Tag Archives: stress management

Mindfulness and Dharma Talks with Tara Brach

The past two months I’ve witnessed my head space and thoughts move to a better place due to Washington D.C. based meditation teacher, Tara Brach. I first heard about her thanks to Maria Popova over at brainpickings. Through listening to her dharma talks via podcast and using some of the guided meditations on her webpage I have found deeper compassion for myself and a healthier way of viewing the world. Her teachings offer a chance to move from victim-hood to being an agent of change in your own life and others.

If you have the opportunity to scroll through her past talks Parts 1 and 2 about the “Power of Self-Compassion,” will give you new insight into the human condition and how to deal with it.

One titled, “Earth’s Crisis,” created an arena for me to deal with my own fears regarding the worldwide ecological crisis.

A Generous Heart,” explores not only why generosity and giving make us feel so good, but how creating that space in our heart can actually help us heal ourselves and our relationships with others.

Perhaps my favorite part of the podcast, aside from the peaceful state of mind it puts me in and the space for reflection on current issues in my life it creates, is all of the great quotes, anecdotes, poems, and comics she shares with the audience. From Rumi to Emerson to comics about things like a mouse with a cat psychiatrist, and everything in between, Brach infuses each lecture with references that either make you laugh or truly do inspire. Here are just a few that I’ve enjoyed so far.

  1. From Paul Hawken’s 2009 commencement speech, “In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe, which is exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”
  1. Also from the same speech, “Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.
  2. From Cami Walker, No matter how much we have materially, we are often in a place of scarcity. We never think we have enough or that we’re good enough. Instead of getting lost in a sense of lack, once we realize we are part of something bigger, it becomes clear we have many gifts to offer the world.”
  3. From George Eliot:

If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard, 
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went —
Then you may count that day well spent.

  1. Joanna Macy’s poem, “Bestiary.
  2. From Rumi,

    Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
    and rightdoing there is a field.
    I’ll meet you there.

    When the soul lies down in that grass
    the world is too full to talk about.”

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Finding Community, Finding Health

community

I’ve recently read two interesting articles touting the importance of community for our health and how loneliness can effect it negatively. In one article, Dr. Lissa Rankin presents the idea that eradicating loneliness from our life is a form of preventative medicine because scientific research has shown the risk factor for illness due to lack of exercise or smoking is less than that of loneliness. In another, Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect, explores the health benefits brought on by living in a village. If the feeling of being alone can affect our health in a negative manner, then community should have a positive effect.

Dr. Rankin presented the case of a group of Italian immigrants who settled in Roseto, Pennsylvania. Despite their love of fried meatballs, heavy and starch-laden meals, smoking, and alcohol consumption the community was incredibly healthy when compared to national averages. Researchers who examined the group came to the following conclusion, “…the tight knit community living in multi-generational homes and enjoying communal dinners and frequent festivities provided solace from the loneliness so many people feel. The love and support of others in the close knit community alleviated the stress and overwhelm many lonely people feel. Researchers posit that the stress lonely people feel, which increases cortisol levels and activates the sympathetic nervous system, raising heart rate, elevating blood pressure, incapacitating the immune system, and increasing the risk of heart disease, is responsible for much of the illness lonely people experience.”

Susan Pinker lays out the benefits of community like this: “When you are getting together face to face, there are a lot of biological phenomena: Oxytocin and neurotransmitters get released, they reduce stress and allow us to trust others. Physical contact unleashes a whole chain of events that make us and make the other person feel good, and affects our health and well-being.”

According to Pinker, research suggests that humans have never been as lonely as we currently are. Her book investigates how people who live in small villages continue to receive the benefits of community, while those living in the modern world may not. She notes that it isn’t realistic for us all to go live in small villages and is sure to point out that she doesn’t want to romanticize village living, but there are things we could stand to learn from the village model. She offers the following tips: “You can create your own village effect. Get out of your car to talk to your neighbors. Talk in person to your colleagues instead of shooting them emails. Build in face-to-face contact with friends the way you would exercise. Look for schools where the emphasis is on teacher-student interaction, not on high-tech bells and whistles.

Through personal experience I have come up with a few more tips of my own. I had the privilege of serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. In doing so I lived in a small Mayan village in the Western highlands. While it is crucial to point out, as Pinker did, that village living should not be romanticized and every town has its own share of issues, the advantages of a small community are obvious. You know people, they help you out, when you can you repay the favor. Round and round it goes.

Coming back from Guatemala was a bigger culture shock than moving there in the first place. I found myself in supermarkets checking-out with cashiers with little time for small talk as they kept the line moving. When I smiled or greeted people on the streets I felt like a crazy person, rather than a well-intentioned fellow citizen. I went from sharing afternoons with farmers who have all day to chat after their morning work, to wondering if the person across from me who keeps glancing at their cell phone is even listening to half of what I was saying.

Susan Pinker talked about creating our own village effect and here are some ways I was unknowingly able to do just that upon returning from village life (most of these were employed in Madrid). This sort of thing takes time and patience, but has the chance to greatly alter your quality of life.

