Letters from the road

Posts tagged “mindfulness

I Stopped Praying & Saying Happy Birthday for the same Reason.

Originally featured on elephant journal June 10, 2017

I am a heathen—but that’s not why I stopped praying or posting Facebook birthday messages. 

We live in a time when there’s just so much to do, especially online. Most of us have a Facebook account—it’s almost criminal not to have one. It’s handy for staying connected to people who live far away, and let’s be honest, we use it to stalk each other.

We’ve passed that time, about seven years ago, when it was still awkward to pretend we didn’t know everything about someone’s engagement, divorce, weekend plans, or last night’s dinner when we bumped into them in person. That silly dance where we both feigned surprise when we heard the newsworthy details of each other’s lives.

“You’re in a relationship? That’s great!” What about the juicy details of your last messy breakup? I thought you were such a cute couple!

“I had no idea you were just in Hawaii!” It’s your third trip this year. How do you get all the vacation time?

I, for one, am happy to be past this juvenile denial. I often start sentences when I see friends in real life with, “Oh, I saw your post. Your new puppy is adorable!”

A few months ago, I made a new rule for myself: I wouldn’t post birthday greetings to friends on Facebook, unless I planned to call or spend the day with them. If they fell into that category, I usually called, texted, or visited them. Sometimes I still posted a birthday message—but not always.

Why would I make such an arbitrary distinction?

Guilt. The same guilt that convinced me to stop praying.

My parents chose to forgo any kind of Christian baptism for myself and my brothers. We didn’t attend church or adhere to any religious precepts, except the universal: Be kind and treat others with compassion.

My immediate family was not religious, but a few members of my extended family were. That meant our souls were ripe for saving, and I became the designated child to save.

I’m not sure how my brothers escaped the occasional awkward Sunday morning “sitting on a pew in stiff clothing amongst strangers.” Maybe they were better at evading the weekly phone call asking about our Sunday plans. I’m a terrible liar. There are only so many excuses a child can think of before they relent to the inevitable.

Throughout my early teen years, I would occasionally try on Christian beliefs to see if they fit, kind of like I used to do with my mom’s wedding dress. Maybe I’ve grown into it now? And each time I would realize, nope, not my size.

This would usually coincide with the summer basketball camp that I attended. I would spend a week with my team, surrounded by Christian iconography, including evening Bible study and a public abstinence pledge. I’m still unsure of the connection between sex and basketball, but it was around this time one of my favorite movies Love and Basketball came out. So, peer pressure and all that.

When I came back from basketball camp, or after I failed to finagle my way out of a Sunday service, I would again try on religion—mostly in the form of praying.

Each night, I would lie in bed and start the same silent prayer. Beginning with a slightly hesitant, “Dear God?” I would methodically include every single member of my family. All of them. I couldn’t leave anyone out—even the extended family that I had never met, but could name. I drew the line at the extended family of my extended family. This was my prayer baseline. Then I would add anyone I knew who was having a hard time and thought needed my personal prayers.

Prayer itself wasn’t the problem. It was the fact that I couldn’t leave anyone out. Once I started praying for them, I had to include them every night.

In the same way, my bed as a child had a place half my size carved out for me to sleep. Every single one of my stuffed animals occupied the rest of the bed. I couldn’t leave any of them out. How do you tell a forlorn teddy bear that they didn’t make the cut to sleep on your bed? Exactly. I never figured out the answer to that one.

My experience of prayer became one of guilt. When I stopped praying for the last time, my silent recitation lasted well over an hour. It made me anxious. During the day, I worried that I might hear about yet another person who needed help, and I would feel personally responsible for praying for them. And if I didn’t, it meant that I had let them down.

That’s a lot of anxiety and guilt for young shoulders to bear.

Fifteen years later, I was doing the same thing with Facebook birthday messages. I started feeling anxious about remembering each person’s birthday. It didn’t matter if I’d never met the friend in person, or that I hadn’t spoken to that childhood friend in 20 years—it was their birthday! 

