with another person
Why is mindfulness difficult, especially in these situations? You might characterize some of these activities as mundane tasks or chores. Many of them are repetitive, and/or there's nothing new about them. It is exactly in these types of situations where our mind wants to be entertained with something more interesting. This makes them great "training opportunities" for mindfulness practice. For others, these activities might be ones where the desire to multitask to "get more done" is high. (Thinking about your response in a conversation when someone is still talking is an example.)

Why Practice Mindfulness
But what's in it for us really? To start, how about:
  • Improved memory: since you're fully present in what you're doing (i.e. "I'm putting my keys on this counter top"), you'll forget less. While this is a simple example that might drive us nuts occasionally, there are obviously much more important things to remember. For more information about memory and mindfulness, check out the video Improving Attention and Working Memory with Mindfulness Training.
  • Better relationships: if you're not thinking about your responses but are actively listening to other people, they'll feel more heard and connected to you. Read about 11 Ways That Active Listening Can Help Your Relationships.
  • Heightened ability to make connections, and therefore better decisions: when you're really paying attention, you will more easily be able to take in more information, and possibly identify themes that will help you make more informed decisions. Learn more about how mindfulness meditation changes decision-making process.
  • Increased productivity and efficiency: yes, single (rather than multi-) tasking will help you get more done in less time, and feel more accomplished to boot. See How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking for more information and some advice.
  • Generate less stress, and be a more loving person: if we're not as attached or adverse to what happens in our lives, when we can accept "what is", we not only become more accepting of others, but also of ourselves. Overall we generate less anxiety and stress, and cultivate loving-kindness.
What Has Your Experience with Mindfulness Been?
Have a story about how being mindful has helped or changed you, or a specific challenge you've come across in trying to practice mindfulness? Let's chat about it -- comments are welcome!

23 September 2012

How to Prevent Jet Lag: A Remedy Reviewed

Before our recent trip to Belgium and Amsterdam, I decided to try an Ayurvedic remedy to prevent jet lag. Typically whenever I fly long distances with more than five hours of time difference, the first couple days are really rough. My whole body feels incredibly heavy, it's difficult to focus my mind, and I get dizzy. Since we often do trips that are "three days here, three days there," being in this state can really impact my enjoyment of the new scenery! Here's my story and assessment of how well this simple Ayurvedic remedy worked for me.

How to Prevent Jet Lag
The remedy I tried was from the book, "The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies", by Dr. Vasant Lad. Dr. Lad attributes jet lag to an imbalance of vata in the body, specifically excess vata. (For those not familiar with Ayurveda, vata is one of the three doshas or constitutions, is represented by the element air, and is characterized as light, dry, cold, and mobile. Given that the activity of flying has many similarities with this dosha, one can see how balance might be tipped in the vata direction when traveling.) The goal with this remedy is to reduce vata to bring the body back into balance.

Dr. Lad's remedy consisted of three parts:
  • Taking 2 capsules of ginger with a cup of water an hour before flying
  • Drinking 2-3 cups of water at intervals of 1-2 hours while flying, and avoiding caffeine
  • When arriving, rubbing warm sesame oil on the scalp and the soles of feet, and drinking 1 cup of hot milk with a pinch of nutmeg and ginger

How I Used the Remedy
Unfortunately in the rush to pack, I didn't get the ginger capsules but I had ginger, so instead I cut a few big slices and ate it raw. I know that may sound gross, but I'd done it before for a cleanse and I got kind of used to it. The only challenge was whether to eat it before flying at all, or just flying the long flight (we had only an hour or so flight to JFK and then a 7 hour flight to Brussels). I decided to wait and eat it right before the long flight.

I always drink lots of water and avoid caffeine, so that part was easy. I'm not sure whether I did it at intervals of 1-2 hours, but every time my water bottle was empty, I asked the flight attendant for a refill.

Before dinner, I started my hunt for hot milk, and found it in the Jazz Cafe at Hotel Navara, where we were staying in Brugge. The bartender didn't ask any questions as I happily poured my Ziplock baggie of ginger and nutmeg into the cup. I will say I did much more than a pinch, and probably would have had a smoother drink had I used less. Still, it was very tasty (and I don't usually do dairy, especially whole milk)!

Before bed, I rubbed (room temperature) sesame oil into my feet and scalp. I suppose I could have run the container under hot water to warm it up, but I didn't.

There was an optional step that advised travelers to drink tea made of equal parts chamomile, mint, and jatamansi, but I didn't do this. I didn't have time to get the loose tea, and wondered if it might invite inquiry at security.