  1. Shop in small, family-run stores or co-ops. Know your grocer.  Know your butcher if possible.  If you eat bread find a local baker. At the right shops or markets you may even have the pleasure of knowing the person who grows your food.
  2. Become a regular at a restaurant or coffee shop. This can be trickier than it sounds, some places I go all the time and nobody knows me, at others I have a great time.
  3. Meet your local homeless people. How many homeless people do you know by name? Everyone has their story. If you walk to work in a city there are endless opportunities to meet people you can interact every single day and make a part of your life.
  4. Value your current family and friends, this is the ideal place to invest the majority of your time.
  5. Join groups that interest you or learn a new hobby.
  6. Volunteer.
  7. Skip the ATM and meet your bank teller.
  8. If your around when the postman (or woman) comes get to know them. It wasn’t so long ago families knew their milkman, paperboy, and postman.
  9. Put your phone away while talking with others. To really receive the benefits of connection and communication we need to be PRESENT.
  10. While walking around town allow your intuition to guide you into new situations. This usually happens if you aren’t lost in stressful thoughts.  Last week I stumbled into an Italian cafe and ended up making plans to start a language exchange with the barista. Last night I happened upon a good deal for a meal and ended up meeting a fellow English teacher.

Everyone has their own recipe for finding community. Above all be patient and gentle with yourself. The love of a community starts with self-love on the inside of each of us. When you start to love yourself you will know what your heart wants and following that can help lead to community.

Scientific Studies Validate What Our Hearts Have Been Intuitively Telling Us For Millenia

heartmath

I had the pleasure of rounding out Thanksgiving weekend by reading some great articles about the heart.  Many of us have felt the intuitive power of the heart.  Those of us who have been sick may have seen how our emotions affected our health.  We talk about how when you live from your heart you will be aligned with all that is.  At the Institute of HeartMath they call this “heart coherence” and they have been working on making it scientific fact.

Please enjoy this article about “heart coherence” and heart consciousness and follow it up with this video from the IHM that conveys the information visually.

“The heart generates the body’s most powerful and most extensive rhythmic electromagnetic field. Compared to the electromagnetic field produced by the brain, the electrical component of the heart’s field is about 60 times greater in amplitude, and permeates every cell in the body. The magnetic component is approximately 5000 times stronger than the brain’s magnetic field and can be detected several feet away from the body with sensitive magnetometers.”

A big thanks and shout-out to the Institute of HeartMath, everyone involved there, and all of the incredible work that is being done.

Mindfulness and Energy Reserves for Work and Life

suit

 “When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

My friend Chema seems pretty average on paper.  He works at a bank full-time.  His busy schedule only permits about five and a half hours of sleep each night.  Like most workplaces, at the end of the day all of his coworkers complain about how hard a day it was and how tired they are, Chema is right there complaining along with them.

Chema is someone I look up to a lot as a role model.  He’s actually one of my heroes.  You see, Chema has a secret.  When all of his coworkers start to fuss and bellyache at the end of the day, he does too, but he’s just playing along.  He isn’t worn out or beat and he didn’t have a hard day.  He complains for a variety of reasons: out of solidarity, to keep face, so people won’t accuse him of not working hard enough, to avoid sounding condescending or holier-than-thou, but never because he is tired.

Chema sleeps so little because for him its enough, but more importantly because it creates time for him to meditate…a lot.  He tries to sit for 45 minutes in the morning before work and for 90 minutes in the afternoon or evening.  As the founder of a mindfulness mediation group in Madrid, on top of his full time job at the bank, he leads two to four donation-based meditation classes each week.  With so little sleep and so much on his plate I wondered how he could have any energy left at all for his own meditation or personal life. When I asked Chema he replied, “I have an abundance of energy.”

He went on to explain that when you are mindful at work you don’t use any energy and when you meditate you create more. According to Chema mindfulness means being present in each moment and conscious of each action. Through practice one can learn to be more and more aware of each passing moment, such as observing each step on your walk to work. Chema says that as we become more aware we aren’t distracted by our thoughts and emotions and don’t waste energy brooding, worrying, or getting upset. We simply observe “reality” without judgment and without becoming entangled in it. It doesn’t mean unpleasant emotions or experiences won’t arise, but that we can accept them without identifying with them. We get upset less and learn to respond to others with more compassion. When we make a mistake or get angry we understand why we did and don’t beat ourselves up about it. We begin to find humor in ordinary things and generate more positive emotions. When we learn to accept things as they are and spend the day in a state of equilibrium our energy flows towards where it needs to go and we don’t waste time or energy getting lost in the superfluous.

I offer Chema’s story not as an illusion of something we will all attain overnight, but rather as a lifestyle to aspire to if you wish to live a less hectic, more tranquil life. He is living proof that the stereotypical busy office lifestyle doesn’t have to result in stress and despair, that modern life doesn’t have to be so complicated. He has demonstrated that when you make your work just another part of your life, rather than something separate and negative, then your quality of life can improve and an abundance of energy is not out of reach. When we seek inner peace, rather than grasping for happiness all around us in the form of temporal experiences and material objects, we will see joy sitting like a flickering spark, waiting to burst into flames.

Chema isn’t the only one who believes in the benefits of meditation.  Many scientists around the globe have been conducting studies and amassing evidence of the benefits of meditation, new ones come out all the time.  Click here to read about a recent study done by Harvard University.

“Knowledge does not mean mastering a great quantity of different information, but understanding the nature of mind. This knowledge can penetrate each one of our thoughts and illuminate each one of our perceptions.” – Matthieu Ricard


Author’s note: Chema has 19 years of meditation and mindfulness practice under his belt, this article isn’t intended to imply that everyone should sleep so little.  Most health practitioners would agree that a good night’s sleep is fundamental to our health and stress management.