I can’t juggle my own calendar, let alone the birthdays of 900 virtual friends. Who can? This anxiety was directly related to guilt. And guilt shouldn’t determine who gets birthday wishes.

I know I’m not alone. Instead of feeling personally responsible for the birthday happiness of everyone on our Facebook accounts, or praying for everyone we’ve ever met, let’s try to approach connections to our loved ones mindfully.

We could all use a little time to slow down and create meaningful relationships. This includes the loved ones we spend our time with, as well as our digital interactions.

When I hear of a friend or loved one, or even a stranger I’ve read about in the news who may need a bit of hope, I take a moment and practice a condensed version of the Buddhist meditation practice tonglen.

I first close my eyes and imagine the person, or group of people, or situation. Then I inhale and draw in a small taste of their difficulty or struggles, and then I exhale and send them gratitude and compassion. Simple. It comes with the added benefit of forcing us to slow down and empathize with those in our lives.

We can do the same thing with our Facebook birthday wishes conundrum. Rather than trying to remember and post birthday wishes to everyone every day—let go.

Remember that we can’t be everything for everyone. If we really care about this person, interact with them outside of social media. Grab coffee. Make a phone date. Be a real person doing real things away from the screen.

For those we don’t have a close relationship with, send them a silent burst of love on their birthday. Remember, it’s the thought that counts.

And, just for good measure, I hereby absolve my Facebook friends from wishing me a happy birthday.

Consider this a benediction from your friendly neighborhood heathen.


One Simple Thing to Get Rid of Stress (& It’s Definitely Not Baking a Unicorn Sparkle Cake).

Originally featured on elephant journal June 10, 2017

Every yoga and meditation teacher worth their salt will remind us to breathe.

The good ones will also give specific body cues. The really astute ones will gently remind us to release our jaws.

Why?

Like most of us, I spend a lot of my day convinced that I’m busy. All day, every day, it’s something—and it’s exhausting.

We’ve convinced ourselves that we need to constantly be:

productive

successful

making something

buying something

learning something

doing something

busy

busy

busy…

I can’t be the only one who gets stressed seeing all of the short video clips of recipes, DIY projects, hairstyles, and children’s activities constantly cropping up in my social media news feed. Like angrily stressed.

Of course I should have the time to make a unicorn sparkle cake with five different colors and confetti that rains down over everything and is impossible to clean up, while teaching my baby to sing the ABCs in seven different languages after I put avocado on all the things.

Geesh. I’m exhausted just writing that all out.

I’m also guilty of losing sight of the present moment. While nursing my little one, I think about making breakfast. While in the shower, I wonder if I really want to go to law school. While getting dressed, I remember that I need to take out the recycling. While taking my little one for a walk, I try to avoid imagining the mountains of laundry spilling out of the dryer. While eating dinner, I calculate how much time I’ll need to attend my upcoming board meeting. While falling asleep, I worry about all the people I forgot to text back.

We’re all guilty of it. While it may look like multi-tasking, what we’re actually doing is deflecting and feeding the monkey mind—that little voice that distracts us from experiencing the present fully. We’re not doing any one of these things well or mindfully.

When I get caught up in these moments with my mind running away down the rabbit hole, I’ve found one simple thing can reset my entire outlook and bring me back into the present moment.

I unclench my jaw.

It’s really pretty simple. When we’re stuck on the virtual hamster wheel, our jaws inevitably become involved. For me, it feels like my jaw tries to hold on to all of the things in my mind by brute force.

But it’s not just our jaws. My shoulders also start to creep up to my ears in silent moral support, creating tension in my neck and upper back. Ever get tension headaches? I do, and I know the root cause can usually be traced back to my neck, shoulders, and voilà—my jaw.

Why is the jaw so important to mitigating stress and anchoring us in the present moment?

As a yoga and meditation teacher, I’ve found the most helpful cues are the most specific. Not open your third eye or feel the prana move up your spine. Those cues have their time and place—but for most of us, small tangible cues like release your jaw can be the most radical.