How Well the Remedy Worked
For reference, our first flight left Boston around 4 pm EST on Friday August 31. We boarded our connecting flight from JFK around 7 pm EST that same day, arrived in Brussels Saturday September 1 around 9 am CET, and then spent a couple hours getting to Brugge via the train.

I didn't set any expectations up front about what I expected from the remedy, which makes it a little more difficult to gauge now that I'm home. But I will say this: my husband voiced his tiredness and overall readiness for bed hours earlier than I felt the need to sleep. At 8 pm CET on Saturday we decided to turn in, and I was up reading for about an hour after he'd already gone to sleep. I did fall asleep easily, but woke at 1 am, getting confused about the time and doing a half hour workout in the hotel gym before I realized it was two in the morning! Slightly embarrassed (with no one to witness it), I went back to bed and slept like a baby. The following day I felt fine and we went to bed at a normal time (somewhere between 9-10 pm CET), but I woke again at 1:30 am CET. I intentionally went to the gym this time, hoping to repeat the success of the prior day. Unfortunately, this time my workout backfired and I ended up sitting up until dawn and reading books on my iPad, because I was too wound up to return to sleep. That day of course I was very tired, but the rest of the trip I was fine.

What Traditional Medicine and the Scientific Community Says
  • The medical community understands jet lag to be a disruption of the body's natural circadian rhythms, which is in line with the core principles of Ayurveda. Doctors offer similar advice about staying hydrated with water and avoiding caffeine when flying.
  • Drinking warm milk is typical grandmotherly advice, but the belief that it's the tryptophan in this beverage that makes one sleepy has actually not been proven. Rather, like a warm mug of chamomile tea, the medical community only references that the act of drinking something warm and soothing comforts us and therefore helps with relaxation before bed. So drink up the milk and/or the tea, taking it in with all your senses. (Which by the way, is another very Ayurvedic thing to do!)
  • Ginger is typically associated with relieving an upset stomach and aiding in digestion. In Ayurveda it has many reported benefits, including being good for lubrication of the joints and for circulation, which could be helpful when one is seated in a cramped airplane for hours. (Stretching regularly, of course, is also recommended.) WebMD mentions ginger as a way to treat muscle soreness and low back pain, likely because of its ability to reduce inflammation. I can see how that would be useful after sitting in the airplane seats, which don't appear to have been designed for anyone I know.
  • Another "non-FDA approved" aspect of this remedy is the topical use of sesame oil. Ayurveda recommends sesame oil quite a bit, especially for self massage to promote general health. There are a few studies that show the topical use of sesame oil might be "useful," particularly as an ingredient for alleviating knee pain from osteoarthritis and inhibiting the growth of malignant melanoma. Unrelated I know, but if there's some evidence circulating for such conditions (which in my opinion, are much worse than something like jet lag!), I don't doubt sesame oil's power. It's also had many uses throughout history. Plus, who doesn't love a massage?

My Blog, My Soapbox
Like anything else, there are conflicting viewpoints about whether techniques like the Ayurvedic jet lag remedy I described above really work. Without scientific research, many such remedies are looked upon with skepticism. Here's my personal view:
  • these remedies have been around for thousands of years and are in line with nature
  • more scientific studies are being conducted about yoga and meditation, showing they really work--I wouldn't be surprised if in the future, many more "unproven" techniques are supported by data. I'd rather not wait, and experience them for myself in the present.
  • many of them are easy enough to try (though you may have to shop around for supplies)
  • given the list of side effects listed for prescription and over-the-counter medications these days, I don't worry much about taking herbs
  • whether its a placebo effect or not, if it works for me, I'll continue doing it
  • if it doesn't work for me, I'll try something else, no big deal!
The caveat of course, is if one is sensitive to certain things, has existing medical conditions that require medications with which herbs might interfere, or is worried about side effects. One should always talk with their health care providers about what they're doing to make sure a remedy is safe to explore (but don't be surprised if they don't think it will actually help!).

16 September 2012

Poor Kids, Rich Kids, and Food

Today's post is a guest blog from Justin Locke, a long-time kindred spirit on the road to good mental and emotional health. This nutrition-focused excerpt from his new book, "Getting in Touch with Your Inner Rich Kid," got me thinking about my recent food issues in new ways. I hope it also inspires some new ways of thinking for some of you.

Desire and the Refusal Experience
One of the biggest differences between poor kids and rich kids is this: poor kids are taught that desire is bad. This is because when a poor kid wants something, there is a very high likelihood that when they express that desire, they will encounter a painful “refusal experience.”  

These refusals apply not just to requests for toys and candy bars; they also apply to requests for all sorts of physical and emotional necessities.  For the average poor kid, the most common workaround for dealing with the pain of these refusal experiences is to train oneself to simply not want things in the first place.  To get back in touch with your inner rich kid, it is essential to examine your desires and how you may have been taught to suppress them.  

One of the most consistent manifestations of desire is hunger.  And again, when you live in a poor kid “poverty thinking” world, desire is bad. That means hunger, that is to say, the desire for food, is bad too.  Managing your desire for food is key to good health.  So let’s examine how “poverty thinking” and desire suppression may be affecting the way you eat. 

The Preemptive Eating "Solution"
Many of us – not just “poor kids”– are taught to think of appetite as a bad thing.  It’s not just about handling the impending disappointment of a sparsely set dinner table.  Even for people with lots of money, the desire for sugary snacks is also seen as bad as well.  After all, the desire for chocolate often leads to a most undesirable result, i.e., of having body weight you don’t want.  As a result, we end up trying to stop our hunger. We think of desire as being a bad thing that will inevitably get us into a space where things are out of control.  So we look for ways to suppress our desires.  

One of the most common workarounds for suppressing the desire of hunger is a very simple one: it’s something called “preemptive eating.”  After all, if you eat constantly, now you are in control of your hunger, as it never occurs. 

Of course, to eat preemptively, one must eat things that can override the body’s natural resistance to overeating.  This means one must eat salty, oily, and sugary items.  Sadly, while this fills the stomach in a physical sense, it fails to fulfill the body’s overall nutritional needs, so it becomes a vicious cycle of actually increasing desire instead of suppressing it.  
What We're Really Hungry For
Hunger can be very a very difficult feeling to suppress, as there are many forms of hunger.  Poor kids hunger for nutritional sustenance, but they also hunger for things like safety, structure, trust, and emotional sustenance, and the wiring for these many signals of desire is often routed near or through the tummy.

Poor kids know that having any desire for anything equals danger.  It means a very painful refusal experience is likely to follow.  So when a poor kid feels a desire for some love and attention, what can they do?  How can one suppress this vague longing and make it go away?  For a poor kid, if the emotional sustenance they truly desire is not available, a quick remedy is to shove something – anything – down the throat, and hope it hits the empty spot.  After all, the stomach is right next to the heart.  Greasy fast food has successfully suppressed one form of gut-level hunger, why not all the others?  

Again, the poor kid eating philosophy is to avoid being in a vulnerable position of need, and not risk having yet another awful refusal experience.  If you have no desire, you cannot be refused.  

Eating Like a Rich Kid
To become a rich kid and get what you want, you must start by letting yourself want.  You must no longer tell yourself the catechism of lies that poor kids are taught to repeat every day, such as “I don’t deserve it,” “I can get along without it,” or “this is all there is, and there won’t be any more.”  Being a rich kid is about having what you want.  And you can have what you want.  You may not be able to get it right this minute, but even if there’s no sign of it on the horizon, it’s still okay to want it.  

As you get in touch with your inner rich kid, remember that a big part of being a rich kid is eating like one.  Your physical health is your most valuable possession, and food and your health are inextricably linked.  

Do what you have to do to maintain this wealth.  I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but we live in a hostile nutritional environment. There are large numbers of people (with large advertising budgets) who are constantly trying to persuade you to eat things that you don’t really want.  They will try to confuse you by linking your desire for emotional connection with a desire for chocolate.  One ad will seductively persuade you to indulge in eating a candy bar as a way of meeting your need for interpersonal connection.  Then the very next ad (for exercise equipment) will tell you that eating the chocolate bar is now making you totally unappealing.  It's all about confusing your desires, throwing you into a panic, to make you think you want to buy their product.  Don’t let these subtle threats of an impending refusal experience overwhelm your own rational thought.  

By the way, “poverty thinking” also assumes that there are limited amounts of everything.  This means you might feel compelled to eat as much as you can today because there may not be any tomorrow – or perhaps, a bag of potato chips is is the closest thing you will get to the emotional support you need, so eat as much as you can, and make do.  This presumption of “universal limitation” is poverty thinking at work.

Let yourself have the desire of hunger.  Instead of managing desire by suppressing it, try embracing it, expressing it, and managing it.  By the way, everything, even kale and tofu, tastes better when you allow yourself to get hungry before you eat it. 