The jaw can serve as our gateway into the rest of our bodies. Releasing my jaw creates a cascade of tension release. Once I’ve pried my jaw open, I notice my shoulders let go. My face lightens, and my breath no longer feels like I’ve been pulling it in through a straw. This is followed by my belly, and surprisingly, it goes all the way down to my hips.

During labor, my midwife gently reminded me to release my jaw. A tight jaw equates to a tight cervix. And she was right. Every time I clenched my jaw, my contractions were more intense.

But it’s not only our physical bodies. When my jaw is soft, so are my thoughts. I’ve noticed that when I start getting anxious, I can intervene and stop thoughts of worry, fear, and negativity from taking over my body simply by checking in with my jaw.

When I’m irritated with the person in front of me in line for taking too long to make a decision, guess what? My jaw tightens. I’m not going to lie, I don’t always become magnanimous in every situation, but when I check in with my jaw, compassion inevitably follows. 

It’s simple, free, and instant. 

Just remember, we can release our jaws while in our coat or on a boat. We can release them while driving our car or at the bar. We can release our jaws while reading a book or when we cook. We can release them here, and there, and everywhere!

With one silent jaw release at a time, we can change the quality of our lives. And we just may become better people in the process. No unicorn sparkle cake required.


Why I’m Writing my own Obituary.

Originally featured on elephant journal April 1, 2017

I once read that big publications ask journalists to keep obituary drafts on celebrities so that they can quickly publish in the event that one of them meets their ultimate demise.

Although this seems morbid, it’s also practical. I was recently reading a 3,500 plus word obituary published within hours of the death of a public figure in Ireland, and I was struck by how deep and thorough it was. In comparison, the obituaries of beloved local members of my community—oft written by loved ones—were rather shallow and fleeting.

This bothered me.

We’re all a bit voyeuristic. I can’t be the only one who reads obituaries of people I don’t know and have never met. The obituaries that I find most touching are the ones that reveal the humanity and uniqueness of a person.

How did they live in ways like no one before them? What can I learn from their lives? What stories did they embody in flesh and bone that will live on in the memories and hearts of those still here?

I started considering my own life and what I want to be remembered by. There are the basic facts: name, date of birth, age, eventual death details. But aren’t we all more than just dates and numbers?

My brother and I have had a long-standing pact that we will write each other’s obituaries. He has the same infatuation with language that I have, and a keen ability to reveal truths.

But instead of leaving it all up to my brother (and to chance), I decided to draft my own obituary.

Let me be clear: I’m not doing this because I think we should live in a state of fear that death is around every corner; rather, we should live in the knowledge that life is full and we carry it with us always.

And yet, thinking about death freaks people out. It’s unpleasant at best and nihilistic at worst. I tend to be incredibly superstitious—which goes against all of my agnostic, science-based beliefs—but what are we if not a jumble of contradictions? I don’t necessarily think I’m tempting fate. I’m a healthy, late-twenties, married new mother. Statistically, I should have a long and happy life ahead of me.

But.

But life and death happen. I think in the West we have an unhealthy fear of death which leads to a lot of the neuroses that infringe upon living. I’m guilty of it too. Who wants to think about death? Not many of us. Regardless, whether we like it or not, death happens. Approaching death mindfully can alleviate some of our existential fears.

Crafting my own obituary started out as a writing exercise, but I think I’ve stumbled onto a beautiful life lesson.

Writing my own obituary has taught me to live. 

By distilling my experiences down into the essentials, I’ve discovered the places in my life that are full and the spaces yet to be filled. I am family and relationship rich. I am travel rich. I am embodied life rich. I am chosen-career rich.

It has helped me decide where to go. What part of my life have I not yet lived that I want to show up in my obituary?

It’s helped me realize what I’m proud of and what I shy away from. What experiences from my life do I want to share with others? What do I want to keep secret? What do I want others to know that they don’t already?

I’m using my obituary as a compass guided by the loves in my life, my passions, my accomplishments, and my quirks. I’ll regularly ask myself not only, “How do I want to be remembered?” but more importantly, “How do I want to live?”

What mark do I want to leave on the world? What contribution have I yet to make? Where do I want to go, and what have I been too scared to do?

I’m incredibly happy, and I love my life. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to grow, to adventure, to live on the edge of something new and raw. Writing my own obituary has taught me the essential components of life. Where I come from. Where I’ve been. My relationships to others. My education. My travels. My service. What I hope to give to the world.

My obituary has taught me not just to look back, but to look forward. To lose no time creating my life here in the present, and to intentionally chart my way through the unknown waters to come.

In my current obituary draft, I am most proud of my relationships. But that’s not all that I am. We crave being seen and understood. I’m no different.

When the time comes that my obituary is no longer a draft, I hope it reveals a taste of the essential truths I’ve spent a lifetime uncovering. I also hope that my brother shares that I lived and laughed with a full heart.

I’ve learned more about how to live while writing my own obituary than I ever expected.

I’ll leave you with the first phrase that jumped to mind when I started crafting my obituary:

She loved words. She loved to read them and write them. She didn’t love to spell them.

Here’s to living a life full of obituary-worthy stories.

 


Mindfulness in the Pediatric Ward.

Originally featured on elephant journal Feb. 2, 2017

Being in the hospital gives me PTSD.

Like actual PTSD. My breathing is shallow and fast, I start feeling trapped and claustrophobic. I sweat. The really smelly kind of sweat. My mind fills with a torrent of fear that drowns out all other thoughts.

And to my horror, when I get angry at not being heard, I cry. When the tears burn down my face, I become even angrier that I’m crying and less able to speak up. 

This is why when I told my husband a year ago that we were going to have a baby, I also told him I’d like to have our baby at home. He was already familiar with most of my hospital traumas, including the discovery that I’m allergic to two common medications—after they were pumped into my IV. Twice.

I’ve been rushed into emergency surgery 3,000 miles away from home and I’ve spent a week as a medical test subject. I also have the type of veins phlebotomists dread. It takes three sticks on average for a needle to find a suitable spot. I once sprayed a two foot stream of blood across a wide-eyed nurse. 

After a month or so of petitioning for a home birth, he finally agreed and we found the most extraordinary midwife. We had a healthy pregnancy and a dream birth at home. Six hours of calm in a safe space with no medical intervention and full-on mindful breathing resulted in a healthy, happy, eight pound, 15 ounce bundle of joy.

All of our intentional avoidance of hospitals has now flown right out the window. 

Today is my second day in the pediatric ward hovering over my three month old son as he struggles to breathe. It’s taken me two days, two long exhausting days to wake up. Entering the hospital through the Emergency Room is like being placed on a moving sidewalk. I’m whisked away before I even realized that I was no longer standing still. 

Two days ago when my husband and I first noticed our son seemed to be having a hard time catching his breath, I immediately worried his bad cold had migrated down into his chest. I’ve had pneumonia and both my husband and I have asthma. It seemed remote, and my new mom instincts were a little overreactive as of late.

A month-and-a-half ago we drove to the Emergency Room on a Saturday evening because I was worried our little one had a cold/pneumonia/croup/meningitis/the black lung. With the car parked outside the brightly lit snowy entrance, my husband folded into the backseat next to the carseat while I asked him to check our little one to see if he had any sunken soft spots on his head denoting dehydration. He didn’t. After a tense few moments while I silently debated the pros and cons of going inside, I finally relented and agreed to drive home and play wait and see.

Sometime after we got home I remembered that I may have accidentally sprayed the little one up the nose with breast milk when he unlatched during an exhaustive feeding session during the previous night. Breast feeding can be challenging. The sniffle went away in about a day. 

So when two days ago I said, “We’re going to Urgent Care, now,” my husband somewhat rightly looked a little hesitant. Instead of arguing or rolling his eyes, he acknowledged what I thought were chest retractions while we were bathing our baby, and helped me bundle him up and into the car.