About Justin
Justin Locke grew up in a rural community where he attended the local public “poor kid” school, but at age 15 he was transferred to a “rich kid” private school.  The culture shock was enormous.  This article was adapted from his new book, “Getting in Touch with Your Inner Rich Kid,” a comparison of the cultures and world views of poor kids and rich kids.

To read more about "Getting in Touch with Your Inner Rich Kid,"  visit Justin's website at http://justinlocke.com/RK.htm

09 September 2012

What Do I Suck At?

A few weeks ago, I found myself at an interesting blog post titled "What do you suck at?" by Danielle LaPorte.

For the most part, I feel like we're all too critical of ourselves and one another, yet the title intrigued me. Once I read the post, I was pleased at how positive an experience the exercise sounded, and so I decided that I would try it.

Here is my list:
  • I have no patience. I want everything done now. I want to get everywhere ASAP. On the flip side, I have a bad habit of responding too quickly. I can be impulsive. When walking or driving, I get frustrated when others doddle. I have the optimally efficient route to everywhere.
  • Likely related, I have trouble slowing down & relaxing. I multi-task like mad, and I can't sit still, really listening to the Universe, really paying super close attention, enjoying nature, the moment, etc. without a LOT of struggle. I stand at my desk at work. I can't take naps (unless I'm pretty sick). Every time I decide to free up my personal schedule, it ends up getting full again. Meditation and yoga are ways that I've found to create this for myself a little bit though.
  • I suck at math. I know it's stereotypical, and it's ridiculous given that I work for a company that's named after the subject. (Thankfully, it's not a highly used skill for my particular position.) I blame it on my 7th grade math teacher, where is when I started doing poorly. It's most annoying when I'm at a restaurant and I need to split the bill with someone, or need to figure out a tip. And yeah, there's a good app for that. :-)
  • I'm a recipe junkie. I collect and organize more recipes (hard and soft copy) than I will probably ever be able to make in my life.
  • I find it difficult to trust / have faith. My life has been filled with pretty harsh conditions, with lots of close people abandoning me in one form or another. It's more likely these days that it's a self-fulfilling prophesy, but I don't think it started that way.
  • I suck at making decisions. This is a newer one for me, again likely related to the previous. My husband makes me flip a coin and then asks me how I feel about what the result was, just to be sure I'm really sure. And sometimes I still regret my decision.
  • I have trouble with hugs. My yoga teacher training at Kripalu was quite a challenge. A month of people seeing me, touching me, hugging me. Something I'm not at all used to. I'm not sure I'll ever be completely comfortable with it, but sometimes I try, and sometimes it's OK.
  • I'm not photogenic. From my early class photo days where my mom would always frown in disappointment, getting a "good" photo of me is a lot trickier than it sounds. Even before LASIK I blinked predictably on every flash, or I'm making a funny face, my hair's sticking up, etc.

Ah. Writing all that down actually felt liberating! So, what's your list? Own it. You'll feel better. :-)

02 September 2012

Transform Your Eating Habits

I'm going out on a limb with this week's post, publicizing a highly personal struggle about which I feel very vulnerable. And, I trust that you, my loyal readers will forgive and support me.

"What Girls Do When They're Upset"
Back in the late 90s, when my fiancé Kevin and I broke up a few months before our wedding, a mutual (male) friend stopped by with a pint of Ben & Jerry's. I appreciated his kindness, and I never forgot that moment, because I remember truly being perplexed at why he brought me ice cream. "I thought that's what girls did when they were upset," he said innocently. "They ate whole pints of ice cream."

How times have changed. It's 10 years later and I'm finally married (to a different Kevin). I have a house in the suburbs and a high-tech job. On the side I love to exercise (I recently started running), I dance West Coast Swing, and I'm starting to teach yoga and meditation. I collect healthy recipes like they were going out of style, and although I love to eat out, I also cook a lot myself. I also post about health and wellness topics on this blog every week. I do all these activities to counteract stress, which is rampant in my job and in society at large. Maintaining optimal health and wellness in the face of life's daily challenges is very important to me.

And, I have developed a problem with food. I've come up with (and have heard from others) all sorts of theories about why I've struggled with compulsive eating for almost a year now, binging and overeating (sometimes daily for weeks at a time) before getting a handle on it again. "It started when you first tried that Yoga Journal detox." "I was so sad when my best friend in the world moved across country and stopped talking to me, I felt abandoned." "You're being too restrictive with your food and so your body is craving what it can't have." "I'm feeling creatively unfulfilled." And on it goes.