After an RSV diagnosis and being told to immediately go to the ER by the physician assistant at Urgent Care, we found ourselves whisked into glaring fluorescent lights and a cold sterile room. My meditation training, my yogic training, my physical performance training all seemed to go into hibernation the moment I walked through the germ splattered doors of the hospital. Alternating between interminable waits and frenetic activity quickly brought on the PTSD. 

My husband ushered me out of the room the first two times the nurses and phlebotomist tried to put an IV line into our little one. I stood outside the room near the nurses’ station and cried heaving sobs into my hands as I listened to my sweet, normally serene little boy scream in fear and pain. One of the nurses asked if it was my baby and when I nodded without looking up, she sighed sympathetically and said, “It must be your first.” As if it gets easier with subsequent children. 

Although I couldn’t seem to think mindfully myself, each time I gathered my little one into my arms to comfort and calm him, I started with a deep breath. “Let it out sweet boy. Deep breath,” as I inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. 

After the fifth IV placement, with an oxygen cannula attached to his face, and vital monitor hanging from his foot, there was hardly a place on our little one’s body that didn’t ache or have a bandage. For the next 48 hours we obsessively checked his oxygen levels in between nebulizer treatments and tried to make him as comfortable as possible in his vast hospital bed. My husband brought a few blankets and stuffed animals from home to lessen the impersonal feel of the room as we watched and waited. 

I’m embarrassed to say for those first two days I hadn’t even thought about my contemplative practice. Neither sitting meditation, movement, nor breathing exercises outside of deep breathing to calm my son even occurred to me. Watching and counting breaths should have triggered 13 years of training. I let the PTSD overwhelm my senses in the blur between hourly nurse rounds, respiratory specialist treatments, and occasional pediatrician visits. The nurse down in the ER was right. I recoiled from my little one’s cries each time he was held down to have his nose suctioned, before preparing to pick him up afterwards and comfort him while swallowing my own tears. 

It took me two days of watching my son wrestling with each breath before I remembered to take a breath of my own. With my husband’s firm encouragement, I ventured out of our room for the first time. Armed with a medical mask to protect our son from the germs of the hospital and the other pediatric patients from his RSV, I shuffled along the linoleum floors in my slippers. I hadn’t realized how stiff I had become. I was hunched over and exhausted from the past two days. I finally breathed. Deep breaths that sucked my yellow mask into my mouth. I watched my slow steps and tried to remember the cues from my walking meditation training. 

When I came back into the room after dousing myself in hand sanitizer, my chest was lighter. My body had unfurled finally and I could stand up straight. My son greeted me with his big smile. The silent giggle one that crinkles his eyes and shows the pink gums where teeth soon will be.

While walking down the hospital hallways, I realized that being here for my son’s sake has alleviated some of my own fears and allowed me to work through my PTSD triggers. He can’t speak up for himself, but I can. When the stress of meeting so many strangers and having so many treatments overwhelms him, I’m here to ground him. To hold him. To love him. To let him know he isn’t alone. 

The pediatrician just stopped by and told us that we get to go home tomorrow.

While I hold my sleeping little one with the whirring and beeping monotonously droning on, I’m thinking about venturing back out into the world. I hope to continue remembering to breathe. It’s easy to try to become a martyr for our little ones. It’s hard to remember the importance of creating the space for our own breaths. Parenting is full of fearful moments, but breathing carries us through.

I’m also starting to wake up and notice that my mindfulness practice isn’t for the easy days. I practice so that when the world is spiraling out of control, I can find refuge. A soft spot to land. My practice might not always look like it had before. For me, becoming a mother has been the most revolutionary way of practicing contemplativeness and beginner’s mind. When I feel exhausted and wrung out, our little one is teaching me to slow down. He currently likes to look at inanimate objects that I’ve never noticed before. I recently followed his gaze and spent a whole minute contemplating our bedroom light fixture. It really does refract the light beautifully.

When we go home tomorrow, I’ll try to remember to breathe. To know that mindfulness will creep in when I need it most. It may not look the way I think it should, but it will remind me to slow down. To sit with my fears. It took long enough, but while counting my son’s breaths in the pediatric ward, I finally found my own again.