I've gotten fed up with the theorizing. The fact is, it doesn't really matter why it started or what it is I'm really upset about. I'm tired of digging into my past and dissecting my present. I know I have a problem, and I need to fix it or risk further damaging my body and mind.

One Strategy for Halting Compulsive Eating
Although there are many tools available, I like to establish my own strategies to tackle problems, try them out to see if they work, and revise them as necessary (or, completely replace them if they fail completely)! After all, I'm unique, and what works for someone else may or may not work for me. Here I offer up what seems to be helping me stay on track, with the intention that someone else might benefit from trying something like it, or get an idea for something else that might be equally effective.

Ironically, one of my first blog posts was about eating mindfully. Yet I find that in my maxed out, crazy busy life, this is SO HARD. I start multitasking, taking the iPad or a magazine to the table with me at breakfast and dinner. Or, I'm in a situation (i.e. in a lunch meeting at work) where I just can't focus on nourishing myself because I need to facilitate or contribute to the conversation. Or, I forget and shovel my lunch into my mouth, preoccupied with work as I sit (or stand) at my desk.

Here's what I'm trying these days that seems to be working:

  • In the evening, I write a "Triggers, Emotions, and Countermeasures" email, which I send to myself and a supportive person in my life.

    This email is simple. I look at my schedule (work and personal) for the day. I identify any interaction I feel might become a trigger for me to eat unnecessarily. I identify the emotion(s) the situation may stir in me. I brainstorm some ideas for things I could do (besides eat) that would create that oh-so-needed pause before habit takes over and I'm riding that "binge and feel terrible" roller coaster again.

    Here's are two examples from an email I sent myself and my friend:

    10 am meeting w/ Bob (trigger) -- desire to eat from the chocolate candy bowl near his office (emotion), make a b-line for his office and don't even look at the candy! (countermeasure); fear about my ability to influence him about a project / discomfort about a potential difficult conversation if he doesn't agree with me (emotions), need to be curious about his perspective,and accept my current level of influence (countermeasures).

    Decision about putting Ferris down (trigger) -- fear over my ability to handle sadness / anticipated regret over being selfish vs. doing the best thing for him (emotions). Accept that there is no perfect answer and trust myself to make the best decision I can (countermeasures).
  • Before each meal, I complete an online, "Pre-eating Checklist".

    This is a short survey I created with Google docs (and therefore accessible everywhere, including any computer or mobile device). It forces me to ask questions I wanted to think about before any food crosses my lips, including things like "Did you drink a full glass of water first?", "Is it already in your food plan for the day?", and "Did you consult your 'Triggers, Emotions, and Countermeasures' email first?" The same supportive friend has access to the survey results spreadsheet, which they can look at any time. And, the last question happens to be a very personal and highly motivating one for me.

What I've Learned So Far
Here are some things I've learned while employing this strategy over the past couple weeks:
  • Some people think this is a lot of work. But if you've ever tracked your food in something like MyFitnessPal, counted calories or points, etc., you understand how quick it can be once you've gotten into a routine. And, to me, anything that helps create that slightly larger, mindful pause before I act impulsively is totally worth it. Plus, I'm done caring what other people think, especially if it's working for me!
  • It only works if I actually do it. There was a fatal flaw in my plan initially: I thought most of my binging / overeating was caused by work stress, so I only used these tools during the week. I then found that I returned to binging Saturday night, as a result of some non-work related emotions.
  • I found interesting themes in my emotions. Coincidentally I've been reading Emotional Intelligence 2.0. In it, Bradberry and Greaves say that "all emotions are derivations of five core feelings: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and shame." Since I find this to be true, my emails are now more abbreviated to one of these. And although I hadn't originally considered positive emotions, the situation I described above (on the weekend) was a good example.
  • And in my countermeasures too! Although there were some very specific ideas, many of my countermeasure brainstorms included phrases like, "accept what you can't change", "breathe and surrender", "love yourself as you are right now", etc. In theory I know these things, but in practice, the email (which I reread throughout the day) reminds me of them exactly when I most need to be reminded.
You Can Do It Too
If you struggle with an eating habit you’re not particularly fond of, you probably know that there are many different diets and tools out there to choose from. Some of them are good, some not so good. And that judgment may be different for different people. What works for you may not work for someone else, and vice versa. My advice? Try things, and pay attention to your body, to your mind, and to your emotions. You don’t have to accept diets or diet tools at face value. Tweak them, combine them, and play with them until you find something that works for you. And please do make something up! Personalize it. If your strategy doesn’t work, revise it. Try something else. But don’t ever give up. Your health and wellness is too important.